Mist Rock-Prologue (Excerpt #3)

Hello again 🙂

I’m excited to announce that I’m now ready to start editing the first draft of Mist Rock. I took the last two months away from it, focusing on other projects and reading some advice on how to go about the process. I’ll be sharing some of the 2nd draft with you here, asking for feedback on plot, characters etc. Until then though, I’ve decided to post one last excerpt from Draft 1, which is actually the novel opener! Here we follow Queen Farelia atop a lonely mountain in the snow.

Lots of work to be done yet, but am looking forward to more adventures. Hope you enjoy and feel free to provide any feedback 🙂


Farelia sat at her bedside and watched the red curtain ripple. Thin as a dying breath, the silk sheet trembled, slithered, helpless against the hard winter wind. It was all that stood between her and the mountain cold. She sighed, puffing the sharp air from her chest so that it made a small cloud in front of her face. The room around her was filled with low-burning candles; uncertain as her heart they flickered, casting wavy light over walls, a chair, a desk and a single page resting upon it. She slid the paper into her hands as a gust whipped the red curtain back, revealed the world she was hiding from. Wringing her hands tight on her dress, she peered into the depths of the fortress courtyard.

Night had descended on the Arakil Mountains hours before, a shadow that swift swallowed everything. Outside in the yard it was empty-street black, quiet as a huddled walk home.

A dark that things go hunting in. Go missing in.

She looked down at the page gripped in her pale fingers. It was fine paper-not something found beyond her palace, and noticeably difficult to tear. But most importantly it was empty. She pulled a stoppered vial from the folds of her cloak but then a dull knock came at the door, breaking the unmarked silence. It was a hollow sound, a brief reminder of the world outside-what a prisoner might call music.

And isn’t that what I am, after all?

Farelia crossed the room, paused and rested a thoughtful finger on the handle. As usual, her father’s words were in her ear.

Hesitation is a coin toss between wisdom and fear. 

“Who is it?” she called out, her voice frail on the chill mountain air.

For a second, nothing, and at her neck the same familiar warmth. Then, as she considered how fast she could run barefoot through snow, the reply sank through the wood. As expected, it was a male voice.

“It’s your cup-bearer, Your Grace,” he said. Another pause. “I couldn’t find olives or cheese,” he added.

She grinned. He never could’ve, of course, because it was only a safe-word for the door. She composed herself quickly and pulled firm on the handle.

On the threshold, a young guard struggled with a tray. A single chalice gleamed as it sat on it, a small meal of figs and honeyed bread arranged like a garden around it. The guard bowed his head so his eyes didn’t meet hers. Orange light washed over the folds of his armour, his clean-shaven face peeking out from beneath his helm. His smile was forced.

“Come in,” she said, gesturing with a soft sweep of her hand. “You can set that down on the table.”

The man bobbed his head and entered, keeping the distance between them as he stepped around her in a circle. She shook her head, laughed quietly as he passed and closed out the door behind him.

“Your report?” she said absent-mindedly as the guard edged the tray onto the table.

The young man turned, his head still sunk into his shoulders. “Nothing amiss on the walls, Your Grace. The watch has been doubled as you requested.” His foot made a slow circle on the floor. “I also did as asked, Your Grace.”

Farelia’s heart hit the wall of her chest. She had been so focused on her work that she’d almost forgotten. “Two different ravens?” she said in a whisper, eyeing the courtyard outside.

The guard’s hands fell to his sides. “Yes, Your Grace.”

At Farelia’s feet, the wind snuffed out one of her candles; forgetting herself, she cursed. She stooped, brought it back to life with a taper, stealing from another flame. A moment later two more of the little lights went out. This time, she swallowed her frustration.

I can’t keep you alive if you’re going to call on me all at once.

“Where did they fly?” she asked as she worked to restore the flames. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the young guard clear his throat.

“One flew south, Your Grace. Down towards the woodlands and the great forests beyond. The other bird flew east, through valleys. I saw it last over water.”

She breathed relief. Hope. Hope that I’ve sent on wings.


I realise it’s very cagey yet but that’s what first drafts are all about! As a note, if I could recommend a book highly, it would be Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print.

It’s available over here on Amazon and has given me such great tips ahead of the big edit.

More content to follow soon 🙂

How to Create a Fantasy World/Have No Friends in 6 Easy Steps

Hello again!

It’s Sunday, it’s spring and it’s sunny. Most people my age are catching up on their Vitamin D or relaxing at home, staring out the window at blue skies, secretly filled with dread for the work-week to come. Very few (if any) are wondering what the weather’s like above the palace in a land they’ve invented. But for those who’ve always yearned to write fantasy (or for those who are just curious to see the thought process of those who do), I’ve decided to make a quick list of everything you should avoid  stick to rigidly if your fantasy world is going to take its place among the Middle Earth’s and the Narnia’s.

1. Place

The first rule of creating a fantasy world is to take out a sheet of paper, draw two to three medium-sized landmasses and immediately determine which one is ugly enough to be the nation of Evil Villain. Label this country “Blackened McScorchBone” and fill it with dusty mountains. Then, pick the largest country and colour it green. This will be the home of all the nice people, plentiful water supplies and the only functioning agriculture in the entire known world. Over in Blackened McScorchBone, they eat….rocks…scorpions? I dunno.

Next, take out a blue crayon and draw rivers everywhere. In woods, in valleys, in mountains-EVERYWHERE. Ask google on at least four occasions where rivers are supposed to start. Once convinced, run them across the whole map anyway. To be safe.

Now that you have at least 1 x mountain, 1 x forest and 1 x river, you can start adding in cities and other places of interest. Most of them should be huge castles, far from any source of food, water, trade. They ought to have names like “King’s Tower” or “Elfdorm”. In Blackened McScorchBone, names such as “Clawtooth” and “The Dead City” are recommended. For good measure, call something “The Valley of Fear” and something else “The Grey Waste”, and don’t even remotely address the latter at any stage of your writing. Roads should be as-the-crow-flies, even if they cross hills, lakes, whatever. Outside of cities, pretty much the entire country should be abandoned, filled with a bit treasure here and there and a village if you look hard enough.

