Tag Archives: story

Review: The Shadow Crucible

I was approached to review this book because the author – T.M. Lakomy –  found me online and thought I would like it! I love it when people do that, especially when they’re right – as in this case.

When I started reading The Shadow Crucible, I thought I knew what I’d got. The set-up looked like a straightforward Christian fantasy with angels, demons, Templars, and the such. I was reminded of Constantine, and Tom Sniegoski’s Fallen, only with a mediaeval setting. The male lead is cold, remote, firm. The female lead is wild, beautiful, dangerous and seems a bit petty – A Scarlet O’Hara with a retinue of orphans. And for a little while there I was afraid that this would be one of those romances where the cool controlling guy breaks and tames the wild woman. But, the fascinating world building and the writing style kept me reading, and I’m very glad I stayed with it.

Then, around page 57, the plot shape started to change, and I realised I was not reading some kind of historical romance. Page 73 pulled the rug out from underneath everything I thought I knew about this book. No one, it turned out, was as they seemed in those opening pages. What I thought was going on was not happening. I had been fooled, misled, overconfident… and I was very excited by this!

Thereafter, what the story keeps doing, is taking a step back every now and then to let you see a bigger picture than you could before. In the context of the bigger picture, what you thought you knew looks rather different, each time. With each step back, the world expands, the implications of the story get bigger, the stakes rise, the magic becomes even more wild and wonderful, the philosophy becomes even more persuasive…

Whilst trying to avoid spoilers, this is a book that is very much in opposition to dogma and blind faith. It’s a story to challenge organised religion and question the motives of anyone who uses religion as a power base. All of the characters go through radical changes. One way or another, they are peeled of their surface pretences and small selves to reveal the larger presence beneath. I came to love characters who, in the opening pages, I felt no attraction to. I came to feel sympathy for other characters I’d not really liked at the start. And some, when peeled back, where entirely horrifying. There’s not a vast amount of horror in the book but when it comes… it really is very dark indeed.

I think for most people, the writing style will make or break this book. This is an author relishing their deliberately archaic language. It is wordy, with turns of phrase that sound profoundly un-contemporary. If you’re the sort of person who only likes stark, pared down language, considers ‘said’ the only acceptable speech tag, and skims paragraphs of description, this is not for you. If you enjoy wilfully wordy books, I fully expect you’ll enjoy this. I found it difficult to put down, and was enchanted by the unconventional story-shape.

Buy the book here (or pre-order it, it’s not out at time of posting the blog) https://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Crucible-Blind-God/dp/1590794141


Novel society

It may seem odd to claim that the way we tell stories shapes our culture, but I am absolutely convinced it does.

A novel, as we generally understand it, is fundamentally about conflict resolution. That probably sounds like a good thing, but I think it isn’t. A novel sets up a situation a tension, or difficulty, a problem to solve, a challenge to overcome. Then the characters deal with it, and if the book is tragic, they may fail, or die succeeding. The default story is that the problem is solved.

What was confusing, is caused to make sense. What was inexplicable, is explained. What was obscure, becomes clear. What was wrong, is set right. Mysteries are solved. Crimes are thwarted, or punished. The tension of attraction resolves into the familiarity of a relationship.

A book, we are taught at school, has a beginning, a middle and an end. The ending has to round things up. At the end of a book, the world of the book is a clearer, simpler place. Of course there are exceptions.

Real life is not like books in that many things are never resolved or tidied up in this way. All too often, the consequence of the tidy plot ending is the loss of mystery, possibility and wonder. I have a problem with this.

As a writer of stories, I’ve explored a bit what happens when a novel opens up more possibilities than it shuts down. I tend to tell small coherent tales against a backdrop of expanding chaos. I’m somewhat influenced by Philip K Dick in this regard. It does not make for an easy sell, but it makes me happy. As a reader I prefer the worlds that aren’t tidied up – Mythago Wood, Earthsea, Winchette Dale – those places that leave me with far more questions than answers.

