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Character, Conflict, and The Girl With All the Gifts

Story is about character. Even when it’s also about zombies or dragons or the emergence of the internet, a good story will keep characters at its core. We come for the novelty but we stick around for the people.

As writers including Film Crit Hulk have pointed out, what makes a truly compelling character is their internal conflict. The divide between what they want and what they need can drive an arc that leaves us yearning to see how it will all end.

This is particularly clear in M R Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts, a story about scientists and soldiers surviving in the aftermath of a zombie plague. When circumstances force a small group together on the run, there are obvious conflicts between them and with their environment. But it’s the conflicts within that make the characters so engaging.

The wants are carefully shown in the earlier parts of the story. Melanie, a ten-year-old girl infected with the zombifying spores, wants to be loved. Helen Justineau, Melanie’s teacher, wants to protect the children in her care, despite their apparently monstrous nature. Caroline Caldwell, a research scientist, wants to understand the cause of the disease. Sergeant Parks, the commander of their research base, wants to maintain order in a disintegrating world. Kieran Gallagher, a young soldier under Gallagher’s command, wants to please the people around him.

As the story progresses, each character reveals a deeper need, related to and often in conflict with their desire. Melanie, too bright and wilful for a life of captivity, needs to find a place of purpose in the world. Justineau needs forgiveness and acceptance. Caldwell needs to feel heard and recognised for her work. Parks needs to see the limits of his world view. Gallagher needs to escape the traumas of his past.

These needs become the driving engine behind the story, placing the characters in conflict with each other and with themselves. Gallagher, the least prominent of the five, has one of the arcs that moved me most, exactly because of those internal divisions. His past has left him desperate to please but incapable of doing it. As the pressure mounts, traumas he’s never admitted to other people tighten the screw in his mind. We face the awful question of whether he can even look after himself, never mind the people around him.

In a story as dark as The Girl With All the Gifts, not everyone is going to get what they need, never mind what they want. But sometimes those needs can make a tragic arc satisfying. We feel sad for characters who don’t get what they want, but may feel satisfied to see them get what they need. The satisfaction of the story comes in seeing the characters move towards those ends.

In this story, the characters’ divisions also become symbolic of a bigger issue. With the future looking increasingly bleak, what humanity wants and what it needs may not be in line. The revelation of that terrible division becomes the climax of the book, an arc as satisfying as those of the individual characters.

When a real person finds themselves divided, the best port of call is a counsellor. When a fictional character feels strong divisions, it’s time for a publisher. The Girl With All the Gifts is a great example of why these stories work and why, even in the apoclypse, character is so important.

Piggy – A Historical Flash Fiction

Annette’s stomach ached. It felt as though it had always ached, though she knew that wasn’t true, just as she knew that the town hadn’t always been under siege. There had been a time before there were Englishmen outside the walls, and her parents insisted that such a time would come again. But they didn’t look Annette in the eye when they said that, just like they didn’t look her in the eye when they said there would be food soon.

Picture of a pig

When Annette brought them the pig, they would look her in the eye and smile again.

No-one else knew about the pig because no-one else went into the ruined houses on the west side of town, shattered by English trebuchet stones in the first days of the siege. Annette had gone there, curious to see why the others wouldn’t, and hadn’t found the wrecked homes as disturbing as the adults did. That was why she had been the one to see the pig, skinny as it was, hiding amid the broken timbers and fallen stones. That was why she was going back now.

Clutching her mother’s knife, Annette crept back into the ruins. She had never killed anything, hadn’t even learned to butcher the family’s meat yet, but the hunger was eating at her as surely as the misery on the faces she saw around town. She wasn’t a knight who could save them all, but if she was smart and fast then maybe she could fill her family’s bellies.

Lithe as a snake, Annette slid between broken wall timbers. The pig was peering into a broken chimney breast, its back to her. She crept toward it, knife raised.

A stone rolled beneath Annette’s foot. She stumbled. The pig turned.

Annette raised the knife, but found herself frozen as she looked into the creature’s eyes.

The pig squealed and ran.

