• Skies of Fire – Everyone Loves Airships

    Do you like airships?

    What am I talking about? Everybody likes airships.

    But if you really like airships, or you like airships and you like comics, then you should check out Skies of Fire. It’s a dieselpunk adventure about a hunt for airship pirates in a world that looks like Europe circa 1920. There’s action, adventure, and wonderfully detailed images of cities, people, and flying machines. It’s one of those comics where I love getting lost in the world.

    I stumbled across Skies of Fire at the Thought Bubble festival in Leeds. There are only three issues out so far, but I’m hoping for far more. And in the meantime, just look at that lovely cityscape and those shiny, shiny airships.

    Because everyone loves airships.


  • Gathering Dust – a weird western story

    Laughing Wolf woke up in the same small bed in the same small room above the same small saloon where he’d been waking up for weeks. He had the same hangover too.

    In the corner of the room, his coup stick was gathering dust, a grey fuzz settling across its bright ribbons and dangling feathers. There was no point picking it up if he wasn’t going to channel the magic of the coup game. And there was no point fighting against the powers that held him here.

    Besides, life wasn’t that bad.

    He slid into his buckskin pants and loose shirt, then headed barefoot down the stairs. In the main bar, Ernie was laying out plates of eggs and toast for his regulars. Food kept coming in, even if folks couldn’t get out.

    As Laughing Wolf picked up his plate from the bar, four hulking white men came in off the street, the saloon’s doors swinging shut behind them. Two of them were carrying axe handles and one was wearing brass knuckles. They all wore six shooters.

    The Pawn Sacrifice Saloon, never the most exuberant establishment, fell deathly quiet.

    The leading thug walked up to Laughing Wolf.

    “Looking for a woman by the name of Lizzie Wayne,” the brute said. “You know her?”

    Laughing Wolf pointed up the stairs. No point fighting, as he always said these days.

    “Third door on the left,” he said.

    As the men tramped up the stairs, Laughing Wolf took his usual seat by the window and started eating his eggs. The sun fell across the same patch of table it did everything morning. The eggs tasted the same as every morning. So did the over brewed coffee Ernie brought to the table. It was all comforting in a way that his wandering life, following the herds of buffalo across the plains, had never been.

    The banging of a door came from overhead.

    Laughing Wolf tried to ignore it, focusing on his eggs.

    There was a rushing of feet, a shout of anger, and the sound of something smashing. A woman yelled in alarm.

    Everyone looked down at their eggs. Laughing Wolf found that his had lost all their flavour.

    A gunshot was followed by a bellowed curse and the woman shouting again.

    Laughing Wolf’s table by the window didn’t feel so comfortable any more.

    As the crashing and yelling continued, he pushed away his plate, got out of his chair, and walked up the stairs. He walked past the open door with the splintered frame, down the hallway to his room.

    It had felt good to let his coup stick gather dust, not to accept responsibility for himself or his world. He would miss that dust.
    He picked up the coup stick. It was as long as his arm, with a hooked end. He left his six shooter and his hatchet by the bed. Those were the rules of the game. You couldn’t count coup if you also fought to kill.

    Barefoot, he padded down the corridor. The woman was cursing someone out at the top of her lungs.

    “Where’s the money, bitch?” someone yelled.

    There was a slap.

    Laughing Wolf rounded the doorway and looked in. Two men were holding Lizzie Wayne against the wall by her arms. Curly black hair tumbled across her night dress. Blood ran from her lips. Another man stood facing her, while the fourth smashed up furniture and peered at the pieces.

    “I won that money fair and square,” Lizzie Wayne said.

    “That’s not how Mister East sees it.” The thug pulled back his hand.

    The smasher of cupboards caught sight of Laughing Wolf.

    “What?” the man snarled, drawing his pistol.

    Laughing Wolf darted toward him. The gun rose. He twirled his stick. The shot went wild, the gun’s roar leaving a ringing in his ears. Then he reached out and tapped the man in the chest with the coup stick.