What does the story shape do to us? How much is our wider culture shaped by the idea of the tidy ending, and that all mysteries can and should be explained? What would happen to us if we told stories that expanded possibility rather than contracting it?

The Emperor’s new poetry book

Of all the things I try to review, poetry is the most problematic. For context, let me mention that I have a degree in English Literature. I’ve studied literary criticism, I’ve written degree level essays on poetry from the last couple of centuries. I’ve read a lot of poetry, historical and more modern. Compared to an academic working in the field of poetry, I’m a lightweight. Compared to the average reader, I’ve read and studied a lot of poetry. And yet, when I look at how other reviewers respond to some books, I can often be stumped.

I’ve just fallen out of a collection. I don’t think I can face reading it to the end. It felt like hitting and sliding down glass walls, with occasionally a sense of meaning implied, but always unavailable to me. Individual lines seemed well wrought, charming even, but added together to make… nothing I can figure out how to respond to. My only emotional response has been frustration.

And yet, other reviewers have heaped praise on it. “A gorgeous, brilliant book,” says one. “Complex sensuousness and deep intelligence.” “Unintrusive precision” – what does that mean, even? “Her almost painterly imagery implodes gracefully.” Ah, so that was what I was missing.

When other critics respond in this way, it’s hard not to feel that as the reader, I must be the problem. I’m too ignorant, no doubt. I couldn’t spot the graceful implosion of a poem if it splattered itself all over my face, I expect.

As an ordinary reader of poems, I’m basically looking for something I can connect with – images, moods, ideas… Some point of meaningful engagement between me and the text. I want something to happen, other than me feeling confused and dense. I can handle ee cummings and Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and the metaphysical poets. I can cope with complexity, I think. I can cope with metaphor and surprising juxtapositions. In the realms of story and non-fiction, I feel confident saying when something doesn’t add up. The nature of such writing makes it easy to point at problems. We have some collective ideas about what stories and essays are. But what is a poem? What does a poem do? At what point can we safely say ‘this poem is not doing the things’?

A continuity error in a story is easily flagged up. A failure to resolve a plot in a satisfying way is easy to talk about. An argument that isn’t logical, or well founded can be taken apart. ‘I do not get this poem’ can be answered with ‘you didn’t read well enough’. I’m wary about picking holes in poems for this reason. Am I an insufficiently sensitive reader? Am I too old fashioned, too low-brow, insufficiently read and educated. I look at my qualifications, and my reading experience.

Back when I was writing Fast Food at the Centre of the World, I had a poet character. He’s a charlatan. Let me write you the kind of thing John Silver would write…

“In the withheld breathe, a moment of iniquity,

Longing becomes a windmill, exacerbated

By time, for the wind is change and I am the eye

Of a storm that caresses immortality.”

I can do this all day. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s designed to sound like poetry and that is the sum and total of what it is for. Sometimes, in matters of poetry, I am deeply suspicious that the Emperor has no clothes on.

How voices change stories

All stories, be they written, spoken or sung, imply a voice. When a story is spoken, read or sung, there is of course an actual voice airing the implied one. I’m fascinated by how this changes the story itself.

Many folk songs imply the narrator of a story – all too often they start something like ‘as I roved out one morning, all in the early spring, I overheard…’ separating the singer from the story to be told so that gender and age don’t impact on the telling. Not all folk songs are about voyeurism, many are told in the first person, and the actions of that person imply gender. Pregnant and abandoned lamenting women aside, gender in folk songs isn’t always straightforward. If a lass sings a song about how her lad went off and got killed in a war, the song sounds very straight. If a chap sings it, we might not be clear if he’s singing on behalf of the female narrator in the song, or if he’s singing it as a gay lover mourning for the lost soldier boy.

There are a lot of folk songs about girls who ‘dress in man’s apparel’ and run off to join the army, follow lovers across oceans, or who are just there for the sheer hell of it. The songs themselves make it clear that the surface appearance of the character is not always the whole story.