Annette darted after it. If it got into the street then other people would see it, people as desperate as her but with the strength of adults. She would lose her chance to feed her parents.

Annette abandoned the knife and dived onto the pig, wrapping both arms around it. The pig squirmed and kicked. The two of them went rolling through the dirt. Splintered wood stabbed at Annette’s back as she held on tight and let the pig roll her round.

She couldn’t hold on forever. Clinging tightly with one arm, she reached out with the other, seeking a weapon to fight the pig. A stick, a stone, her knife if she could grab it. Anything would do.

The pig squirmed free and dashed across the room. It got to the gap in the ruined wall where a door had once stood, then hesitated, looking back past Annette to the fireplace.

She grabbed a rock and stalked towards the pig. She didn’t understand why it wasn’t running, but she didn’t care. Dreams of pork stew and smiling faces made her smile in anticipation.

There was a squeal behind her, higher pitched than the pig. A pair of piglets poked their heads out of the fireplace. Their eyes were wide, their ears too big for their heads, their mouths open as they stared at her.

The mother pig looked at Annette and its ears flopped. With heavy steps, it returned to the fireplace and stood between its children and the hungry human.

Annette looked at them. All three animals were so skinny that their bones showed, just like hers did. There was barely a strip of meat on them, but any meat was better than none.

She picked up the knife and approached. The mother pig stood steady in front of her young. The piglets looked out past her at Annette, as Annette had looked out past her mother’s skirts to see the approaching army.

She shuffled her feet and gazed down at the knife. She didn’t feel so hungry anymore.

With a sigh, she hid the knife away in her sleeve.

“They say the siege will be over soon,” she whispered. “But if not, I’m coming back for you.”

She crept out of the ruins, watching carefully to be sure she wasn’t observed. As she walked home, she thought about the cute little piglets, with their shiny eyes and their big ears, and their mother looking after them. That thought made her smile. The hunger didn’t hurt as much and the dread of her parents’ grim expressions faded. The might not look her in the eye when they talked of the siege, but no matter what happened, they would always be there.

***

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 Friday.

***

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.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Eastercon 2019: SF is Not Just Escapism

Some people dismiss speculative fiction as pure escapism. Margaret Atwood famously disdains the science fiction label as she thinks it represents something without the depth of her work. But as a weekend in the heart of British SF shows, there are few genres more engaged in the big concerns of the modern world.

Ytterbium

Space ship taking off
Not the sort of escape I’m talking about, but it would be cool.

I spent Easter weekend 2019 at Ytterbium, the latest in Britain’s long-running series of Eastercon science fiction conventions. Eastercon is one of the big national gatherings for the speculative fiction community, covering, fantasy, horror, and science fiction, with an emphasis on the latter. It’s a great place to get a sense of where British SF is at.

As an attendee, Eastercon always seems very smoothly run to me. The volunteers who do the work give every appearance of professionalism. For a long and lovely weekend, a bland hotel becomes the hub of a normally dispersed community.

The entertainment at an Eastercon covers a wide range of topics. Panels, talks, and workshops discuss writing, editing, and commentary. But this year, I was struck by the level of political engagement.

Facing the Real World

What you get out of a convention will always be shaped by what you choose to attend. But that will also be dependent on what’s available, and this year, there was plenty for the politically concerned attendee. I heard panellists discuss subtle forms of racism, climate change, paranoid politics, and fake news. I went to events drawing attention to under-represented groups within SF. It was enlightening, uplifting, and very relevant to the world around us.

When people dismiss SF as pure escapism, they wilfully ignore its potential to engage in deep topics. This depth comes from two angles. One is the writers using spec fic’s tools to make us consider uncomfortable truths about the world, as when Marian Womack or Kim Stanley Robinson write about the future of the environment. The other angle is the analysis, with thinkers like Helen Gould looking at the assumptions in our writing and pushing us to move past them, to create work that is more enlightened, more representative, more inclusive of our world.

In both these ways, the SF community engages hard with real world issues.

Community

And then there’s the community itself.

