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Image by erikgoetze from Pixabay

Joran pulled his dirty blanket tight around his shoulders and crept out onto the crag, testing the packed snow with his foot before each step. To the west, the pass was draped in shadow, the tips of the trees not yet visible. Dawn took a long time to reach those depths.

Snow crunched as Letta trudged up the mountain, pushing a rickety barrow full of logs. She stopped a few feet away and squinted.

“Seen anything out there?”

“Of course not.” Joran gestured at the contents of the barrow, wood for their cooking fire and for the beacon on top of the tower. The beacon never burned, but still Letta chopped and tarred fresh wood each day, never giving it time to dampen and rot. “You should let me do that. I’m stronger than you.”

With the head of her axe, she prodded at the chain running from his ankle back into the tower.

“If you wanted to run free, you shouldn’t have killed that man.”

“It was him or me.”

“That’s not what the judge said.”

Joran pulled the blanket tighter, shivering against the wind, and peered west. He could see the tops of the trees now.

“There’s someone moving up the pass.”


“Is it ever anything else?”

Letta squinted again. Joran snorted.

“Why are you even up here if you can’t see?”

“I won’t leave my kin’s safety to criminals like you.”

“I could push you off the mountain, you know.”

“Try it.” She hefted the axe. “I’ll be checking the beacon, just in case.”

Joran looked down the valley again. This whole thing was a cruel joke played by some malicious god. One punch swung too hard and now he lived here, watching for an invasion that never came.

It was a bigger merchant caravan than usual, and better guarded. Sunlight glinted off something, spear tips or helmets. Scores of them. Hundreds. Thousands.

“Letta!” He turned, slipped, slid through the snow toward a precipitous drop. The chain jerked him short and he grabbed a protruding rock a moment before he would have screamed. “Letta, they’re coming!”

The crunch of footsteps. She appeared above, hauling on his chain.

“Get up here and help me with the fire,” she said. “We have to warn the city.” Then she looked past him, into the woods below. “Joran, what’s moving down there?”

“I don’t care, just help me up!”

“Damn your eyes, Joran!”

He cursed, shifted his weight against the crumbling ground, and peered over his shoulder, into the woods below the beacon tower. It would be a wolf or a cluster of crows, the sort of hard-living beast that survived the snow.

Steel glinted between the trees.

“Scouts,” he said. “Must have run ahead during the night.”

Letta let go of the chain and grabbed her wood axe.

“Don’t leave me!” Joran shrieked.

Letta strode off, toward the lone trail up from the wood.

“Light the fire quick,” she shouted. “I’ll hold them off.”

Cursing and straining, Joran grabbed a protruding rock and pulled himself up. He kicked a foothold from the snow and pushed higher. From below came voices, Letta and the scouts. He hoped that she could hold them off with words, because six to one was terrible odds.

Joran hauled himself back onto the crag, then dashed toward the tower, snow flying from his feet, chain clinking. He flung the flimsy wooden door open and, in the gloom of their tiny barracks room, scooped a bowlful of glowing coals out of the fire.

Thuds and shouts rose from the trail. A man screamed. Letta was putting up a fight, but she was no soldier, and her weapon was no war axe.

Joran’s chain rattled against the stone stairs that spiralled up the outside of the tower. Almost at the top, a jerk at his ankle stopped him short and he fell, arms slamming against hard edges, hot coals flying into his face.

The chain had snagged. He had to go back. Except that the sounds of fighting had stopped, and now three men were approaching the tower, dressed in armour and carrying swords.

Joran shook the chain. The men looked up and one of them shouted. Joran shook the chain again, shook as hard as he could. A few more feet of chain came loose, a few more seconds of hope.

Footsteps on the stairs, the jingling of chain mail. Joran ran up the last few steps and flung the remaining coals into a heap of carefully stacked wood. Smoke emerge from the kindling, then a flicker of flame, then a blaze as the heat touched Letta’s tarred logs.