In this last week, John Holland and I have been picking stories for Stroud Short story competition, at the end of which we found out who had written what. I noted that my perception of the narrator was not always correct – there were two occasions where I’d inferred a male voice, but the writer was female, and several where I hadn’t know either way. Some of those stories will be different stories to the ones I first read, because of the gender shift. It will alter where the sympathies seem to lie, and that will be decidedly interesting to hear.

Gender plays a big role in how we perceive each other, and it features heavily in the stories we tell. It’s the most obvious way in which a voice can change a story. Accents can also have an impact, especially if there’s a class or racial aspect to a story. Something profoundly working class voiced in an upper class voice might easily sound condescending. Voicing someone of a different ethnicity can easily turn into a racist caricature. Putting a voice to a story when the voice does not seem to match the story at all, can create new possibilities, opening the way to different takes on what the story means and changing what it can reflect. I think this is one of the reasons people keep putting Shakespeare plays into different cultures, times and places – the stories can be caused to say something different if you change the voices expressing them.

Do we put on voices to create an effect when voicing a story, or do we use our own voices, and let the impact of that voice  – whatever it is, and however it fits or clashes with the material, do what it does in a more naturalistic way? And of course even if you use your own voice in all things, the choice of material you make will decide whether you’re playing to type, or pushing at the edges in some way in order to let a whole new story in.

Journeys to mythical places

Over the last few days, I have entered the Legendary Middle Studio, and The Potionary. As with all places with mythic aspects, knowing the myths is critically important for appreciating the location. Some places are so striking that they suggest, or attract myths anyway, while others become important through association with events. I’m a big fan of knowing how stories connect with landscape, both old stories, and new ones. However, the reasons for these two locations being important to me are not as famous as they deserve to be.

The Legendary Middle Studio belongs to BBC Radio Shropshire, and every Sunday evening, Genevieve Tudor broadcasts a fabulous two hour folk show from this building. You can listen live, or after the event, online if you are further afield. Most weeks there are live performances, and these take place in the Legendary Middle Studio.

I’ve known Genevieve pretty much my whole life. Nearly five years ago, Tom, the lad and I moved onto a narrow boat. At night, in the darkness of winter it can be a bit lonely out on the canal, and all we had for contact with the rest of humanity was a small wind-up radio. We discovered we could pick up the folk program via BBC Hereford and Worcester, and so it became something of a lifeline. I’d gone from running a weekly club, to having no live folk in my life at all, so it also provided an important sense of connection. For the two years we’ve been in a flat, we’ve continued listening. Seeing the place where it all happens was a really interesting experience.

The Potionary is also in Shropshire, at a much more secret location. It is the space where the Matlock the Hare books and art have been created. I’ve been a big fan of Matlock the Hare for some time, and of the lovely creative duo behind it, so when they said ‘do you want to see The Potionary?’ I of course squealed and said yes. And it was splendid.

Everything happens in a place. We don’t tell history in terms of place location, unless you happen to be at a tourist spot. Myths and folk tales can go either way – some are very specific ‘There was once a farmer from Mobberly way’ and some have an ‘everyman’ quality that means no matter where you tell them, it all occurred just down the road from here and involved the friend of a guy in the pub who told the story teller the tale in the first place.

I think that when we lose the connection between narrative and place, we lose the sense of the place being important. Over the last few days I also saw the ruins of a number of industrial buildings. Some had history boards to explain them, some did not. If it’s just a tumble down old place, it can be left to rot. If we know it was the first, or the biggest, or the most important at one time, if we know it was the centre of working life in a place, or something else like that, the past connects to the living landscape and it becomes easier to feel a sense of connection and significance. Not only does this change a person’s perspective on a landscape, it also shifts how settled that person feels in a place. How real, or unreal the stories are, and no matter how old, or how recent, having stories of place makes a lot of odds.

