Grave Wood – a flash fantasy story

Tohan crept into the grave wood, a basket of woven reeds strapped to his back, a thief in the most sacred of places. He hated coming here. Memories poured out of the shadows – images of Oela’s body, pale and wrapped in silk; of the mourners carrying her to her grave; of the goods laid with her and the dirt tumbling after, hiding her from him forever. He had shed tears enough to fill a lagoon. Yet here he was again, set on the most wretched of tasks.

Painted wooden grave statue

A figure loomed out of the trees, the first of the grave guardians. The statue’s wooden face had been worn smooth by the centuries, the features of the woman it protected obliterated by time. Only the eyes still had colour, a green that glowed in the darkness, a reminder that there was life after the body passed.

Tohan sidestepped around the guardian’s field of vision. With a creak of old wood, its head turned and he held his breath, then realised that he was standing on the grave it guarded. Another step and the movement stopped.

Tohan exhaled and walked on.

Deeper into the grave wood, his way became crowded with guardians. The oldest of the statues had been carved from living wood and the bodies they represented laid amid the roots. More recent guardians were carved in the town and brought here, to take a place wherever one could be found, to take up their eternal vigil.

He tried to tread a line between the graves, but they were packed tight together and his feet were those of a potter, not a dancer. Several times he stumbled, trod on sacred dirt, and saw the statues turn to face him. Every time, his heart raced and he quickened his step, afraid that if he stayed long enough at one grave then its guardian would turn on him.

At last he reached the place he sought. The grave was new, the paint on the guard clean and bold. Yellow skin, green eyes, black hair. Traces of gold embedded as jewellery around the neck.

There was a treasure buried here, its value beyond counting.

He knelt and drew a trowel from the basket on his back. With trembling hands, he dug into the loose dirt.

There was a creak.

The statue bowed its head to look down at Tohan.

He dug faster, using his hand as well as the trowel, casting aside great clods of earth. His chest felt tight, his muscles tense as bowstrings.

“Come on, come on…” he muttered as the dirt flew.

Another creak. The guard’s arms swung around.

If he wanted to stay free then he should back away now, abandon his prize and the statue guarding it. But he couldn’t. Not now. Not ever.

He scrabbled frantically in the dirt. A nail tore loose but he barely noticed the pain.

The guardian leaned closer. Cold yellow hands gripped Tohan’s shoulders.

“Robber,” a rumbling voice intoned. “Despoiler.”

“Please,” Tohan mumbled, thrusting his hands deeper, feeling desperately for the thing he sought. “Please, I need this.”

He felt damp silk and the cold, unyielding flesh of the fresh corpse. His fingers brushed a leather cord.

“Criminal,” the guard intoned as it tightened its grip and pulled.

The magic of the grave wood was far stronger than Tohan. He was dragged up. He tightened his fingers around the cord, which resisted for a moment and then came.

“Robber!” the guard said, louder this time. Soon, people from the town would hear. They would find him, judge him, know his weakness.

Tears ran through the mud dappling Tohan’s cheeks.

He held up the cord and saw the pendant hanging there, a clay model of a boat, its blue enamel chipped. The first gift he had made for Oela, one she had worn every day since, right into the grave.

“Please,” Tohan whimpered. “I need something of hers. Some token to remember her by. Something to tell me that I’m not alone.”

He looked up into that face, carved with Oela’s long nose, her narrow brow, her broad smile. In place of her eyes, those shining green points, strange and yet familiar. His tears ran until they fell onto the wooden arms that gripped him so tight.

“Alone,” the statue said, its voice soft.

It lowered Tohan to the ground and let go. Painted hands shovelled dirt back into the grave, but made no attempt to take the pendant.

“Thank you,” Tohan whispered.

He stumbled back a step, one hand rubbing at his eyes, the other clutching his precious treasure. Then he turned and walked away through the grave wood.

The guards watched him every step of the way.

***

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.’

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.’




Treasure Hoard – a flash fantasy story

Dragon eye

The troll stumbled into the cave, his club trailing on the ground behind him. The light coming in through an opening high above twinkled golden and gleaming off heaps of treasure that made his eyes go wide. But they were nothing compared with the creature that lay across them. The dragon flexed her coiled crimson body and peered down.