Joran turned and raised his hands as the scouts reached the top of the steps.

“It’s done,” he said. “No point killing me.”

One of the men cursed. Another spat and peered east. “Maybe they won’t see it.”

On the next peak over, fire flared from a beacon tower. A minute later, it rose from another further east, and then another.

There was a red stain in the snow on the trail, and a dirty brown one at the base of the tower, where Joran’s blanket lay discarded. The fire warmed his back, a comfort in the cold and one last gift from Letta to her kin.


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The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

Smashwords have a sale on their ebooks this week, and a lot of mine are included. For this week only, all my books on Smashwords are either half price or free. From Victorian adventures to space-age stories, it’s all up for grabs. If you’d like to make the most of this opportunity, head over to Smashwords now and start filling your cart.

A Change of Location

Posted: July 14, 2015 in Uncategorized

ghostwriterIf you’ve been looking at this blog lately and thinking that it seems like a bit of a ghost town, there is a reason. I’ve recently moved to a different hosting service, where I can do different things with the webpage. That blog still has the URL this one did by the end – – and still runs on WordPress, but being a bit of a tech dunce I didn’t realise that wouldn’t necessarily pull over all the subscribers this blog had. So, if you like what I write here, then please hop on over to and subscribe to the same old insightful content, soon to have lovely new design.

Fantasy War is Hell

Posted: June 10, 2015 in Uncategorized

I’ve noticed a trend recently for fantasy stories that explore just how awful war can be. From the gruelling swamp warfare of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Guns of the Dawn, to the monstrous horrors and civilian casualties of Attack on Titan, to the acts of brutality, cowardice and deception in Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes, fantasy creators are exploring the dark side of war.

It’s quite a contrast with traditional fantasy, in which there are clear good and evil sides, causes worth fighting and dying for, and warriors mostly experience courage, heroism and camaraderie. Tolkien’s war for Middle Earth this is not.

Like literary and historical fiction before it, fantasy fiction seems to have become more willing, even eager, to explore the dark side of warfare. It’s a trend I find pleasing, as I think it makes for more interesting stories and more realistic characters. But I wonder if it will last, or whether we’ll see a backlash and a return to the dominance of old-fashioned tales of war as a righteous endeavour.

I suppose only time will tell.

Some scenes from my book Guns and Guano, immortalised in Lego…

Governor Cullen is terribly excited to take his guests hunting in Hakon's wild jungle. But what else is lurking out here?

Governor Cullen is terribly excited to take his guests hunting in Hakon’s wild jungle. But what else is lurking out here?

Dirk Dynamo would rather be tracking clues to the Great Library.

Dirk Dynamo would rather be tracking clues to the Great Library. Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms, on the other hand, just wants a chance to fire his experimental gun.

Surprise bear! Can Dirk save Governor Cullen from this wapred monstrosity?

Surprise bear! Can Dirk save Governor Cullen from this warped monstrosity?

To find out what happens next, download Guns and Guano as a free ebook via Amazon and Smashwords.

SQ Mag

flag UKA runaway train hurtling toward the imperial palace. Dirk Dynamo and Timothy Blaze-Simms have to run the gauntlet of automated foot soldiers of a madman bent on vengeance. This pulp-fiction style steampunk was another finalist in 2014’s Story Quest competition. SY

Dirk Dynamo braced himself as the train roared towards him out of the darkness, the cacophony of its wheels and the harsh light from its lamps filling the tunnel. The air was thick with coal smoke and the smell of deep earth. He was tense, coiled, ready for action.

“What a splendid sound!” Timothy Blaze-Simms shouted to be heard.

“Get ready.” Dirk’s hand dropped instinctively to his belt. The reassuring cold steel of the Gravemaker was secure in its holster beneath his fur coat. Down here he was sweating like a Prussian in the sunshine, but he’d be glad of the warmth when they got back up into the Moscow…

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Merry Christmas!

