I'm a professional writer of epic fantasy novels and assorted shorter fiction which includes forays into SF, dark/urban fantasy and occasional tie-in fiction.
I review across the speculative genre online and in print magazines, notably Interzone and Albedo One. I've also written genre criticism and related articles.
I'm currently serving as a judge for the Arthur C Clarke Award and for the James White Short Story Award.
With Darkening Skies now out in the UK and US, naturally I’m keeping an eye open for reviews. This week, I’ve seen mentions in SFX’s June 2012 magazine (#221) and in the Morpheus Tales online supplement. (Both well worth reading for a lot of other good stuff by the way).
This is very encouraging from a publicity point of view. But… amongst her other observations, Sandy Auden in SFX says:
The author has been attentive to the details too, especially in the smooth transitions between story threads. It’s the details that are the main drawback though. McKenna’s characters agonise constantly about their problems and it kills the pace.
Whereas, in the Morpheus Tales supplement, Adrian Brady says:
McKenna’s writing is excellent, both managing to evoke a rich world and characters, and moving the plot on speedily to keep the excitement levels raised.
So who’s right? And am I going to throw a writerly strop or mope ostentatiously about this insult to my misunderstood genius, either online or in public? Er, no. I don’t think I could do either and keep a straight face, not even for the entertainment value of seeing other people’s astonished reactions.
Besides, they’re both right. That’s how the story worked for them and they’ve both been objective, honest and courteous in expressing their opinions. That’s what a good reviewer does.
I also know how hard I worked to balance insight into the characters with the overall narrative pace as I wrote the book. I know I did the very best job that I could. Just as I knew at the time, I’d get that balance right for some readers and … less right for others.
You see, I’ve been here before. Back when I wrote Southern Fire, I delivered it to my editor with trepidation, explaining that of my test readers, one found the opening rushed, one found it too slow and one found it just right. Who was correct? They all are, he told me. It all depends on your perspective and readers’ reactions stem from a great many things beyond the actual words on the page. As a writer, you can only do the best job you can. So that’s what I do.
Besides, they both agree on one key thing. Adrian Brady says, ‘I’m looking forward to the third novel with whetted appetite,’ while Sandy Auden offers ‘It’s not clear what they’ll agonise over next though – after conclusive events here, book three could go anywhere.’
Writing the second volume of a epic fantasy trilogy that leaves long-standing genre readers with no clue what happens next? Now that’s a result. So as soon as I’ve done – and recovered from – Eastercon, I’ll get on with writing Defiant Peaks, all the more encouraged and inspired.
Friday – I’m arriving mid-morning/lunchtime and looking forward to a day of being in various audiences for some interesting programme items as well as helping staff the EightSquared 2013 bid desk. I won’t be sitting up too late in the bar because…
Saturday 10 am (Edwardian) ‘Sufficiently Advanced Magic’ – discussing the role of magic in fantasy fiction, with Marcus Gipps Stephen Deas, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Christ Wooding and Shana Worthen
Saturday 11 am (Commonwealth) ‘How pseudo do you like your medieval?’ with Anne C Perry, Jacey Bedford, Anne Lyle and George RR Martin
Saturday 12 pm (Commonwealth) ‘Gender parity on panels at conventions’ with Paul Cornell, Farah Mendelsohn, Emma Peel, Kari Sperring and Kat Takenaka
(and then some lunch!)
Saturday 5 pm (Royal) ‘How Not to Suppress Women’s Writing’ – I’m moderating and very interested to hear what Penny Hill, Amy McCulloch, Ian Sales and Tricia Sullivan have to say – and I have been gathering a good deal of info in the past few weeks. If you’ve had an email from me – and you know who you are – many thanks.
Sat 9 pm – I’ll be signing in the Winchester Room
Sunday 11 am (Room 12) – Eastercon 2013 and 2014 bid session – I’ll be there with the 2013 EightSquared Bid Committee, alongside the Satellite 4 2014 team – come along and see what you think of plans for the next couple of years.
Sunday 2 pm (Winchester) – A Fantasy Clarke Award – discussing an entirely theoretical shortlist with NIall Harrison, Nic Clarke, David Hebblethwaite, Erin Horakova and Edward James.
