Out Now – Zhai Chengda’s Wife

It’s story time again!

My steampunk short “Zhai Chengda’s Wife” is out now in the latest edition of Electric Spec. A spy story set in an alternate history Song Dynasty China, “Zhai Chengda’s Wife” follows Tao Wan, a covert agent for the Kingdom of Xia. As the Song Empire threatens Xia, its politicians are forced to the negotiating table, expecting to be crushed by their more powerful neighbour. But when Tao Wan meets with the wife of the Chinese ambassador, an opportunity arises to level the playing field. Will she take it? And what will this meeting cost Zhai Chengda’s wife?

This story was inspired by a desire to write steampunk in an unusual setting. My friend Jon suggested Song China as a time and place full of industrial growth. It was a chance to go beyond the western settings that dominate steampunk and show something new.

Along the way, I stumbled across a theme I hadn’t been expecting – imbalances of power. The story is all about these uneven dynamics, from the bullying diplomacy of the Song Chinese to the ambassador’s abusive marriage. Even the relationship Tao Wan builds with Lady Zhai, a relationship that offers hope for an escape, is built on the power imbalance between a confident, educated woman and her disheartened peer. Is it possible to bring justice when only one side knows how to be heard?

“Zhai Chengda’s Wife” is out now in Electric Spec.

Commentary on The Astrolabe

This month sees my story “The Astrolabe” published in Bards and Sages Quarterly, a magazine that’s played host to several of my efforts. It’s great to see this fantasy tale see the light of day.

Like “The Well of Vengeance”, which I wrote about last week, “The Astrolabe” took a while to find its home. Unless you’re a really high profile writer, this is a common experience. Stories face a string of rejections before they’re eventually accepted, so that the experience can be as much about relief as excitement. “Thank goodness,” thinks the poor author, “someone loves my word baby!”

In this case, the word baby is about an admiral on a sailing ship. She’s a somewhat unusual admiral, in that she’s also a bird, as are her crew. That image of birds sailing a ship was one that had appeared in my head and I found immensely appealing, turning it into a story about mutiny, duty, and trying to stay the course.

Because the idea of bird sailors was so appealing to me, it wasn’t until I asked friends to read the story that they pointed out the obvious flaw – why would birds even need to sail? After all, they can fly.

It was a question I had to think over and then make a nod to in the story, so that it didn’t draw the same reaction from paying readers. My answer is to do with war and transporting cannons, which tied in nicely to the story’s main conflict.

That conflict is around a gift. It’s not been uncommon throughout history for military leaders on opposite sides to admire and even like each other, to maintain relationships across the battle lines. Sometimes it ends in tragedy, sometimes reconciliation. It made for an unusual focus for a war story, one I was keen to explore. But as in so many relationships, for Admiral Concesa, not everything is as it seems. And there a story is born…

I hope you enjoy reading “The Astrolabe“, whatever your reasons for thinking that birds might sail. And if you already read and enjoyed 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 Friday.

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By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’



The Well of Vengeance – What’s This All About Then?

This month, one of my fantasy stories, “The Well of Vengeance”, sees light of day in Swords and Sorcery Magazine. It’s a dramatic tale of suffering, endurance, and justice set amid the sands of the Middle East, during the Roman Empire. But where did this story come from?

Monsters

I wrote the original version of this story years ago, in response to a call for stories featuring gigantic monsters. I was looking for something different from the usual apes, lizards, and dinosaurs, and thought that a massive scorpion might be interesting. There’s something sinister about a scorpion of any size, but pair its poison with vast claws and you’ve got something really deadly.

Plus what child of the ’80s didn’t think Scorponok was kind of cool?

While a giant scorpion made for a neat image, it wasn’t going to be much use as a protagonist, or give me emotional substance to work with. For that, I needed a protagonist, and a setting for them to emerge from.

Wells

This story’s title comes from the place it’s all heading towards, a source of water amid the harsh desert sands, an oasis that brings the hope of survival, but also the threat of bloody revenge.