“Do you know what I do to intruders?” she asked, fire flickering between her teeth.

“Just want rest,” the troll said. “Heroes come, kill other trolls. They come for you next.”

“Let them try,” the dragon said, flexing a claw the length of a sword blade. “I’ll tear them to ribbons then roast their remains.”

“Please I stay here?” the troll asked, unable to keep the desperation from his voice. “Until they gone.”

“Nobody stays here but me,” the dragon said, raising her head. “This is my private domain. You can go face the heroes or you can burn here.”

“Why?” the troll asked.

“Because this is my treasure and no-one else can have it.”

“Don’t want it.”

“But it’s treasure! Great beautiful heaps of treasure.”

The troll shrugged.

“You beautiful. Treasure OK.”

“You think I’m beautiful?” The dragon smiled. “No-one ever says that. Of course, there’s never anyone here to say it.” She lowered her head and peered more closely at the troll. “Alright, you can stay. Find somewhere safe behind me until the heroes are gone.”

The troll abandoned his club and scrambled up the treasure heap. Gold doubloons and emerald necklaces slid away beneath him. A silver dish clattered as it hit the floor. He slid back down on a cascade of coins. No matter what he did, he couldn’t get any higher, and the heroes might be here any moment.

The dragon pinned the troll between a pair of claws, lifted him up, and deposited him by her shoulder, at the pinnacle of the heap.

Together, they watched the entrance to the cave.

The dragon’s neck drooped and she turned to the troll, her eyes downcast.

“I’m not going to win, am I?” she asked. “I’ve heard the stories.”

“You strong,” the troll said. “You smart. You crush heroes.”

“It’s sweet of you to say so, but dragons are always strong and smart. That doesn’t mean we get to win.”

The troll stroked the dragon’s scaly side.

“I sad too,” he said. “Had tribe. Had cave. Had idol of demon we pray to. All gone now.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you for listen. Was lonely. Good to have friend again.”

“It is, isn’t it?”

The dragon trailed her claws through the treasure heap.

“Centuries of hoarding,” she said, “just so that we can die on it.”

“Better than die alone in dark.”

Voices emerged from the tunnel, the distinctive sounds of a knightly oath and a wizard chanting incantations.

“Time come.” The troll sighed, stood up, and picked up a golden candelabra which he hefted like a club. “You fight, I fight with you. Die together.”

The dragon stood, sending treasure tumbling down the side of the hoard. She narrowed her eyes and flames flickered between her teeth as she looked across her life’s work one last time, seeing the sunlight gleam across the gold.

The fire subsided as she looked up at the opening high in the cave.

“I can’t believe I’m going to say this,” she said, “but if I leave it all behind and fly away, would you like to come with me?”

The troll nodded. “I like live.”

The dragon laughed.

“Your simplicity is quite soothing,” she said.

“No, your simplicity soothing!” the troll shouted.

“It’s a compliment.”

“Oh. Then yes. I soothing.”

The voices came closer. The light of a burning brand flickered in the tunnel.

“Climb on my back,” the dragon said.

“OK.”

The troll climbed up. The dragon flexed her body and leapt, soaring into the air with long, graceful movements of her wings. As they reached the opening, the troll looked back and saw five figures far below, peering up at them in confusion.

They flew out into daylight and glided along the mountain side. The world around them was lush and green, the air fresh and full of possibilities.

“Where to?” the dragon asked.

“East,” the troll said. “I know great cave. I bring thing for you to start new hoard.”

He waved the golden candelabra.

“For us to start a new hoard,” the dragon said.

***

Why shouldn’t the monsters get happy endings, that’s what I’d like to know.

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.’

Fleeting Thoughts – a flash fantasy story

I make my way to the back room of the library, a place of dust and shadows, of leather bindings and musty pages. The cold and the quiet should be soothing after weeks in the summer city heat, but what should and what is stand apart, separated by the finest of hairs. Instead of calm, I feel tension, my mind stretched out like the skin of a drum. The clatter of a chair down the room is like a drummer beating an irregular rhythm on my soul.

