When a 9th century woman’s husband is killed her mind turns to vengeance, but the authorities have other ideas…
It’s funny how having a job you love changes your perspective.
I’m currently lying in bed, my head throbbing and my nose running thanks to a cold. Back in the days of my office jobs, I wouldn’t have minded this so much. Sure, it’s not comfortable, but a couple of days off work, watching TV and drinking
lemsip, could be quite relaxing. I felt no qualms about taking the time to look after myself.
Now, things are different. I’m passionate about what I do, so I want to make sure I do it well. On top of that, I have no sick pay – if I’m not working then I’m not earning money. Together, those two things make it harder for me to rest. Instead of giving myself that time to recover, I’m trying to plan interviews, answer emails, and of course write blog posts, because this stuff won’t sort itself out.
I almost miss those days when being sick was simpler. But then I remember all the other frustrations and suddenly losing my relaxing sick days doesn’t seem so bad. After all, I’ve still got the lemsip.
I’m not big on new year’s resolutions. I do a lot of self-assessment over the course of the year, setting myself new goals and sometimes even hitting them. Associating that stuff with one time of year is too limiting for me.
Still, this is a good time for self-reflection, so here are a couple of writing-related things I’m planning on doing differently this year.
First, I want to put more focus on style in how I write. I know how to structure a story and I’ve spent a lot of time studying that. But beyond using plane, stripped-down language to convey information, I’m not much good at reflecting on and working on style. I want to develop more of a style for my fiction, so that’s one of this year’s goals.
Then there’s marketing. I’m terrible at it, which means that much of my effort at self-publishing goes to waste. It’s only possible to be a creative freelancer if you’re willing to overcome the small embarrassed voice that says “don’t talk about yourself”. So this year, I’m going to learn more about book marketing and start investing more time and money in it.
How about you? Do you have any resolutions around writing, publishing, or creativity? Let me know, let’s see how we can get on with our goals together.
It felt like ordinary stone, cold and hard beneath my hand. Just the wall of a Victorian town house, worn by the rain and darkened by pollution. The sort of wall where a portal might open.
Some people believed that the portals would be our salvation, a way out of this exhausted city in this broken down country. Some people are bloody idiots.
“Where the hell’s Downey?” I asked.
One of the techs looked up from his camera just long enough to shrug. His photos would tell us nothing, just like always. But we had to take them, just in case, like we did all the rest of the evidence.
When we first partnered up, Downey and I had talked eagerly about solving the mystery of the portals, finding a pattern that explained how and why they appeared. Those conversations had died somewhere around the end of the first decade. Now we focused on logging witness testimony, trying to stitch together a picture of the world on the other side.
There was one witness this time, a man who had been out walking his dog. He’d seen the portal open in the wall, seen a park full of flowers on the other side, bright street lamps, children at play. It had all looked clean and beautiful, like something out of a dream. He’d wanted to go closer but his dog had held him back.
“Tell me about the person who went through,” I said.
“She was tall, red hair, wearing a suit like yours.”
“Great. Now my partner’s going to be chasing her doppelganger.”
I glanced at my watch. Downey was usually the timely one, said she needed to work to keep her distracted. I’d never seen her be this late.
“She had those two-colour shoes,” the man continued. “Like in old gangster films, you know?”
I frowned. It couldn’t be. Downey would never be stupid enough to walk through a portal. Sure, the city was a mess these days, but she had a job here, had friends and family. No-one even knew if we could drink the water on the other side.
Looking to disprove my fear, I pulled a photo from my wallet. Me and Downey meeting Springsteen. Best damn day of our lives.
“It wasn’t her, was it?” I said, showing him the picture.
“A bit older,” the guy said, peering at the ragged-edged photo. “But yeah, I think it was.”
“She wouldn’t have gone through,” I said. “Maybe she was taking notes?”
“Sure, she took notes. Dropped them over by that bin. But then she walked through, swear to God, and the portal closed up behind her.”
The guy flinched from the look I gave him, but he stood his ground. The dog growled quietly.
This whole thing had to be a misunderstanding. I went to the overflowing bin, saw a notebook lying in the litter, and picked it up.
I flipped the cover open.
