What Miracles Remain – a fantasy short story

The cover of the novella Ashes of the Ancestors

The first warning Dareios heard of the fire came from a dog.

He was lying on the miraculous grass beneath the village’s one tree, that trunk which had sprung overnight from the earth, restoring life to the parched ground around it. He lay exhausted from a long morning trying to coax crops from the dirt, while also trying to ignore Yianna’s mindless talk of hope and the future. Dareios worked as hard as anyone because this was his home and that was what you did, but any fool could see that the land was dying, and he was sick of suffering through Yianna’s delusions.

A howl ripped through the air. He bolted to his feet, caught the hint of smoke, and hurtled into the village.

“Fire!” he bellowed, sprinting toward a crackling sound. From the fields, others took up his cry.

However the fire started, it had spread fast. Four houses were ablaze and flames were advancing into neighbouring homes.

Dareios tore a curtain from a doorway and battered at the flames. Sparks flew and ashes whirled while hot air scratched his throat. Neighbours appeared, some with blankets to batter at the flames, others buckets of dirt. No water. There wasn’t enough in their world for this.

Dareios beat at the flames until his muscles ached and he grew dizzy with the effort. Others were wearying too, but not the flames. They ate their way through the village, swallowing homes and hope.

“My house!” Yianna dashed past Dareios and through her front door, despite the smoke spewing forth.

“Don’t be an idiot!” Dareios shouted. “It’s too late for yours.”

“Never too late.” Yiana flung bedding out the door while the smoke billowed thicker and darker past her. “I’ll want these in my new home.”

“What new home?” Dareios flung the curtain down. “There’s nothing left.”

The flames had devoured half the village, were approaching the last few houses and the tree beyond, one green thing in all the parched hills.

“There might be.” Yiana flung pants and tunics out the door. “You’ve got to have hope.”

“Hope?” In his fury, Dareios flung one of the tunics back through her window, into the flames. “I’ll give you hope.”

“Stop that!”

“No.” He flung shirts after the tunic, then grabbed a stack of wooden cups. “You don’t get to tell me to hope any more.”

He pulled the cups back, ready to fling them into the flames, but Yianna flung herself at him. They went tumbling in the dry dirt and falling ashes, punching and kicking, clawing at each other. Dareios poured all his misery and frustration into those blows, and Yianna, ever the hopeful, ever the fighter, hit him just as hard.

“Stop it!” someone shouted. “Stop, both of you!”

His heart burned with a furious heat, fuelled by the pain where the dry dirt of misery had rubbed at his raw soul. He kicked and clawed and pressed Yianna into the earth, even as he choked on ashes.

Hands grabbed Dareios. No one was strong any more, but they hauled him and Yianna apart, dragged them to their feet and made them face the end.

“Look.”

The tree, their beautiful miracle, was in flames. Branches charred. Leaves blackened, curled, flew away. The grass at its roots twisted and crumbled.

Yianna sobbed. Dareios sneered.

“So much for hope,” he said, trying not to remember how that grass had felt beneath him, how the wind had seemed gentler in the tree’s shade.

The tree groaned and fell, hit the ground in an explosion of charcoal. Nothing living should burn so fast. Dareios forced himself to watch, even as the others turned away in tears, watched the stump of the tree collapse inward, nothing but black dust.

“No hope,” Yianna whispered.

Then it happened. Water sprang from the hole where the tree had stood. Dareios rubbed his eyes, unable to believe what he saw. A second miracle born from the death of the first. Then he was running again, out to the fields and the tools abandoned there.

“Quick!” he shouted. “Dig ditches, carve channels, get the water to the crops.”

“What about the houses?” someone shouted, waving toward the raging flames.

“Forget the houses.” Dareios pointed at the water flowing across the ash-mottled ground, turning the ghosts of lost homes into grey mud. “This is life. This is hope.” He stared wide-eyed at Yianna. “Who knows how long this will last? So dig!”

***

This is the second story in a short series. You can find the first, “Picking the Bones of Hope”, 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. It comes out on the 7th of February – that’s just four days time! – and can be pre-ordered here:

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook

Grappling With History and Tradition

The cover of the book Ashes of the Ancestors

Ashes of the Ancestors  is a rare thing for me, a story that arose out of its theme. Normally, I’m there for a character or a setting or a plot idea, but this one was all about the theme, because it’s a theme that matters a lot to me. That theme is how we relate to history and tradition.

I’ve spent a lot of my life pondering history. I caught a fascination with the past off my dad, and went on to do two degrees in history, as well as two years research towards a PhD I never finished, all about military and political prisoners in medieval Britain. When I got into freelance writing, I used that background to get gigs, and I’ve written hundreds of articles making history accessible. I write comics with historical settings for Commando. I’m known by some people at SFF conventions as the history guy, thanks to my ranting on panels about the sins of Braveheart and William Gibson’s magical time travelling penis.

