Thursday 31 October 2013

Dead and Buried or Alive and Kicking | David Bryher on the Mummy

We do love our undead, don’t we? If it’s not seductive vampires, it’s ravenous zombies gathered in their hordes of various speeds. While the former have cornered the sparkly ‘paranormal romance’ market, the latter are a grumbling, mumbling presence in tons of media from books to films to computer games as wildly varied as Minecraft, Skyrim and Dead Rising (and and and).

There was a time — just ask Universal — when we liked our undead a lot more simple: Dracula was out for our blood and the zombies were out for our brains. It was a simpler time, before folk started to throw around pesky metaphors, before we tried to empathise with the undead, before we got things like True Blood or BBC3’s In The Flesh. And all this stuff is well and good — but whence shamble the mummies? 

We demand more of our monsters nowadays. Vampires have come to represent tortured love, while zombie stories talk of war and social exclusion and a rapacious global society. These, of course, are problems for the living — but mummies... mummies are made of nothing but death.

Some years ago, I stayed in Luxor in Egypt, in a hotel overlooking the Nile. Every night, I would watch the sun set on the other side of the river, behind the low, lumpy mountains surrounding the Valley of the Kings. After it sank below the horizon, said the myths, the sun travelled into the land of the dead — and that was why the tombs of the Egyptian kings were dug into the heels of those bone-white mountains. It wasn’t much of a stretch to see the imaginative leaps required to build this belief: if you set out from the temple-cluttered ancient capital of Thebes, following the red sun as it slides out of sight, you’d find nothing but dry, chalky ground — an absence of life so close to the green marshes surrounding the Nile. When the sun went, it took life with it — so where better to dig to find the gates to the afterlife?

This valley was a gateway into the beyond: and while that beyond may have included an eternal life of gold and bounty and cocaine and hookers, Death was still its gatekeeper, and its gate was one-way. The tombs in the Valley of the Kings, the pyramids, those richly painted sarcophagi on display at museums around the world — all that colour, pomp and splendour, all brought to life by death.

So, while vampires and zombies have come to cast their light on our lives, the mummy still casts a long, sunset shadow over our existence, reminding us of the naked truth that Everything Dies. And even though we might be remembered, it’s a gamble: we can only ever be remembered if we’re dead and gone and there’s a chance we’ll be forgotten too. 

There are all sorts of ways of looking at the Egyptian fascination with their dear departed and the method of their departure. Few cultures have built such obvious or long-lasting tributes to their dead and it’s easy, if you’re looking for a hook to hang a story on, to read this behaviour as uncomfortably clingy. And it wasn’t just the Egyptians that were into embalming and clinginess...

In 13th Century Scotland [Comes highly recommended! — Ed.], Lady Dervourguilla of Galloway founded an abbey, known as New Abbey, near Dumfries. In 1269, her beloved husband, John Balliol (of the Oxford college fame), died and, refusing to be parted from her love, Dervorguilla had his heart embalmed and placed in a casket of ivory and silver. She carried this casket around with her for the rest of her life until, finally, she was laid to rest in the grounds of New Abbey, next to the slightly hollowed-out body of her husband. In honour of this, er, ‘touching’ tale, the abbey was renamed ‘Sweetheart Abbey'. 

(I think the monks were taking the piss.)

Even though there’s only a tiny shred of mumminess in this story, I still think it shows us just how much sway death, and the belief that people should be remembered in such stark and bold ways, holds over us. I used the tale of Dervorguilla as the basis for my story in The Book of the Dead, using it to look at how we hang on to things we should have shucked off and forgotten long ago.

So maybe that’s what mummies teach us about our lives: not everything is worth remembering; not everything about life is so precious that we should worry about leaving it in the dusty desert, buried with the setting sun. The curse of the pharaohs may actually be there to protect us. And sometimes, maybe it really is better for the dead to stay dead.


David Bryher’s new short story, 'The Dedication of Sweetheart Abbey,' appears in The Book of the Dead. His other recent work includes storylining and additional writing on The Walk (the new game from the makers of I), a preview of a 1964 Doctor Who story (you read that right), and the sci-fi audio drama A Lift in Time for Big Finish Productions.

For more about the author, follow @davidbryher on Twitter and check out his blog.

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Dead and Buried or Alive and Kicking | Jonathan Green on the Mummy

“Anck-es-en-Amon, my love has lasted longer than the temples of our gods. No man ever suffered as I did for you.”

So declares Boris Karloff’s reanimated ancient Egyptian priest Imhotep, in Universal Studios’ 1932 chiller The Mummy. But just what is it about mummies (the ones that look like they’re wrapped in loo roll, as opposed to the ones who actually buy the loo roll) that makes them so appealing to movie makers and writers of fiction with a fascination for the fantastical and macabre?

The undead — those restless revenants that rise from the grave at the slightest excuse — have always held a fascination for writers who are, by nature, preoccupied with the really weighty issues life throws at us — love, life itself, and possibly the biggest one there is: what happens to us after we die?

It’s all a question of faith. When very few can honestly claim to know what happens to our immortal souls after death takes us, the revenant — no matter how vile and decomposed a thing it might be — at least implies by its very existence that death is not the end. And when it comes to the undead, the mummy got there first.

Legends of mummies predate central European vampire myths as well as Roman ghost stories concerning werewolves. Zombies are positively modern by comparison, emerging out of Haiti (as well as their tombs) in the early 20th century.

If vampires represent the potential killer in us all, or the desire to remain eternally young (fuelled by today’s obsession with image), and the werewolf is the beast in us all (the bad boy that metrosexual man is supposed to suppress, that also reminds us just how close to base animals we still are beneath our skin of so-called civilised humanity), while the zombie personifies the very real fear of death chasing after us, what does the mummy represent to our modern sensibilities?

Quite simply, the mummy is the antidote to all these other monstrous mythic archetypes. The mummy has it all. It is immune to death, freed from the need to sustain its physical form. It is no ravening beast but a civilised creature, and not just any creature, but a highborn, noble ruler.

In our materialistic society, one that is driven by the need to accumulate wealth whilst also being trapped within a seemingly endless cycle of boom and bust that has lasted for the best part of a hundred years (if not longer), the mummy lets us defeat the old adage. The mummy says you can take it with you when you die.

And for those of us motivated by things other than the accumulation of wealth, the mummy has a message of hope for us too. For the mummy shows us what it is to be human. As Imhotep attests, even when every other capacity has left us, we are still capable of love. 

Years after we have gone into the ground, those we leave behind will still feel our love for them as a very real presence inside their hearts, and we will receive their love in return. For love is ultimately what makes us human. And more than that, it is love that makes us immortal.


Jonathan Green has more than thirty-five books to his name. Well known for his contributions to the Fighting Fantasy range of adventure gamebooks, and numerous Black Library publications, he has also written fiction for such diverse properties as Doctor Who, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Sonic the Hedgehog and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Jonathan is the creator of the Pax Britannia series for Abaddon Books. He is currently writing the eighth novel in an ongoing series set within this alternative steampunk universe and featuring the debonair dandy adventurer Ulysses Quicksilver.

For more about the author, follow @jonathangreen on Twitter and check out his blog.

