Revisiting the Icicle Witch and the days before The River Kingdom

Artwork & layout by Ben Baldwin

Artwork & layout by Ben Baldwin

Those who’ve enjoyed the short stories free to read on this website will find a familiar name in the tale ‘A Warning Shiver’, which is now to be found in the new ‘Shadow Histories’ collection. They will discover that the Icicle Witch is now firmly entrenched in River Kingdom folklore, years after the first references to her, in ‘Patience, a Womanly Virtue’ which you can read here.

Is this all part of some cunning writerly plan, eight years in the making? That story was first published in the British Fantasy Society Yearbook 2009 after all. Sorry, no. ‘Patience’ is simply another short story where I was exploring elements that I first started putting together in the new collection’s first two stories, ‘Walking Shadows’ and ‘Noble Deceit’. The Sun Goddess and the Moon God both feature, along with the religious orders that honour them, as well as noble barons owing fealty to a king.

Though it’s interesting to look at this tale alongside the other Shadow Histories stories. It’s now apparent, with the benefit of hindsight, that this is a tale from the days of long ago, before the River Kingdom was established. It’s a story of a fragile and disputed royal succession, and of the merciless lengths some people will go to, in order to secure their own power. As well as the enduring power of enmity and the way such hatreds take on a life of their own.

Where did the idea of the Icicle Witch come from? I’m honestly not sure, other than recalling my thoughts turning to cold and ice, when I was looking for a concept of malice to set against the twin and cooperative, complementary deities embodied in the Sun and the Moon. I’d say it’s fairly obvious my subconscious went riffling through memories from my childhood reading, to draw on Narnia’s White Witch and Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen, among other precursors.

I decided not to include this story in the new collection. For one thing, it’s been free to read here for a good while now. More than that, all the other stories take place in the same general time frame, generations later, when the River Kingdom is secure and prosperous. The collection’s tales also all have a magical element that’s notably absent here.

But still… if the myth of the Icicle Witch was already becoming common currency in rumour so many years before, how would such folklore become manifest in the era of the Shadow Histories? As soon as I wondered that, I realised I had the basis for a new and original story. That was something I wanted to write for this book, so that even my keenest readers will find something they’ve never seen before.

As for the sequence of events between the days of Valdese wreaking her patient vengeance, and the unquestioned rule of the Paramount King? That remains to be seen… and perhaps, written…

To learn more about the River Kingdom, its places, its peoples and its magic, click here.

For links to buy the Shadow Histories collection, click here

Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom – here’s how to get a copy!

Keen readers at Bristolcon were able to get their hands on a copy of the paperback, and the same will be true for those of you at Eurocon and at Novacon 🙂

Elsewhere, for online shopping,

UK readers can get the Kindle edition here

US readers can get the Kindle edition here

US readers can get the Nook edition here.

For the Kobo ebook, click here

The paperback should in theory be available through Amazon already but independently published titles like this which aren’t sold via their own CreateSpace system are so often inexplicably delayed…

Thankfully, that’s not the only game in town.

To get the paperback from Barnes & Noble in the US, click here

For UK readers, click on over to Tangent Books and support an independent e-retailer 🙂

You should also be able to order the paperback through your local bookshop in the UK and in the US – it’s listed in their wholesale catalogues.

I’ll update with more links as the vagaries of availability smooth themselves out!

And could I ask, if you’ve read and enjoyed the book, could you please consider leaving a few words of review with your online retailer of choice? With a project like this, those reviews really do make a big difference…

For those looking for an introduction to this world, its people, its places and its magic, click here.

Artwork & layout by Ben Baldwin

Artwork & layout by Ben Baldwin

Gender in Genre and the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off 2016

Following my last post, I’m indebted to Kevin Beynon for directing my attention to the finalists in this year’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off – an admirable initiative from best-selling epic fantasy author Mark Lawrence, which aspiring writers and fantasy fans alike should definitely take a look at.

