In my primary school and teenage days, I was an avid reader of both boarding school stories and what I have since learned are variously called ‘juveniles’ or ‘planetary romances’ by authors such as Robert Heinlein or Arthur C Clarke. Thanks to Chaz Brenchley, I now realise those books had far more in common than I was aware of back then. All these stories were set in worlds that were equally alien to me as kid in a UK state school in the 1970s. I was no more likely to ever be a pupil at somewhere like Mallory Towers than I was to go to Mars, to skate along frozen canals and meet marvellous, scary creatures. A great deal of all these stories’ appeal for me was following characters who could be my contemporaries as they learned and navigated the unknown rules of unfamiliar and not necessarily safe environments, to come through their adventures unscathed – for mostly non-lethal values of ‘unscathed’ in English boarding schools.
So combining these traditions is quite simply a brilliant idea, creating an alternate reality where Mars is a stalwart colony of the British Empire and while boys go back to Eton or Harrow, the girls can be educated satisfactorily and more cheaply there. Thus Brenchley offers an entertaining read that’s both familiar and brand new.
This is far more than an exercise in inventive nostalgia though. Looking back, I can see how all those stories were founded on the assumptions of their respective decades and authors. Those assumptions are now to a greater or lesser extent often problematic. For a start, the stories of St Clare’s, the Chalet School, the Abbey Girls and the like, were the pretty much the only books I was reading that focused on female protagonists, viewpoints and concerns. I remember that was one reason why I actively sought them out. Everywhere else, any sort of adventure was exclusively male, or at best, male-led. Even so, I now see these girl-centered stories were as laden with outdated views on class, race and society as their overtly masculine counterparts. Brenchley is way ahead of me. With a deft and subtle touch, he interrogates the attitudes of those ‘classic; books and their era with charming ruthlessness. The reader is cordially invited to consider how many such attitudes persist and why.
All told, this book is an excellent diversion; an escape from everything that’s besieging us all at the moment. In the very best traditions of SF, it also offers us somewhere to go, where we can see where we came from more clearly.
As of yesterday, that’s the first pass of the next Green Man book completed at a frankly implausibly round 101100 words. That won’t be the final total – I’ll do a polishing pass over the next week or so, then Editor Toby will apply his eagle-eyed editorial skills.
I’m very pleased to have reached this point on the journey. I have always been able to escape trials and tribulations by turning to books -by reading and latterly, by writing them – but maintaining focus and a decent work rate amid the ongoing everything has been a particular challenge this year. I know this is the case for a great many many fellow authors and any number of readers.
I’m extremely pleased with the way this particular story has turned out. I’m confident Dan’s fans are going to enjoy this one. I’m also intrigued to see what Ben Baldwin will come up with by way of artwork for the cover.
So what’s next? Well, the first thing was checking the page proofs for my story in the upcoming anthology THE MODERN DEITY’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING HUMANITY. One bonus of doing that is getting a sneak peak at the other stories by this splendid roster of writers – Crystal Sarakas, Tanya Huff, Edward Willett, Daniel Roman, Jennifer Dunne, Jean Marie Ward, Mike Marcus, A.L. Tompkins, Daryl Marcus, Alma Alexander, Kari Sperring, A.J. Cunder, Irene Radford, and N.R. Lambert.
Among other things, you can see Hera try her hand at marriage counseling, while Macuilxochitl conquers the world of online gaming. Buy a ticket to Anubis’ magic act or roam the back tents at the local carnival and catch Doc Saturday’s medicine show. Take a sip of wine at Dionysus’ winery or grab some potato pancakes at Baba Yaga’s café.
I’ve also been taking a look at the concluding chapters of Eastern Tide. I’ve been promising myself – and readers – a fourth short story to complete the series accompanying the Aldabreshin Compass novels. You can find the first three here, staring with ‘Fire in the Night’.