I set my bag down on a table and make for the folklore shelves. Near to them, that chair shifts again, its weary wood creaking beneath the weight of the room’s other occupant. His face is hidden beneath the hood of a Nike sweatshirt, but I can see jagged, broken fingernails tapping against an old biography of Descartes.

Even with company, I can always lose myself in books. I scan the spines, torn between researching animal myths and wanting to crack open a volume of local ghost stories. If I think about it, I’m sure I can wind the two together. After all, that’s what I do – follow the paths of logic and imagination, turning separate facts into links in a chain.

I catch a glimpse of movement just too soon to avoid human contact. The hooded man reaches out for a book on the shelf in front of me. I flinch and as I do so my hand brushes against his.

The touch of those ill-kept, twisted fingers sends a shudder through me, followed a moment later by something else. A rush of thoughts – incidents, facts, and connections, knowledge I didn’t have before. I let out a childish laugh and take a step back, pondering one of the strange creatures I’ve seen, like an old engraving of Black Shuck and yet not. I can use that. It’s perfect for… for… for something.

Now the image is gone. I shake my head, as though I might somehow shake the thought loose. There was a dog, wasn’t there? Some dark creature? Something I felt excited for?

I look at the man in the hooded. He looks back with soft, empty eyes.

“I saw…” I frown, almost cursing myself out loud. “Did you put something in my head?”

He takes a step back, arms held wide, face a picture of innocence.

“What are you?” I stare at him. There’s a smoothness to his face that isn’t quite right, like an oversized glossy cover hiding the stained bindings of a hardback. The musty smell of old books turns sour in the air.

Why am I looking at this man? I thought I knew, but that knowledge drifts away like a dust mote through a sunbeam, vanishing into shadow. I look him up and down, trying to make sense of it all. He’s wearing trainers, jeans, a hoody. His face is unsettling, unfamiliar, ghostly pale. And what are those soft shoes that he’s wearing?

He reaches out and again there comes a wave of insight. Thoughts of who he is, where he has been, what he has seen. I try to catch them as they pass but they slip through me and are gone.
I’ve spent years pursuing the supernatural, but if I’ve read of something like him then I can’t remember it. I spool through memories, long lines of ghosts, fey beasts, and urban legends. None quite fits, but which is closest?

As I try to recall them again, there’s nothing there. My own memories have been carried away with his.

“Know me,” he whispers, reaching out again.

I step back, hit a chair, and fall across it, landing with a thud on worn floorboards.

My mind burns for lost knowledge like a drowning man yearns for air. I try to find the thoughts I still have, to connect the links in the chain, to hold them together. I cling to anything I can. The logo on his sweatshirt, that symbol of victory, of sportsmanship, of an ancient god, of a brand contorting conformity and defiance as if the two could be one, of…

Why am I staring at a white tick on red cloth? It’s just a swoosh. A nothing.

He leans over. I still remember enough to make my heart race and the breath catch in my throat. The harder I struggle to focus, the more thoughts flee me, like sand trickling through my hands.

I force myself to close my eyes. To find shelter in simplicity. To follow the path of the Buddha, of the ancient ascetics, of…

Then comes the end of the chain. There’s nothing here. Just an emptiness where the things that matter to me were.

I look up into dark eyes set amid a pale face.

For one last moment, I think.

And then…

* * *

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.

The Ocean’s Child – a flash fantasy story

The fog rose from the sea during the night, a white tide that engulfed the town, turning houses into looming grey crags and people into distant, shifting shadows. Land and sea no longer parted at the shoreline. The bodies of the living were as blurry, their features as faded as the memories of the dead.

I had waited a month for a morning like this. Waited ever since a chunk of driftwood had washed up on the shoreline, a splintered plank with the same blue paint as my father’s fishing boat. Waited with the dread of an eldest child, my fears buried beneath the resilience I had to show for my sisters. The resilience my father had taught me.

I walked the fog shrouded streets, cobbles slippery beneath my feet, down to the harbour. In my hands were the well-worn knife my mother used to clean the catch and the last chunk of the loaf that had fed us for three days. Traditional tools for ancient magic.

I kept walking, off the cobbles and onto the smooth stones of the harbour front, then down from them onto the sand, past boats drawn up above the tide line. No-one would be sailing today. Only a few old sailors looked up from scraping barnacles or spreading tar. None spoke. They had known my father. They knew why I was here.