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2. People

The world might be max half-Europe in size but there should probably be enough races to make the Olympics feel small. If there are dwarves, throw ’em up in the hills or under some mountains. And make sure to put all the pirates and the ugly things in Blackened McScorchBone. Ughh. Everything there has yellow teeth.

In green-means-good country, cities roughly a stone’s throw apart should have entirely different cultures, languages, ways of life. Literally no two cities should share any sort of common value or commerce. There will be one trade per city, please.

If your hero is <18, they must grow up in the only village you’ve got round to. If they’re an adult, they either live in the royal palace or “grow up in sight of it”. None of your characters should be different than, well, you and your friends. Diversity has no place in DragonLand.

Half of all people must actively serve in the military. How a nation like that is supposed to feed itself? Damnit, man, I’m a fantasy writer not a politician. Which brings me to my next point.

3. Politics

All places will be monarchies except Blackened McScorchBone which is obviously ruled by  a dictator  evil itself. The Kings and Queens should be loved by all. Democracy should be shunned especially if it interferes with any sort of century-long conflict. There should never be peace agreements, only BLOOD AND WAR. Legitimately no ambassadors should exist between nations and there ought to be very little reason for anybody to be fighting in the first place. If there is, go outside and kick a football. You will never make it as a fantasy writer.

Have in place what you think is a “Medieval Economy” but under no circumstances actually research what that might entail. Just invent several peasants, as many knights and one lord who will be fat (*elbow* because he can afford to eat).

4. Politics (again?)

Everyone in your world should be religious. There are no atheists allowed. People should practice freely and there ought to be no clear link between religion and state (lolz why would there be?). Evil Villain should be his own religion and should have millions of ugly followers despite not offering much.

Twice per novel, there ought to be a festival celebrating some God. People that live in the mountains will pay tribute to their……Sea God? *Shrugs* Makes sense to me.

5. Purpose

It’s best practice to just drop things all over your world that have no discernible place there. A giant snake monster that evolved out of nothing? Can’t argue that’s not cool.

You might also place huge value on members of society such as poets and ship captains though *glances both ways* literally nobody in the world ever mentions the arts or talks about the importance of the shipping trade. Everyone should have a horse, a sword and a house to their name even if they’re poor and working as a farmhand.

6. Powers

Just dump whatever fantasy you want into the pot and stir for 30 minutes. Dragons, hands that shoot fire, lay-people marrying the Queen. Have as much magic as you like but still have everyone walk around like it’s just another day in the 15th century. Give Evil Villain enough power to destroy the world twelve times over and then just park him in a corner long enough for someone to figure out how to defeat him. Never use magic for everyday convenience. Only use it to solve plot holes and other sticky situations.

And there you have it. If you do all of the above (plus paint your map with coffee-it looks so old!), you too can create your own fantasy world and say goodbye to what’s left of your social life.

 

Monday Mystery: Villisca Axe Murders

A few years back, as part of this series, I wrote about the Hinterkaifeck murders of 1922. Today I’ve decided to blog about something similar, the murders this time taking place ten years prior in the state of Iowa.

The crime

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1912. Summer. A small town in a sleepy corner of Iowa. The Moore family (father Josiah, mother Sarah, and their four children: Herman Montgomery (11), Mary Katherine (10), Arthur Boyd (7), and Paul Vernon (5)) prepare to attend a Children’s Day Program in the local Presbyterian Church. The Moores were well-known and well-liked in the community. They even invited Ina Mae (8) and Lena Gertrude Stillinger (12), neighbours, to spend the night at their residence after church. The program ended at 9:30 p.m.; the party arrived back to the house roughly fifteen to thirty minutes later.

Early the next morning, about 7 a.m, Mary Peckham, the Moores’ neighbor, emerged from her house and started her day’s work. She soon became concerned when she noticed the Moores didn’t join her. Peckham went over to their house and knocked, waited for someone to answer. Nobody came, and so she attempted to open the door and discovered that it was locked. She let the Moores’ chickens out and called Josiah’s brother. He arrived, knocked on the door and shouted, but Ross Moore heard no response. He decided to try a spare key that he’d been given, unlocking the door and pushing inside. While Peckham stood on the porch, he stepped into the parlor and opened the guest bedroom door. Inside, he found the bodies of Ina and Lena Stillinger. He shouted to Peckham to call the sheriff, Hank Horton. His subsequent search of the house revealed the bodies of the Moore family, all of them bludgeoned to death. The murder weapon, an axe belonging to Josiah, was found in the guest room with the Stillinger sisters.

Local doctors concluded that the murders had taken place between midnight and 5 a.m. Investigators later found cigarettes in the attic, suggesting that the killer or killers waited in the attic until the Moore family and the Stillinger guests fell asleep. They then began in the master bedroom, killing Josiah and Sarah Moore first. Josiah received more blows from the axe than any other victim; his eyes were missing and while the killer used the blunt end of the axe on the rest of their victims, Josiah had been killed with the sharp edge. The killer(s) then went into the children’s rooms and bludgeoned Herman, Katherine, Boyd, and Paul in the same manner as their parents. They then returned to the master bedroom to inflict more blows on the Josiah and Sarah, knocking over a shoe that had filled with blood. Afterward, the killer(s) stepped downstairs and killed the Stillinger guests.

It is believed that Lena Stillinger was the only victim awake when murdered. There were signs she may have fought back; she was found lying crosswise on the bed, and with a defensive wound on her arm.

