The Last of the Flames

[The following is something I thought up for a <1000 words story challenge on sweek.com. The aim was few characters, but epic fantasy. Enjoy!]

Tara watched as the white bird climbed towards the clouds.

“Just a little further,” she whispered, clutching her spirit stone close.

The slender little bird danced left. A second later, a black claw ripped the air where it had been. Tara breathed a sigh. The talons belonged to a winged serpent, one of the many giving her messenger chase. A haze of arrows from below joined the pursuit. But it wasn’t enough. With one great flap of its wings, the raven stole away. Two heartbeats later, it disappeared from view.

“For the Emperor?” the man beside Tara asked. Gerald, her father’s Captain. His armour was a soft shade of silver in the twilight. His hair, framing his face, was traced with lines of grey. Even after all these years, he still found reason to smile.

“I’ve told him we’ll hold the fortress at any cost,” Tara whispered.

Gerald banged a fist to his chest. “A light that never dies,” he said. His voice was braver than his face, which now fought off a frown. Perhaps he considered that part of his duty.

Tara nodded, turned her attention to the horde ringing her fortress. There were thousands of them, spread out in colour across the land like a patchwork quilt. The noise of their hungry breathing alone was like thunder. All manner of crude steel rose from their ranks. Pikes, spears, swords. They advanced slow across the field. She’d seen something like it only once before.

It was in the months before her mother died, when her father thought to build a garden. The two of them sat there for hours, as though whatever precious breath her mother had left might last longer beneath the trees.

But soon, the Winter Wane took her, as it did everybody else who suffered its chill. The garden then turned to rot before the spring. All that was left there now were weeds. Weeds and half-memories.

The white walls of the fortress, on the other hand, shone even as the sun melted into the horizon. Evredel: her family’s castle, a beacon of heavenly fire known across the north. Among the grasses this far from the empire, it was the last flower left.

“A blood sacrifice,” Gerald said, pointing to a spot in the rabble. “They’re summoning their God to-”
His voice trailed off.

At the front of the enemy lines, an old man sank to his knees. Even from the wall, Tara recognised the blue glow, though it was lost to the shadows of the horde. His name was Verden, the Water Spirit. Tara preferred to call him Dad. She felt the blood throbbing in her ear as the Barbarian King trudged up behind him.

He’d only left two days before, riding out ahead of a great host as the first light of dawn kissed the sky. “Home for dinner, sweet spirit.” Those had been his only words. The saddest part was that Tara had believed them. The same man, now ruined and chained, tried to stumble to his feet. The Barbarian kicked him back into the mud.

Gerald’s hand found Tara’s shoulder. He probably thought she’d try to save him, but she knew he was beyond their aid. Even if she had time to open the gate, it was the last thing Verden would want.

“A river runs the surest course,” he’d once told her. The words of a calculated man.

Her father seemed to give her a moment’s glance, then the axe took his head from his shoulders. Tara collapsed against the battlements at the same time his body met the floor. By the time she had blinked the first tear, the drums had already started.

Over the noise, Gerald was calling to a soldier. But that was only what Tara saw. She’d retreated into her mind too far to suffer sound.

“Your Grace,” Gerald mouthed, and Tara realised she’d just become Queen. She saw a bundle in the Captain’s arms, hugged as close as mother and child. The Inheritance Sword. Gerald was choosing the middle of a war to make her a spirit.

How can anyone be expected to become great at a time like this?

She had her hand on the sword when the answer came.

The first few inches of steel slid free. The metal pulsed with light, flashing with the colours of the elements. Water, earth, wind. The only shade she didn’t see was the one her people needed.

Beyond, the battle had begun. Tides of barbarians crashed into the wall, shrieking as they listed blood-drunk up ladders. Some of the monsters they tamed lapped over with them, feasting on whatever they found. The air carried the song of steel, the smell of fear and the iron taste of blood. Tara could only watch as the garrison crumbled.

That was when she heard the gasp.

“A light that never dies,” Gerald whispered, falling to his knees. “A light that lives!”

The sword in Tara’s hand stole the colour of flame. The fire, white-hot, erupted inside her too, toasting her blood, wreathing her heart, licking every fold of her skin. By the time she’d started to glow, her men were already cheering.

“To arms,” she shouted. Her voice, as though it were cannon fire, boomed across the fortress. Everywhere men rallied and charged back to the walls. A great snake, coiled round a pale tower, was the first to feel their wrath. It took a dozen spears and skewered, fell to the earth.

