The Smart Intertextuality of Juliet McKenna’s The Cleaving

The cover of The Cleaving

Gather around children, as the storyteller would say in days of yore. It’s time for a story about stories and how they work, time to explore Juliet E. McKenna’s use of intertextuality in The Cleaving.

Reflecting Past Tellings

The Cleaving is a retelling of the King Arthur myth that gives focus and agency to the women of the story – Nimue, Ygraine, Morgana, and Guinevere. They walk a new path through the elements of a story familiar to fans of fantasy and folklore, reweaving the threads of British legend into a dramatic new cloth.

By its very nature, an Arthurian telling has a level of intertextuality. For the writer, it’s a chance to respond to and rework previous versions of the myth, and strands of those versions are present in The Cleaving. For the audience, it’s impossible not to compare, contrast, and draw meaning from other tales, unless this is the very first version of Arthur they’ve read.

McKenna uses intertextuality as smartly and discreetly as Marvel did at the start of their film run. You don’t need to know other Arthurian texts to enjoy the story, but if you do, then you’ll get more out of it. It’s a bonus, not the backbone. It’s an approach that rewards readers instead of making demands of them. And unlike those Marvel cameos, The Cleaving doesn’t lose its way later on.

But that’s not the smart part.

Dealing With Gender

It’s not uncommon to talk about how retellings hold a mirror up to past versions of a story. That’s particularly true in The Cleaving, as like a mirror’s reflection, it reverses key elements.

The Cleaving doesn’t flip the genders of any of its characters, sticking with outwardly traditional forms. But it does flip the gender of the story’s perspective, shifting its weight from the male characters onto women. We see sides of this mythical medieval court that other stories might hint at but seldom make their centre.

While this would make for a great story in its own right, it’s a stronger story when it’s read in relation to previous texts. Standing by itself, it’s a cool story about women threading their way through the ugly tangle of other people’s ambitions. Lined up with older Arthurian books and films, it points a finger at them and loudly shouts “Oy, you, look what you’ve been missing!” It demands a conversation about what is absent from the (uh, I hate this word, but I’m going to use it…) cannon.

That textual contrast, by its very nature, takes shots at other established bodies of fantastical and mythological work. Once you see what’s been missing from Arthuriana, with all the interesting nuances McKenna applies, you can’t help looking at other stories and wondering what they’ve left out. Where are the Sherwood stories that centre Maid Marian? Who was that woman whose cakes King Alfred burned?

And to be clear, I’m not saying that these versions don’t exist – 1980s children’s TV did good work for Marian – but The Cleaving, at the very least, sends you looking for them.

And that’s still not the smartest part.

Raising the Stakes

No, my favourite thing about the use of intertextuality in The Cleaving is how it raises the tension.

Other versions of the Camelot story hover like ghosts around the edges of this one, raising spectres of what might be. McKenna doesn’t need to spend a lot of time foreshadowing Mordred as a threat, because the moment his name is mentioned, we know that fucker’s going to be trouble. Oh, yeah, sure, he’s just some prince living on a distant island, no need to worry about that. *narrows eyes* I’m watching you, boy.

For anyone familiar with the legends, Mordred’s name is menace. Small mentions of him build tension. We know he’s coming, but in what form? Will he be the traditional villain? Someone else’s scapegoat? In the mirror world of The Cleaving, is he in the right? We’re left gripping the book tight, waiting for him to arrive, waiting for McKenna to reveal her angle.

For readers not steeped in these legends, it still makes sense when Mordred turns up and does his thing. But for those in the know, he’s a struck nerve that leaves the story tense.

The Drama of Disappointment

Then there’s Lancelot, my favourite detail. As a character, he’s seen more reinventions than Mordred, because he’s a more dramatic part of the myth. Traditionally, he’s the ideal hero, the man of divided loyalties who tumbles into tragedy. We’ve seen him as the sidekick, the romantic lead, the broken heart, even the fraudulent sham of a hero. And so, again, we’re left wondering what McKenna’s version will be like. How will this tragedy play out? We watch and wait and then…

Remember how I said that this story flips our perspective on the gender dynamics, rather than flipping the characters? Lancelot is an example of that. We watch the beats of his arc play out as tradition and fate dictate, and then we get disappointment. Glorious, perfect disappointment. The moment where the ideal knight turns into the sad side of dating. He’s not a shining paragon. He’s not the tragedy of temptation. He’s not a secret villain, the anti-Lancelot, the dark face of chivalry. He’s a bit of a crap bloke, in a way that the other men in the story wouldn’t understand.

It’s a brilliant take on the character because, by comparison with all the others, it’s unexpected, and yet it makes perfect sense.

To create this character without intertextuality would mean spending a whole book polishing the shell of Lancelot, only to crack him open at the end. But this guy isn’t worth a book’s worth of our attention, and because the other texts exist, we don’t need that. We know this is going somewhere, and once again, waiting to see where builds tension.

Efficiency and Absence

The Cleaving doesn’t rely on the great scaffolding of Arthuriana to hold it up. This is an effective story of women living in a world dominated by men and of the hubris that comes with power. But the existence of that scaffolding allows McKenna to leave gaps that her readers will fill with the tensions and contrasts between texts. It adds power to the story without weighing it down, for a telling whose efficiency adds to its readability and whose significance makes it stick in the mind.

This is how to make powerful use of intertextuality – not with passing in-jokes, though those have their place, or with the tangled continuity that makes some stories inaccessible, but by letting contrast and comparison add tension to a story that stands in its own right. Making a whole body of mythology into a mirror that your story can peer into and say to itself “damn, I look good.”


If you want an actual review of The Cleaving, instead of one obsessive ranting about a point of technique, then The Middle Shelf has you covered. I also recommend Juliet McKenna’s blog for thoughtful insights into her own work, as well as the wide world of fantasy literature. She’s done a lot of good work on and off the page, and is someone worth listening to.


