Tag Archives: fiction

Broken Skies – a review

Hannah Spencer’s novel Broken Skies is an epic book and unusual in many ways. Although it’s not explicit in the text, the story is set around Gobekli Tepe in Turkey – perhaps the first temple in the world. It’s a really compelling pre-historic site and if you aren’t familiar with it, I recommend looking it up.

The story follows the conflict between the Irin – who built the temple and the Annunaki who want it destroyed. There’s a third people – the clans, who the Irin and Annunaki treat as inferior, but who have a much older relationship with the land. There’s a huge cast of characters with complex relationships between them and a story playing out over a long time frame. This is a complicated read that will require your full attention. Ideal if you want to totally immerse in something, not ideal if your concentration is poor.

This book captures ways of life, modes of thinking, daily activities and perspectives on relationships that seem rooted and realistic. I’m no pre-history expert, but I have a little insight and was totally persuaded of the breadth and depth of the author’s knowledge. The people depicted make sense as individuals, but at the same time are so removed from contemporary experience and thinking as to be surprising. I was impressed by this.

The characters in this book inhabit a shamanic reality. There’s no difference between life and spirituality, no separation of belief from any aspect of life. They live their magic, their reality is an intrinsically magical one. However, while it is a shamanic reality, it doesn’t retrofit modern thinking. These are not familiar approaches – there’s tapping into myth in all kinds of effective ways, but it isn’t a re-writing of myth. Modern Pagan fiction can be prone to projecting modern Pagan thinking onto the past – Hannah doesn’t do this at all. I’ve never encountered anything like it in terms of where she takes us.

There is conflict at the heart of the story. Every single character involved in the conflict thinks that their understanding is right, and everyone else is to some degree, wrong. Every character believes they are the one who really understands the spiritual implications of what they are doing. All of them are persuasive and most of the time it is difficult to decide who, if anyone, is right. This is brilliant. The truth is too big for any one character to grasp. If you’re tired of lazy fights between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ you’re going to love this.

It wasn’t an easy read. I found it emotionally intense. Being dropped into an unfamiliar culture I was sometimes a bit lost and I had to work to stay with it – but that in many ways supports the story. This is not an easy culture, the underlying logic is that you should expect to pay to have anything worthwhile.

More about the book here – https://www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/historical/broken-skies/ 


Emi, by Craig Hallam

Today I have the happiness of bringing you an excerpt from Craig Hallam’s latest book, Emi.

Emi is a Studio Ghibli-inspired dark fantasy about humanity and morality with Japanese folklore imagery.

 

Meetings

The grass had decided to become everything it could be, growing until only the barn’s roof was visible above the swaying fronds. Slates had slipped, making wounds that exposed wooden ribs beneath. In the eaves, a dried bird’s nest rattled in the breeze.

Christopher stood at the foot of the hill, looking up at the sagging roof. Drifting toward the dilapidated marvel, his progress could be seen as a shifting wake in the tall grass, a shark splitting water.

Skirting the barn’s perimeter, he swept hair the colour of dirty butter from his eyes. Cracks and creases in the stonework grinned and grimaced. The masonry sprouted vibrant mosses and the odd weed-flower. Some stones lay on the ground, some shards of broken slate. He stood at a distance for a while, looking up and down the walls, back the way he’d come, across fields where the wind made eddies in the wild wheat that chased like swallows. He looked to the horizon simply because his eye fell there, made from a spine of hilltops, and saw beyond them to the empty prairies and meadows and clear green rivers he’d already traversed, everything silent and blooming and undisturbed.

He circled back around to the barn’s doors.

They hung askew, holes gaping between mouldered planks. The chain, so badly rusted that its links were immovable, snapped in Christopher’s bare hands. Where it had lain across the door, a deep red grin scarred the wood.

The scent of ancient hay and animal dung still remained inside. Light bled through slats of the boarded window in two glistening shafts. If he still breathed, Christopher would have caught his breath.

One shaft of light came to rest on a pair of mottled legs, curled beneath a summer dress of lemon and white. It was stiff with dirt, torn and frayed at the embroidered hem. A pair of dainty white socks had yellowed with age above pretty, dust-covered shoes. The other beam caressed the crown of a bowed head, blonde locks weaving their way like a golden briar about the child’s head.

