Drugged and cast out on the Yorkshire Moors by the villainous Abbot Arnulf, Sir Richard de Motley finds himself battling a throng of fluffy demons.

Drugged and cast out on the Yorkshire Moors by the villainous Abbot Arnulf, Sir Richard de Motley finds himself battling a throng of fluffy demons.

Continuing my new hobby of making scenes from my stories out of Lego, this week’s production is from the story ‘Leprosaria’ in my fantasy short story collection By Sword, Stave or Stylus, which is free on Amazon today – why not go download a copy and find out how Sir Richard got into this mess.

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High ResolutionDetective Shadowvalt curled his tail up beneath him and pulled the hood of his jacket forward, covering his horns. He didn’t like to leave his trenchcoat behind, but at least he could still smoke while undercover. Lighting a cigarette, he enjoyed the smooth, sulphurous taste. He was sure the cigarettes tasted better in Hell.

Shoulders hunched, he stayed with the dozen lost souls walking through the barbed gates of the warehouse, past the watch demons guarding the place. Even before they crossed the yard, he could tell by the smell that this was it, the centre of the supposed people smuggling ring. There was an acrid tinge in the air, the smell of fallen spirits being consumed for others’ purposes.

Still following the damned, he walked through the double doors of the warehouse proper. At the far end a yellow demon with six tentacles stood by a stone gate. The air in the portal glowed blue with arcane power as a soul stepped in and vanished.

Seeing what was really happening made this all the more sickening. There were scores of mortals here, and they probably all thought they’d bought a way to freedom.

That was it. Probable cause to raid the place. He needed to fetch backup.

Shadowvalt turned and bumped into one of the watch demons.

“Not this way.” The demon blinked six of its eyes. Others emerged on writhing stalks, peering under Shadowvalt’s hood. “Hey, you’re not a mortal. You’re a-”

Shadowvalt flicked his cigarette into the demon’s face. It yelped and jumped back as he flung back his hood and pulled out his badge. “Police. Nobody move.”

The watch demon grabbed at Shadowvalt. He punched it in its sensitive, eye-covered head, sending it slumping to the ground in shock and pain.

“You want out of here?” the yellow demon bellowed, gesturing toward the portal. “Kill him!”

The lost souls, still bearing the marks of their deaths as well as their eternal torments, looked at each other in confusion. They’d probably never been told to attack a demon before. But they were desperate, and Shadowvalt new all too well what desperation could achieve.

They advanced toward him, fists clenched, eyes wide.

“Stop!” he bellowed. “You’ve been tricked. That’s not a portal out of Hell. It’s a construct to turn souls into power. They’re going to kill you.”

“Why should we believe you?” The soul who spoke had burns across half her face.

“Because this is a battery factory.” Shadowvalt pointed to the wires leading away from the portal, ending in a charger against the far wall. “What do you think we use down here, Duracell?”

They looked back toward the yellow demon. Clearly a specialist in technical arcana rather than convincing lies, it hesitated too long. Some of the souls sank to the floor in despair, while others rushed at the demon in rage.

They’d never win the fight, but it was enough. With everybody distracted, Shadowvalt stepped outside and over to the gates. He waved down the road, toward the abandoned building where his backup was waiting. Uniformed constables poured down the street toward him, horn tips gleaming, as the burned woman came up beside him.

“It’s not fair.” She spat the words. “All we wanted was to escape torment.”

“If you’d acted fairly you wouldn’t be here.” Shadowvalt lit a cigarette. After a moment’s hesitation he offered her one. “Just be glad I didn’t leave you to walk through the portal. I’d say justice has been served.”

* * *

You can read two more of demon detective Shadowvalt’s cases in my fantasy anthology By Sword, Stave or Stylus, which is free as an ebook on Amazon until Tuesday. You can also read another flash story about him here.

If you enjoyed this story then please share it – the more people read it the better. And feel to share your opinions below, as well as any ideas for future flash Friday stories.

I love it when I get a chance to learn writing tricks from other media. Something like dance, music or painting can often provide different approaches to art that take me in new and fascinating directions as a writer.

My most recent discovery is Every Frame a Painting, a YouTube series by Tony Zhou. This series on the art of film is fantastic in its own right, helping me understand the importance of editing in a way I never did before, as well as countless other visual elements. It’s also reminded me of a couple of great lessons on story structure, and refined how I view them:

  • Points in a plot should be connected by implied ‘therefore’ or ‘but’, not just ‘and then’. This creates cause and effect, not just events that could happen in any order.
  • It’s often worth having two stories going in parallel, and switching out of each as it reaches its peak of interest, rather than leaving it for an emotional slump.