Books on the Hill is a dyslexic friendly, independent bookshop in Clevedon, North Somerset, run by Alistair and Chloe. They are both passionate about books of all genres, and about getting as many people as possible reading. Alistair is dyslexic himself and so is always on the look out for ways to help people who have dyslexia, or any difficulty with reading, to access the joy of good fiction. For instance, he advised me and Cheryl on fonts that would suit dyslexic readers better in the Green Man books – I had no idea that something so simple could make such a difference!
As a bookseller, Alistair has long been aware of the Barrington Stoke books for dyslexic kids, but hasn’t found any equivalent for adults. So he’s decided to do something about that, and has recruited a group of very fine writers specifically to write stories for a new publishing project, funded by Kickstarter. As of this morning, the first funding goal has been reached inside the project’s first week. So the first three books will definitely be happening. Now let’s see the stretch goals reached, so more books will be available. This should be the start of a long term initiative.
Do take a look, and definitely spread the word to whoever you know who’ll be interested. Given up to 10% of the population is dyslexic, there’s sure to be someone.
So that was an interesting experience. I had a lot of fun catching up with pals I haven’t seen for far too long in Gathertown – but I was evidently running the optimum software on a relatively new, hi-spec computer – I know other folk had serious issues with access.
I had some interesting panels which turned into really good conversations – but online panels are much harder work than in-person events, and having no sense of an audience was disconcerting. Plus lack of info on the tech requirements beforehand and ongoing tech issues made for added stress I could well have done without, especially given the heightened level of background stress we’re all living with at the moment.
I watched some very good panels and talks, and being able to catch up with recordings of panels I’d had to leave early because of my own programme commitments was a real plus – but it’s very frustrating trying to decide how long to spend looking at a black screen when you have no idea if the thing you want to see is going to happen in the next two minutes or not at all.
The online art show was wonderful! My reading went very well, and seeing there were actually people there plus a bit of Q&A made for a thoroughly enjoyable session.
Please note – none of these observations are in any sense a criticism of the phenomenally hard working programme, tech and ops teams who did an amazing job in the face of multifarious challenges. There would have been no event without them.
Please also note I’m not getting involved in any of the debates about how things went, here or elsewhere. There are more than enough conversations ongoing. Let’s hope those lead to future conventions capitalizing on the good as well as learning where different decisions beforehand would have led to better outcomes.
Right, back to work 🙂
As you may or may not be aware, this year’s UK Eastercon is an online event – you can find all the details here
I’m on an interesting selection of panels as detailed below. Hopefully these times are now set, but do double check. The unexpected can always crop up at conventions and online events are no exception.
Friday, April 2 21:00
The last 20 Years: Fantasy in the 21st Century
Tiffani Angus, Juliet E McKenna, Jacey Bedford, Ekpeki Donald Oghenechovwe discuss how fantasy has changed, developed and grown since 2000 and talk about their favourite writers, books and trends.
Saturday, April 3 19:00
Fantasy Weapon Smackdown!
Stewart Hotston, Juliet E McKenna, Phil Nanson, Gerry McEvoy
We pit the panellists’ favourite fantasy weapons, from the sublime to the overpowered, to decide which is the greatest of them all. Excalibur or Albion? Lightsabre or well-placed flashlight? Choose your weapon!
Saturday, April 3 21:00
Male Power Fantasy: Can We Stop Now?
Fiona Moore, Tiffani Angus, E.M. Faulds, Juliet E McKenna, Ibtisam Ahmed
Mighty thewed-warriors, dashing starship captains, lone wolf heroes. Pulp sff had its roots a in culture of heterosexual white male dominance and male power fantasies. How do we frustrate these historical cliches and move into brave, diverse, new worlds?
Monday, April 5 12:00
Storytelling through repetition
Robert S Malan, Tiffani Angus, Catriona Silvey, Avery Delany, Juliet E McKenna
Time loops, time travel, and replaying games: how narratives are built by repeating actions & discovering new elements – including building relationships, and positive queer depictions
Amid the ongoing everything, talking to fellow writers and readers does make for a welcome change of pace.