Loose sand became damp and close-packed as I approached the sea. I stopped where the waves would pass in and out across my feet. I took a bite of the bread, its taste like dust in my mouth, and cast the rest into the sea. Then I ran the knife along the back of my hand, a sharp line of pain that pierced my numb heart.

I sank to my knees and thrust my bleeding hand into the surf. The water was icy cold and the wound stung but I didn’t flinch. Resilience, as my father had taught me.

Something stirred amid the waves. A figure, as grey and indistinct as any other, approached out of the fog and the ever-shifting ocean. As it came closer, I saw that it was made not of flesh but of water. Its beard was a tangle of kelp, its eyes cockle shells. Though I had last seen it as flesh and hair, I knew that face, and seeing it like this turned a long drawn out dread into terrible certainty.

“Father,” I said, the breath catching in my throat. “You’re dead.”

“A storm on the first night out,” he said, his voice the rattle of pebbles scraping across the ocean floor. “The boat was shattered and I was embraced by mother ocean.”

“I miss you,” I said. “And I’m scared. How will we get by without you?”

He cupped my face in his hands. That touch finally broke the dam inside me and tears streamed down my cheeks, running into the salt water that he had become.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said, his gaze familiar and yet strange, the father I loved made uncanny by this body he wore. “Mother ocean sends me with a message. You are touched by the tide. You will sense its comings and goings, know when it is safe and when there is danger, when the fish will fill your nets and when they will be absent. This is her gift to you, in exchange for me.”

“I don’t want to make a trade!” I said. “I want you back.”

I tried to bury my face in his chest, as I had done when I was young and in need of comfort. But there was no warmth there, only the icy water.

“It is small recompense,” he said. “But it is all she offers and more than most receive. Please, my child, accept it. For your mother. For your sisters. For me.”

I fought down the trembling and nodded my head.

“I accept.”

The wave that was my father surged across me, soaking me through cloth, through flesh, through bone, to the spark of light that glimmers within. And then I stood alone at the tide line, without even a goodbye.

I wanted to break down weeping. Instead I looked out across the water, as my father had done so many times. The fog was fading, sunlight dancing once again on the tips of the waves. I could sense a shoal of cod approaching, silver bodies flitting in the deep.

I saw the future stretching out before me. Someone would grant me a place on their crew, for my father’s sake. I would guide them to the fish before others found them. I would earn my share and my place in that crew. In time I would buy my own boat. I would feed my mother, my sisters, and in time a family of my own. Mother ocean would be my lifeline and finally she would be my grave, as she had been for my father. Then I too would emerge to guide my child, before I joined my father at last and forever.

For the first time in weeks, I felt as though I was standing on solid ground. My father was dead but a part of him remained. Now was my time, not just to be resilient but to be strong.

I turned and walked through the fading fog back up the beach.

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you can sign up to my mailing list – you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

When Fantasy Isn’t Fantasy

Sometimes making a story look like something it isn’t can frustrate readers. Other times, it can be immensely satisfying.

Why?

(Mild spoilers for The Shattered Sea ahead – don’t want this article turning into something you didn’t expect.)

Joe Abercrombie‘s Shattered Sea trilogy is mostly a straightforward, if rather dark, YA fantasy series. In a world ripped apart by a long-ago war, Viking-style raiders plough the seas, looting, trading, and making war on each other. The story has its twists and turns, all in keeping with the style of story it lays out from the start – one of deception and betrayal in the cause of greater goods.

There’s also another twist hidden in the world building, one that slowly becomes apparent as you read the story.

This isn’t a fantasy world. It’s our world in the future. The elven ruins are the remains of modern cities, magical artefacts modern technology. Hints dropped along the way let the reader work this out without the characters ever finding the truth, which is irrelevant to their lives. They care about what those artefacts can do, not what it really means for magic to exist.

This isn’t an entirely new idea. John Christopher did something similar in his 1970s Sword of the Spirits trilogy, and he’s not alone. But the reason this works isn’t precedentt. It’s the way it affects the reader.

Finding out that you’re not reading the story you thought you were can be frustrating. The writer pulls the rug out from beneath your feet and then stands there smugly grinning, with a look on their face like “aha! I tricked you!” They’re proving how clever they are.