Human beings need community. It provides them with support and a sense of belonging. SF is great for that. A shared passion for imaginative stories pulls people together.

That might not sound very political, but a moment’s thought shows that it is. By providing a community, we give support to those who need help to get by or who struggle to be heard. While imperfect, the SF community’s approach to trans rights has generally been forward-looking in recent years. Some in UK SF are pushing to amplify voices sidelined by poverty and colonialism, as in the screening of African SF films at Ytterbium. Just by spending time in this space, I’ve become more aware of the issues at stake.

A community can bind together people of very different backgrounds and help them see each other’s perspectives. That’s a radical political act and one that shouldn’t be so rare.

It’s OK to Escape

I don’t think that escapism is a bad thing. Some of the books I read and shows I watch are chosen for it. They help me relax and recharge, give me the energy to face a tough world. They help keep us sane, and we should never be ashamed of enjoying them just because they offer the relief of escape.

But there’s also a rich strand of SF that is politically and socially engaged, that recognises the politics embedded in any text, that deliberately seeks to raise important issues and make us think about the world.

SF is many things, but as Ytterbium showed, it is not just an escape.

The Art of the Pollaxe – a flash historical story

Armour plates clanked as Harry strode into the training yard and faced his opponent. His father had paid good gold for this man to come from Burgundy, allegedly for Harry’s training. But as far as Harry could see, it was one more way of holding him back.

“Defeat Sir Jean with the pollaxe just once,” his father had said, “and then you can go to the French tournaments.”

What Harry heard was “You’ll never be good enough.”

He would show them. He’d out-fought every other young noble in the north of England. He could beat some upstart foreigner.

“Ready?” Sir Jean called out.

“Ready,” Harry replied.

He snapped his visor down and raised his pollaxe, base forward, so that the pointed steel queue faced Sir Jean. The Burgundian did the same and they advanced towards each other.

Harry brought the pollaxe around and there was a crack as the weapons met. He followed that first feint with another, lower, then pivoted the weapon around for a swift, hard swing at Jean’s head.

Sir Jean stepped nimbly aside, brought his pollaxe around, and knocked Harry into the oak rail at the side of the yard. The force of the blow shook him and he had to pause to steady himself.

“One to me,” Sir Jean said brightly.

Harry clenched his teeth and attacked again. He knocked Sir Jean’s pollaxe aside, feinted left and right, then stabbed at his face.

Again a miss as Sir Jean darted clear in his light German armour.

With a growl, Harry swung his pollaxe around, aiming to stagger his opponent through brute force. But Jean deflected the blow and hooked Harry’s ankle with the head of his weapon. Harry crashed to the ground and the wind was knocked out of him.

“Two to me,” Sir Jean said.

Cursing under his breath, Harry pushed himself upright. He needed this win. He wouldn’t be dictated to by his father, left to rot around the castle.

He almost gave in to instinct and flung himself straight at Sir Jean, but years of practice had taught him better. Instead, he feinted low, as if intending to imitate the knight’s last move, jabbed left, then swung the head of the weapon hard at Jean’s shoulder.

In a flash, Jean hooked the head of his pollaxe behind Harry’s and tugged. Harry lost his grip, stumbled, and found the queue of Jean’s weapon pressing against his throat.

“Three to me.”

Jean stepped back and raised his visor. He was barely even sweating.

“You want to win too much,” he said.

“Of course I want to win! That’s the whole point.”

“But to try to win now, you keep doing the same thing. Feint, feint, attack. Feint, feint, attack.”

“Different attacks.”

“Same pattern.”

“Not this time.”

Harry charged, pollaxe raised. Jab, swing, jab, swing, swing, feint, hook at Sir Jean’s weapon, except the weapon wasn’t there. Something slammed into Harry’s leg and he fell to the ground, his shin throbbing.

“I give in,” Harry said, flopping in the dirt. “You’re better than me. I’m not getting to France.”

“Stop trying so hard to win,” Sir Jean said, reaching out a hand. “Pay attention to how you lose.”

“That’s stupid.”