Ashes of the Ancestors

The cover for the book Ashes of the Ancestors by Andrew Knighton

In a haunted monastery at the heart of a crumbling empire, a lone priest tends the fires for the dead. A servant bound by the bones of her family, Magdalisa is her people’s last link to the wisdom of the past.

But as the land around them dies, new arrivals throw the monastery into turmoil. A dead warlord demanding recognition. Her rival, seizing the scraps of power. Two priests, both claiming to serve the spirits, both with their own agendas.

As ancient shadows struggle for the soul of an empire, Magdalisa must decide how far she will go to keep tradition alive.

A fantasy story about tradition and our relationship with the past, Ashes of the Ancestors is out now:

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook

Our Mistress Calls – a fantasy short story

Our mistress rises once more in her glowing glory, a silver disk shining down on the dreary earth. Hers is a soft and healing light, not the fierce blaze of the sun, and that light calls forth our true souls. We fall to four legs, fur flows from our flanks, and we listen for each other’s howls. For three nights out of every thirty, we are not alone. It makes as good a night as any to die.

I run between the trees, the blood down my flank as hot as the breath in my lungs, its pain as urgent. Every month, we answer our mistress’s call. Every month, the hunters hear us too, and they come. They have been closing in for years, chasing us from one valley to the next, tightening their noose. For some, pierced with silver and dragged half-human across the cobbles of a village square, that noose has been all too real. That’s how we lost Ren, Albertus, and Miran, Chalia and her daughters, old Reffel and a score more of my pack alone. Others were shot or stabbed, some fighting back, some protecting friends, some simply trying to flee.

I howl and others answer, a chorus of creatures as old as the moon, but that humans call abomination. I hear their cruel glee as they pursue us. The noose is closing. My leg is weakening as the blood flows.

I burst from the trees onto dunes whose pale sand and deep shadows mirror our mistress herself. Stalks of stiff grass tickle my belly. Fine grains fly from my feet. A fitting place to end this. For that alone, I’m glad that I’ve come this far.

The others burst from the woods and follow me. Scores of my kin, hundreds, all that remain in this land. The hunters have forced us closer and closer together until there is only one pack, one desperate dash through darkness. Still their shouts and their crashing steel follow, the beaters driving us into the open for the hunters with their silver spears to enter this last pursuit.

Our mistress beams down. Whenever she calls, we obey. But tonight, for the first time, we will call back.

Sand sprays from our paws as we thunder down the beach. It is a beautiful night, no clouds marring our mistress’s majesty, a court of stars shining in attendance upon her. A good night to die, but for who?

We reach the edge of the sea. Some of the pack look back fearfully, faced with the grim reality that there is nowhere left to run. The tips of silver spears shine as bright as stars at the edge of the woodland and burning torches follow them. More approach along the coast, coming from east and from west. No way out.

I face this pack, the largest that has ever gathered. I smell our fur and the blood from our wounds, hear the growl in every throat. From some, it is a warning, from others a challenge. You brought us here, they seem to say. Now prove yourself.

Standing in the salt spray, I tip my head back and open my soul. It is a new howl, one the others have never heard. Not a hunter’s howl, directing the pack to prey. Not the mating howl of a wolf in heat. Not a howl of pain and desperation, the last sound we have heard from so many. This howl is a prayer.

The others join me. Our voices twist together as they rise through the night, unhindered by treetops or clouds, by the roofs of houses or the smoke of so-called civilisation. There is nothing between us and our mistress.

For generations, we have obeyed her call. Tonight, instead, we answer. We tell her our pain. We tell her our fear. We tell her what we face if she does not help.

The torches and the silver spears are closing in, forming a bright arc against the night. Armoured feet pound the sand. Wicked voices snicker. My heart hammers as I howl; one way or another, this will be the end.

Our mistress’s face ripples like the ocean, her partner in the eternal dance. A bright light beams down upon the waves, which rise to meet it.

In moments, the water is up my legs, past my belly, soaking my fur. I’m lifted from the sand and my pack with me. We keep howling while the hunters cry out in shock and alarm.

The ocean crashes across the shore, carrying us at its crest, light as foam in our mistress’s glow. There is no such mercy for the hunters, who are pummelled and scattered by the waves that slammed down on them. Bodies are flung about, limbs twisted and snapped, the flames of torches snuffed out. Screams and gasps for breath are swallowed by the sea.

The tide keeps rising, higher and higher. It carries us on waters that churn with the dead, sweeps us up the valley toward the towns where spears were forged and nooses tied.

My pack howl in gratitude as the moon’s light carries us and protects us amid those waters. We held our faith. We answered her call. At last, we have our reward.

It is a good night to die, but not for us.


If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every month.


Ashes of the Ancestors

The cover for the book Ashes of the Ancestors by Andrew Knighton

In a haunted monastery at the heart of a crumbling empire, a lone priest tends the fires for the dead. A servant bound by the bones of her family, Magdalisa is her people’s last link to the wisdom of the past.

But as the land around them dies, new arrivals throw the monastery into turmoil. A dead warlord demanding recognition. Her rival, seizing the scraps of power. Two priests, both claiming to serve the spirits, both with their own agendas.

As ancient shadows struggle for the soul of an empire, Magdalisa must decide how far she will go to keep tradition alive.

A fantasy story about tradition and our relationship with the past, Ashes of the Ancestors is out now:

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook

Fiction for a Threatened World

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the environment and how we write about it.

This is partly driven by my own writing. I often use themed calls as inspiration for short stories, these calls’ limitations and specificity providing the framework I need to get creative. There have been more themed calls recently relating to climate change and other environmental issues, and those themes are a good fit for me, especially as my writing’s been getting more political lately. It’s a chance to vent some of my frustrations at the world while using that passion to power my prose.

Living with the Prof has been a factor too. She’s a specialist in sustainability, so conversations in our house often come around to the environment. Writing what you know is a good way to find ideas, and writing what the people around you know is a handy addition to that. I can take dinner talk and turn it into characters.