Sunday 6pm – Commonwealth – Having had the honour to judge the James White Award (short story competition) this year, in conjunction with Jon Courtenay Grimwood and Andy Cox and Andy Hedgecock of Interzone, I’ll be at the BSFA Awards.
Sunday 8 pm – I’ll be in the Tetworth Room signing session.
Monday – once again, I’ll be enjoying the convention without programme responsibilities. Or sitting at a con desk.
Then we’ll be heading home for a Chinese takeaway.
Being involved in a Kickstarter is a decidedly unusual experience. Writers have not tradtionally stood up and asked directly for money for their work. We contract that out to our lovely agents, publishers, booksellers and so on. British writers especially are pretty reticent when it comes to shameless self=promotion on the web or at conventions. There’s generally more of an unspoken ‘if you would care to buy my books, to y’know, help keep my children fed and shod, that would be very decent of you’ vibe.
So me posting another update about Tales from the Emerald Serpent… is that ‘quite the thing’?
Yes, but, look, here’s a taster from Martha Wells’s story – and since I’ve been lucky enough to read the whole thing, I want to share it with everyone. (And if you’re not already reading Martha’s Books of the Raksura click here to see why you should be.
From her Emerald Serpent Story –
by Martha Wells
They made an odd pair for a number of reasons, but one was that she was tall for a Jai-ruk and he was short for a Kin. They were dissimilar on all counts, except for their interest in the past, and in strange myths, and mysteries, and how the world had looked before they set foot on it. They talked of things no one else cared about. Rather than an odd pair, everyone thought they were just odd.
“This is a job that will pay us well,” Kryranen said. “Up in the Golden Jaguar District.” She added unnecessarily, “Where people like the Vash live.”
“You’re supposed to be keeping the notes,” Jelith pointed out. Most inhabitants of Taux assumed Jai-ruk were too brutish for scholarly pursuits, but Kryranen’s handwriting was better than his. Her hands were large but her fingers were slender and dexterous; his notes looked like the scratchings of a child next to her elegant script.
She leaned forward to look at the book and her grimace suggested she agreed. “I’ll recopy it later.” Exasperated, she said, “You just don’t like working for money. It’s too bad we can’t eat history.”
“You would eat history if you could,” Jelith felt he had to say. It was true.
She folded her arms and gave him the long-suffering look.
And then there’s this terrific video, put together for us by Shane Wheeler, one of our pledged supporters, for sheer love of the project.
Incidentally, check out the Kickstarter page and you’ll see the bonus level for further volumes is now set at an additional $5000 per anthology. Why yes, all of us involved are that keen to get the chance to write more in this world.
(For anyone clicking through expecting this post to be anything else, you clearly missed the memo about Arthur C Clarke Award judges not making public statements about the shortlist or anything else. Sorry about that.)
My sons have grown up with me writing epic fantasy. They can browse the bookshelves for non-fiction titles on biological warfare in the ancient world, women scientists in the Enlightenment, the folklore of trees, modern asymmetric warfare and that’s just some of what I can see from my desk. Fiction? Start with Aeschylus and go on through to Watchmen and beyond. We have originals of Geoff Taylor’s fabulous cover art hanging on our walls, along with Japanese wood block prints of samurai, sundry other pictures, aikido blackbelt certificates and such.
So it’s fairly rare for one of them to stop by the study and say in astonished tones, ‘Mum, what is that?’
To which I replied, ‘A cross-stitch pattern for a phone case.’
‘You’re making a case for your phone with a skull on it? Cool.’
‘No, it’s not for me…’
So I explained that one of the rewards we’re offering on the Tales of the Emerald Serpent Kickstarter is a slipcase for a smartphone with the Beyond the Black Gate medallion embroidered on it. Because ever since I first saw that art, I thought what a great design it would make. And I like to embroider. I find it relaxing, just small projects, nothing too time-consuming. But truth be told, there is a limit to how many bookmarks one house needs, even a house with this many books. There are only so many times you can give family and friends some piece of your handiwork without them starting to look sideways at you.