At the start of this year’s competition, Mark invited self-published fantasy authors to submit their books which were then divided randomly among ten established and well-regarded book bloggers/review sites. Each blogger read those submissions with an experienced and critical eye – the sort of consideration any literary agent or editor will give a hopeful new story. They’ve now put forward their favourite for the final. All the bloggers will now read all the books and score them out of ten, generating a cumulative score to determine the overall winner.

Here’s the first thing that’s significant for the current gender in genre discussion. This year’s finalists are five men and five women. What does this tell us? As far as I am concerned, it indicates yet again that when a playing field is level, as far as writing is concerned, gender bias pretty much evaporates.

I’ve seen this in several writing competitions now, where I’ve judged short stories blind – which is to say, all the entries were reformatted and sent to me without any names or indicators of the author’s gender. Every time, when it comes to picking a shortlist, once the winners have been chosen and the curtain is drawn back, that selection proves to be evenly balanced for gender. I’ve found exactly the same in writing competitions I’ve played no part in.

It also reminds me of one key finding when I analysed Waterstones’ promotional emails for signs of gender bias. In the ‘Staff Picks’ and ‘What We’re Reading’ sections where recommendations came from booksellers and customers based on what they’d enjoyed reading, those choices were 53% male, 47% female.

When the only thing that counts is what readers make of the writing, the story really is all that matters.

The second thing I’m seeing here? Out of three hundred SPFBO submissions this year, the field was 49% male, 33% female and 18 unknown as they were using initials. Can we assume those initials all belong to women? I’d say that’s a risky assumption – and even if that were the case, that still means only a third of the books were written by women prepared to raise a hand to be identified as such. What does that tell us?

Once again, it confirms something I’ve seen time and again since I started writing about inequalities in visibility in SF&F. Something I’ve had confirmed as an endemic problem in fields such as medicine, science, computing, literary criticism, history and the law. Women are still culturally conditioned to put themselves forward much less and to hold their own work to a far higher standard before offering it for publication. It’s a problem that frustrates and infuriates editors, from those working on academic journals, through fiction anthologies in all genres, to the commissioning editors in publishing houses. With the best will in the world, the best initiatives to improve diversity and representation can only work if those who’ve been historically excluded now step forward.

Which means those who’ve been historically excluded need to feel they can step forward. That they can raise a hand without it getting slapped down. That their work will be judged on its merits and nothing else. Which absolutely doesn’t mean initiatives that offer patronising, special treatment or give anyone a pass for substandard work. That merely entrenches the idea that these people cannot make the grade unless the standard is lowered to accommodate them. That’s as counter-productive as it is insulting.

So this brings us back to that level playing field. How do we achieve it? How about taking that idea of no special treatment one step further? Let’s stop giving one privileged group the lion’s share of promotion and publicity. Review coverage, promotion through social media, recommendations, citations and award nominations, anthology selections and more besides, remain stubbornly skewed in favour of white male writers. They get roughly two-thirds of the publicity that’s so vital for the word-of-mouth popularity which sustains a writer’s career. Everyone else gets to share the third that remains.

When the vast majority of white male writers working today never sought such favouritism. They find the dead hand of cultural inertia and institutional racism/sexism as problematic as anyone else. Not least for themselves. They don’t want to win awards for writing the best SF/Fantasy/Horror book from a westernised white male. They want to win for writing the best book in that field from anyone! That old saying that a woman has to be twice as good as a man to get half the recognition? It has a flipside. Winning a competition that’s rigged so you can do half the work for twice as much reward as the opposition? Is that prize really worth having?

We have a long way to go. Everyone needs to play their part. Readers and writers alike will benefit and that can only be good for our genre.

Meantime, this particular competition’s outcome is an encouraging sign of progress for me.

Andrew Marr’s Paperback Heroes – a masculine view of epic fantasy entrenching bias.

Two things happened on Monday 24th October. News of Sheri S Tepper’s death spread – and a lot of people on social media wondered why isn’t her brilliant, innovative and challenging science fiction and fantasy writing better known?