“How else will you learn to win like me, if not by seeing how I beat you? You want to win when you get to France, no?”

Harry imagined himself in a sunbaked tilting yard, crowds of nobles watching as he knocked out some foreign titan, women gazing at him with wide eyes. They all cheered his name.

He grabbed Sir Jean’s hand and hauled himself to his feet. Armour clanked as he backed away, raised his weapon, and took a fighting stance.

“Come on, then,” he said, grinning. “Teach me how to lose.”

***

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the great things about living in Leeds is going to the Royal Armouries to watch the reenactors. A display of pollaxe fighting became the inspiration behind this little story.

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 Friday.

***

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.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Been Reading…

For someone who blogs about writing, I haven’t talked much about reading lately. Let’s remedy that…

The Dark Side of the Sun by Terry Pratchett

Pratchett remains my all time favourite writer, which makes it particularly weird going back to his early works. One of two sci-fi novels he wrote before creating the Discworld, The Dark Side of the Sun feels strangely both like and unlike the Pratchett I know. It retains the surreality, some of the jokes, even a few specific words and phrases, but neither the voice nor the story style is anywhere near as rich.

At my book group, we talked about how Strata didn’t feel like a Pratchett story. Instead, it’s like an attempt to do Niven or Banks style sci-fi by someone whose style doesn’t fit that work. Dark Side is the same. It’s fascinating to go back to as a long time Pratchett fan, to see how he developed. And as a writer, it’s heartening to see that someone went from this to become one of the modern greats. But if this sort of thing was all he’d done, I’m not sure we’d even be talking about Pratchett any more.

The Elizabethan Underworld by Gamini Salgado

In England, we’re raised to see the reign of Elizabeth I as a great era of national strength and renewal. But it was also a time full of dark events and seedy shenanigans, from state sponsored piracy to a growing and desperate underclass. This book examines the lives of criminals in that era, and it’s absolutely fascinating.

This is a history book that’s rich in details. It evokes the characters of the time, the places they went, the crimes they carried out. There are descriptions of clever con games, rigged gambling games, and people struggling to survive the game of life.

The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey, narrated by Flinty Williams

Of all the attempts I’ve seen to put a new twist on the zombie genre, Carey’s is one of the most successful.

Melanie is a girl, maybe ten years old, living in a Britain blighted by a terrible disease that turns people into monsters. Infected with the disease and held in a government research lab, Melanie is part of an experiment to try to understand the disease and maybe help humanity survive it. But of course Melanie doesn’t understand that. She doesn’t even understand the cruelty she’s suffering. She just wants to be loved.

Showing so much of the story from the perspective of a zombie child is part of what makes Carey’s story so distinctive, but the other view points add to its power. Seeing what makes the adults tick, how they respond to Melanie and to disaster, gives this extra emotional weight. It’s that emotion that makes it work – Carey’s clever take on the cause of zombies is just window dressing.

I’m listening to the audiobook of this one, mostly while out running, so it’s possible that my own racing pulse is shaping how I view it. But even with that caveat, this is a thrilling and touching story.

So that’s some of my recent reading. How about the rest of you – what are you reading right now? Anything you’d recommend?

Building the Phoenix – a flash sci-fi story

Garbage lay across the land, torn bin bags and abandoned appliances as far as the eye could see. A trove of wonders from the High Age, exposed by a storm that had blasted by two days ago, smashing buildings and ripping furrows through the earth. Toke had spent a frantic forty-eight hours digging through it all – mysterious motors full of puzzling parts, shining cloth that had survived barely stained, and tiny plastic sculptures of the old gods. His heart had skipped as he bounded across the heaps, pulling out tubes and wires, gears and circuit boards.

Now he collapsed onto a pile of black sacks, which expelled a musty and nauseating air. He’d found almost all the pieces he needed for his machine, but he was still missing a second condenser, and without it, the chemical processor would never be complete. This was how it always ended – succeed or fail, no machine lived up to his dreams.