This was inspired by something from the Bible. I don’t remember quite how I stumbled across it, but there was a section talking about wells with symbolic names. The wells were so important for surviving in an arid climate that they gained special associations and a mystique around them. They represented ideas.

One of the most common tricks of fantasy writing is to make the symbolic literal. In the world of this story, wells have significance and meaning not just because of the water, but because of the spirits they embody. The Well of Hope might be a place that brings up bright thoughts. The Well of Vengeance, on the other hand, will stir visitors to examine their grudges and indulge in dark deeds.

That gave me a setting, an antagonist, a title, even a motive for the protagonist – get to vengeance, both the well and the action. But who could that protagonist be?

A Woman on a Mission

Here’s where I get to my limitations as a writer.

A decade ago (blimey, that time has flown past!), when I first started on this story, I’d just become concerned with showing more women in my stories. My then-partner had pointed out that I habitually wrote about men, and I wanted to balance that out. So I created Esther, the protagonist of this story, a young woman on a mission to right old wrongs.

That’s not a bad thing in itself, but there is a problem with it. In trying to show women as empowered, it’s not uncommon to show women who have been hurt by men and are now out for revenge. It centres their motivation on male characters and emphasises men’s effect on women. That’s not bad in itself, but doing it too often – which is arguably a thing – doesn’t help in better representing truly empowered and independent female characters.

This story is part of a pattern that I’m not entirely comfortable with. An attempt at empowerment becomes undermining and more than a little cliched. If I could change anything about the story, it would be that.

Sticking With It

That being the case, why didn’t I rewrite the story?

Honestly, because I’m better off writing new ones. It’s great that someone liked this enough to publish it, but I’d rather create something new than keep recreating my old work. I’m full of ideas and skills I didn’t have a decade ago. I’m moving forward.

I hope you enjoy reading “The Well of Vengeance“, limitations and all. No story is perfect, and I’m pleased with a lot of what I did on this one.

And if you already read and enjoyed 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 Friday.

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By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

Out Now – Lady Death

War has come to the Ukraine, German tanks driving back the Red Army in a brutal mechanical tide. Faced with the prospect of losing everything she holds dear, Svetlana Ivanovna Korzh takes up the gun, ready to defend her homeland. Turned from a teacher into a sniper, she heads into the streets of Odessa in a desperate attempt to stop the onslaught. But as her friends start to fall, a far more personal struggle begins…

Lady Death is my latest story from Commando Comics, brought to life by the art of Manuel Benet. It was inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary history book The Unwomanly Face of War, which explores the role of women in the Red Army in World War Two, their experiences both in action and in transitioning to and from civilian lives. It’s one of the best history books I’ve ever read, and I can’t recommend it enough for the way it brings forgotten stories to light and personalises a vast historical narrative.

While an action comic could never do justice to the complex and difficult lives these women led, I wanted to at least draw attention to their experiences, from the harrowing losses to the touching moments of friendship amid the horror of war. In doing so, I’ve taken fragments of reality and stitched them together into a fictional whole. Many elements of the story are taken from real life. The recruiting officer who doesn’t want to accept women. The troop trains strafed on the way to war. The wedding dress made from parachute silk. The partisans fighting in the catacombs. And most importantly, the thousands of female snipers who risked their lives, only to be forgotten in the aftermath.

Historical storytelling is a strange thing, a delicate balance of truth and fiction. I hope that I’ve included enough truth here to make the story worthwhile, and enough fiction to keep you entertained.



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From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

You can read more about From a Foreign Shore, including what other readers thought here. It’s available on Kindle through Amazon.



The Epiphany Club – What Was That All About Then?

After years of hard work, distractions, and delays (some self-inflicted), I’ve finally got my Epiphany Club series out in print. So it’s time to talk a bit about this book – what it is, why I wrote it, and what it means to me.