Posted: December 20, 2014 in Uncategorized

At last, the holidays are here. I’m taking two weeks off from writing and blogging to rest my brain. There may be occasional posts here if inspiration strikes, but other than that I’ll be back in January. Have a great couple of weeks, whatever and however you’re celebrating. And from me, merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

I’m really bad at keeping on top of modern culture. There’s just so much of it, and so much stuff around the corner behind us that I want to peak back at. That’s no bad thing, just a reflection of how much awesomeness there is out there. But it means that as I think back on what I’ve really enjoyed this year, not all of it’s actually from this year. Still, here are the new(ish) things that really rocked my brain in 2014:


I’ve done more reading recently, as my befuddled brain has emerged from the fog of the last few years. And from that enshrouding miasma appeared a thing of spell-binding beauty – Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic. I cannot recommend this pair of books enough – Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors are breathtaking in their majesty, their immediacy and their beauty. They’re big, slow, weighty reads, but well worth the heavy lifting. Many thanks to Glenatron and Everwalker for pointing me towards Kay, and to Sheila for the present.

This was the year Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie returned to their old stomping ground of pop culture as magic, launching The Wicked + The Divine. It’s a beautiful looking and cleverly written comic that explores what it is to be an artist, a fan and a believer. There are clever layouts, smart references, intriguing characters and a fascinating plot. The only thing currently matching it is Chew, with its crazy world building, madcap plotting and offbeat characters. These two together show that comics can be fun, wild, entertaining and carry a serious emotional message all at the same time. They also show that the medium doesn’t have to get all dark to get beyond superheroes.


Speaking of superheroes, did Marvel bring their A game this year or what? Agents of SHIELD turned from a limping pet only fanboys would love into a TV show that is dark, twisty and full of character. Tying its fate to Captain America: The Winter Soldier crippled it for most of its first season, but then created a moment of spectacular cross-platform awesomeness. The film and TV show spiralled around each other in ways that let them entertain as stand-alone viewing but break new ground as a cultural project. It helped that the Winter Soldier was a good film in its own right.

As if that weren’t enough, Marvel also brought out the biggest, funnest thing I watched in the cinema this year – Guardians of the Galaxy. A bunch of bickering misfits, forced to work together to save themselves and the universe? A talking raccoon and his walking tree buddy? A dance-off against a villain? Hell yes, I’m in for that. It wasn’t a smart film, or a ground-breaking one, but man was it ever entertaining.

But my favourite new film this year didn’t get a cinematic release, and that’s part of why I loved it. Joss Whedon, mastermind behind Marvel’s Avengers movies, took time out from his regularly scheduled blockbusters to help create In Your Eyes, a beautiful and unusual film about love and an inexplicable magical connection. It also took a bold approach to distribution that, for me, points towards the future I want to see. Just when we thought Whedon couldn’t get any more awesome, he upped his game again.

Aside from that, I’ve been making much more use of YouTube, and particularly recommend the PBS Idea Channel. Every week they come out with a slice of smart commentary, combing intellectual insight with popular culture. So cool.



Here’s where we leave science fiction and fantasy behind. I listen to some sf+f podcasts, and a bit of geeky music, but my favourites this year have been other things.

The Revolutions Podcast is an entertaining and extremely well presented show covering some of the most fascinating slices of history – political revolutions. So far it’s covered the English Civil War and the American War of Independence. Now it’s onto the French Revolution. Mike Duncan previously created the excellent History of Rome podcast, but this is even better. If you like history at all, check it out.

Musically, my favourite discoveries this year haven’t been new to this year, but they’ve been new to me. A friend pointed me toward the Wanton Bishops, a spectacular blues rock outfit from Lebanon. For pure grinding energy, they’re hard to beat.


Then there’s Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. I like to hear clever rapping and pop musicians getting away from tired themes of romance and and self-aggrandisement. Macklemore absolutely hits the spot, backed by Ryan Lewis’s catchy and diverse beats, from pro-equality anthem Same Love to the ridiculously exuberant Lets Dance to recycled shopping tribute Thrift Shop. Even when they’re crafting whole songs about Cadillacs, basketball or trainers, their sheer passion keeps me wanting more.