Christopher tried to speak but only released a squeak of desiccated vocal chords. His unused tongue made a dry clack between receding gums.

“Ch-h-hello,” he managed, in a dry rasp.

The small legs retreated into the dark. The sound of a chain dragging in dirt as the little dead girl stepped forward, uncertain in what must have been her first steps in an age. Reaching the extent of her chain, wrapped thrice around her tiny waist, the girl jerked backward and almost off balance, waving her arms to stay upright. By the light from the broken doorway Christopher could see she was seven, maybe eight years old, and had been for a long time. Her leather t-bar shoes pointed slightly toward each other at the toes. Her hands hung slack on the apron of her dress. Her right sleeve was a tatter, the thin bicep beneath shredded.

Christopher’s hand strayed to his stomach, a spot on his threadbare dungarees where the rubbing had worn the denim white.

“Your name.” Christopher forced the sounds from his mouth, kneeling to her.

The girl lifted her head, hair plastered across her ashen forehead in some long forgotten fever. Christopher reached out to brush it aside, a reflex he didn’t realise he’d forgotten until it was remembered. Her eyes were the yellow of the Sickness. The colour of his own.

“Your name?” he asked again, his voice becoming softer with the practice, returning to its old disarming whisper.

When she opened her mouth, a moth battered its way from her lips and escaped through the wounded roof.

“Emi,” crackled the girl. “My name is Emi.”

 

Her Mummy and Daddy had put her there to keep her safe, and they were coming back. So, Emi waited. She waited until Christopher came and yanked her chain from the wall as if it were buried in sand, not stone. She waited until the world fell quiet outside, until the Sickness receded, taking most memories that she had with it. Except that Mummy and Daddy were coming back. That, she knew.

With the child free to roam as she liked, Christopher set off once more on his eternal pilgrimage without destination or purpose. The brief wonder of finding her forgotten.

Emi wandered to and fro in his wake, winding across the old track, taking in the colour of the bushes and flowers, watching insects flit and fly. Not much had survived, but the insects had.

“Where are we going?” Emi asked.

Christopher’s spine snapped to attention at the sound of her voice. He spun around.

She was still there.

Christopher had to think about his answer.

“Nowhere in particular,” he said.

“Oh,” said Emi, regarding a wild hedgerow at the roadside. Entangled in the branches were delicate white flowers on thin vines that curled like filigree. Without a thought, she reached out to pluck one.

Christopher’s hand lashed out, gripping her wrist tight.

“Don’t touch that,” he said with little urgency.

Still in his steel grasp, Emi asked why.

“It’ll kill you.”

Looking at the way his white knuckles enveloped the girl’s forearm, a memory surfaced to gather air and then submerged once more, leaving only the flash of a tail. Christopher drew back his hand to stare at it. This was turning into an odd day.

“We’re already dead,” pressed Emi. She shifted the chain that still wrapped her waist, flecks of red drifting down to stain her dress a little more.

Christopher was admiring his hand.

“It’ll kill you more.”

He walked away.

Emi didn’t move. Her little head tipped to the side. The flowers were so pretty, the petals so delicate.

“Christopher?”

The sound of his name on her tiny lips seemed wrong to him. At first, he didn’t respond. But there was something, something he should do, an itch to scratch. He should answer.

“Yes?”

“Is everyone dead?”

Christopher stopped in the track, but didn’t turn.

“Yes.”

“Are Mum and Dad dead?”

“Yes.”

“Oh.”

A small part of him expected tears, or at least another question. He heard the sound of Emi’s tiny shoes in the dirt, and felt her fragile hand slip into his own.

“We should go then,” she said.

 

(Out in April)


Lanny – a review

My first encounter with Lanny, by Max Porter, was at Stroud Book Festival 2019. I was working at a venue, flipping through the program during a quiet bit and realised that in the evening we’d got Max Porter – author of the beautiful, heartbreaking book, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers.

It was a surprising evening – a mix of music, performance and reading that conjured up a strange village with a green man sort of character. I was enchanted.

