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From Concept to Finished Novel(s): Part II: Beginning with the End

With Empire’s Heir coming out in just over a week, my mind has inevitably moved on to the next book. While still set in my fictional work, and with familiar characters, Empress & Soldier will be something a little different.

As the title suggests, it focuses on two characters: the Empress Eudekia, and the soldier Druisius. In my third book, Empire’s Exile, we are introduced to both characters in the last half of the story.  Empress & Soldier will overlap with those chapters from Exile, although it will begin much earlier in the lives of both Eudekia and Druisius.

Empress & Soldier will – or can – serve as a second entry point into my world, so it creates some structural and conceptual challenges. In the overlapping part of the story, I will be writing scenes from either Eudekia or Druisius’s point of view. Sometimes these are scenes that are in Exile; sometimes they are scenes that happened ‘off page’ in that book, and are only referred to. 

I can’t skimp on this by assuming the reader has read Exile.  Nor should I just reverse the POV. What happens –  what either Druisius or Eudekia think, want, act on – is what matters. And that may be the opposite of what the main or supporting characters in Exile think, want, or act on. In fact, I already know it is, in some cases. A friend who has read some of the early draft scenes said, “I thought I knew Druisius. I was wrong.”

I’ve created a planning document, with the entire section from Exile on half the page, and blank space on the other. Now I’ll start going through each scene, thinking about the purpose of a parallel or supporting scene from the viewpoints of my two new main characters – but still conveying the important parts of the arcs of the other characters, those whose actions and reactions we saw in Exile.

I expect to spend a good chunk of time on this. Planning now will save a lot of energy and words later. I also intend to write this last section of Empress & Soldier first, because what happens here tells me what I need to show in the character development as Eudekia and Druisius grow up in much different ways in Casil, my Rome-analogue city. The plot, which will include some antagonists familiar to readers of my other books, has a framework, with details to be worked out which also depend on these last chapters.

There’s also an enormous amount of research to be done, and another advantage of writing these last chapters first is that I can juggle writing and research, because this section will require the least – I did most of what’s needed when I was writing Exile.

My last challenge – or I should say the last challenge I know about now! – is how Druisius wants to tell his story. Unlike my previous protagonists, for whom the written word either is or becomes their preferred mode of expression in journals or histories, song or poetry, Druisius is an oral storyteller with a distinctive voice – and a desire to tell his story in present tense.

“Druisius!”  My captain’s voice. What does he want? I am off duty. Friends are waiting to dice.  I turn.

“I’m reassigning you. A ship arrived this afternoon from the west. One of the passengers might be a queen, or something. They’ve asked for an audience with the Empress. The harbourmaster says they look like barbarians to him, but,” he shrugs, “they’ve been assigned a house, and guards, and you’re one of them.”

“Why me? And who’s the other?”

He snorts. “As if we don’t all know how bored you are.” He drops his voice. “Anyhow, it was the Magistere Quintus who suggested you. You know what that means.”

Can I/he maintain this?  I don’t know yet. (Nor do I know Eudekia’s voice at all, right now.) But this is a new adventure, in more ways than one!

Featured Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

New and Notable August Releases

OUT NOW  Kidnapped in 7th century England and sold as a slave to a powerful mayor in France, Bathilde needs to adapt to survive. When the mayor’s beloved wife passes away, he looks to Bathilde for comfort. Fleeing his attentions, she is forced to live on the streets until she catches the king’s eye and everything changes.

How did a slave navigate the treacherous Merovingian courts and rise to rule an empire? And why have so few people heard of her?  https://amzn.to/2VPPUIE

 

Paperback OUT NOW; e-book AUGUST 18:
In the beginning there was confusion.