The Epiphany Club started out as a throw-away line in a short story. I was writing about Victorian adventurers heading into the sewers beneath Venice to face the mechanised head of Leonardo da Vinci. To flesh out their background, I made them part of a scholarly club with a history of such escapades. That story became “The Secret in the Sewers”, published in issue four of a magazine called Fiction, and later republished in my collection Riding the Mainspring. And out of that story, Dirk Dynamo and Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms were born.

I liked Dirk and Tim, so I ended up writing more short stories about them, some of which saw publication. In fact, I liked them so much that, when I wanted to write something longer, I decided to make it about them.

This was a decade ago, a time when I knew much less about writing, but when I went at everything with gusto. Any fragment of steampunk or Victoriana I came up with was shoved into my Epiphany Club planning. From Parisian sewer maintenance to the aftermath of slavery, in it all went, with little thought to theme, audience, or consistency. By the time I got onto part two of however many, it was a bit of a mess.

But it was a mess that I loved and one that could be broken up into novella-sized chunks. So when I decided to try self-publishing, and that the best way to do that was a novella series, it was a perfect fit.

In the meantime, I’d learnt more about writing and representation. This led to some big changes in the book, particularly around character arcs and the roles of men and women. The results are something far better and far more coherent than my original vision. It’s far from perfect, as is everything in this world. But for my first serious attempt at putting something this substantial out, I’m still pleased with it, and more fond of my characters than ever before.

The me who started this project so messily, creating much more work down the line? Him I’m not so fond of, but it’s a little late for recrimination.

Despite the eclectic nature of its birth, there is a coherence to The Epiphany Club. It’s a story that tries to mix pulp adventure with the things we often ignore in steampunk and Victorian adventure stories. Gender inequality, colonialism, and the toxic effects of nationalistic politics are all there. But to stop that dragging it down, there are also strange machines, hideous monsters, and action galore. It’s the sort of adventure story I’d like to read, and so I’m proud I’ve written it.

If that sounds like something you’d enjoy, then you can get The Epiphany Club now. And if you enjoy it, please let me know. It’s always good to hear when your story works.

Harriet’s War

This week, I have a new comic out from Commando – Harriet’s War.

Harriet’s War is part of a series from Commando marking the centenary of the armistice that ended the First World War. Called The Weekes’ War, the series follows several members of a single family, all serving in British forces.

As I’ve written about before, World War One is an important part of history. It was a war of unprecedented destruction in which people were reduced to cogs in industrial-scale killing machines. Because of the way soldiers were recruited, entire communities sometimes lost a generation of young men. Seeing how the war could touch the many members of a single family is particularly fitting, as well as a smart way to show different sides of the war.

Showing different sides is why I’m particularly proud to have written Harriet’s War. It’s only right and proper that we talk about the millions of young men who fought and died in the Allied armies, but it’s also important to remember other people and places, and that’s what Harriet’s War does.

The central characters, Harriet and Vera, are both women. Though very few women fought in the war, many were involved in it. Filling roles such as factory workers and nurses, they did hard, sometimes dangerous work. Though it was driven by men, this wasn’t just a men’s war.

This story focuses on medicine in a time of war. Harriet and Vera are an ambulance crew, risking death in no man’s land to save injured soldiers. We don’t often see the work of medical staff in war, but from frontline combat medics to the surgeons rebuilding broken bodies, theirs is tough, vital, life-saving, heart-breaking work. Without them, countless more lives would be lost, and it’s good to see them get the recognition they deserve.

Once Harriet gets out between the trenches, the story shows yet another side of the war – the experience of the Germans. In Britain, we mostly focus on the Allied experience, whether intentionally or by default. But a generation of German youths went through the same hardship the Allies did, the same losses, the same horrors. By the late war, they were battered, demoralised, struggling to survive. When Harriet encounters a German unit, the story takes a dramatic turn, one that reveals the humanity of the other side.

Of course, there are still many other sides to the war, ones that aren’t included here. From the struggle on the Eastern Front to the fighting in Africa to the war at sea, they are too easily forgotten when discussing the war. We can’t deal with them all at once, but we can at least make a start. If there’s a part of the war you think is under-represented, leave a comment about it and I’ll try to write about it in the future.