Lanny is a contemporary set novel, with the action occurring in a village near London. The village has a folkloric figure – Dead Papa Toothwort – and we see quite a lot from his perspective. Lanny is a young boy. His mother is a former actress, his father still works in the city. The tension between the historic village and the money moving into it is one of the many threads.

It turns out that the performance version was an exceedingly effective way to capture a text that isn’t like a normal novel. Some of it is layered, as you encounter multiple voices of villagers. It put me in mind of Under Milkwood, only with the voices crowding each other, talking over each other and seldom to each other. Much of it is better read with your poetry head on rather than being approached like regular prose. Much is ambiguous. Some narrators are really unreliable. It is dreamlike, sometimes terrifying, laced with folk horror and full of real magic.

There was so much here that I felt keenly. I’ve been the mother whose fiction writing is assumed to mean something about her parenting – something Max Porter captures uncomfortably well. I’ve been the mother of the long haired, odd boy and I’ve seen what happens when professional scrutiny is brought to bear on all of that, and when people judge you for difference. I wasn’t a wealthy incomer to the village, I was a pauper with some roots there. There are so many things Max nails here that I’ve experienced even though the overall  story shape is a long way from anything I’ve been through. I find his writing deeply emotive and gripping, and I read the entire book in a day because I had to know what happened.

Anyone worried about triggering based on all of this is welcome to contact me and I’ll spoiler in private if you need me to. If you can read it without any detailed content warnings, it will be more powerful that way, and although I was truly frightened by this book, and it was certainly difficult along the way, it was not, ultimately, a traumatic read.

 

Find out more about Max Porter on his website – https://www.maxporter.co.uk/ 


Latest news from Hopeless Maine

Those of you who have been with me for a while will know that aside from writing about Druidry, I also write fiction and graphic novels. At time of writing, there are three Hopeless Maine graphic novels out there, two prose books, an array of videos from our live performance stuff, a great deal of art, and copious amounts of contributions from other people. This is the project that brought my husband and I together and it remains a big part of our lives.

The latest development is a film project, which we’ve only gone public about in recent weeks. We’re going to make a Hopeless Maine silent film on a period camera, with a soundtrack, and a mix of actors and puppets. We have most of the team to do this in place.

I’ve started charting the journey over on the Hopeless Maine blog, so if you’re curious, there’s going to be posts every Friday, and two are up already as this post goes live. https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/category/hopeless-film/

If you’re super keen and you follow me at any level aside from Moon over on Patreon, you’ll get a monthly update about what’s actually happening right now with the project, not just the back history. https://www.patreon.com/NimueB Sign up as a dustcat and you can read one of the aforementioned Hopeless prose novels as a series. There is also Druid stuff over there – the level called Bards and Dreamers, or combine fiction and non-fiction streams by becoming a Steampunk Druid.

To avoid duplicating too much, I won’t put much film content on this blog, but I may be going to talk about the creative and collaborative processes here as that content won’t be going anywhere else. I’m really excited about the people I’m working with and the creative possibilities in all of this.

And yes, that post I did a bit back about Gregg McNeil is part of all this – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2020/01/04/the-glorious-work-of-gregg-mcneil/


The Crows – a review

Last year, author C.M Rosens approached Tom for internal illustrations for The Crows. Tom is the sort of illustrator who reads the book. And so he read the book, and he kept telling me as he went along that I absolutely had to read it. He was right, of course, and I’ve just had the experience of reading a novel that could have been written for me. This doesn’t happen to me very often.

Carrie is a domestic abuse survivor, recently escaped. She’s bought a gothic ruin and blown all of her money on doing it up. She is in love with the house. It may be mutual. The house is an hour’s walk from Pagham-on-Sea which initially appears to be all of the nightmares of small minded little England combined. Only it turns out to be much worse than that, and much more interesting.

