Hello DZA readers! My name is Dan Ruffolo, and I’m the writer for the SFF review/article site Strange Currencies. Christina got in touch with me to see if I was interested in doing an exchange of guest posts with her, and this being my first chance to do something like that, I jumped at it. So here we are!
In light of the recent dialogue around publishing as an industry and a highlight of the ways in which advances and marketing budgets are leveraged primarily to the benefit of male, white authors, it becomes incumbent on us as reviewers to take up some of the slack on the marketing front and make sure our readers are made aware of the fantastic genre writing that already exists by women and WOC.
In the hopes of maybe encouraging you to branch out and explore inside the genre, I here and Christina over on my blog will each present a list of 10 great sci-fi or fantasy novels written by women (view her 10 picks here). If we can encourage you to branch out to femme authors if you haven’t been, or help you discover some new authors, we can help change the idea that publishers are ‘taking a risk’ by supporting, marketing and selling authors like them, and instead make it business as usual.
A note on the list: For the most part I’ve either picked a specific book I particularly enjoyed by that author, or the first book in a series/their first novel. Almost all of these authors are still actively publishing new work, so don’t necessarily take my touting of a book from 20+ years ago as an indicator that they’re not still creating all kinds of excellent work, just as a pointer to the starting place if you want to get into their creations. A few of them link to reviews I’ve written on my site.
The Golden Key by Kate Elliott, Jennifer Roberson, and Melanie Rawn
While the list here is not actually ranked, I am starting with my favourite book on the list, and one of my favourite books of all time, the co-written Fantasy novel of epic proportions (running to nearly 800 pages): The Golden Key.
Telling the generations-spanning story of the Grijalva family, a family of painters with many subtle secrets, it includes one of the most interesting systems of magic I’ve ever seen. Melanie Rawn would go on to write another novel in this setting, The Diviner, and to have collectively stopped at only two novels feels like a horrible waste, so incredible is this world and this novel.
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
The first adult fiction novel by Dr. Okorafor, Who Fears Death was nominated for the Locus, World Fantasy and Nebula awards for Best Novel, winning one and surely deserving of the other two.
Handling the difficult themes of race, oppression, and weaponized rape with a grace and aplomb that would almost astound if she hadn’t made it look so easy, the story of Onyesonwu’s coming of age, coming to terms with her world, and quest for justice made this book...you don’t want to use a word like ‘enjoyable’ for a story dealing with such serious themes. I suppose I would say ‘compelling.’ But it was a journey I absolutely had to finish as soon as I started it.
A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
(A note on the linked review: As it says, it was based on a preview copy of only the first quarter of book one, and I was fairly unimpressed with it based on that. I went on to buy and read the full novel, and both of the others, and absolutely enjoyed the crap out of them, so take the review with a hefty dose of salt.)
One of the best examples of a parallel worlds fantasy I can think of, Victoria Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic is an absolutely fascinating look at London through the lens of Kell and Lila, denizens of the magic-rich Red and mundane Grey versions of the city. Fantastic pacing, a deep and rich story and an absolute top 5 ‘best female protagonists’ entry in the form of Delilah Bard, the three books of the Shades of Magic trilogy were a wonderful introduction to a great author.
Brightly Burning by Mercedes Lackey
While coming quite a bit later in the overall widely-spanning Valdemar series (being the 18th book chronologically and the 24th book by publication in a staggering 45-books-and-counting series) I’ve always held a special place for Brightly Burning both as a book in general, and a suggested entry point into the Valdemar world.
In addition to being a stand-alone in what is often a sea of trilogies and duologies, the story of Lavan Firestorm is a deeply emotional and impacting one for anybody who has ever been an outsider. One of the first times I ever cried reading a book.
Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb
Robin Hobb was one of those authors that I knew for years and years I should read, and just never got around to. Another example of starting late in a series, Fool’s Assassin is the first of a trilogy, but the 14th in the larger Realm of the Elderlings. I gather for people who’d been reading the whole series, the eponymous Fitz of this Fitz and The Fool trilogy was the draw, but for me the show was completely and absolutely stolen by the character of Bee. She was an absolute frigging delight, and the primary push for me to continue on with the trilogy. I’m sure I’ll end up going back to read the rest of the Fitz-based novels, they really are excellent and he’s a great character, but what I really want is more Bee!