But my heart really lies with folk rock, and for that I recommend checking out The Patient Wild. Theirs are beautifully crafted storytelling songs, the sort of thing I can’t get enough of. And a member of the band reads this blog, so everybody wave to Glenatron – hi dude!


As Laura will testify, I’m pretty much obsessed with the card game Smash Up, in which you combine genre favourite factions to battle it out for domination. Whether I’m leading robot ninjas against time travelling pirates, or dipping into madness with the Cthulhu expansion, I would happily play this all day every day. It’s a lot of fun.

I also enjoyed the story/game combo of Device 6, which showed just what great things we can do with storytelling in the age of phone apps. Looking back, it feels like a test piece for greater things to come, but it’s a fascinating and atmospheric test piece.

And now I’m addicted to Minecraft. I’ll probably blog about this another day, but it’s kind of like having a giant Lego set on my Kindle, except a Lego set where zombies try to kill me. I don’t know why I didn’t play it years ago, but I’m glad I didn’t given how much time it’s sucking away.

Other stuff

Tiger stripe espresso beans. Manchester’s beautiful new central library. Costa Coffee’s caramel crunch cake. This year has been full of great stuff. Here’s hoping for more.

And so, in a variation on yesterday’s question, what have been your cultural highlights this year, big or small? Please share some recommendations in the comments, give me cool things to check out next year.

Sometimes a film comes along that, whatever its merits, so perfectly captures something about your own life that you love it. Maybe it portrays your job, or your family, or that awkward relationship you were in when you were young. I just found one of those films.

Knights of Badassdom is a comedy/horror/action/fantasy film about a group of live roleplay (LRP) gamers whose imaginary fantasy world gets invaded by a real and terrifying monster (if you aren’t familiar with LRP, there’s a good explanation here). As someone who’s spent years dressing up and running around hitting people with fake swords, and a Peter Dinklage fan, I was bound to watch this sooner or later. Unsurprisingly, I loved it.

Lets be clear – this is a film about geeks that laughs at the geeks. But that’s in the nature of comedy films – the characters are going to spend a lot of time looking foolish. What won me over, and convinced me that the film’s heart was in the right place, was the portrayal of LRP. The game we’re shown has the exact combination of naffness and awesomeness that has been the heart of most of my LRP experiences, and is why I love the hobby. There are cool costumes, but there are also t-shirts under armour, missing props, and coke cans weighing down the corners of the magical map. There are heroic speeches, and others that fall flat. There’s action and drama interspersed with pratting around. The conversations see in-game dialogue interspersed with out of character jokes. People’s real lives and their game lives intersect in messy ways. There’s even a jokey in-game name for the car park, in the same way that many people I know refer to a particular supermarket near a LRP site as Asgard.

I should be clear – not all LRP is like this. Go to a Profound Decisions event and you’ll see something far classier than in Knights of Badassdom. But that doesn’t detract from the joy I’ve taken over the years in those slightly naff games, where the out of character jokes were as integral to the fun as my sense of immersion in an imaginary world.

And the characters – they aren’t a perfect cross section of LRPers by any means, but they are a familiar bunch. There’s the guy who’s just there to hang out with his mates, and who’s really more interested in music and his love life than the game. There’s his buddy who spends the whole time high, drugs fuelling his intense and somewhat insane roleplay. There’s the one who’s more interested in the rules and experience points than acting out a role. The event runner who can see amazing and varied worlds in a bunch of nondescript clearings, and whose enthusiasm drags his friends along for the ride. The character who’s all about the fighting. The actor who’s there to play a role. Even the intolerant outsiders who mock the LRPers while indulging in their own obsessive and equally silly hobby.