Here’s a little summary from the author herself, which I have stolen from Twitter:

“THE CROWS -sentient house (100% Haunted, probs cursed)

-funny working class women who take no shit

-Gothic tropes oozing from every page

-Emotionally unavailable eldritch monster bois”

Emotionally unavailable eldritch monster bois are so my thing. Monster romances are also so my thing. There was an intensely erotic scene in which one character touched another character’s second mouth. Also, there’s polyamoury, and queer characters, ghosts, magic, zombies, and a story in part about living with the consequences of your ancestors’ enthusiasm for eldritch horrors.

I loved it utterly.

There was a time when I dabbled in writing romance and erotica fiction. The trouble is, that I can’t write girl meets boy, mild setbacks are experienced, everyone lives happily ever after stories. I tried. Girl meets boy. Girl has a severed head in a bag. Girl meets monster. Girl turns out to be even more scary than the aforementioned monster. Monster turns out to be strangely fragile and vulnerable in some way.

Finding someone doing such an awesome job of writing the kind of stories I was trying to write makes me enormously happy. Finding that it’s not just me who craves the twisting together of love and horror, comedy and gore. Hitting those perfect turns of phrase that are both funny and ghastly all at once, and feeling like I’ve come home. This book made me so very happy.

Find out more about C.M Rosens over here – https://cmrosens.com/


The Last Priestess of Malia – a review

Laura Perry is an author of several non-fiction titles about ancient Minoan culture and belief. She’s worked extensively with the imagery of this fascinating culture. Now, Laura has written a novel set at the end of the Minoan civilization and it is a truly remarkable piece of work. There is a powerful sense of place here, rich with details of everyday life and underpinned by a wealth of historical insights.

The central character of the novel is a priestess, so the rituals and beliefs of the Minoans are very much at the centre of the tale. Obviously, much of this had to be invented/discovered/remembered. I was struck by how powerfully this had been done. Too many representations of ancient Pagans just retro-fit contemporary belief or play out modern Pagan fantasies. There’s none of that here. The rituals feel specific, and culturally rooted. Many of them relate to specific locations and seasonal events and while we have no way of knowing exactly what the ancient Minoans did or believed, this all feels utterly plausible and convincing.

This is a story about the end of a civilization, and as such, I felt it speaks to the present in a powerful way. One way or another, we are also approaching the end of an era, and perhaps the end of western capitalist culture. Either the climate crisis will destroy us, or we will have to radically re-think how we do everything.  We aren’t the first people to have stood and the end of their known world and there’s a lot we can learn about resilience by looking to the past.

The Minoan world Laura describes is one of a peaceful culture based on co-operation, sharing, trust and mutual care. During the story, we see this culture brought down by an aggressive, hoarding, greedy, power-hungry culture. We see respect replaced with violence. We see consent replaced with conquest. It’s a tough read, but also a pertinent one. Culture is what people make of it. We all get to make these choices and decide what we support and enable, what we resist, and what we do with ourselves.

What do you do when the Goddesses seem to have abandoned you? What do you do when everything you hold sacred is in peril? What do you do when your power is taken from you by people who decide you have no right to self-determination? What do you do in face of abuse, contempt, violation, sacrilege and cruelty? When there is no magic solution to restore justice or give you back what was rightfully yours? These questions are so very pertinent right now, with international companies killing and displacing indigenous people around the world.

This is a beautifully written tale that will break your heart. There’s no making entertainment out of horrors here, but if it sounds like you could be triggered by the content, approach with caution – there are some very difficult scenes in there. Even though it is a book that will break your heart, it has potent and inspiring messages about how to keep going in face of overwhelming adversity.

 

The book is widely available online, here’s the Amazon link – https://www.amazon.com/Last-Priestess-Malia-Laura-Perry-ebook/dp/B07XGDNFWY


Carved from Stone and Dream – a review

Carved from Stone and Dream is a novel by T Frohock. It is the second book in a series – I’ve not read the first but was told they standalone and I could jump in here. So let me start by saying yes, you can totally do that. This book stands alone. My suspicion is that the emotional impact of it would however be very different for the person who read book 1 (Where Oblivion Lives) first, because being invested in the characters already would turn this already intense story into mercilessly edge of the seat stuff from the first page.

