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The Golden Rule – a few thoughts about writing steampunk
Today sees the publication of The Golden Rule, my contribution to a collection of four steampunk novellas from Newcon Press which can be purchased individually or as a set. These stories are linked by their cover art, but apart from that, they stand alone. The other titles are Under Pressure by Fabio Fernandes, The London Particular by George Mann, and The Visionary Pageant by Paul Di Filippo.
Steampunk is great fun, in comics, in stories, and in the cogs and goggles aesthetic of the terrific costumes people create. It also draws on the popular literature of the Victorian era that can be too easily overlooked as a significant forerunner of the science fiction and fantasy genres that have evolved in the last century and a half. So far, so good.
However… when I was first invited to try my hand at a steampunk story, revisiting a classic of such literature, I opted for the author H Rider Haggard. Rereading his work for the first time in decades, I was appalled by the racism and sexism underpinning the melodrama. It was scant comfort to realise none of this unpleasantness had made any lasting impression on teenage me. Hopefully, anyway. Certainly, I do know to check for any lingering echoes in my work these days. This rereading did alert me to one major potential pitfall of writing steampunk. While contemporary writers should have the sense to steer clear of the overt bigotry, I realised it could be far too easy to slip into an uncritical pro-Empire mindset, defaulting to Rule Britannia and all that.
Fortunately, as well as H Rider Haggard’s books, those library shelves I had scoured as a teenager held other classics of Victorian literature which offered no such rosy view of their society, such as Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies. I also came across non-fiction like Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa (1897) which gave a very different view of colonisation. So I was aware that critical voices were speaking up in that very era. That gave me the starting point for that first story ‘She Who Thinks For Herself’. As I wrote more late-Victorian stories, in the overlap between steampunk and horror, I continued to use the viewpoints of the overlooked and disregarded to shine a different light on the great deeds of the great white men who assume they are in unquestioned charge. You can find those stories in Challoner, Murray and Balfour: Monster Hunters at Law.
In the decades since I was a teenager, the Establishment’s vision of benign imperialism bestowing railways, democracy and afternoon tea on grateful colonials has been increasingly challenged by a wide range of historians and journalists. We are starting to see a far more complex and multi-layered picture of peoples, places and events. When I was invited to contribute to this quartet of novellas, I recalled one such book and wondered if that might give me a starting point for an exciting steampunk story with a different perspective on the alleged Glories of Empire. I found Anita Anand’s “Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary” on my bookshelves and went from there. This story of an exiled Sikh princess, god-daughter to Queen Victoria, led me to the Golden Jubilee of 1887, where I found that celebration had dramatic facets I had never suspected. Here is a photo of the Indian Cavalry who played a central role in the procession. If you want to know their role in my story though, you’ll have to read The Golden Rule – now available from Newcon Press, and you can find the ebook on Amazon.
Cover reveal – The Cleaving, coming May 2023
I’m off to Fantasycon first thing tomorrow morning, but before I go, here’s the cover for The Cleaving, my Arthurian novel out from Angry Robot in May next year.
We all know the imagery of the Arthurian legends; the sword, the castle, the knightly banners, and most of all, the king. This isn’t his story though. I love how Chris Panatier blends familiar elements with these wonderful portraits of the women who are central to this novel. As their gazes challenge the reader, the artwork mirrors my intent to do that as the writer.
There’s more on the art and design over at the BFS website.
You’d like to know more about the book? At the moment, the cover copy reads:
The Cleaving is an Arthurian retelling that follows the tangled stories of four women: Nimue, Ygraine, Morgana, and Guinevere, as they fight to control their own destinies amid the wars and rivalries that will determine the destiny of Britain.
The legendary epics of King Arthur and Camelot don’t tell the whole story. Chroniclers say Arthur’s mother Ygraine married the man that killed her husband. They say that Arthur’s half-sister Morgana turned to dark magic to defy him and Merlin. They say that the enchantress Nimue challenged Merlin and used her magic to outwit him. And that Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere ended in adultery, rebellion and bloodshed. So why did these women chose such dangerous paths?
As warfare and rivalries constantly challenge the king, Arthur and Merlin believe these women are destined to serve Camelot by doing as they are told. But men forget that women talk. Ygraine, Nimue, Morgana and Guinevere become friends and allies while the decisions that shape their lives are taken out of their hands. This is their untold story. Now these women have a voice.
Diary Update – updated
I’ll be out and about through September and October as follows. As more details on convention programming becomes available, I’ll update this page.
The event planned for Friday 16th September will not be taking place. Due to lower than hoped-for ticket sales, the Boston Book Festival is revising its programme. This is a shame, but with so many people feeling financial pressures at the moment, these things are going to happen here and there.
On 17th and 18th September, I’ll be at the BFS Fantasycon, at the Radisson Red hotel, Heathrow. My programme includes panels discussing love, sex and marriage in SFF, on building a lasting career as a writer, and on using more than medieval Europe in fantasy world building.
