• Category Archives commentary on my stories
  • 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.

    * * *

    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.