Out Now – Zhai Chengda’s Wife

It’s story time again!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monsters

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

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

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

Wells

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

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

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

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

A Woman on a Mission

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

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

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

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

Sticking With It

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

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

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

And if you already read and enjoyed it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

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By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

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

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

From reader reviews:

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

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

The Epiphany Club Out Now

The Epiphany Club is out today! Collecting all five novellas in my steampunk series, it’s the biggest book I’ve put out so far, and the first one that’s available in print as well as e-book.

So what’s it all about? Well…

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.

But Dirk and his colleagues aren’t the only ones following the trail. Faced with strange machines, deadly assassins, and shocking betrayal, can they survive the perils confronting them? And what will they find when they finally reach their destination?

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.

The Epiphany Club is available now from all sorts of online outlets. Go get yourself a copy now, and if you enjoy it, please leave a review where you bought it or on Goodreads.

Out Today – Harriet’s War

I have a new comic out today!

Harriet’s War is part of Commando‘s Armistice celebration, marking 100 years since the end of the First World War. The story of an ambulance driver on the Western Front, it’s a story I was really excited to write, not least because it covers the under-represented role of women in the war.

You can get Harriet’s War from newsagents in the UK and in digital form around the world via Comixology. If you want to read more about it, check out my post from Monday. And if you enjoy it, please let me know – it’s always nice to hear when people like your work.

 

Cover image © DC Thomson and Co. Ltd  2018

Out Now – Words of Wisdom

Rahiq wove her way through the crowd, squeezing between bellowing camels and city walls that trembled in their brass tracks, vast blocks of stone rotating around Baghdad’s perimeter. Today was the day. Today she would change her life…

My story “Words of Wisdom” is out now in issue #105 of On Spec magazine. Set in a clockwork version of medieval Baghdad, it’s the story of a young engineer trying to find her place in the world and an aging master trying to preserve what he has built.

Now Available for Pre-order – Sieges and Silverware

Huzzah and hoorah! I’ve finally finished writing Sieges and Silverware, the fourth in my Epiphany Club series of novellas.

In the face of war and betrayal, adventurer Dirk Dynamo is still looking for the clues that will take him to the lost Great Library of Alexandria. Arriving at an isolated German castle, he finds his life threatened not just by the enemies prowling its corridors but by an army laying siege outside the walls. Surrounded by traitors, monsters and falling artillery shells, can Dirk escape with his life and with the artefacts he needs, or will he be one more casualty of a nation being born in iron and blood?

The fourth story in the Epiphany Club series, Sieges and Silverware sees Dirk face the consequences of events in Paris and the betrayal he suffered there. No longer just looking for treasure, he must also find a way to mend a broken heart.

 

I know that this one has been a long time coming and I’m sorry to those of you who’ve been waiting. But now that other parts of life are under control, the final book in the series, Dead Men and Dynamite,  will also be here soon.

Sieges and Silverware is out on the 27th of October. You can pre-order it now through Amazon and Smashwords.

Out Now – Praying Away the Plague in Ancient History

Are you interested in history? Do you like to read about the downfall of civilisations? Does the thought of past disasters help you survive current ones? Then the latest issue of Ancient History is for you!

Themed around the end of antiquity, it features an article by me entitled “Praying Away the Plague”, about how people used religion to cope with the Justinian Plague of the 6th century. There’s also stuff on learning, politics, and the personalities of those changing times. So if you’re a fan of well-written and accessible history, go grab a copy now.

Out Now – The Sound of Stones

alt-hist-9-ebook-cover-copyOne by one, Rhodri plucked the stones from the field and dropped them into his basket. More than just rocks, they carried the spirits of past generations, reaching out to Rhodri through fragments of their land.

Thud.

Thud.

Thud.

Every spring the same, since men came to this valley in a time older than tales. Rhodri heard the spirits of those long dead men whisper in his ear, an echo of when they worked these same fields.

Thud.

Thud.

Thud.

 

The tale of one man’s struggle for survival and his connection to the land, my story ‘The Sound of Stones’ is out now in Alt Hist Issue 9. And there’s more…

Alt Hist Issue 9 brings you the best new writing in historical fiction and alternate history. This issue features six new short stories and takes the reader from German occupied Yorkshire to Samurai-era Japan, via the Bermuda triangle, medieval Wales, the Vikings and post-war Ireland. You’ll find action-packed stories of fights against sea monsters, the intrigue of resistance against Nazi and Norman oppressors and the upholding of honour within traditional Samurai and Viking societies inside the pages of Alt Hist Issue 9.

Ghosts, Gears and Grimoires – Cover Reveal and Book Trailer

ghosts_72dpi-3What happens when the supernatural and steampunk collide? When ghosts get into the gears and cowled figures haunt the cogwheels? When blood drips with the fog from the streets of cities that rattle with industry?

In just over a week’s time you can find out, with the release of Ghosts, Gears and Grimoires, an anthology of steampunk horror stories edited by Rie Sheridan Rose of Mocha Memoirs Press. It includes my story “Steel and Steam”, in which colonial industry faces native spirits, and over a dozen other tales. There’s a very nifty book trailer here, and if that doesn’t whet your appetite enough, here’s a small taster of my story…

 

Hywel snorted. “This is the nineteenth century, Mr. Kagunda. The world is powered by science and steam, not ancient superstitions and mystification.”

“Mr. Jones is right,” Filbery said. “There are far more plausible explanations. Human error, machine fault, even sabotage. If this superstition is causing us problems, then we should nip it in the bud.”

“You have a Bible in your room, Mr. Filbery?” Kagunda’s voice was rising, his guarded, respectful tone giving way to something more primal. “And you, Mr. Jones? I have heard you singing songs of God as you work.” He made a wide, sweeping gesture with his arm, taking in the whole of the surrounding plains. “This land is my Bible. My songs are of this earth, and those who came before.”

“I say!” Filbery protested, as Kagunda grabbed each of them by an arm and dragged them to the back rail. Hywel knew the foreman was strong, but this was the first time he had felt the intensity of that strength, pulling him about like a rag doll.

“The white.” Kagunda pointed at pale flecks in the broken dirt thirty feet below them. “What is it?”

“Chalk?” Filbery asked.

“Flint?” Hywel murmured, knowing as he said it that the geology was wrong.

“Bone.” Kagunda’s voice tolled like a bell.