More than two sides to every story

‘There are two sides to every story’ is one of those statements which, at first glance looks like wisdom, but in practice causes all kinds of problems. Here’s why…

It assumes both sides are equally true. This is the case sometimes, but it’s not always the case. If someone is lying, ignoring the differences between stories in this way allows the liar to get away with whatever they’ve done and leaves the honest person exposed and unsupported.

There are often, perhaps usually more than two sides to any given situation. Often it’s only when we start looking at the other facets of a story that the whole becomes more apparent. The trunk and the tail are both part of the truth that is an elephant, but without seeing the big grey bit in the middle, you aren’t going to understand what you’ve got in the room.

Reducing a story to two sides can be used to give a false sense of validation to one version of truth. This is especially popular in politics where the two options are ‘my way or certain doom’ and too often we don’t even consider that alternatives might exist.

Some things are facts. Climate change is a reality, and the vast majority of scientists confirm that it’s happening and an issue. Allowing unfounded opinions to hold the same weight as facts distorts debates and makes credible that which isn’t. We sometimes make it look like there’s two sides, when really there’s nothing to discuss.

Balance is not always about finding opposites. This is often a media issue where a subject is discussed by finding people who disagree, to argue it out. Our law systems are equally confrontational. Pitting two sides of the story against each other is not a sure fire way of finding the truth. The ability of the journalist, lawyer or commentator to make their side of the story look plausible may have more to do with storytelling skills. That something can be condensed into a simple and plausible narrative does not make it true.

The idea of two sides can be used as an excuse. Somebody acts in a way that looks terrible from the outside, but points out there are two sides to every story and you should hear their version. How far does claiming failed good intention excuse poor action? It’s certainly not a tidy situation.

We’re all cobbling together our own subjective understandings of what’s going on, what it means and what to do about it. We’re all limited by our own perspectives, experiences, capacity for empathy, and ability to understand. None of us will ever see the whole of anything (don’t believe everything The Waterboys tell you!). If anyone tells me there are two sides to a story, my first response is to wonder what it is about the other sides, beyond those two, that they would prefer I did not notice.

The lovely Princess and the particularly unpleasant monster

Once upon a time (well, about 2 years ago) there was a beautiful princess who found a monster in a cave, gave it the kicking it so obviously deserved and went on her way to marry her prince and do the happily ever after thing. After she had gone, the monster (merely beaten, not dead) sat with its bruises and wondered how it had come to be cast in this role.

It wasn’t that she got angry – people do get angry after all, and while I find it hard to deal with, I wouldn’t blame anyone for being cross. It wasn’t the telling off – humiliating and hurtful though that was. What did for me, was seeing her on social media announcing how proud she was of herself for standing up to me. I had no idea what I must have looked like to her; for knocking me down to be something to take pride in. She knocked me down so thoroughly it took me months to get up, but then, that’s what warrior princesses do to monsters, isn’t it? Two years on, and I’ve had a lot of being haunted by what happened.

It’s one of the experiences that have made me very wary about the degree to which I let people in. It raised for me issues about how I am in the world, and what it is reasonable to express of my own discomfort. Because for me, what lay at the back of this was the need to flag up that she’d done something that really hurt my feelings, and for her this expression read as a full frontal attack. I try not to attack people, as a general thing. I’m conscious of issues like Ahimsa (psychological violence). I try not to raise my voice, not to blame or accuse, not to demand. No doubt I get this wrong sometimes, maybe even a lot, but the general effort on my part is towards not attacking people.

Of course she’s not the first princess to take offence because I’ve been inconsiderate enough to express pain. Maybe there’s something about princesses that makes it very difficult for them to hear that someone is unhappy. My most recent princess has a great deal invested in being seen as a lovely, kind, gentle, generous sort of person. It was therefore like a pea under a hundred mattresses to be told that she may have inadvertently caused distress. Princesses are delicate creatures, and the onus tends to be on the monster not to offend that delicacy with any misplaced peas. There are things to recognise here about the difference between goodness, and an appearance of goodness.