Rather than writing any more here, I’ll recommend that you go check out Every Frame A Painting, starting with this five minute piece on Orson Welles’s F for Fake, from which I drew the lessons above.

bookdesign348My latest steampunk release, Guns and Guano, has taken me into some tricky territory. Though it is in many ways a rollicking adventure story, it also deals with serious issues around slavery, colonialism and race relations in the 19th century. I firmly believe that a story can both be fun and carry a serious message, but in this instance that created serious challenges for me.

I’m a white, male, heterosexual, middle-class English bloke. I am not part of a group that has ever suffered from systemic oppression, as happened to many Africans and their descendants as a result of colonialism, the slave trade and the racism that endures in some quarters to this very day. I do not know what it feels like to be in that position. I am unlikely to ever know, and no amount of research is going to give me a full understanding.

This means that I can never fully understand or completely represent that experience. If I can’t do that, should I then avoid representing and addressing it?

I think not. To do so would be to retreat into the safe and the familiar, to keep representing, and so perpetuating, the privilege of people closer to my background. It would be to avoid facing the uncomfortable elements of history that put us where we now are. And from a purely aesthetic perspective, it could get pretty bloody dull.

So how do we, as writers, square this circle? How do we represent something if we can never get it quite right?

For me, the answer is by being heartfelt and humble. I’ve tried to use this book to give some voice to the suffering of that oppression. Despite my best intentions, my initial drafts got a lot wrong, and thanks to the feedback of my beta readers the results are much better than they would have been. I know they’re still not perfect, that I’ve made mistakes and will continue to do so, but I’ve done my best, with the best of intentions, and I hope that people enjoy the results.

* * *

Guns and Guano, the first in a five volume story of action, adventure and the dark side of the Victorian age, is available now on Amazon and other ebook retailers, and is free from most sites. The second volume, Suits and Sewers, is coming in the next few weeks.

bookdesign345Each week, I’m doing the exercise from Writing Excuses’s excellent podcast writing course and sharing the results here. This week’s exercise was working on beginnings:

Start writing your story! Write 500 words, focusing on just one of the promises you’ve identified for your story. Then stop, and start writing another 500 words with a different promise. Aaaand then do it a third time.

For these exercises, I’m working on Sieges and Silverware, the fourth part of a steampunk series I’m working on. You can read the first volume as an ebook now, and read the exercise preceding this one here. Suffice to say, I’ve identified some cool things I want to include in my story, and this exercise is about setting up the promise that those things will happen. So, here are three beginnings, any of which I might eventually refine and use:

Promise 1: Blaze-Simms invents a bizarre steampunk defensive device.

Dirk Dynamo wouldn’t have minded so much if the hot air balloon were plummeting toward the ground. Sure, they were losing altitude fast, and there was no way this would be a pleasant landing. But at least if they were heading toward the ground he could see what was coming, get ready to roll clear or dive into something soft just before they crashed.

What bothered him was the trees. A vast swathe of dark German forest, broken by the occasional rocky outcrop. Sure, the leaves might soften the initial impact. But then the balloon would get impaled on branches, accelerating its descent. They’d be falling through twilight shadows and layers of concealing greenery onto no-one new what upward protruding spikes of wood or rock. Risking life and limb was fine, Dirk lived with that all the time. But he liked to know what he was getting into.

And if possible, he wanted to live through it.

“Any progress?” He glanced away from the approaching treetops and toward Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms, who was frantically disassembling and reassembling a mass of gears and gadgets in the corner of the basket. The Englishman looked a little too excited for a man facing imminent death, but then he always looked happy with a spanner in his hand.

“Almost there.” Blaze-Simms twisted a bolt and something glowed in the contraption in his hand.

There was a tearing sound and the balloon jolted as its ripped seam gave another few inches. Hot air hissed out onto the icy wind, and the treetops raced towards them.

“Almost ain’t gonna cut it.” Dirk grabbed a rope and braced for impact.

Leaping to his feet, Blaze-Simms slapped his device onto the side of the burner. He flicked a switch on its side. There was a whir, a rush of air that almost snatched Dirk’s coat off his back, and suddenly they were rising again.

“Great work, Tim.” Dirk struggled to be heard over the rush of air, but he was sure the grin on his face would convey the message.

Something was spinning on the top of Blaze-Simms’s device, while gears and levers rattled away around the glowing core.