Ever woken up being a God, but not knowing how to God properly? Your brothers keep creating mosquitoes and celery and other, more threatening weapons. What can your ultimate answer be – the one that will make you THE All-Father and them, at best, the All-Those-Uncles-We-All-Have-But-Don’t-Talk-About?  “FML! The answer’s why I drink!” – Odin

https://amzn.to/2Xh5Wfh

OUT NOW: GRACE ON THE HORIZON is the second full-length novel in The White Sails Series. Grace and Seamus, united by their past experiences, are adrift on a raft of shame in the sea of 1830s London society. After a personal tragedy, Grace’s desperation to leave London forces Seamus to accept a dubious commission on the private explorer, Clover.
GRACE ON THE HORIZON promises another adventure on the high seas, bursting with action and suspense. 
https://amzn.to/2Ulhopg

AUGUST 18: A space opera heist brimming with action, twists, and turns that doubles as a story of personal growth, mentorship, and sacrifice.

Ailo is a streetwise teen surviving alone on the remote moonbase, Tarkassi 9. She wants nothing more than to flee into the wider world of the Arm. When her chance arrives, she makes it no farther than the first ship out of the system. That’s where Jati, the Patent War veteran and general fighting the Monopolies gives her a second chance.   https://amzn.to/3iIftUW

AUGUST 25
When a young man is found dead, killed in the exact manner as a martyr slain on the fields of Karbala some two hundred years before, there is no mistaking it as anything other than an attack on the Shia community of Baghdad. The city is on edge as religious and political factions are exposed sending the caliph’s army into the streets. Ammar and Tein have to clear the case, one way or another, before violence erupts. But Zaytuna has had a visionary dream of the murder that holds the key to solving the case. Can she can read its signs? And will Tein and Ammar listen?  https://www.llsilvers.com/purchase

Wings of Wax and Feather

Colm pointed to the gulls hanging in the sky. “Birds fly. Why can’t someone make wings so people can?”

“You know the tale of Vikar, whose father built wings of wax and feathers.”

“That’s a story,” Colm said, a little impatiently. “About setting our ambitions neither too high nor too low. I mean really fly.”

Empire’s Heir

The legend of Icarus, which has come down to us from Greek mythology, is often interpreted as a warning not to set our goals too high. But Daedulus, Icarus’s father (Vikar, the name used in Empire’s Heir, is from the Etruscan name for Icarus, Vikare) warns his son against flying both too low, too close to the sea, where the waves might take him, and against flying too high, where the sun’s heat will melt the wax of the wings. A warning, as Colm says, not to set our ambitions too high or too low.

As I biked to and from the farmers’ market this morning, I contemplated what this meant for authors, or indeed, for any artist. At the market, I bought veggies from local farmers, and artisanal cheese, and looked at hand-made cards and jewellery; outside, I listened to buskers and took photos of the street art. So much art, so much talent…how do we as artists set our ambitions, so that neither the waves of despair nor the often-brief sun of recognition destroy us?

The Fall of Icarus, 17th century, Musée Antoine Vivenel. Public domain.

There is, of course, no one answer. Knowing why we create art, what purpose it serves in our lives, can help us understand where our flight path is. I write for the love of words, their cadence and rhythm and sound, for the look of them on the page, to explore ideas, and to tell my characters’ stories. Structure challenges me intellectually, a puzzle to solve. I love both the constraints and the freedom I grant myself in writing.

I have to remind myself of this, more often than I like. Our society tends to equate value with money, and more and more with celebrity. But the quiet satisfaction I find from the words of a reader who loves my books, or a review that appreciates my prose or worldbuilding, help keep me at the right height for my wings, although I will not pretend I don’t feel the desire for the sun, nor the darkness of the depths.

But these are my wings, my fragile construct not of wax and feather but of dreams and love. All my art has to do, in the end, is satisfy me, not pay my bills. This is only my flight path, not a judgement of other artists with different needs and different goals. But when I look up from my computer, from social media and sales charts and review stats, and take some time to consider and remember where writing has taken me – and, more importantly, what it has given me – I think I’ll keep flying for as long as I can.

Featured image: Jacob Peter Gowy’s The Flight of Icarus (1635–1637), public domain.

Just How Accurate is that Historical Drama? Wolf Hall

In today’s guest post, Karen Heenan, author of The Tudor Court books (Songbird and A Wider World) looks at the television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s series focused on Thomas Cromwell.  

