Posts Tagged ‘religion’

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.

***

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***

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.

Our local guides cried out in alarm as they walked into the clearing.

Image by sipa from Pixabay

“What have you done?” Bor exclaimed.

“It’s a campfire,” I explained. “We use it to—”

“Not that!” Bor snatched up the python skin, all thirty blood-slicked feet of it, and held it out, his hands trembling. “This!”

“Quite a beast, isn’t it?” I patted my belly. “We caught it by surprise at it slithered into the clearing. It’s fed us well, and with enough left over for several days.”

“You monsters!” Bor drew his shortsword, firelight burnishing the bronze blood red, and shouted at the top of his voice. “The travellers have killed God!”

I grabbed my bow, and my companions followed, snatching up a sword, an axe, a crossbow. But locals were pouring out of the forest, and though their furs were ragged and their weapons simple, they outnumbered us ten to one.

“There’s been a misunderstanding.” I lowered my weapon and raised my hands. “You said that this clearing would provide for us, and when the snake appeared…”

“He has provided for his people for a hundred generations.” Bor’s face was pale. “Since the day he ate his brother, took his power, and became God.”

“I’m sorry. We didn’t understand.”

“There must be justice.”

“Of course.” I knelt and opened my saddlebags, glad that we had brought plenty of gold and other trade goods. The risk of being robbed was nothing next to the risk of being unprepared. I held out a handful of coins. “A hundred, perhaps? Two hundred?”

“You think you can buy justice?”

At a nod from Bor, two of his people pinned my arms behind my back. Around the clearing, my companions were held tight where they stood, their weapons flung out of reach.

“There must be blood.” The tip of Bor’s sword touched my throat, gentle as a traitor’s kiss, while he readied himself to strike.

“Please, it was an accident!” I tried to keep my voice steady, but it was hard to die with dignity when I so desperately wanted to live. My stomach was tying itself in a knot. “Where’s the justice in killing me for that?”

“Where is the justice in letting a deicide live?”

My guts squirmed, and I struggled not to shit myself. Fear was making an infant out of me.

Then the snake skin moved, scales rippling as it slid away from the fire. Bor sank to his knees as the hollowed out beast raised its head, empty eye holes staring from the space where a skull had been.

“You killed me,” said a voice that rattled like dead leaves in the winter wind. “But I killed my brother when the world was young and took his power for myself. I am a killer of gods, and I will easily kill you.”

“Yes, my lord!” Bor cried out, and his people cheered with him. “Punish the transgressor!”

The writhing in my gut spread through my body. Muscles trembled and skin crawled. My bones cracked and twisted. I cried out in pain. My punishment had come.

“What is this?” the God asked.

My clothes fell away, no longer fitting me. My arms slid from my captors’ grasp, then dissolved into the sides of my chest. Scales burst through my skin as realisation burst through my mind.

“I ate you,” I hissed, forked tongue flickering. “As you ate your brother. I am the God of this place now.”

I shot across the clearing and grasped the old God, wrapping him in my coils. He cried out in anger, but it was too late. I tightened my grip, exhilarating in the movement of muscles I had never known. My opponent crumpled. At last, I flung his empty skin into the campfire and watched as it withered in the flames.

The locals were on their knees, chanting my praises. My travelling companions, freed of their grasp, snatched up weapons and saddlebags, ready to make an escape.

“Can you ride like that?” One of them asked, looking up at me in admiration. “Or do you want to stick around for a bit, see what we can get out of this?”

I slithered across the clearing and wrapped my coils around him.

“I am God,” I said. “What do you have to offer me, little man?”

***

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***

Silver and Gold

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 is available as an ebook from Amazon or through the publisher’s website.

Image by bassoon12345 from Pixabay

Liza wandered awe-struck through Lady Sarah’s house. It was more like a palace than a house, with a dozen rooms at least, most with their own fireplaces, fancy carved furniture and rugs on the walls. There was even glass in the windows, though not in the kitchen where Liza’s mother was talking with the steward. Glass was only for the richest people.

Liza walked quietly. She wasn’t meant to leave the servants’ rooms, but she couldn’t resist coming to see the glass, like squares of perfectly clear ice, rows of them filling each window.

She walked through a doorway and saw a man in a black dress standing by a fireplace, talking with Lady Sarah. There was a hole in the wall behind him, where a wood panel normally stood.

“Hello, who are you?” the man said, crouching to look at Liza.

“Oh God, the brewer’s daughter.” Lady Sarah’s hand darted across her chest like she was sewing four giant stitches. “What’s she doing here?”

