Posts Tagged ‘books’

The cover of the book Ashes of the Ancestors

Ashes of the Ancestors  is a rare thing for me, a story that arose out of its theme. Normally, I’m there for a character or a setting or a plot idea, but this one was all about the theme, because it’s a theme that matters a lot to me. That theme is how we relate to history and tradition.

I’ve spent a lot of my life pondering history. I caught a fascination with the past off my dad, and went on to do two degrees in history, as well as two years research towards a PhD I never finished, all about military and political prisoners in medieval Britain. When I got into freelance writing, I used that background to get gigs, and I’ve written hundreds of articles making history accessible. I write comics with historical settings for Commando. I’m known by some people at SFF conventions as the history guy, thanks to my ranting on panels about the sins of Braveheart and William Gibson’s magical time travelling penis.

Even when I’m making up imaginary worlds, I draw a lot of my inspiration from the real past. My writing notes are full of concepts drawn from history books. But history itself is seldom the thing I’m tackling.

This time is different.

For me, there’s a tension in how I relate to the past. History and tradition get used to justify a lot of conservative politics, while my knowledge of the past has made me ever more left leaning. Some people look at the past and want to cling to it. I look to it as an object lesson out of which we can learn what not to do, so that we can build something new, something better.

All of that was already swirling around in my head, and then I came across a couple of quotes that crystalised my thoughts. One was from Haruki Murakami, who said:

“History is the shared narrative that binds us together or tears us apart.”

The other came from Jeannette Ng in an award acceptance speech:

“Let us be better than the legacies that have been left us, let them not be prophecies.”

Those two sentences say a lot to me about how we relate to history and the sense of tradition with which it is connected.

History can be used as something we share, something we bond over, something that gives us collective purpose. When its meaning and its use are inclusive, that’s wonderful and powerful. But it can also be something that’s used to justify exclusion and violence, to draw a line between us and them, to say to people that they can’t be themselves because that’s not how things were in the past, even though that’s often untrue.

That’s a powerful lesson, but it’s useless if it doesn’t give us direction. That’s why I think Ng’s comment is so important. While Murakami helps us understand how the past affects us, Ng provides a way to relate to it as we go forward with our lives. Legacies are valuable things, but that doesn’t mean we should repeat them. We can always strive to do better, to build on what came before and make something new.

Ashes of the Ancestors is all about the different ways we relate to history. Some of the characters in the story want to cling to it, others to reject it. But in my opinion, neither of those is healthy or helpful. What works best for us as individuals and as a society is to see history, to learn from it, and then to step out from under its shadow.

It’s a theme that’s so embedded in Ashes that individual characters represent different approaches to the past. Maybe I’ll talk about that another day. For now, Ashes of the Ancestors is coming out next Tuesday, 7 February. You can pre-order the book through the Luna Press website and many good booksellers. And if you want more of my thoughts or to hear about upcoming stories, you can sign up to my mailing list.

Ashes of the Ancestors, my novella about ghosts, history, and tradition is almost ready to hit the shelves. There’s still time to pre-order the book and get it as soon as it comes out on 7 February. And if you’re wondering whether it might be for you, or if you want to find out a bit more, here are a few things you might enjoy…

  • Runalong the Shelves has a great review of Ashes, digging into the themes the novella explores. Matt’s recommendations have never steered me wrong in the past, so I was really pleased to see how much he enjoyed my book.
  • Over on The Fine-toothed Comb, expert editor Dion gave me space to talk about history as editing and how that connects to Ashes.
  • And last night, the book launch video for this set of Luna Press Publishing novellas went live. You can watch me and five other fabulous authors talk about our books and read scenes from them, to give you a taste of what you’re getting into. The other books are so good, I’d be recommending this even if I wasn’t part of it.

Only eleven more days! I’m very excited. Ashes of the Ancestors is the best thing I’ve had out so far, a fantasy story about an imagined past that I think speaks to our present, a story about tradition, choices, and how we move forward with history’s hand on our shoulder. If that sounds like your thing, then you can pre-order it at all these links:

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook

Author wielding his books and grinning.

It’s a busy week by my standards, as two articles about my work have sprung up in the past few days.

First, there’s an interview about my upcoming novella Ashes of the Ancestors over at the Scifi and Fantasy Network. I had a fun time talking about writing life, history, & the literary importance of Winnie the Pooh.