    Immediately, the man froze. Glassy eyed, he gazed at Laughing Wolf.

    “Protect me,” Laughing Wolf said.

    The man turned sluggishly to face into the room.

    Two of the others had drawn their guns now. Laughing Wolf flung himself to the floor behind the bed. Bullets ploughed into the wall above him and splinters of wood sliced his forearm.

    The man he had touched with the coup stick fired at his companions and they fired back. Seconds later, Laughing Wolf’s protector lay dead on the floor, along with one of his former comrades.

    Laughing Wolf rolled under the bed and stretched out with his coup stick.

    “To hell with you, red man,” the lead thug said as he trapped the stick beneath his heavy riding boot. He bent over and peered under the bed, pointing his gun in Laughing Wolf’s face.

    There was a yell and a thud. The man turned around just in time for Lizzie’s knee to collide with his face. He flew back in a spray of blood and teeth, his head hit the wall, and he slumped motionless onto the floor.

    Laughing Wolf rolled out from under the bed. The man who had been holding Lizzie lay sprawled by the door, head lolling to one side, his face turning from red into the purple of a massive bruise.

    “Thank you,” Lizzie said. “That was mighty kind.”

    Laughing Wolf shrugged.

    “I’m going back down for breakfast,” he said “You want to see if we can get sausages?”

    “I thought it was always eggs,” Lizzie said, picking a dress up off the floor.

    “I think it’s time to make a change,” Laughing Wolf replied.

    * * *

     

    This is the third in a series of flash stories I’m stringing together into something larger. Here are the previous episodes:

    If you’d like to have the rest of this series delivered straight to your inbox every Friday, please sign up to my mailing list. You’ll also get a free e-book.

    Next time, there are choices to be made, with the fate of the town at stake…


  • Triumff – Her Majesty’s Hero by Dan Abnett

    I like silly adventure stories.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love books of depth and passion, like the work of Guy Gabriel Kay. I like books of intelligence and extraordinary ideas, like those of China Miéville. But sometimes I just want a fun romp.

    And as fun romps go, Triumff – Her Majesty’s Hero by Dan Abnett is nicely bonkers.

    Explaining Triumff

    It’s 2010. The Unity, an imperial combination of England and Spain, rules a large chunk of the world. Thanks to the influence of magic, much about society is the same is it was in the 16th century. The whole nation is still ruled by a Queen Elizabeth – Elizabeth XXX in this case.

    Swashbuckling adventurer Sir Rupert Triumff has just returned from a voyage to Australia. Ethical concerns are holding him back from sharing details of his discovery with the world. But as he mulls over the problem, a conspiracy is at work. Soon Triumff will be caught in its tangled web.

    Plot Over Character

    As the Book Smugglers pointed out in their review, this is a book where plot trumps character. There are a lot of fun characters here, but none are explored in great depth. Triumff himself is a classic swashbuckling rogue. His opponents are megalomaniacal ciphers. The people he works with all stand out from each other but develop little depth.

    On the other hand, it’s a lot of fun. The setting is a bonkers mash-up of details from different periods and pop culture jokes. Things keep moving at a good pace, with just enough breathing room for the reader to take it in. This… well, it’s fun.

    If you’re looking for a light, exciting adventure to relax with then this is a good choice. It’s a setting that’s distinct from anything else I’ve encountered, and for all their shallowness the characters are fun. There’s some weird stuff going on with the narrative voice, which for me added to the playfulness of it all.

    If you want a fun read, you could do far worse.


  • Clinging to the Canon

    Wrong sort of canon. Although maybe this is healthier.

    The more our lives spin out of control, the tighter we cling to the fixed points we have. It’s a way of feeling secure and safe. In a world of Brexit, Donald Trump, and celebrities dropping like flies, we crave that security more than ever.

    Let’s face it, the world was getting chaotic even before last year. The complexity of human society and the pace of change have been accelerating at an exponential rate. This leads to wonderful things we didn’t have when I was young, like smartphones, chap-hop music, and specialist coffee shops. But it’s also bewildering.