“It’s alright.” The man smiled at Liza, and she almost believed that he was happy to see her. “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.”

“But the family aren’t—”

“What’s your name, young mistress?”

“I’m Liza.” She finally remembered to curtsy. Doing that felt fun. “Or Elizabeth.”

“Like the Queen.”

Liza smiled. The Queen’s house must be a lot like this one.

“What do we do now, Father?” Lady Sarah’s voice trembled. “If Topcliffe questions the girl we’re all undone.”

“We will carry on with our game,” the man said. “That’s what we’re doing here, Liza, playing a game. I’m hiding from some friends, who are looking all over the country for me. You wouldn’t spoil the game by telling them where I am, would you?”

Liza shook her head. “No, sir.”

“Not even if they ask very nicely?”

“No, sir.”

“Or if they ask very meanly?” He scowled comically.

Liza laughed. The man was far friendlier than Lady Sarah, who stared at her like a dog that might bite.

“No, sir.”

“Then I think we will be alright. God would not send an innocent to do the devil’s work.” The man walked into the hole in the wall, then turned and waved. “Goodbye, Liza.”

The wood panel swung into place and the hole was gone. Liza curtsied, then ran away before Lady Sarah could tell her off.

#

Liza was in the kitchen of the big house, watching her mother argue money with Lady Sarah’s steward, when men burst in with muskets, clubs, and swords. The fiercest of them wore armour on his chest and a fancy hat with a feather.

Liza’s mother pulled her close, holding on so tight that her fingers dug into Liza’s shoulder. The steward spluttered, but was silenced by a slap from the armoured man. Liza buried her face in her mother’s skirts, wishing that the men would go away.

“Spread out,” the armoured man said. “Search every nook and cranny. I’m not letting that damnable priest slip through my fingers again.”

“This is an outrage,” the steward said.

Liza opened her eyes a crack. Two men had the steward pinned against the wall, but the armoured man was looking at Liza’s mother, and that made her really scared.

“Where’s the priest?” he asked.

“I’m here on business,” her mother said. “We’re good Protestant folk, and I don’t know anything about a priest.”

“If you’re such a good Protestant, what are you doing in this den of papists?”

“Their money’s as good as anyone’s.”

“Good for buying silence, I’d wager.” The man’s eyes narrowed as he stepped closer, then looked down at Liza. “I bet you see things, don’t you, child?”

Liza tried to curtsy, but her legs wobbled and she almost fell. The man laughed.

“Do you know what a Catholic is?” he asked.

Liza remembered the church bells ringing the year before, and people telling stories about Spaniards, ships, and storms. The Catholics in those stories were terrible foreigners coming to kill the Queen.

“Bad men,” she said.

“That’s right. And one of them is hiding in this house. Have you seen him?”

That didn’t make sense. The man she had seen was friendly. He couldn’t be one of these Catholic devils. And besides, he had asked her not to tell.

She shook her head.

“Have you seen anything strange here?” The man took hold of her mother’s chin and tipped her head from side to side, staring into her eyes. The trembling of her mother’s hand passed into Liza’s shoulder. “Remember, bad things can happen when you lie.”

Liza didn’t want to tell the angry man about the friendly man. She had promised that she wouldn’t even if he asked meanly. But she had never seen her mother scared before, and that made her more frightened than she had ever been.

“There’s a man in the wall,” she whispered.

#

Liza watched through a veil of tears as the men smashed the wood panel with axes. The friendly man didn’t look scared as they dragged him out, not like Liza’s mother or Lady Sarah or any of Lady Sarah’s friends, who stood by one wall, swords pointing at them.

The man in armour had a terrible smile.

Lady Sarah stared furiously at Liza, but when the friendly man saw her, he only nodded and smiled a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Liza wailed.

“Don’t be,” the friendly man said. “None of this is your fault. Besides, I’m going to a better place.”

Liza hoped that place was a palace, like the one the Queen lived in. She hoped it had rugs on the wall, carved chairs, and those perfect squares of glass in the windows. She hoped the friendly man would be happy, no matter what a Catholic was.

***

During the 16th century, attitudes to religion got pretty screwed up in England. Fear and anger led to a brief period when Protestants were oppressed by a Catholic government, then a much longer period when the Catholics were oppressed by Protestants. There were covert religious services, a secret printing press, and a long, deadly game of hide and seek as the authorities hunted down priests sent to England from abroad. Those priests hid in specially built hiding holes in the mansions of sympathetic nobles, only to be tortured and executed if they were caught. Richard Topcliffe, the only real named person in this story, was among the more fervent priest hunters, and by all accounts a nasty piece of work. If you want to learn more, check out God’s Secret Agents, a very readable history of the period by Alice Hogge.