Even when I’m making up imaginary worlds, I draw a lot of my inspiration from the real past. My writing notes are full of concepts drawn from history books. But history itself is seldom the thing I’m tackling.

This time is different.

For me, there’s a tension in how I relate to the past. History and tradition get used to justify a lot of conservative politics, while my knowledge of the past has made me ever more left leaning. Some people look at the past and want to cling to it. I look to it as an object lesson out of which we can learn what not to do, so that we can build something new, something better.

All of that was already swirling around in my head, and then I came across a couple of quotes that crystalised my thoughts. One was from Haruki Murakami, who said:

“History is the shared narrative that binds us together or tears us apart.”

The other came from Jeannette Ng in an award acceptance speech:

“Let us be better than the legacies that have been left us, let them not be prophecies.”

Those two sentences say a lot to me about how we relate to history and the sense of tradition with which it is connected.

History can be used as something we share, something we bond over, something that gives us collective purpose. When its meaning and its use are inclusive, that’s wonderful and powerful. But it can also be something that’s used to justify exclusion and violence, to draw a line between us and them, to say to people that they can’t be themselves because that’s not how things were in the past, even though that’s often untrue.

That’s a powerful lesson, but it’s useless if it doesn’t give us direction. That’s why I think Ng’s comment is so important. While Murakami helps us understand how the past affects us, Ng provides a way to relate to it as we go forward with our lives. Legacies are valuable things, but that doesn’t mean we should repeat them. We can always strive to do better, to build on what came before and make something new.

Ashes of the Ancestors is all about the different ways we relate to history. Some of the characters in the story want to cling to it, others to reject it. But in my opinion, neither of those is healthy or helpful. What works best for us as individuals and as a society is to see history, to learn from it, and then to step out from under its shadow.

It’s a theme that’s so embedded in Ashes that individual characters represent different approaches to the past. Maybe I’ll talk about that another day. For now, Ashes of the Ancestors is coming out next Tuesday, 7 February. You can pre-order the book through the Luna Press website and many good booksellers. And if you want more of my thoughts or to hear about upcoming stories, you can sign up to my mailing list.


It’s Almost Time! Ashes of the Ancestors Pre-Release Stuff

Ashes of the Ancestors, my novella about ghosts, history, and tradition is almost ready to hit the shelves. There’s still time to pre-order the book and get it as soon as it comes out on 7 February. And if you’re wondering whether it might be for you, or if you want to find out a bit more, here are a few things you might enjoy…

  • Runalong the Shelves has a great review of Ashes, digging into the themes the novella explores. Matt’s recommendations have never steered me wrong in the past, so I was really pleased to see how much he enjoyed my book.
  • Over on The Fine-toothed Comb, expert editor Dion gave me space to talk about history as editing and how that connects to Ashes.
  • And last night, the book launch video for this set of Luna Press Publishing novellas went live. You can watch me and five other fabulous authors talk about our books and read scenes from them, to give you a taste of what you’re getting into. The other books are so good, I’d be recommending this even if I wasn’t part of it.

Only eleven more days! I’m very excited. Ashes of the Ancestors is the best thing I’ve had out so far, a fantasy story about an imagined past that I think speaks to our present, a story about tradition, choices, and how we move forward with history’s hand on our shoulder. If that sounds like your thing, then you can pre-order it at all these links:

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook

Writing About Writing

Author wielding a pile of his books and grinning.

It’s a busy week by my standards, as two articles about my work have sprung up in the past few days.

First, there’s an interview about my upcoming novella Ashes of the Ancestors over at the Scifi and Fantasy Network. I had a fun time talking about writing life, history, & the literary importance of Winnie the Pooh.

Second, I’ve written an article about ghostwriting for Canadian genre magazine On Spec. This is the article that my previous Q&A was leading to, and provides a more detailed and coherent dive into what it means to be a ghostwriter in the modern market. It covers the nature of the work and how to get into it, so if that’s something you’re curious about, then check it out.

And if, after all of that, you’d like to see more from me, Ashes of the Ancestors is out in just a few weeks. It’s a fantasy story about memory, empire, and grappling with the past, and you can find links to preorder it over here.

A Ghostwriting Q&A

A ghost reading ghost stories.

After a decade working as a ghostwriter, I take a lot of what I do for granted. So when I was asked to write an article about this work, I realised that I didn’t know what to say. I needed to find out what outsiders find interesting about this strange craft.