    I wonder if this is one of the reasons people remain obsessed with protecting the importance of their particular cultural canon. This can be the definition of what’s in continuity for a sprawling franchise like Star Wars or the Marvel Universe. It can equally be literary critics upholding the cultural worth of particular books, claiming a timeless genius and relevance for things that are unapproachable for most people, sneering at whole swathes of culture.

    It’s about clinging to the idea that what you had is important and relevant. It can lead to upset when Disney re-boots your continuity or the government takes your favourite classic off school reading lists. As if either of those things make the stories any better or worse.

    I gave up on caring about canon when Marvel retconned away much of Grant Morrison’s amazing work on the X-Men.  I still think those are some of the best superhero comics ever. Whether their content and its meaning at the time is canon doesn’t matter. They’re awesome. I’d far rather read them than the latest crossover event or Far From the Madding Crowd, and I think they’re powerful stories despite fitting neither canon.

    The world moves on. So do stories, their relevance, and their meaning. They mean different things to different people at different times, and that’s OK. If you find yourself getting concerned about what’s in the canon, maybe stop and ask why it matters to you, or whether it matters at all.

    Unless it’s the other sort of canon and it’s pointing at you. Then maybe run.


  • Sometimes You’re A Player – a weird western story

    As Lizzie approached the town, a feeling of familiarity settled over her. It wasn’t the comforting feeling of seeing something well loved and long missed. It was the terrible familiarity of seeing something where it shouldn’t be.

    This town wasn’t similar to the one she had just left behind. It was the same town.

    Looking over her shoulder, she could see it behind her. A fistful of wooden buildings scattered along the dirt road, hills rising up to either side. The saloon called the Pawn Sacrifice stood out from the rest, with its balconies and its tall frontage.

    She looked ahead and there it was again – the Pawn Sacrifice, jutting out of the same string of buildings.

    With a snap of the reins, she urged Hunter to hurry through the town. They emerged on the far side, rounded a heap of rocks, and there the town was again. With growing speed and mounting frustration, she raced through the same streets a dozen times. Every time, she found herself back where she had started.

    At last, she pulled up out front of the Pawn Sacrifice. An exhausted Hunter guzzled eagerly from the water trough.

    “What the hell?” Lizzie yelled into the darkening sky.

    “I said good luck.” Laughing Wolf, the native she had played poker with, stood on the porch of the saloon. “Guess it didn’t work out.”

    “What the hell’s going on here?” Lizzie demanded, striding up to him.

    “It’s the railroad company,” Laughing Wolf said. “They set this up to stop anyone leaving. Drifters, hunters, traders, even wild animals that wander by, we’re all trapped here.”

    “Why?” Lizzie asked.

    Laughing Wolf shrugged.

    “It is what it is,” he replied. “Not my sort of magic. I just relax and enjoy what this place has.”

    “Not your sort of magic?” Lizzie asked. “Wait, did you know that I was using powers during our game?”

    “Didn’t bother me. You weren’t using them to win.”

    “That bastard Figgis,” Lizzie snarled. “I knew there was something strange going on. I’ll hunt him down and make him let me leave.”

    “No point. He’s just a pawn for his boss.”

    Lizzie pressed her fingers against her tired eyes.

    “Fine,” she said. “I’ll stay the night, get moving in the morning, or whenever this wears off.”

    “I wouldn’t mount your horse yet,” Laughing Wolf said. “It’s been like this for months.”

    “Months? I can’t stay in one place for months.”

    Lizzie tried to contain her growing sense of panic. She pictured the men she had fled from back east, men who nearly caught her a month before. Men with muscles and guns and debts they felt they were owed.

    “It’s not up to you,” Laughing Wolf said. “Sometimes you’re a player, sometimes you’re a piece. Just relax, drink whiskey, play cards, wait for this to pass.”

    “No. I need to get out of here. Who’s the top company man?”

    “His name’s Mr King.”

    A deeper discomfort settled across Lizzie.

    “Not Alfonse King?” she asked, without much hope.