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall. Photo: BBC
Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall. Photo: BBC


 I’ve been a fan of Tudor-related TV since I first saw the BBC’s Six Wives of Henry VIII in the early 1970s, when I was just 6 or 7 years old, and I will watch anything about the period, even if it makes me cringe. As a writer of Tudor-era novels, my excuse is that even badly done stories can have redeeming qualities, though some programs have come very close to disproving my theory.

Not Wolf Hall, though. Based on the first two novels of Hilary Mantel’s excellent series, much care was taken with the production – from costumes to exterior locations to the marvelous interiors. So many candles! I found myself squinting in sympathy with people who had to live in half-dusk during the day. The costuming, particularly of the less-exalted characters (Cromwell himself, his wife and sister-in-law, the young men of his entourage) is wonderfully accurate, with head coverings abounding and care shown to small details. The courtiers’ costumes are also well done, though I had a few issues with Claire Foy’s gowns – something that tightly laced shouldn’t have those unfortunate wrinkles across the front! But her portrayal of Anne Boleyn made up for any costuming quibbles.

Speaking of performances, Mark Rylance’s Cromwell, is as close to perfect as they come. He’s an actor whose face, while seeming expressionless, can portray a myriad of thoughts – and Cromwell had a myriad of thoughts. Whatever your feelings are about the historical figure of Cromwell, this was a masterful portrayal. Damian Lewis would not have been my first choice for Henry, but while his physical appearance wasn’t quite ideal, he embodied the king’s dangerous volatility to a point where it was almost uncomfortable to watch him.

Mantel published the third and final volume of the series last year; there is another BBC series in the works, though they haven’t confirmed the casting yet. I hope they convince Mark Rylance take up Cromwell once again; I’ll watch it regardless, but no one else will ever quite be Cromwell to me after this.

All this to say that Wolf Hall is an accurate portrayal of the period, especially since Tudor dramas have been known to go quite over-the-top (Showtime’s Tudors, anyone? I think Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is as pretty as they come, but he’s no Henry Tudor. And don’t get me started on the costumes!)

The main point of contention regarding Wolf Hall (books or series) is whether or not you agree with Hilary Mantel’s version of Cromwell. He’s been the villain of this period of history for so long that it’s unnerving to see him humanized, even if he is still doing the occasional villainous deed. If he didn’t, someone else would – Henry would have his way, come hell or high water, and we all know that to be the one true fact of any stretch of Tudor history.

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Find Karen’s books here.

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Fantasy and Me: From Puck to Aslan

In the previous installment of this occasional series, I wrote about Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, and mentioned the influence I perceived it had on later works. Today, I’m going to focus on its influence on one series: C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books.

‘Ah, but you’re a fairy,’ said Dan.

‘Have you ever heard me use that word yet?’ said Puck, quickly.

‘No. You talk about “the People of the Hills,” but you never say “fairies,”’ said Una. ‘I was wondering at that. Don’t you like it?’

‘How would you like to be called “mortal” or “human being” all the time?’ said Puck; ‘or “son of Adam” or “daughter of Eve”?’

‘I shouldn’t like it at all,’ said Dan.

Puck of Pook’s Hill, Rudyard Kipling

“Sons of Adam” and “Daughters of Eve”, of course, is how Aslan, the Christ-figure lion in the Narnia series, refers to the children Peter and Edmund,  Susan and Lucy. 

“Down at Cair Paravel there are four thrones, and it’s a saying in Narnia time out of mind that when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit in those four thrones, then it will be the end not only of the White Witch’s reign but of her life.”

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

Yes, but, you may be saying – it’s coincidence. It could be, except for something else:  the Narnia’s children’s last name is Pevensie.  In Puck of Pook’s Hill, Pevensey – the Pevensey Levels (which is a real place, and Pevensey a real town), the Manor of Pevensey, and the Lord of Pevensey – are an important part of the story.

