• Reading With Others

    There’s a certain paradox to reading. It’s about connecting to others, but we do it alone. When we read, we’re connecting to another person and their imagination, but not to someone we know.

    That’s part of why I like conventions, and why I’ve recently joined a Terry Pratchett book group. It’s also why I often read books people recommend to me, even if other books appeal more at first glance. I want to share my reading, to talk about it, to make connections.

    After all isn’t that what books are for?


  • Lord Brooker’s Library – a flash steampunk story

    Lord Brooker sat back and let Giselle deal with the locks. He had hired the finest tinkerer in Europe for a reason – no sense getting in her way.

    While he waited, he took a swig of brandy from his hip flask and looked up at the stones of the ancient library. Amazing that this place had lain hidden beneath the sands for so long. More amazing still that he would soon be inside, perusing guides to mechanica that had been lost for millennia.

    Something clicked, gears turned, and the stone door swung smoothly open. Giselle slid screwdrivers, spanners, and brushes back into her belt, then turned to him with a bow.

    “My Lord,” she said.

    Brooker lit a lantern and strode through the portal. A corridor lined with bright mosaics led him into the hillside, where ancient caves had been shaped into a series of storage rooms, just as the legends had promised. Doors swung open as he passed, driven by panels in the floor beneath his feet and elaborate systems of pulleys and counterweights.

    Oh yes. It had been worth spending the family fortune to find this.

    He walked into one of the rooms. Shelf after shelf stretched out before him. But instead of books and scrolls he saw more devices, gleaming collections of gears and springs held together with brass frames.

    He strode into the next room and the next. No books. No parchments. Not even any tablets. Just ancient, dusty machines.
    “This was meant to be a library,” he snapped. “How am I to read a damn pile of clockwork?”

    Giselle lowered one of the devices from its shelf. A smile parted her lips as she examined it.

    “I believe I can help,” she said. “If you will let me tinker with them…?”

    “Fine.” Brooker gave a dismissive wave. As she started pulling out her tools, he took another swig from his hip flask.

    This whole business was turning into a disaster. Years of study and pursuit. Learning a dozen ancient middle eastern languages. Paying off a government to give him exclusive rights to this site, so that he could have the books he found. And instead, old machines, probably all useless and outdated.

    He would have to start again, and that meant raising fresh funds. Perhaps he could sell off these devices, whatever they were. There was always a market for ancient collectables.

    It was little recompense for having his dreams trampled, but at least it was something.

    His mind returned to the so-called library. He looked around, saw heaps of devices and parts piled up around Giselle, and gaped in horror.

    “What are you doing?” he exclaimed. “We need to catalogue, to record. And then I need these things intact if I’m-”

    “These books,” Giselle said.

    “-to sell them to – wait, what?”

    She held up one of the devices. Attached to the side was a new, improvised machine, a set of prongs connected to a small copper funnel. As she let go of a spring, the device rattled into motion.

    A voice emerged from the funnel, rasping and unclear.

    “Machines to capture words,” Giselle explained. “Each section of gear has been carefully carved to-”

    “Let me see.” Brooker snatched the machine and held it close to his ear. He could make out distinct words, but what language were they in? Greek? Hebrew? Sumerian?

    He let out a long, deflated breath.

    “Chinese,” he muttered. “I never thought I would need Chinese.”

    “Should I stop working on these?” Giselle gestured at another dozen devices, all with funnels attached.

    “No,” Brooker said, a new determination stealing over him. “Keep at it. I’ll make sure you’re brought plenty of supplies.”

    “Where will you be?”

    “Learning Chinese,” Brooker said, looking around a library that held no paper. “I need to get some books.”

    * * *

     

    The fifth and final instalment in my Epiphany Club series of steampunk novellas, Dead Men and Dynamite, is out today!. It also features strange devices, an ancient library, and lost lore. So if you enjoyed this, please check it out, or go get the first novella for free.


  • Romantic Stories

    It’s Valentines Day, and love it or hate it, thoughts turn to romance. So here are some of my more romantic short stories, available to read for free:

    Surprise Me – a barista tries to express his feelings in a magical coffee shop.