    *

    Alfonse hadn’t changed since the day Lizzie gave him back his ring. His moustache was neatly waxed, every hair on his head perfectly in place, his suit fitting him like a second skin.

    “What an unexpected pleasure,” he said as his assistant showed Lizzie into his office.

    The door clicked shut behind her and the two of them were alone.

    “It’s certainly unexpected,” she said, surveying the room. A set of shelves held books on engineering, history, and games. Wine and spirits were lined up neatly next to glasses on a side table. The window behind the big wooden desk showed a view across low hills to where the railroad was being laid down.

    “Why did you do it?” Lizzie asked.

    “Do what?” Alfonse replied.

    “This trap.” Lizzie walked over to a low table by the shelves. A game of chess was in progress across a board she had seen many times. It radiated power, just as the cards did when she was in the middle of a game.

    “You always were smart,” Alfonse said. “I might as well tell, it’s not like you can get a message out.

    “I want my railway to be the only way into and out of this place. No-one will be able to walk, ride, or run away. I’ll control the flow of traffic into one of the most valuable regions of the west. Imagine how much that’s worth.”

    “You don’t need me to make your profit,” Lizzie said. “Can’t you let me go, for old times’ sake?”

    Alfonse laughed bitterly.

    “I should slap you for old times’ sake,” he said. “The humiliation you brought on me, my fiance running off like that.”

    “Then how about a game?” Lizzie asked, pulling out a deck of cards. “If I win, you let me move on. If you win, I marry you. You can put all that shame behind you, tell people that you brought me back into line, or whatever you need to feel powerful.”

    The thought of marrying him sickened her, but so did the dread at her pursuers catching up. It was a desperate gamble, but it was worth taking.

    Alfonse looked at the cards and then at Lizzie.

    “I don’t think so,” he said. “I know who’s after you. I know what they’ll do. And I’ll take more satisfaction in that than I ever could from keeping you in my life.

    “Goodnight, Lizzie. Enjoy your stay.”

    *

    Laughing Wolf looked up from his table as Lizzie slouched into the bar.

    “I told you,” he said. “We’re not the players. Sit back and try to enjoy the game.”

    Lizzie sighed and sat down beside him. There was a pack of cards on the table and a row of whiskey bottles behind the bar. There were worse ways to spend her final days.

    “Fine,” she said, accepting her fate. “Deal me in.”

    * * *

     

    This is the second in a series of flash stories I’m stringing together into something larger. If you want to find out more about how Lizzie got to this point, you can read the first part, The One Night Town. And if you’d like to have the rest of this series delivered straight to your inbox every Friday, please sign up to my mailing list. You’ll also get a free e-book.

    Next time, events take a turn for the worse as the past catches up with Lizzie…


  • False Relationships in Fiction

    Tension in fiction comes from knowing that something is wrong and waiting to see what will happen. That’s as true of a relationship between characters as it is of Alfred Hitchcock’s bomb under the table. As in Hitchcock’s example, whether this creates tension or a surprise depends upon your point of view.

    There’s a scene in Peter Higgins’s book Wolfhound Century that includes two characters – Lom and Maroussia. Lom is a policeman. Maroussia, a dissident, doesn’t know this. The readers do, and we know that she won’t respond well. Throughout the scene, we’re waiting for the information to drop. We’re waiting to see how she reacts. There’s tension here.

    Imagine that scene if we didn’t know the truth about Lom. There’s no tension from the relationship now, but there is a surprise coming. A twist has been set up.

    False relationships create tension and twists out of the characters we care about. That makes them a particularly powerful source of tension. Think about the film The Truman Show or the TV series Chuck. Most of the drama and the humour in those stories comes from that tension. We know that the relationships between characters are not what they appear. We’re waiting for that to resolve.

    How you show this to your readers depends on how you write. But whatever your approach, it’s a powerful tool.


  • Writing With Impact

    When we talk about good fiction writing, we often draw attention to the impressive and the fanciful. The bold and unusual metaphor. The complex sentence. The elaborate construction.