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The suspects

  1. Andrew Saywer: No real evidence linked Sawyer to the case, but his name came up often in grand jury testimonies. Thomas Dyer, a bridge foreman and pile driver for the Burlington Railroad, testified that Sawyer approached his crew at 6:00 a.m on the morning the bodies were discovered. He was clean-shaven and wearing a brown suit, but his shoes were covered in mud, his pants soaked to the knees. He asked for employment and was given a job on the spot. Dyer informed police that later that evening Sawyer purchased a newspaper and went off by himself to read it. The front page showed the Villisca murders and, according to Dyer, Sawyer “was much interested in it.” Dyer’s crew were uneasy that Sawyer slept with an axe next to him and talked much of the Villisca murders and whether or not a killer had been apprehended. Dyer later testified that prior to Sawyer’s arrest, he walked up behind him. Sawyer was rubbing his head with both hands and suddenly jumped up and said to himself, “I will cut your god damn heads off.” At the same time, he made striking motions with the axe and began hitting the piles in front of him.
    Dyer’s son testified that one day as the crew drove through Villisca, Sawyer showed him “where the man who killed the Moore family got out of town”. He said the man that did the job jumped over a manure box which he pointed out about 1½ blocks away, and then showed where he crossed the railroad track. J.R. said there were footprints in the soggy ground north of the embankment. Sawyer told J.R. to look on the other side of the car and said he would show him an old tree where the murderer stepped into the creek. According to J.R. Dyer, he looked over and saw such a tree south of the track about four blocks away. But he was dismissed as a suspect in the case when officials learned that he could prove he had been in Osceola, Iowa, on the night of the murders. He had been arrested for vagrancy there and was sent away by train about 11pm.
  2. Reverend Kelly: An English-born traveling minister, Kelly was in town on the night of the murders. He was described as odd, accused of peeping and several times asking young women to pose nude for him. On June 8, 1912, he came to Villisca to teach at the Children’s Day services, which the Moore family attended on June 9, 1912. He left town between 5:00 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. on June 10, 1912, hours before the bodies were discovered.

    In the weeks that followed, he displayed a fascination with the case, writing many letters to the police, investigators, and family of the deceased. This aroused suspicion, and a private investigator wrote back to Reverend Kelly, asking for details that the minister might know about the murders. Kelly replied with great detail, claiming to have heard sounds and possibly witnessed them. His known mental illness made authorities question whether he knew the details intimately or was only imagining them.

    In 1914, two years after the murders, Kelly was arrested for sending obscene material through the mail. In 1917, he was arrested for the Villisca murders. Police obtained a confession from him; however, it followed many hours of interrogation and Kelly later recanted. After two separate trials, he was acquitted.

  3. Frank Fernando Jones: a Villisca resident and Iowa State Senator, Jones used to employ Josiah Moore at his implement store for years before Jones left and set up his own. This may have taken business away from Jones, including a tractor dealership. Moore was rumored to have had an affair with Jones’ daughter-in-law, though no evidence suggests this.
  4. William Mansfield: One theory suggests Senator Jones hired William “Blackie” Mansfield to murder the Moore family. It is believed that Mansfield was a serial killer because he murdered his wife, infant child, father- and mother-in-law with an axe two years after the Villisca crimes. He is also linked to axe crimes in Kansas only a few days after the murders. He was also a suspect in the double homicide of Jennie Peterson and Jennie Miller in Illinois. Each of the crime sites was accessible by train, and all murders were carried out in roughly the same manner.

    The Grand Jury of Montgomery County refused to indict him, on grounds that his alibi checked out. Nine months before the murders at Villisca, a similar case of axe murder occurred in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Two further axe murder cases occured in Kansas. Overall, there’s strong evidence they were carried out by the same person. Other murders that may be linked include the numerous unsolved axe murders along the Southern Pacific Railroad (1911-1912), the unsolved Axeman of New Orleans killings, as well as several other such murders.

    The murders in Colorado Springs were closely related to the Villisca case in particular. Bed sheets were used to cover the windows to prevent passersby from looking in, as was seen in the Moore house (the murderer hung aprons and skirts to cover the windows). The murderer in both cases also covered the heads of their victims with bedclothes. 

    Investigator Wilkerson stated he could prove Mansfield was present on the night of ech of the murders. In each case, a burning lamp with the chimney off was left at the foot of the bed and a basin in which the murderer washed was found in the kitchen. The murderer also avoided leaving fingerprints by wearing gloves (Mansfield would have known his fingerprints were on file at the federal military prison at Leavenworth).

    Mansfield was tried but never convicted.

Did the killer gain access to the house after nightfall, or did they really wait in the attic? Was the killer known to the family, or was it part of a serial spree? Who carried out the Villisca Axe Murders?

And why?

(If you would like to learn more about the murders, or visit the infamous house, click here)

Galway Girl: How Ed Sheeran Wrote the Most Laughable Irish Song Ever

Before I begin, I should inform you that I don’t actually mind Ed Sheeran’s music. And as far as I can see, he seems like a nice guy too. I mean, just look at this tweet. Try telling me this man doesn’t deserve a hair tussle and a goodie bag.

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But I take issue with one of the songs on his new album. So much so that I’ve decided to write a whole blog about it.

Now *cracks knuckles*, let’s see how much I can Divide your opinion on “Galway Girl”.

[Verse 1]
I met her on Grafton street right outside of the bar
She shared a cigarette with me while her brother played the guitar

Five seconds in, Ed invents a brother and a guitar. Because rhyming. Then, perhaps knowing that literally nobody outside Ireland can name a single street in the country, he drops this imaginary bar onto Grafton Street, home to venues as wild as the Disney Store. To be fair, I could be wrong here. He might be using the 5 minutes or so Captain America’s spend cooking their food to share a cheeky cigarette on their doorstep. Better rush back upstairs you guys. Woo Woo’s on me.

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She asked me what does it mean, the Gaelic ink on your arm?
Said it was one of my friend’s songs, do you want to drink on?