    My Origami Heart – a love story on the way to the stars.

    The Wonders of Earth – a traveler finds wonders and friendship as he returns to humanity’s roots.

    Phoenix Season – poetry and magic meet on a smugglers’ shore.

    Misprints – batling printers and hidden messages in 17th century Scotland.

    Not All Hands Tell the Time – Professor Liveci finds more than she expected when Master Forenti fits her with a mechanical hand.

    All the Beautiful Sunsets – Romance lingers on the cusp of night and day.

    Taking Time – obsessed with his competitor, an engineer hacks a difference engine.

    Songs of a New World – songbirds bring beauty to a terraformed world.

     


  • Things I’ve Learned in Writing The Epiphany Club

    This Friday sees the release of the fifth and final instalment in my Epiphany Club series of novellas (you can pre-order it here). These were the first piece of original work I started self-published some years ago. There have been delays along the way, but I’m finally getting to the end of something that’s important to me. I’ve learned a lot from this experience, so I thought I’d share some of it.

    First up, I learned that I’m not as good as I’d like to be at tackling gender issues. I set out to tackle gender inequality, to present female characters who defy the stereotypes of their time. But along the way, I ended up slipping into modern tropes and stereotypes, like the idea of a woman’s strengths lying purely in her social skills. And because the undermining of stereotypes happens more in the later books, the first one looks like it’s playing even more into the stereotypes. I remedied some of this through the advice of beta readers. I’m also planning on revising the first book quite heavily and re-releasing it, to make things better.

    I learned that novellas are harder to market than novels. A lot of marketing avenues aren’t open to them, even within the relatively flexible field of self-publishing. I’m going to get around this by creating a collected edition of this series, but it’s made me re-think what I’ll write in future.

    I’ve got a lot better at planning and at persevering with projects. That’s how I got to the end of this one, despite numerous delays.

    Just through this much practice, my writing skills have grown stronger. One more reason to revise that first book!

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. But it’s important to combine that pride with spotting the flaws in my work and the ways I can improve. After all, that’s the only way I’ll get better as a writer.

    And if I’ve learned one thing from this experience, it’s that I am getting better.


  • The Palm Reader’s Promise – a flash fantasy story

    The carnival was everything Irwin had missed while stuck aboard the ship. Every moment of it was bursting with brightness and freedom. Sure, he only had a few more hours before his shore leave was over and he went back to the war, but that just made these hours more precious. He wanted to try everything life had to offer, while he had the chance.

    As the others started their third go on the dodgems, Irwin headed off between the stalls. He bought candied nuts and spiced wine, watched high-wire dancers and listened to a soprano singing a grand variation on an old folk tune. But his attention was drawn to a small tent at the edge of the carnival ground. The simple sign outside read:

    “Fortunes Told.”

    He pulled back the heavy canvas and stepped inside. Candles gave the interior a warm and welcoming glow. He stopped, mouth open as he recognised the woman sat behind a folding table.

    “Ella?” he exclaimed. “I haven’t seen you since you left your folks’ place!”

    “Irwin!” She greeted him with a hug, then took her seat again. “I’ve been on the road. A good fortune teller is never short of work.”

    “You always had a knack for knowing what would happen. I thought you were just smart, but is this…”

    “Real? Yes! Cross my palm with silver and I’ll show you.”

    As he passed her the coins, his fingers lingered on hers for a moment. She smiled softly then took his hand firmly in both of her own and peered at the palm.

    She studied it so long that Irwin started to wonder if something was amiss. Then she looked up at him with an unconvincing smile.

    “I see good things in your future,” she said after a pause. “Make the most of these next few days, because… Because you’ll be busy afterwards.”

    “You might be smart, but you’re a terrible liar.” Irwin held her gaze. “Why aren’t you telling me the truth?”

    “I am!” She looked away.

    “Ella, please. You’re just leaving me to imagine the worst.”