    This can be great writing. But great writing can also be simple. To reach your reader, a simple, direct, accessible moment can be more powerful than any innovation or complication.

    Like academic writers, fiction writers sometimes get lured in by the assumptions of the genre we’re writing in. True, style is important in fiction. But substance matters too. The substance of character, emotion, and story. Clearly communicating that is fundamental to story-telling.

    To write with impact, start with simplicity and build up from there.


  • The One Night Town – a weird western story

    Lizzie tugged at the reins, steering Hunter and her little waggon into a side street outside the saloon. Already she could tell that this would be a one night town, a quick stop on her way to the mining settlements in the hills. There couldn’t have been more than a couple of hundred people living here. Tracking down the ones who knew about mineral deposits wouldn’t take long. Whatever her employers needed to know, she’d find it out tonight.

    She got down from the waggon, checked the purse secreted in the folds of her dress, and tied Hunter up next to a watering trough. The horse guzzled eagerly at the filthy water, anything being better than the dusty landscape they’d been riding through.

    As she walked along the creaking boards out front of the saloon, she noticed dust rising from a work site beyond the far end of town. It looked like the railroad was coming. Maybe there was something worthwhile here after all.

    All eyes turned to her as she entered the saloon and approached the bar, a collection of reclaimed planks that had been proudly polished until they shone. She ordered a whiskey, to the surprise and delight of the moustached barman, and scanned the room while she waited for him to pour.

    Only the middle of the afternoon, and already there was a poker game going on in one corner. Four men clustered around a table, cards in their hands and coins piled in front of them. One was a native, two labourers. The fourth man caught her eye. His suit might be dusty and patched, but it was better than most out here.

    He’d be the company man.

    “Room for one more?” she asked as she approached the table.

    All four men showed the same mix of surprise and delight as the barman. The native pulled up another seat beside him. His smile was soft, but there was a hardness in his eyes. The company man grinned and ordered a bottle of whiskey for the table.

    Even as she picked up her first hand of cards, Lizzie felt the power stirring in her guts. The same power she felt whenever she entered a game, the rituals of play letting her tap into her magic.

    As she stacked up coins in front of her, she let some of that power flow into them.

    The labourers didn’t interest her. Men like that understood the practicalities of mining, not the big picture. Instead, she started with Laughing Wolf, the native. His tells were subtle, but they were there. She could see by the twitching of a finger when he had a strong hand. Then she made sure to gamble more than she sensibly should, weaving her magic into the winnings as they slid across to him.

    She knew that her power was working. Whenever one of the other men got lucky and won some of her funds, he would blurt out something about the resources she sought. Old Jim talked about a silver seam in the high hills. Ben, a lean youth with barely a wisp of beard, showed off his knowledge of how to dig coal.

    But Lizzie wasn’t here for silver or coal. She was relieved when those two ran out of funds and had to leave.

    Meanwhile, Laughing Wolf remained tight lipped. If he knew anything about minerals, then something else was protecting him from her power. Meanwhile, her funds were running dangerously low. As she watched her steadily decreasing pile of coins, she fought not to clench and give away her tension.

    It was time to change tactics.

    “Looks like I finally got lucky,” said Figgis, the company man, as he piled up winnings in front of him. “Reminds me of the day we found a gold seam out by Red Bend.”

    Lizzie smiled inside. She played the next few hands carefully, challenging Laughing Wolf when he was strong, giving small bets away to Figgis whenever his eyes narrowed in triumph.

    But things were tougher without a couple of easy marks to win hands against. For all that they had tells, Figgis and Laughing Wolf hid their feelings better than the labourers. Lizzie was struggling to win enough hands to stay in the game, and Figgis still hadn’t told her what she most needed to know.

    The day was growing cooler, afternoon stretching toward evening, but Lizzie was sweating beneath her dress. She would hate herself if she’d given so much away for mere fragments of knowledge. Where was the win in that?

    She had to take a real risk.

    She dealt out the cards and watched the others look at their hands. Laughing Wolf’s finger twitched. Figgis’s eyes narrowed a little.