Out on the plains, the Barbarian King shuffled his hand. His great war machines lumbered forward. Soon, their missiles filled the sky, screaming down on Evredel. A few pocked the gate and blew it from its hinges.

Tara leapt to the courtyard, felt her fiery cloak wriggling behind her. She met the earth with a small puff of ash. She took a deep breath, flexed her fingers on her sword, and turned.

Beyond the ruin of the gate, through the ghost-grey smoke, the barbarians roared.

They were coming.

As I Edit (Mist Rock Chapter 3)

I’ve decided to try give you a better insight into my novel, Mist Rock, as I work on the second draft.4d0e8e5df3e02d2679d57fc15032dcfd.jpg

At the moment, I’m editing Chapter 3, “Leaving”. I finished work on the Prologue, Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 last week, and am finally starting to find some consistency in the process.

That being said, I’ll admit that up until now I’ve had it kind of easy. The prologue, where we find Queen Farelia fighting for her life atop the Arakil Mountains, had been planned in such detail that the chapter almost wrote itself. The same could be said of Chapters 1 & 2, which focus on Marke’s decision to leave Mist Rock for the Golden Lance Academy.

Which brings me to Chapter 3, where the plot starts to pick up the pace.

There’s far more direct conflict in this chapter. Not only does Marke have to say goodbye to his family, but we start to see just how dangerous the world around him has become. It’s a sort of “curtain-raising” chapter, a few thousand words that takes Marke beyond the safety of the walls of Mist Rock while also delving into the great war on the horizon. That, in itself, is the first book in the Mist Rock series summed up too, so deep down I feel this is a chapter I have to get right

We’ve all had to leave home at some point, and though it definitely isn’t the most emotionally charged moment in the story, it’s a huge step for Marke all the same. That makes it a huge step for me.

I worked on half the chapter last night-the half that sees Marke say goodbye to his mother (Hylia), sister (Nadia) and father over a few scenes I hope give some feel as to how torn he is. I didn’t want them to be melodramatic, which given my flowery style was certainly a risk. Instead, I tried to say more with fewer words.

As the first book is seen solely from Marke’s POV, we only meet Hylia and Nadia on a number of other occasions. This concerns me, not least because the Golden Lance Academy is an all-boys institution, and so the opportunities for my female cast suffer. It’s doubly annoying as Nadia and Hylia both play major roles as the series progresses. I’ve considered dropping in a “Nadia POV” at some point, but am wary of disrupting the story.

I’ll have to keep it in mind as the editing proceeds.

I’ll leave you with some ‘rough stuff from the middle of the chapter, where Marke and his father enter the Aelia square.

“Do you think it will be open war, Dad? Does it feel like it did before the Uprising?”

His father made another face. “I’m afraid it does. But back then things were different. We had her, for one thing,” he said and gestured to a statue in front of them.

They had just entered the Aelia Square, where kings and queens of old were immortalised in stone. Some of them held swords, others hammers, one a bundle of flowers. The statue his father pointed to was the newest, scarcely two decades old. Even fixed in stone, Farelia Aelia looked impossibly beautiful.

“They still haven’t repaired it,” Marke said, nodding at the fissure that ran down the front of Farelia’s dress. The winter before, a terrible storm had descended on the Mistlands, wreaked the kind of havoc that hadn’t been seen since the famous Wailing Storm centuries before.

“They will in time,” his father said. “She mightn’t have been queen long, but the people loved Farelia. They will remember it before the end.”

Marke nodded, surveyed some of the other faces who were worshipped as Gods. One of them was Dia Aelia, who had been queen during the Aelia War, where her cousin rose up against her, gathering support from all over the realm.

Her statue was clear, the stone polished white as snow. But even now masons worked on it, tried to stop it from crumbling. The same hammers rang all year round, so much so that Marke wondered could the damage ever be undone.

Those cracks, he knew, must have been somewhere inside.

Mist Rock-The Hook

Hi again 🙂

Quick post that came to mind (also check out the homepage it’s fresh)

I often wonder, if my dreams came true, and I had to pick one or two lines to try best sell my story, which would those lines be. I’ve in some ways settled on the end of chapter 8, a chapter entitled “The First of the Thunder”.

Perhaps it’s fitting it ends on a rumbling note, a warning for the story to come. Enjoy!

Marke returned his gaze to the hill.

Soon, one shadow became clear. It was a solitary mounted figure, silhouetted against the pale ghost-light of a green dawn.