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, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

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.

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

Sister Savrin set aside her tool belt and placed the chipped gearwheel reverently on the table in the corner of her cell. She closed her eyes, clasped her hands together, and bowed her head in a moment of prayer.

According to doctrine, as espoused by Mother Superior, this gearwheel was no longer a part of God, had not been since Savrin removed it from His great mechanism in the heart of the cathedral. The new, undamaged gearwheel was a part of God now, and would help in performing His divine calculations, while the old one was drained of divinity, mundane scrap to be discarded.

But those scraps made Sister Savrin feel closer to Him. The small spring that she carried in the folds of her shift was an anchor securing her soul through the storms that raged through her heart.

There was a knock on the door. She eased it open just a crack, and peered out at Mother Superior, craggy faced and frowning.

“Sister Savrin,” Mother Superior said. “May I come in?”

To say no would raise as many questions as it avoided. Could she put it off until she had time to come up with an excuse?

“I…” They had brought her into the order for her gift with machines, not with words.

“Sister Bonopass says that you haven’t been bringing scrap to the smelter after tending to His mechanisms. What have you been doing with it?”

“I…”

“You can’t go selling machine parts to the faithful as relics. That was what got Brother Castazzo into trouble, remember?”

“I haven’t…”

“Then there won’t be a problem. Now please let me in.”

That please was accompanied by the pressure of Mother Superior’s substantial boot against the bottom of the door. Savrin lacked the courage to resist authority with words; physical resistance was beyond unthinkable. She stepped back and bowed her head, ashamed, as the door swung open.

“Oh, Savrin.” Mother Superior stared at the pile of broken and rusted machine parts, Savrin’s own private chapel. She didn’t sound angry, just disappointed, but that made Savrin feel like an invisible key was winding her guts like a spring. “What is this?”

“It’s God,” she whispered.

“I’m sure I heard you wrong.”

“I said it’s God. I couldn’t bear to throw him out.”

“Savrin, this is not God. It is just some pieces of metal.”

“Of course it’s God!” Her voice rose, becoming to big for the stone-walled confines of the cell, spilling out like a tide into the corridors beyond. “God is perfect and his pieces are too, even if they’re broken. They came from inside him, and everything in God is divine. How could it stop being holy, just because it stopped moving?”

“Sister Savrin, you know this. God is in the whole, not the parts.”

“Parts make up the whole. My hand is me. My heart is me. My brain is me. I’m made up of pieces, and so is God.”

“God is a pattern, a process-”

“God is a mass of gears that spits out commandments. If those parts aren’t holy then nothing is.”

“Sister Savrin!” The Mother Superior looked appalled. Behind her, other brothers and sisters had gathered in the corridor, staring in shock at what they heard. “Are you denying His divinity?”

“If your rules are His rules, then yes I am!”

The brothers and sisters stared, white-faced. The only sound was the soft, distant thud of God’s master wheel, the heartbeat of all their lives.

“Sister Madack, Brother Jerroff,” Mother Superior called out, her face fixed in cold fury. Two burly siblings stepped out of the crowd. “Take Sister Savrin’s robes and escort her from the cathedral. She is done here. And call for Sister Bonopass to gather this scrap.”

Savrin wept as she was dragged from her cell and stripped down to sandals and shift. She had lived for years among the holy order, and now her whole life was being wrenched away. Some of them watched in silence as she was marched down the nave to the great iron doors. Others, some of them men and women she considered friends, jeered at her miserable fate. Then the doors swung open and she was cast out into the cold.

She stood stunned in the middle of the mud road, while passing strangers stared at her through the pouring rain. She had prayed so hard, but God had ignored her, let her be cast out on her own, while the fragments she had believed were relics were melted down to make nails.

Mother Superior was right. There was nothing divine in those pieces.

Mother Superior was wrong. There was no God at all.

Then Savrin felt something, wrapped in a fold of her shift. A rusty spring, its end twisted, a piece she had taken the first time she ever maintained the great machine. Touching it, she felt peace flow across her like the dawn, chasing away the shadows of fear and grief. Like the saints in old stories, she had been cast out by the ignorant, but God had left her a sign, a part of him that would travel with her.

Sister Savrin straightened her back, wiped the tears from her cheeks, and strode out into the world. Whatever storms raged, this small iron anchor would keep her soul secure.

***

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***

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

Image by katermikesch from Pixabay

The Reverend Hastings straightened his collar and pressed his hands together in a posture of prayer, fingers rising like a steeple above his supper plate. It was Friday, and so of course Mrs Abernathy, the housekeeper, had served him fish, in accordance with his own instructions and the traditional tenets by which a good Christian lived.