Second, I’ve written an article about ghostwriting for Canadian genre magazine On Spec. This is the article that my previous Q&A was leading to, and provides a more detailed and coherent dive into what it means to be a ghostwriter in the modern market. It covers the nature of the work and how to get into it, so if that’s something you’re curious about, then check it out.

And if, after all of that, you’d like to see more from me, Ashes of the Ancestors is out in just a few weeks. It’s a fantasy story about memory, empire, and grappling with the past, and you can find links to preorder it over here.

The cover of Ashes of the Ancestors

In a haunted monastery at the heart of a crumbling empire, a lone priest tends the fires for the dead. A servant bound by the bones of her family, Magdalisa is her people’s last link to the wisdom of the past.

But as the land around them dies, new arrivals throw the monastery into turmoil. A dead warlord demanding recognition. Her rival, seizing the scraps of power. Two priests, both claiming to serve the spirits, both with their own agendas.

As ancient shadows struggle for the soul of an empire, Magdalisa must decide how far she will go to keep tradition alive.

My novella, Ashes of the Ancestors, is now available to pre-order. A fantasy story about tradition and our relationship with the past, Ashes of the Ancestors is far and away the best thing I’ve produced so far, and you should obviously go grab a copy. It comes out alongside five other novellas from fantastic speculative fiction authors, which you can read about here.

Pre-orders really help a book to make a splash when it comes out, and are a great way of supporting not just authors but independent presses like Luna, so if this sounds like your sort of thing, please consider clicking on the links to pre-order it at assorted places. Think of the book as a gift to your future self, to be delivered on 7 February…

Me grinning like an idiot while holding my author copies

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook

And just to prove that they’re real, here I am, getting excited about my author copies.

Happy reading!

Ashes of the Ancestors book cover

In a haunted monastery at the heart of a crumbling empire, a lone priest tends the fires for the dead. A servant bound by the bones of her family, Magdalisa is her people’s last link to the wisdom of the past.

But as the land around them dies, new arrivals throw the monastery into turmoil. A dead warlord demanding recognition. Her rival, seizing the scraps of power. Two priests, both claiming to serve the spirits, both with their own agendas.

As ancient shadows struggle for the soul of an empire, Magdalisa must decide how far she will go to keep tradition alive.

Exciting news – I now have a cover and a release schedule for my upcoming novella, Ashes of the Ancestors. A fantasy story about memory and tradition, Ashes of the Ancestors will be released by Luna Press Publishing in February 2023, along with five other fantastic novellas. You can read more about all of the books here, and I’ll provide details of where you can order the book nearer the time.

The hammering on the door repeated, followed by a furious voice.

“Open up, in the name of the holy inquisition!”

Diego Ortiz stumbled through the bookshop, pulling up his britches as he went. There was just enough light for him to see without a candle, but in his rush he collided with the corner of a table and came away with a throbbing shin.

“Open up, Señor Ortiz!” The hammering persisted.

“I’m trying, I’m trying!”

Diego yanked the bar back from the door and pulled it open. In the street stood three robed priests, like wise men come to visit the stable, and behind them three armed men, who looked a lot less wise. The sun had barely begun to creep above the rooftops of Seville, and only the earliest of roosters had yet saluted the dawn.

“You are Diego Ortiz, the bookseller?” one of the priests asked.

“I am.”

“Father Alvaro de Fuentes. I am here to search your stock for heretical texts.”

“Couldn’t you wait an hour? As you can see, I’m not even dressed yet, and there’s been no time for—”

“We will not give you time to to hide crimes.” Father de Fuentes pushed past Diego, and his companions followed him. “You may fetch a shirt, but one of the guards will go with you.”

“You think I’m hiding heresies under my tunic?”

“Protestants are wily, Señor Ortiz. As long as Calvin keeps churning out his blasphemous texts, we must remain vigilant.”

The priests started pulling books off the shelves, piling them up in the middle of the room. Diego blanched at the rough treatment of his precious stock, then scurried off to finish dressing, a guard tramping after him.

By the time he returned, the shelves were virtually empty, the books a tumbled heap. One of the priests was tapping at the backs of shelves, testing for hiding places, while the other two examined the books.

“Is there anything you want to tell us?” Father de Fuentes asked, waving a volume of Tacitus.

“You shouldn’t find anything amiss,” Diego said. “And if you do, I can hardly be blamed. We haven’t seen an updated banned books index in years. If you would just—”

“Protestantism is heresy, your thin claim to technical ignorance no excuse. So I say again, do you have anything you want to tell us?”

Diego clasped his hands tightly together and tried not to let his fear show. This moment could see his business ruined, or worse. Admission in advance might show cooperation, but there were no guarantees.

