Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

Spring almost killed us. It came early, a welcome but unexpected guest who coaxed the crops into life a month before their time. But no sooner had it placed a foot across the threshold than spring withdrew, leaving us in the icy embrace of winter. Those first shoots of precious green faltered, their tentative life force fading. Even when spring returned in full enthusiasm, the plants lay limp and pale.

No sooner had the fear of starvation sunk in than old Mags offered an alternative.

“Nature has lost its rhythm,” she said. “We must give it ours.”

For two days, we set aside pitchforks and ploughs in favour of hammers and saws, building a dance floor out among the fields. We decorated it with dried flowers and bunting and set up a platform for the band. When it was done, every one of us put on our best clothes and gathered beneath a star-dappled sky.

“Remember,” Mags said as she led us onto the floor, “everything must be silent. No chatter, no singing, no music.” She looked pointedly at the band. “The rhythm is not for us, not until the magic is complete.”

While the band took their nervous place on the platform, the rest of us found partners and formed a silent circle. Mags nodded to the band.

They started uncertainly. The drummer twitched his sticks an inch above the skin. The lute player strummed thin air. The flautist set his mouth to the lip plate but kept breathing through his nose. They looked nervously at each other, struggling to find their place without sound, but slowly some spirit took hold. They started grinning and miming with greater confidence.

The band leader gave a nod.

As one, we surged forward into the circle, following the memories of music. The only sounds were the swish of cotton and the scrape of leather-soled shoes against the floor. We paced and twirled, spun our partners in our arms, swapped pairings and began again. Like the band, we started to feel the rhythm.

There was no break between the songs, no time to rest. For hours we danced, as the evening darkened into night and then lightened again. We danced until our feet were sore and our legs weary, until our stifled laughter no longer threatened to break free. We danced as we had never danced before – silent, desperate, pleading with the world to acknowledge us.

The fields around us began to rustle. Stalks shifted as if in the wind, and as dawn approached we could see that the crops were stiffening, their leaves darkening, buds bursting into life.

We looked expectantly to Mags for the signal that it was over, but she shook her head and stared pointedly across the land. By the first light of day, we saw that our magic had barely touched half the fields, that the rhythm of nature still lay broken.

We danced on, though our heels were blistered and our bodies trembling. The band kept up their silent music, though their faces were drawn and their movements limp.

Then Mags stumbled, an easy thing to do on rough boards and old legs. The rhythm faltered. Around us the plants slumped.

I saw what had to happen. I lunged across the circle, took Mags by the waist, and swung her around, skirts flying, a wild move from the old dances. I shot an urgent look at the dancer behind me, a silent and desperate plea.

Imitating my move, she pranced across the circle, slipped her arm around another dancer’s partner, and swept them off their feet. Others followed, one by one, racing across the floor to form new pairs in a wild and delirious dance, feet flying and bodies soaring as the drummer beat faster at the air.

A new rhythm had taken us, and it took the crops too. They surged into life, grew stronger and straighter, leaves turning bright green as the sun shone down. That rhythm rippled out across the fields, an emerald circle that grew with every passing moment until the whole world seemed full of life.

“Now,” Mags whispered. “We’re done.”

I set her feet down, but I didn’t stop dancing. I stamped my foot and twirled her about, laughing in joy. The lute-player strummed her strings, the drummer brought his sticks down, and suddenly the world was full of music.

We danced on, laughing and singing and celebrating, while around us life took hold.

***

 

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By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