Right, so one of two things occurs here. Either this woman is a fraud. Not from Ireland. Not Galway. Fake CailĂ­n, okay.

Or, Ed wants the American audience to recognise the mythical language of the leprechauns. Either way, I hate it. Anyway, here’s Balla Iontach.

She took Jamie as a chaser, Jack for the fun
She got Arthur on the table with Johnny riding a shotgun
Chatted some more, one more drink at the bar
Then put Van on the jukebox, got up to dance

See these are all in fact drinks, not men, and nothing is as Irish as lashing back a pint of Guiness and washing it down with some hard whiskey (????). Especially after destroying a dirty Chicken Burger and a fudge sundae at Captain America’s.  Grrrr. Give me the bill and that fucking plate of Murray Mints, I demand Brown-Eyed Girl!!

You know she beat me at darts and then she beat me at pool
And then she kissed me like there was nobody else in the room

Irish women are raised in pubs. She beat him at rings too but he was too ashamed to admit it. Nobody else in the room? Well, they’ve obviously left Captain America’s, site of Ireland’s last workhouse and highest population density.

As last orders were called was when she stood on the stool
After dancing to céilidh singing to trad tunes

“Finish up there please” *lights flicking* “Time to go home there”

Ed, nobody in Ireland requests “The Siege of Ennis ” on a night out. You could have just been honest and told us she was fist-pumping to Maniac 2000 like a good Irish catholic.

And why are you trying to tick off so many Irishisms anyway? I’m half expecting the next verse to revolve around the two of you drinking tea in the Burren while an Irish Mammy complains about the immersion.

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I never heard Carrickfergus ever sung so sweet

Agreed. You’ve never heard it at all *pictures Ed frantically googling Irish music the night before his album is due*.

Acapella in the bar using her feet for a beat
Oh, I could have that voice playing on repeat for a week
And in this packed out room swear she was singing to me

Ed, if you want the words “Cause I’m drunk today and I’m seldom sober” sang to your for a week, we may have to steer this blog towards an intervention.

You know, she played the fiddle in an Irish band
But she fell in love with an English man
Kissed her on the neck and then I took her by the hand
Said, “Baby, I just want to dance”

Oh Sheery boy, you’re on thin ice here. You’re John Smith and she’s Pocahontus, is it? Also, we all know you settled for fiddle. You originally wrote harp, didn’t ya. Didn’t ya?

And c’mere, you can’t just kiss ’em on the neck. There’s an established protocol

  1. Stare at them for five minutes. Eventually make eye contact
  2. Freeze, get sweaty and go buy a jaegerbomb
  3. Stand and dance like near them, not with them. Just near.
  4. Give up, go home and slap yourself in front of the mirror.
  5. Rinse and repeat weekly

My pretty little Galway Girl

#RipOff #RiseUp #JusticeForSteveEarle #VivaSharonShannon

And now we’ve outstayed our welcome and it’s closing time

Preach.

I was holding her hand, her hand was holding mine

I predict a hand war.

Our coats both smell of smoke, whisky and wine
As we fill up our lungs with the cold air of the night

If this was a real Irish night out they wouldn’t be your coats, they’d be whatever you found stuffed down the back of the chairs people were shifting on.

I walked her home then she took me inside
To finish some Doritos and another bottle of wine

Hang on. You arrive home. You break out a bottle of wine (why are you so intent on making this woman vomit?) and then you go for the Doritos (?!?!?!) Short of busting out a bag of Mighty Munch or that weird paste glue you tried not to eat as a four-year-old, could you make your hands any messier right now? I’m curious, what flavour Doritos?

I swear I’m gonna put you in a song…..
….about…………………… a perfect night

Ah, okay. They were Chilli Heatwave.

Bonus “Castle on the Hill” round

Ehh, isn’t it really weird how Ed Sheeran basically insults all his friends in this song? Take a closer look.

One had two kids but lives alone
One’s already on his second wife
One’s just barely getting by

Hmm. Imagine what it will be like when he does arrive home.

“Oh look, all the old gang came out to see me. Made a little welcome party. Wonder why they’re all holding bats.”

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Logan: Breaking the Superhero Wheel

I arrived in the door five minutes ago after seeing Logan. Before I took off my coat, before I set down my keys, I ran to my laptop and pressed hard on the power button. I didn’t want to let myself not write this blog.

Now, for those who frequent this small corner of the internet often, you’ll know me for my love of fantasy. All the same, the genre has run parallel to the superhero film since the early 2000s, making fans of one essentially fans of the other. And after a decade of what I always considered “Post Dark Knight angst”, it seems superhero films are finally set to become grounded in something substantial again. Something worth buying a ticket for.

When Deadpool stole our hearts last year with its shoot-from-the-hip, salacious style, the fifth gear the superhero movie was cruise controlling in started to wobble. It’s been long overdue of course. Quite frankly, I can’t sit through another ten years (in which time I could be helping to bring children into the world) of watered-down, emotionally empty films where an ever-expanding motley crew chase after aliens with their pew-pew guns and make “off-the-cuff” jokes because hey, killing bad guys is super chill, amirite?

I have sat through the Avenger movies, and the Spiderman reboots and the myriad of other characters Marvel are packaging into solo films so fast we honestly can’t remember their names. I blink and Marvel births six Thor movies. I go to the bathroom and Captain America lands himself another sequel. The wheel had to stop turning. The wheel had to be broken.

So it came as little surprise really that it fell to Hugh Jackman and Wolverine to haul us all out of the complacent coma we’d allowed ourselves sink into. Logan, an X-men spinoff I could honestly see on a Best Picture list, shook me from the word go and didn’t let me rest until the credits rolled up and the lights came on for a stunned audience. With its unapologetic level of violence, you could be excused for thinking this was just another body-count movie, a comfortable 120 minutes of nada. Instead, Logan managed to unearth more deep-rooted emotion than any superhero movie has ever dug for, let alone found.