“No, Father,” he said. “There is nothing here that should trouble you.”

“Should is a weak word for a weak man. Let us see what other weaknesses this place holds.”

De Fuentes read the spine of the book in his hand, snorted, and set it aside, the beginnings of a second heap. Together, he and his brothers began checking the titles, while Diego watched them nervously and the guards watched Diego. Every so often, one of the priests would hold out a book for the others to check, or they would compare a title with one on a list. Twice, Diego had to explain the difference between a book in his possession and one with a similar title by a wildly different author.

“Is there something in particular you’re looking for?” he asked, trying to calm himself by treating them like just one more group  of customers.

“Certainly not.” De Fuentes tossed a Catalan romance onto the checked pile, and Diego winced as the book landed open, pages buckling, its corner scratching the cover of a poetry collection.

“Could you please take a little more care with my books?”

De Fentes scowled at him. “Souls are at stake. I would expect a good Catholic to value that above mere material goods. Unless, of course, there’s something you’re not telling us…”

“No, no, you carry on. I’ll just…” Diego wiped his palms on his tunic, leaving a sweaty smear. “I’ll just wait.”

At last, the priests finished checking all the books. De Fuentes put his list away and waved to the guards.

“We’re done here.”

“You’re not going to put them back?” Diego asked, pointing at the books.

De Fuentes glared. “Be grateful that you still have them all. This has gone very differently for others.”

Diego waited until the priests and their guards were gone, then sank to the floor next to his poor, abused books. He slumped, then laughed shakily. Rummaging around in the bottom of the heap, he pulled out a volume labelled as Tacitus’s Histories, then flicked through until he found a second title page. Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin, the title proclaimed. Diego turned the page and started to read. If it was worth all this, then it must really be worth reading.

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

The Pace of Reading

Posted: June 15, 2020 in reading
Tags: ,

I’ve noticed a weird thing with the way I read lately – I always seem to speed up near the end of a book. It’s not that I’m skim-reading or rushing it and missing the detail, I just seem to be more enthused and more likely to keep reading the further along I go. I don’t know whether it’s being keener once I’m engaged in the content, or if I’ve got hooked on the satisfaction of putting a completed book away on the shelf. It’s kind of nice for the second half,  as I tear through books with a sense of glee, but the flip side is when I’m a little way in, not getting very far, and part of my brain checks out because it wants to cut straight to the final rush. It can make getting started on a new book feel more like work than it should.

Do you have any patterns like this to how you read? Are you a completionist who has to finish once they start something, a ten-books-at-a-time reader, or find your reading patterns shaped in some other odd way? Leave a comment, reassure me that I’m not the only one acting up.

Context changes everything. Reading Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve found that one disaster has added to my experience of another.

The Alienation of Disaster

First published in 2015, Seveneves is a massive novel set in the near future. Within the first few pages, the Moon explodes. As people reel from this staggering change, a greater disaster looms. The pieces of the Moon crash against each other, creating a cloud of debris that will, within a few years, fall upon the Earth and wipe out all life.

In the face of annihilation, humanity must decide what can be saved, and how. Frantic effort and incredible ingenuity are poured into getting people into orbit, with the resources they will need to survive in space and to rebuild civilisation. The book explores both the scientific challenges of this disaster and the human side of the equation – how people react under terrible pressure.

If you’re reading this now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I probably don’t need to tell you why that’s resonated so much with me. We’re facing an incredible crisis in which scientists are rushing to find solutions while society struggles with the combined strains of fear, grief, and isolation. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s not life as we know it either.

There’s a sense of alienation to current circumstances that runs like a thread of barbed wire through Seveneves, tearing at the reader. The space-based survivors of the disaster are the lucky ones, but their lives are nothing like they knew or expected. They’re cut off from family and friends, confined in space, not knowing what the future holds. Living through our current crisis has made that feel much more real.

Losing Control

Loss of control is always difficult to cope with, and it’s another way in which my reading of Seveneves has been transformed by current conditions.

There’s very little I can do about COVID-19. I’m social distancing and washing my hands a lot, but that’s it. I’m not a medical professional or involved in supporting them. I can do nothing to treat or stop the disease.

Even among people on the front lines, many will be feeling a sense of powerlessness. Supplies are short and promises of delivery unreliable. Tracking and containing the spread of the disease has proved difficult at best. There is no cure yet. Medical staff can help individual patients and they’re saving countless lives that way, but the big picture is outside their control.