Mrs Abernathy had precise opinions on how fish should be served, opinions which the Reverend Hastings dared not defy, and as a result he found his dinner staring up at him, a beady eye glistening in the face of a whole cooked herring. He found the sight distasteful, but understood that this was fish as Christ himself would have seen it, shining in the nets on the shores of Galilee, and so he accepted it as one more providential source of inspiration for the prayers which would one day bring him a miracle.

The gleaming eye swivelled, the pit of its pupil staring straight at him.

The Reverend Hastings leapt back and his seat thudded to the floor. He pressed his hands to his chest and felt the racing of his heart as the fish twitched, then wriggled, then arched its back and leapt up to balance on its tail. Both eyes gazed down a pointed silver face towards him.

The Reverend Hastings’ alarm turned to exaltation as he realised what was taking place. He had always known that his faith, though less ardently expressed than that of the fiery modern evangelicals, was a tower of secret strength inside him. Now the Lord had recognised that faith.

“My miracle,” he whispered, sinking to his knees.

“Your miracle?” the fish asked. “Which of us has come back from the dead?”

“A talking fish! Truly, the Lord moves in mysterious ways. What message do you have for me?”

“What do you think I am, the postman?” The herring flexed its fins. “My message is for my own people.”

“Oh no.” The Reverend Hastings pushed himself back to his feet, from which to look down upon this obstinate son of the sea. “This is my miracle. It will prove to all the parish that I am worthy of their attention. It will be my loaves and fishes moment.”

“Loaves and fishes, eh?” The herring bobbed its head. “Let me try something.”

It spread its fins and made a melodious gurgling sound, like a mermaid’s song emerging from the depths of the ocean. The Reverend Hastings tingled from his smallest toe to the tips of his ears. Suddenly, another man appeared beside him, and another, and another, popping into existence one at a time until a score of them stood in a circle around the dining table. Every one looked exactly like him.

“How…?” twenty clergymen chorused, then clamped their hands to their mouths in alarm. “Why?” they murmured in unison, the words filtered through trembling fingers.

“Because I have a message for all herring kind,” the herring said, its voice somehow noble despite the flapping of its diminutive jaw. “And I’ve got to get their attention somehow – herring are very hard to please.”

The Reverends stared at each other with wide eyes. A talking fish no longer seemed so extraordinary.

“How do I know that I am the real me?” the Reverends Hastings asked, their voices wavering. “Which of us has been offering up prayers all these years? Which of us…” They swallowed, struggling to sustain themselves in the face of the next thought. “Which of us has our soul?”

“All of you, I suppose. Or none of you perhaps. It’s much the same thing.”

The Reverends shuddered. “Which is the real me? Which of us is this moment for?”

“Oh, I see.” The herring’s tone was rich with slowly dawning realisation. “You’re trying to draw a distinction that doesn’t exist. You are all just as much the Reverend Hastings as each other.”

“But then what makes me unique?” the Reverends asked, their limbs hanging as heavy as lead, their vision blurring with unshed tears.

“Maybe I have a message for you after all,” the herring said, hopping to the edge of its plate and from there down onto the floor. “Simply to live is a miracle in itself, and one does not have to stand out from the crowd to be amazing.” It patted one of the Reverends on the shin. “Just ask all those fishes Jesus was so fond of.”

Using its tail fins as tiny legs, the herring wobbled its way to the door. As it stepped out of the dining room, Mrs Abernathy walked in. She looked down at the passing fish, then around at the assembled Reverends, her expression shifting through curiosity to confusion to resignation in the space of seconds.

“I suppose you’ll be wanting the large teapot then?” she asked, picking a Reverend at random to address.

Nineteen Reverends Hastings nodded in unison. The twentieth was staring out the window, his attention caught by a beam of sunlight streaming through the garden. His thoughts filled with the wonder of God’s creation, like the thoughts of so many men before.

***

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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.’

I have it at last. The final piece of the code. The last of the message hidden by God in his creation.

It took me years to understand where the code was hidden. I scoured holy books, trying to divine the secret alphabet they concealed. Years of research wasted in dusty rooms and crumbling manuscripts, scrutinising the conclusions of theologians and mystics, looking for the gaps in their work.

Then I realised that the message wasn’t in those texts, it was written into creation itself. That was why Noah had to build the ark. Each creature is a letter, and only when those letters are put together will we see God’s message for us.

I have them all now. Genetic code from every creature known to man. My computers have been analysing them, finding what is unique in each one. Those fragments of code will be the letters, and when I bring them together, joy of joys, His will be done!