Antique Prints of Pevensey Sussex
Pevensey Castle, Sussex. Engraver & Publisher:
G. Rowe, & G. Wooll, High Street, Hastings

Why?  Pevensey is referred to as ‘England’s gate’ in Kipling’s story (it’s where William the Conqueror landed in 1066), and perhaps it was nothing more than the idea of the wardrobe in Narnia also being a gate between countries (or worlds.) You could perhaps argue that Lewis was attempting to replace Kipling’s ‘People of the Hills’ as the oldest, lost mythology of England with Christianity. Or maybe it was completely unconscious. Writers borrow, often without knowing they are.

I was – full disclosure here – never a fan of the Narnia books. I was not fond of Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, or the child’s version of A Pilgrim’s Progress I had, either. I didn’t like being preached at as a child (or adult), even subtly. What I did – and do – like is the continuity, the fantasy stories of one generation influencing the next, and the next.

Next time, a look at Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, which I still re-read every few years.

A Conversation with Susan Hancock

Dr. Susan Hancock is a retired university lecturer, now writing a unique science fiction series. Set in Elizabethan England, Anstey’s Kingdom involves travel in time and space and the conflicts between love, safety, and freedom in a dangerous world. I’m waiting to finish the first trilogy before reviewing the books, but the premise was so intriguing I asked Susan to chat with me about her books.

Tell a new reader a bit about your books: setting, concept, main characters.

The setting for my Anstey’s Kingdom trilogy is split between sixteenth-century Devon, England and a planet in the Auriga Constellation. Since the latter is the home world of my protagonists, I have named the planet Domum-Orbis. There is a rationale behind the Latinate oddments, but I can’t reveal it without giving a massive spoiler relating to Anstey’s Legacy: No Greater Love (the third book.)

The books began with a series of ‘what if’ questions. What would it feel like to suddenly discover that you weren’t human? What would it be like, as a refugee fleeing from war on a far planet, to find yourself in the power of the man who had appeared to offer you freedom…at a price? How would you cope with being so very different in a time and place where such difference could endanger your life?

Kat (Kathryn Wrenn) is my female lead. She has been brought up in a comfortable household in Elizabethan England and has no idea at all that, while she has a human father, her mother is from Auriga and not human at all.

Thomas Alban escaped to Earth with his parents when he was just 5 years of age. He knows his origins, but is contracted to work for the eponymous Anstey for the rest of his life, as one of the technicians running the underground complex in which the exiles hide.

Do you have a favourite character? If so, why?

Oh yes, Thomas is such a lovely, mixed-up man. Book two, Anstey’s Revenge: Will Love be Enough? Is really his book, as he struggles to come to terms with extreme depression and thoughts of self-harm. I suppose, in a bizarre way, I feel guilty about everything I’ve put him through. I’ve certainly cried at my laptop over his struggles.

Given the time period and setting, it’s possible to read your books as an allegory for religious persecution in Tudor times. Is there any basis for that, or is that just the Tudor history geek in me reading too much in?

I can see how you might read it in that way, but it’s more of a distanced comment on the endless persecution of the vulnerable, for whatever reason, and the ways in which refugees can be exploited. I’m thinking, in particular, of people smugglers and sex-traffickers here. I’m not underplaying the extreme dangers of existing in the Tudor times, but it is perhaps telling that James, whose relationship with human Robert would mean death if they were caught, prefers to take his chances in the outside world rather than endlessly labour, unpaid, in Anstey’s Kingdom. A freedom/safety conundrum. The violence of the times is more than matched by the violence perpetrated by Anstey, and his resident thugs, on anyone who defies him.

How did you research the period, specifically regarding the setting and the real places mentioned?

I spent a lot of time working in the North Devon Records Office in Barnstaple, Devon. Everyone there was very helpful and it was fascinating to read so many books relating to the history of the area, together with maps and reproductions of wood-cuts, all giving a real ‘feel’ for the period. Of prime interest—details of the pirates who occupied Lundy Island at that time (I later visited Lundy) and information on the floods which swept down the Bristol Channel during the period covered in book 2. I had to shift the date of the floods slightly, but was able to make reference to specifics of a scene which is the subject of a woodcut from 1607.  