“I know you’ll be the one to find this Jonesy.” The words were written in that scrawl almost no-one could read. “Please don’t judge me. I can’t take this city any more – the pollution, the corruption, the despair. Since Dan took the kids, you’re the only thing keeping me here, and that’s not enough. Not when I can see hope three feet from my face. Maybe now there won’t be anything keeping you either. Maybe I’ll see you on the other side. Your friend, always. Jill.”
I steadied myself against the bin.
“Are you alright, Detective Jones?” the tech with the camera asked.
I took a deep breath and straightened myself up.
“Make a note for the report,” I said. “Missing person is Detective Sergeant Jill Downey.”
“Fuuuuuck,” the tech said. “I’d never have taken Downey for a chump.”
“Get some closeups of stonework,” I said. “You never know what we might find out. This could be the case that finds the pattern, lets us predict where the portals will come.”
I ran my fingers across the wall. Was I imagining it or could I feel a tingle there, some after-effect of the portal?
“We work out where they’re coming, won’t more idiots go through?” the tech said, raising his camera.
I looked around at the grey skies, the littered streets, and the pollution-darkened buildings.
“Would that really be so bad?” I asked.
* * *
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My latest book, All the Beautiful Sunsets, is out today. Collecting 52 flash stories I published on the blog this year, it covers a wide range of settings, from ancient history to the far future.
A fairy noble hunting for spies. A soldier digging for his life beneath a battlefield. A man learning the cost of renting out his brain. Meet all these characters and more in fifty-two short stories set in worlds beyond our own.
The ticking of the machines was a sweet song to Esmerelda Jones. She knew the pitch and rhythm of each one, could tell if something was wrong from those oh so familiar sounds. From the one that served breakfast to the one that starched her husband’s collars to a grand clock that merely told the time, she loved and understood them all. It was easy to do when she’d made them.
She wandered the room, polishing their steel and brass surfaces, making everything shine to perfection. Midnight was approaching, bringing with it the end of the year, and she wanted them to be spotless. That gleam wasn’t just about the look of the place, it was about preparing herself for the change to come.
The Reverend Jones stormed into the room, cassock swirling, and glared at her across his horn-rim spectacles.
“Are you ready to go yet?” he asked.
“Not quite,” she said, looking at the clock. “Just a little more spit and polish.”
“My parishioners will be waiting.”
“You could go to church alone.”
“And face the humiliation of my wife’s disobedience? Certainly not! You will come with me this moment.”
Esmerelda walked over to a large machine she had finished today. Its surface was unspoilt by time and rough usage. Not like her.
“Just a little more spit and polish,” she said, running her cloth over the machine’s surface, brushing away a few specks of dust.
“No more spit, no more polish.” The Reverend strode over, red-faced. “These are just things, of no consequence next to God’s work. You can’t polish your soul.”
He raised his hand. He wouldn’t hit her, of course. That was how she had convinced herself for so long that he wasn’t one of those men. He would grab hold of her, drag her up the stairs, lock her in her bedroom until her will gave way and she agreed to his demands. But would he raise a fist? Oh no. He was a man of the cloth.
The hammering of her heart out-paced the ticking of any of the machines. The New Year was coming. A time of change. A hope for renewal.
“I’m sorry, Jonathan,” she said. “But God is your life. Machines are mine. I have at least left them in a fine state for you.”
“Left them in a fine state? What are you blithering about, woman.”
He reached out towards her.
The clock struck midnight.
The grand new machine hit its critical beat. A cage swung down on a piston-driven arm, crashing into place around the reverend. He had stood exactly where Esmerelda had known he would. That was the advantage of a regular rhythm. You could plan for it.
“What in God’s name is this?” the Reverend bellowed, shaking the bars.
The machined whirred. A hatch opened and spat out a carpet bag. Esmerelda opened the catch and double-checked the contents. Three dresses, two pairs of shoes, toiletries, undergarments, portable tools, two rolls of gold coins and a sheaf of bank notes. Everything she needed to set herself up somewhere new.
“It’s the New Year,” she said with a smile. “A time for fresh starts.”
She brushed a last speck of dust from the machine, popped the cloth in her pocket, and waltzed out the door to the rhythm of the ticking of her creations.