I know that now is the time because now is when it has become possible. A decade ago, I couldn’t have extracted the individual letters and brought them back together, but gene editing has changed the world. This is what he preordained, calibrating our intelligence to work this out now, when the animals we know are the ones for the code. In his omniscience, he was able to see a path for us. Humanity is the tool with which he will perfect creation, and I am the sharp point of that tool.

Fingers trembling at the controls of the computer, I set the machine to put the final piece into place. What letter does the zebra represent? There is no A, B, or C here, but a holy alphabet thousands of letters long, barely comprehensible to the human mind. Still, I wonder what sound each letter represents.

Perhaps my creation – His creation – will be able to tell me.

The code is complete. Now it goes into the incubator, a vat of nutrients and electricity from which life can be born anew. Let it grow there, in this modern primordial soup. This is the darkness into which The Word will be breathed – a word beyond any we can fathom, recreated from the beings it set loose.

The weeks of gestation are long and gruelling, grinding my patience down to a nub. I snap at colleagues but cannot explain or excuse myself. If they knew what I was doing in the farthest corner of the lab, they would call me insane. They don’t understand. They never have.

At last the time comes for me to open the incubator. As I lift the lid, I imagine what might emerge. A glowing figure perhaps, like the Christ child in a renaissance painting. An angel even, wings spread and singing the glory of his name.

When I see it, I am struck not by wonder but by nausea. It is a terrible twisted thing, mismatched limbs barely able to drag its body out of the amniotic pool. It looks up at me with wide, desperate eyes and reaches out, dripping, toward my face. Then it collapses, gasping, twitching, hanging limp and feeble across the edge of the incubator.

This is no divine message. I have birthed an abomination.

I grab a syringe and fill it from a small and deadly vial. I force myself to touch the creature’s neck, to hold it steady while I slide the needle in. As skin meets skin, the creature looks up at me once more, pupils wide, and leans in towards me. I have to look away as I push the plunger.

I don’t wait for the abomination, still as stone now, to go cold. I haul it into a waste sack and drag it down to the incinerator. My terrible mistake is reduced to ash, its visage lingering only in my nightmares. No-one will know what I have done. I return to the lab and scrub every last surface clean.

I was arrogant, wrong-headed, thinking that I understood God’s message. In my hubris, I created something terrible and the experience has humbled me.

There is more to God’s message than just hidden letters. There is the ordering of those pieces, the spelling of His words and the grammar of His text. I must return to my studies. One day, I will complete His message for humanity, but today is not that day.

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Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

Today I have the pleasure another author interview. This time it’s with W Lawrence, writer of the science fiction novel Syncing Forward.

 

Could you please start by telling us a bit about yourself and your books.

I’m a married man with two daughters who spent most of his life moving from place to place, but now live in Pennsylvania working as a corporate investigator. I like reading, shooting, and I’m a huge game fanatic. I’m often accused of being a pessimist, although I believe that label sells me short.  I consider myself a realist who just happens to be able to see bad things coming before most people.  And given my profession, I don’t always get to see the best in people.

My first venture into writing started several years ago when I put together a game supplement for the (now unsupported) game of Epic: Armageddon.  I was recovering from a painful surgery, had some down time, and realized that as a game player I didn’t want to wait for Games Workshop to publish their next supplement rule book.  I coordinated several dozen volunteers to produce a book called Epic: Raiders.  It’s derivative intellectual property, so we could never profit from it, but we did print it at cost and it’s still available for a free download.  The artwork is wonderful, the models were well painted, and the story was written (mostly) by me.  If you aren’t a Warhammer 40,000 fan, it probably won’t resonate, but it was a fun venture regardless.

Skip ahead to 2012 and I found myself writing Syncing Forward after an odd bit of inspiration.  Framing the story into one genre has been difficult for me because it covers so many; it’s speculative fiction, it’s a bit of a thriller, a bit of a mystery, most certainly dystopian, and it’s sci-fi.  There are a lot of twists and the story will take you in directions you weren’t expecting.  Most importantly, however, is this is a love story of the family, about how far we are willing to go for our children, our parents, our spouses.  It deals with the cold truth of consequence and how we deal (or struggle) with our decisions.

The main character’s life is altered forever after he pushes a suspect for information on why equipment is being stolen from their company.  One phrase, Tell me about the rat, sets him moving forward relentlessly through time.  He is able to stake out moments with his family before he is carried forward again.  His wife grows older.  His children grow up. And he becomes a man increasingly out of place in the world.

Why did you pick that particular idea to explore in Syncing Forward?