I’ll also be giving a reading from the new book, The Green Man’s Gift.
Convention details here
(On 19th September, I intended to be on the sofa at home with the cats and a good book, rather than watching a state funeral. Now I suspect I’ll have one eye on the telly while I prepare this year’s apple harvest from the garden for the freezer. )
On 6th October, I’ll be celebrating the publication of The Green Man’s Gift with Cheryl of Wizard’s Tower Press in an online event. Details coming soon!
On 15th and 16th October, I will be taking part in the online programme at Octocon 2022, the Irish National SF Convention. Really looking forward to seeing what my programme’s going to be there.
Convention details here
On 17th October, I’ll be at Portishead Library with Gareth Powell and Alistair Sims of Books on the Hill, to talk about the stories we have written for the BOTH Press dyslexia-friendly quick reads project. I’ll be there in my guise as JM Alvey, writer of historical mysteries, as my story Silver for Silence, features my classical Athenian detective Philocles.
More info here
(18th October definitely looks like a sofa day!)
On 29th October, I’ll be at Bristolcon in unsurprisingly, Bristol at the Hilton Doubletree Hotel.
Convention details here
So now you know where and when to find me. Feel free to say hello, have a chat, get a book signed, whatever.
The Green Man’s Gift – coming soon!
I’m delighted to say that the next book in this series, The Green Man’s Gift, will be published on October 6th 2022. I continue to work with the outstanding team of Cheryl Morgan of Wizard’s Tower Press, editor Toby Selwyn, and artist Ben Baldwin.
Each time now, one of the real thrills of writing these particular books is sending the draft off to Ben, and waiting to see what he comes up with. He’s given us yet another masterpiece distilling the essence of the story in an unforgettable image.
And that story…?
A teenage boy has turned up in Snowdonia, barely conscious and babbling
about beautiful women and fairy feasts. The authorities blame magic
mushrooms. The wise women say different and they want dryad’s son Daniel Mackmain to
investigate. He needs to watch his step in the mountains. Those who live
in the hollow hills mask their secrets and intentions with sly half-truths.
Far from the woods he knows, Dan needs help from the allies he
has made in past adventures. But he’s a loner at heart. As the
true power of his adversary becomes clear, he must decide if he’s
willing to see those he cares for put themselves in danger.
A modern fantasy rooted in the ancient myths and folklore of the British Isles.
You can pre-order ebook editions from:
Barnes & Noble (Nook) – USA only
The Golden Rule – now available for pre-order
I’m delighted to be able to share the cover art and cover copy of the steampunk novella I’ve written for Newcon Press. The Golden Rule is my contribution to four independent stories which can be purchased individually or as a set, and which are linked by their cover art. The other titles are Under Pressure by Fabio Fernandes, The London Particular by George Mann, and The Visionary Pageant by Paul Di Filippo.
What is my story about? Here’s the link to order it, so you can see the full artwork for a start, and here’s what the cover will tell you…
It is the summer of 1887 and everyone is looking forward to Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Young police constable David Price’s greatest concern is how much drunken disorder he and his colleagues will have to deal with. This changes when he is part of a force sent to a Lascar hostel on the docks to break up a disturbance. The constables arrive to find that trouble hasn’t even started. Close to the scene, David discovers an intricate mechanical rat, which is taken from him by a mysterious woman. He discovers she is a socialite, a friend of the royal family, and the eldest daughter of an Indian rajah. Tracking the princess down to her Richmond home provides the young officer with some answers. Many more questions arise. He finds himself embroiled in a deadly plot to raise racial tensions, set to culminate in a major incident that will rock the capital. Worse, David realises some of his own colleagues are involved. He has no idea who he can trust…
This is just one of the projects that have been keeping me very busy this year. I am pleased to say that my Arthurian novel, The Cleaving, has been delivered to Angry Robot and I should have news on that to share soon. The next Green Man book is being edited at the moment, and the cover art is in hand. As soon as we have a date for publication, I’ll be sharing that and other details.
Meantime, I have an unexpected invitation to write a new short story for what promises to be a fascinating anthology…
A diary update
It still feels a bit strange to be putting in-person dates in the diary – in a good way. I’m also very pleased to still be putting online events into my schedule. We have learned how these can be done successfully now, and how important opportunities to participate have become to so many people who would be unable to join in otherwise. Hybrid events definitely need to be part of the future.
As far as my future plans go –
Thursday 7th April – London Book Fair
Talk: 10:45-11:30 Making a Living from Writing
along with Society of Authors CEO Nicola Solomon (Chair) Abie Longstaff and Katrina Naomi.
15th – 18th April – the 72nd Eastercon: Reclamation
I’ll be joining friends and fans at the Radisson Hotel & Conference Centre, London Heathrow for what promises to be an excellent programme.
20th April – an online talk and conversation session with the Chalk Scribblers Writers’ Group.