He swallowed.

Alongside him, Damir’s expression wavered too, but his eyes never left the hill far-off.

“They are the Exiles,” he said.

 

How to Create the History of a Fantasy World

Hello there!

I decided to upload a quick post to answer a question I received today. It simply read:

How much history does a fantasy world need?

It’s a good question, and one we fantasy writers often ask ourselves at the “worldbuilding” stage. Worldbuilding, which involves creating not only history, but geography, culture, politics, religion etc, can be a tough ask for many authors, especially those who are not well versed in these topics as they relate to the actual world. It can be hard, for example, to imagine the economy of your kingdom if you don’t have a basic understanding of the principles of supply, demand, currency and trade. And if your novel is largely set in the bustling streets of a city port, then the research you carry out in this area becomes even more pivotal to the realism of your world, to the overall success of your story.

In order to create the history of a fantasy world, you first have to realise that every aspect of worldbuilding is secretly hidden within it. Trade disputes start wars, weather changes bring famines, and people migrate to find water and food. Every part of your history-whether it be a timeline (my personal favourite), a “lost book” or a series of ancient texts-should follow this guiding principle, a principle that says people react to the world around them. Wars, for instance, do not start because someone steals Helen of Troy; they start because people lust after power, or land, or resources.

Even so, you should remember that history lends romance to these stories. It talks about heroes like Achilles, and quests, and love, even when the reality is far less inspiring. So when you do write a history, remember that oftentimes the victors will twist the words to serve themselves, or erase parts that undermine them. To put it simply: real history lies; the history of your fantasy world should do the same.

As for how much history you should create, that really depends on the story you are writing. If your main character lives in a nomadic tribe, oral history (songs, poems etc) may be quite important, whereas written text may be reserved for religious purposes. On the other hand, if the world your story is set in experienced a catastrophe (e.g. natural disaster, civil war), then some parts of history may have been lost. Many fantasy authors also use this when there has been a change of power or the extinction of a race. It’s important to note, this technique should not be abused. It frustrates readers when an author hides history for the sole purpose of creating “mystery” where none should exist. Remember, it only takes one person to share a story; history is not so easily lost.

I personally feel you should only create as much history as your story demands. This can be difficult, because worldbuilding is a joy in itself, but it’s also a writer’s sinkhole. If you want to get your story down on paper, you have to accept that at some point you have to stop building your world and instead start delving into it. In many cases, writers admit they don’t get a feel for their world anyway until they let loose a few characters. So rather than meticulously designing a system of currency, write a scene where your main character explores a market. Shouts, bargaining, thieves running through the stalls-this is all far easier to imagine than a page on taxes and coins.

As I’ve said, you should try to avoid writing history where it’s not needed. If your story hinges on a famous sword, for example, then the history of how it was forged will be crucial to your plot. If, on the other hand, you have a space on your map marked “desert lands”, where nobody goes, then perhaps spending hours writing about the culture of the desert tribes isn’t the best use of your time. Like I said, such an exercise can be rewarding, but it won’t get your story down on paper.

I’ll write more about history in another post. But for now, I’m going to leave you with some of my own, which I feel is crucial to the plot which happens 300 years after the event described below. As a result, you’ll see here I’ve explored “The Battle of the Thousand Fields” in quite some detail, switching between an authoritative historian voice and a more poetic first-hand voice as I saw fit.

The pivotal battle is fought outside the ruins of Mistwall. There, in the once-home of Elerend Aelia, the loyalists meet the rebels at the Battle of the Thousand Fields. Queen Dia rides there herself with her husband Owenn Helix, supported by two armies of Mist Rock, the garrison of Cadewall, the troops of Talmoneer, the Nareland King Artador Rakus and his Ember Cloaks, men of the Vaster, and Arlien knights. The rebels, led by Elerend Aelia himself, come in the form of the central Amarin army, Gargrin mercenaries and lesser divisions of Greatbay. All told, the rebel force is said to be over thirty thousand strong. The Queen’s force is known to be much smaller.

For the first three days of the battle, there is little fighting; the rebels defeat Cadewall troops and the Arlien knights inflict casualties on the rebel’s left flank. On the fourth day of the battle, Elerend tries to catch the Queen early. At the last moment, the Ember Cloaks charger a much larger force of Amarin cavalry, leading to a pitched battle amongst the summer gardens. By sunset, the Amarin army is said to have lost half its light cavalry.