Coming in as a new reader I was trying to figure out who I ought to care about, so when a character I barely knew died, I wasn’t that upset, and when multiple characters were in significant peril at the start of the book, it was interesting but I didn’t think it would break me. I suspect if I’d read book 1 already, I would have been in bits most of the way. It’s a tense, story told almost entirely through action sequences – technically it is quite some feat of writing to get that much character, backstory and insight into a book that never lets up.

The tale revolves around the struggles for power between various different groups of Nefilim. It took me a while to piece together who the Nephilim are and how their magic works – both are fascinating, and I don’t want to spoiler it. It’s rich, complex, original stuff that has a real elegance to it. There’s a pretty much perfect balance between coherence in the magic, and mystery – often if the mechanics are too clear, magic stops feeling magical. Equally if the magic hasn’t been thought through, it can be too convenient and unconvincing. Teresa Frohock has nailed it.

Now, all of this would be more than enough story for most authors… but there’s an added layer in that the book is set during the Spanish Civil War and looks at how that contributed to the Second World War. While that’s all framed by Nefilim activity, it’s an interesting and brutal period that I think often gets left out of WW2 narratives. It’s good to see a story touch on it in this way.

This is a violent story, there are some really uncomfortable sequences, it is definitely a book for adults. It’s also a story that has gay characters without the gay being particularly what the story is about. Gay characters are put under the same pressure in fear for their loved ones and families as straight characters in similar situations are, and that makes me very happy. It’s great to see LGBTQ people included in a story where they’re allowed to be other things as well and the plot isn’t about the gay. For extra points, the gay characters are already in an established relationship – it’s not a romance or a coming out story!

The writing is excellent, so if this all sounds like the sort of stuff you might read, pick up a copy. It’s a satisfying story, that comes to a conclusion while leaving plenty of room for future tales in the same setting. You can read it without having to make a commitment to the whole series (anyone else still got issues from The Wheel of Time?) but if you want to dig in for more, you can do that too.

 

Find out more about the book here – https://www.tfrohock.com/carvedfromstone


Creative Osmosis, a guest-blog in two parts

A guest blog from Nils Visser

 

Please don’t get me wrong on this. I receive short book reviews with fierce and joyous exclamations that will startle the cats into a sulk. I’m at the self-publishing Indie stage where reviews, rather than the occasional sale, are the measure of success.

From that perspective, the length and complexity of a review is irrelevant. “I liked this book” is enough. Some of my favourite reviews are thunderous in their brevity. “Insanely well-written” for Escape from Neverland, and – I suspect by the same reviewer – “KICKS ASS” for Dance into the Wyrd. What more do you need to know? Plus, it’s pretty clear to me that the reviewer has read the books. J

I probably risk undermining the message that ‘any sort of review will do’ by gushing over longer and more comprehensive ones, but those longer ones do something entirely different. In their own way they’re as priceless as “KICKS ASS” and “Insanely Well-Written.”

Apart from the sheer magic of realising that there’s someone out there who has demonstrably grasped the essence of a story, and their generous allocation of time in digesting a story comprehensively, it’s also awfully kind of them to formulate that essence in a manner which I could never do myself. I can write a book, but please – OH HORROR – don’t ask me to describe it.

I can get as far as saying, “Look, I did a thing, where before there was nothing, kinda neat, isn’t it?” If you respond, “Yeah, cool, what’s the story about?” (like a normal human being showing interest would), I withdraw back into my shell. “Erm…ah…nothing much…I dunno…you probably shouldn’t bother…”

Every now and then a reviewer manages to phrase what the story is about with such eloquence that it not only leaves me stunned, but also arms me with an answer to that “what’s the story about” question. I can now answer, “Well, so and so says…” Somehow that is easier.

Every now and then, a review is so sirageously awesome, that the aftershocks of sheer jubilation transform into renewed inspiration for stories.

I have been fortunate enough to receive two of these reviews recently, for the novella Rottingdean Rhyme. One by Nimue Brown and one by Mark Hayes. I’m profoundly grateful for these reviews, more than they will ever know, so have no hesitation to gush wildly about these two reviewers, and their skills in unravelling aspects of Rottingdean Rhyme.