7th – 14th May – Milford Writers Retreat, Trigonos, North Wales
1st – 4th July – Westercon 74
Thanks to the marvels of technology, I’ll be part of the international online programming organised by this convention taking place in Tonopah, Nevada.
Friday 16th September – Boston Book Festival (that’s the original Boston, Lincolnshire, UK btw)
At 7pm I’ll be talking about Myth and Modern Fantasy Fiction, and how I write the Green Man books, as well as taking questions.
And there will doubtless be more to add in due course.
The Green Man’s Challenge – BSFA Award shortlisted, and The Green Man’s Heir ebook offer
The Green Man’s Challenge has made the shortlist for the BSFA ‘best novel’ award, alongside an array of splendid writing and artwork across the various categories. This is tremendously gratifying, as you can imagine.
I’m also delighted to see Worlds Apart: Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction from Academia Lunare is on the ‘best non-fiction’ shortlist, since Cheryl Morgan of Wizard’s Tower Press is one of the contributors to that.
The BSFA website now has the full Awards shortlists posted, along with voting instructions for members.
In a wholly fortuitous bit of timing, Amazon have decided to put The Green Man’s Heir on 99p sale this month. As before, Wizard’s Tower Press will be price-matching this across all platforms so readers can use their preferred retailer. So this is an excellent time to recommend your friends give it a try – click the link under the cover art to your left for links to buy.
I’m writing an Arthurian novel. Yes, really.
It’s in The Bookseller, so it must be true! “Angry Robot Books has landed an “exciting and fresh” feminist retelling of the Arthurian legends by Juliet E McKenna.”
Now, it’s been a fair while since I was on a panel at a convention discussing the Arthurian myths, but those who remember such conversations may well find this a surprise. After all, my view was pretty clear; how can a writer bring something new to such an oft-told story? Especially when we all know how it ends – and that’s certainly not happily ever after!
So what has changed? Well, a few things came together in one of those accidents of serendipity that every writer will recognise. While I was doing background reading for The Green Man’s Challenge, looking for the roots of myths about giants in British folklore, one source was Geoffrey of Monmouth. He’s one of the early sources for the Arthurian myths, and I found myself rereading those bits as well, and thinking about why Geoffrey told those tales in the way that he did.
I’ve also been reading Kari Sperring’s Arthurian novellas from Newcon Press. Those are as enjoyable as they are interesting, and they took me back to Malory’s version of these myths in the Le Morte D’Arthur for the first time in decades. I had forgotten how much magic, mystery and downright weirdness there is in those particular stories. I’ve had some interesting chats about that with Kari, and with Liz Williams, who’s currently writing rural fantasy that harks back to all manner of ancient British folklore.
At the same time, the wider conversation about epic fantasy within the SFF genre has continued. We see a fascinating range of heroes having adventures in fabulous worlds drawing on intriguing mythic traditions these days. But there are still those who try to insist that ‘true’ epic fantasy can only be white knights on noble steeds rescuing damsels in distress. There’s certainly no denying that a great many of the conventions and traditions of the genre can be traced back to these age-old myths. That doesn’t mean that out-dated ideas and themes can’t be challenged though. As anyone who’s read my epic fantasy novels knows, I’ve been doing that since The Thief’s Gamble was first published in 1999.
It was a smaller step than I expected to go from looking at these ‘heroic’ Arthurian stories from a woman’s viewpoint today, to wondering what the women caught up in that whole myth cycle would be thinking and feeling themselves…
The Cleaving will be out on 9th May 2023
(And just in case you are wondering, yes, I am also working on the next Green Man novel)
Join in the BFS 50th Anniversary celebrations on 26th February!
The British Fantasy Society is 50 years old this year! There’s going to be a day of celebration online on Saturday 26th February, and I’m delighted to say that I will be having fun discussing fantastical creatures with Anna Smith Spark and R J Barker at 10.15 am.
There’s a great programme of readings, panels etc soon to be revealed, so mark your diaries. You can find more details here.
Society of Authors election results!
Today’s big news is that I have been elected to the Society of Authors Management Committee for a three year term. I joined the Society in 1997, when I was offered my first publishing contract and benefited immediately from expert advice. I have found membership invaluable ever since in dealing with the vagaries of this business through decades of constant change.
Experience has shown me the importance of writers staying informed about changes in publishing and bookselling. It’s vital to keep up-to-date with new technologies which offer us new options when publishers’ and retailers’ decisions serve their own interests but adversely affect authors. The VATMOSS/VATMESS saga also showed me it is essential for authors to advocate for themselves at the very highest levels, and taught me effective ways to do that.
I look forward to working with everyone else on the committee and in the Society in the interests of writers of all genres in these intensely challenging times. If you voted for me, thank you! You may rest assured that I’m mindful of the trust that those SFFH authors who gave me their vote have placed in me. Something I’m particularly keen to explore is the Society’s relationship with the writers who work primarily with small and genre presses.
And overall, what’s good for writers should benefit readers as well. That’s certainly my aim. It’s going to be an interesting next few years