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Dead and Buried or Alive and Kicking | Maria Dahvana Headley on the Mummy

This little piece started out being mummy fluff, and turned into a political rant, so you’ll have to forgive me. I didn’t realize, until I started writing it, that I actually did have some pretty precise feelings about mummy narratives, and indeed about the notion of the walking dead, which is, of course, the category mummy stories usually fall into. I thought, tra-la, mummy fun and games, and then, well, you’ll see. That is, of course, the joy of writing fiction – it can be both written and read on a variety of levels. Here, mummy stories are both fun & games, AND speak to some of our most ancient cultural maladies.


So, in truth, I didn’t believe the mummy was still alive and kicking in fiction. This is somewhat ironic, given that I think I’m one of the few writers in this anthology who had already written something mummy-centric. In my mind, mummies were basically overdressed zombies, and in Queen of Kings, my novel, there’s only a little bit of mummy, because by the time Cleopatra was ruling and dying, mummies were basically out-of-date. I did however, in the research for that book, discover a bit about Alexander the Great, whose body was transported in a vat of honey (yes: after he died) and whose mummified nose was ultimately broken off by Octavian/Augustus, maybe by accident, maybe, um, not. Little souvenir of the powerful dead to keep on the Emperor’s desk. Given that that sort of thing existed, it was ultimately little surprise that there were lots of highly-specific and highly-peculiar mummy facts lurking out there in the inter-ether.

Mummies and mummy-bits have been eaten as medicine up to and throughout the Elizabethan era, ground up and made into ink until 1963 (!), their bandages scavenged (possibly) to make into paper in the 1850’s, stolen from pyramids for centuries, sold as pulverized spell-ingredients in a witchcraft-supply store in NYC as late as the 1970’s — or so the research for my story, 'Bit-U-Men,' revealed... and all the while, they’ve managed to retain their romance. 

That’s not nothing, when what we’re talking about is a category of zombie trope. Zombies are basically unromantic to the maximum, what with their rotting and their flesh cravings. Mummies in fiction are also generally walking dead, but they manage to be... cool. 

Now for a little class analysis. Got to do it. It’s why we’re still obsessed.

Mummies are our genre-fictional royal families, and we have the same complicated feelings about them that we have about the living royals, whether they be Prince William and Kate, or the Kennedy clan: obsession, revulsion, intrigue, envy, curiosity, wrath...

In fiction, after all, mummies tend to be dead Kings and Queens, wrapped in their finest, with their legions of servants, and their treasures. The middle-class mummy is not a trope we’re used to seeing, nor is the mummy at the bottom of the social order. (Animal mummies are slight exceptions, but animal mummies also exist in a largely royal context. Those sacred cats are not your typical street feline mousers.) Mummies come with curses, but also with power, because hello: the mummies we’re talking about when we’re telling stories tend to be mummies made of the people who were in charge. Even dead, they tend to come with a lot of certainty. They ask for, and take what they want, and victims of fictional mummy curses are seduced by the pretty, the shiny, the possible rewards that come from getting involved in bad business.

In reality, of course, powerless mummies would be the norm. There are a hell of a lot more poor people in any culture than there are Kings. In even more stark reality, hello, we’re talking about the dead, who are inherently pretty damn powerless. Any power we culturally invest them with is our own nervousness about dying. We do not want to die and lose our influence. We would, thus, much, MUCH rather be mummies than zombies, because mummies rule beyond the grave, whereas poor zombies get yanked up from their deadness, all messy and clueless, and their only reward is hard labor and hunger for flesh. Fiction’s mummies, on the other hand, get buried with feasts. When they walk through our narratives, they tend to be equipped with the craft and capacity that come of satiation rather than starvation’s bewilderment and emaciated collapse.

Fictional mummies are often villainously power-hungry — even if they’re powerful, dying has crimped their style — and thus, in these narratives, the satisfaction of our heroes destroying a mummy is the same satisfaction as that of overthrowing a king. Mummy stories can frequently be seen as stories about the overthrow of the ruling class, even if the ruling class in these cases is way dead. They’re stories about killing kings, and re-killing kings, about taking power from those who shouldn’t have it any more.

The thought that the dead might retain their agency is, I think, both tempting — we’re all, after all, going to die — and terrifying. What if the dead want things we don’t want to give them? What if the dead want things they shouldn’t want?

Enter zombies, genre-fiction’s poverty-equivalent. Zombies come at you with all the tropes of right wing poverty rhetoric: the poor are stupid, greedy (that would be the terminology, rather than hungry), and without understanding of the Real Things. It’s both fascinating and unsurprising that there’s been a recent surge of zombie narrative popularity. Global financial collapse always leads societies to collective fear of both poverty and of the poor — even if the poor are us. These stories are manufactured as a way, usually, to sell the myth of the evil of the poor to the poor themselves. Zombie stories are essentially stories of the starving and desperate trying to regain stability.

In real-world terms: there’s long been an attempt to sell the mythos that starving people are not actually human, and that starvation is the fault of the starved rather than of the fed. In zombie stories, a narrative in which the poor overthrow the not-as-poor, the overthrowing poor are portrayed as being unable to run any kind of society. Zombie society, after all, is cannibal, flesh collapse, and lack of reason.

So, yes, these are bummer tropes. I bring them up for a reason though — I would, it turns out, like to see more mummy overthrows, rather than more post-apocalypse zombie battles. I would like to see a world in which bad power is collectively fought against, rather than a world in which we try to destroy the weak, the hungry, and the poor.

Here’s why:

The recent space of incredibly upsetting and wildly inaccurate headlines about Roma in Europe — and the hideous New York Times headline last week: “Are the Roma primitive, or just poor?” — have had me thinking a lot about the things writers, as influencers of larger culture, are putting out into the world in story form. When I was a kid, my grandmother had a racist terror of the people she referred to as “the Gypsies: they’ll steal your children.” To her mind, that wasn’t a wrong thing to say. It was, in her opinion, truth. In the world media at present, the rhetoric seems to be very similar. (The New York Times, for god’s sake!! How does that headline get a pass? How are heads not rolling?) My grandmother’s terror of the Roma people came into being during the Great Depression. She came from a family stricken, as very many were, by complete poverty, and they crossed from Nebraska farmland to Idaho in a Model T. Who caused America’s poverty in that moment? Certainly not the Roma. What got sold to the poor — to protect the ruling class from uprisings?
Dear Poor People, 
There are people poorer than you, and they (not we) are the villains. They will steal your children, your money, your security. Blame them. Hate them. 
The Mess-Makers
So, what is being sold to the masses right now? Exactly the same toxic ingredients: there are people poorer than you, and they will steal your children, your money, your security. Don’t fight the powerful, fight the weak.

This, folks, is a real-world example of a zombie narrative being sold as truth. It sucks. It’s a prime example of the poor being politically and purposefully imbued with the traits of classic monsters, in order to distract attention from actual criminals.

So, let’s talk about why mummy narratives are relevant now, in that context? If, as I’m saying, the classic mummy trope is Royal Mummy, then the mummies really are the ones we should be fighting. I’m talking royal not necessarily in terms of kings and queens, but in terms of Power.