* * *
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That’s my last story for this year. I hope you all have a great time seeing the New Year in, and I’ll see you in 2019.
What’s this, a Christmas Eve post full of fine things you might enjoy? It’s a Christmas miracle! And this time, it’s all about comics – my favourite ones of this year.
Fifteen years ago, I had a dull admin job for a small office of a vast multinational construction firm. I was the only admin in the office and could get through the work at speeds that dazzled my employers, thanks to the poor quality of their previous admins. This left me with a lot of time to kill. I disappeared down a rabbit hole of webcomics, where I stumbled across the work of John Allison. I binged my way through Bobbins and Scary Go Round, which at the time was his main ongoing project. It was a discovery that warped my sense of humour forever.
Allison’s biggest current creation is Giant Days, made in collaboration with artists Lissa Treiman, Max Sarin, and Julia Madrigal, with inks from Liz Fleming, lettering by Jim Campbell, and colour from Whitney Cogar. It’s a comedy-drama about a group of friends studying at Sheffield University, where they face the challenges of study, romance, friendship, and trying to work out how to be an adult human being.
Giant Days is a wonderful book. Its stories are full of whimsy, its characters full of heart, its dialogue full of odd British humour. Allison’s tendency towards fantasy is almost entirely reined in in favour of slice-of-life storytelling, but the offbeat tone of his Tackleford stories remains. The art is uniformly vibrant and characterful, the ongoing story well balanced against the self-contained arcs of each issue, and I find myself utterly absorbed in these characters and their lives. A humour book about students might not sound like anything special, but I re-read every issue at least twice in the first week, bathing in its warmth and whimsy.
Thought Bubble, the annual comics convention in Leeds, is a dangerous place. So many creators, so many comics, so much temptation to buy it all. This year, I was relatively restrained, but I’m very glad that I gave in to temptation and bought the first issue of Crowded.
Crowded is set in the very near future. There’s a crowdfunding platform for assassins, an app to hire bodyguards, and celebrity streamers turning death into entertainment for their subscribers. When Charlie Ellison becomes the target of the biggest ever crowd-funded killing, she hires the only bodyguard she can get – the poorly rated yet incredibly competent Vita. If they can stay alive for thirty days then the hunt for Charlie will end. But Charlie’s a narcissist with the attention span of a goldfish and no understanding of the word “consequences”. Staying out of trouble is going to be tough.
Crowded is written by Christopher Sebela, with pencils by Ro Stein, inks by Ted Brandt, colours by Triona Farrell, and letters by Cardinal Rae. It’s a darkly funny thrill ride that takes satirical jabs at modern culture without letting up on its tense storytelling. As the issues progress, the characters are revealing their depths, raising questions about who they are and how they got to this place in life. Even Trotter, the celebrity streamer using Charlie to maintain his channel’s upward momentum, has developed in five issues from a one-note caricature to a troubled man struggling to cope with his own monstrous persona.
This is as close to Transmetropolitan as I’ve read in years, and that’s very high praise.
The Wicked + The Divine
As it heads into its final year, the latest masterpiece from writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie goes from strength to strength. This is one of those creative pairings that always leads to something wonderful, as shown in Phonogram and Young Avengers. This latest series, with colours from Matt Wilson and letters by Clayton Cowles, might be their strongest yet.
Every ninety years, twelve gods return in the bodies of young people. They live brief, glorious lives, only to burn out within two years. This time, they’re pop stars, their magic channeled through their music. They are stalked, studied, adored, and sometimes hated. They are the embodiment of fame.
The Wicked + The Divine is a fascinating exploration of celebrity culture and the power of music. Where Phonogram gave magical power to the audience, WicDiv gives it to the artists, creating a very different dynamic. Given Gillen’s background in music journalism, there’s a lot here that’s clearly personal, but that doesn’t turn it into something maudlin or shoe-gazing. This year’s comics have revealed the dark secrets behind the pantheon, dragging the story ever deeper into tragedy while letting a glimmer of hope still shine. It’s nearly finished, so if you don’t like to risk a story that might never end, you’re in safe hands here.