Through these reviews, both Nimue and Mark have, unwittingly, made a big mark on the two novellas which complete this mini-series regarding the childhood years of Alice Kittyhawk, protagonist of Time Flight Chronicles Book 1: Amster Damned.

Nimue for Them that Ask No Questions (just published), and Mark for Fair Weather for Foul Folk, still in progress.

I’m not entirely sure they’ll be pleased to have been allocated parental responsibility for the stories, so will have to turn to you, the jury, to demonstrate that their creative DNA, strands of their own writerliness as it were, have been woven into the stories about Alice.  I’ll do this in two parts (sharing this same introduction), covering Them that Ask No Questions on Nimue’s blog Druidlife, and Fair Weather for Foul Folk on Mark’s Passing Place blog.

Creative Osmosis: Indie October Guest Post By Nils Nisse Visser

 

THEM THAT ASK NO QUESTIONS

 

Nimue identifies the novella Rottingdean Rhyme as a story about “smuggling and steam powered aircraft, and community and poetry, written with charm and heart.”

(Her full review can be read here: https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2019/05/05/rottingdean-rhyme-a-review/)

She mentions that she is aware of the darker aspects of the 19th century and believes that any story “pretending the past was a lovely place, is not for me.” She adds: “One of the reasons I appreciate Nils’ work is that he gets an excellent balance of squaring up to issues while creating an engaging adventure.”

That last stuck with me, as well as her analysis of the archetypal common denominator Rottingdean Rhyme shares with traditional smuggler’s lore, which of course forms an inspiration for my re-invention of Sussex smuggling within a Steampunk context.

The reason people can identify with stories about smugglers, pirates or highwaymen, according to Nimue, is that “in so many times and places there have been so few ways of dealing with relentless, grinding poverty. Robin Hood is the poster boy for this sort of thing, but he’s never been alone. These are all figures who, through British history have raised a finger to the ruling classes and pushed back against abject poverty. When you’ve got nothing, the story of someone who pushed back can be worth a great deal.”

That really gets to the heart of the matter, and was immediately relevant to the follow-up novella, Them that Ask No Questions.

In travelling back to Alice Kittyhawk’s past, I was bound by the background information supplied in Amster Damned (in which Alice is in her mid-twenties). In short, Alice was born and partially raised in the small fishing village of Rottingdean, right in the midst of an active smuggling community. That bit was covered in Rottingdean Rhyme, and Alice’s continued association with the Rottingdean Free Traders will be addressed in the third novella, Fair Weather for Foul Folk (more on which in the twin guest blog on the Mark Hayes page).

However, Amster Damned also revealed that the later part of Alice’s childhood was spent in the Brighton slums, and I wanted to use Them that Ask No Questions to expose that experience.

These days, The Lanes quarter of Brighton is a pleasant maze of little courtyards and alleys filled with eateries, pubs, and more boutique shops than you can shake a stick at, usually crowded with tourists. Go back less than a hundred years, and it was strictly a no-go area, reminiscent of Dickensian scenes of abject poverty. Having lived in Africa and Asia, I have visited slums and shantytowns where open sewers running through muddy ditches in the streets add a distinctive odour to the sheer horror of the rampant poverty evident all around you, an experience I could draw on in transforming the picturesque Lanes back into what they used to be.

The trick of course, was to weave this horror into a story as part of the setting, rather than making it the main focus. That included being fairly sparse with details, a long list of every aspect of Victorian poverty would make grim reading indeed. So, what to use, and what to leave to the reader’s imagination?

My regular job, the one that pays the bills, is working in homeless hostels, the most harrowing part of which is when ex-armed service homeless people are visited by their demons late at night. I will not repeat their most tragic memories of Iraq and Afghanistan here. Suffice to say I understand why they are haunted by them, and regularly feel helpless rage that men and women subjected to these experiences are conveniently forgotten by their country when discharged. The associations with the 19th century are easy to make, little has changed it seems. All the more so when some councils in today’s Britain still make use of the Victorian Vagrancy Act to literally punish people for being homeless, and even threaten to arrest grassroots volunteers distributing hot drinks and soup on cold nights.

Homelessness then, features as a theme, specifically that of ex-armed services personnel.

A more difficult theme to tackle was widespread sexual exploitation of children, especially when writing from the perspective of an eleven-year-old girl. To ignore it altogether, when one in five women and girls in Britain was engaged in prostitution simply to keep from starving, wasn’t a realistic portrayal of life in the slums.

But…eleven?

Unfortunately, yes. At the time the legal age of consent was twelve. After years of public campaigning to redress this matter, the government reluctantly raised it to thirteen (a year after this story takes place).

Alice would not only have been confronted by countless scenes of public fornication in the alleys and streets of The Lanes, she would have been eyed as fair game by many of the ‘gentlemen’ at the time. To give this further perspective, reading some contemporary accounts of slum residents, it was clear that slumfolk were seen as sub-human, just as the ‘gentle’ folk viewed the native inhabitants of their sprawling empire as being lesser members of the human race. Having sex with children was generally seen as wrong. Forcing yourself on slumgirls as young as eight or nine, however, was seen as something those sub-human children were pretty much bred for, and all they were good for.

Tragically, this theme is still relevant today. Not a day seems to go by without a hypocritical politician being exposed for sexual exploitation of girls or women. The speed with which women’s rights are being stripped in Red State America is terrifying, and because of my line of work I have seen for myself the County Lines exploitation of vulnerable youngsters currently taking place all over Britain.

I decided to include this ugly theme in Them that Ask No Questions, confronting the reader with this despicable reality in a harrowing scene, but avoiding graphic descriptions and assuming the threat, rather than the deed, would suffice. A bit of a spoiler here, but I had also recently read angry letters of complaint by Victorian men in both Britain and America about the fact that Victorian women, for some strange reason, had taken up the habit of wearing ever longer and sturdier hairpins in their hair. It wasn’t fair, the men complained, that their attentions were potentially rewarded with a jab of cold steel. Hence, Alice is equipped with not one, but two hairpins. Need I say more?

Nimue’s review served as a challenge to write about all this in a manner that avoided these horrors dominating the story entirely, left place for more light-hearted moments good for a smile or a laugh, and most importantly, play on Anglo-Saxon sentiments regarding down-trodden outlaws.

Alice freely admits, at one point, that a gentlemen’s observation of slumgirls being lost to a life of crime is accurate. When she’s apprehended by the Brighton constabulary, she is engaged in three unlawful activities all at once, a regular little criminal, though more in the light of Oliver Twist than the Artful Dodger.  My hope is that you, the reader, not only understand why she is breaking the law, but find yourself actively cheering her on, encouraging a child to be successful in her criminal endeavours. If I managed to achieve that, I’m a happy scribbler.

I inserted a few Easter Eggs into the story as a homage to both Nimue’s review and her own creative endeavours (of which I am an avid fan). The best course of action to have taken would be to wait to see if Nimue (and her partner-in-crime Tom) would pick up on this when reading, supposing they would read Them that Ask No Questions. However, being an impatient fellow, I wasted no time informing them of the fact even as I was writing, so might as well spill some more beans here.

In a wink to the most excellent and bodacious Hopeless, Maine series, by Nimue and Tom, there is a special role for a spoon, and even a spoon joke of sorts. It’s unlikely to be seen as anything remarkable, but I like the little nod to the perpetual spoon crisis on Hopeless.

As for Nimue’s splendiferous review, here is a (redacted) extract from Them that Ask No Questions.

“No buts,” Chief Forty-Guts said gruffly. “I don’t care what Lunnon says, it don’t come right to me. Savvy? Well done, Harding. Now where is this hardened and vicious, but charitable criminal of yours?”

“Miss Gunn,” Harding called out. “The Chief Constable requests your presence.”

“One of the Gunns, is she?” Chief Forty-Guts asked.

“Aye, Sarge. Fancies herself a regular little Robin Hood, robbing the rich, feeding the poor.”

Figuring she had no choice, Alice stepped into view, scowling at the Rozzers. “My name bain’t Gunn nor Robin Hood, and I’m innocent cause I bain’t robbed no one.”

The chief raised his eyebrows. “Innocent?”

“Yarr! I’d like to go home now, Guv. Me mum’ll be worried.”