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Hugh Jackman, delivering a performance that will surely rank as one his more memorable, brought out the vulnerability of the Wolverine character as though it was the one side of him he was destined to portray. Patrick Stewart, on the other hand, reprising his role as Professor X, delivered a side of the character we perhaps weren’t expecting. Here Professor X had more bite, less art, a reflection of the later years of a man working his entire life for those around him. But perhaps both will admit they acted in the shadow of Dafne Keen, a young actress who brought to life a whole new character in her first flurry on the big screen. Rather than succumb to what I call “Carrrrll”, where young actors essentially get in the way of any meaningful plot, Keen drove the story forward, standing as tall as her co-stars by the time the 141 minutes adrenaline rush had collapsed over the finish line.

Fans of both the comic books and previous films will find plenty to play with, and such is the nuance of many of the scenes, even those who would normally gloss over a superhero blockbuster will pause in the quieter moments of the film and reflect on what a genre such as this can achieve when handled with such care.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for this viewer was to see how wide-eyed political the film turned out. Essentially a movie about innocent, predominantly Black/Hispanic pre-teens running from the U.S. government towards the “You’re-welcome-here, ey” Canadian border, Logan managed to stick a middle finger up to the Trump administration somewhere in the throes of its action. And by God did the movie deliver on that front. Refusing to shy away from blood, death, sickness, Logan‘s punch-by-punch action shots dove at you two claws extended, impaling you with a message that characters here aren’t oh-so-safe as we have come to expect from the Marvel production line.

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All in all, this movie will be remembered as the best X-Men had to offer, perhaps even the best the genre has given us too.

Because in a state-of-play where Marvel are happy to knock you over the head for two hours with clichĂ©d plots and woeful dialogue, Logan is as raw as we’ve ever had it.

This was two and a bit hours of primal Hugh Jackman screaming at Hollywood, at viewers, at the genre and at the world.

And by fuck do I hope we’re listening.

These Fields of France

May 15th, 1916

London, Phillips Dance Hall

“My father always said a man should never drink cider on a night this warm.”

Slumped into a chair, George heard the voice but didn’t acknowledge it, kept his eyes on the bottle in front of him. The label was already coming loose, peeling off the amber glass like it had somewhere better to be. Anywhere but where it was stuck. George grimaced and rolled it into his hand, took a swig and prayed the woman standing over him would take a hint. Instead, before he could stop her, she eased herself into the seat alongside him.

“Alice,” she sang, extending her hand out in front of her so fast that it almost sent his drink from the table. She rushed an apology, laughed at him as he felt a smile tug the corners of his mouth. Her hair, Irish-wild, framed pale skin, the curly locks pinned into place as was the fashion. At least the officers called it a fashion, though George wasn’t so sure the women had much of a say in the matter. Well. That was one thing they had in common.

He forced a smile, wiped his hand on his trousers, and taking hers, planted a kiss on it like he’d seen once in a play. Drunk on whatever they were dishing out to the girls at the bar, she giggled and he felt his cheeks flush red. Fool. Maybe they’d find the gesture less amusing when he got to France.

“George,” he added, realising he hadn’t even offered his name.

Alice’s green-glass eyes danced; a tendril of hair stole from behind her ear and leapt free. Casually, she reached out and slipped the bottle of cider into her grasp, pressed it to her lips and drank. George decided it was rude to watch.

“Well are we going to dance?” she breathed, setting the drink back on the table.

He swallowed. On the floor in front of them, a few dozen couples stepped to an old tune, looking as though they’d only learned to walk moments before. Most of the girls worked in the post-office, the army offices, the hotel next door. They’d been rounded up and herded in there after “the men had finished dinner”. Now they took the trembling hands of boys and guided them to the dancefloor, showed them a one-two step they’d be sober enough to remember. This was their send-off, after all, one last night before they shipped off to the front. As far as most of them were concerned, tomorrow they became men. George watched a few couples push closer, whisper in each other’s’ ears, realised not all of them were happy to wait that long.

“We can’t dance,” he said, lowering his gaze back to the table.

“I can show-”

“It’s not that I don’t know how to,” he interrupted, pressing his forehead to one hand and balancing on his elbow.

Nearby, he felt Alice soften. She moved in front of him as if to cut them off, leave them in a world with only two souls. And this time, when her hand wandered, it didn’t find the half-empty bottle, but his own which lay lifeless next to it.

“It’s not a last dance,” she said crouching, smoothing her blue dress with a sweep, squeezing his palm heartbeat-quick.

He sighed, wondered was the cider turning his stomach. “I’m one of the last to leave, you know. All of my friends signed up two years ago. They went willingly to France, to the Mediterranean; they made their parents proud. My father won’t be there to wave me off tomorrow. He said now that we’re being forced to go, there’s no sacrifice to it.” His chest heaved. “My own family won’t be there to say goodbye.” His face collapsed back into his hands.

A few seconds later, Alice tapped him on the head. Before he could protest, she dragged him to his feet, held a finger to his lips and then walked him out of the room, ignored the new tune playing behind them.

Outside London was heavy, or drunk, like somebody had pressed a warm blanket to it, perhaps left it too close to a fire. The sun had disappeared behind the buildings yawning up in front them and shadows streaked down the streets. But even with the last light of day lingering, the lamps were already lit, casting pale light, illuminating nothing. Under one of them, Alice embraced him.

“I’m going to be here when you come home,” she said, her voice muffled against his uniform. “And no matter where they send you, promise me that you’ll come back here. Promise me we’ll have that dance.”

There was a long pause, a few minutes that passed between them as though they were years.

“France,” he whispered. “I’ll be sent to France.”

George didn’t know how long they stood there, or when he felt the first of his tears, or when his feet dragged underneath him and holding Alice he started to dance.