On the fifth and final day of the battle, Elerend Aelia rides out ahead of his lines. He holds a red cloak high above him, waving it at the top of his lance. From her own camp, Queen Dia looks through a spyglass, sees the familiar red cloak of her brother Baylian. Eye-witness accounts tell us what happened next:

On seeing her dead brother’s helmet paraded atop the spear of the Rebel-King, Queen Dia ran for her horse. Her husband, King Owenn Helix III, attempted to stop her. Failing, he called for his own destrier and sword. Queen Dia then rode to the head of the column, her hair flying wild, her own  red cloak flapping bold against a pink dawn. And her anger was fierce, her sorrow so deep that all at once the men took up their arms, cheering her name as she turned her steed into the field.

Across the torn gardens, Elerend flew back to his army, the southern hoard screaming as they crawled forward. But our Queen, armourless, drew out her father’s sword and charged. Behind her came King Owenn and the knights of the royal guard and the Arlien and King Artador with his brave Ember Cloaks. And those without horses charged too, down the hill into the Thousand Fields where the rebels cowered before them. Though I saw it not, they say Queen Dia broke first on their lines, shattering spears and casting shields asunder as she cut her way to the treacherous member of her house. And there, amid the ruin of his army, Elerend met his end in fear and in regret, as they say before he fell he cried out to his Queen for forgiveness, and then meeting the dirt, was done. Seeing their general fall, the Amarin forces went into rout, turning swords on each other or on themselves.

And before the setting of the sun, the fields beyond the mist-city were silent and Queen Dia was seen walking among the dead and the dying, her head hung heavy in prayer.”

I’d love to hear about how YOU approach history. Do you write it first, or create the backstory as you go?

Mist Rock, fantasy and why I want to build a community

Hello again!

Have been quiet on the blog front of late. Mist Rock, a fantasy series I am working on, is now in the edit phase and I’m very excited to see that the more time I give to it, the more it starts to look like the world I’ve imagined.

The first book is a story in its own, centred around Marke and his time at the Golden Lance Academy, but it’s also the launch-pad for everything that is to follow. It’s no surprise really that I want to call the story “Rise of the Exiles”, as it very much is an introduction, while the second book, “The Burning of the South”, is exactly the sort of open war that can be expected of epic fantasy.

I’m writing snippets of the latter as I go (yes, it feels like cheating!) solely to try link the two stories as best I can. The second book will involve more characters, more conflict and more of the world I’ve created, so hopefully it will help.

As I edit, I’d love to start building a community to hear about the other fantasy worlds out there. I want to hear what works for your novel, what doesn’t and why you’ll probably leave a few of those guilty pleasures in anyway 😉

I’ll leave you with one of the excerpts from “The Burning of the South” I mentioned, where Captain Damir approaches the camp of the 27th Legion.

Enjoy, and hope it’s a good week in writing! 🙂

“I’m here to relieve Lord Kelvin,” Damir said, passing Sir Primus’ letter into the man’s hand. The sentry quickly scanned the page. “Is he here?” Damir asked.
The watchman looked up at him, gave a faint smile. “He’s here alright.”
“Well, can I speak with him?”
The man shrugged. “That would depend on the Gods you keep.”
Damir furrowed his brows.
The watchman gulped, folded the letter as he’d been handed it. “Evidently, nobody told you that Lord Kelvin is dead.” He made a face. “In fact, he’s been dead for some time.”
“What? How?”
The man cleared his throat. “He died in the field.”
Damir blinked. “I wasn’t told anything about a battle.”
“Forgive me,” the man said. “It was…..a different sort of field.” His gaze wandered to a place over Damir’s shoulder.
Damir turned, stared into the treeline. There was a small clearing in the forest-a patch of earth overgrown with weeds. He squinted, saw the hint of a small mound. A grave.
“You’re joking?”
The man swallowed. “He was drunk, Sir. He fell and split his head on a rock.”
Damir rounded on the sentry. “Don’t call me Sir. I’m a commander, not a knight.” He shot a look back to the mound. “Clearly there’s a difference.” He glanced toward the camp, searched for some sign of life. “Who’s second in command?”
The man in front of him gripped his spear, tried to stand a little taller.
Damir sighed. “This time, please tell me you’re joking.”

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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. HopeHope 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 🙂

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.

Rise of Empire-Fantasy made economic once more

It’s been an interesting week in reading.

Just 3 days ago, I published a review of The Three Musketeers, which if you read, detailed how the book was a long, tedious and overall underwhelming read. And so it is funny, that just 72 hours later, I get to write a review that claims exactly the opposite.