Structurally, then, mummy stories are a better model. I’m not talking that of total violent uprising, though sometimes that’s very necessary, and we’ve definitely seen that in many complicated iterations in the last few years. I’m talking, when I talk about The Mummy Narrative, about intelligent heroes and heroines (and that’s usually what you get, classically — the people fighting the mummies tend to be clever, often scholars, archeologists, academics) fighting abuses of power.

In a fun way? Can I get back to the fun of Mummy Stories? Maybe I can’t from here. This kind of fiction can be totally fun to write and read, but I think its longevity comes from deeper things. Like everything worth reading, maybe, mummy stories hinge on societal rules and rebellion against the wrong-headed ones.

That’s a good model for moving forward, and a very good reason mummy stories are still relevant, even now.

(And, FYI, my story in The Book of the Dead? Well... I managed to write something which has exactly nothing to do with all this. The mummy I wrote is a middle-class mummy, or at least, it’s a mummy that’s got nothing but itself, and the story isn’t of villainy but of love... and it’s full of sex and candy. What can I tell you? There are, apparently, lots of kinds of mummy stories — and in the book, I’m sure there definitely are. This essay was just me considering one kind — the classic kind.)


Maria Dahvana Headley is the Nebula-nominated author of the dark fantasy/alt-history novel Queen of Kings as well as the internationally bestselling memoir The Year of Yes. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Subterranean, Glitter and Mayhem, The Lowest Heaven and more, as well as the 2013 editions of The Year's Best Fantasy & Science Fiction and The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror. Most recently, with Neil Gaiman, she co-edited the young adult monster anthology Unnatural Creatures

For more about the author, follow @MARIADAHVANA on Twitter and check out her website.

Monday 28 October 2013

Introducing | Dead and Buried or Alive and Kicking: A Celebration of The Book of the Dead

A couple of months ago, in a special edition of the British Genre Fiction Focus for, it was a pride and a privilege to be the blogger behind the reveal of Jurassic London's latest anthology project.

I had loved the not-for-profit small press's last anthology, The Lowest Heaven — reviewed right here — and I was pulled in by the premise of The Book of the Dead as well:
The Book of the Dead addresses the most fascinating of all the undead: the mummy. This anthology includes nineteen original stories of revenge, romance, monsters and mayhem, ranging freely across time periods, genres and styles. Paul Cornell takes an Egyptian monarch on an unusual — and contemporary — journey to redemption in 'Ramesses on the Frontier'; Gail Carriger gives readers a peek into the history of the Parasol Protectorate series and the Tarabotti family in 'The Curious Case of the Werewolf that Wasn’t, The Mummy that Was and the Cat in the Jar'; Maria Dahvana Headley raises discomfiting new questions about the candy industry in 'Bit-U-Men'; and Jesse Bullington features a young man who finds an unlikely role model in 'Escape from the Mummy’s Tomb.' 
Illustrated by Garen Ewing, creator of The Adventures of Julius Chancer, and introduced by John J. Johnston, Vice Chair of the Egypt Exploration Society — which The Book of the Dead is published in collaboration with — the anthology also contains new stories from David Thomas Moore, David Bryher, Molly Tanzer, Sarah Newton, Lou Morgan, Maurice Broaddus, Adam Roberts, Michael West, Den Patrick, Roger Luckhurst, Jenni Hill, Glen Mehn, Jonathan Green, Louis Greenberg and Will Hill.
An abominably promising assortment of authors, yes — and in the hands of a demonstrably excellent editor. Truth be told, though, on the surface the mummy seemed to me a markedly less fascinating subject than the exploration of space. So when the one and only Jared Shurin asked if I'd be interested in putting together something supplementary in support of the anthology's release later this week, I guess I hedged my bets a bit: I suggested we approach a couple of the contributors and ask them to explain why they believe that the mummy is still alive and kicking in fiction.

In any event, all that was then. Now? Well, reading through my review copy of The Book of the Dead in recent weeks, I've had cause to reassess my initial position. Suddenly, I'm in the mood for mummies. I look forward to explaining exactly why in my full review of the book on The Speculative Scotsman this Friday.

Between now and then, we'll be celebrating the imminent unveiling of The Book of the Dead with an awesome assortment of guest posts, beginning at 2PM tomorrow — as usual — with an absolutely brilliant bit by Maria Dahvana Headley, author of Queen of Kings: another rather goodly book I've reviewed. On Wednesday, Jonathan Green argues that love is what makes the mummy so appealing, and on Thursday, David Bryher stops by to discuss our enduring adoration of the undead.

They're just great guest posts, guys. I can only hope you enjoy them half as much as I have.

Saturday 26 October 2013

Excerpt Emporium | Reign of Ash by Gail Z. Marin

What follows is the first in a series of exclusive excerpts taken from Gail Z. Martin's next novel, Reign of Ash: the second part, after Ice Forged, of The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga

There's much more to this story, of course, not least a number of other opportunities for you sneak a peek at parts of this promising new novel before it's released in the UK and US in early April. All that's required of you is to follow Gail around the internet as her big old Days of the Dead blour tour continues.

For the moment, though, I give you the start of Reign of Ash.


“Watch your back!” Blaine McFadden brought his sword down hard on his opponent’s blade, deflecting a killing blow.

Piran Rowse wheeled at the warning, muttering curses under his breath. Two dark-clad men were heading his way, swords at the ready. Piran ran toward them with a battle cry, a sword gripped in each hand, driving his attackers back with the sheer ferocity of his onslaught.

A force of at least twenty-five men, all dressed in black, had attacked them. Who they belonged to, Blaine could only guess. Why they had come was clear. Blaine had no doubt the fighters had been sent to track and kill them. To kill him. 

Their battleground was the deserted barnyard of a ruined farm. Not far away, Dawe Killick caught his breath in the shelter of a tumbledown chicken coop that barely held his tall, rangy form. He dodged out to fire his crossbow, taking advantage of its reach to fell one of the dark-clad men. 

Kestel Falke had grabbed the sword of one of the fallen attackers and pulled a dagger from the bandolier beneath her cloak. She circled one of the dead man’s comrades warily, holding him at bay. From the top floor of the rickety barn, Verran Danning, expert thief and sometime musician, lobbed anything he could find at the attackers, striking one of the dark-clad men in the head with a chunk of wood. 

Four of the eleven guards they had brought with them were down, and while the remaining guards were fighting valiantly, Blaine knew the odds weren’t in their favor. After narrowly escaping death the night before, it seemed a mockery to die so needlessly come sunrise.

Blaine’s opponent came at him again, sword raised shoulder-high for a death strike. Blaine brought his own blade up inside the strike as he stepped aside, dodging the blow and managing to score a gash on his attacker’s arm. At more than six feet tall with shoulders broadened from six years of hard labor in the Velant prison colony, Lord Blaine McFadden could hold his own in a fight. Despite the cold late-autumn temperatures, the heat of the fight had plastered Blaine’s long, chestnut brown hair against his head. His sea-blue eyes glinted with anger, focused on the man he intended to kill.

Blaine’s body protested every jarring parry. Just the previous night, the wild magic he had sought to bind had nearly killed him, nearly killed all of them with its unharnessed power. They had lived through the assault, wearied and bloody, only to face a new danger. It had been sheer luck that the old tunnels had not collapsed around them, that they had been able to evade the dark-clad warriors, at least for a while. Not long enough. 