 

One final touch has been to play on Nimue’s reference to “jolly japes in period costume” by inserting two encounters with followers of the ‘Flight-Funk’ fashion, which involves decorated top hats and goggles. It’s possibly self-destructive to poke fun at the Steampunk audience I’m trying to reach, but I couldn’t help myself. I freely admit that I’ve treated them a bit unfairly and will in future stories make up for this, but perhaps these scenes can be seen as a thought-provoking moment, because as we parade around in our finery, that war veteran still sits outside whatever fine location we’re at, still begging for a penny or a crust of bread just like he did in 1871.

The novellas are set up as stand-alone stories, so can be read in any order you please, but they also form a series. If I’ve whetted your appetite, both Rottingdean Rhyme and Them that Ask No Questions are available as paperback or kindle. By the way, the kindle versions are cheaper than contraband brought ashore on a dark and moonless night. Fair Weather for Foul Folk, the third novella that completes this mini-series, will hopefully be out before Christmas, and is discussed in the twin guest blog on Mark Hayes’s page.

Fair Winds!

Nils

 

http://www.nilsnissevisser.co.uk

 

 


The Curious Adventures Of Smith And Skarry – a review

Imagine a world in which caffeine and sugar are controlled for being too dangerous. Imagine illicit tiffin dens, land pirates, soup seers, dodgy magicians, and a very quiet gentleman with an octopus friend… and you’re starting to get a feel for the delightfully madcap reality in which Penny Blake’s Curious Adventures are set.

It’s great fun.  This is playful steampunk adventure with lots of LGBTQ characters (so much yay!), and political substance underneath the entertaining surface. It’s a tale that has questions to ask about who holds power and on what terms. It has things to say about gender and identity, and questions to ask of the reader, who will be left to ponder their own answers at their leisure. For me, this book is the perfect balance of entertaining escapist fantasy, and serious stuff to chew on.

The world building is great – it’s such an entertaining setting, and the way in which tea, and sugar and cake function in the lives of the characters is a joy to behold. For me it also says a lot about who gets to decide which of our pleasures are socially acceptable, and which are vices to be punished or made inaccessible. Actual history is full of this and I think it’s no coincidence that the kind of real-life people who would bring back hunting are often also the ones who would criminalise being gay, for example.

The ways in which money and perceived class impact on how legal and acceptable your vices might seem is certainly a concept you’ll find in this book. It’s there in the dynamic between the two eponymous characters – one of whom has the confidence of wealth and one of whom does not and is consequently a lot more anxious about things. Illicit things become playthings for the affluent who can buy their way out of trouble, and dangerous life choices for people too poor to have many options.

Pagan readers should note that there’s some really interesting Goddess stuff going on in the background of the story. There’s also some no-punches-pulled things to be said about invasive, patriarchal upstarts who wish to be worshipped as Gods.

I very much recommend that you check this book out. My only warning is that it is clearly the start of the series and you’ll get to the end of book 1 and have feelings about not having the next one right now.

Pre-order a copy here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Curious-Adventures-Skarry-Ashtons-Kingdom-ebook/dp/B07Y4SYRVX

And I gather there will be a paperback in the fullness of time!


A little bit of gothic fiction

This is a recording of me reading the first chapter of New England Gothic. It’s a prose novella set on Hopeless Maine.

I come from Gloucestershire in the UK, and in terms of accents, I can sound more, or less like I come from Gloucestershire. I have thus made zero attempts to capture the speaking voices of people living off the coast of Maine at time unspecified, in a slightly uncertain reality. I have no idea what they should sound like!

We’ve been doing a kickstarter to publish this one, and two weeks in, are fully funded, which is wonderful. The support has been amazing – in terms of people pledging, pledging more than we asked for, and sharing the project to get more people onboard. It’s been a really affirming experience. I’ve not written much fiction in recent years because there didn’t seem to be much point – getting novels in front of people isn’t easy. I’m moving away from novels anyway, and clearly there are ways of getting books into people’s hands, so, forwards!

The kickstarter is over here, should you feel moved to check it out  – https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/countrostov/tales-of-hopeless-maine