 I had a dream the likes of which I haven’t had since I was a child.  No surreal mango fights or living in a swamp cooler with an orange pet chicken named Pepe.  This was a vivid dream, tangible, substantive.  I dreamt the plot of what is now my book, from beginning to end.  When I woke I was so inspired I roused my wife to tell her about it.  She told me, “You should turn that into a book!”  Although in retrospect I believe she was placating me so I would let her get back to sleep.

Looking back, there are some changes to the storyline, some parts I simply couldn’t make work, other parts that I couldn’t recall.  However, it’s pretty darn close.

You deal with both the positive achievements and the dark consequences of technology. Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about where it’s taking us, and what are you hoping for from technology in the next couple of decades?

I was listening to National Public Radio one day and a guest –my apologies but I don’t recall who- made the bold comment that the internet is the greatest invention since language.  While the automobile and a handful of other inventions might arguably take its place in the pole position, the fact is our world is forever changed due to its invention.  We share information, commentary, art, desires, instruction, and finance in a way that could never be predicted 30 years ago.

And yet so many people are feeling increasingly detached from their neighbors, their spouses, their world.  We make some of the vilest comments to complete strangers for one sole purpose: because we can. We text instead of talk. The internet has the dubious honor of simultaneously bringing us closer together and further apart. And this is just one technology.

We genetically modify foods with the hope of feeding more people (and making a buck), but the end result is the destruction of heirloom crops.  We build smarter machines to help our dumber kids.  We teach math with a calculator, not caring about the basics anymore. We are a world constantly propping itself upon the most recent developments, with very few people ask the question “Do we need this?”

There is a quote at the beginning of my book from Isaac Asimov: “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”  I know all of this comes across as awfully hypocritical as I type this in my word processor and send it off at the speed of light to another computer.  However, I’m not suggesting we give up electricity.  I am saying that technology on every level -genetics, communication, nanotech, robotics- is evolving so rapidly that either human beings will falter or we will have to make incredible sacrifices to adapt.  Syncing Forward’s plot explores the price of our technological successes, amongst other arcs.

One technological advance I am looking forward to seeing is Mars-One being a success. Sounds crazy, but I love the pioneer aspect of sending people on a one-way mission to a different planet.

You describe yourself as a part-time Catholic, and religion plays a part in Syncing Forward. Even as an atheist I find the appearance of religion in science fiction fascinating, so I wonder, what role do you think science fiction has in debates about and within religion? And what do you think religion brings to the science fiction table?

Religion definitely has a place in sci-fi. For one, the majority of people in the world believe in some type of higher power, something that can’t be explained by science.  But religion makes for great science fiction stories too, be it Robert Heinleins’ Stranger in a Strange Land or Battlestar Galactica.

To clarify, Syncing Forward’s main character -Martin James- is a part time Catholic.  I’m a full time Christian, but I have been exposed to Catholicism enough to write the character as such.  He is a man who –like many people in the church- is bound more by tradition than faith.  He relies on prayer as a last ditch effort, becomes angry with God when his pleas are ignored.  It takes up a small portion of the book and doesn’t preach.  For non-believers, they will find Martin to be trapped by social aspects of the church that are unnecessary.  For believers, they may find the faith aspects to be lacking.  I’m fine with that though.  The purpose of the book is to tell a story, not rewrite the bible.

People frequently take the approach that science and religion are mutually exclusive topics.  I feel comfortable both sharing a faith in God and loving all the cool aspects of science.  I frequently tell my daughters that math is the language of God himself.  There are several scholars who have theorized that our entire universe is a simulation. I won’t bore people to death, but one example is Planck length (the smallest measurable length), which alludes to the fact that we live in a digital environment.  None of this is in the book, by the way, so if you think this is all nonsense you can still read the story.

You’ve worked as an interviewer/interrogator, which sounds absolutely fascinating. Could you please explain a bit about what was involved, and what if anything that experience has contributed to your writing.

I was trained by the U.S. Army Reserve as Counter-Intelligence Agent.  They used to call it a 97B, although they may have changed it since then.  There I was trained in interview and interrogation techniques.  I found myself years later working for a large corporation in their security department and that skillset has proven invaluable.  Sometimes it isn’t so fun when you are enthusiastically telling somebody about your day and you can tell they have zero interest, but so goes the hazards of reading faces.

Interviews for me are an art, and I’ve done well over 1,200 in my career – that’s more than most police detectives will ever do.  It involves setting the interview room, how to speak, how far to position yourself from your subject, what tone to use, when to shut up, when to monologue, reading body posture, facial expressions, eye movement, micro-expressions (an interesting topic by itself), even counting a pulse rate on a person’s carotid artery. There are some great books out there on the topic of lie detection if you’re interested, as well as some excellent internet sites.  Paul Ekman’s website is the best place to learn about micro-expressions.