“Who sent you?” Blaine shouted as his attacker came at him again, raining down a series of two-handed blows that nearly drove Blaine to his knees. Blaine knew he couldn’t take much more; none of them could. Not after the toll the magic had taken last night. Their attackers were fresh to the fight. He’d traveled half the world to die here, in the middle of nowhere, without even coming close to achieving his task.

“Lord Pollard wants you dead,” the black-clad man replied through gritted teeth. “Thought you’d have figured that out by now.”

“Tell Lord Pollard he can—“ Blaine’s words died in his throat as an arrow zipped past him, narrowly missing his shoulder, and thudded into the rotted wood of the barn behind him.

“Incoming!” Dawe shouted, dragging a hand back through his straight, dark hair. Even so, he looked like a scarecrow, all angles and bones. “We’ve got new players.” A hail of arrows fell, and several of the black-clad fighters went down, shot in the back. Kestel cried out as an arrow grazed her arm, but she kept on fighting, though blood colored the sleeve of her tunic.

“I think you and your men might want to run,” Blaine said, a cold smile crossing his features. “Seems to me whoever’s out there is aiming for your people, not mine.”

For just an instant, Blaine took his eyes off his attacker to confirm the new threat. The yard was ringed with archers, all within bow range, but too far away from Blaine to make out any markings on their gray uniforms. Sometimes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, Blaine thought. And other times, he’s just a bigger, badder son of a bitch.

Blaine’s opponent spared no glance toward the archers. He came at Blaine ferociously, teeth bared and eyes wild. Blaine parried the first of the man’s powerful strikes, but the second blow crashed down on his sword with enough force to numb his sword arm and send him staggering backwards. The tip of his attacker’s sword sliced into his right shoulder, and Blaine’s sword fell from his numb hand. The black-clad man reared back, sword at chest height, to drive the point home, aiming for Blaine’s heart. 

An arrow sang through the air, and Blaine’s opponent stiffened, his face drawn in a ghastly mask of pain and fury. He lumbered forward, intent on his quarry, but the delay was just enough. Blaine dove for his sword, grasping it in his left hand, and lunged forward, ducking under his opponent’s blade, expecting to feel the bite of steel against his neck at any moment. His sword plunged deep into the man’s belly and his opponent fell forward, dropping his sword to the ground. Pinned under the man’s body, Blaine felt hot blood seep over him as it poured from the dying man’s wounds. 

It took all of Blaine’s waning strength to throw the man off, and more resolve still to make it as far as his knees before he saw that the battle had turned. Most of the black-clad fighters lay skewered by arrows, and the rest had run for their lives. Only six of his own guards remained standing, along with Dawe, Piran, Verran, and Kestel. But the soldiers that ringed the yard had not moved, nor had they lowered their bows.

“Surrender. Throw down your weapons. You can’t win, but you can die, and you surely will, unless you drop your weapons now and raise your hands,” a man’s voice called from the line of archers.

Piran let out a barrage of creatively vulgar curses, but he let his swords fall. Dawe tossed his unloaded crossbow out into the open, and emerged, his hands behind his head. Kestel dropped her sword and dagger, looking toward the archers with a baleful expression. 

“You in the barn. Come out, or so help me Torven, we’ll shoot the others,” the voice called.

“Hold your fire! I’m coming down.” Verran shouted, contempt thick in his voice. 

“Let’s stick to our story and see if they go for it,” Blaine replied under his breath, just loud enough for his friends to hear.

“We mean you no harm,” Blaine called out to the archers. “We’re tinkers and peddlers. We took shelter overnight, and woke to find ourselves under attack. We’ll be on our way, and no bother to you.”

A half a dozen men from the line of archers were moving toward them now, bows drawn and arrows at the ready. The archers still on the edge of the yard quashed any thoughts Blaine’s group might have had of fighting their way free.

“You look well armed for tinkers,” one of the archers replied. “Your bodyguards outnumber the rest of you,” he said, with a nod to the Glenreith guards who, though wearing neither insignia nor rank, were conspicuous in their military appearance. “That’s suspicious.”

“These are dangerous times,” Blaine replied. “We hired guards to protect us. We mean no harm. Just let us be on our way.”

The leader looked as if he were considering Blaine’s suggestion, then shook his head. “Not up to me. That’s for the Captain to say.” He gestured, and more fighters joined him. “Get on your knees, and put your hands on top of your head. We’ll see what the Captain makes of you.”

For a moment, Blaine feared from the expression on Piran’s face that his friend might charge their captors. At a nod from Blaine, they knelt, hands on heads, and Blaine waited to feel a quarrel in the back.

More fighters moved forward, binding their wrists with strips of leather. One of the fighters moved to bind Blaine’s wrists. He paused. “Sir,” he called to the leader. “You should see this.”

The leader walked over, and frowned when he saw the brand on the inside of Blaine’s left forearm, an “M” for murderer. 

“You’re a convict,” the leader said, eyeing Blaine.

“I was a convict. Did my time in Velant. Earned my Ticket of Leave.”

“Velant’s up in Edgeland, at the top of the world,” the leader said. “No one’s supposed to come back.”

“Just like there’s supposed to be a king and magic’s supposed to work,” Blaine replied evenly. “Nothing’s the way it’s “supposed” to be anymore.”

“Got another one, over here,” the soldier said, lifting Dawe’s arm to show the brand. Blaine sighed. He’d deserved his exile, but Dawe had been framed. And while the others bore no brands for their crimes, Verran for theft, Kestel for espionage, and Piran for court martial-worthy insubordination, it wouldn’t take too much for the fighter to figure out they were likely all “escaped” convicts.

“Get on your feet,” the leader said. “You can explain it to the Captain. You’re coming back to camp with us.”

“What of our horses?” Blaine asked.

“We’ll bring them,” the leader replied. “If you can convince the Captain to let you go, you can take them with you. If not,” he said, and shrugged, “we can put them to good use.”

Blaine got to his feet, moving toward the barn’s wide door. The others fell in behind him, while several of their captors moved to secure the horses and wagons.

“Who is your Commander? What lord to you serve?” Blaine asked.

A bitter smile touched at the corners of the leader’s mouth. Now that Blaine got a good look at the man, he was in his late teens or early twenties. The face was youthful, but there was a world-weariness in the man’s eyes that seemed much older. “There are no lords left to serve,” he replied. “No lords, no law, no liege. The war’s over. Welcome to what’s left.”

The archers commandeered one of Blaine’s group’s wagons and horses, and directed Blaine and the others to climb in. Two of the archers drove, while more archers walked beside the wagon.

“If I believed in the gods, I’d say now would be a good time to pray,” muttered Piran.

“Our luck isn’t looking good,” Kestel replied with a sigh.

Piran snorted. “What? Just because wild magic ripped through some old forgotten chamber and laid us all out flat as corpses, you think we’re not ready for a good fight?” Piran probably would be up for a brawl, Blaine thought; at least, he had never shied away from one in the past. Shorter, stocky, with a bald head that Piran had kept shaved even in the bitter cold of the Edgeland wastes, Piran looked every bit the soldier he had been before his court martial.