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
An extremely topical novel for our current times, Parable of the Sower really highlights the degree to which Octavia Butler exemplified the foundational aspects of science fiction: using imaginary worlds and future settings to mirror the very real issues of the world, and provide a framework for thinking about how to approach that future with hope and aspiration.
A post-, or really mid-apocalypse of climate change, corporate greed, and racism backdrops a young woman’s vision for a better future. Even if Butler weren’t a phenomenal writer in her own right, the sheer volume of contemporary parallels in this, and its sequel Parable of the Talents, should make this mandatory reading.
Valor's Choice by Tanya Huff
The first installment of, for my money, one of the best boots-on-the-ground military sci-fi series ever made, Valor’s Choice introduces Staff-Sergeant Torin Kerr, also one of my favourite protagonists as well. Huff does an incredible job keeping Torin bad-ass and unwilling to take any shit, and do anything to preserve the safety of her team, while also keeping her empathetic, reasonable and incredibly human, a task at which a lot of authors, especially with male protagonists, fail miserably.
The eight-book series is finished, making it a safe dive-in for people who worry about starting series that aren’t done yet. For those who are less interested in sci-fi, I can also highly recommend her Quarters series (4 books, high fantasy) as well as the Keeper Chronicles (3 books, urban fantasy).
Flesh and Fire by Laura Anne Gilman
A completely random pick-up at my local library that turned into an absolutely amazing trilogy, and a strong entry in the list of ‘best magic systems,’ as well as as one of the very few books I’ve read that starts with a young chosen one with incredible powers that doesn’t turn into garbage.
Instead, the Vineart War trilogy intimately captures the combination of fear, anxiety, and pride that accompanies anybody who has the pressure of presumed greatness hanging over their heads. You pretty much couldn’t ask for a more realistic and human ‘chosen one.’ And when you combine the novelty of a wine-based magic system, you’ve got the makings of something really excellent, and Gilman didn’t disappoint at all.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin
The debut novel for the woman who would go on to become one of the most award-winning SFF authors in the history of the genre, barely a decade into her career. You can see in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms the seeds of the brilliance and skill that would lead her to become the only author to win three Best Novel Hugos in a row, and one of only five authors to win three total in their lives.
A fantastic...not so much subversion as innovation...of the otherwise tired trope of “young person goes to big city, gets embroiled in big city politics and learns dark secrets.” The idea gets new life breathed into it with some amazing conceptual world building and a unique narrative style. While it’s never good to get into the practice of canonizing authors where you “have to” read them to be considered well-read in the genre...after 3 Best Novel wins in 4 nominations in less than 10 years, the importance of Jemisin to modern SFF really can’t be understated.
The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
One of the biggest advantages to branching out from the industry-dominant ‘US/UK White Dudes’ when it comes to reading fantasy is getting to experience all of the cultural myths and spiritualities of other cultures and how they interact with the fantasy genre.
The Ghost Bride takes a long-standing tradition and then steeps it in the fantastical in probably my favorite method of doing historical fantasy. The both figurative and literal spiritual journey that Li Lan undertakes is heartfelt, genuine, and just superbly executed upon.
And in doing a bit of back research to refresh myself on this title, I’ve discovered that Choo has another book out just last year--The Night Tiger--which looks to build upon the same themes.
Dan is the creator of the review and article website Strange Currencies. A lifelong reader of almost exclusively Sci-fi and Fantasy, he has been reviewing since 2011. In addition to reviews, he is a freelance editor, and game designer and is going back to school in September to become a Paralegal and Law Clerk. You can find him in various social media places:
What are your favorite sci-fi/fantasy books written by women? Tell us in the comments!
Anna Stephens is the author of the fantasy grimdark Godblind trilogy from the UK. She's come onto the blog to write about what exactly goes into writing a trilogy without going insane.
Note: her post has been edited for clarification.
On Finishing a Trilogy - or Attempting To
I’ve recently completed my debut epic fantasy/grimdark series – the Godblind trilogy.
I say recently – it’s published in the UK and Commonwealth on 5 September, so in fact I finished it at the start of the year and then just had copy-edits and proofreading to complete. That said, it feels as if I’ve only just finished it, and I think that’s mostly because it’s still sitting there in my head, poking my brain with a stick and making unhelpful suggestions like “why don’t you rewrite chapter 7?” and “but what if he lived instead?”