Over on Facebook we went away to the unseen realm as James Chambers, Angel Martinez, Joshua Palmatier, Tamsin Silver and I talked with host Gail Z. Martin/Morgan Brice about the faeries in our fiction. I’ll post a YouTube link when that goes live.
Over on YouTube, you can enjoy Mihaela Marija Perković, Adrian Tchaikovsky and I in conversation as part of the charity event, ConTribution.
If you’re curious about the next Green Man book, you may pick up some clues…
I first met Juliet as one of my tutors at a writing retreat at Moniack Mhor back in December 2016. Oh, what a glorious luxury it now seems to travel all day by train to a remote location and spend a week in face-to-face workshops with a whole group of other writers! I really hope that can become a reality again sometime soon.
Anyway, on this occasion, Juliet ran a series of excellent workshops throughout the week, in tandem with the other tutor, Pippa Goldschmidt. The theme of the week was Science Fiction and Fantasy writing, which was exactly in my wheelhouse. I remember the workshops being very inspiring and the atmosphere at the writing centre very convivial.
The most important lesson I took away from that retreat was the value of external feedback on my writing. Both tutors gave detailed comments on a piece submitted by each writer, and we also had the opportunity to share our work amongst the group to get further opinions. I’ve always struggled with identifying how to improve my writing on my own, so it was great to be able to gather fresh perspectives and utilise them to make the story I had chosen immeasurably better.
Writing can be an isolating activity and getting together with other writers to share and collaborate is always a joy.
I was at an interesting stage in my writing journey at that point. I had completed a draft of my first novel at a similar retreat the year before and was starting to focus more on writing original short stories and trying to get them published.
Reading my newly expanded and polished short story out to the group on the last night of the retreat was a daunting experience, but it was a very supportive group and the enthusiastic response I received really boosted my confidence in my writing.
I also applied the lesson about getting feedback to my novel and sent it out to a group of beta readers, as well as a professional editor, over the course of several rounds of revisions.
The confidence I gained through attending the Moniack Mhor retreat bore fruit over the next few years, as I submitted more and more short stories to various publications and started to see my writing getting accepted for publication. I’ve now had nearly 40 short stories and articles published on fiction sites and in print magazines and anthologies
And, in February 2021, my ultimate dream came true when I finally held a copy of my first novel in my hands.
The military science-fiction short story I refined at Moniack Mhor is still one of my favourites. Even though it’s been rejected by more than twenty different editors, I still have faith in it and I still keep submitting it, because I have also learned that perseverance is the key with writing. I’ve had stories accepted on the first submission and the fifteenth, and I know the perfect home for that little story is out there somewhere. I just need to keep looking until I find it.
Before I review this novel, a declaration of interest. I first met Annie at the Scottish writers’ centre Moniack Mhor, when she was a student and I was tutoring alongside Pippa Goldschmidt. Along with the rest of a talented group, I was impressed by her lively imagination, and her keenness to learn all she could to improve her craft. So I was naturally interested and pleased to learn that her debut novel was coming out from a small press.
Does this mean I can’t review it impartially? Certainly not in the way you might expect. Not for the first time with a former student’s work, I initially found myself reading it as if it were a submission rather than a finished piece. I really needed to get out of my own way and look at this story on its own merits. I also needed to get over my own inclination as a fantasy writer who gets totally absorbed in world-building to keep asking ‘but why?’ about things that ultimately don’t have a bearing on this story. These things add up to an important point about reviewers. We really need to be aware of what we’re bringing with us when we read a book, and to make very sure that that personal prism isn’t giving us a distorted view. Fortunately, I was only a chapter or so into reading this when I realised I was sitting there with a metaphorical red pen in my hand, gave myself a stern talking to, and went back and started again!
The Defiant Spark is a fluent and fun read. The premise is simple on the surface. Mana – magic – is essentially the same as electricity in this alternate, recognisably modern world. Those people with a talent for it become artisans, inventing artefacts – that’s to say, all the gadgets and appliances we’re familiar with – for the megacorporations which profit from them. Those with some but lesser talent for mana become maintenance engineers. Abelard is one of those, working in a call centre to solve ordinary people’s day to day problems.