Staying at the Royal and Fortescue Hotel in Barnstaple, which was once the Fortescue Arms where Kat and Thomas also stayed, gave me a really shivery feeling, particularly looking at the ceiling in their bistro which dates from 1620. [Forgive the tendency to refer to my protagonists as if they are real people—they have come to feel as if they are to me.]

I also researched on-line and made good use of books such as Ian Mortimer’s invaluable The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England.

Your academic specialty, if I’ve done my research correctly, is children’s literature, especially the concept of the child within literature. So, two questions arising from this: Do you have a favourite children’s book – and if you do, why that book? Second question: what drew you to write adult books?

My instinctive reaction to your first question is to say Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books. However, I’m conscious that this is the choice of the adult reader in me (perhaps evidenced by the fact that Tehanu, the perhaps-adult fourth book, is my favourite of these.) Going back to my own childhood, I was totally enthralled by the books of Rosemary Sutcliffe, Geoffrey Trease and Henry Treece. As a rather solitary child, I used to creep about the house and garden in my favourite emerald green dress, pretending to be one or other of the Celtic or Ancient British characters from fiction (only occasionally a Roman.)

I’m sure, however, that I’ve missed out loads of other significant books and will immediately think of them once this interview is concluded!

There is a fairly lengthy hiatus between my non-fiction writing on children’s literature and my embarking on writing adult books. For a relatively long period I was wrestling internal demons and had no desire to write anything (in fact I did a lot of very inexpert painting and was convinced I would never write again.) I can’t really explain why I suddenly became obsessed with a story and a ‘people’ taking shape in my mind (answering the ‘what if’ questions I outlined earlier.) All I know is that the words fairly poured out of me, and the characters took a firm grip on my psyche, demanding that their stories be told. I think of myself more as a story-teller than a writer, and perhaps that is a legacy of my children’s literature studies. So many incredible plots and happenings people that world. That said, my books are, I confess, very violent and sexually explicit.

I have only a superficial knowledge of Jungian thought, but I believe you have quite a bit more. How has this influenced your writing? Are there aspects of your book that should be viewed through Jungian concepts?

My interest in Jungian psychoanalytic criticism arose from my research into the ways in which child-characters are formed in literature for children and in myth, legend and folk tale. A part of that involved looking at miniature characters, giants (the ultimate hyperbolic child), and what such constructions—from Tom Thumb to Tommelise to Nils Holgersson to Issun-Boshi—reveal of the societies in which they come to life. So, the short answer to your question is “no” I don’t think it has influenced me (consciously at least!) A psychoanalytic critic might well have a field day analysing my books, but that critic is no longer me.

Did you read science fiction prior to writing your series? If so, what are your favourite books? And if not, what drew you to this genre?

I enjoy an eclectic mix of books, with my science fiction reading coming from books such as Anne McCaffrey’s early dragon books, concerning colonists from Earth who settle on the fictional planet of Pern, and the Crystal series. My late uncle, who had a PhD in nuclear physics from Cambridge and was at one time President of the British Interplanetary Society, loved her more space-oriented books, in particular the ‘Brain and Brawn Ship’ series, and introduced me to some of them.

Do you listen to music for inspiration? Did any songs (or poems or other books or movies/tv) inspire or shape your concepts or characters in your series?

Words from poems and plays do float through my head while I’m writing. Certain lines suggest themselves as analogous with certain characters and actions. For example, my WIP currently involves my character feeling the compulsion to share her story, no matter who it is with—in this case her sleeping baby daughter. It made me think, inescapably, of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

I enjoy listening to music, but my choices are more about mood than any influence on my writing. Although, thinking of it, perhaps love songs for some of my scenes.

Who are your greatest support people for your writing?

My husband Peter, who loves to read my work and is quick to point out plot holes and bits that don’t work, is my main person. My neighbour, Yvonne, is also very supportive and encouraging as a rough draft reader. Latterly my granddaughter (who has an MA in publishing) did some excellent editing work (pointing out problem areas rather than a line-by-line edit) but refused, point-blank, to look at any ‘sex’ scenes written by me.   

And is there a four-legged furry friend (or two) who helps out?