If I have a problem with the film, it’s that women are under-represented in the speaking roles. But while the gender balance in the hobby is getting a lot better, there are still games where the cliché holds, with a bunch of blokes and very few women. And the film-makers balanced this up at least a little with the extras. On wider issues of representation, the presence of a dwarf, a character in a wheelchair and a couple experimenting with polyamory, all without comment or judgement from the other characters or the film’s plot, struck me as relatively enlightened by Hollywood standards, and representative of the accepting environment that LRP fosters.

I have no idea how LRPers in general have reacted to this film, whether it’s with excitement at being represented or horror at the way we’re represented. But for me, it was almost perfect. Even the slight naffness of the final act’s villain and conclusion, though not part of the LRP, felt fitting for a film set within the hobby. It would be hard to better capture what this hobby has always felt like to me, why I love it, and why for many years I felt embarrassed about it. Because LRP, like this film, is often a bit naff but almost always a lot of fun, and far better if you don’t take it seriously. Kind of like life, I guess.

Sometimes picking the protagonist for a story is easy. Your whole idea is built around a particular character, so you just go ahead and write them. Sometimes though it’s harder. You have an idea you want to explore, or a world, or you have part of what you want the character to be like, but not the whole package. So how do you pick the person at the centre of your story?

Mary Robinette Kowal offered some great guidance on this in an episode of Writing Excuses, my favourite source of writing guidance. She said that she thinks about the setting she’s created and who can be most hurt by the things that are different about it, then uses that as the starting point for the protagonist. It means that there’s instantly something at stake for the character and a sense of conflict inherent to the situation, ready to drive a story.

I was thinking about this as I read Glamour in Glass, the second book in Kowal’s Glamourist Histories series. You might think that in a magical Regency era there are more vulnerable characters than an upper class lady like Jane, the protagonist. But the setting isn’t just Regency England – it’s the upper class society of Regency England, and specifically the world of people using glamour magic within that. Once you view that as the setting, she’s the perfect choice. Her family’s well being and standing in their community is very dependent on who Jane and her sister marry, and Jane’s character and attachments put her at a marital disadvantage in the first book, Shades of Milk & Honey. Being a woman in an incredibly patriarchal society makes her vulnerable to the decisions and manipulations of others. And the exhausting price of using glamour sometimes puts her health at risk.

In the second book there’s even more at stake. Jane is a foreigner in a country in turmoil, someone seen as an enemy by the army threatening to descend on Belgium. Her husband is entangled in local events in ways she doesn’t know about, and not being trusted with information for essentially sexist reasons puts her at risk. The nature of glamour means that pregnant women cannot use this magic without risking the unborn child, meaning that she is heading towards a choice between losing the craft that gives her happiness and losing the chance to have a family. From this beginning the stakes are raised in a way that builds around Jane’s character, and eventually forces heartbreaking choices on her.

Like any advice, this way of picking a protagonist isn’t an absolute. When I wrote ‘Sunflowers in the Snow‘, last Friday’s story on this blog, I didn’t pick the people most hurt by the events I was portraying – the cloned Neanderthal community being excluded from human society. This was partly because I didn’t feel I had time within a very short story to build up their unique perspective. But it was also because a story needs a character who can have a transformative arc, and the Neanderthals were already in the place emotionally where I wanted the story to end. So I took someone who appears to be in a position of privilege, but whose values, power and principles are about to be put into conflict, and used him. It was someone who was being badly hurt by the situation, but not the most hurt.

And there are cases where I ignore this entirely. Dirk Dynamo and Timothy Blaze-Simms, the adventurer heroes of my Epiphany Club stories, definitely don’t start out from a place of peril. Similarly the stars of this coming Friday’s flash story were chosen out of necessity for that plot, not an approach I’d take for a longer work. As Terry Pratchett wrote, rules are there so that we think before we break them.

Have a think about your favourite protagonists. Are they inherently vulnerable or at odds with the world they live in? How so? And if you’re a writer, how do you pick your central characters? Share your thoughts in the comments.

And if you’d like to see some other examples of how I put this into practice, please consider buying one of my ebook anthologies.