There’s a similar feeling of powerlessness at play in Seveneves. For all of humanity’s efforts, the wrong lump of rock could fatally undermine the survival effort. The ill-considered actions of a few people can undo the good work of others. The characters can influence events but no-one has control over their own life, and that’s a big part of the feeling we’re all experiencing right now.

The Human Side of Natural Disaster

All of that has given me emotional reference points with which to process Seveneves, adding to my experience of the book and the immediacy of its story, but one specific point has rung true in a way that Stephenson can’t possibly have predicted. That point has spoilers for midway through the book, so if you want to avoid them, skip to the next header.

All clear? Then let’s talk about the president.

Julia Bliss Flaherty, the President of the United States of America, is one of the most important characters in Seveneves. As humanity is dying, she breaks the rules for who gets to survive, effectively stealing a space flight to save her own skin. Traumatised, powerless, and desperate, she uses her demagogic gifts to stir up some of the survivors against their scientifically informed leaders. She fosters terrible and unnecessary division to make herself important. Her actions add to the disaster.

If your political views are anything like mine, then by this point you’ve drawn the obvious comparison. Julia is a Trump-like president created before we ever dreamed he would get the job, never mind react to this crisis the way he has done. A character who would have seemed extreme if I’d read this a few years ago now seems all too plausible.

But Julia represents something wider as well. She’s a reminder that natural disasters are never just about nature. The scale of loss in any famine, flood, or plague will always depend on the structures of society and the way people react. We have ways to minimise disasters, but our social, economic, and political structures often exacerbate them. Just look at the Irish potato famine to see how that works.

While none of us can individually control the spread of COVID-19, collective human action is affecting how deadly it is. Swift responses in South Korea and New Zealand have minimised the disease’s impact in those countries. Global inequalities will almost certainly lead to a devastating death toll in sub-Saharan Africa. In every country, we can see examples of how no disaster is purely a natural event.

Recovery

This might make it sound like Seveneves is a terrible thing to read right now. Sure, it has greater emotional power, but it’s a bleak read in a time when the world already seems bleak enough.

Except that there’s more to it than that. The cover blurb itself states that this is also a story about recovery, about how humanity rebuilds thousands of years later. The final third of the book jumps forward to a very different society, in which the new humanity is resettling Earth.

This is the part that’s hard to see from the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic – recovery. Yes, this disaster is hideous, the loss of life unbearable, the emotional and social trauma immense. We’ll be recovering from this for years to come. But we will recover. We’ll rebuild. And while life will never be like it was before the crisis, it will become bright again.

For two-thirds of the book, current circumstances have shed light on Seveneves for me, adding depth to the emotional experience. But for the final third, it’s the book that’s shedding light on the current crisis, giving me a reminder of what is to come, a sense of hope in terrible times.

Context changes the way we read, but our reading can change the context too.

Social distancing has given me a chance to do more reading, which has turned into a mixed blessing. The books in my to-read pile have all proved excellent, but boy are they bleak choices for troubled times.

First up, as I discussed last week, there was Cage of Souls by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s a dense, engrossing novel about a prisoner at the tail end of human civilisation, a man trying to get by as the world collapses around him. There’s even a section where he’s locked up alone. Definitely no bleak parallels with the present there…

Once I got through that, I read another of Tchaikovsky’s books, a new novella titled Firewalkers. It’s set in an environmentally ravaged future in which the rich are escaping into space, leaving the poor to die. I read that one just as stories were emerging of politicians making investment choices based on coronavirus while not acting to prevent it. Apparently people really are jerks like that.

And now I’m onto Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, which begins with the moon exploding and so dooming human life on Earth. It’s well written, crammed full of fascinating detail, and at 861 pages it should keep me entertained through a lot of time alone, but blimey, it is no way to escape the bleakness.

Is there a message to all of this? Well, I suppose there’s “be careful what you wish for” – I wanted more time to read and now I’ve got it. But once I’m done with this lot, I think it’ll be time to head back into an old, comforting favourite. Winnie the Pooh is calling me from the bookshelf, and I know he’s got nothing sad to say.

I might as well begin with a jaunt on the river; sounds jolly enough, no?
– Adrian Tchaikovsky, Cage of Souls

I could write for days about Cage of Souls, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s novel about a prisoner in a dying civilisation. I could discuss its inversion of Heart of Darkness, how it plays with prison drama tropes, what it takes to build a dying world. But instead I want to talk about one thing – how perfectly Tchaikovsky sets up the book.