The main character in my book is a corporate investigator. Hey, you write about what you know! Although his skills are on par with mine, the book doesn’t delve too deeply into the topic. It isn’t a detective novel.  I just give the reader the highlights.

How did you go about getting published, and why did you pick that route?

I self-published, mainly because I am lazy and impatient.  Writing Syncing Forward was a labor of love, but after two years I simply wanted the baby out of me.  The idea of writing query letters over and over was unpalatable.  My editor C.S. Lakin advised me to self-publish to maintain control of my work, so I took advantage of the technology we have (cry hypocrite here) and put it out to the world.

Last question – what have you read recently that you’ve really enjoyed, and what was so great about it?

I love non-fiction, and there is no better historical writer than Richard Zacks.  While my favorite book of his was Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805, I just finished Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York. It is an opportunity to meet Teddy Roosevelt before his Presidency plus a fun look at the so-called debauchery of New York. And if you think the bickering between Republicans and Democrats is something new, read this and you will see –not similar, but- identical arguments from a hundred and twenty years ago.  Zacks is a brilliant writer and if you email him, he will respond!

Currently I am reading Steven R. Boyett’s Mortality Bridge.  So far, it is very well written and more than a little creepy. We shall see how it goes.

* * *

Thanks to W Lawrence for the fascinating interview. You can find out more about him and his work over on his website.

From the start I loved the modern iteration of Battlestar Galactica. It was gritty and exciting, filled with passion and despair.

Somewhere along the line that went wrong. And the more I think about it, the more it highlights the centrality of character to every aspect of story telling.

You’ve got to have faith?

Religion exemplified the problem with BSG.

Psst, Starbuck, I think we might be caught in an allegory.

Psst, Starbuck, I think we might be caught in an allegory.

At the start religion played an interesting role. This was a sci-fi setting in which the characters had an old-fashioned faith. Their relationship with that faith, and how it affected their understanding of current events, gave them extra depth. I loved it.

But then faith slipped over into fact. The plot started being led by ancient prophecy and holy books. The role of religion in the show had taken a radical shift, and it was one that completely changed my understanding of the characters.

Subjectivity adds depth

When their religion was a subjective matter, a faith choice on which characters could legitimately hold differing opinions, it gave them depth. It was a layer of the world that added richness, nuance and variety to the show’s diverse collection of soldiers and refugees. It made them interesting.

Destiny removes agency

When their religion became an objective matter, driving the characters towards a pre-ordained destiny, it removed that depth and took away the characters’ agency with it.

As we saw that elements in the religion were objectively true it became harder to see belief in religion as a choice characters made. It also took away the possibility for divergent views. Now a character who didn’t agree with the religion was objectively wrong and being stupid.

Worse, the element of prophecy and destiny deprived the characters of control over their own fate. They were moving towards a pre-ordained future. The choice wasn’t theirs. They were less in control of their actions, and so less interesting.

This is why I almost always hate prophecies in fiction.

What a shame

This wasn’t everything that was good about the show at the start, or that went wrong along the way. But what it highlights is that plot or setting can change our understanding of characters, strengthening or undermining them. As both writers and readers, it’s something to look out for.

So, now that I’ve got you thinking, can you see other examples where the shape of the setting directly affects the characters in this way? Share some examples, help me think this one over.

 

Thanks to Joe Kawano for the question that inspired this post.

I love to see genre literature explore religion. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the vicarious thrill of the non-believer getting inside the head of a person of faith. Maybe it’s the wonder of exploring the deeper possibilities of the universe. Maybe it’s the lure of giving in to the irrational, of wanting something more behind the scenes.

I particularly enjoy seeing fantasy explore the monotheistic traditions of Europe and the Middle East. I think that it’s something we used to be wary of. Fantasy religion tapped into the pagan stuff become that was safer and more acceptable. But the sub-genre that became urban fantasy has, to a large extent, smashed that taboo, and Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s magnificent Preacher leapt up and down on the pieces with filthy and humanistic vigour, really challenging what religion and the church are about.

What’s still rare, in my experience at least, is fantasy that explores the structures rather than the tropes of monotheism’s history.