Blaine rubbed his temples, trying in vain to ease the throbbing headache that had begun the night before. When the warring kingdoms of Donderath and Meroven destroyed each other, the Continent also lost its control over magic. Without king, law or magic, chaos followed. Tracking a series of clues that suggested magic might be restored, Blaine and his friends had made a failed attempt to harness the wild magic, an attempt that had left several of their party, including Blaine, badly bruised and battered. 

“Neither side was wearing any colors.” Kestel murmured. “But this group has some kind of uniform, although it’s hard to tell, they all look rather ragged.” She paused. “I heard what the man you were fighting said about Lord Pollard. So … if the archers aren’t Pollard’s men, who do they belong to?” 

Before her exile to the Velant prison colony in Edgeland, Kestel had been a sought-after courtesan, a spy in the court of King Merrill, and an assassin. Like the others, she’d followed Blaine back to Donderath on the scant hope that magic could be restored. Today, her red hair was bound up, and she wore a tunic, trews and boots borrowed from Glenreith’s guard house. Anyone who had seen her gowned and bejeweled for high court would have difficulty recognizing Kestel as the same woman.

“Anyone else who wants to kill you, Mick, that you forgot to tell us about?” Verran asked, glancing nervously at the archers.

Blaine let out a long breath. “Not that I remember. But as you’ve seen, things aren’t exactly how they were when we shipped out.”

“So we just sit here?” Piran’s tone made his opinion clear. 

Blaine rubbed his aching forehead. Every muscle and joint ached as if he’d been beaten by the sheer, wild power of the magical backlash. “For now,” he said.

They had tried to raise the magic at Mirdalur, a three-day ride from Blaine’s family’s manor at Glenreith. Geir, their vampire guide, had left them before dawn to find shelter from the daylight. Blaine and his friends, along with eleven of Glenreith’s manor guards, had planned to sleep through the day and move out again once it was dark to avoid the bands of robbers and vagabonds that wandered the Donderath countryside.

“It’s mid-afternoon, still daylight. That means this group is mortal,” Kestel said. “That’s one good thing.”

Piran gave her a sidelong glance. “If that’s the “good” news, we’re shit out of luck.”

“I wish we knew who they were,” Kestel said, bending closer to the gap in the wall for a better look. “They look like a bunch of vagrants but fight like a unit.”

“I’m afraid we’ll get an answer soon enough,” Dawe Killick said, his head bowed and his face obscured by a hank of dark, lanky hair. Dawe was tall and slender, with a hawk-like nose and piercing blue eyes. Despite the bonds on his wrists, Dawe’s long-fingered hands clenched in frustration.

They rode for half a candlemark, away from the direction they had come. They were going north, as close as Blaine could reckon from the sun. Away from Mirdalur, and no closer to Glenreith. The odds weren’t in their favor, despite the fact that Geir had escaped capture.

The wagon rolled into a camp of fighters, who regarded it with wary curiosity. Whoever’s army the archers represented, it was a motley one. From what Blaine could see, only about half the men had tents, and those were stained and patched. Many had only the shelter of lean-tos or pieces of canvas held up by posts. 

“How many do you figure are out there?” Kestel asked.

“Too many,” Blaine replied. 

The fighters’ camp was as hard worn as the men themselves. A hodgepodge of moveable structures greeted them. Cook fires dotted the encampment, and in the rear, Blaine spotted mud-spattered horses and several wagons. No doubt, the fighters would be glad to gain use of the horses and wagons his group had brought with them.

When they reached the outskirts of the camp, their Glenreith bodyguards were directed into two tents ringed with guards. Blaine, Kestel, Piran, Dawe, and Verran were ushered to a large tent in the center of the camp. By the tent’s size, Blaine guessed it to be the Captain’s, but if so, then the group’s leader was an ascetic. A bedroll lay to one side, and a small brazier in the middle did little to drive out the autumn chill. A soldier’s satchel lay near the bedroll, and there was a small shrine to Charrot, Torven, and Esthrane at the foot of the bedding. Otherwise, the tent was empty.

“Wait here.” The young man who seemed to be the leader of the archers spoke in low tones to two of the fighters, who remained by the tent’s entrance. Then Blaine and his friends were left alone.

“Best odds we’re going to have,” Piran muttered. “Five against two.”

“And more than two score on the other side of the doorway,” Kestel replied in a whisper. “I knew you couldn’t read, but I thought you could do figures,” she added with a hint of a smile that softened her words.

Blaine sighed. “With luck, these men will see we’ve got no quarrel with them and let us go.”

“I’d put the odds of that as slim to nil,” Piran sighed. “If nothing else, they’ll want the horses. And maybe Kestel.”

Despite their situation, Kestel grinned. “Let ‘em try,” she replied, palming a dagger from somewhere on her body.

“Shh,” Dawe warned, as footsteps grew closer. 

Muffled voices sounded outside the tent. One was the voice of the man who had brought them to the camp. The other voice, deeper and more mature, was muffled. The tent flap swung back, and a tall man entered, flanked by two guards. The man was broad shouldered, with short-cut, light brown hair. Several day’s worth of stubble shadowed gaunt, high cheekbones. He wore a woolen coat over what might have been gray uniform pants, and his clothes looked as if he had been roughing it for quite some time.

“My officer says he’s got a bunch of escaped convicts,” the man said, not bothering to look up as he entered. Then he lifted his head and stopped in his tracks, staring at Blaine.

“You’re supposed to be dead,” he breathed, and his face had gone pale as a ghost.

“So are you,” Blaine responded, feeling as if he had been sucker-punched. “Niklas?”

“Blaine McFadden died in Velant,” the man repeated, his voice just above a whisper. “That’s what we heard.”

“Sorry to disappoint,” Blaine replied. “Although several people did their damndest to make that happen.” He paused. “Aunt Judith said you’d died in the war.”

A crooked grin spread across the man’s face. “Sorry to disappoint,” he echoed. “We were on the front lines, and it’s been a damn long walk home.” He sobered and turned to one of the guards. “Cut their bonds. Bring me some food, get a healer for them and fetch whatever ale you can find.”


“Just do it, lieutenant. I’ll take my chances with them.” 

The soldier did as he was told. Blaine rubbed his wrists. “Does this mean we get our horses back?” he asked as the others looked between the two men, trying to figure out the sudden lurch in conversation.

Niklas laughed, and stepped forward, extending a hand to Blaine and then folding him into a back-thumping embrace. “By Torven’s horns, Blaine. I never thought I’d see you again.” 

“You know this bloke, Mick?” Piran asked warily.

Blaine nodded. “This is Niklas Theilsson. We grew up together. We’ve been friends for as long as I can remember.”

Niklas gave Blaine a quizzical look. “You go by “Mick” now?”

Blaine sighed. “I did in Velant. These are my mates from Edgeland.”

The look in Niklas’ blue eyes gave Blaine to guess the other was trying to put the pieces together. “Perhaps introductions are in order.”

“We met in Velant, and survived because we had each other’s backs,” Blaine started, a slight note of challenge in his voice as if he expected judgment from Niklas. When their host said nothing, Blaine continued. “Verran Danning,” he said with a glance toward the thin man with a shock of unruly blond hair, “is a master locksmith and sometime minstrel,” he said, giving Verran’s thieving a quick clean-up. “Dawe Killick,” he said, “was a silversmith. Kestel Falke was a courtesan and an assassin,” he added.