Art for this issue is by an artist who’s new to Commando – Khato of Creaciones Editoriales. As I write this, I haven’t yet seen the finished issue, but based on the pages you can see here I think it’s going to be great, full of vivid action and character. I love the collaborative element of comics, the way an artist gives the story life in ways the writer never even imagined. This is no exception.

On a personal note, this issue features a small tribute to my Great Aunt Vera, who died earlier this year. Vera was born during the war and lost her father to the fighting in the trenches. She went on to become an extraordinary person in her own right, lively, outspoken, and insightful until the end. Harriet’s friend and colleague is named after her.

Harriet’s War will be out in newsagents and on Comixology this Thursday, the 29th. Other issues of The Weekes’ War are already out there for you to buy. I hope that you enjoy this journey into some of the less remembered parts of the First World War.

 

All art © DC Thomson and Co. Ltd  2018

Out Now: The Forlorn Hope

I have a new comic out now, courtesy of the fine people at Commando.

The Forlorn Hope is the story of Tom, a young ne’er-do-well who drunkenly signs up to fight in the Napoleonic wars. Sent to Spain, he struggles to escape his new life of hard work and danger. But as the redcoats are thrown into a series of bloody sieges, Tom has to decide what sort of person he really wants to be.

Like my previous Commando story, The Forlorn Hope‘s characters are fictional, but the events they’re caught up in are entirely real.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the British army expanded hugely to face the might of the French Empire. To get enough men, recruiting parties scoured the country, often relying on drink to make men susceptible to exaggerated promises of pay and adventure.

The unit I put Tom into for this story is a real one – the 45th Nottinghamshire Regiment. The events of the comic cover actions they took part in, including the bloody storming of Badajoz. The details of the fighting are as close to the truth as I could make them, down to the moment when a grenadier named MacPherson turned his red jacket into a flag. I’ve skimmed over the uglier details of the aftermath, as they seemed out of place in Commando, but the moment when the victorious British immediately start drinking reflects the real behaviour of Wellington’s army.

As for calling assault parties “Forlorn Hope”, that’s also real, though its original meaning isn’t what you might expect. The phrase arose during fighting in the Netherlands. It’s a corruption of the Dutch phrase “verloren hoop”, literally meaning “lost heap”. So a similar sentiment but with a different meaning. It’s a fitting description. Many men were lost in the assault parties sent to storm besieged towns and forts. It was a difficult, dangerous business, and it was with good reason that the survivors were held in high regard.

 

You can find Commando #5139: The Forlorn Hope in British newsagents now and in digital form via Comixology.

Beauty Amid Brambles – a #FlashFriday story

rosesEvery day for a month, as she walked through the palace gardens, Lady Elana looked up at the high balcony where Prince Novak sat, his handsome face as pale and sorrowful as old bones. She had read the books of poetry he wrote before his mother’s death, and so knew that there was joy and beauty in him, such joy and beauty that it had captured her own heart. But she had come to court too late to meet the man with whose words she had fallen in love. Now he sat alone behind locked doors and his father’s guards, slumped in sorrow.

Elana was determined to change that.

It took her weeks to identify the brief moment each day when the guards did not watch the wall below the balcony. She waited another month for the perfect blue rose to emerge in the garden, just as it had in Novak’s poetry. At last her moment came.

She plucked the rose, grasped it between her teeth and scrambled up the ivy. Stone scraped her knuckles red raw, and thorns drew blood from her lips, but at last she reached the top and held out the flower to Prince Novak.

“I found beauty amid brambles.” She recited the first line of her favourite verse, and the smallest of smiles flickered at his mouth.

“What is this?” The King was furious as he stomped out onto the balcony. “I keep my son here to protect him from harlots like you, preying upon his weakness as you scrabble to become queen. I will have none of it!”