But what I’m reading has also been a big factor. I’m enjoying a growing number of stories that tackle environmental change.

The Annual Migration of Clouds by Premee Mohamed was the first that really got my attention. Set in the near future, it looks at characters struggling to get by in a damaged climate. The fragility of our environment is shown by how far things have gone awry, and the story also shows how fragile human life can be, how vulnerable we are to the same disruptions.

A more recent read for me, O Man of Clay by Eliza Mood does something similar to Annual Migration, but with a different setting. As someone from the north of England, a flooded Hartlepool feels immediate to me, and the presence of the ocean adds a sense of vast, destructive, unknowable forces pressing against human lives. The story’s central characters include a destroyer of the environment as well as protectors and survivors, and it shows the complex, flawed, sometimes frustrating ways people respond to our destruction of the world. Having lived through the cynicism of so much greenwashed politics, the idea of businesses profiting off the destruction, even using it to justify their actions, feels far too real. It shows how badly we can respond to a damaged environment.

Both of those stories do an excellent job of taking a familiar format – the postapocalyptic tale – and tying it to environmental destruction, but E. J. Swift’s The Coral Bones does something more unusual. Following three separate narrative strands, set in the past, present, and future, it shows women of different generations in their relationships with Australia’s environment. Reaching back to the Victorian past, we see enlightenment scientism shaping our relationship with the world. In the present, there’s the frustration of trying to save that world and how the struggle wears someone down. And in the future, an attempt to cope with the fallout of our failings, to survive and regrow a ravaged world. Coral Bones engages with the history and the social framework that have shaped the current disaster, and is realistic about the fact that some damage is now unavoidable thanks to the vast forces we’ve unleashed. Still, it holds out some hope.

Chloe Smith’s Virgin Land uses a sense of distance to discuss environmental change, by setting its story in the far future, on an alien planet. There, the colonial settler mindset plays out, a mindset that shaped modern America and by extension the ideology of the world we now live in. Virgin Land explores the myth of the empty wilderness, how it prevents a healthy relationship with the environment, and how that ties into other, patriarchal ideas. By presenting an unreal ecosystem, it can present a simpler, exaggerated version of ecological impact, playing out on a short time scale, and this hammers home the problem we face – that we can’t save the world without first changing how we think about it.

Ironically, my own recent environmental stories, “Silver Soul and Shining Wings” and “The Girl Who Drew Gold from the Sun”, weren’t inspired by those ecologically themed calls I mentioned earlier. Both were written for other ideas and themes, but in the process environmental concerns emerged, creating one story about our failure to understand ecosystems and another about the destructive effect of greed on the world. Have I been reading so much environmental fiction that it’s bleeding over into everything I write? Maybe. Is that a bad thing? Probably not.

Climate change is real, and like any big issue, people need help coming to terms with it. It’s too big an issue to wrap your head around in its entirety, but stories can be a good way of gaining perspective. Whether that’s exploring the aftermath or the event, the saviours or the destroyers, the abstract causes or concrete symptoms, fiction helps us face climate change realistically but with hope. That seems worth doing.


If, instead of scifi, you’d like some fantasy set in a damaged environment, then you might want to check out my novella, Ashes of the Ancestors, a story about history, tradition, and a monastery full of ghosts:

Luna Press for physical books

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The Harrowing Beauty of A Woman of the Sword

The cover of A Woman of the Sword by Anna Smith Spark

I love books. I enthuse about books. But roughly once a year, I find a book that really strikes me, that grabs hold of my brain and screams “this story matters!” I’ve just read one of those books, so let me tell you why I’m going to spend the next year raving about A Woman of the Sword.

The Beauty of the Horrifying

Anna Smith Spark writes like no one else. In A Woman of the Sword, as in her previous Empires of Dust trilogy, she pairs beautiful writing with harrowing content, to spectacular effect.

The description here is wonderfully evocative. Smith Spark has a knack for picking out the most compelling details and presenting them with gripping immediacy. Whether it’s flowers beneath a tree or the blood dripping from a blade, it’s all so vivid.

The same is true for the characters. She crams you right inside their heads, bringing them to life in all their wonders, flaws, and myriad contradictions. These characters captivate.

This makes for beautiful writing, which is then turned to dark ends. A Woman of the Sword is a story full of grimness and disillusionment, presenting us with terrible situations in which characters are trapped by their own flaws. From beginning to end, it’s merciless in what it depicts, both the physical details and the emotional strain the characters go through. This isn’t a world where happy endings are guaranteed, or even redemption. It’s one where terrible things are presented in beautiful ways, where hope exists not in spite of but because of the carnage around it.

The brightness of the prose and the darkness of the story elevate each other.

Women’s Lives

Lidea, the protagonist of A Woman of the Sword, is a warrior turned mother turned warrior again, in a setting where sexism is baked into society. And sure, sexism features in most story settings, just like it features in our society, but what this story does so well is to bring its mechanisms and its emotional impact to life.

Lidae lives in the contradictory expectations placed upon her by people who can accept her as a warrior so long as she’s not a mother, and as a mother so long as she’s not a warrior. She is never allowed to be her complete self, and this drives her every terrible experience, her every ill-judged decision. As a man, I don’t have to live through this shit, but I know it’s out there. This book brings it mercilessly to life.

It also brings alive the more specific strains of motherhood, of being filled with both love and frustration at the little ones, at being both fulfilled and constricted. It shows aspects of parental experience that we seldom look at, never mind speak out loud.

The Soldier’s Experience

Many writers have tried to evoke the life of ordinary warriors, from John Keegan breaking the historical mould with The Face of Battle to Joe Abercrombie hitching humour to grim action in The First Law. Anna Smith Spark does some of the best work ever at this.

Anything I say here comes with an important caveat. I’ve never been a soldier. I’ve never been in a war. I read about war a lot, but I’ve got no direct experience, so I can’t say how real this stuff is, but…

It is really, really convincing. Smith Spark shows the mundanity of military life that Spike Milligan highlighted so well in his war memoirs; the uncertainty Joseph Heller highlighted in Catch-22; the brutal, confusing mess from films such as Saving Private Ryan. Her war is horrible and it’s dull, but the attraction of it is still clear. The warriors of her world find purpose and companionship amid the mud and blood.