Aunt Hella rushed up the road to our front step, where father and I were fixing fishing nets. “Come quick, Tommar,” she said. “Something’s happened to Lestin.” I leapt to my feet, hooked like a fish by the tone of dread with which she said mother’s name. Father and Hella rushed down the street, clogs clattering against the cobbles, and I ran barefoot after them, over the bridge where the river ran red from the big city die works, through town and down to the quay. Mother’s boat sat at anchor a dozen yards off shore. It shouldn’t have been. She had sailed out on the tide just after dawn, heading away from the murky waters by the river mouth, towards the distant waters where the big shoals of cod swam. We had seen her more when the waters were cleaner and her days shorter, but as father said, we all have to make sacrifices. People were swimming in the water around the boat. One of them flipped over and I saw his tail rise from the waves. Merfolk.
A mermaid was swimming towards the quay. My heart beat so hard it hurt. The merfolk seldom came to shore, except when they rescued boats lost in storms or sailors fallen overboard. They preferred to live separate from us. But this mermaid wore a look of anger, not pity. “We have taken the people from your boat,” she said. “Why?” my father asked, clutching the leather marriage band around his wrist. “We will keep them until you make the water clean again. If it becomes any dirtier, we will start to kill them.” “We’re not making the water dirty!” “Yes you are.” The mermaid pointed towards the red running from the river mouth. “That’s not us. That’s the dyers in the big city. Please, don’t hurt our families for this.” “Humans did this. Humans must fix it.” “But we’re innocent!” “No.” The mermaid pointed angrily at him. “You accept this so that you can have your coloured cloth skins. You accept this so that the city will buy your fish. You are not innocent, and our children are sickening from this filth. If ours suffer because of humans, humans will suffer too.” As she swam away I felt like a mouse caught in the claws of a hawk. They had my mother. They were going to kill her. I ran to the edge of the quay and leapt off. My father shouted in alarm, but I was already in the water, the splash of my landing drawing the mermaid’s attention. She watched as I swam towards her with a child’s clumsy strokes, my simple smock clinging to my skin. “Please!” I said, spluttering through the water as it rose over my mouth. “Let my mother go. We can’t fix this. She didn’t do this.” “Neither did we.” “Send a message to the people who did!” “That’s what we’re doing.” She turned and swam away, far faster than I could follow. My father grabbed me from behind, hooked his arm around my chest, and dragged me kicking and weeping towards the shore. That day, as I stood dripping on the docks amid the silence of a stunned community, I swore that I would get my mother back, no matter what it took. For weeks my father watched warily, half expecting me to swim off out to sea on some fool rescue mission. But I knew better. The merfolk were right. This wasn’t their fault. It had to be fixed on land. I stopped skipping school to earn pennies sweeping up fish guts. I spent summer evenings with pen and paper, practising my words. I wrote letters to the dyers, then when they wouldn’t listen to the big city councillors. When a newspaper started, I wrote to them too. A year passed. The water was no cleaner or more dirty. Once a month, grim-faced merfolk brought greetings from our kidnapped kin, a reminder of what was at stake. Our fishermen started takes weapons with them to sea. I roamed the coast, rallying support in other towns and villages, people who understood the anguish of losing family to the sea and who saw the merfolk’s pain. More years passed. We formed an association, wrote a petition, raised funds to pay for a lawyer. Still nothing changed. And then, last week, the river ran black. The worst was happening. We still had funds in our collection. I went to a friend who works at the quarry and bought all the blasting powder I could. Perhaps the people at the die works are innocent. Perhaps they don’t understand what they’re doing to the sea, despite all the letters I’ve sent. Perhaps no-one has told them. Perhaps they don’t deserve what’s about to happen. But my town is innocent. My mother is innocent. The merfolk were innocent until we poisoned their world. It’s never enough to say that something has to change. And so I say, I’m going to change it. *** 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. ***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution
A gladiator painting with manticore blood. A demon detective policing Hell. A ninja who can turn into shadow. Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories. Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats. From reader reviews: ‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews ‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’
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.

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High ResolutionI don’t get huge numbers of reviews, so I sometimes get over-excited when I receive one, especially one as glowingly positive as this recent review by Writerbee of By Sword, Stave or Stylus. To quote the start of the review, ‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ I really can’t complain about a review like that!

By Sword, Stave or Stylus is available as ebook via Amazon.

2901955081_8d6f4cb45f_zA good magic system or weird technology can really make a fantasy or steampunk setting. To try to do this better in my future writing, I’ve come up with five points to consider when creating such a system:

My Five Point Magic System Template

  1. Theme: What am I trying to do or express with this magic? Am I after something exciting, horrifying, humorous? Do I want to use it to explore love, art, vengeance, greed or some other issue? Whatever I pick, that will become prominent in any story using this system.
  2. Cost: All magic and technology has to have a cost. If it doesn’t then it becomes a limitless resource that lets users do whatever they want. So what’s the cost? Do users become corrupted? Do they have limited magical reserves they use up? Must they spill blood or dig up ghost rock to power their machines?
  3. Limitations: What can this magic do, and what can’t it do? Being clear on this stops it becoming a deus ex machina that resolves every story situation in unsatisfying fashion. Knowing the limits means you can set them up early in your story.
  4. Who can do it? Usually, only a select group of people can access the magic of a setting. So who are these people? Is it everyone who trained at the University of Making Things Go Bang? Is it all ginger people? Do you have to be blessed by the Empress to have magical power?
  5. Rules: Points 2-4 are the most important rules for a magic system, but there will be others. Circumstances in which it does and doesn’t work. Taboos around its use. How it looks when it happens. Knowing the rules gives you limitations to explore, boundaries to encourage creativity, and are what separate a system from just hand waving away your characters’ problems.