Kestel grinned. “It was the assassin part that got me my passage to Velant,” she said, a flash of warning in her eyes.

“And finally, Piran Rowse—“ Blaine continued, only to be interrupted.

Niklas chuckled. “I know Piran by reputation,” he said. “Your court martial is still legendary.”

Blaine and the others turned to look at Piran. “Was there more to the story than you let on, Piran dear?” Kestel asked in her sweetest voice.

Piran reddened. “Might have been. No more than Mick here forgetting to tell his mates he’s a bleedin’ lord.”

Niklas swung an arm to indicate his nearly empty tent. “Please, have a seat. I think we have a lot to discuss.” 

Blaine nodded to the others, and they sat cross-legged on the ground. Niklas brought a low, folding table and set it in front of them, then joined them. An aide returned with a pitcher of ale, a cloth filled with hard bread, sausage, cheese, and a variety of battered, military-issue tin cups. A healer followed him.

“This is Ordel, my battle healer,” Niklas said. “He’ll patch up the damage from the fight.” He turned to Ordel. “Blaine’s an old friend, and these are friends of his. Can you take a look at their injuries?”

If Ordel thought it strange that Niklas’s “old friend” arrived bound and under guard, he made no comment. “Yes, sir,” he replied, and turned to Blaine. “Let’s see the damage, and I’ll do my best to have you patched up in time for supper,” he said with a grin.

“Thank you,” Blaine said, looking to both Niklas and Ordel. They were silent for the time it took Ordel to see to their wounds, and then the healer straightened and looked to Niklas.

“Nothing too serious,” Ordel said. “They should be fine in a few days.” Niklas nodded his thanks, and the healer ducked out of the tent.

“Eat,” Niklas instructed. “Because I have a feeling this isn’t going to be a short conversation.”

“Then fill us in,” Blaine said, as he poured a cup of ale and passed the pitcher to the others. “We know Donderath lost the war. We know the magic is broken. But what led up to that—we don’t know.” He paused, fearful to ask the next question, yet knowing there was no way around it. “Before you start, I have to ask. Did Carr come back with you?”

Niklas suddenly looked tired, and his expression was grim. “Yes, Carr survived. Many of our soldiers didn’t. Carr was lucky. He’s out on extended patrol right now. I’ll make sure the two of you have a chance to talk when he gets back.”

Kestel laid a hand on Blaine’s arm. “Carr’s your younger brother, right?”

Blaine nodded. “He was just a kid when I was exiled.”

Niklas sighed. “We were all a lot younger then. In so many ways, it was a completely different world.” Niklas poured himself a cup of ale, and for a moment, looked at a loss for words.

“There had been incidents along the border with Meroven for years,” Niklas began. “I went into the army not long after you were sent away,” Niklas said with a glance toward Blaine. “Even then, spies told us Edgar of Meroven was unstable, and that he was likely to try to expand his borders. One thing led to another, and soon, Donderath and Meroven had an open war. The other kingdoms were pulled in and before long, the entire Continent had chosen sides.”

Niklas shook his head. “Casualties were terrible. I tried to keep Carr out of the war for as long as I could, but finally, I knew he’d sign up with someone else if I didn’t take him. For your sake, I did my best to keep him as safe as possible.”

“Thank you,” Blaine murmured.

“After years of war, when it became clear that men alone wouldn’t decide the outcome, the mages got involved.” Niklas’s eyes took on a haunted expression. “It was about a year ago. I thought I’d seen the worst carnage war had to offer, but the mages turned it into a bloodbath.” He looked down, at a loss for words for a few moments. “Still, the men on both sides soldiered on. I can only speak for my men, but when we saw what the Meroven mages could unleash, we feared what would befall our homeland if we could not hold the line.”

Niklas looked toward them, but his gaze seemed far away, and his expression was bleak. “One night, it all came to a head. On the ground, the sheer energy that crackled around us felt as if the gods were sparring, as if the world was coming to an end. And in a way, it did.

“A blast of magic more powerful than anything we had ever felt before swept over the battlefields, knocking down men as if they were bowling pins. Those who took the brunt of the force were killed instantly. Those of us lucky enough to be sheltered at that moment survived, but with injuries. The sky opened up and fire fell on us. The sky was filled with a green light, and wherever the light touched the ground, the land burned. It was the night of the Great Fire.” Niklas’s voice grew quiet, and he closed his eyes against the images in his memory.

“That night, whatever the mages did not only destroyed both armies, but it destroyed the magic as well,” Niklas went on. “Magic stopped working, at least, the kind of magic men could control. Wild magic became a danger, with magical storms touching down without warning, destroying everything in their paths. Strange beasts out of nightmares started appearing. Men went mad.

“When I could gather what remained of my men, we started for home. The Great Fire laid waste to Donderath. The manor houses were destroyed. When the magic “died”, it took the little magics as well as the great ones. Buildings, dams and fences held together with a bit of magic all collapsed. Healers couldn’t use magic to heal. Farmers lost the magic to get rid of pests, so their crops failed. We never realized how many small magics we depended on until they stopped working.” 

Niklas met Blaine’s gaze, and Blaine could see the grief in his friend’s face. “We went to war to protect Donderath. We failed.”

The group sat for a moment in silence as Niklas’s story sank in. Finally, Niklas shook himself free of his memories. By now, Blaine and his friends had eaten their fill of the bread and cheese, and Blaine pushed food toward Niklas, refilling his cup with ale. “That’s quite a story,” Blaine said, sobered by the account. “We knew bits of what happened, but not from the front lines.”

“Something brought you back from the edge of the world, Blaine,” Niklas replied, taking a sip of his ale. “I’d like very much to know what it was.”

As briefly as he could, Blaine recounted how the death of magic on the Continent had affected even distant Edgeland. “Without the warden mages, Commander Prokief couldn’t keep the convicts from rebelling, and the Velant Prison fell,” Blaine said. “Those of us who had earned our Tickets of Leave to become colonists realized that without supply ships from home, the colony wouldn’t have enough food for the winter.”

“How did you get a ship? And why did you, of anyone, come back?” Niklas pressed.

Blaine shrugged. “The ship was adrift and abandoned, and we towed her into Skalgerston Bay. We could take 500 people back with us, which was a burden off the colony. Those who wanted to return took their chances and made the trip back.”

Niklas fixed Blaine with a piercing gaze. “You still haven’t answered me, Blaine. Why did you come back?”

Piran gave Blaine a warning glance, but Kestel nodded. Dawe shrugged. “Up to you, Mick,” Dawe said.

Verran grinned. “You can tell him, but will he believe you?”

Blaine returned his gaze to where Niklas sat waiting. “It’s a long story, but according to an ancient talishte and a very old mage’s map, there’s a chance that magic isn’t gone forever.” He paused, knowing that what he was about to say would strain the belief of even the best of friends. “Magic as we know it was harnessed four hundred years ago at Mirdalur when the king and the oldest nobles bound the wild power to their bidding. When the Meroven mages wiped out the Donderath nobility, they also broke the blood ties that bound the magic. All of the eldest heirs of the old Lords of the Blood are dead.”