“That will give us six more hours,” Blaze-Simms shouted over the artificial wind rushing past them and up into the balloon.

“Should be enough to get there,” Dirk shouted back.

There was another ripping sound and they stopped rising, though at least they weren’t heading back down into the trees.

Blaze-Simms looked up at the balloon, back down at his device, and then back up at the balloon again.

“Call it three hours,” he said. “Can we manage that?”

“Guess we’re gonna have to.”

Promise 2: A civilised dinner party in a building being bombarded by heavy artillery.

Dirk Dynamo had expected that they might face trouble. He and Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms were heading toward the castle of someone they didn’t know, and who was helping their opponents. That wasn’t the sort of circumstances where you got a warm welcome.

What he hadn’t expected was that the castle itself would be in trouble.

“I say, what a spectacular view!” Blaze-Simms looked up from his notebook to take in the ground beneath their balloon.

The forest below was a sea of green, broken by occasional jagged promontories. The tiled roofs of small German villages added variety to the scene, but their rustic charm was nothing compared with the view up ahead. Rising like a finger pointed toward heaven, the Red Castle rose in grandeur from the hilltop in front of them.

“I’d expected it to be more, well, red.” Dirk turned the propeller Blaze-Simms had attached to the balloon basket, steering their course more directly toward the hilltop fortress. It was a place that had clearly been laid down a layer at a time over the centuries. At its base were walls and towers of grim grey stone, flat and functional, a defensive measure that could once have withstood any kind of assault. Above and behind them, within the protective circle of walls and steep hillsides, were additions of brick and timber frame, mixed in with a more refined kind of stonework in which elaborate arches played a prominent part. And above them all rose a tower more magnificent and ambitious than anything that had come before, many times as tall as the old walls were wide, a fairy tale castle of pale stone reaching to a tiled peak.

“I’m sure there’s a history to the name.” Balze-Simms tapped a pencil against his notebook. “Something involving heraldry, or perhaps blood.”

“Speaking of blood.” Dirk pointed to the open ground in front of the castle. “What do you reckon that’s all about?”

As they grew closer, what had started as a meaningless muddle of human activity was turning into what could only be an army camp. Wagons emerging from the treeline showed that it was still growing, while men in blue uniforms set up tents and organised supplies. Artillery pieces were being arranged facing the castle walls, their aggressive intent clear. It took Dirk back to his own days fighting in a different blue. The memories weren’t all happy.

Blaze-Simms pulled what looked like a snuff box from his pocket, unfolded and extended it until he held a telescope. He peered through the lens toward the castle.

“I say, look at that.” He passed the telescope to Dirk. “She’s definitely here.”

Dirk closed one eye and looked through the telescope toward the point on the battlements where Blaze-Simms was pointing. Three women stood watching the movement below, champagne flutes in their hands.

Promise 3: Dirk and Isabelle reconciling their differences well enough to work together again.

Night was falling as the hot air balloon reached the walls of the Red Castle. An elderly servant in a tailcoat supervised two teenagers in livery as they helped with the landing. Taking the ropes Dirk Dynamo threw to them, they secured the balloon by tying it to the crenelations. Even before they had finished, Dirk leapt from the basket down onto the stonework and looked around in the light of burning torches. Behind him, Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms scrambled out of the basket, accompanied by the clatter of gears and gadgets rattling in his pockets.

The elderly servant stepped forward and held out a gloved hand. He said something in German.

“You catch that?” Dirk asked.

“Sorry what?” Blaze-Simms looked up from peering at a gargoyle.

“Ah, you are British?” The butler’s expression didn’t change as he shifted into English, but Dirk thought there was slightly less of a formal edge to his voice.

“He is.” He pointed at Blaze-Simms. “I’m American.”

“Oh.” Was it possible for a man’s face to fall without moving a muscle? If it was, then the butler managed it. “May I have your card please?”

“Do I look like I’m carrying a card?” Dirk gestured toward the battered balloon, his filthy clothing, the bruises still fading from his face.

“I’m afraid I don’t know what passes for normal in America.” The butler managed to make the last word sound like a curse, and it made Dirk’s blood boil. With the least possible movement, the servant turned to face Blaze-Simms. “Sir, do you-“

“There’s no need for that.” Isabelle McNair stepped out of the shadows of the nearest tower. “I know these gentlemen.”

Dirk felt like someone had grabbed hold of his insides and stirred them around until nothing was in its place and everything was knotted with tension. He fought to take deep, long breaths, calming his hammering heart.