Writing a book is tough – I think we all know that. Writing a trilogy is…well, the logical answer is three times as tough, but it doesn’t quite work out like that. Most days it felt 30 times as tough; others it felt only a third as tough. But one thing is certain: when it comes to that last book, you better get it right. You better find every last one of those dozens of plot threads and throw-away comments and surmises and write them to a satisfying conclusion. Because if you don’t, there will always, always be an eagle-eyed reader who gets in touch – probably publicly on social media – to tell you what you’ve missed.
Aside from the little details, there is, of course, the rather larger issues and challenges of the main and sub-plots, not just the story but all the stories woven through it. Not just the hero’s quest but their character development and inner journey. Not just who wins, but how and why – and what it means for the world and all your named and unnamed secondary characters.
The more I think about it, the more astonished I am that – according to my publishers, at least (review copies are yet to go out at the time of writing this) – I’ve managed to pull it off. But it was not easy.
Getting a publishing contract for my debut novel, Godblind, was a dream come true. Having spent a good 13 years perfecting that – or making it as good as I could; we still went through a few rounds of edits – it was a pretty terrifying proposition to discover I had only nine months to write Darksoul, the sequel. And, in the end, while I did draft it in time, it needed so much work that my publication date was pushed back a few months so that I could work with my editors to refine the plot and pacing issues – of which there were many. Second book syndrome is real and it is ugly.
It’s so ugly, in fact, that when I came to draft book 3, Bloodchild, I had a major crisis of confidence. I’d spent some time convinced I’d torpedoed my writing career before it even got off the ground, that Darksoul had been such a disaster from the publishers’ perspective – not the final product or the sales, but the amount of work they had to do with me – so all of a sudden I decided I had no idea how to end the trilogy. I knew what needed to happen, but I didn’t have a clue how to get there. I was paralyzed with doubt for weeks – and the countdown to my deadline was ticking ever louder in my ears, which didn’t help.
Eventually I started to write and there were days, even weeks, when I galloped along and everything was going brilliantly. Other times when every paragraph had to be dragged kicking and screaming from my brain. It was the difficulty of writing a novel plus the anxiety of finishing the trilogy off with the right impact, the right outcome for the characters, the story, the world.
And when the draft was done, I had exactly zero idea if it was any good. That’s not an exaggeration. It was 143,000 words and I couldn’t have told you if any of them were good. I simply didn’t know: that second book crisis of confidence had lingered into the third and didn’t seem to be inclined to leave. The only way I was going to know if it was good was if someone else told me it was – I didn’t trust my own judgment.
(Aside: do I sound as crazy to you as I do to myself? What a fruitcake.)
So, anyway, what did I do about this crisis?
The biggest thing is that I admitted it. I spoke to my family and a few clever and supportive friends. I ranted about my lack of ability and how I’d ruined my lifelong dream, about how I’d never get another publishing deal. I had a couple of tearful breakdowns.
I also sent it to my agent and got some brilliant feedback and suggestions for changes. It was just the right mix of praise and critique and it told me that I was, in fact, on the right path and it was, after all, a good book. And so I reread the draft and then rewrote it, incorporating a lot of my agent’s feedback and refining the rest of it so that it better fitted in with where I saw the story ending. And it was better. I could see straight away it was better. Knowing that gave me the impetus to send it off the publishers and my editors.
And then it was time to wait again. And while I was waiting, I continued working on a new book. That’s the thing with publishing: you’re constantly leap-frogging between projects. Here I am, doing promo work for Bloodchild (well, this is supposed to be promo, though I suspect I’m just making myself sound like a crazy person) while at the same time waiting to hear back on a new project AND writing the second installment of that new project.
Last year, I was building on the success of Godblind by promoting Darksoul while drafting Bloodchild. The book you’re promoting is always at least one book before the one you’re currently working on; it gets rather confusing at times.
When my first round of edits for Bloodchild came back I was terrified. The email sat in my inbox unopened for four hours while I paced up and down and chewed my nails and contemplated cracking open the gin. It was going to be another Darksoul; I knew it.
Sure, there was work to be done and stuff that needed to be changed, but the edits were extremely positive. Perhaps I had learnt all the lessons inherent in second book syndrome after all. Maybe I really could do this, be a trilogy author!