“Except for one,” Kestel said, with a meaningful look at Blaine.

Niklas met Blaine’s gaze. “You’re the last Lord of the Blood?”

“Apparently so.”

“From what we’ve been told, so long as there is a living Lord of the Blood, it might be possible to harness the magic again,” Kestel continued. 

“That’s why you returned?” Niklas asked, looking at Blaine as if he were suddenly a stranger.

“Told you he wouldn’t believe you,” Verran said.

Blaine looked down. “As crazy as it seems, yes.”

“Only we tried it, and nearly got us all killed,” Piran added. “So Mick wants to give it another go, because he can’t leave well enough alone.”

“The old records said the first lords harnessed the magic in a ritual at Mirdalur,” Blaine said, with an exasperated look at Piran. “We tried going there, to see if my presence would reactivate the magic.” He grimaced. “Piran’s right. The wild magic nearly killed us.”

“So that’s it then?” Niklas asked. “There’s no hope of bringing the magic back?”

“We’re not sure,” Kestel replied. “There are clues that it can be done—but we don’t know quite how just yet.” She hesitated. “But there are some forces in Donderath that would be just as happy for the magic to stay dead.”

Niklas frowned. “Forces?”

“Do you remember Vedran Pollard?” Blaine asked. 

“Real son of a bitch,” Niklas replied. “The only person I knew who was as mean as your father—maybe even worse.”

“Yeah, that’s Pollard. He’s thrown in his lot with a vampire named Pentreath Reese.”

Niklas whistled. “They’re the ones who don’t want to see magic return? Damn, Blaine. You sure know how to pick your enemies.” He scowled. “That group my men fought, you think they were Pollard’s men?”

Blaine nodded. “Yes. We had to dodge them the whole way to Mirdalur, and then run for our lives when they nearly caught us there. Pollard also had his men camped outside Glenreith when we returned, trying to pressure Aunt Judith into an alliance.”

Niklas made a rude noise. “You’ve got to be kidding.” When he saw Blaine was serious, Niklas shook his head. “For a man everyone thought was dead, you can still kick up a fuss.”

“Somebody knew Blaine was alive,” Kestel commented soberly. “Pollard sent an assassin to Velant to kill him.”

All traces of humor drained from Niklas’ expression. “Seriously? An assassin? So you think Pollard may know about this whole Lord of the Blood thing?”

“Looks that way,” Blaine replied.

Niklas leaned forward. “Actually, this isn’t the first I’ve heard of Pollard. We’ve seen his handiwork the whole way across Donderath.”

Blaine frowned. “What do you mean?”

“We’ve never tangled with the black-clad men before, but only because we tried to stay out of their way. We have heard tales whenever we’ve stopped for provisions, and the stories aren’t good.” He rubbed the stubble on his chin. “Guess that’s why, when my men saw them fighting your group and the odds looked uneven, they waded in.”

“Believe me, we’re grateful,” Blaine said. “What tales did you hear?”

Niklas shrugged. “Rumors that Pollard’s been hunting down former mages. Several have disappeared and never returned. There were dark stories about men in black clothing ransacking the mage libraries and universities, carrying off sacks of items, and torching what was left.” He grimaced. “Pollard seems to like setting fires. I’d heard the same about villages where he didn’t get the information he was seeking.” He snapped his fingers. “Went up in flames, and Raka take the survivors.”

Outside, they heard a sudden crash. Horns sounded an alarm. Shouts and the sound of fighting filled the air. Niklas jumped to his feet, as did Blaine and the others. A guard appeared in the tent doorway.

“Sir, we’re under attack.”

“By whom?” Niklas had drawn his sword, and his eyes glinted with anger.

The guard looked as if he were struggling against his own fear. “Talishte, sir. We’re being attacked by vampires.”


Reign of Ash, volume two of The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, will be available from Orbit Books in 2014 wherever books are sold in print and ebook format. For more about the author, follow @GailZMartin on Twitter or check out her website.

Friday 25 October 2013

Guest Post | Gail Z. Martin Explains "Days of the Dead"

Today on The Speculative Scotsman, it's my pleasure to make warm and welcome the one and only Gail Z. Martin, author of any number of novels, not least two complete series, namely The Chronicles of the Necromancer and The Fallen Kings Cycle. She's also at work currently on two very different texts: Reign of Ash — the sequel to Ice Forged, which began The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga — and Deadly Curiosity, an urban fantasy novel based, as Gail explains below, on the bones of the short story she wrote for Solaris' Magic anthology.

She is, in short, an abominably busy sort, which is why it's such a treat for me to be participating in her annual Days of the Dead blog tour. Here, in fact, are a few words from the author on what has become a Halloween habit:
I’ve always thought this week is the best time of the year. Samhain, All Hallow’s Eve, Halloween, Dia De Los Muertos all in one week — what’s not to love? And since I write epic fantasy and urban fantasy with lots of supernatural happenings, ghosts, and magic, it just seemed like a good week to come out to play.  
This is the biggest year ever, with over 40 participating sites. I’m on blogs all over the world as a guest on a variety of topics, at least six sites are doing give-aways of several of my books, there are plenty of excerpts of my books and short stories as well as excerpts from some of my author friends. It’s all here.
That wasn't all she wrote, either. Gail also answered a couple of questions for me, about her work past, present and future, too.


Tell us a little about how you came to write Ice Forged.

I’d been playing with the idea of what if magic broke (as it nearly did in the Chronicles books), and what if we had a post-apocalyptic medieval world, and what if a world sent its convicts to the northern rim (instead of, in our world, Georgia or Australia)... and I had an idea of where I wanted to go.

I like stories that test the mettle of a character and reveal what he/she is made of. In Ice Forged, the main characters have lost everything when they were disgraced and sentenced to a harsh prison colony. When the magic dies and the Continent is destroyed in the war and the resulting apocalypse, the life they’ve made for themselves as colonists is jeopardized. The discovery that Blaine is the only one who can restore the magic set him and his friends on a dangerous journey that will pit them against powerful immortal enemies. The fate of their world rests in the hands of a group of convicts. Succeed, and they win not only their freedom, but the ability to shape the future of the world. Fail, and face the wrath of the gods knowing you have condemned your world to darkness.

What inspires you to write?

There are stories I want to read that no one else has written, which means it’s my job to tell them. That’s my strongest inspiration. I want to get to read the stories once I’m done!

Tell us a little about your upcoming books.

Here’s the recap for Reign of Ash, the second book in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga and the sequel to Ice Forged (coming in April, 2014 from Orbit):
Disgraced lord Blaine McFadden returned from exile to restore magic after a mage war devastated his homeland of Donderath. The king is dead, the army is scattered, and the once-powerful kingdom has been reduced to chaos and rubble.  Blaine may be the only one who can bring back the magic, so it’s up to Blaine and his small group of ex-convicts to save the kingdom, but the price might be their lives.
Deadly Curiosities is something a little different for me. It’s an urban fantasy set in modern-day Charleston, South Carolina. Cassidy Kincaide is the proprietor of Trifles and Folly, an antique shop with a difference that continues a family tradition begun in 1670 — acquiring and neutralizing dangerous supernatural items. It’s the perfect job for Cassidy, whose psychic gift lets her touch an object and know its history. Together with her business partner Sorren, a 500 year-old vampire and former jewel thief, Cassidy makes it her business to get infernal objects off the market.The novel arose out of a short story I wrote for Solaris Books’ Magic anthology. I had created the world of the stories for several anthologies I’d been asked to participate in, and I also write new short stories for ebook with those characters. Solaris like the short story so much, they asked for a full novel!