    Someone was going to win big.

    She glanced casually at the aces in her own hand. If she double-bluffed now, tried to signal that she was covering up weakness, maybe she could win a decent pot. But what if that didn’t work and she gave away her last real chance to lose to Figgis?

    “All in,” she said, sliding her remaining cash into the middle of the table. As she did so, she chewed at the corner of her lip, a tiny gesture, but hopefully enough for Figgis to pick up on.

    Laughing Wolf matched her bet. So did Figgis, barely suppressing a grin.

    Laughing Wolf laid out his hand, a spade flush. His eyes gleamed behind his soft smile.

    Figgis grinned wider as he presented a full house, jacks over threes, and the native’s face fell.

    They turned to look at Lizzie, who in turn considered her own full house, aces over queens, enough to win the pot.

    “Dammit,” she muttered, placing the cards face down in surrender. “I’ve got nothing. Was hoping you were both bluffing.”

    Figgis drew the pile of coins across the table.

    “Last time I saw this much gold, it was that big seam up by Blue Rock,” he said. “Gonna make a fortune off that when the time comes.”

    “Fat good that does me now,” Lizzie said. Inside, she was beaming. Gold deposits were what her employers paid so well for. She’d head for a town with a telegraph office and let them know to come grab the claim.

    As she stepped away from the table, the magic tying her to the game dissipated. For a moment, she thought she felt some other strand of power tugging at the table, but she shrugged it off.

    “Pleasure playing with you boys,” she said. “But it’s time for me to move on.”

    “Good luck with that,” Laughing Wolf said.

    He too stood up, shovelling his winnings into a deer hide pouch.

    “What, you giving up now?” Figgis grumbled.

    “While I’m winning,” Laughing Wolf replied.

    On her way out, Lizzie looked up at the sign board above the saloon. “The Pawn Sacrifice” it read. Strange name for a saloon, but then saloon keepers could be an odd lot.

    She untied Hunter, got into the waggon, and rolled out toward the hills. As she rounded a bend, she saw another town in front of her, near identical to the one she had just left.

     

    She smiled. As long as she could keep moving, who wouldn’t love this work?

    * * *

     

    This story marks the start of an experiment. Over the next seven weeks, I’m going to write a series of stories that connect together into something bigger. Hopefully, they’ll all be accessible on their own, but combined will make something more.

    We’ll see.

    If you enjoy this then you might also enjoy some of my previous stories set on the Gambler’s Frontier, a western setting where games power magic:

    • Betting Big – gambling, magic, and otters fighting an alligator – it all makes sense on the Gamblers’ Frontier.
    • Counting Coup – industry, magic and the clash of cultures.
    • The Making of Meredith Brown – slaves find a way to resist through magic.
    • Straight Poker – Rick came out west to leave magic behind, but the cards have other ideas.

    And if you’d like to have the rest of this series delivered straight to your inbox every Friday, please sign up to my mailing list. You’ll also get a free e-book.


  • American Vs British Spellings

    I have to say something. It pains me to say it, but here we go.

    I prefer American spellings to British ones.

    Honestly, that shouldn’t be hard to admit. I don’t have a patriotic bone in my body. But still, as a Brit, I cling to a stubborn resistance against the overwhelming influence of America.

    This time, though, I’m letting go.

    For professional reasons, I’ve been spending a lot of time switching between the two sets of spellings. The more I look at them, the more I realise that British spellings are full of choices that make them less instinctive for someone familiar with our shared alphabet and writing system. Extra letters. “S”s for “z” sounds. “Re” to make an “er” sound.

    We cling to our system because it’s what we’re used to. If we’re using something then our brains find ways to justify it, rather than admit that we’ve been pouring effort into an inferior option. Brains are tricksy like that.

    But American spellings are, in most cases, better.

    I’m not going to just start using them. After all, I live in Britain. I have to work with that. But never again will I try to say that the Americans are the ones spelling stuff wrong.

    They’ve got it right. We’ve got a mess.