And then I remembered how people say that part of the fun of Kickstarter is offering unusual rewards by way of a thank you to supporters. Hey, CE Murphy offered to personally sing ‘You Are The Wind Beneath My Wings’ to the highest-level backers when she Kickstarted the ‘No Dominion’ Walker Papers novella. A little needlework is nothing to that!
So far? I’m on the hook for making four of these. Or am I? The thing about Kickstarter is, unless the project goal is reached, that’s the end of it. Fall short by ten dollars and nothing happens. And that would be such a shame – not because I wouldn’t get to do some embroidery. Because the world is intriguing and the stories are awesome and this could be the start of something truly fantastic in every sense. And there are great rewards on offer, including signed prints and even originals of the terrific artwork.
We’re doing nicely so far – I think. There’s all sorts of lore and graphs and charts about Kickstarter progress which I don’t pretend to understand. What I do know is we can’t look at the numbers at any point and take anything for granted. So if you have been thinking about chipping in to support the project, please do, at whatever level suits your pocket and your interest. Buying some embroidery isn’t compulsory.
Yes, today’s the day! You can now buy my very first ‘independent’ ebook from Wizard’s Tower Press, in the format of your choice, worldwide without DRM.
Listings on Amazon and Barnes & Noble will follow shortly, as you prefer.
I am so excited about this on so many levels. It’s great to think that fans of the Tales of Einarinn have a further chance to read these stories, now available so much more widely than before. I’m also hoping the book will serve as an introduction to my writing and to this world for new readers. Finally, I really am thrilled to be including the splendid artwork first commissioned for The Wedding Gift portfolio project.
To recap, the stories are:
Win Some, Lose Some tells the story of that first encounter with Arle Cordainer which Livak mentions from time to time in the Tales. Find out why she’s intent on revenge. A Spark in the Darkness sees Halice, Livak, Sorgrad and Gren coping with Halice’s injury between The Thief’s Gamble and The Swordsman’s Oath – tricky, when someone wants them all dead. Absent Friends details Livak’s first introduction to Ryshad’s family, and what followed – this story’s first publicationWhy the Pied Crow Always Sounds Disappointed explains why Sorgrad and Gren were in Solura before The Assassin’s Edge – and why leaving them to their own devices is seldom a good idea. The Wedding Gift sees Livak and Halice looking forward to the future, just as long as they can tidy up a few loose ends from their old lives.
When I was invited to write a story for Tales of the Emerald Serpent, I was sent some fascinating background material on the city and its inhabitants. My attention was instantly drawn to the Lowl, described as ‘dog-headed humans’, taller than an average man, with some fire magic and an inclination to warrior and mercenary lives.
My university degree’s in Classics, so I immediately recalled Hesiod and Herodotus’s tales of the Cynocephali, the dog-headed tribes encountered by Greeks exploring the mysteries of Africa and India. More than that, I remembered the pictures in the books of myth and folklore which I’d read many years before. I recalled those wonderful maps where pictures of such half-human races separated known lands from the wilderness where all the mapmakers said was ‘here be dragons’. My love of fantasy fiction, as reader and writer, most definitely has its roots in such stories. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if there truly were such creatures?
This may well surprise fans of my novels. Readers observe from time to time on the absence of non-human races in my books, curious rather than critical. It’s a valid observation and that was a definite choice I made at the outset. Then as now, I’m looking for new perspectives on epic/high fantasy, those tales of princes, heroes and wizards – and in the ones I write, any and all of those characters can be men or women. I chose not to include ‘classic’ fantasy non-humans like orcs, dwarves or elves because they come loaded with so much baggage. So many readers will instantly see such characters through the prism of their own preconceptions. Some writers work very well with that challenge but I knew it wasn’t for me. I aim to test assumptions on class, gender and political power-structures in other ways in my stories, best done in an all human world. Along with writing a vivid, fast-moving story of course, with whatever sword-play, trickery, magic or dragons seems best suited to that particular adventure.
Writing short fiction offers me opportunities to do different things. Exploring the non-human condition is something I’m increasingly interested in. I considered dryads in my story for ‘The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity’; nigh-on immortal beings whose life is nevertheless lived in a constant here-and-now. Bound to the natural world and its seasons, their concept of time, life and love is utterly non-human – which is all very well until they’re forced to deal with humans intent on building a road through their oak grove.