Hundreds of brown uniforms crowded the platform, some of them hugging loved ones goodbye, almost all of them smiling. Many, like George, had scarcely twenty years to their name, hardly a shadow across their face where a beard would normally take hold. Behind him, he felt the train coming alive, making panes of glass in its windows shudder. Something burned deep down inside it, eager to drive it, to carry their faces away so fast they’d all blur together.

“Thank you for being here,” George said, hauling in a breath, drawing Alice closer to him. His chest felt a little lighter with her face pushed against it, like she was bleeding weight off it, turning the place where his heart was dizzy.

“Write to me,” she said, her lips almost at his neck, her hand sliding something crumpled into his pocket. Those around them were too caught up in their own affairs to notice, or to care. Quickly again she was off him.

“Will I send you poems?” he teased, shuffling the bag on his back, suddenly aware how heavy it had grown since he’d first began packing it.

Alice smiled, rolled those field-green eyes for him and stole him from the moment long-dreaded.

“Tell me exactly how you feel,” she said. “That’s all poetry really is anyway.”

George opened his mouth to speak. Behind, there was a sharp whistle, a blast that made the few men still left on the platform jump.

“You’d best be off. Wouldn’t want to be late on your first day,” she said, folding her arms across her chest. Her dress, mourning-black, swayed in the soft London breeze.

He shook his head and grinned. “I’m sure they’ll wait. They need every man they can get.”

But Alice was right. The train lurched on the track, made an awful noise as its wheels screamed against the rails underneath. A few puffs of steam drifted down the platform.

“George, the whistle!” Alice shouted. Seconds later, the conductor blew harder again and the train struggled forward, the hands of men flailing out the windows, the engine roaring as though it’d explode.

A couple of cars had passed George by the time he had gathered himself. Turning one last time to say farewell, he saw Alice afraid.

She thinks that I’ll miss the train.

And so he ran, charged blind into the white smoke towards the thunder sound and the train snaking away from him, steam hissing sharp in his ears.

And he disappeared.


Blue = letters from Alice, a seamstress living in London

Red = letters from George, a British soldier at the Somme

Purple = voice of General Chambers

Green = voice of Jack, an Irish messenger in the trenches

 

These fields of blood, these fields of France,

such hero’s words that feign romance.

But no knights here of spear or lance,

no nights at all ‘ere we advance.

 

All day long machine guns chatter,

lick up mud, make carrion crows scatter.

And shells that scream leave us their fire,

leave us their smoke to choke barbed wire. 

 

We’ve dug in now to hold our ground,

our target but a far-off mound,

where Kaiser’s men hear brave words call,

of English tides against their wall. 

 

The letters now find their way home,

many marked a place named Somme,

and tell of boys who too soon fell,

whose lay to rest will hear no bell.

 

I fear that I’ll  too read those words,

find morning comes where there’s no bird,

to fill empty air with song and pity, 

for lives left behind, the half-dead city. 

 

I see you still as you catch that train,

and wonder was it all in vain,

to pray you’d never truly leave

for war at dawn, no peace by eve. 

 

Rain and wind turned fire and ash,

guns thunder-roar, guns lightning-flash,

shaking boots wet where mud splash’d

as nails to skin fan flame-red rash.

 

A leg blown off or a foot turned rot,

a peach-bruised arm, a wound seared hot,

a trench sick-wet for what men we’ve got,

a hell last seen by the men we’ve not.

 

Is Verdun nice this time of year?

The world’s gone black; few men know cheer.

But I hold on for your heart held dear,

for your small hand, should dark skies clear.

 

Oh, George, you make these tired eyes glisten,

‘gave father your voice; my sweet, he listened. 

They say not long ’til boats roll waves,

bring brave men home for far-off graves. 

 

To stand beneath the English sun,

and feel your kiss as two ‘comes one.

To lie beneath the fields of stars,

trace fingers pale across your scars.

 

A quiet dance on London streets,

a drink where two strangers still meet,

and dream a world of ever-spring,

of family, church and home and King. 

 

November brings the winter chill,

the frost biting for blood not spill’d.

And now they talk of one last push,

a thousand winds for one great rush.

 

Who knows what strength the Germans gather,

against a storm, can guns still matter?

The land out there has long bled-dry, 

the breeze above whispers a sigh.

 

And now the words of wealthy men,

command me stall my aching pen,

and fix knives long as morning shadow.

Goodbye, my love, ’til I next-

 

These fields of France, so bald of thistle,

George, stand up lad, mark the whistle!

Rifle high summit that trench,

Leave little left to feed those French.

 

[Watching from the English position]

Their guns applaud across the line,

a music sweet as well-kept wine.

But that’s no hymn men, that’s a dirge,

a funeral sound against our courage.

 

Press on chaps, they will yet yield;

we’ll leave the French an empty field,

where ghosts still speak of English pride,

on memory stones to those who’ve died.

 

[Rain on the Somme]

At last our charge their bullets meet,

our trudge to doom hacked at its feet,

as mowing fast they cut men down,

a valour fit for King and Crown.

 

Call them back, we’ve lost the day;

they’ve bullets still they’ve not yet sprayed.

Find us when there’s far less sorrow,

I want what’s left for more tomorrow.

 

[Report arriving from the battle]

Four from five, Sir, lost or slain,

that small gray hill, Sir, yet to gain.

And weather norm the Irish bain,

now swiftly thorns as English pain. 

 

Bury the thousands dead in the inch we’ve crept, 

hold back your tears, enough clouds wept.

Bogged down our surge in heaving muck,

I’ll keep my job if I’ve still luck. 

 

Draw up the names of those you find,

the letters, boy, I’ll let you sign.

 

[A month later, at the close of the Somme]

A letter, Sir, for one who’s dead.

Well come now, boy, give what it said.

But, Sir, words tender, hearts at home.

A general, boy, I’ll have you know. 

 

“I dreamt last night of those fields in France,

of silent screams, of prayers unans’ed

But if these words reach you, by luck-by chance,

know I dreamt too of our last dance.”

Mist Rock-Chapter 1-At Summer’s End (Excerpt #2)

Marke shuffled through the dark streets of Mist Rock, ducking into alleys as city patrols wandered past. There weren’t many guards stationed on the path he’d decided to take to the gatehouse, but those who were would happily elect to stop him, try bleed a minute out of the long shift ahead of them. And if they saw who he was, they could open the whole night up at the neck.

In the lower quarters of the city, the rows of thatched houses bunched together, nestled one another as they slept. It wasn’t quite yet midnight, but almost all of their lights were extinguished, a single candle in a corner of Winden Street the only one left standing guard. In Marke’s own house, he knew his father would be doing the same, sitting on the third step of their stairs with his gaze fixed on the door. That was always how Marke found him. He’d been there when Uncle Derek died, when Nadia fell from Dawnbreaker and when his son came home late after kissing Lynia Duler at the summer festival. That last time, he’d winked, risen without a word and gone off to bed with a smile on his face. In some ways, Marke felt he’d always be on those stairs, watching, waiting for something that never seemed to come.

A couple of dimmed figures moved on the wall overhead, but they didn’t glance down at Marke as he passed beneath the shadow of the gatehouse. He pulled back his hood, wiped some of the trail dust from his clothes, and pushed hard on the oak door into Sir Ritchenn’s accommodations.

***

Inside the fire had sunk down to a few flames, waving lazy side to side, beckoning him into the small office. Marke saw immediately that he was alone, spied another closed door opposite him and wondered was Sir Ritchenn within. The air, heavy with the smell of smoke and charred meat, made his eyes water. He tried and failed not to cough. Listening for a reply, he heard nothing and decided to study the room.

A solitary shelf stretched across one wall, cramped with jars, scrolls and a bag of what once might have been food. A wooden chest sat underneath it, decorated with the marks of the Aelia, though much of the paint had been scratched off. On the wall opposite woven tapestries hung, their sewn images marginally more clear, one of them depicting the Great Northern Storm where the King had fought the rebellious Nareland lords. In the centre, a couple of worm-eaten chairs had been placed around a large table. Marke frowned down at the contents: a few plates of old meals and a cracked mug. Hardly fitting for the captain of the gatehouse, he thought.

Then, as he considered whether he should be there at all, he heard commotion in the room next door, noise like a barrel rolling from a ship. The door smacked open before Marke could escape, rattling its hinges and then the single largest man he’d ever seen stooped into the room.

“Luken, I believe?” he said cheerily.

Marke opened his mouth to answer, but came up with nothing, heard only the crackles in the fireplace. The knight took a step closer, looming up over him, his grin almost child-like.

“No, you can’t be Luken. He passed in yesterday. I presume you are here about the academy though?”

Marke nodded his head, watched the giant of a man turn and poke through his shelf.

“You know I have this list somewhere. I’m sure I can find some ink if you give me-“

“My name is Marke. I want to sign up. I want to be a guard of the realm and pledge my life to the sword.”

He winced. The words had spilled out before he could stop them.

The knight paused in his search, half-turning to look at him, “Yes. Marke. You’re the tailor’s boy. Yes, I do know your father.”

Marke’s heart quivered. Very few people knew his father, not in the friendly sense anyway. And Dad never mentioned Sir Ritchenn, he thought. Suddenly he felt naked, exposed against a man in full armour.

Sir Ritchenn sank into the battered chair, unrolled the long sheet on the table. He looked to weigh it down with a mug, saw it was wet and reconsidered. Casually, he passed Marke the ink and quill.

“Just sign your name and we’re out of here. Well, you are at least,” the knight said, looking around his office with obvious disappointment.

Marke cleared his throat. “On this day-“

“Give the formalities a rest, boy. Especially if you don’t mean them,” he added interrupting.

Marke gave a weak smile and nodded, unsure whether Sir Ritchenn was teasing him. His hands were covered in sweat. Wiping them on his cloak, he uncorked the ink, dipped the quill fast into the black pool and drew it out again before he changed his mind. Only then did he look at the list.

As expected, it was packed with names, none of which Marke could put a face to. He saw second names that were memorable enough: Helm, Dracus, Fletchen, Erden. He knew that a Drimmer served on the council, so it was interesting to see that signature scrawled down there too. He found space at the bottom and added his own, then raised his head to Sir Ritchenn. The knight was busy lighting a candle and kept his eyes on the task. But when he spoke, his voice was soft, almost honey-warm, taking Marke by surprise. “Well, go on. boy. Give your mist to it.”

Marke dropped the quill and knelt at the table. He pulled the list down in front of him and sighed, wondering had his dad been as nervous when he’d signed up. If there was a time to go running to the tailor life-to any other life-this was his final chance.

And then, quick and quiet, the single breath came, a small puff over his signature. It was done.

His hands trembled as he passed the page back to Sir Ritchenn. The knight ran his eyes down the scroll, grinned and gave him a thumb of approval. Marke bowed his head and turned, felt the knight slouch heavy into his seat behind.

“Boy,” he called out before Marke reached the door. “Hold your head up. If you let them think you’re ashamed, you should be”.

Marke paused, considering the advice as behind, Sir Ritchenn fiddled with his pages. Hastily, he made a gesture for him to wait.

“Your family name, does your old man really spell it like that? Always thought he wrote that with a K,” he said.

Marke smiled. In that moment, for whatever reason, he knew he had made the right choice. “As it is written, Sir,” he said, turning so the knight could see the light cross his face. “I am Marke Calin, son of Thyron Calin. It would be an honour to serve here when I finish”.

Sir Ritchenn stacked the pages neatly, measured Marke with his eyes and laughed. “The honour would be mine. Mr. Calin. Now, enough of the formalities. Go! Tell your father!”

***

Marke shivered as he met the night air, but decided not to pull his cloak any closer. Tonight, there would be no hooded disguise.

High above the city, the stars were stirring.

Arise a Knight: Social Justice and the Fantasy Genre

For the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking hard about the genre I’m writing in.

Perhaps that’s a curious way to open a blog post. You’re welcome to read it again.

It’s a sentiment that might seem a little odd, a little obvious, maybe even a little expected. But while there’s always a few sparks of fantasy to be found in my mind, lately it’s been a raging inferno. By the time the same fire burned out and I had a chance to sift through the ashes, I came to a single, disturbing conclusion.

I’m terrified that my words won’t matter.

You might wonder exactly what I mean by that. As always, I’m going to take a roundabout way to explain. But first, I’m going to have to ask you to kneel.

knight


You take another breath and stare at the altar in front of you. The stone, polished and white, is the only thing not covered in shadow. The candles the priest lit hours before have long since fallen asleep, leaving the room stuffy-dark, warm and cold at the same time. Your knees groan where they meet the stepped floor and you grimace, pray that soon they too will slip into slumber. The nightlong vigil yawns, drags, whispers a promise that it’s not long ’til dawn. And when the sun does rise, you know you may yet rise with it. A tap to either shoulder-that’s all that’s left to be done. You stare at your robes; the white, red and black cloth spills freely onto the floor. You wonder for a moment about the significance of colour, then sighing, you return to your prayers.


Social justice is a concept that has always found its ways into writing. As far back as Ancient Greece, Plato was wondering about the ideal state, a promised land of equal opportunity. That same idea, veiled by language and time, cropped up all over the world. The French Revolution, the Suffragettes, the Great March on Washington. All of these movements were born in hearts, then in pages, then finally out on the streets. Ideas, not all of them similar, were grown, documented and distributed by writers, many of them writers of fiction. Some were even writers of fantasy.

Today, multiplied in the information age, social changes are moving faster toward us, sounding different by the time they rush past. It’s becoming a sort of doppler effect, a wheel accelerating so fast that we’ve bought more personal freedoms in the last 200 years than we had in the previous 200,000. At the same time, this progress has left tension between generations in its wake. And though much ground has been gained by writers, it could be argued fantasy found it hard to keep pace.

knight2

Part of this is due to the fact that up until fifty years ago, nobody would have considered it a genre to start with. The big names-the Tolkiens and the Le Guins and the C.S. Lewis’-changed all that, defined something that we now recognise. All the same, the genre was largely ignored by the popular masses until the turn of the millennium. But then the 2000s brought film deals and Rowling and the Game-of-Throne-lead surge of a grittier kind of fantasy loved by readers and TV producers alike. Suddenly the social justice of fantasy worlds was being debated. Long unchallenged (long ignored), they found themselves sadly outdated.

That’s not to say there aren’t fantasy novels out that broke the wheel while it was spinning. If you’d like a list, here is just one place you could get started. But many of the names here aren’t household (even by fantasy reading standards), and that’s where the genre gets shaky.

It’s only now that we see big fantasy novels emerging that challenge gender, race, sexual orientation etc. Long kept at the fringes of the campfire, these novels are now bathed in light, shining for all to see. In terms of the role of women, for example, one could argue that the biggest steps were made by urban and post-apocalyptic fantasy first. The Hunger Games, Divergent, Twilight. All of them, merited by critics or not, made huge steps in terms of women both reading and writing fantasy, a genre long considered the boys-club of the literary world. More importantly, they littered the fantasy universe with characters these readers could identify with. Slowly but surely, ground is being made with other marginalized groups too.

knight3

I suppose why I wrote this blog is that ultimately, facing into editing a novel, I know the time for voiceless pages is over. A first draft has to have a plot, characters, maybe even a twist or two. But edited work ought to have more than that (surely). By the time Mist Rock (and I) come out the other door of the chapel, I’d be hoping to see challenge, strength, meaning. I’d be hoping to see voice.

A lot of that, as it always does, will mean writing for the times. I often think that’s the wall fantasy writers have to climb: talking about one world when they’re in another. But all fiction (hell, all art), has to say something. And if it can say something relevant, something lasting, that’s enough to make a few words matter.

I guess that’s why I’ve been thinking about my genre a lot lately. Kyle has a world to re-visit, and he knows now that the characters have to speak not only for themselves, but for the reader, for the world that they can’t see through silver-glass. They’re going to have to fight a lot more battles than they expected to. Oftentimes, they mightn’t win. But I’ll ask them to fight them anyway, even if only because there’s plenty out there who’ll oppose them. After all, some people are still growing up in a world where to ask for reasonable social change makes them an enemy of the state, a vigilante, a rebel. These “social justice warriors” have hardly a banner between them. What they will have, I hope, is armies of people to flock to it.

We can’t drown the worlds we create in the troubled social politics of our own. Even so, the very best fantasy is rooted in reality. That’s why Harry longed for his parents. It’s why Ned Stark kept to his honour. It’s why Frodo wasn’t destroying a ring.

It’s why Frodo was saving the Shire.

knight4


Understand, the pen is not mightier than the sword; it is the sword, and you’re the writer who is wielding it. And though you have fought many battles with a fist closed round its handle, there was once a time it was new to you, a time you picked it up warily and tried to bleed a few scratchy lines about the whereabouts of dragons. But blunt though those first words were, right there and then, (though you wouldn’t know it for some time), that silver sword gave you a voice. A silent, shivering voice. A voice you hoped would grow louder.

And while there are no vows as a writer, there’s a wide world to fight for all the same.

So if you do rise, rise well. Arise a knight.

And should your sword prove as sharp as you hoped for, remember the promise to give a few voices back.