Thanks, Gail, for stopping off at The Speculative Scotsman.

And the fun is far from done, because tomorrow, I'll be publishing the first in a series of exclusive excerpts taken from the author's next novel, Reign of Ash. Keep your peepers peeled, readers!

Thursday 24 October 2013

Book Review | House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill

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Catherine's last job ended badly. Corporate bullying at a top television production company saw her fired and forced to leave London, but she was determined to get her life back.

A new job and now things look much brighter. Especially when a challenging new project presents itself: to catalogue the late M. H. Mason's wildly eccentric cache of antique dolls and puppets. Rarest of all, she'll get to examine his elaborate displays of posed, costumed and preserved animals, depicting scenes from World War I.

When Mason's elderly niece invites her to stay at the Red House itself, where she maintains the collection, Catherine can't believe her luck... until his niece exposes her to the dark message behind her uncle's 'Art'. Catherine tries to concentrate on the job, but M. H. Mason's damaged visions raise dark shadows from her own past. Shadows she'd hoped had finally been erased. Soon the barriers between reality, sanity and memory start to merge. And some truths seem too terrible to be real...


Abandoned by her biological parents at an early age before being adopted into a family that questioned her sanity, Catherine has had it hard from the first, and her life doesn't appear to have gotten a great deal easier in recent years.

At school, it was plain that she didn't play well with others, nevertheless Catherine became close to Alice, another social outcast. Together, they found sanctuary of sorts in and around the grounds of a derelict special education centre, but in the summer of 1981, it all went horribly wrong: Alice vanished. Another victim of the Pied Piper of Ellyll, according to the local newspapers.

Her body was never recovered; indeed, no trace of Alice is ever discovered. But months later something like her spirit makes contact with Catherine, who in her innocence tells everyone about her otherworldly encounter... leading to a long period of appointments with child psychologists.

Time passes, and Catherine finally meets a man. Mike: the love of her life. He, however, breaks Catherine's heart, and so she leaves her troubled childhood behind to turn over a new leaf in London, where she works for a top television production company with an interest in documenting ancient estates. Then one dark day, just as she had dared to dream she'd managed to make a clean break, she crosses a colleague, Tara, who makes it her continuing mission to turn Catherine's life into a living hell.

Defeated, she returns to Ellyll with her tail between her legs, and suddenly, things start looking up. Catherine's offered a job cataloguing art and antiques for auction. Meanwhile she and Mike are reunited, and against all the odds, they make a go of it on take two.

Here, at last, is where House of Small Shadows starts. All of the above information we find out through protracted flashback, or reminiscences extended to such an extent that Adam Nevill's new novel nearly gives way under their weight. Catherine's implausible past does finally factor into the narrative, I'll give House of Small Shadows that, but cumulatively, it's indisputably convoluted, and far from the best foot for the author to put forward first.

Thankfully Nevill's rendering of the Red House, where most of the text takes place, is much more successful than his heavy-handed central character:
Her first impression was of a building enraged at being disturbed, rearing up at the sight of her between the gate posts. Twin chimney breasts, one per wing, mimicked arms flung upwards to claw the air. Roofs scaled in Welsh slate and spiked with iron crests at their peaks bristled like hackles. 
All of the lines of the building pointed to the heavens. Two steep gables and the arch of every window beseeched the sky, as though the great house was a small cathedral indignant at its exile in rural Herefordshire. And despite over a century of rustication among uncultivated fields, the colour of its Accrington brick remained an angry red. (pp.1-2)
A fantastic opening chapter wherein Catherine approaches this brilliantly sinister building left me longing to return to the Red House's grounds, but rather than that, Nevill has us travel back to repeat the previous week. When at last we catch up, our protagonist has been dispatched to poke around the property of the late M. H. Mason: a noted taxidermist in his time whose work fell out of favour as attitudes towards his ghastly art altered. Since his death decades ago, his niece, Edith, has cared for his estate:
Even a perfectly conserved Victorian drawing room filled with preserved animals could not upstage the visage of Edith Mason in the flesh. So much powder clung to the woman's ancient face that the skin papered to the bony features looked bleached, and her tiny eyes were made ghastly by their red rims. The lips about the teeth were non-existent and the nose was a blade, the light seemed to pass through the side as if it were pure cartilage. It was a difficult face to look at and Catherine struggled to do so. (p.39)
The Red House is redolent of all sorts of awfulness — as are its surviving inhabitants, Edith and Maude; the latter being a mute maid who slips Catherine a note after her first inspection, to the effect that she should never ever return.

It's spoiling nothing to say she does. But first, Nevill treats us to another chapter in the ongoing saga of Catherine's luckless life. With next to no explanation, Mike breaks up with her again, and she promptly falls into an intense depression, all alcohol and paranoia. Her only hope is to push through this bleary period and finish the work she's started at the Red House. To succeed in just this one way; that's all she wants. "Weirdness," in any event, "went with the territory. And this was her find, her moment. An opportunity. Not a trial that she could run away from like London and university and school and her hometown, and everyone that she ever encountered in any of those places." (p.186)

So she swallows her horror at the prospect and returns, against Maude's orders, to the Red House, resolving to complete a catalogue of M. H. Mason's disconcerting dolls and disgusting dead animals as quickly as possible. Whether she'll live to leave again is unclear...

For a book so rooted in its protagonist's past, at the first and at the last, it's a real shame House of Small Shadows revolves around such an unconvincing character. Catherine seems to have a single setting — hysterical — and though her horrid history is an influence in this, the unremitting misery and melodrama of her perspective distanced this reader rather than engendering my empathy. To make matters worse, she has next to no agency over the narrative. "Like a doll; something to be positioned by the insistent and capricious will of a nasty little girl," (p.99) she simply does as instructed, even when it's evident that the individuals instructing her mean her harm.

In recent years, Adam Nevill's novels have been a bastion of dark fantasy in the field of British genre fiction, and indeed, many of the ideas here are as insidious and effective as anything he's portrayed previously. The taxidermy will turn your stomach; the dolls are unspeakably unsettling; the Red House itself is an oppressive setting, and the lost old souls who call it home only add to that atmosphere. Take it from me: reading House of Small Shadows late in the evening is likely to lead to some serious nightmares.

As a narrative, then, there's a lot to recommend House of Small Shadows to horror aficionados. Character is where it all but falls apart, I fear. Your mileage may vary, but I had a tough time caring about Catherine, so though the novel's concepts and conflicts remained intellectually interesting to me right through to the satisfying, if unsurprising finale, and I admired in the meantime many aspects of the author's craft — including but not limited to his plot and premise — I wasn't emotionally involved in the experience at all, and that robbed my reading of House of Small Shadows of something indescribably vital.


House of Small Shadows
by Adam Nevill

UK Publication: October 2013, Pan

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