We tell stories about ourselves. We tell stories about other people. We cast them in roles, we give ourselves roles. Hero, princess, wicked witch, rescuer, victim, dragon. Girl in the high tower, growing her hair. Woodsman in the forest looking for grandmothers with wolf fetishes. Who we think we are shapes what we do, and what we expect from others. Who we think they are shapes how we react when they do something. Our stories aren’t always accurate, or helpful. When the terrible monster roars, the lovely princess has to dust off her Kung Fu moves and do the heroic thing. Meanwhile in another story, a person who has had their nerve broken before finds all the things they fear about themselves may be true after all, and hides in their cave for months.

It’s taken me a couple of years to come up with a new story, one involving peas and over-reactions, and the entitlement of princesses who wish to be seen as good, rather than an acceptance that kicking monsters is what princesses are for. Maybe monsters are people, too. Maybe some of them are howling, not growling, or are purring, or singing. Maybe being an awkward thing in a cave is not a reason to be attacked. New stories, better options.

Eco-Pagan Mythmaking

Cultures are underpinned and shaped by the stories they tell. Not just the big obvious myths, but the day to day stories about how everything works. Our current cultural stories include capitalism, austerity, growth, consumerism, and dominion over the natural world. For Pagans, this life destroying, using story-set that leads to unsustainable living just isn’t tolerable. We need new stories.

Writing about perfect worlds is really awkward. It’s so easy to sound preachy, or ridiculous, and that which is set up as Utopian, in fiction and in real life alike, tends to go horribly wrong. Stories for a future world have to balance the better ideas with the emotional realism that lets us accept that this is believable. It’s not an easy balance to strike.

I recently read Anna McKerrow’s ‘Crow Moon’ – it’s a really interesting piece of eco-pagan literature, aimed at the YA market. It postulates a future society that’s living much closer to the land, and dealing with the restrictions, the inevitable hard work and limited options this creates. What makes it work as a story is that it isn’t a perfect vision. There is strife, and struggle, and hardship, but you have to balance that against the good things – one of which is the hope of a sustainable future. In the novel, the greenworld culture Pagans are likely to empathise with, contrasts with the redworld, where people are still killing each other over the last remaining fuel supplies. However imperfect a sustainable future is going to be, it’s bound to beat the hell out of the alternatives.

Of course one story doesn’t have to do it all, in fact it’s probably better that we don’t have one perfect story to try and live up to. Our Pagan ancestors had a lot of stories, and diversity makes us stronger. We need lots of ideas right now, lots of different visions of a future that help us remember that the current stories in our culture are not the only stories. The right wing domination of contemporary story making is a real issue and it discourages people from imagining alternative ways of living and being. We’re being hammered with austerity and growth as the only stories of how an economy can work right now, and we’ve got to change that and open it out into something more liveable, more human, more sane.

In the meantime, I can recommend Crow Moon, and anyone interested in writing for the future should also check out Storytelling for a Greener World.

The naming of nature

There are reasons to be careful about naming. Names confer power and suggest ownership, and the naming of things in line with the dominant thought form of the day is something to watch for. As an example, names made up to sound like Latin by people who self identify as scientists are considered to be the proper names, while names used by ordinary people interacting with that same thing for hundreds of years and more, are given no authority at all.

However, naming does not have to be an act of conquest. When we have a name for something, it’s easier to keep track of our relationship with it. We can piece together stories of different encounters and interactions. Knowledge gained can be easily attached to that name, and the thing itself is more readily discussed for being able to identify it to other people.

Names themselves often reveal fragments of story, history or relics of older languages. Place names especially so, where ghosts of former names can be present in new descriptions. Much older naming was descriptive – one of the interesting problems this causes in flower names is that pink and orange are much more recent ideas, so a great many folk names for plants designate as red things which, to the modern eye, just plain aren’t. And if the name and the colour are interchangeable – as with the violet, a sub species that doesn’t conform causes all kinds of trouble, and thus we get white violets.