“Hey Toke!” Froy appeared around a mound of white metal boxes. She stopped by the cart, fed the mule a wrinkled apple, and went to look at the processor. “Still not finished it, huh?”

“Do I look finished?” Toke kicked at a rusted can.

“I don’t know, but you’ll do this. You’re like the phoenix, always rising from the ashes.”

“The what?”

“It’s this thing I found in a book. I think it’s a bird they used to have, back in the High Age. When things go bad, it keeps coming back, see?”

“Unless you can find a condenser, this project’s never coming back.”

Froy pulled a curling length of tube from her bag.

“Might this help? I’ve seen it in old condenser diagrams. It could plug in here.”

She opened a valve on the side of the processor and pressed the pipe against it. Oil leaked out of the gap, thick and dark, with a sweet yet unsettling scent.

“Stop that!” Toke leapt to his feet, pushed Froy back, and slapped the valve shut. “Now I’m going to have to trade for machine oil again. Do you have any idea how much that costs?”

“Sorry.” Froy stepped back and hung her head. “Just trying to help.”

Toke closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and then opened them again.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I can’t find the parts I need anyway.”

“Then make the parts you’ve got do more.”

“That’s not how…”

Toke’s voice trailed off. Did Froy have a point? If he stood the condenser on end then he could use some piping and a gravity feed to send the chemicals round again. It wasn’t as quick as two condensers, but it might just do the job.

“Grab that side,” he said. “Let’s get this off the cart, quick.”

They got the apparatus up on end, with its outlet pipes stood in a pair of old buckets, like dented steel feet. Rust flaked away from sections of metal to reveal the pockmarked plates beneath, while other parts shone in the sunlight, smooth surfaces lovingly burnished to a bright sheen.

“Give me that.” Toke snatched Froy’s length of pipe, unwound it, and opened up the side of the machine. He whistled as he worked, replumbing the interior to a new design. For a while he was lost in a world of moving parts, only to emerge half an hour later, oil-stained and grinning, and slam the hatch shut.

He practically bounced his way to the cart, retrieved a drum of sludge taken from a High Age factory, poured it into the processor’s inlet, and flipped a switch.

These were the moments Toke lived for. When fragments of ancient machinery stirred for the first time in centuries, combined by the careful instincts of the junker’s craft. When dead devices were reborn as something new.

The processor clunked and whirred as the drum inside it spun into action. The whole machine vibrated. There were glugs of chemicals streaming through the pipes.

At last, the first extracts emerged from the outlets, with the distinct and promising smell of oil.

“That’s it!” Toke shouted. “We’ve got it!”

Fire flashed in one bucket and then the other.

“No no no no no!” He grabbed a blanket from the cart and flapped at the flames. The blanket, already soaked with oil, caught fire, and he flung it away. Smoke was pouring from the processor. The whole thing was shaking as it lifted from its buckets on blasts of bright billowing flames.

Froy shot a hand out and switched off the machine. The thuds, glugs, and vibrations stopped. As the flow of chemicals died, so did the fires, and the processor settled back into its buckets with a thunk.

“Ruined.” Toke stared, open-mouthed, at the blackened remains of his work.

“I’m sorry,” Froy said, brushing soot from her sleeve. “Maybe this isn’t your phoenix. But your next project will take flight, I’m sure.”

“Will what now?”

“It’s that phoenix again. It flies out of the ashes, see?”

“Flies out of the ashes…”

Toke looked at the blackened tubes protruding from the chemical processor. It had lifted off while those fires were blazing, had almost taken flight like machines from the myths of the High Age. He had never dreamed of anything so grand, and yet…

He flung his arms around Froy.

“This is it!” he exclaimed. “No more moving from one piddling project to the next. If it takes my whole life, I’m taking us back to the heavens.”

He pointed at the sky, his face feverish with excitement.

“Are you OK?” Froy asked, her brow furrowing.

“I’m more than OK. You and me, Froy, we’re going to build a phoenix!”

***

This story came out of a date.