What they don’t find is empowerment. They are repeatedly misled, misused, and kept in the dark. I get that that isn’t every soldier’s experience, but historically, it’s an important one, and it sheds light on how often we’re not as empowered as we feel we are.

Lidae holds the power of life and death over others, while being, in a very real sense, powerless herself.

Communication Breakdown

The biggest way in which Smith Spark disempowers her characters, and in the process makes them into convincing people, is through their acts of communication. Or, more accurately, their failures of communication.

I don’t know about you, but I seldom understand my own thoughts and feelings in the moment that I’m having them, and I struggle even more to turn them into the right words, especially under pressure. Especially when talking to the people I love, which is a kind of pressure in itself. Fictional characters are always so much better at this than me.

Not these characters. They’re horribly, hauntingly bad at communication, just like real people. Lidae repeatedly makes her own life worse because she can’t understand or express her needs and feelings. She repeatedly makes wildly incorrect assumptions about what other people are thinking, feeling, and saying.

It’s just like real life.

I’ve seldom read anything where the impossibility of knowing and expressing yourself is so well represented. I felt for every lousy choice Lidae made, not because I would have made the same ones, but because she got there through the same paths that lead to my lousy choices. She’s desperately trying to understand her love and how it shapes her, and she’s desperately failing.

Comprehending the Incomprehensible

The philosopher Timothy Morton talks about how things of significance are always too big for us to know. All we experience is our own narrow perspective, a small part of the whole.

For me, this book expresses that. Within its pages, we’re presented with things of huge significance – love, war, motherhood – and we’re repeatedly shown the consequences, good and bad, of one woman’s fumbling attempts to perceive them. It’s a sad, dark story, but an uplifting one, both because it’s so beautifully written, and because it feels so true.

Don’t read this book when you need comfort.

Don’t read it when you’re feeling vulnerable.

But please, I urge you, go read it.

It’s amazing.

The Girl Who Drew Gold from the Sun – a fairy tale

Once, there was a girl. In all outward ways, she was an ordinary girl, her face simple as the hills. Her parents were ordinary folk, scratching a living from the dirt of the fields, like most people in their ordinary town.

The year that the girl turned eleven, there was a terrible winter. The land froze hard as stone and the crops died in the fields. The girl’s parents became too sick to work, and they barely had the food to see them through to spring. By the time winter ended, the cupboards were bare and the girl’s rib showed through the rough wool of her dress.

On the first day of spring, the sun broke through the clouds. The girl, desperate for comfort, reached out a hand. The clouds tore apart and the sun shone brighter, casting its light across the land. Where it fell on the girl, gold appeared in her hand.

Wide-eyed, the girl walked into town. The people were filled with the joy that the sun had come at last. They laughed and sang and slapped each other on their backs. They paid no mind to the girl as she bought food for her parents. The storekeeper gave her a poor deal for her gold, but at least she wouldn’t starve.

For the next seven days, the girl stepped outside her house every morning and held out her hand. The sun shone brighter for her and gold appeared in her palm. She was only eleven and didn’t know how much gold was worth, but she filled her kitchen cupboards and her parents’ bellies, even as the storekeepers rubbed their hands at the profits she gave them.

On the eighth day, the sun didn’t shine, and an icy wind blew in. The first tentative shoots of spring had sprouted in the fields, and the girl worried as she watched them wilt. She held up her hand and called on the sun. The clouds parted, light beamed down, and the shoots raised their heads as gold appeared in the girl’s hand.

A farmer in a nearby field also raised his head, watching her in excitement. He ran into town and told the people what he had seen.

The next morning, a great crowd appeared outside the girl’s house, demanding that she make the sun shine. She was happy to do as they asked, for the crops needed light. When she was done, the people brought her food and took away her gold, rubbing their hands as they told her what a good girl she was and what a good deal it had been.

For seven days, the crowds grew larger. Each day, the girl parted the clouds, the sun shone, and the gold appeared. On the eighth day, there were no clouds. The sun shone, and the girl decided to rest. But the people shook their heads. They wanted more gold, more warmth, more sunlight. Reluctantly, the girl raised her hand, and the sun beamed more brightly.

On this went, all through the spring. The town basked in glorious heat and the people were happy. It didn’t matter to them if the crops, which had grown so fast, now looked brittle and dry; gold could pay for everything they needed.

On the first day of summer, the dry ground cracked. The girl looked at her sunburned skin and the heat blisters on her hand, and she decided that it was enough. She went into town to tell the people that she would not call upon the sun.

The people, basking like lizards in the heat, would not listen to what she said. The gold she conjured was all the wealth they had, now that the crops were dead. Without her powers, they must give up their glorious summer.

Once again, the people came to the girl’s house every day, to make sure that she kept calling on the sun. They watched her with the eyes of eagles and with skin as cracked as the sun-baked fields.

The girl, who had once loved the light of the sun, now came to love the night. Its cool darkness soothed her sunburned skin and, for a few hours, the townspeople didn’t watch her. She sat awake, watching the velvet dark.

At last, one moonless night, the girl roused her parents from their bed. She led them into the field and held up a hand to the sky, calling down the black of night. She wrapped its folds around herself and her parents, and they disappeared.

The next morning, the townspeople woke to find that the girl was gone. Desperate for the gold that she had given them, they gathered in the town square and all reached for the sun. They stood for hours, trying to grasp its gold, while its terrible heat burned their flesh. Like the crops, they withered and died in the heat that had once nurtured them.

The following dawn, the darkness unfolded and the girl emerged with her parents. As the sun was rising, she held up her hand. This time she didn’t call the golden light down, but dismissed the power she had held, setting the world back in balance.