That’s part of why I enjoyed the religions portrayed in The Lions of Al-Rassan so much. While not monotheistic they are clearly representative of Christianity, Islam and Judaism in their medieval forms. It’s not about the supernatural side of religion, it’s about the human institutions – the priesthoods and pogroms, the moments of beauty and horror all inspired by faith. It looks at religion with the eye of a sociologist or historian, not a myth-maker, and says ‘what’s going on here then?’ But it shows the results in a close up, personal way.

I can only speak from my own personal experience and reading, but I found the portrayal of the characters’ varied religious views and experiences more honest and intriguing than most others I’ve read.

All this allows the book to explore the themes of fanaticism and bigotry, as Jon Taylor pointed out in response to my previous post. And it does it well, not getting preachy and in your face, just showing the damage these things can do.

It’s a fascinating and very human portrayal of religion, and that’s probably why I enjoyed it so much. It’s one I’ll be thinking about next time I’m building a story world, considering how religion fits in as a social institution. And once again, it shows the things that Guy Gavriel Kay manages to do a little differently.

* * *

On an unrelated note, if you have access to the BBC’s iPlayer then I strongly encourage you to go listen to this week’s Chain Reaction, in which comedian Frankie Boyle interviews comic writer Grant Morrison. Morrison is one of the most interesting and insightful people in popular culture, responsible for some magnificent story-telling and some mind-bending madness, and it’s a pleasure to hear him talk.

I finished reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan yesterday. It was a beautifully written and fascinating book, and I’ll probably be writing about it most of this week, because like all the best books it’s taught me lots of lessons.

Spoiler alert - it's not about real lions

Spoiler alert – it’s not about real lions

Setting somewhere different

First up, the most obvious thing to talk about – the setting.

The Lions of Al-Rassan is a fantasy novel with almost no fantasy. It’s set in a secondary world version of Medieval Spain, a period known in real world history as the Reconquista. There’s one single magical fantasy element in the whole book, and other than that it’s essentially a piece of historical fiction with the details tweaked.

It’s an interestingly different setting, one that emphasises the world-building aspects of fantasy rather than the magical ones. It’s a bit like chopping the most wacky ten percent off of George R R Martin’s Westeros and leaving behind the world of people and politics. It lets Kay explore the possibilities and wonders of a historical period without being tied down to specific events and without the risk of someone turning round and calling him out for historical inaccuracy.

It’s also interesting to see an author use that setting as a basis for any sort of fantasy. Secondary world fantasy settings, while usually taking a lot of their queues from medieval Europe, haven’t often played with the particular features of the Iberian peninsula. While this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered Arabian-influenced fantasy it is the first time I’ve seen someone use the particular political and culture encounters, the clashes and compromises, and the elegant half-way-house culture that was Spain during the great struggle for dominance between Europe and Islam. It makes for a very different feel.

Here comes the history…

OK, let me step back a moment and put my history graduate hat on.

For those who don’t know it, Spain was torn between Islamic and European influences for most of the middle ages. These two great cultures – Christian Europe and the Islamic Middle East – were defining themselves in contrast and conflict with each other, but also by absorbing influences from each other. From the first Islamic invasion in 711 to the fall of Granada in 1492 they grappled to control the Spanish peninsula, as a succession of different states rose and fell. The resulting culture took the best of both worlds to create something bold and vibrant. The resulting politics was bloody and horrifying, with battles and massacres aplenty.

Everybody in the peninsula defined themselves by their religion, even if other factors also came into play, and the differences between religious, cultural and political allegiances were not clear cut. But while this was mostly a land of Christians and Muslims competing with each other it was also a land in which a small Jewish minority sought to survive and to carve out their own niche amidst the chaos.

Using what’s distinctive

What’s so wonderful about Guy Gavriel Kay’s use of this is that he hasn’t just taken the outward trappings of the period – the caliphs and kings, the poets and princes. He’s taken the deep rooted institutions and issues and riffed on them to build his world. There are religions mirroring the places of Christianity, Islam and Judaism in medieval Spain. The politics between the city states reflects the real challenges and tensions of a period in which allegiances were slippery and borders ever-shifting. The massacre of one religious group by another is all the more powerful for reflecting what really happened to many Jews as tensions rose. And the plot of the book reflects the polarising influences that arose in the most bloody periods.

This means that you get much more than just another fantasy adventure. You get a world that’s both different and familiar, that’s utterly convincing in its detail. And for me, as a fantasy fan and a history fan, that’s some damn good reading.

Not done yet

I’ll be back to write more about this tomorrow I’m sure. In the meantime thank you to my friends who persuaded me to read this, especially Glenatron who’s evangelised for GGK any time I’ve created an opportunity.

Have you read The Lions of Al-Rassan? If you have let me know what you thought. If not then go read it!

Seriously.

Now.

Go.