Abercrombie’s books have the opposite effect. You as the reader get to feel clever, as you put the pieces together and work out the truth. That’s a great feeling. We accept the bait and switch because of the way that it’s presented.

I’ve talked about this idea a bunch of times – that we feel good about books when they make us feel smart. From a little kid learning to recognise letters to an undergraduate student ostentatiously reading Ulysses, feeling smart makes you feel good, which makes you like the thing that made you feel smart.

So yeah, I really liked The Shattered Sea series. Not just because of that smart feeling, of course. There are compelling characters and events presented in clear, enjoyable prose. But that fantasy that’s not fantasy, it certainly helps.

Out Now – All the Beautiful Sunsets

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.

All the Beautiful Sunsets is available as an e-book from all good stores.

My Top Reads of 2018 – Non-Fiction

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 WarChurchill’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.

You Cannot Own the Land – a flash fantasy story

When the men in the blue coats claimed that the land was theirs, we laughed at them.

“You cannot own the land,” I told them. “It’s not a drum or a club, something that you can pick up and trade, something whose spirit you can control. It’s just the land.”

But the blue coats had swords so sharp they could cut the wind, guns that roared like thunder, and floating fortresses from which to bombard our villages. So in the end, we let them have their foolishness. They would call the land theirs but we would still live on it, and that was what mattered.

They called the chiefs to a great signing ceremony. I had given birth to my second daughter only weeks before, but they became angry when I said I would not go. So I donned my stone bark armour and my feathered crown, took up my war club and my charm bag, and went to meet them.

I stood with the rest of the chiefs, surrounded by blue coat soldiers. Their chief, with his golden shoulder strings and his pointed headdress, oversaw it all. Another man used a metal stick to draw a map on a great sheet of hide, marking out the shape of the coast and the limits of the land the blue coats called theirs.

As his blood-red ink touched the page, I felt something change around me. The flow of life through the earth stopped, power building up like water behind a dam.

“It’s real,” I said, staring in shock as he kept drawing his lines and the power kept backing up. “They own the land.”

Ofabilla of the Long Fall village sank to his knees, pale and shaking.

“What have they done?” he hissed.

I opened my bag of charms, drew out a death tree gourd wrapped in red ribbon, and squeezed it tight. As the spikes pierced my skin and blood dripped into the dirt, I opened the way for the power of the land to flow through me.

Nothing came.

I squeezed harder, letting the pain open a path.

Still nothing.

I closed my eyes and took hold of my war club. Its power at least would be mine still. I reached out with my heart, down my arm, through my hand, and into the wood, calling the power forth.

Nothing.

The blue coats’ map had laid claim to all this land. Its power was theirs.

I opened my eyes. The map maker was trembling with the strain of his work as he moved towards the end. Another blue coat dabbed the sweat from his forehead so that it would not fall and mar the map.

I could not let this stand. They had guns and swords and floating fortresses. They would not have our spirits too.

In my heart, I said goodbye to my daughters, knowing what I took from them in trying to save their world. Then I dropped my club, leapt forward, and snatched the map from the blue coat’s hands.

They stared at me in shock, every one of them.

“What are you doing?” their chieftain exclaimed. “Put that down at once, you mad woman!”

I had no words to waste on him. I simply took hold of the map with both hands and pulled at it with all my strength.

“No!” the map maker shrieked as his creation began to tear.

The ground trembled. Trees fell. Men and women were thrown about. I felt the power they had constrained rush through me in a glorious, golden surge.

Guns roared and I knew that my time had come. I would not see my daughters grow, but at least they would hear of me with pride.

Death did not come. Instead, the bullets were flung back against those who fired them. The power of the land poured forth, flinging these invaders through the air, leaving them broken like straw dolls at the end of harvest night.

“You cannot own the land,” I said, picking up their chieftain by the throat. His skin shrivelled as his power was sucked away on the great tide coursing through me. “But perhaps it can own you.”

* * *

Maps have power. Look at how we treat borders and the people who live across them. I liked the idea of treating that power as something magical, and this is the result.