The sun rose. Clouds passed on a soft breeze. Rain fell lightly. In their fields, the girl and her parents set about planting crops. Over their heads, a rainbow shone.


The cover of the novella Ashes of the Ancestors

If you enjoyed this story, then you might want to check out my new novella, Ashes of the Ancestors, a story of magic, history and tradition:

“Fantasy is often said to be a perfect metaphor to speak about our societies. Ashes of the Ancestors does it in a remarkable way, with a world that is very much its own and characters we could all recognise. Knighton has written a perfect story for our times and it’d be a pity to miss this mirror he holds up to us in such a successful manner.” – The Middle Shelf.

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook

Out Now – Silver Soul and Shining Wings

The last two people on the rails sat in the cab, watching a landscape cast in a washed out light. A green glow broke charcoal shadows as aurora birds flew past, iridescent wings rippling in a rhythm that matched nothing else in the universe…

I have a new story out this week in Factor Four Magazine. “Silver Soul and Shining Wings” is a flash sci-fi story set on a world being abandoned in the face of its changing climate. It’s a story about ecology, coping with loss, and the limits of human understanding. You can read it for free on the Factor Four website, and if it leaves you wanting more, I’ve got a fairytale about the weather coming here in just a few days.

Real Water – a fantasy short story

The cover of the novella Ashes of the Ancestors

Kyva rode across the ridge and stared in amazement at the view beyond. Three days out from the warband, and this was the first real green she’d seen. Not just withered scrub clinging to the banks of a dried out stream, or the tops of a few diminished turnips growing from cracked dirt, but fields of new crops divided by irrigation ditches. She could smell sap and spring water, could feel a cool breeze on her cheek.

One hand resting on her sword, she nudged Thunderer into a trot, down toward those fields. A place like this ought to belong to one of the warlords, or at least be controlled by local bandits, but none of the villagers working those miraculous fields carried a weapon better than a shovel. Duke Lorkas would be pleased.

When they reached one of the channels, Thunderer lowered his head to drink. Kyva didn’t urge him on. Instead, she waited in the saddle while the locals laid down their tools and came to her, their expressions a mix of fearful, curious, and determined.

“I’ve come from the army of Duke Lorkas,” she declared before anyone could ask. “Your village is subject to him.”

Not that there was much of a village; a few ramshackle shelters amid ground darkened by old ashes. Someone had raided this place, but not recently or those crops would be gone.

“My lord will protect you, in exchange for certain tithes.”

“We can’t afford to pay,” said a skinny man with a skinny dog at his heel. “All our homes burned down, we’re still rebuilding.”

“You can afford more than most around here.” Kyva pointed at the channel. “How come you have water? The deepest wells in these parts barely draw mud.”

“Please.” The man sank to his knees and the others did the same. “We don’t know what miracle made the water happen. If your lord forces us to give up our food and we have to grow more, maybe it will dry up like the rest of the empire.”

“You have no idea how the world works, do you?” Kyva shook her head. “My lord has reunited this part of the empire. You owe him.”

“We were told that this land belonged to Duchess Eras. We were told the same about Duke Vashi.”

“Eras is dead and Vashi will join her soon enough.” Kyva tapped the pommel of her sword. “This tells you where your fealty is due.”

The skinny man stared at the weapon, then got to his feet.

“If might makes right, prove your strength,” he said. “I’ll fight you, and if you win, then the others will do as you say, but if I win, then, then, then…”

The others whispered to each other in alarm. Someone tried to pull him back down to his knees, but he stood staring at Kyva, proud despite his rags and his sunken cheeks.

Kyva took a deep breath. No dust or dryness scratched at her throat. This place really was a miracle, and this idiot thought that the best thing he could do for it was die.

“Don’t be a fool.” She tightened her grip on her sword, just in case. She’d been hardened by years of bitter war, while he was some skinny peasant. She’d make it quick and merciful, but she would damn well defend herself.

“I will, I’ll fight you.”

He grabbed a spade and raised it like a spear. Everything about him, from his shaking voice to his trembling arms, said that he knew he would lose, but still he was trying to stop her. The mangy dog had stepped up next to him, growling through bared teeth. Kyva couldn’t help admiring them and the others rising to their feet, a desperate community grabbing tools to take her on. She almost wanted them to catch her before she galloped away, to overwhelm her with sheer numbers. But Thunderer was fast and Kyva was deadly. It wouldn’t happen.

Should she pretend she never saw them? It wouldn’t be the first time she’d lied to Duke Lorkas, and these people deserved a chance.


“I’m sorry,” she said. “If you don’t accept Duke Lorkas, it’ll just be someone else. Vashi, maybe. Some other thug fighting over scraps of empire. You’re better accepting Lorkas now than having them bring the fight here.”

“You could protect us.”

Did he know how desperate that idea was? She’d have to hide the trails to this place, distract foragers who came close, pick off any scout who somehow found them. It would be as impossible as hiding the sun in a clear sky.

As a skinny farmer standing up to her.

As water in this parched place.

Chainmail jingling, Kyva dismounted and dipped a hand in the irrigation channel. Real water washed her hand. Flowing water, here in the borderlands, where everything was meant to be dead. Would Duke Lorkas appreciate the miracle, or would he just think about how it could power his conquests? She didn’t have to think about the answer.

Kyva sighed. Sooner or later, these wars were going to kill her. Might as well make that death worthwhile.

“Go back to the army,” she said to Thunderer, patting him on the flank. “You shouldn’t stay to die here with me.”

The horse just snorted, then dipped his nose back into the water. Nothing was going to drive him from this place.


This is the third and final story in a short series. You can find the first, “Picking the Bones of Hope”, over here, and the second, “What Miracles Remain”, over here.

If you enjoyed this story, then you might want to check out my novella, Ashes of the Ancestors, which is set in the same world and explores our troubled relationship with history and tradition. You can buy it at these links:

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook

When the Antagonist Isn’t the Villain

Moody black and white photograph of a smartly dressed man smoking and holding a gun.
Image by Sam Williams from Pixabay

A lot of the time, when we talk about stories, we use the terms “villain” and “antagonist” interchangeably. But while they’re often embodied in the same character, they’re not the same thing, and lumping them together doesn’t just have an aesthetic impact on the story, it also has an impact on how we view the world.