So far, so simple. Once you stop wanting to how this situation developed if you’re me, and can flip that particular mental switch to ‘this is how it is, accept it and move on’.
But of course, things soon become complicated. An accident supercharges Abelard’s talent, with very dangerous consequences for him and for his friends. Friendship is an important theme and thread throughout this narrative, which draws the reader in and keeps those pages turning. Percik is very good at writing solidly believable, ordinary and flawed characters who make this story matter.
Another consequence is Abelard comes to the attentions of the powers that be. How could he not? This stuff is genuinely hazardous. His induction into these inner circles cuts both ways though. He soon learns a whole lot of secrets about the ways in which mana is controlled, along with those with a talent for handling it. Secrets that are doing more harm than good, from an outsider’s perspective. He also manages to set some wholly unintended consequences in motion because he doesn’t understand the full implications of what he has done, particularly in his dealings with mana-driven AI. Fortunately, Abelard still has friends he can rely on, who are still on the outside – once he mends a few fences broken by his own missteps. Unfortunately, the powers that be are determined to preserve their secrets and their control at all costs. The pace of the story accelerates fast and the action hots up!
The use and abuse of power is of course a classic SF and Fantasy theme. Percik manages to make it her own, and that’s an achievement in a first novel. She definitely avoids the all-too-common trap for debut writers of trying to engage with every other book that’s currently exploring a particular topic. Far too often, trying to join a conversation like that means a new author loses any sense of their own voice. Reading this book, I have no idea if Percik has been reading all the SF she can find over these past few years, or none. That is emphatically a good thing. This is her story, and she tells it in her own, distinctive way.
Is this novel SF though? Doesn’t magic make this book a modern fantasy? Is sci-fantasy a thing? We could debate this all day and that would be a waste of time. The story is the story, and that’s all that matters. At least, it should be. It’s worth noting here that small presses can have a lot more freedom to pick up and run with novels that defy pigeon-holing. The bigger publishers can be constrained by the practicalities of marketing categories and the commercial imperatives of offering the most acceptable books to the greatest number of possible readers. That can lead to a whole lot more of the same dominating their output, however enjoyable those books can undoubtedly be. It’s very well worth checking out small presses for unusual and unexpected novels to read alongside the established stalwarts of the genre.
So those are my thoughts on this book today. I also thought it would be interesting to invite Annie to share some thoughts on what she got from her week at Moniack Mhor, so that guest post follows this one.
It’s here, and I will be in conversation with Adrian Tchaikovsky and Mihaela Perkovic at 5pm UK time, 6pm Croatian time today. That will be on Zoom, and you’ll be able to see how long my hair is now, after a year without a trim! Plus there are all sorts of other things happening over these two days on Zoom and Discord.
Click here for the Convention website where you will find the timetable as well as full programme details. As well as all sorts of interesting and entertaining things, this offers a great introduction to Croatian fans – hopefully encouraging you to visit European conventions in future, when we can get together again. Meantime, hurrah for technology and the fans who work so hard to put online events together.
A reminder of this particular event’s aims. We’re raising money for earthquake relief in Petrinja and the wider area severely hit in December 2020. The convention is free, so you are invited to donate however much is appropriate to your own situation. You’ll be helping people who have lost their homes in the middle of winter and a global pandemic.
I have something to put in my diary! Croatians are organising this online event to raise money for earthquake relief after a quake on 29th December hit the small town of Petrinja – around 50 km (31 miles) SE from the Croatian capital Zagreb. Numerous, severe aftershocks followed. Seven people died and a lot of people are now without homes in the middle of winter and a global pandemic. Many buildings (which were old, to begin with) are completely uninhabitable and will have to be torn down and rebuilt.
Do get involved! Croatia is a fabulous country with lovely people – and terrific fandom.
So far there is a Facebook event page here
I’ll post full website info and further details as soon as I have them.
Please boost the signal and share the word as far as as fast as you can.