That might seem like an odd start, given that it’s about two people rummaging around in refuse, but when you go on a date with someone who works in environmental academia, certain issues come up. You start thinking about the damage we do to the planet, how people in the future will cope with it all, and how anyone might recover from the mess we make.

That sort of conversation can be a downer, but I’m a great believer in human potential, in the fact that we can rebuild out of pretty much anything, given time and determination. And so came this story, in which two humans try to rise out of the refuse.

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 Friday.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

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.

***

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.’



Submarine Pirates and Silkworm Smugglers – a flash steampunk story

The junk steamed through the waters towards Indonesia, its paddle wheels leaving a churning wake behind. Out on deck, the crew were gathered around the automaton Susan had bought in Beijing, the one that excused her investment in engine oil and protective wrappings. They laughed as the mechanical dragon danced jerkily across the deck, oblivious to the smaller box hidden in Susan’s trunk, the one worth thousands of these high price novelty trinkets.

Captain Chao waved to Susan.

“So good!” he said in Mandarin. “Your husband will be delighted with his present.”

Susan smiled, nodded, and straightened her skirts. That imaginary husband was such a convenient cover, but he could sometimes be a hindrance. Chao had a roguish charm and she might have enjoyed his company more if not for the need to maintain her cover.

Suddenly, the sea in front of them churned. Jointed metal tentacles parted the waves, followed by the bulbous brass head of a giant squid. A smokestack on the back opened to let out a billowing black cloud.

Chao ran to the wheel and turned the junk, but they were already too close. The squid wrapped its tentacles around the prow. Wood buckled and splintered as it squeezed.

“Stop your engines and we won’t sink you,” a voice announced, made tinny by a speaking trumpet.

While Chao flung back a lever, Susan hid beneath the heap of crumpled canvas that was the junk’s emergency sails. The weight was oppressive, but better that than be taken for ransom by pirates.

As she peered out from beneath the canvas, men and women clambered out of a hatch in the squid’s head and down its arms. They wore loose, practical cloths and carried cutlasses and pistols. Chao knelt before them and started pleading for his ship.

As the lead pirate bent closer to Chao, Susan saw a symbol embroidered on his tunic – a yellow chrysanthemum. She smiled and shrugged off the canvas. This was no mere pirate raid.

The pirates looked up as Susan emerged, hands raised. She had pulled a book from her pocket and held it open, revealing an image of that same chrysanthemum. This wasn’t where she’d expected her contact to turn up, but it was certainly one way to avoid taking goods through customs.

“Mrs Talbot, I presume,” the pirate captain said in English. “You have them?”

“One moment.”

She went to the back of the junk, where her trunk was stored. From within a pile of petticoats she pulled a bamboo box the side of a briefcase. Holding it carefully in both hands, she walked slowly back towards the pirates.

The captain reached out, opened the lid, and grinned like a wolf who’d just got into the meadow.

“Mechanical silkworms.” He stared at the dozen intricately geared tubes. “The first to get past the Chinese authorities. We’re going to be worth a fortune.”

“We should go.” Susan shut the lid. “Any delay increases the risk of capture.”

“Indeed.” The captain turned to his men. “Kill this lot and we’ll be going.”

“What?” Susan stared at him in horror. Chao, who spoke no English, was looking up at them with a frown.

“Got to cover our trail,” the pirate captain said.

“It is covered! I’ve done everything under a fake identity and you’re sailing a submarine disguised as a sea monster. These people aren’t a threat to us.”

“Can’t be too careful.”

The captain drew a pistol and pointed it at Chao’s head. Chao whimpered. Susan stiffened, took a deep breath, and turned away.

In two strides she was at the side of the ship, holding the case out over the waves.

“If you hurt any of them,” she snapped, “our prize drops into the deep.”

“You wouldn’t dare.” The pirate turned his gun on her.

“Try me. And if you shoot, you know I’ll drop it.”

“You were hired for a job.”

“Not for one involving killing.”

“Shows how naive you are. Now quit this nonsense and get over here. We’re on a timetable.”

Susan’s heart raced. If she gave in, Chao and his people would die. There was no way she could fight back against all those weapons. So how to get out of this?