How About You?

Can you think of other things I should consider when creating magic and technology systems for fiction? Do you have your own list? Share your thoughts in the comments.

I’ve been looking forward to reading Guns of the Dawn since listening to its author Adrian Tchaikovsky read from it at FantasyCon last year. Combining black powder fantasy with a war story and an exploration of gender roles, it hits a lot of themes that interest me. And as it turned out, it was even more interesting than I expected.

Revolutionary War is Hell

Guns of the Dawn is set in a fantasy world with late 18th century technology and politics, in which one nation has overthrown its monarchy in a bloody revolution and its neighbour is invading in defence of the old order. As the war against revolutionary Denland grinds brutally on, neighbouring Lascanne is running out of soldiers to fight with. Emily Marshwic becomes part of a first wave of female conscripts, desperately trying to defend their country from their regicidal neighbours.

Except that, as the cover says, ‘the first casualty is always the truth’, and the rights and wrongs of this conflict are far from clear.

Half the book’s action takes place in a brutal battle for control of a stretch of swamp. It’s a good example of fantasy world building that draws from different parts of history, with the technology of the Napoleonic Wars, the exhausting jungle warfare of Vietnam, and the issues of mass conscription that marked the First World War. This jamming together of historical elements shows one of the great advantages of using fantasy over historical fiction – looking at how elements from different historical periods might combine. It’s a great piece of world building, and really hammers home the horrors of war.

Now for Some Jane Austen

The dark experience at the heart of the book is made all the more striking for being framed by Emily’s pre- and post-war experience. Hers is a genteel life like something out of Jane Austen, leaving her unprepared to become a soldier. As well as making the war all the darker by contrast, this acts as a reminder that such a privileged life is often made possible only by the suffering and struggles of others.

Jane Austen’s characters existed in the same world where Napoleon was conquering most of Europe. These two elements, often seen apart, combine to make a fascinating contrast.

Dawn of the Guns

There are plenty of other things about this book that I could enthuse about. The characters follow familiar tropes, but are given enough depth to make them enjoyably familiar rather than tedious clichés. The way magic fits into the social and political hierarchy hints at some fascinating possibilities. The atmosphere of the the military campaign, and the psychology of people unable to face the truth, are brought vividly to life.

But one of my favourite details is a technological one. During the fighting in the swamps it becomes clear that the Denlanders have special guns which are giving them an advantage. When the truth eventually comes out it’s a clever use of real historical technology, showing how researching the real world can make imagined worlds stronger.

The growing trend for black powder fantasy, combining gunpowder technology with magic, is creating a tiny pocket sub-genre that I consider particularly awesome – French Revolution-inspired fantasy. True, it’s not a full-blown trend – I’ve stumbled across two writers doing it so far – but I’m really hoping I get to see more.

At the moment I’m reading Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s a story of warfare similar to that between France and her neighbours under the revolutionary government. As the war against revolutionary Denland grinds brutally on, Emily Marshwic becomes part of a first wave of female conscripts, desperately trying to defend Lascanne from the nation’s regicidal neighbours. There are touches of Vietnam war story in here as well, lots of questions about the rights and wrongs of war, and a strong cast of characters. It’s a fantastic read.

Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood, the first in his Powdermage Trilogy, looks at revolution from the other side. A despotic government has just been overthrown, and the rebels must now try to establish order even as they face invasion by their neighbours. Most intriguingly it takes the traditional European belief that kings were divinely appointed and runs with it, asking what would happen after the revolution if the king really were tied to divine powers. There are some fascinating ideas here, and though not quite as gripping as Guns of the Dawn, it’s still an enjoyable story of politics and bloodshed.

You could also argue for including Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series in this selection. After all, it’s the Napoleonic wars with dragons, and without the revolution there is no Napoleon. Again, I like these books, but they lack the thing that’s made me really pay attention to the others – an exploration of how revolutions work out, or don’t, when you throw fantastical elements into the mix.

I love seeing fantasy get beyond its usual sword-wielding or urban fantasy territory and play with elements from other time periods. Now I’m hoping for lots more revolutionary fantasy – if you know of any, let me know in the comments.