Fortunately, that’s easy research. I took to Mastodon and Twitter looking for questions, and quickly got them. The article will be up soon on another site, and I’ll link to it. But in the meantime, for the sake of posterity, here’s the ghostwriting QA I did along the way. A few questions have been edited together for brevity, and this isn’t my slickest work, but if you’ve ever wondered how ghostwriting works, then hopefully you’ll find this of interest…

Q:
How do you find “the voice”? Be it a brand, or another writer, what’s the process in learning their style? Also, how do you lose that voice to write something different

A:
I mostly find the voice through reading the client’s work, looking for patterns in their writing and distinctive features. The ticks I hate most are often the ones their readers love, & that I should imitate.

Sometimes for business writing it’s about reading competitors too. I’m crafting the voice the client wants, not the one they have.

And the real dirty secret of this, some people don’t have very distinctive styles. They follow familiar patterns for their genre/industry. That makes matching the style very easy, because there isn’t much of one.

Q:
I’d be interested to know how much of yourself (your own personality, interests, opinions) you find yourself drawing upon, and whether doing so seems OK or something to suppress. Also, how do you “let go”?

A:
This depends on the project. I’m more likely to get a job if it’s relevant to my existing knowledge & experience, & then drawing on my interests is part of the job. Both for that & for other projects, using things I’m interested in can lead to more passionate & informed writing.

But sometimes I just have to ignore my own tastes. I have clients whose books hold no interest for me, but their readers love them. At that point, my job is to set myself aside & write what those readers want, even if I think they have terrible taste!

As for letting go, take a deep breath and think of the money. It helps that this is a substitute for my day job, not my own creative writing, which I still have time for. Bitter experience has taught me to detach myself better from the work, because I’m the writer not the author, & the client has the right to use the text how they want. I’ve still sometimes winced at edits I don’t like, but then I let go & move on to the next page.

Q:
If you have ideas, victories, strokes of genius, unique and cunning plot devices, how do you stay dispassionate about someone else consistently getting the by-line?

A:
I’ve got no shortage of ideas, the problem is finding time to write them. So I save the best ones for myself, & that’s enough. Most of the time, the ideas I like best are ones that wouldn’t suit my clients & their readers anyway, & the stories they’re after aren’t ones I want my name on.

Q:
I guess mostly if you regret that you can’t tell people about certain lines or characters you’ve created that you adore and are proud of, but can’t claim as your own.

A:
Mostly I’m OK with that, because I keep my favourite ideas for myself. It helps that my clients often want the sorts of protagonists that I don’t like, so I don’t get attached. But I’ve had one or two side characters that I’ve got fond of, where it would be nice to tell people about them.

Q:
I’m interested in the how and where? Like how did you end up doing ghost writing? Where do you find the jobs? Are the schedules tighter than with other writing jobs? Do you deal with an editor directly or just hand in a MS that’s unedited to the middle person?

A:
I got into it through a mix of experience & bloody mindedness. I’d done a lot of business writing in another job, & sold some short stories in my spare time, so I knew I could write, but not whether I could make a living off it. I started bidding on small, poorly paid projects on hiring sites like Upwork, got ratings & reviews for those jobs, which let me get slightly better gigs, which over the months & years turned into things that pay well. Bidding on projects where I could use my existing experience & education was crucial, as it let me write with authority, stand out from the crowd, & do good work from the start.

I mostly find work through freelance hiring sites, though sometimes clients recommend me to others. Professional networking helps. I also got work once from someone who found my business website, but only once – this internet thing is overrated.

The schedules can be very tight. I sometimes write a draft of a novel each month for six to eight month stretches, with articles on the side.

Usually I just hand the draft to the client when it’s done, & they edit or hand it to their editor. I have occasionally worked directly with the client’s editor, & once worked on a project where the editor was editing a book I hadn’t finished yet, creeping up on me chapter by chapter through Google docs.

Q:
OK, here’s a question: what do you do when the person for whom you are ghost writing is clearly spinning you a pack of lies?

A:
I’ve never helped write an autobiography, so I don’t know how I’d handle it there.

The closest I’ve come to this was working for a cryptocurrency startup, before I learned about what a toxic garbage fire crypto is (I wouldn’t take that work now). As the job went along, it slowly dawned on me how much of what they were saying was hype & bullshit. I trod a careful line to stay honest while trying to stick to their narrative, & fortunately they ran out of real money to pay me before I had to say “too far, I won’t write this”.

Q:
Apart from that, what comes to mind is whether clients are hands-off after picking a ghostwriter or get more involved in needing to approve the text and/for asking for revisions.

A:
Depends on the client and my relationship with them. Some just leave me to it, some give regular feedback & direction as the chapters roll in. I often don’t see the final version, so I couldn’t say how many just accept what I give them without a few tweaks, but I don’t think many make big changes.