Antagonist Vs Villain

What is an antagonist and what is a villain?

Simply put, a villain is a morally bad person, while an antagonist is someone who stands in opposition to the protagonist.

The villain’s moral harm doesn’t need to be huge. It could be as small as selfishly trying to trick the romantic lead out of a healthy relationship, or as vast as trying to wipe out half the life in the universe. But by the moral standards of the story, and its implied perspective, that character is in the wrong.

An antagonist doesn’t have to be this. A well-intentioned character can stand in a protagonist’s way because their aims don’t match, they have different information, or someone’s been tricked. People can disagree without one of them being in the wrong.

Or can they?

Before we get into that question, I want to point out one more thing about this distinction. Being an antagonist means fulfilling a specific role within the mechanics of the story, obstructing the protagonist’s desires and creating tension. Being a villain doesn’t necessarily mean that. It’s a feature of the character, probably an important one, but it’s one they can have while filling all kinds of different roles in the story machine, from background colour to ally to, yes, antagonist.

You could think of villainy as an aesthetic, from a storytelling point of view (not a real world one! I’m not that guy), but as mechanically neutral. Antagonism, on the other hand, is aesthetically neutral—any style of character could be an antagonist—but has a mechanic.

Now, back to that question of disagreement…

Why Are Antagonists Often Villains?

Why bundle these concepts together?

Because protagonists are usually in the right, morally, and that works well when their opponents are in the wrong. This makes the protagonist more sympathetic, the conflict more satisfying, and the story’s moral outcome clearer. The good person was opposed by the bad person and the bad person lost. Order is restored. Reader is happy.

This is how things work in every single ghostwritten novel I’ve worked on. Those books aren’t meant to be challenging, so they use a familiar, comfortable dynamic. Readers follow and empathise with the protagonist, so that’s the hero. They want to see the hero focused on their conflict with the villain, so the villain is the antagonist. And of course, they want to see good beat evil, so this all fits nicely together.

It’s satisfying.

Separating Antagonists and Villains

But the two don’t have to line up.

My new novella, Ashes of the Ancestors, features several characters who could be labelled as villains. The warlord Lorkas robs a temple and threatens its innocent priests. The ghost of his former opponent, Eras, prizes old feuds over the good of society. They are both, to borrow a technical term from moral philosophy, murderous arseholes. But while they are the antagonists of certain scenes, neither is the antagonist of the book.

The antagonist of the book is Adrana, a newly arrived priest who wants to smash the Eternal Abbey in order to destroy Eras. That wish puts her in opposition to the protagonist, Magdalisa, who wants to look after her people as best she can—people who rely on the abbey and its ghosts for guidance. Throughout the story, the two are in conflict over this, even as they work together. That conflict creates tension and expresses the central question of the book—how do you relate to tradition and the past?

Adrana isn’t a villain. Her “aesthetic” isn’t one of moral wrong. She and Magdalisa are both sympathetic in their own ways, both right about certain things, and there’s value in what both of them believe. But they’re opposed to each other, and the resolution of the story, the place where the satisfaction kicks in, comes from resolving that tension, not beating the villains.

So far, so good. Villains and antagonists don’t have to be the same thing. But why does that matter?

Accepting Opposition

Stories express and shape how we see the world.

If all of our stories tell us that the people we disagree with—our antagonists—are also morally wrong—villains—then we’ll see the world that way. We’ll find it hard to accept that the person on the other side of a disagreement could be wrong. That’s problematic, to say the least, because none of us are right all the time, and sometimes it’s important to shift with what others say.

Stories where the antagonists are villains teach us the importance of struggling for what’s right, and that’s a good thing to learn.

Stories where the antagonists aren’t villains teach us that not everyone we struggle against is in the wrong, and that’s also a good thing to learn.

Especially right now, when there’s a lot of talk of polarisation within society, it’s important to recognise these two separate lessons, not to run our brains along the same tracks over and over again until we see every person with a different viewpoint as one who is wrong and must be opposed. We need varied stories to help us with that.

Mixing up the relationship between villains and antagonists isn’t just aesthetically satisfying. It’s also morally important.

Trust me, I’m the protagonist here.


If you’ve got thoughts on this, or you’ve got you own experiences of writing villains and antagonists to share, then why not find me on Mastodon or Twitter and tell me about them.

And if what you’ve read above has got you intrigued, or you want to help a poor struggling author so he can break out of ghostwriting and focus on more nuanced books, then you can buy Ashes of the Ancestors here:

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook

Starting a Story Wrong: The Abandoned Start of Ashes of the Ancestors

The cover of the book Ashes of the Ancestors

As I mentioned in a blog post earlier in the week, I had several false starts in writing the opening to my novella Ashes of the Ancestors. In fact, one of them got all the way to 1600 words before I realised that it didn’t work. So, for anyone who’s interested, here are those 1600 words – half a chapter that I completely abandoned, and two whole characters who got lost along the way…


“What’s taking you so long, girl? If I had a body, I could have had both those vents cleared an hour ago.”

“I’m sorry, Holy Father.”

My words came out louder than was needed. The spirits could reach me anywhere in the Eternal Abbey, all I needed to offer was a whisper, but I couldn’t help myself, I needed to make sure that I was heard. “The draft plate mechanism is caked with ash. I’m almost done cleaning, but it’s hard to get it all out from between the gear teeth, and that’s what really matters because when it gets compressed—”

“Do you think that your predecessors took this long about their tasks?”