Stefan Advani, Most Unreliable of Narrators

Set in the distant future, Cage of Souls is told from the point of view of Stefan Advani. We first meet Stefan on a boat heading for prison through an ungovernable swamp. As the story progresses, we learn more about Stefan’s past and his experiences in the prison, all seen through the filter of his perceptions. And as the book makes clear from the beginning, Stefan is not a reliable narrator.

“Where to begin?” Those are the very first words of the first chapter, and they set the tone for Stefan’s narrative. He’s making choices about what to tell us, in what order, and how to tell it. He’s framing the story to his own ends. He doesn’t even care whether we see him as reliable, sarcastically introducing his river trip as a jolly jaunt. He’d rather be seen as erudite than as honest.

This sets the tone for everything that follows. Stefan recounts his adventures as if they were true, but as readers we can never trust him. Another character even calls him out on this near the end of the book, accusing him of misrepresenting them. And the nature of Stefan’s unreliability tells us a lot about his character and what he values, including both his intelligence and his public image.

Stefan cannot be trusted, and the very first page makes that clear.

The Tension of Subjects

In a certain sense, this is also a book that can’t be trusted. For over a hundred pages, it dwells in the prison where Stefan is held. It builds up a claustrophobic drama about life in this one dreadful place, like some sort of post-apocalyptic Oz. But it’s not really about that one place. It’s about the whole of human society, in a future where that society seems on the brink of death. It’s a story that embraces Stefan’s whole world.

That tension between the immediate and wider subjects of the book is again set up on the first page. Stefan contemplates the topics he could start with – a criminal underworld, a rioting crowd, a parched and deadly desert. By offering up these possibilities and then snatching them away, Tchaikovsky hints at a much wider world and makes us want to know more about it. We’re sat waiting for the next 130 pages, stuck in prison while knowing that there’s a wider world to see, just like Stefan.

That introduction to other topics holds out a promise of what’s to come, and it’s a very important promise. If a book changes tack partway through, this can throw readers. Whether they like the new subject or not, they may feel confused and frustrated that the story is no longer what they expected. It’s possible to avoid that sensation by foreshadowing what’s to come.

Game of Thrones has perhaps the most famous example of this. Before heading into a grim, grounded story of political intrigue, George R R Martin provides a single encounter with something fantastic and monstrous. It’s easy to forget that chapter once you’re drawn into the story, but it puts a pin in the map, a marker that says “here be dragons, and they be coming back later”. It gives us reason to believe that there’s more to Westeros, and primes us for high fantasy elements to come.

The start of Cage of Souls does the same thing. It prepares readers for later sections of the book, when Stefan’s story will roam outside the prison. It creates tension, expectation, and an acceptance of what’s coming later.

Distance

Distance is one of the key themes of Cage of Souls. The distance between Stefan’s world and ours, between the prison and the city, between society’s wealthy and the criminal gangs living underground. And of course the psychological distance between very different characters and communities.

There’s a sense of distance in the way the story is told. By talking directly to us on the first page, Stefan doesn’t bring us closer. Instead, he creates a greater awareness of his presence as an intermediary. The book holds us at arm’s length, and those arms belong to Stefan. Though Tchaikovsky’s writing style creates moments of incredible immediacy, sucking us into action scenes and confrontations, he always comes back to Stefan eventually, holding us away.

That sense of distance is reinforced by the way Stefan relates to events. He misses many of the most important incidents in the book, and only survives because of that absence – this is the story of a dying civilisation, and our narrator lives by narrowly missing its death throes. He sees their aftermath or passes on the accounts of others – of course retold, removing any risk that they might be entirely true.

This distance reinforces something that could easily be missed – that Stefan isn’t really the protagonist. There are many scenes where he’s just the observer to others’ struggles, from the power plays of gangs to a deadly duel. Even in the overarching narrative, this isn’t really Stefan’s story. It’s the story of his civilisation, and he’s just the eyes we see it through. Though a reader can’t see this at the start, it’s all set up in that detached tone.

Decay

Cage of Souls is a story about decay. This is signalled in the descriptions of the first scene – an antique boat, festering jungle, ragged and stinking prisoners. A page and a half in, the word “decay” itself has already cropped up. The choice of where to start, a choice made within the book by Stefan and around it by Tchaikovsky, sets the tone for everything to come. Even though we won’t see what passes for civilisation for over a hundred pages, its rot is there from the start.

As I said at the beginning, I could write for days about this book. Fortunately, I don’t need to. The keys to the story are there from the start.