Folk naming outside of Europe gets even more interesting, because often things are named based on resemblance to other things in the country of origin. Or, more accurately, the memory of those things. American robins are a mostly brown bird with a red (orange really) chest like their British counterparts, only in all other ways look a lot more like a thrush, including their size, and have a migratory habit that the old world robin does not.

To have a name, is to have the beginnings of a story and the means for a relationship. Otherwise it all gets confusing. In a far country, there was a piece of land where the plants only grew a foot or so in height because grazing creatures liked to eat them. And amongst those foot high plants of the distant country, there was one which was darker coloured than all the rest, and while it wasn’t the only one to have little pointy bits on its middle, it was the only one popular with a brown and red night flying creature that liked to feed on it. And while that might sound entertaining and exotic for a while, you at present have no idea if you know what either the plant or the creature are, or whether I made them up, which is no great aid to communication!

Sins of the fathers

I’m fascinated by the ways in which stories, behavioural patterns, beliefs and ways of being are passed down from one generation to the next. What we inherit can be totally invisible to us, and it can take years to spot that we’re playing out some other family dynamic in our own relationships, or perpetuating a family myth. Some people never know what it is that they are doing, or why. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to unpick the myths of my own family, and while I can now see some of them, I have no way of explaining them, I do not know where or when they started and can only guess.

When we know what the history is and who has made the story, we have a much better shot at not repeating it. This was all very much on my mind when writing Druidry and the Ancestors, but it’s a theme I’ve taken up in my fiction work as well. The current instalment of Hopeless Maine, book 3: Sinners, started life with the longer title ‘Sins of the Fathers’. Although sins of at least one mother are also very much part of the mix.

It’s interesting how often parents do not turn up in novels and fairy stories. The dead parents are such a routine feature. The absent or unknown parents crop up a lot. The young adventurer who is obliged to set out into the world and seek their fortune, somewhere else. They go somewhere they are not known, and where they can meet their destiny free from the implications of their birth. By this means, the sons of humble woodcutters may become princes and so forth. Anyone standing in for a parent, as a mentor, guide and guardian can expect the Star Wars treatment – to be suddenly cut down so that the hero must stand alone and face their destiny.

Real life does not deliver this for most of us. We will live our lives connected to our family roots, and many of us will deal with our most immediate ancestors in ongoing ways. The stories handed down to us about who we are and how we should act stay with us too. It’s one of the things I like about Hopeless Maine* as a setting – it’s really claustrophobic. Mostly the only way to leave the island is to die, and that’s not wholly reliable. Our young heroes, Sal and Owen, are living in a tiny world shaped in part by their parent’s actions, and obliged to deal with who they are, and where they come from. Granted, their troubles are not exactly akin to anyone else’s – Sal’s mother lives under the graveyard and only goes out at night. Owen’s father may be suffering from madness, or grief, or hatred, or possession, or love betrayed, or all of the above, and has means to express that, which aren’t available to most of us.

We live with the sins of our ancestors. We live after slavery, after the enclosures act that robbed the common people of Britain of their land. We live after highland clearances and colonialism, after Auschwitz. We live with a modern Israel whose conflicts have been thousands of years in the making. We live with the absence of the dodo, the carrier pigeon and the aurochs, with the poisonous legacies of industrial revolution and nuclear power. The sins of our ancestors are many. The choices they have made in fear, in greed and in ignorance shape the world as we have it now. There is nowhere else for us to go, no bold new place we can strike out to where they won’t know about our past or judge us for where we came from. We have to stay and deal with the consequences of things done in madness, in grief, in hatred and in fear. Either we change those stories, or we pass them on and see if our children are any more capable of being heroes than we were.


*Hopeless Maine is a webcomic, you can read it for free at http://www.hopelssmaine.com, the image accompanying this blog is the cover art for book 3.