The oddest one (not in a bad way) was when I was part of the team producing stories for a non-existent author. We worked in Google docs, & I had notifications coming in when the editor made changes or comments to what I’d written. I could see them creeping up a few chapters behind me even as I wrote.

Q:
How did you get into it? Are the courses and classes I constantly see advertised worth it?

A:
I can’t advise on the courses and classes, as I’ve never taken them.

As for how I got into it, see above.

Q:
How does the pressure weigh up against your own writings?

A:
There’s more pressure time-wise, which means I get stuff done. That’s been good for improving my discipline as a writer.

There’s less pressure to write something bold, new, & exciting, because that’s seldom what my clients want, & because I’m not competing with other fiction writers for the attention of editors & agents.

Q:
Is there a minimum/maximum amount of input from the client you require/prefer?

A:
I prefer more input, as it means I’m more likely to write what they actually want, which avoids disputes later. But I’ve spun a whole novel out of a three-line brief, so actual requirements are low.

Q:
Is the connection to the story/world/characters as intimate as your own stuff? How do you prevent/manage bleed over inyour own work?

A:
The connection’s seldom as intimate – these aren’t my characters, even if I created them, they’re not designed to appeal to me, so it’s easier to let go.

As for bleed over, the sorts of stories my clients want are different enough from mine that I don’t think anything’s slipped form one into another. I approach them with a different mindset. I expect I’ve repeated a few notable phrases, because I forgot I’d already used a cool collection of words that pops into my brain, but at the macro scale, they’re very separate.

Q:
My question would be how one works with someone who has disagreeable views or problematic ones? Is one able to pick and choose, or are contracts flexible enough to avoid this?

A:
To some extenet, I pick and choose. For example, I don’t write for cryptocurrency people anymore, because of what I’ve learned about that tech.

Aside from that, I had a client once where hints of unpleasant views peeked around the edges of the project brief. I wrote the document within the boundaries of what I was comfortable with, submitted & got paid, & braced myself to say I was too busy next time he approached me. Never heard from him again.

That aside, I couldn’t ghostwrite fiction without sometimes having to write tropes I dislike, especially when it comes to the implications of gender roles. Unfortunately, that’s what some audiences & subgenres expect. I have lines I won’t cross, & I write these stories as progressively as I can get away with, drawing attention to the bullshit where I can. And the less problematic the client’s stories, the more likely I’ll work for them again.

Q:
How do you structure your rates? Did it take you a long time to be able to accurately estimate a project? What training did you receive? Do you only ghostwrite or do you offer other services too?

A:
My training is a mix of business writing experience from a past job & fiction writing experience I got in my spare time. No formal fiction qualifications, just a lot of time listening to Writing Excuses. The most relevant non-fiction training was the English element in my primary teacher training & on-the-job advice by a manager in a complaints team I worked in.

My rates depend on the structuring of the job. I have an hourly rate for research, planning and revision work, a per-word rate for fiction writing, & a different per-word rate for non-fiction writing. I put the rates up regularly, when I can get away with it, but sometimes accept lower rates when I need the work. If I have to provide an estimate for a whole project, it’s based on projected wordcount & the extent of planning, research, & revisions. Plus the inevitable sprinkling of guesswork.

I mostly only do writing for hire, which includes ghostwriting. Very occasionally I do editing or revisions, but I prefer writing when I can get it.

Q:
What do you like about ghostwriting, what kind of writers would you recommend it for?

A:
The best question!

I love writing as an activity, & ghostwriting lets me do that for a day job, instead of sitting in an office or a shop or something like that. The craft is the joy, & it’s made me better at my own writing.

I’ve also learned, from doing this, that I love working freelance. In an office, I had to tolerate the bullshit of people higher up the hierarchy. Now, if I don’t like working with someone, I just say I’m too busy for their work. Or if I need the money too much to say that, then the fact that I’ve made that choice makes the bullshit bearable.

I’d recommend it for writers who can sit down and force themselves to write when they need to. If you’re the sort of writer who can do that, then it’s a great way to develop your writing muscles. But if your writing comes to you in bursts of inspiration or brief flashes after which you need to go let your mind rest & the subconscious do its thing, then this isn’t for you.

Writing is exercise for the brain. It’s strengthening, but it’s also tiring. The merits of this work depend upon how you balance those two things.

#

So there we go, a bunch of Qs and some rough As. I’ve written a more polished and insightful article based partly on this, which I’ll link to when it goes live. And if you’ve got a question that I haven’t answered here, feel free to ask me on Mastodon or Twitter, I’m always happy to talk about my work.

Picking the Bones of Hope – a flash fantasy story

For Eirwid, stories were the perfect currency. They added no weight to his pack, leaving space for the trinkets he took. They could be copied, but they could never be stolen and never ran out. Unlike coin, they had value wherever he went, because people craved entertainment. Even in a place where the crops withered, the ground cracked, and houses collapsed into sink holes, he could buy bread and water, and time to look for better things.