Lowl are something else again. Their dual nature fascinates me, not only when considering how humans will react to them but wondering how Lowl see themselves. Are they neither one thing nor the other? Or enjoying the best of both worlds? Or something else entirely? What will that mean for an individual’s opportunities and choices?
Help our Kickstarter reach its target, and you’ll be able to read my story as part of a truly fascinating collection. The minimum buy-in is $5, for readers world-wide, and if you have more cash to spare, there are a whole range of bonus benefits after that.
Here’s a taste to whet your appetite.
Zhada was heading instead for the Emerald Serpent, first and most famous of all the Black Gate’s taverns. Whoever had first claimed that half of the long building had known a trick or two about keeping customers coming back even more readily than they visited the neighbouring Silk Purse and that house’s fragrant courtesans.
The pastry triangle in his hand was still warm plump with hotly spiced meat and fruit. He wolfed it down, relishing the bite of the pepper pods. So much human food was tediously bland to Lowl tastes but Mistress Talleran was Taux born and accustomed to using all the Free Coast’s bounty in her cooking.
‘Here comes a hound for hire!’
Zhada halted as he rounded the corner into the wider thoroughfare cutting straight towards the stadium.
‘Varrach.’ He let his hand rest lightly on the hilt of his sword. ‘Don’t you find the day a little chill?’
Like the rest of his followers, Varrach was shirtless despite the season. Zhada noted that three more had now followed his lead and gone under the needle for tattoos. At first glance the ink extended the Lowl pelt covering their heads and necks right across their human-framed shoulders and down their chests. A closer look would show they were no more furred than any particularly hairy human.
He also saw Varrach’s gaze drop to check that knotted ribbons secured his sword’s hilt to its scabbard, to signal that Zhada had no intention of duelling today.
The tan-furred Lowl squared his impressively muscled shoulders and stared straight into Zhada’s eyes. ‘I choose not to soothe the humans’ fears through wearing their clothes.’
‘Then shouldn’t you be going bare arsed?’ Zhada’s riposte was as swift as any blade.
Varrach clenched a fist beside his tattered ulama trousers, the loose cotton fabric cut short above his knees and bare feet. ‘And throw the ball straight into the merchant guild’s hands? Their Sturgeons would chain me like a cur in their lock-up for goading humans into unsanctioned fighting. Who would challenge their claim on this city then?’
‘But you don’t care to challenge them in their own language.’ Zhada interrupted with a gesture towards the men and women walking past, fewer than half of them sparing curious glances for this exchange in incomprehensible Lowl speech.
Varrach’s scarred muzzle wrinkled as he drew dark lips back from his canine teeth. ‘I have nothing to say to such stunted specimens, as good as deaf and noseless.’
Zhada cocked his head. ‘Why do you feel so threatened when Vitcoska’s blessing has given us so many advantages over them? She chose to form us from humanity. Doesn’t denying that kinship insult her? Don’t you see it every time you look in a mirror?’
Truth be told, he wasn’t speaking to Varrach now but to the pack of younger Lowl loitering behind him. Then he noticed that a couple of those fool pups had done something to their eyes. No longer manlike, their gaze was as dark and featureless as any beast’s.
The fur on the back of Zhada’s neck bristled with irritation. He took an angry step towards the closest, ready to grab his scruff and shake some sense into him. ‘What are you going to do next? Cut off your thumbs so you’re left with useless paws and start scurrying around on all fours?’
Varrach moved to intercept him, both fists clenched. Zhada halted. He didn’t have time to waste on this nonsense or on trying to explain himself to the city’s blue-liveried guards.
Taking a swift sidestep to wrong foot Varrach, he went on his way without another word.
Taken by surprise, the tan-furred Lowl settled for shouting a last insult. ‘Be sure they reward you richly for putting their leash round your neck!’
Zhada ignored him, lengthening his stride. He didn’t want to be late for his meeting and the sun had already risen above the vast stadium. He hurried into its shadow, heading straight for the Emerald Serpent.