Sadly, my furry friends did not survive to see the publication of my books. I’m sure they would have enjoyed sitting on them. Jasper and Rosie (ginger tom and sister tabby) were our much-loved feline friends and dear Lucy, a rescue cross between a Jack Russell terrier and a German shepherd (I know, the mind boggles) was our canine companion. They were a great age when they finally succumbed (18, 17 and 16 respectively) and we haven’t had the heart to replace them.

What’s next?

I have just completed a sequel to the ‘Anstey’ books, which concerns Kat’s and Thomas’s three children. This is currently away for editing, cover design etc. and should be out in September. Work is also in progress with a prequel, which is currently giving me problems—the form of the solo narrator’s voice and single POV are not my usual mode of working…we shall see.  

This last question is very personal. As one cancer survivor to another, there is a theme of anger, of violation and PTSD among your characters. Do you think this is a reflection of what we go through in diagnosis and treatment, expressed in your books? If so, was this conscious – a form of therapy?

Yes, the writing was definitely cathartic: there is also a lot of me written out in Thomas, plus the books gave me a way of regaining a feeling of purpose in my life. A couple of things about the cancer affected me badly: the first was developing a sense of guilt that I was still alive when so many weren’t. I became very numb, depressed and uncertain why I should be living. What was the point of my survival? How many better and more purposeful lives could have been saved in my place? Also affecting me was a certain anger at the complete loss of agency in my life. I had difficulty in coming to terms with damage to the nerves in my spine (a mix of the effects of radiotherapy and the activity of the original tumours themselves.) It took a while to get used to not being able to walk about, to being stuck in the house, totally dependent on help to go out. Starting writing was a little like a dam bursting. A point to my life and something I didn’t need to be able to walk to do.

I appreciate being given the opportunity to talk about it.

Thank you, Susan. Your answers will make your second and third books (still on my TBR list) all the more intriguing!

An image posted by the author.

You can find more information about Susan on her website, or connect with her on Twitter.

Featured Image: Eighteenth century view of Barnstaple, Museum Of Barnstaple And NorthDevon. Public Domain.

Fantasy and Me: Back to the Beginnings

“Weland gave the Sword, The Sword gave the Treasure, and the Treasure gave the Law. It’s as natural as an oak growing.”

Puck of Pook’s Hill, by Rudyard Kipling.

H. R. Millar’s frontispiece to the original edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. Public Domain

I’m going to try to give some coherence and structure to these posts on my favourite fantasy books, so let’s go back to my childhood to start it all. Here, in Puck of Pook’s Hill, is the very beginnings of my on-going love for fantasy.

For those of you not familiar, Puck of Pook’s Hill is a 1906 children’s book by Rudyard Kipling. Yes, I know Kipling is politically incorrect. I didn’t know that when I was eight, and my memory of a child’s delight with this book remains.  

Puck, an elf (perhaps), (the same Puck as in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I’ll also be writing about, at some point) and “the oldest Old thing in England”, appears to two children, Dan and Una, from Midsummer’s Eve to early November. Either he, or characters from history he brings with him, tell the children a series of stories, which illustrate a version of a history of England from before the Conquest to the signing of the Magna Carta.

The stories begin with Puck appearing to the children and explaining who and what he is (which is not a fairy):

‘Can you wonder that the People of the Hills don’t care to be confused with that painty-winged, wand-waving, sugar-and-shake-your-head set of impostors? Butterfly wings, indeed! I’ve seen Sir Huon and a troop of his people setting off from Tintagel Castle for Hy-Brasil in the teeth of a sou’-westerly gale, with the spray flying all over the Castle, and the Horses of the Hills wild with fright. Out they’d go in a lull, screaming like gulls, and back they’d be driven five good miles inland before they could come head to wind again. Butterfly-wings! It was Magic—Magic as black as Merlin could make it, and the whole sea was green fire and white foam with singing mermaids in it. And the Horses of the Hills picked their way from one wave to another by the lightning flashes! That was how it was in the old days!’