I took a deep breath, forgetting that I had lowered my mask so that I could blow dust from the gears. Floating ash caught in my throat. I gasped, wheezed, rocked back against the wall of the chimney as I fought for breath. One foot slipped down the brickwork and I flung my hands against the walls, knocking ash into a billowing cloud, which made the rasping in my throat even worse. At least I had my goggles on, so could keep my eyes open while I found my footing again. By the time I steadied myself and pulled my mask up, I was coated in grey dust form the top of my headscarf down to the tips of my sandals, and it formed a grey slick of mud in the sweat running down my face.

Vetreas sighed, and the ash swirled.

“We will have to find someone more experienced, to teach you proper care of this place.”

“Yes please, Holy Father.”

I wished that he would, but it seemed unlikely. Even when I had first been led up to the Abbey, neither of the remaining attendants had understood its ancient mechanisms. Fifteen years later, what were the chances that anyone was left in the whole Empire who understood these machines?

“Visitors are coming, they need to be able to see me,” Vetreas said.

“Yes, Holy Father.” I returned to cleaning the mechanism.

“It is particularly important that they can see me in my own chambers, so that we can consult alone.”

“Surely visitors want an audience with all of the Holies?”

“There are many ignorant people in this fallen age, weak and frightened. They find it less intimidating to see the greatest of the Holies alone.”

I focused on brushing the last dust free, making my every movement busy, but Vetreas was the sort of man who could hear hesitation.

“Out with it, girl.”

I knew better than to hold back my answer, even though I wasn’t sure he would like it.

“Surely pilgrims seeking wisdom would want to see the Empress Chryssania.”

Now it was Vetreas who hesitated, while I untied the tools fastened by strings to my wrists, tied them back around my belt, and started climbing down the chimney.

“The Empress is the most venerable of us, but hers is a more worldly insight. Those coming to the Abbey for spiritual guidance will find more comfort in a priest.”

“Of course, Holy Father.”

I emerged from the vent in the ceiling of Vetreas’s chamber and scrambled down the knotted rope hanging there. The ladder from his chimney had broken decades ago, but one of my predecessors had bent its stub into a hook, allowing for the rope. I reached the floor, my sandals slapping against the wide grille, shook the rope loose, and caught it as it fell. Then I pulled a worn iron lever protruding from the wall, and gears rattled somewhere behind the ancient stones. A breeze blew from tubes into the fire pit beneath the grille, then up the chimney.

I tugged the goggles and mask from my face, concealing them in the folds of my headscarf, then bowed to the sandstone throne that sat against the back wall. Vetreas’s outline was just visible there, sketched in the light drift of ash the breeze had shaken loose.

“Might I put these away first, then return to light your fire?” I asked, gesturing to my tools. “I don’t want to risk misplacing any of them.”

“Very well, but be quick.” A movement in the dust showed that Vetreas was waving his hand. “And send Ilippa to me. I need her to take messages to the others.”

“Of course, Holy Father.” It wasn’t my place to send one of the Holies anywhere, but Ilippa was often in the servants’ halls, and if I told her that Archbishop Vetreas wanted to see her, she would surely come. I hoped that when I died I would continue in service as diligently as she did, though I doubted that I would be worthy of a place amid the Holies. Like most spirits, I would probably fade into forgetfulness.

I bowed once more, then hurried out of the room. My footsteps echoed ahead of me down corridors and stairwells, past windows that revealed a dizzying view of the plains hundreds of feet below. Sometimes, my footsteps would bounce back unexpectedly around twists of the corridor or turns of the ash vents, and for a moment I would think that I heard someone else. I would smile, even as the knot in my chest tightened, but then I would remember that it was an illusion. There were many other people in the Abbey, but none whose footsteps made a sound.

Sure enough, Ilippa was in the kitchen, standing in the chimney breast by the small corner of the room that I lived in. The previous night had been a cold one, and I’d stoked the fire high, leaving enough ash for her to make herself almost solid. I could make out the folds of simple robes just like mine, and the kindly smile on her wrinkled face.

“You’ve done a good job sharpening the knives,” she said, leaving a trail of ash across the blades as she ran her fingers over them.

“Thank you,” I said, bowing to her. “Your advice was helpful.”

“You pick up a few tricks, my dear, in seventy years of service and six centuries of watching.” She patted my arm, and I could almost feel her touch. “Now, the Empress sent me to tell you to prepare the grand hall. Our new companion is on her way.”

It was a thousand years since the first empress had sat on the Talaian throne, dozens of monarchs had followed in her wake, and now three candidates all laid claim to her fractured empire, yet we both still knew who Ilippa was talking about. Within the walls of the Eternal Abbey, Chrysannia was the only Empress.

“Vetreas is expecting me to light his fire.”

I wouldn’t have spoken so bluntly to any of the other Holies, but it was hard to maintain a tone of veneration around Ilippa. In my heart, I knew that she was as sacred as any of them, the monastic servant who had worked herself to death so that holy women and men could dedicate themselves to their faith, but her appearance was so like my grandmother and her demeanour so like my mother that it was hard to treat her like I did the rest. She didn’t seem to mind, but I cursed myself every time I forgot to bow in her presence or spoke to her as if she really was the other servant in this place.

“I can explain to Vetreas,” she said. “You go preparing the hall.”

“Are they really here so soon?” I took a handcart from an alcove, hurriedly loaded it with firewood, kindling, lamp oil, and incense. A smell of blood and perfume in that corner of the room made me realise that we weren’t alone, but I kept on as if I hadn’t noticed. I didn’t have time for distractions. “I thought the procession wasn’t due for three more days. I haven’t revised the rites of welcoming or prepared the funeral feast. I don’t know if we even have hangings that haven’t been eaten by moths.”

“Don’t worry, dear, we have everything we need.”

“But the funeral shroud…”

“She’s a powerful woman, she’ll come in one of her own.”

“And the ceremonies…”

“Zenovini can help with those.”

“I haven’t swept the corridors or checked the ropes on the cage or told the townspeople or anything. Oh gods, the townspeople, they’ll be expected to put on a parade, and Yiorgi doesn’t even know about it!”

My voice rose and my cheeks flushed with heat. I grabbed a cloth to wipe the ash and sweat from my face, then froze with it halfway to my forehead. What if I needed this cloth for the ceremonies?