Then the BBC broadcast the second episode of Andrew Marr’s series on popular fiction, looking at epic fantasy.

The programme featured discussion of the work of seven, perhaps eight, major writers – six men and one, perhaps two women if you include the very passing reference to J K Rowling .

Four male writers were interviewed and one woman. Please note that the woman was interviewed solely in the context of fantasy written for children.

If you total up all the writers included, adding in cover shots or single-sentence name checks, eleven men get a look-in, compared to six women. Of those women, three got no more than a name check and one got no more than a screenshot of a single book.

It was an interesting programme, if simplistic in its view, to my mind. There’s a lot of fantasy written nowadays that goes beyond the old Hero’s Journey template. There’s a great deal to the genre today that isn’t the male-dominated grimdarkery which this programme implied is currently the be-all and end-all of the genre.

But of course, I can hear the justifications already. A general interest programme like this one isn’t for the dedicated fans, still less working writers like me. For mass appeal it must feature authors whom people outside genre circles have heard of, and whose books they’ll see in the shops. If these books just happen to be mostly written by men, well, that’s just the way it is.

Am I saying these aren’t good books which have a well-deserved place in the genre’s origins and evolution? No, of course I’m not. All these featured and interviewed writers are deservedly popular, their books widely read, and their work is illustrative of points well worth making about fantasy.

But those same points could have been made just as effectively while featuring a more balanced selection of writers, from the genre’s origins to the present day. So what if that means including less familiar names? Do you honestly think readers interested enough to watch a programme like this will object to discovering a new author to enjoy?

When such a programme has a marked gender skew, it matters. This selection guarantees these are the books that’ll get a sales boost from this high-level exposure. So when the next programme maker comes along to see what’s popular, maybe with a view to a dramatisation or to feature in a documentary, he’ll see that same male-dominated landscape. So that’s the selection of books that will get the next chance of mainstream exposure. Thus the self-fulfilling prophecy of promoting what sells, thereby guaranteeing that’s what sells best, continues to entrench gender bias.

If you’re wondering how the work of writers like Sheri S Tepper and so many other ground-breaking women writers is so persistently overlooked, you need look no further than programmes likes this.

(For more – lots more – on equality issues within SF&F, click here)

In which we discover Anne McCaffrey was a lot more prescient than me!

As the news of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature has gone racing round the world, to a wide range of reactions (to say the very least!) my response has been perhaps a little different to most.

Because I remembered writing this, back in 2012, when I wrote an appreciation of Anne McCaffrey’s ‘The Ship Who Sang’ for SFX magazine’s Book Club column.

While some detail now seems dated, notably reverence for Bob Dylan to equal Shakespeare, …

Shows how much I know 🙂

The specific story where Dylan’s music plays a vital role is ‘The Ship Who Killed’, first published in 1966. Helva, the brainship, is partnered with Kira, a practising ‘Dylanist’. What’s that? Kira explains:

‘A Dylanist is a social commentator, a protestor, using music as a weapon, a stimulus. A skilled Dylanist … can make so compelling an argument with melody and words that what he wants to say becomes insinuated into the subconscious

A really talented Dylan stylist … can create a melody with a message that everyone sings or hums, whistles or drums, in spite of himself. Why, you can even wake up in the morning with a good Dylan-styled song singing in your head. You can imagine how effective that is when you’re proselytising for a cause.”

For those who might like to read the whole piece, I’ve added it to my reviews page. Hopefully I can find time to add a few more recent reads there sometime!

Here’s an Amazon link to tell you a bit more about the book, always remembering you can buy it from any other retailer online – or why not visit your local bookshop?

ship-who-sang

It’s time to write letters to MPs to emphasise our opposition to Brexit – here’s why and how

Parliament’s back in Westminster today, and over the weekend, the media were reporting a cross-party initiative to insist on a House of Commons vote over leaving the single market, as well as high-level Conservative unease at how badly the general public, and the heavy-weight business organisations, responded to the Tory conference’s Hard Brexit and isolationist rhetoric.

The energy the Pro-Leave press are putting into rubbishing all this, turning their sneers on whoever they think is involved, and insisting it’s all a done deal anyway, makes me pay even closer attention. Because this is not a done deal. This was not a quiet revolution or an overwhelming mandate or anything remotely like it, and there are serious challenges going through the courts as we speak.

So now’s the time to have hundreds, thousands, ideally tens of thousands of letters landing on MPs desks and making the majority opposition to this unfolding disaster undeniable. They need to be hard copy letters, because MPs have a legal obligation to record and reply to those, unlike email which can and will be ignored. Individual letters, because anything that looks like cut-and-paste can and will be downgraded as not a serious expression of personal belief.

The time and effort which handling a large volume of letters demands of your MP’s office and staff is one of the most effective tools we have as constituents. It really gets attention.

It only needs to be a single page and no more than two at the most, even if like so many of us you could write a 10,000 word essay on the calamitous consequences of this botched referendum. Pick three, maybe a handful of the points that matter most to you. It’s not as if there’s a shortage.

If the bare-faced lies of the Leave campaign infuriate you, say so. Where’s that £350 million for the NHS?

If the utter lack of democratic safeguards when voting on such a vital issue appals you, say so. Where’s the legitimacy of 37% of the eligible electorate overruling the rest?

If the catastrophic impact that this has already had, and will have, on the economy and the tumbling Pound dismays you, say so.

If your own and your family’s employment prospects have and will be significantly harmed, say so. If for instance, you’re one of the 800,000 people whose jobs rely on motor manufacturing – or if you work in any of the many other globalised industries that can and will swiftly relocate when the UK is no longer an entry point to the Single Market.

If the price rises for day-to-day essentials that will go with a sinking pound and higher dollar costs for fuel will hit your household budget hard, say so.

If the Brexit Ministers insisting they can dictate terms to Europe enrages you, when the representatives of the 27 nations who will decide such things keep saying the exact opposite? Say so.

If the conspicuous lack of coherent policies from any of the Brexit Ministers irritates you, say so. Ask how exactly they intend to deliver closed borders without cutting the UK economy off from the Single Market?

If the lack of proper Parliamentary scrutiny of such far-reaching changes dismays you, say so.

If the way your MP behaves over this will influence your vote at the next general election, say so.

If you’re active in local party politics, whatever your party, and consider this a reselection litmus test, say so.

If your MP is one of those already opposing Brexit, assure them of your support, irrespective of party affiliation.

If you’ve had direct experience of, or have observed, the uptick in racist, xenophobic and other bigoted behaviour enabled by this result, spell that out.

I could go on – and on – but you get the idea. So get writing.

Don’t get aggressive. Don’t get abusive. Don’t give anyone any excuse to dismiss your letter as anything less than a valid expression of your opposition to this social, economic and political catastrophe.

If you get a mealy-mouthed, formulaic reply, write back and say that’s unacceptable. Outline a few more reasons why. Like I said, there’s no shortage.

If we want to take back control of our democracy, this is the time to speak up and be heard.

The River Kingdom Map for you to admire

For this new project, I took heed of the key lesson about maps which I learned when writing The Tales of Einarinn. Back then, I had a map quite literally scribbled on the back of an envelope as I wrote The Thief’s Gamble. Oh, I took considerable care calculating distances and travel times and all the variables that might affect such things. That sketch map was soon covered in notes and arrows and other hieroglyphs.

And then… my editor wanted a map to go in the actual book… Fortunately my husband trained as a design draughtsman and was able to reverse engineer a map from the final text. He then went away and drew a master map on actual draughting film as well as creating a digital version. Thereafter I could work from and update those.

This time round, I drew a far more careful map in the first place, as I developed the River Kingdom concept. Once we started planning the Shadow Histories collection, and being very well aware of my own artistic shortcomings, sought out a trained illustrator who could translate my efforts into something worth having.

Enter Sophie E. Tallis whose professional qualifications and experience are matched by her focus on getting a project exactly right. I thought I’d sent a comprehensive brief until she started asking questions! How high are the peaks in the hill country exactly? Which towns have ferries for crossing the river? Where exactly do those various roads go, because if there’s a road, there must be a destination. No one establishes a trade route unless they know there’s something worth having at the other end. And now, let’s talk colour samples and fonts and any number of other things that would never occur to me since I lack that sort of visual imagination. It really has been a fascinating process, and Sophie’s been a pleasure to work with. Also very patient whenever I’ve had to start an email with ‘ah, did I forget to mention such-and-such? It rather looks as though I did…’

The end result is this fabulous map. And there are a good few potential beginnings here as well. Sophie’s added in some lovely details here and there which are just crying out to have a story written around them… Well, that’s fun for another day. For now, enjoy this map, and you may also be interested in further details about the River Kingdom to be found here. Meantime I’m thinking about the best way to make an embroidery of that wonderful compass rose. Crewel work or cross-stitch? Hmmm…

Click on this map to go through to the larger version where you can zoom in for still more detail.

You’ll notice the watermark there to protect Sophie’s copyright. In due course we’ll have details of how to get prints etc.

A story of mine to listen to, thanks to Far Fetched Fables!

Click on over to Far Fetched Fables (one of the District of Wonders’ enterprises) and you will find an audio version of my story ‘She Who Thinks For Herself’.

I wrote this for the ‘Resurrection Engines’ anthology, back in 2012, alongside a slew of fine writers well worth reading. We were all invited to take on a classic of Victorian literature and find some new and specifically steampunk twist.

I chose H Rider Haggard as I recall reading his books avidly in my early teens, along with Edgar Rice Burroughs, H G Wells and other such classics found in a traditional girls’ grammar school library. I have always believed that our current speculative fiction tradition is rooted in these first mass-market, popular novels of the late Victorian and Edwardian era, written before genre boundaries and definitions became established.

Re-reading H Rider Haggard’s ‘She’ was an eye-opening experience. Naturally I was expecting to find outdated attitudes to race and gender and the influence of the Victorian ‘Great Man’ theories of history and society. Yes, indeed, I found them to a startling extent. I didn’t recall such things striking me so forcefully on first reading. In some ways, that’s reassuring. My world view doesn’t seem to have been warped as a result. On the other hand, this really does show the necessity of being alert to the differences between then and now, when revisiting the roots of our genre for inspiration.

Thankfully, there was already radical thought challenging such Imperial certainty, and growing impetus for reform in the late 19th Century, driven onward by men and women alike. There was a wealth of material for me to draw on, ensuring that ‘She Who Thinks For Herself’ is firmly rooted in historically accurate societal and technological movements of the time.

You’ll find this story alongside “Papagena” by Jay lake and Ruth Nestvold, so that’s another treat you have in store. Enjoy!

This is the very first piece of my fiction to be available in audio format. That sounds incredible, doesn’t it? Well, bear in mind that my first series came out when audio books were still being shipped as CDs and even audio cassettes. Yes, really… So only the very top-sellers got that treatment.

How things have changed, now that digital downloads are so quick and easy. Does that mean my books might get an audio release? Well, I have control over all those rights and would be happy to discuss such a project, so if you’re a fan of audio books, feel free to get in touch with your preferred provider and suggest they email me… 🙂

Resurrection Engines - a steampunk anthology with a twist

Bristolcon – my schedule and your chance to hold ‘Shadow Histories’ in your hand.

Bristolcon is a splendid one-day, regional SF&F convention in, unsuprisingly, Bristol. This year it’s on Saturday October 29th, at the Doubletree Hotel, which is convenient for travel by car or by train – within easy walking distance of Bristol Temple Meads station. Membership is £25 in advance or £30 on the door.