Gillen and McKelvie like to experiment from time to time, and that’s resulted in some unusual issues. I won’t spoil the surprises, but it’s great to see a creative team pushing the boundaries of the medium while maintaining the momentum of their story. This is a comic we’ll be talking about for decades to come.
There you have it – my top comics picks this year. If you haven’t read them yet, I hope you give at least one of them a try. Now I’m off to indulge in mince pies, mulled wine, and all the other festive treats.
“Master van de Velde!” I exclaimed as the artist walked up the gangplank. “How good to see you. Out sketching ships again?”
“Oh yes!” Willem van de Velde said, setting down a bag of paper and pencils. He pulled out a pouch of coins and passed it to me. “I wish to set out immediately. Will this suffice?”
I opened the bag, peered at its mix of gold and silver, and felt its weight.
“It certainly will,” I said, then raised my voice to reach the crew. “Boys, get ready to cast off!”
The younger Willem van de Velde appeared behind his father, just before the gangplank was stowed away. Then we unfurled the single sail of my little galliot and headed out, threading our way through the maze of merchantmen that crowded the docks of the Hague, their timbers creaking and rigging whistling in the wind.
“Where to today?” I asked.
“West,” van de Velde said, a strange twinkle in his eyes. “Towards England.”
“Isn’t that where the fleet went?” I asked, breaking into a sweat despite the wind. “To fight the English?”
“That’s why we’re going there,” van de Velde the Younger said. “To turn war into art, retrieve beauty from horror, and capture a moment of great patriotic pride.”
“Which men will pay dearly to hang on their walls,” his father said.
“We usually avoid battles.” I twisted my cap nervously in my hands. “On account of all the killing and sinking. I think you’d better find another ship.”
“Really?” van de Velde the elder said, tossing me another bag of coins.
“Patriotic pride, you say?” With that weight in my hand, ambition overcame fear. “Then it’s our duty as Dutchmen to help you.”
By the time we got near the battle, my ambition was sinking beneath the weight of my nerves.
The sea was thick with ships, great men-of-war with full sails and bristling gun decks. They edged towards each other in long columns, smoke billowing around them, cannons roaring. The smallest could have contained my poor boat a dozen times over.
“Surely this is near enough,” I said, watching war unfold before me.
The mainmast of the nearest ship shook, then toppled slowly over, hitting the deck with a crash. The screams of mangled sailors were far too loud across the open water.
“We must get closer,” van de Velde the elder said. He sketched as he spoke, leaning on a board that rested on the rail, pencil flying back and forth across the page.
“But the danger!”
“They’ll be shooting at each other, not us,” the younger said, adding a dab of watercolour to his own work. “We need to get in with the fleet, before and behind the ships, to see the timbers splinter and flames roar, to capture the giddy heart of battle.”
“I’m not sure that my heart can take-”
Another bag of coins landed at my feet.
“Well, when you put it like that.” I raised my voice. “Boys, we’re getting in close!”
Months later, I sat in a dockside tavern, sipping at a cup of warm ale. This stuff didn’t taste as good as it used to, but then, nothing did. The days seemed greyer, the songs less lively. Perhaps if I had been sleeping better, that might have changed, but I woke in the night dreaming of the cannons’ roar and the van de Veldes’ sketches.
An old shipmate came to sit with me.
“Did you hear?” he said. “There’s been more trouble at sea. Fleet’s heading out to give the English a bloody nose.”
My heart raced. I smelled gun smoke and heard the crack of shattering timbers.
“Excuse me,” I said, downing my beer and abandoning my seat. “I have business to attend.”
I ran down to the docks. Sure enough, there were the van de Veldes, bags in hand, eyeing up fast vessels.
“Excuse me, sirs,” I said, rushing up to them.
“Captain!” van de Velde the Elder said. “I thought that you were, in your words, done with our madness.”
There was a strange twinkle in his eyes again. I recognised it now, having seen it in my own reflection. He too heard the battle rage around him and felt his heart hammer at the thrill of it.
“I was over hasty,” I said, leading them towards my galliot. “In these troubled times, an honest sailor cannot afford to turn down business.”
“I understand,” van de Velde the Elder said, nodding solemnly. He handed me a bag of coins. “Here. I wish to sail west.”