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My Top Reads of 2018 – Fiction

As the end of the year approaches, it’s time to look back on what’s been good in 2018. I’m going to start with fiction – not necessarily books that came out this year, but ones I’ve read and enjoyed over the past twelve months.

The Wounded Kingdom Trilogy by RJ Barker

This year saw the release of volumes two and three of RJ Barker’s Wounded Kingdom trilogy – Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins. Age of Assassins was one of my favourite books of 2017, so I had high hopes, and RJ absolutely lived up to them.

Girton Clubfoot is an assassin, his skills all about killing. When he and his master are called upon to save a life instead of ending one, they become drawn into the politics of a court at war with itself in a country ravaged by dark magic. Everybody has their secrets, from the king down to the stable hands. Some of them are willing to kill to keep those secrets safe, and it won’t be long before Girton finds himself on the sharp end of a blade.

This series consists of three murder mystery political thrillers set in a medieval fantasy world. There’s war, magic, crime, and intrigue aplenty. But what makes it stand out is the characters. With the books set years apart, we get to see them maturing and their relationships changing. They both shape and are shaped by the kingdom around them. Villains become heroes while heroes lose their way. The protagonist goes from a fumbling apprentice to a master of his craft. And through it all, there’s an exploration of family – what it is, what it means, and how it shapes us.

I don’t want to say much more, for fear of spoiling the series’ splendid twists and turns. While the first book was compelling, it’s the finale that makes it powerful. These are smartly written, compelling novels. If you enjoy fantasy at all, you should give them a go.

Dogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rex is a good dog. All he wants is to do what his masters tell him and be rewarded with their love and gratitude. Unfortunately, Rex is also a seven foot tall muscled monstrosity, genetically engineered as one of the world’s deadliest killing machines. So when things start to get confusing for Rex, when the boundary between enemies and innocents becomes unclear, there’s trouble coming.

Dogs of War is a stand-alone sci-fi novel about the abuse of power and what it means to be a person. In Rex, it has one of the most perfectly written, perfectly heartbreaking viewpoint characters I’ve ever experienced. The difference between his innocent worldview and reality is skillfully implied from the very start, making for a really emotional read. And as the story shifts, digging deeper into the fate of creatures like Rex, it raises intriguing questions about how humans cope with the consequences of what we create.

I’ve been reading a lot of Adrain Tchaikovsky’s work recently. So far this is the standout story, a great book from a great writer.

The Copper Promise by Jen Williams

Years behind my friends’ recommendations, I’ve finally got started on Jen Williams’ Copper Cat trilogy and it was well worth it.

Another fantasy series, the Copper Cat trilogy follows a band of mercenaries whose attempts to make a living drag them into saving the world. What starts as a gritty story of lowlives in scummy taverns slowly escalates into an epic of gods and monsters in which mortals struggle to save the innocent from destruction.

Like all the best stories, the characters are what drive these books along. There conflicting motives and personalities ensure that there’s always trouble brewing, but their friendship pulls them together in battles against the odds. Sharp dialogue and lively action scenes become a conduit for those characters, not a distraction from them.

I haven’t yet read the last book in the series, but based on the first two, I’m sure I’ll enjoy it. And I can definitely recommend the first two, starting with The Copper Promise.

The Glamourist Histories by Mary Robinette Kowal

Imagine the early 19th century but with magical art that crafts illusions. That’s the world of the Glamourist Histories.

At the heart of this series is Jane, the narrator and protagonist. A young woman born into the English gentry, she starts out looking for all the things we expect from a Jane Austen character – love, marriage, a secure future. But Jane is also a skilled glamourist, able to use her art to bring beauty from thin air. If she can find a way to pursue her art, then life promises much more for Jane, even if she can’t see it.

Though character is the consistent thread of these books, it’s the variety of settings within them that I particularly love. One is a Jane Austen pastiche, the next a Napoleonic espionage thriller. We spend time with the reformers of London, the glassblowers of Venice, and the slaves of the Caribbean plantations. A lot of the themes of real 19th-century history are explored in the space of five fantasy novels.

I finished this series this year on audible, where the books are wonderfully narrated by the author. They’re a very different take on fantasy from most of what I read, drawing on different threads of history and society, rich with social tensions and the challenge of change.

 

So those were my top reads this year. What were yours?