    “Worse than dying, and all your shipmates with you?” She looked at him again, tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry. I just wanted you to be happy for your last few days, and now…”

    “And now I can change it.” Irwin rose to his feet, knocking his chair over in the process. She was so earnest, and she’d always been so right. But he wasn’t a man to let his dread overcome him. “I’ll do things differently. I’ll watch out for danger. I’ll-”

    “That’s not how it works.,” she said. “Your fate lies in your palm. You can’t resist what’s written there.”

    “There must be something,” he said, kneeling beside her, his own eyes brimming over as he pleaded for his life. “Look again. Maybe you’re wrong.”

    She took his hand and peered at it intently, running a finger along the creases, her touch warm and gentle. But her expression remained unchanged as she shook her head.

    “I don’t believe it,” he said, trying to convince himself. “Skin changes. It gets old and wrinkled and scarred. One little patch of it can’t really tell my future.”

    Her eyes widened.

    “Maybe…” She sank to the floor beside him. One of her hands gripped his tight. The other reached around him.

    Before he knew what was happening, she had the combat knife from his belt. Pain flashed as she slashed it across his palm. Blood burst crimson from the cut, running over his fingers and onto hers.

    “What the hell?” He jerked away from her, stumbling to his feet, clutching his hand as he tried to staunch the bleeding.

    “A new line on your palm,” she said tearing a strip from the edge of her skirt and holding it out to him. “A long line. A deep line. Maybe enough to change your fate.”

    He took the cloth and fumbled with it, trying to bind his wound. Reluctantly, he let her come close enough to help. With the initial shock gone, the truth sank in. She had tried to save him, however mad her method.

    “What’s my fortune now?” he asked, almost too scared to hear the answer.

    “I don’t know.” She let go of his hand. “Come back when it is healed, if you can, and I will read the scar.”

    “If I can? You think that’s likely?”

    She looked down at her own palm, and for the first time since she’d read his, she smiled.

    “Yes,” she said, and he saw again the young woman he’d known before, the one he hadn’t known he’d missed. Something in what she read for herself changed her whole demeanour, made her seem strangely content.

    Despite his fear and pain he smiled.

    “Yes,” she said. “We’ll meet again.”

    * * *

     

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  • Balance

    Being a freelancer is a lot about balance. Applying for new work vs getting the current stuff done. Working now vs working later. Working out how much I can handle.

    Sometimes the balance shifts. Last year, I was all about work that interested me, even if the pay was only so-so. Right now, I’m accepting less interesting work for the higher financial rewards. Either option has its stresses and its rewards.

    The good thing is that, as my own boss, I get to choose which I do, and to change it up as I see fit. I might have to keep finding points of balance, but at least they’re in my hands.


  • Remembering What Something Once Stood For

    I’ve been rewatching a lot of the sitcom Friends recently. It popped up on Netflix and, as a show that meant a lot to me at a key point in my life, it evokes a warm sense of nostalgia. So episode by episode I’ve been working my way through the adventures of a bunch of privileged 1990s New Yorkers.

    Friends has gotten a lot of flack in recent years, and not unreasonably so. Half the humour is based on gender stereotypes. There’s some not very funny stuff about a character once being fat. Ross turns from a sympathetic nerd into a whiny tosspot whose scenes I regularly skip. There’s a lot here that hasn’t aged well.

    But there are other things that were fantastic, given the context this show was made in. This was the show that put a lesbian wedding on primetime TV. It showed both men and women enjoying and talking about their sex lives without stigma. It tackled issues of infertility and divorce, not always maturely, but at least with sympathy. As someone coming of age in the 1990s, this was a huge deal. It helped set a more enlightened tone for the coming century.

    I’m not holding up Friends as some kind of beacon of progress. But it had its moments, and it’s good to see them again.


  • And the Lash – a flash historical story

    Jack gritted his teeth and clung to the mast as the lash cracked against his shoulders. The pain was so sharp he thought he might faint. He could smell his own blood and feel it running down his back.

    “Let this be a lesson,” Captain Avery called out to the assembled crew. “Disobedience will not be tolerated on his majesty’s ships.”