“There’s air in this box,” she said. “Not enough to stop it sinking, but enough to slow it down. In one minute, I’m going to drop it overboard. If you want any chance of catching it, I suggest that you get into your machine right now.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“Fifty seconds.”

The pirate snarled and waved to his crew.

“Everyone back, quick!”

There was a mad scramble up the jointed tentacles and through the hatch. A lid closed over the smokestack and the squid released the junk.

“Time’s up!” Susan shouted.

She dropped the box just as the squid vanished from view. There was a splash and the treasure she’d come all this way for sank beneath the waves. Maybe the pirates would catch it, maybe they’d be too slow. Either way, they would be busy for a while.

Susan gripped the rail with trembling hands and took a deep, slow breath.

Chao got to his feet and walked over to Susan.

“I don’t know what you did,” he said in Mandarin. “But thank you, Mrs Talbot.”

“I’m not really a Mrs,” Susan said, turning to look back across the deck. The dragon automaton was still wobbling around, ignored by the pale and wide-eyed crew. “I don’t suppose you know anyone who would like to buy a dragon, do you? And maybe somewhere I could hide out for a month? I think I need to make a new life plan.”

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then check out my collection of fantasy stories, By Sword, Stave, or Stylus. Or you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

And for the steampunk lovers:

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

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.

***

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.’

Inside the Alchemists’ Sewers – a flash fantasy story

A sewer of rough medieval stonework

Greb stood, pick in hand, grinning at the white, glistening barrier that blocked the tunnel.

“Look at that fat, Jonesy,” she said. “We’re going to be rich.”

“We’ll make a shilling apiece,” I said, wading through sewage to find a safe nook for my lantern. “Same as every tunnel we clear.”

“This is different.” Greb spoke in an awed whisper. “We’re near the alchemists’ district.” She ran a finger through the fat, then held it up near the lantern. Blue and red flecks gleamed. “Grimble dust. Frankincense. Maybe a little demon horn. I tell you, if we hit a rich seam then we’re set for life.”

I smiled and shook my head as I started shovelling. In Greb’s mind, every blockage was going to be the one. If the sewer was clogged with grease from the restaurants near the jewellers’ district then we’d find gold shavings and lost opals in there. Beneath the abattoirs we’d dig out priceless layers of unicorn fat. For all her dreams, we were still clearing sewers for the guilds at a shilling a time.

“We’re nearer the bath houses than the alchemists,” I said, filling the cart with shovelfuls of wobbling white mess. Two minutes in and the shovel was already slipping against my greasy gloves. It was going to be a long day.

I was on cart duty that morning. Greb thought I should enjoy these trips to the surface, the chance for a breath of fresh air. She was wrong. As long as I was down in the sewers I could get used to the stink, almost forget about it. Going to the surface meant starting afresh, being assaulted again and again by the stench of rot and sewage. Cart duty left my stomach heaving for hours.

As I returned from the fourth load, I found Greb leaning into a hole she’d dug down one side of fat-filled tunnel.

“You were right about the bath houses.” She turned to me, a grin on her face and blue-green grease full of tiny scales coating her hand. “Look, run-off from the mermaid pools. It’s the oil that protects their skin.”

“Lovely.” I started filling the barrow.

“Jonesy, you don’t understand.” There was a wild look in her eyes. “This stuff lets you breath underwater. It’s practically impossible to harvest, but if it’s been pooling down here then we can collect it. We’re rich, man! This time next week we’ll be sleeping in silk sheets and dining on unicorn steak.”

“Of course we will,” I said, wearily loading the cart.

Grabbing her spade, Greb hacked at the side of the fat plug, pushing herself into the gap she was making. Thick deposits wobbled to her right. For a moment, I thought I saw tiny bubbles escaping from the fat. I allowed myself to believe, just a little, in Greb’s wild hope.

“I can see more,” she said. “This is it!”

“Stop being an idiot, Greb,” I called out. “That whole section could-”

It was too late. A trembling layer of fat fell into Greb’s tunnel, and then another. The plug collapsed in on her narrow space, engulfing her.