“Zenovini will enjoy explaining the rituals, and I can talk you through the rest. As for a parade from the townspeople, expectations are lower than they used to be. No one will notice if they don’t do the full traditional welcome. This is a warlord, not an archbishop or an empress.”

Her tone seemed as even as ever, but her words hooked at my mind like a briar on a goat’s fleece.

“Do you not approve?” I asked.

“It’s not my place to approve or disapprove, my dear. General Eras is revered by her people. She has brought peace to her provinces, or parts of them at least, and her people revere her name. If she doesn’t deserve a place in the Eternal Abbey, then the flames won’t welcome her.”

“Has that happened before?” The thought that anyone unworthy might be brought for burial was so shocking that I’d never considered it, but now I couldn’t stop myself imagining what might happen. “Did they not burn, or did the spirit simply vanish?”

“Now, dear, you should focus on what’s in front of you. We have guests coming, remember.”

“Of course.” I added a flint and steel to my heaped handcart, then hurried for the door. “Thank you, Holy Ilippa.”

“Happy to help, my dear.” The ashes scattered as she released them and left the room.


There we go, the beginning that could have been. It’s far more blunt in its world building than the one I used in the end, and not as good at showing Magdalisa as a character. Even if I’d had space for Ilippa and Vetreas in the book, this would have needed some serious reworking.

Bu if you’d like to see how the story eventually started, and where all this talk of ashes and funerals is heading, you can buy my novella Ashes of the Ancestors here:

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook

Starting a Story Right

The cover of the book Ashes of the Ancestors

A fragment of soap slipped between my fingers as I whispered the words of the dawn prayer. Flecks of ash broke away into the water, not the ashes of a funeral pyre, or the fine ash that drifted through the monastery’s air, but ash from a wood fire, which I had not ground finely enough when making the soap. At least none of the monastery’s other inhabitants had to suffer from my inadequate work. The Holies were already pure in spirit, and they had long ago passed the need to make their bodies clean.

That’s how my novella Ashes of the Ancestors starts. But getting a good start is difficult, and this novel went through several. So in case it’s interesting or helpful to anyone, here’s how I considered beginning the book, and why each one didn’t happen.

Version 1

In a sense, I never entered the monastery, though I went into it every day. Forgive me if that sounds obtuse or needlessly cryptic, but I was alive, and only the dead “entered” that divine institution, in a formal sense.

This one was designed to directly and immediately set up the scenario with the ghosts and Magdalisa’s presence among them, to create some tension and intrigue about what’s happening. But the voice wasn’t at all right for Magdalisa, or for the book.

Version 2

My story doesn’t start with Adrana, but it pivots around her.

I still hadn’t worked out that this direct, talking to the audience voice was the wrong tone. I was also trying to set up the key antagonist from the start. (Adrana might not be the villain, but she’s definitely the antagonist of Magdalisa’s story.) The problem is, this actually puts too much emphasis on Adrana, while failing to set up the really important thing, a monastery full of ghosts. I instinctively gave up after one line.

Version 3

The bracelet of my brother’s bones rattled against my wrist, shaking with the voice of the Empress Chryssania.

“Is all well in there, Magdalisa?”

This one’s closer to where we need to be. It’s about Magdalisa and the ghosts. Characters and their names are being established, as well as the first hint of the power dynamics that create the plot’s tensions. And some of the novelty is there, with the bones and the empress. I can’t remember why I abandoned that one, but it feels like it’s rushing to its goal, not taking the time to set stuff up.

Version 4

“What’s taking you so long, girl? If I had a body, I could have had both those vents cleared an hour ago.”

“I’m sorry, Holy Father.”

My words came out louder than was needed. The spirits could reach me anywhere in the Eternal Abbey, all I needed to offer was a whisper, but I couldn’t help myself, I needed to make sure that I was heard. “The draft plate mechanism is caked with ash. I’m almost done cleaning, but it’s hard to get it all out from between the gear teeth, and that’s what really matters because when it gets compressed—”

This starts with characters, and a little conflict for tension. The character without a body will grab attention, and then we start setting up things about the abbey and how it works. From this start, I reached 1600 words, things were flowing.

But if you’ve read the book, you’ll have noticed something – the phrase Holy Father. There is no ghost priest in the story, and this scene is why.

My original outline had significantly more characters than the story I eventually wrote, a lot of ghosts and others representing different relationships with history, including an antagonist bishop ghost named Vetreas. Just writing those 1600 words showed me that I was trying to cram too much in. I went back, rewrote the whole outline, and started again. Which got me to where we started this blog post and the book…

Version 5

A fragment of soap slipped between my fingers as I whispered the words of the dawn prayer. Flecks of ash broke away into the water, not the ashes of a funeral pyre, or the fine ash that drifted through the monastery’s air, but ash from a wood fire, which I had not ground finely enough when making the soap. At least none of the monastery’s other inhabitants had to suffer from my inadequate work. The Holies were already pure in spirit, and they had long ago passed the need to make their bodies clean.

This is the polished version after various edits – sadly, I haven’t kept the rougher version. It introduces Magdalisa as a character, a dedicated servant who lacks confidence in herself. It introduces the Holies, these dead characters still with us. It introduces the abbey with all its smoke and hints at the funeral pyres to come. Even the soap will come up again later. The conflicts aren’t quite there yet, but there’s time for that.

I’m pleased with it. I think there’s enough here to intrigue a reader. I’d grown confident enough in the story to take my time and let things build. I think it’s the sort of story that needs that, and I think it pays off well.

Even if you think of a really arresting start to a book, the one you first write will seldom be the best option. That’s just how writing goes. Thinking it through, trying out different options, is part of how you write a story that works.

If you’ve gotten something from this, or you’ve got you own experiences with different starts to share, then why not find me on Mastodon or Twitter and tell me about them.

And if these openings have got you intrigued, you can buy Ashes of the Ancestors here:

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook