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.
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.
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.