My heart was in my throat as I rushed forward and dug desperately at the gleaming fat. I’d seen other tunnellers drown in the stuff, and I’d rather risk breaking Greb’s arm with my shovel than leave her to that fate.

There was no time to clear the whole deposit. I just dug another tunnel in towards Greb, praying to all the gods that it wouldn’t collapse too quickly. Fat trembled all around me, thick and glistening.

After a minute I saw a hand, fingers pushing towards me through a clear layer of coagulated grease. I thrust my hand in, closed it around her wrist and pulled, but she slipped from my grasp.

Unable to get a grip, I tore off my gloves and tried again, hoping that my fingers, not as infused with fat, might keep hold. I had to squeeze tight not to lose my grip on Greb, and she did the same, fingers digging painfully into my arm. I heaved and she wriggled towards me, the fat trembling at her desperate movements.

With a terrible squelching sound, the blockage fell in on me.

For a moment I was trapped in darkness beneath the thick goo. Then the whole mass shook. Chunks of fat were torn away all around me as the blockage broke, not in the controlled way we had planned, but suddenly, chaotically, swept away on a tide of long-contained sewage.

Still clinging to each other’s arms, Greb and I were buffeted by waves of filth. I would have thrown up, but that would have meant opening my mouth. My head hit the wall and it was all I could do not to yell in pain.

Deprived of air, my mind whirled. I fumbled around with one hand for my shovel, with no idea how I might use it, only that it was the tool I had.

Instead of the wooden handle I found a current of heavy grease running beneath the sewage. Tiny scales brushed my fingers.

Greb’s grip on me was loosening, her fingers going limp. But I remembered what she had told me about mermaid grease. I pictured those tiny bubbles escaping from the fat around it. In desperation, I closed my hand around a few of those oily scales and thrust them into my mouth.

There was a fizzing as the scales touched my tongue. Air expanded into my mouth. I drew an excited breath.

Sewage ran down my throat with the air. The taste of it, the stench of it, the greasy, lumpy texture of it mixed with the fizzing of the mermaid scales. Unable to stop myself, I vomited the whole mess back up. My throat burned as stomach acid streamed hot and acrid from my mouth.

My head was spinning. I could feel unconsciousness closing in. Dipping my hand into that low stream of fat, I dragged up another handful of scales.

This time I braced myself for what was to come. As I thrust the scales into my mouth, they started to fizz.

I opened my throat just a little. The taste of sewage was just as rank after vomit as it had been before. My stomach heaved, but I forced it to be still. I trickle of noxious air ran down my throat. My lungs inflated and my mind surged with life.

It was working!

Dragging Greb towards me, I found her face and thrust it into the mermaid grease. Her body felt corpse cold and dread gripped me in its icy fingers. But everything down there was cold. Perhaps there was a chance.

I prayed to the gods who had ignored me before.

It seemed that they accepted prayers when they weren’t for myself. Greb shuddered, heaved, and then sat up.

As the current of sewage kept flowing past us we sat in the dark, clinging to each other, breathing the tainted air that the mermaid scales were making in our mouths.

At last the currents began to settle. Still clutching each other’s hands, we fumbled through the darkness until we found a ladder. Slipping and sliding, we dragged ourselves up. An hour after the collapse we emerged, filthy, gasping for breath, and spitting mouthfuls of sewage.

I collapsed onto the cobbles, glad just to be alive.

“Look,” Greb croaked.

The grin on her face was at odds with my weariness and misery. I pulled myself up just enough to see the contents of the bottle she had pulled from her tunic.

It was full of clear grease and tiny, bubbling scales.

“You did it!” I exclaimed, suddenly indifferent to the filth soaking my skin. “We’re rich!”

“We did it,” Gleb replied.

I lay back in a puddle of sewage, stared up at the stars, and laughed.


In fantasy worlds, like the real world, not every job is glamorous. Pity poor Hercules clearing dung from the stables, or the sewer cleaner in any place and time.

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 Friday.

***

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.’