    Despite the pain, Jack kept his eyes on the captain. When he remembered this moment, he would think of him. He would remember being punished for something he hadn’t even done.

    He promised himself, never again.

    #

    Jack stood at the head of a band of mutineers, a cutlass in his hand. Others were at the ship’s guns, ready in case the admiralty’s offer to talk was nothing but a distraction.

    A black bicorn hat appeared over the rail as Captain Norman ascended from the boat below.

    “Gentlemen.” Normanton nodded to the mutineers. His expression was stern but with a hint of concern. Most of them had served under him before Avery took over. Jack reckoned him a reasonable man.

    “Where is Captain Avery?” Normanton asked.

    “Below,” Jack replied. “Alive.”

    “Unharmed?”

    “What do you think?”

    After all the cruelty Avery had heaped upon his crew, it was a wonder he still had all his limbs. Jack had fought to restrain himself as well as the others. It hadn’t been easy.

    Normanton nodded, apparently not surprised.

    “Are you willing to discuss your demands?” Normanton asked.

    Jack had considered saying no to this, but even he knew that they would have to make compromises.

    He nodded. As he did so, his shirt shifted and he felt the pain in his back again. It gave him steel.

    “Avery goes,” he said. “Forever. We get a decent captain. We get proper rations. We get to appeal unjust punishments. And nobody gets punished for this.”

    “I am authorised to agree to most of that,” Normanton said stiffly. “But the admiralty cannot let a mutiny go entirely unpunished. The ringleaders will face the lash.”

    There was an angry hubbub from the men around Jack. Weapons were raised.

    To his credit, Normanton remained calm as the ocean on a windless day. He took a step closer and lowered his voice.

    “You know what happens if we can’t agree.” He shot a glance toward the other ships nearby, sitting ready for action.

    Jack felt the stinging of his back. He heard the growing noise around him. He imagined what would happen to these men, his friends and comrades, if this turned into a fight.

    He had promised himself never again. No more unjust punishments, for him or anyone else. What sort of man would he be if he gave in on that now?

    Perhaps a just one.

    “I’m the ringleader,” he said. “Punishment falls on me. No-one else.”

    The crew fell silent, watching for Normanton’s reaction. But they still clutched their weapons, ready for a fight.

    #

    Jack peered past the mast, watching Captain Avery’s boat disappear towards land. The captain sat hunched over, a broken man in a uniform coat. Normanton sat beside him, looking back at the ship.

    The lash cracked against Jack’s shoulders. He groaned in pain and clung on tight to the mast, determined not to pass out. At least this time he had earned his punishment. He had committed the crime and he bore its burden.

    This time he made no promises.

    * * *

     

    In the late 18th century, Britain’s Royal Navy became a powerful fighting force, but that didn’t make it a nice place to work. Cruel discipline was common. When Admiral Nelson managed his men through consideration and leading from the front, he was considered a wild innovator. There were several mutinies, some leading to better treatment, some not ending so well.

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  • Star Trek Discovery – Does the Payoff Justify the Buildup?

    The new Star Trek show, Discovery, has been more than a little divisive. Some fans love it, some hate it. Its very different tone and storytelling from previous Treks either delights or appals, depending on your point of view. But one response has been near-universal – excitement at recent episodes.

    These episodes have taken the show and its character in surprising and dramatic directions. Viewers who liked it are more excited than ever. Those who disliked it are being won around. It’s gone from something I was happy enough to watch to something I’m excited for every week. Story decisions that didn’t work before, like using the first two episodes as a prologue, are proving important.

    Does this payoff justify the problems with the buildup? I’m not sure. I’ll certainly look at those earlier episodes in a more positive light. But seeing these recent episodes, I feel like the writers could have done better than they did from the start, while still providing the setup they wanted.

    The Wire had a slow start, only becoming truly gripping halfway through the first season, and it’s now considered a groundbreaking TV classic. Will Discovery do the same thing within sf? I’m not convinced, but the payoff is still coming, and you never know