Twilight illuminated the people in the inn, their slumped shoulders, dust-caked features, raw knuckles with dirt in the wounds. They drank weak ale in the gloom, candles and fuel for the fire saved for another day.

“…and those who survived sailed west, leaving only their ghosts.” For a moment after he’d finished the story, Eirwid kept the carved whale on the table, its stone glowing with the magic of a long lost people. Then he opened his pack and put it back with the rest. A mirror that showed the dead. A bag of seeds from a forest that never stopped growing. A fragment of shell from a phoenix egg, icy cold to the touch.

The applause was muted, except for one woman who clapped loudly and smiled. A serving lad put a cup down in front of Eirwid, unasked payment for an implied service.

“They say there’s an abbey.” A man dragged his head up to look at the visitor. “The place they buried the first empress. A place folk can go for guidance from her ghost. Your travels ever take you there?”

Eirwid shook his head. When they landed in the Talaian Empire, he and Olweth had tossed a coin. They had to split the territory somehow, get what they could before the empire went to ash, and it was easier to trust to luck than to argue. She’d got the Eternal Abbey and he’d got the borderlands. She’d probably cheated on the toss, but it was hard to resent a thing done with skill.

“I’ve not been there,” he said, “but I hear you can get good advice for fine gifts. Maybe the ghosts can tell you how to save your crops.”

He pretended interest in his drink. This was the moment he’d been steering towards, a chance to find out what there was of value in this town.

The locals stared into their cups.

“What would we have worthy of an empress?” The cheery woman laughed. “Sold it all years ago, didn’t we?”

Some of them nodded. Others just looked at her resentfully. It was a tale Eirwid had heard a lot in these lands. He’d stopped assuming it was a lie, stopped sneaking around trying to find the hidden goods.

“Too bad.” He drained his cup and got to his feet. “Thank you for your hospitality. I should get going. I’ve a long walk ahead.”

“Now?” the serving lad asked. “It’s turning to night.”

“Best time to travel.” Eirwid tapped his cheek. In the light of day, they’d seen how pale his skin was, how it freckled and blistered in the heat under which they worked the fields, desperately trying to scratch hope from dead dirt. He’d be glad to get out of this sun-blasted land, to meet with Olweth and sail home. They’d still tell their stories, but they’d have real currency too, once they finished picking the bones of empire.

“Safe journey, and thanks for the stories.” The cheerful woman waved. Some of the others muttered farewells.

“I hoped, when you turned up,” said the man who’d asked about the abbey. “Hoped you might bring something that could save us. But hope’s a curse, isn’t it?”

Eirwid’s hand went to his bag. There would be something in there that could help, for a while at least, one of the small marvels he’d gathered. But how long could these people hang on? Their land was doomed. Warlords were riding from the south, fighting over the scraps. Better to save these treasures than to throw them away.

“Hope is important.” Eirwid put on a sad smile. “Yours will get you through.”

It wouldn’t. He’d seen enough dying places to know that hope was never enough.

Eirwid walked out into the night. Heat was still rising from the baked dirt. A dog whimpered where it lay. Eirwid walked on past.

Footsteps followed him out of the inn and he reached for his knife before glancing over his shoulder. It was the sad and weary man who’d asked about the abbey.

The man knelt by the dog, two half-dead creatures of leathery skin over jutting bones. He set down a bowl of the town’s precious water and a strip of dried meat. The dog lapped eagerly at the water while the man, alone at last, sobbed into his hands.

Unseen in the darkness, Eirwid gritted his teeth. Better to save what he could than to throw it away. And yet…

He stepped off what passed for a road, into a field where the locals had spent the day breaking the dirt. He reached into his pack, into a pouch within, took out a seed that came from a forest that never stopped growing, and planted it. The moment it touched the earth, the seed cracked open. Hard ground crumbled as roots delved. A shoot rose, questing, into the air.

It wasn’t crops, but it was roots, which could hold good soil in place, maybe draw up water from below. It would just be hope, which was a curse, but maybe these people could cling on long enough to make something worth taking next time he came through.

Olweth would curse Eirwid for a fool at throwing away their profits, but it served her right for cheating on the coin toss.

The ground creaked as roots delved. The dog barked. Eirwid walked on into the night, already working out how he would tell this story.

***

The cover for the book Ashes of the Ancestors

If you enjoyed this story, then you might want to check out my novella, Ashes of the Ancestors, which tells the tale of the Eternal Abbey and other people trying to survive Talaia’s fall. It comes out on the 7th of February and is available to preorder now through the Luna Press store.