“Please.” Elana trembled as she bowed low before the King. “Please, I just want to make him happy. The flower made him smile. Surely that is worth something?”

The King looked at his son, and for a moment his expression softened.

It was only a moment.

“Any courtly lady can make a young man smile,” he growled. “It is what you are trained for. Make me smile, and then I will let you see him again.”

#

Every day for a month, Elena was allowed into the King’s presence and given one chance to make him smile. At first she sang songs and told jokes, but his expression remained stern. Then she tried stories of glory and heroism, which she had been told he loved in his youth, but still no smile. She brought bouquets of flowers, fine artworks, beautiful and exotic birds, but not a hint of happiness touched the King’s lips.

Determined to succeed, Elena learnt new skills. Every month for a year she would dedicate herself to a new entertainment, perfecting some display before bringing it before the King. She became an acrobat, an illusionist, a high wire ballerina. Courtiers were dazzled by the spectacle of her displays, but the King continued to glare.

At last came the day when Elena could do nothing more. Every muscle ached from endless training. All her money was gone, spent on experts and tutors. So many crafts filled her mind, ideas and information cramming up against each other, that she could barely sleep at night from keeping them all in.

She bowed low before the King, her last threadbare gown sweeping the floor.

“I have failed, your majesty,” she said. “I am penniless, and must now leave court. But if my example inspires another, and one day they make Novak happy, then every moment of this has been worthwhile.”

With all the dignity she could muster, she turned to walk away.

“Wait.” The King’s voice was soft.

Elena turned to see a tear rolling from the corner of his eye.

“It amazes me,” he said. “That you could care for my son so much that after all this you are happy just knowing that he is too.”

He waved to one of his guards.

“Take her to Prince Novak.” At last a smile appeared on the King’s face.

#

Every day for a month, Elena visited Prince Novak on his balcony. They read stories, admired the garden, and wrote poetry together. Slowly but surely, the Prince’s smile returned. It became fixed forever when, the very next year, they were wed.

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After enjoying my fantasy story ‘The Wizard’s Tower’, Joanna challenged me to write a story in which a female suitor must prove her worthiness for a sheltered man, the reversal of the usual roles. This is the result. I hope you enjoy it, and if you’d like to receive a story each week directly to your inbox then please sign up for my mailing list.

As an added bonus, fellow writer Steve Cook has recorded an audio version of one of my previous stories, steampunk adventure ‘A Flash of Power’. He’s done a great job, full of sound effects and enthusiasm, and you can listen to that here.

Writing Live by the Sword

Live by the Sword came from one of my basic desires as a fantasy writer – to write something that’s familiar and accessible, but that also brings something new to the genre. To provide my audience, and myself, with enough novelty to stand out but not so much that readers will feel lost.

To this end, I decided to write a Roman fantasy. It’s something I’m returning to at the moment, and that I think has a lot of merit. The majority of secondary world fantasy has a strong Medieval flavour – The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The First Law, etc. We’re starting to see more influences from the Renaisance and the Victorian era coming through, especially with the growing success of steampunk. But if writers go further back it’s normally to produce wild barbarians in a Conan style, rather than to build on ancient civilisations.

So I picked Rome. I picked the arena because it was an exciting setting, and because this was before the popular Spartacus TV shows, when it had more novelty. And I picked the gladiators as characters not for the glory and romance of men of action but because it allowed me to look at those harmed by the might of Rome, as well as to show the wide diversity that was the oppressed under-belly of the empire.

The plot came from something more modern. I saw paintings in the Manchester Art Gallery by artists who had survived the horrors of the First World War, and whose art was shaped by this. It made me think about the other forms of creativity that came out of that era, such as the war poets, and how art became a way for them to cope with the violence they experienced. I wanted to explore that, and it fit naturally with looking at how my gladiators escaped from the traumas of their lives. The fact that I was writing fantasy let me turn this metaphor into reality, the subtext into text, art into something literally transformative.

So there we go. A little insight into where this story came from. Now it’s time for me to take some of this inspiration and go write something new.