So many of the elements of the Eurocentric fantasy I grew up were introduced to me first in this book of interrelated short stories and poems: Weyland Smith, the Wild Hunt, the ‘Little People’, and the mythologized Roman Empire (which became the idea behind my own books.)  The power of trees: Oak, Ash, and Thorn; the magic of hollow hills and circles, and, too, the interconnectedness, the interweaving, of magic and history.

Kipling’s stories would influence a generation (or more) of writers; I believe they can be seen strongly in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series (more on those another time), but also on another writer, if only in one small way. Because when Puck is described, one thing that is mentioned – along with his small stature – is his ‘bare, hairy feet.’ Just like Bilbo’s.

Featured Image: H. R. Millar’s 2nd illustration to the original edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, from the chapter Weyland’s Sword, entitled, “Then he made a sword”.

My Favourite Fantasy Books: Hollo, by Devon Michael

I should be editing. Or researching. But I’m not (this is called procrastination). I was thinking about the entire genre called fantasy, for reasons – well, maybe I’ll say at the end. Thinking of all the books I’ve loved over the years, some well known, some not. So over a series of blog posts, I’m going to talk about some of those books and authors, indie and traditionally published. In no order, except that in which they appear in my head.

Hollo, by indie author Devon Michael, was the first one to come to mind. I read it several years ago, in 2016, but it’s stuck in my head, both for the premise and the quality of the writing.

“There was a pool of darkness in the midst of the light, where the wind had come in accompanied by a shadow, a shadow with shoulders and a head that stretched into the lighted space on the floor at the bottom of the stairs.”

Hollo The Gatecaster's Apprentice full

Here’s what I said in my review:

Reminiscent of Neil Gaiman, of the darkest episodes of Doctor Who, of some of the madness of Tim Burton, Devon Michael’s Hollo: The Gatecaster’s Apprentice is an artfully told, dark, and frightening coming-of-age tale with a twist. Hollo, the title character and protagonist, is a puppet made of wood, but one that can think and feel and move autonomously, created by her ‘father’ Fredric. (This might remind you of Pinocchio, but it shouldn’t.)

When Hollo reaches her twelfth birthday, Fredric takes her out into the world, a place far more complex and menacing than her sheltered world of Fredric’s house and the metal-casters workshop next door. Here she first hears the name Bander-Clou, and the words ‘Zygotic Pneuma’. Just what is she? And who is her father, really?

Clock-work soldiers of metal and wood pursue her. Hollo befriends a human girl; statues come to life; elemental forces protect her. Hollo’s world is under siege, and she is caught in a larger story, one older than she but one to which she belongs, and one in which she has an integral part to play. Michaels writes fluidly and effectively, his words invoking horror, happiness, fear and joy, the pacing moving the plot along quickly, but not so quickly the world-building is overlooked. This is a well-realized and developed world, one that the author leads the reader into by hints and clues: the reader learns the world along with Hollo.

Characters are well-developed, especially Hollo, whose innocence at the beginning is lightly but effectively shown, but also the supporting cast, from the malapropistic statue ‘The Countess’ to the marvellously conceived Lightening Man. And they all have a role to play; none of these characters, some of whom would not be out of place in Alice Through the Looking-Glass, are superfluous to the story.’

There was both an intimacy and a universality to this tale: no huge world-changing events, except for Hollo herself. Maybe that’s why I remember it, because it was so personal, and yet more.

I understand there’s a second edition of Hollo available soon. I’d recommend it.

P.S: As to why I was thinking about fantasy? I had my participation in two local events turned down, one because my books are fantasy, and one because they’re not. (Same books.) So it got me thinking about all the books I’ve read over the years that are classified as fantasy, and what that term does and doesn’t mean to various people. The upshot is I get to revisit my favourites, so that’s a bonus.

IImage by Comfreak from Pixabay 

Mood Music

Songs and music have always been part of my stories, but it wasn’t until the musician Sorley moved from minor character to supporting in Empire’s Exile that I started to create playlists for part or all of my books. In Exile, it was only one song: there exists, in my fictional world, a song about two brothers separated forever by war. Sorley sings this one night, ‘for all we have loved, and all we have lost.’ Before and during writing this scene, I listened to Danny Boy, over and over again, trying to capture the sense of loss and love embodied in both its tune and its words.

Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side….

Then Sorley moved from supporting character to main character, and the story he had to tell was one of love and betrayal, both in the immediate and looking back on it, and I needed songs to tell me of his pain and longing. The playlist started with Runrig’s This Beautiful Pain:

All that’s constant
And wise I still see in your eyes.
It was always this way from
The start. Right here where I
Stand on the last of the land.
But you’re still breaking the
Heart….

and Stan Rogers’ Turnaround:

…yours was the open road,
The bitter song, the heavy load
That I couldn’t share
Though the offer was there
Every time you turned around. 

Eventually it included Blue Rodeo, Gordon Lightfoot, more Runrig, Cat Stevens and CSNY. And one more, by the end: the song Sorley writes himself (or, rather, I did, of course – capturing the mood of Archie Fisher’s Dark Eyed Molly), his beautiful Paths Untrodden.

Then I started writing Empire’s Heir, which is the first of my books to have two narrators: the aging Cillian and his adult daughter Gwenna. There were two separate moods I needed to capture, along with a sense of a world changing, the torch being passed. I had Gwenna’s quickly: another Runrig song, Always the Winner

When you close your eyes there’s
A frightened pride that lives
For you. That your mother’s life
And your father’s eyes can’t
Hide. You had no choice, didn’t
Ask the dice to fall for you.
Still your courage comes like
Thunder through the skies. 

Cillian’s song took much longer – until a comment on Twitter discussing Leonard Cohen’s best songs took me to Alexandra Leaving – and it was perfect.

Suddenly the night has grown colder
The god of love preparing to depart
Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder
They slip between the sentries of the heart…

Now, as I contemplate the two planned books – Empress & Soldier, the stories of Druisius and Eudekia before Lena and Cillian and Sorley enter their lives, and the last book of the series, Empire’s Passing, which will be narrated by Colm and Lena – I’ll have to go looking for appropriate songs again. They’ll be out there, somewhere.

Danny Boy lyrics:  Frederic Weatherly, 1913; copyright expired.

This Beautiful Pain: Songwriters: Calum Macdonald, Rory Macdonald lyrics © BMG Rights Management

Turnaround: © Stan Rogers, Fogarty’s Cove & Cole Harbour Music

Always The Winner Songwriters: Calum Macdonald, Rory Macdonald lyrics © BMG Rights Management

Alexandra Leaving: © Leonard Cohen, Sharon Robinson and Sony/ATV Music Publishing Canada Company. 

Goodbye to the Sun, by Jonathan Nevair: A Review

An aging, alcoholic diplomat with memories he cannot face, filled with cynicism and guilt in equal measures, is taken hostage by freedom fighters seeking to use him as a pawn in negotiations. But the worlds of the known and inhabited galaxy have been the sites of many battles for power and dominance, and no one can be trusted. Nor, perhaps, can trust be given to memory, love, or family.

Keen is the diplomat, seeking in his chosen second career to forget the people he loved and could not – or did not – save, and the approval of his father, who makes no secret of his disdain for his son. Razor is the freedom fighter, raised in the harsh deserts that are all that left of her once-verdant planet, before the winds were captured for energy, and the ecosystems destroyed by the ruling Targitians. Together they are played by the ruling powers, buffeted by factions as politically strong, and as deadly, as the Wind Tides of Kol 2, Razor’s home planet.

Goodbye to the Sun is packed with action and political intrigue, but it is also a deeply philosophical novel. Echoing themes (and perhaps structure) from Antigone but addressing issues of privilege, gender identity and climate change within the greater questions of the tension between love of family and love of an ideal, it contains some of the most elegant and provocative writing I’ve come across in some time. It made me think, but at the same time was a fast-paced, intelligent space opera with characters I card about: a hard balance to create and maintain, but debut author Jonathan Nevair has done it.

Goodbye to the Sun is the first of a planned trilogy. I look forward to the next book immensely.  

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Visit Jonathan Nevair’s website for more information.