Out Now – No Heroes, a Commando Comic

Cover for the Commando comic No Heroes, showing soldiers walking through a jungle, watched by a snake.

Phuoc Tuy, 1968. Private Ian Ewell arrives for his first posting with the Australian SAS. Thrown in at the deep end and faced with everything from guerrilla traps to flesh-eating ants, the green recruit finds the dense jungle of Vietnam to be even more perilous than he ever imagined. His teammates need him to come up to speed fast, and with his dreams of valour swiftly fading, Ewell must come to terms with the fact that in a war this complex, there can be No Heroes.

A Stocking Filler?

Yes, dear reader, Christmas is coming, and what could be more festive than reading a story about war?

Weirdly, there is something fitting about this for me. When I was a kid, The Great Escape was on TV every Christmas, which was also the time to watch whichever Star Wars was on that year, for war stories mashed up with laser guns and the Campbellian monomyth. These days, I can watch those films whenever I want, thanks to the streaming revolution, but once upon a childhood, 25th December was a special time full of bullets and bombs.

If that also rings a bell for you, then maybe now’s the time to pop out and buy a Commando as a nostalgic stocking filler, a comics version of settling down to watch The Great Escape. But before you do that, you might want me to tell you what this story is…

An Awkward War

Vietnam is an awkward war to write about, especially if you’re writing adventure stories. Way back before the controversial conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was the war that made people in the West question their black-and-white image of war’s morality, an image forged in the blazing horrors of World War Two. Sure, there were some monstrous people and tactics on the communist Vietnamese side, but the south was governed by tyrants and torturers too. And once you’re defoliating whole regions or destroying innocent farming communities, can you really call yourselves the good guys anymore?

Mitchell and Webb are we the baddies image

But for better or for worse, heroism isn’t always about being on the right side, if there even is one. I’ve written Commando stories set in the Norman invasion and Wars of the Roses, conflicts where, by modern standards, good and bad sides are impossible to find. Yet you can still find heroics, people willing to risk themselves for friends, comrades, or a cause they believe in.

There is space to depict skill, courage, and idealism within the context of the Vietnam war. It’s tricky, and any story you tell is going to get flack from one side or the other—preferably both—but the space is there.

So what did I do with it?

The New Classics

For starters, I’ve picked an unusual set of protagonists. Western films about Vietnam usually focus on the Americans, but other countries also sent troops into the mix. The Australians, who feature in this story, gained a reputation for effectiveness within the war zone. Nobody was perfect, but without America’s problems of mass mobilisation amid social upheaval, they had an easier time keeping professional and responding to the circumstances they found themselves in. It’s interesting to draw attention to their presence, to make sure that their role isn’t forgotten.

Image of a falling soldier from the film Platoon.

But the main thing I’ve done is to draw on the tone of the classic Vietnam war films, films like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. We expect World War Two stories to be heroic, or for their anti-heroism to say something new. But with Vietnam stories, it’s a default. This is the war of disillusionment, and that lets me tell a story that I couldn’t in most Commando comics, a story that shows a soldier going through the disillusionment Vietnam brought, a story that loudly shouts that there are no heroes, even as it shows us what heroism is.

Irony, it’s not just a way to make steely, it’s also a writer’s favourite tool.

Better Than a Lump of Coal

So should you buy a copy of No Heroes to leave in a loved one’s Christmas stocking?

Sure, it’s no Great Escape, but that’s what streaming services are for. As the ancient ritual of watching Steve McQueen crash a motorbike on Christmas Day shows, this season isn’t always about light and fluffy things. It’s about enjoying the things that give you pleasure, whether that’s dinner with family or a gritty story about war in the jungle. So if you’d like to read a Commando in the classic Vietnam movie tradition, with the twist of soldiers who are usually forgotten, why not give it a go?

No Heroes, written by me, with art by Jaume Forns and a cover by Neil Roberts, is out now.

You can buy No Heroes from:

Comixology digital edition

Find a local store

A Conspiracy of Pigeons – a scifi short story

A pigeon looks down across a city.
Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Leo crept along an alleyway and out along dirt-smeared store fronts, stalking pigeons through the city streets. He knew that they were here. They always had been. They always would be. But somehow, they were harder to find these days. He had no trouble finding mice and rats, squirrels in the parks, small birds among the rooftops. The old city was full of exquisite morsels, but pigeons were a distant grey movement, tantalisingly out of reach.

He stopped to lap at a puddle in the shadow of a statue, a vast feline body with its face worn smooth. Limbless trees lined the road ahead.

When Leo was a kitten, pigeons had been plentiful in the old city, drawn down by the litter humans left. That was back when floods barrelled through the streets, bludgeoning and drowning; when winds ripped tiles from the roofs and rained down shards of shattered windows. It had felt like the world was ending.