* * *
This is one of those stories where the real history was so wild that I didn’t need to make it up. Willem van de Velde the Elder and Younger were 17th century Dutch artists who specialised in nautical scenes. During the Anglo-Dutch wars, they would sail with the fleet to make sketches of the battles, getting right in amid the action. These sketches became the basis for grand, dramatic paintings that celebrated the achievements of the Dutch fleet. They later emigrated to England, where they were employed by King Charles II.
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Continuing my review of the year in books, here are some of my favourite non-fiction reads from 2018. They didn’t necessarily come out this year, but now is when I found and enjoyed them. If you’ve particularly enjoyed a non-ficiton book this year, tell me about it in the comments – I’m always on the lookout for more.
Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Francesca T Barbini
To say that modern society faces problems with gender and sexuality would be an understatement up there with “King John seems a little bit off.” As half of society tries to adopt a more nuanced, egalitarian attitude, the other half kicks back, desperately clinging to binary divisions and patriarchal structures. Movements like gamergate and the sad puppies have turned geek culture into a battleground on gender issues, spewing angry invectives and threats of violence at people who question the status quo. “How dare they fill speculative fiction with gays and women?” the trolls cry out. “It was fine being all about straight white men!”
In that environment, it was particularly pleasing to see a British Fantasy Award go to Luna Press’s excellent collection of articles on gender and sexuality in speculative fiction. Articles in this book cover a wide range of topics, from the myth of meritocracy in publishing to the remarkable improvement in gender representation in the Magic the Gathering card game. These thought-provoking pieces by smart writers address both the content of our fiction and the process surrounding it, encouraging readers to look at gender and sexuality in geek culture from a dozen different angles.
This is academic writing of a relatively accessible type, aimed at wider readers with an interest in the field. It takes some effort, but if you’re interested in issues of social justice or the state of sf+f then it’s well worth a look. It’s a book whose existence and well-earned plaudits will help shift our culture in a more positive direction.
The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich
Speaking of gender, I wrote back in June about Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War. Six months later, it still haunts me, one of the most remarkable history books I’ve read in my life, never mind this year.
Researched and written in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this book details the experience of women serving in the Soviet armed forces during the Second World War. It reveals a side of the war that fitted poorly with official accounts and heroic re-tellings, showing the vital place of women on the Eastern Front and the awful realities they faced. Despite its huge significance, it only appeared in English last year, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
Filled with veterans’ own accounts of the war, it’s a powerful testimony to the experiences of soldiers, sailors, pilots, and support staff. Their struggles, their traumas, their losses, their fleeting moments of joy, all are laid bare on the page. But it’s not just about the moments of violent struggle. It’s also about the transformation of civilians into warriors, of women into men’s roles, how that changed them and how it affected their lives once the war ended. It’s also an account of Alexievich’s own mission to uncover these hidden stories, the way she related to the women she interviewed, and the way they viewed the war decades later.
The phrase “we have always fought” has become a rallying cry for the re-examination of women’s place in history and in the fiction influenced by it. The Unwomanly Face of War provides the ultimate evidence of how tragically true that phrase is.
Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton
Another unconventional look at the Second World War, Milton’s book delves into Britain’s covert operations. When Churchill called out for Europe to be set ablaze in resistance to the Nazis, these were the people who built him a bigger match and worked out where best to light it.
The book covers three aspects of their work. First, there were the mad inventors of the weapon’s making division, men like Cecil Clarke and Stuart Macrae who invented the limpet mine using condoms and aniseed balls. Then there were the trainers, men like Eric Sykes and William Fairbairn, the professional sharp-shooter and former police commander who taught men to kill with their bare hands. And finally, there were the operatives themselves, sent on dangerous missions deep in occupied Europe, committing acts of sabotage and assassination in the name of freedom.
Unlike The Unwomanly Face of War, Churchill’s Ministry sometimes glamourises its subjects, both the people and the missions. There’s a sense of boy’s own adventure in places that’s at odds with the true ugliness of events. But the overall tone is one of exploring the extraordinary, from the ingenuity of inventors to the courage and determination of undercover operatives. It’s an unexpected and seldom discussed niche within much larger events, compelling as much for the odd characters as for what they achieved.