It took me just one long weekend to rip through “Rise of Empire”, which comes as Sullivan’s sequel to his successful debut fantasy novel “A Theft of Swords”. Both these books were originally self published, and are each split into two parts. However here, for simplicity’s sake, I will consider them in their commercial format only.

Theft of Swords was actually the novel I dubbed my “book of the year” in 2015, when after receiving it as a gift, I was pleasantly surprised by the simple yet gripping fantasy tale I found within. Sullivan is a master of what I call “Economic Fantasy” (a term I believe I’ve invented). It’s not a ubiquitous skill by any means. Many well-regarded fantasy authors get caught up in complex plot devices, sprawling countries and a list of characters that runs right off the page. Sullivan circumvents this; pushing his plot forward so fast that it is impossible for it to gather dust. He trims everywhere, and keeps only the characters and locations that are absolutely necessary.

And now, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say his worldbuilding is simple. Quite the opposite actually. The world laid out before us seems minute in his first installment, where literally one half of the book takes place on what you could call “one set”. But where Theft of Swords is condensed, Rise of Empire is like an explosion. Whole sections of the realm Sullivan creates become focal to the plot. What is perhaps more impressive again is how they are accessed. Travel in any fantasy novel that can stagnate a plot if it is not dealt with carefully. Here, Sullivan wisely blends the plot and the travel seemlessly, so much so that our protagonists Royce and Hadrian cross half the known world without it feeling laborious or drawn out.

These two characters, who form “Riyria”, after which the series takes its name, are perhaps the most enjoyable part of the tale. Characterisation can often be undercooked in plot-driven novels, but Sullivan refuses to let this be an issue. Instead, his main duo almost leap off the page, so much so that a master swordsman and an elven thief can almost be related to. Sullivan leaned his first novel heavily on the quick wit, action sequences and fascinating adventures of his protagonist pair, but in Rise of Empire his cast of characters begins to flush out. Added to the foreground are Princess Arista (given far more scope than the first novel), Modina (originally Thrace in the first installment) and Amilia, who only appears in this book. I’m not often one to point such nuances out, but it is key that each of these characters are female. Up until the last decade, nearly all fantasy novels revolved solely around men. Significant steps have been made since then, but a large amount of these belong to the Katniss Everdeens of the urban fantasy world. High fantasy is still awash with male characters, and so having three well-written female characters is a breath of fresh air. In fantasy, women are often painted as either damsels in distress or super killers without any faults. It is hard to understand how so many great fantasy writers can create whole worlds out of nothing, but find the notion of creating a believable female character impossible. Sullivan shoulders this responsibility well. Arista is endearing, strong, learned and brave, and it is clear the author has moulded her with as much care as he has Hadrian and Royce.

Sullivan treats romance with similar deftness. He achieves a fine balance between the non-existent and the overdone, and has the motivations of love and friendship cleverly intertwined with the traits of his characters.

Action is rife in the series, and where Theft of Swords was brimming, Rise of Empire is drowning. Some may argue it swamps the characters, but with the story driving onwards at such a high pace, the action always dances to the beat and never feels out of place. It is wild at times, but so too are our characters, and though they always seem to escape danger with relative ease, a shadow still hangs over the cast that feels very Game of Thrones-esque. Characters seem safe, but every so often we get the subtle reminder they are not, and as the story progresses this threat only ever looms larger.

The plot centres on the kingdom of Melengar, of which Arista is Princess and our main characters royal protectors, fighting against the newly formed empire. This takes us to the south, where Nationalists are battling the same foe, but not yet in one alliance. Arista’s goal is to unite their forces, but even as they do so, the world at large seems to shrink and more enemies come into play.

It’s intrigue at it’s best, and with so many revelations popping up as the story progresses, the stage is set for the climactic “Heir of Novron”, which should finish this trilogy with the storm it deserves!

 

The City by Stella Gemmell-Game of Thrones meets roman history

It was curiosity that made me pick up this fantasy novel. Firstly, the cover was shiny and well designed. Granted that’s the worst reason ever to buy something, but I stand by it. Secondly, and probably more importantly, the name stood out. Gemmell, a name not unused in the fantasy novel world. So it came as no surprise when I found out the author, Stella Gemmell, was wife to the late fantasy best-seller, David Gemmell.