Not that the old city was safe now. A fox emerged from the mouth of a drain, its eyes feverish with one of the city’s sicknesses. Some creatures caught infections that slowed them down. Strange shining things latched onto others, changing how they behaved. This fox had one of those silvery objects clamped to its head and a hungry, desperate  look.

The fox charged at Leo, who dashed to a limbless tree, dug his claws in and scrambled frantically up. The fox tried to follow but the shining thing on its head wrecked its balance. It fell to the ground, squirming and twitching.

From the top of the tree, Leo gazed across the rooftops. On these clear days, he could see all the way to a new city, one of the tall ones with gleaming walls and woodlands on their roofs. When the humans left the old city, they had taken Leo with them. He’d found himself in a place that was safe, calm, and clean. The humans had seemed happy. So had the dogs, of course, even most of the cats. But Leo couldn’t settle. He’d spent half his life on the perilous streets, and they called to him.

The old city had changed different cats in different ways. Leo was smarter and could understand humans better than most. He knew that they had left the old city standing on purpose, a way to remember the terrible past.

Looking now from his treetop to the centre of the city, Leo saw familiar grey wings flutter around a vast dome. That was where he needed to be. Thick wires ran along the line of trees to there. He placed his paws on the wire and, with swift steps, followed the swaying path across the city.

Leo’s journey back from the new city had been its own balancing act, swaying between the need to keep moving and the risk of recapture and return. By then the storms were fewer, the floods less dramatic. The old city had seemed strangely quiet without its human occupants.

Over the years that followed, a calm had settled across Leo’s world. Life became easier and he became discontented. He needed a challenge.

Then he realised that the pigeons were up to something.

A hundred feet from the dome, the wire ended, severed and dangling. Frustrated, Leo leaped from the treetop to a nearby window, through its rotting frame, down mouldy stairs, and back into the street. A pigeon flapped past overhead. Wires trailed from the gleaming thing between its claws. Leo purred softly. He almost had them.

Skulking from shadow to shadow, Leo approached the domed building. One of its doors was ajar, hinges broken and base pressed into the floor. Leo slipped past. From deeper in the building, he heard clattering and fluttering.

He tensed at the smell of another cat. This might mean trouble.

That scent led Leo slowly up narrow stairs. At the top, a balcony looked out across the chamber beneath the dome. In its centre hung a mass of human-made pieces, dark and stark-edged with wires binding and connecting them. Pigeons fluttered around, pushing those pieces together. The floor below was pale and slick with their mess, but their construct was pristine.

Like Leo, the pigeons had been changed by the things humans left behind. But while Leo had become ever more solitary, the pigeons clung closer together. They were the true city-dwellers now, and they were making something.

A cat perched on the edge of the balcony, woefully skinny beneath her tabby fur. She had clearly been around the wrong sort of humans, as she bore a scar on her hip where some device had been removed. She looked hungrily at the pigeons and pulled back her lips, but closed them without a sound. Utterly preoccupied with the pigeons, she showed no sign of sensing Leo, but tensed, ready to pounce.

Leo leapt, grabbed the tabby, dragged her back. She hissed and fought, claws slashing, but his experience and her hunger favoured him. He pinned her down, then looked from her to the pigeons and back again, until she got the message. Resentfully, she drew her claws in and untensed.

Leo pressed his cheek against hers and purred. Later, he would show her how to catch the twisted animals of the old city, how to live here away from humans. First, though, he had to see what had brought him here.

Leo and the tabby peered through the balcony rail. Moving like a single beast, the pigeons fluttered to the edge of the room and settled, cooing.

After a moment, the thing they had made stirred. Shapes like wings scraped the floor. The pigeons cooed again, an excited chorus, then flocked in to work at their creation once more.

The tabby’s soft hiss was a question. Leo didn’t know the answer, but he knew that this was important. In the city humans had left as a warning, animals were coming into their own.

***

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.

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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 available for pre-order now:

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook

Ashes of the Ancestors available for pre-order

The cover of Ashes of the Ancestors

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.

My novella, Ashes of the Ancestors, is now available to pre-order. A fantasy story about tradition and our relationship with the past, Ashes of the Ancestors is far and away the best thing I’ve produced so far, and you should obviously go grab a copy. It comes out alongside five other novellas from fantastic speculative fiction authors, which you can read about here.

Pre-orders really help a book to make a splash when it comes out, and are a great way of supporting not just authors but independent presses like Luna, so if this sounds like your sort of thing, please consider clicking on the links to pre-order it at assorted places. Think of the book as a gift to your future self, to be delivered on 7 February…

Me, grinning, with my author copies of the book

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook

And just to prove that they’re real, here I am, getting excited about my author copies.

Happy reading!