“Mrs McNair.” He couldn’t keep the edge from his voice. Everything about her reminded him of Paris, both the good and the bad. It was the bad that threatened to overwhelm him, and he pressed his anger down. “We’ve come a long way to talk with you.”

“And I look forward to talking with you,” she said. “Though I must confess, I barely know where to start.”

“Sorry would be nice.” Blaze-Simms looked absurd in indignation, his scowl so serious atop his incorrectly buttoned tailcoat. But at least he could express what Dirk couldn’t put into words. “After everything we went through, I think it’s the least we deserve.”

“If I were sorry, I would not have done it.” Isabelle took a step forward, her attention on Dirk. “But I hope that, with time, you might forgive me.”

“That don’t seem likely,” he said through gritted teeth.

“Of course not.” Isabelle smiled, though there was sadness in her eyes. She offered him her arm. “Shall we go inside?”

Dirk thrust his hands into his pockets and nodded toward the door.

“After you,” he said.

Reflecting on the Exercise

This was really fascinating. I enjoyed all three beginnings, and without the exercise would only have ever written one. It’s made me think about which promises are most important, and which help set the tone of the book best, as well as drawing readers into the characters.

If you’ve got any thoughts on which of these three is best, and why, then please let me know – I need to give this some serious thought.

And if you’ve done this exercise or something like it, please share you’re thoughts on it below – I’d be intrigued to hear how you got on.

Steampunk is a curious and often inconsistent thing, particularly when it’s the steampunk of Lavie Tidhar. I worked my way with interest through the oddity that was The Bookman. I read its sequel Camera Obscura with great excitement. And so at last I came to the final volume, The Great Game, eager to find out whether it would live up to its title.

First Class Characters

The Great Game is a story of spycraft and intrigue set in Tidhar’s Bookman world, a 19th century alternate history with lizard monarchs, alien devices and literary characters roaming the streets. That name – the Bookman – draws attention to the sort of characters we’re dealing with here – literary borrowings such as Mycroft Holmes and Victor Frankenstein, as well as archetypes such as The Bookman‘s Orphan and this volume’s retired secret agent Smith.

Despite their well worn familiarity, those characters are one of the absolute highlights of this book. In particular, the reluctantly re-activated Smith and current agent Lucy are vivid, well depicted characters who I found good company and excellent drivers for their strands of the story. They’re clever and determined, pressing on through the confusion and overwhelming odds of their circumstances. Though Camera Obscura‘s Milady remains my favourite protagonist from this series, these are good, and certainly better than Orphan, who as Dial H for Houston pointed out, suffered from passivity and dullness.

A Very Tidhar Plot

Smith and Lucy’s paths, and those of the other characters, take them through a journey that’s one part John le Carré tension, one part Bond-style action, and one part batshit crazy. That weird and wonderful world is a big part of the appeal of this series, and it plays off here in spectacular style. The spies are doubly spy-like, the crazy ten times what it was, creating a sense that both the characters and the story could be overwhelmed at any moment.

Therein lies both the beauty and the problem of this book. I know others have found this plot chaotic, though I thought it cleverly intertwined rather than rambling like the first book. But it definitely lacks coherence in places, most critically the ending. Without giving the great game away, I felt that the ending lacked the sort of closure a thousand page series left me wanting, while not giving me enough to instead ponder the possibilities of what would come next.

Good But Disappointing

Look at the book’s cover, the version I’ve used in this post. Isn’t it bold? Isn’t it dynamic? Doesn’t it fill you with a desire for retro, pulpy, genre-mashing action? That’s what I wanted, even expected at first, from these books, and it’s an expectation they didn’t deliver on. They’re fascinating but flawed, far stronger in their ideas than their narrative cohesion, the bit players often more intriguing than the protagonists.

I’m glad I read this series, and that I saw it through to the end. These are good books. I’d even go so far as to call Camera Obscura great. But they don’t deliver on what they seem to promise, and that, for me, was their downfall.

For me as a writer, it’s also a very important lesson. Make sure your book does what it promises to, or you’ll have some disappointed readers.

Some people – both fans and critics – still seem to want to stick fantasy in a special cultural corner. But lets face it, when one of the most popular works in the genre is getting regicide jokes onto Sesame Street, that genre isn’t the wimpy kid in the corner any more.

And as if to prove that Game of Thrones can be combined with just about anything, here are two very different parodies I stumbled across within minutes of each other. Enjoy!