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The City is the debut fantasy novel of Stella Gemmell (though granted she has worked on some of David’s books in the past). Coming into the game as a former journalist, the question as to whether this could succeed was just as intriguing as the summary itself. At circa seven hundred pages in this re-published edition, the book seemed to justify purchase. The premise of the story was basic enough at first glance; a large city is at war with its neighbours, but deep beneath it all, something else could be going on. The City is ruled by the omniscient emperor, a man they call the immortal, and one who is rarely seen outside the palace. Five noble families, claimed by some to be god-like, govern the city in its entirety, and help to raise armies to fight the war that is raging on all fronts. But below the city something else is stirring. We first meet Elijah, Emly, and the old man Bartellus, each of them living in a sewer world where the forgotten go to die or the remembered go to hide. The underworld teems with rats, murderers and conspiracy. Outside on the mainland, characters like Fell Aron Lee and the warrior woman Indaro are locked in combat with the enemy, known widely as “Blueskins”.

With flood waters rising, the foundations of the city begin to crumble, but its the people’s belief in their emperor that is truly showing the signs of faltering. The reader is cast forward eight years, where each of our characters is now on a path unknown to them that will lead them all to a plot to end the war. Our characters now fight their beliefs, their virtues and their morals, rather than the multi-national enemy which is pressing its advantage in the field of battle.

Personally I found the opening to this novel compelling. Gemmell succeeds in giving us an interesting setting to start with; that of a subterranean world haunted by cannibals and the ever potent darkness. Many of the author’s characters achieve independence in the mind of the reader, though later on when the novel propels eight years into the future, earlier characters now lose their distinctive flavour as we leave the sewer world in favour of the nation’s battlefields. The chapters of Fell Aron Lee and Indaro make this transition easier, as their world is interesting enough to help us keep going. Fell Aron Lee, now a leader of his own battalion is given a fascinating backstory which really ties the whole piece together, and perhaps marks him as one of the primary characters.

Characterisation of the emperor is done in such a way as to always leave the reader guessing, a purposeful act I would assume. The other noble families emerge to the reader in the middle of the book, and take on a very “Lannister” feel-the reader never certain exactly what it is they want. Gemmell done this for both factions of the war, a feature which makes our opening premise that The City is the good side increasingly doubtful.

The third quarter of the novel, when the writer skillfully weaves her separate threads into one piece is easily the best part of the novel. At this point we really feel the ‘oh so that’s why x happened’ surfacing, a knack I always appreciate in a good fantasy novel, as it shows the writer’s aptitude for controlling their story. Here, Gemmell also begins to blur the edges of her timeline, so events happen out of sync with one another, and as multiple characters now show up in each chapter, the pace seems to quicken and the tension comes across quite well.

The climax, for me, was the only disappointment. Well, perhaps the loss of individualized characters near the end was also  cause to complain, but this is a common aspect we overlook in the fantasy genre. The ending seemed far too dragged out, with my eyes alarmingly noticing there was a hundred and fifty pages left when I felt things should have been wrapping up. I imagine Gemmell wanted the ending to be significant, and not just end in a chapter or two as is common when writers see the finishing line in sight. That being said, I feel Gemmell lost control of her conspirator notions at this point, and segments of the story that probably should have showed up earlier if they were at all significant jumped right into the closing stages. The fighting scenes at the climax came across as languid and only present to chop down some of the less pivotal players in the game. given the third quarter of the book, I think Gemmell unfortunately gave the reader too much freedom in imagining things as they wanted,so that the alternative ending she actually wrote did not fit what it feels they were promised. For example, George RR Martin,who promises you pretty much from the start that you had best not get attached to anything or anyone, avoids disappointing in this sense after the first novel. Gemmell however, had the task of keeping the reader interested in her characters, while also providing the bitter-sweet ending the novel probably needed for realism, all in one book. Thus, we kind of leave with a sour taste in our mouth, as though we were betrayed. It’s features such as this that spur on the world of fantasy fiction, where spurned readers lash out with their own alternative ending. But some aspects of the finish did keep me satisfied, and overall even a shocking ending would not have diminished the respect which was already building up in me for the author on her maiden voyage in the fantasy realm.

So, if asked, I would recommend this novel to anyone interested in fantasy/historical fiction. It avoids outlandish fantasy for much of the book, so that you don’t need to be #GandalfsNumberOneFan to enjoy the plot. Given the third quarter may have been one of the best I’ve read since Martin had Ned Stark snooping around King’s Landing, I would give this book an A, and hope Gemmell churns out something else soon.

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