When he entered the tavern though, he saw Lareo already deep in conversation with some human. Zhada approached nevertheless, to make sure that the aging Eldaryn had seen him. The diminutive individual was barely two thirds the height of most humans, even sitting on his tall stool.
Catching the human’s scent, the Lowl’s nostrils flared. Magic. A Tome Mage. One of those cheats peddling magic-wrought fakery on the basis of some supposed kinship with true wizards. As if such mountebanks had any link with those scholars who lived unseen in the Star Tower across the harbour.
‘Zhada, good day to you.’ Lareo waved to him over the human’s shoulder.
He shucked his backpack and dropped it on the floor to land with a solid thud. The man turned around in his chair, startled.
‘Good day.’ His smile widened. ‘Ah, I am looking for one of your kinsmen. Do you know a—’ he hesitated ‘—one called Durrau?’
Zhada had the Tome Mage’s measure in an instant. Newly arrived in the city from one of the New Kingdoms. While he’d have heard of Lowl he’d never have seen one beyond the seas. He didn’t know how to pronounce their names, just as he didn’t realise that Zhada now baring his teeth was nothing akin to a human smile.
Isn’t that a great cover? The artwork’s by Jock and the colouring’s by Matt Brooker. The original black and white illustration of Livak is one of six pieces of art commissioned to go with The Wedding Gift chapbook and portfolio back in 2003. The others are Halice, by Staz Johnson, Ryshad by James Hodgkins, Sorgrad and Sorgren by Mike Collins, Shiv and Livak by Andy Hepworth and Planir by Steve White.
It’s really great to be able to use digital technology to bring these fabulous pieces of work to a wider audience. Better yet, they work splendidly as character illustrations between these particular short stories.
Win Some, Lose Some tells the story of that first encounter with Arle Cordainer which Livak mentions from time to time in the Tales. Find out why she’s intent on revenge. A Spark in the Darkness sees Halice, Livak, Sorgrad and Gren coping with Halice’s injury between The Thief’s Gamble and The Swordsman’s Oath – tricky, when someone wants them all dead. Absent Friends details Livak’s first introduction to Ryshad’s family, and what followed. Why the Pied Crow Always Sounds Disappointed explains why Sorgrad and Gren were in Solura before The Assassin’s Edge – and why leaving them to their own devices is seldom a good idea. The Wedding Gift sees Livak and Halice looking forward to the future, just as long as they can tidy up a few loose ends from their old lives.
The ebook will be available in epub and mobi formats, through Amazon and Barnes & Noble (and elsewhere in due course), worldwide and without DRM, for £2.99/$4.49.
Now it can be told… I’ve been working on this for a while now, alongside and in collaboration with a tremendously talented and amiable group of writers and artists, all directed/cat-herded by R Scott Taylor of Black Gate Publishing.
Set in Art of the Genre’s trademarked universe, The Nameless Realms, this anthology takes readers to the Free City of Taux, a fantasy port of cursed stones, dark plots, and a core of rich characters who share space inside the infamous Black Gate District. This anthology links characters and tales in an interwoven mosaic that helps draw the reader on, and with other authors like Lynn Flewelling, Harry Connolly, Martha Wells, Robert Mancebo, and Julie Czerneda sharing characters with newcomer Michael Tousignant and iconic fantasy artist turned writer Todd Lockwood, the book explores all the paths and back-alleys of city-born fantasy.
Editor and contributor R. Scott Taylor helped create the shadowed metropolis of Taux, where Razor Duelists and mailed and heavily armed Sturgeons try to hold back the tide of ghosts, Moon Cultists, and shadow magic that lurks inside the slithering coils of Wizard’s Mist. Rogues, harlots, and merchant princes share the same streets, and all watch their backs as the stones of the city call out to the living in a never ending game of cat and mouse for the true ownership of the great port. Fantasy artists Jeff Laubenstein and Janet Aulisio bring form to each story with their incredible pen and ink renderings. Contributor Todd Lockwood also lends his artistic vision to an epic cover.