This year’s Guests of Honour are the artist Fangorn, and authors Ken MacLeod and Sarah Pinborough.

The full programme can be found here – click on through. Always bearing in mind that this is a month away and such plans are potentially subject to change.

My panels look very promising.

17.00 – Running the World / Cleaning the Toilets – One person’s utopia is another’s dystopia. How can we build believable and effective governments in SF&F, and how can we prevent our utopias becoming dystopias (and should we try)? And while we’re focussed on the action at the top, who’s cleaning the toilets?

Ken MacLeod (M), John Baverstock, Ian Millsted, Juliet E McKenna, Jaine Fenn

18.00 – After the Heroes Have Gone – We all enjoy a big battle, especially on the big screen, but what happens afterwards? Who’s picking up the pieces of New York after the Avengers have smashed it up, who’s living in the wreckage of a Godzilla-stomped Tokyo and what are the Alderaanians who were off planet at the time supposed to do next? Wars have knock-on effects that aren’t always explored – we ask our panel to think about the fate of the ordinary folk, after the heroes have gone.:
Danie Ware (M), Joel Cornah, Juliet E McKenna, Chris Baker, R B Watkinson

And most exciting of all,and with thanks as ever to the wonderful Wizard’s Tower Press, we’ll be launching Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom that weekend! since this will be both an ebook and a print-on-demand publication, there’ll be copies on sale which I’ll naturally be happy to sign 🙂

Artwork & layout by Ben Baldwin

Artwork & layout by Ben Baldwin

Got a story about Robots, Water or Death? Here’s your chance!

Excellent news – the ZNB Kickstarter to fund these three new anthologies has reached its funding target! Here’s what our lovely backers will be reading –

SUBMERGED is to feature science fiction or fantasy stories that are set underwater at some point. It does not have to be set completely underwater, but at some point the events of the story must lead in a natural way to an underwater adventure. There should be a significant reason for why the action must take place underwater; this should NOT be a story where it easily be rewritten on land and maintain its cohesion. We are attempting to fill half of the anthology with science fiction stories, and half with fantasy stories. Stories featuring more interesting settings underwater and twists on the typical underwater themes will receive more attention than those that use standard underwater tropes. In other words, we don’t want to see 100 stories dealing with Atlantis. If we do, it’s likely that only one, at most, would be selected for the anthology. So be creative, choose something different, and use it in an unusual and unexpected way. We are looking for a range of tones, from humorous all the way up to dark.

ALL HAIL OUR ROBOT CONQUERORS! is to feature stories where the robots of the story somehow harken back to the 50s/60s style of robots. The story can be set in the far future, but at some point there should be a significant nod toward the robots from that era—either a significantly advanced robot that is simply housed in a 50s/60s style shell, or a robot exactly like those from the 50s/60s but used in an interesting and believable way in the story. Stories featuring more interesting takes on the 50s/60s style robots, and twists on how they are integrated into the story, will receive more attention than those with more generalized robots. So be creative and use your robot in an unusual and unexpected way. We are looking for a range of tones, from humorous all the way up to dark.

THE DEATH OF ALL THINGS is to feature stories where Death is a character in the story. The version of Death used should be unique, so consider all different types of versions of Death seen throughout history and in different cultures. Stories featuring more interesting takes on Death, and twists on how Death is integrated into the story, will receive more attention than those with more standard depictions of Death. So be creative and use Death in an unusual and unexpected way. We are looking for a range of tones, from humorous all the way up to dark.

Now, as I’ve mentioned before, one reason why I enjoy being part of these projects is each ZNB anthology offers open submission slots. This really is a great chance for aspiring writers to be involved in a thoroughly professional publication.

So while I get on with firming up my ideas for a ‘Death of All Things’ story, have you got a tale ready to be told, or even just the see of an idea for one or more of these themes? Get thinking and writing!

Always remembering to read the Submission Guidelines in full – click here.

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