A Volunteer from the Audience – a horror short story

Creepy clown.
Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Rich found himself sitting on a wooden bench in the back of a circus tent. He couldn’t remember why they’d decided to come but it was probably Jen’s idea. She loved a good spectacle and there was plenty here. The fire breather illuminating the entrance; the juggler tossing chainsaws; the acrobats spinning like sequined nebulae overhead. The elephants and bears were a surprise, Rich thought that modern circuses had given that up, but there was something amazing about seeing a lion open its jaws wide.

The show began. The ringmaster swept his top hat down in a bow, blood red tailcoat swirling, then waggled his eyebrows. Eyes like bottomless pits stared right at Rich, who swallowed. How could a face look so expressive and so empty at once?

“Ladies and gentlemen.” The ringmaster’s smile bared skull white teeth. “Thank you again for joining us. It’s going to be a night you’ll never forget.”

Rich glanced around. Where had Jen got to? She was going to miss out. Perhaps she was buying refreshments. She always bought sweets at the cinema, why not at the circus?

A magician emerged.

“I need a volunteer from the audience,” he said. “How about you, miss?”

A young woman stepped up and lay down on a table. A box closed over her, with only her head and feet protruding. The magician produced a saw and started cutting. The audience laughed politely at familiar jokes while the saw scraped lower.

The woman screamed. Her head and feet spasmed. Rich stared, fascinated. It had to be a trick, a plant from the audience and a bag of red water. Part of him wanted it to be real, an awful mistake making a real night to remember, but then the magician wouldn’t be grinning, would he?

The audience stopped laughing, then started again, and Rich joined in, the tension snapping like an over-strained thread. The woman went limp and they laughed louder; they were in on the joke, weren’t they?

Clowns pushed the magician and his trick to one side. The ringmaster stepped forward.

“Don’t worry, we’ll be seeing them again later,” he said with a wink.

A knife thrower emerged, her bare arms covered with jagged tattoos. A knife spun gleaming through the air.

“I need a volunteer from the audience,” she said. “How about you, sir?”

The clowns strapped a man in an old-fashioned suit onto a vertical disk, a wooden target with splintered gouges where the knives had struck. The knife thrower pulled on a blindfold, tossed a blade through the air, caught it perfectly between her fingertips. The ringmaster spun the wheel and the man in the suit turned.

The knife thrower drew back her arm. The audience took a collective breath. A blade twisted end over end through the air and buried itself in the man’s chest.

Rich gasped, fixated on that spinning body and the pattern of blood on the floor. Then the ringmaster laughed, the audience laughed, and Rich was swept into the sound. Of course, it was that sort of circus. They would reveal the trick in the end. For now, clowns pushed the spinning board to one side.

A fire breather, head and chest shaved and gleaming, stepped into the ring with a burning brand in one hand and a bottle in the other.

“I need a volunteer from the audience,” he said, and looked Rich in the eye. “How about you?”

Rich scrambled eagerly across the seats and into the ring, let himself be tied to a post by the clowns. He’d never known that fire breathers needed volunteers. He wondered what the trick was. But even as he wondered, he glanced around, trying to glimpse the sawn woman and stabbed man, wondering in spite of everything if he might see a corpse.

Past the magician’s box, he saw Jen sitting in the audience. He wanted to wave, but his hands were tied. She had a bag of sweets. There were flecks of dark foam at the corners of her pale blue lips.

Ice ran through Rich’s veins as he watched her place another boiled sweet in her mouth, moving with terrible, stiff precision.

He looked across the rest of the crowd. Next to Jen was the magician’s volunteer, her guts pooled in her lap. Beyond her was the man in the old-fashioned suit, knife still protruding from his chest. The woman behind him looked like her head had been mauled by a lion, and flanking her were a couple with twisted, broken limbs.

Rich realised, with terrible certainty, that he had seen this before.

The fire breather took a swig from his bottle and held up the burning brand. His eyes glinted red.

“No, wait, don’t, I—”

Rich screamed as the inferno engulfed him. Through crackling flames, he heard the crowd laugh. Time stretched out in bright agony, until at last there was the sweet relief of oblivion.

Rich woke to find himself sitting on a wooden bench in the back of a circus tent. He couldn’t remember why they’d decided to come here. It was probably Jen’s idea.

The ringmaster swept his top hat down in a bow, blood red tailcoat swirling, then looked up and waggled his eyebrows.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he called out. “Thank you for joining us again. It’s going to be a night you’ll never forget.”

***

A few days early with this month’s flash fiction, but it seemed a shame not to get this one out in time for Halloween. It’s not my usual thing, but I do like to dip a toe in the darkness around this time of year.

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, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox once a month.

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This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silver-and-gold-cover.jpg

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.