Do you remember those early 80s anthologies like Robert Asprin’s Thieves World? I do and I loved them. I also always found shared world writing great fun and very rewarding when I was writing for table-top and LARP gaming. So I jumped at the chance when I was invited to take part in this anthology, not least for the chance of working alongside some of the finest writers in today’s science fiction, fantasy, and horror markets. As with my other short stories in recent years, I also thoroughly enjoyed working in another milieu to my own books – and I’m already thinking ahead to the next Beyond the Black Gate story I could write… and I really want to write it…
And then there’s the Kickstarter aspect. I’m fascinated to see how this funding system works for projects that don’t quite fit with the traditional publishing models in this time of such flux in our industry. Since I’m based in the UK, this isn’t something I can try for myself as yet, with Kickstarter being US based BUT and this is important, you don’t have to be US based to sign up to support this project.
This project needs $10,000 to see fruition, but bonus levels for every $10,000 after the first will get EVERYONE in the Kickstarter a digital copy of another anthology in the series. If we get $20,000, that’s 2 anthologies, $30,000 is 3 full anthologies, etc. Let’s show the publishing world that anthology series do matter and that people love evolving story lines with great characters all set in the same city. With each new level of support we’ll also be placing in ‘secret bonus’ rewards for all participants.
Well, the book (first chapter and more info here)was going to be published on the 28th February (US)/1st March (UK) and I was going to be at the 9th Phoenix Convention, Dublin (known to its friends as P-Con) from the 2nd -4th March. So that immediately offered me the chance to celebrate the new book among friends, fans and book lovers.
Then in a wonderful coincidence of timing, it turned out that CE Murphy (Catie to her friends) also had a book published on 1st March, namely ‘Raven Calls’, the seventh of her excellent urban fantasy series, The Walker Papers.
So we decided on a joint launch party at the Irish Writers Centre, a glorious Georgian building on Parnell Square and P-Con’s new home. Do we qualify as Irish Writers? Well, my paternal grandfather left Ireland in 1923, heading for the UK, and Catie’s grandfather left around the same time heading for the US. Catie’s family returned to Ireland in 2005 and now live in Dublin. My father lived in County Laois till last year. Good enough.
It was a great start to the convention weekend. We shared a few glasses of wine and Catie and I shared a few thoughts about our books. For a start, although this is my fourteenth book and her eighteenth, yes, we agreed, every publication day is still really exciting. We talked a bit about writing in extended series, how it’s great to see characters and ideas develop – and how you casually write half a line in one of the early books that comes back to bite you on the ass years later. We both have experience of that.
We swapped notes on our different approaches to magic. Joanne Walker is a shaman living in modern-day Seattle; her magic is fluid and mysterious, both enabled and limited by Joanne’s own imagination. So Catie’s drawing on Native American and Irish myth (her heroine is of Cherokee and Irish descent), which opens up a tremendous amount of possibility for finding similar elements in both cultures (there are more than you’d think!) and massaging them into story arcs. The magic in her stories is less elemental than fundamental: shamanic practitioners believe everything has a life force and a purpose, and so much of what Joanne does is activating and working with that force and its natural purpose.
I’m writing in an entirely secondary world with magic based on the four classic elements of air, earth, fire and water and wizards who take an almost scientific approach to their studies. So I’m drawing on our own world’s history of science as well as modern sources like experimental archaeology to find plausible justifications for the spell effects I’m devising. If an earth wizard needs to find out how old something is, he can use his innate affinity with for example Carbon 14. Except of course, that would be on a good long list of words I cannot use without wrecking the fantasy atmosphere of my secondary world, along with ‘diatom’ and ‘isotope’ and so many others. We agreed the challenges of writing can prove quite unexpected.
It was a great evening, especially because I could share my admiration and enjoyment of Catie’s books, and she’s a fan of my writing – we both read outside our particular sub-genre for relaxation and enjoyment. Since one of the most toe-curling things about a book launch is being expected to praise your own work, it was so much nicer to be enthusing about a good friend and fellow writer’s work instead!
Incidentally, if you fancy a trip to Dublin next spring – and need some sort of excuse – plans are already in hand for P-Con X, where the Guests of Honour will be Cory Doctorow and Sarah Pinborough. Keep an eye on that website for updates!