There were still a couple of small battles to be had over character arcs and the number of living and dead main protagonists (I had to sacrifice one to save another; it was like choosing which of your dogs to give away. Monstrous), but in all, I’d been on the right path and done a bloody good job. And yes, perhaps that sounds arrogant, but one thing I have learnt from all this is to have at least a little faith in myself. It wavers on occasion, but if I don’t think I’m any good, I’ll never get the draft into my agent’s hands, let alone anyone else’s.
Fast forward four months and the book is done: edited; copy-edited; proofread. The next time I see it will be in its final form, out of the chrysalis and spreading its red-soaked wings. And I couldn’t be prouder. It’s been a tough road, but one that I know I’m very privileged to be able to walk. Not everyone gets a publishing deal. Not everyone gets the levels of support I’ve had. Believe me, I know I’m lucky.
The Emotional Fallout
Not that it ends there, of course. Oh, no. That would be too easy.
I’ve spent at least 15 years with these characters. They’ve been, without hyperbole, both friends and family to me – yes, even the terrible, evil ones. And now I have to say goodbye, not just to the ones who didn’t survive to the end of the trilogy, but to all of them. I don’t think it’s too strong to say that once I handed back the proofread and knew that that was it that I went through a period of mourning. (Again, fruitcake. I know).
But to know that I don’t get to hang out with my buddies anymore, that I don’t get to hear Ash’s jokes or Tara’s terrible ideas, Rillirin’s earnest and burgeoning self-belief, Crys’s reluctant heroism, makes me genuinely sad.
I guess the only thing I can do now is wish them well and go on an adventure with some new friends and family. It feels a bit like a betrayal, but as much as I could write their shenanigans and romances and escapades forever, it’s time to move on. Time to challenge myself with something new, something broader and different and other.
Time to get stuck into my next series. I wonder how hard this one will be.
Anna Stephens is the author of the Godblind trilogy, the final book Bloodchild having been released in September of 2019. Translation deals for French, German, Dutch, Polish and Czechoslovakian versions have all been agreed.
A literature graduate from the Open University, Anna loves all things speculative, from books to film to TV, including classic Hammer and Universal horror films, as well as the chameleon genius of David Bowie.
As a beginner in Historical European Martial Arts, with a focus on Italian longsword, and a second Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, she’s no stranger to the feeling of being punched (or stabbed) in the face, which is more help than you would expect when writing fight scenes.
Hi readers! I'm Jacqui Greaves, and I am thrilled to be handed the reins to Dragons, Zombies and Aliens for today. I’m going to take you on a journey to explore the weird parts of my brain that produce my works of sexy science fiction and fantasy. So, if you're under 18, now would be a good time to go and do something else.
I started writing about five years ago after careers in childcare (short-lived and miserable), marine biology, science management, and deer farming. I've published several short stories, two novellas, and a novel (more about that later). Some are science fiction and others are fantasy, but most are weird combinations of the two. What they all have in common in sex. Often very explicit sex.
To be specific, by sex I mean the physical act of sex, not the emotional state of intimacy. In writing sex I’m describing actions, sensations and influences, not feelings. This is why I've stopped saying I write erotica, because there's such a strong association between erotica and romance. I don't write romance, and my works seldom have happy endings. I also don't call what I write porn, because it's not exploitative. Unlike in most porn, the sex I write is part of the narrative, but is not the story. Sometimes I describe what I write as Lusterature, but really I just write explicit sex.
When I started writing I didn't set out to write sex. I wanted to write fantasy and science fiction, the types of stories I like to read. Despite my efforts the sex just crept in, so I let it stay.
Why? Well that’s a fine question, and I’m glad you asked!
Because, while there are some people who don’t (yes, asexuals, I acknowledge you), lots of us engage in, think about or hanker after sex pretty much daily--more for some, less for others. There’s a strong biological imperative to engage in sex, and as humans many of us start to experiment with it earlier than we’d like to admit. For most of us, sex is, and should be, an enjoyable experience without shame. But that isn’t always the case, and for me, as a writer, that’s great.
By adding sex into the mix of my speculative fiction I can explore a whole suite of character traits and behaviours that wouldn’t otherwise see the light of day. It permits me a wider vocabulary and an additional range of sensations and senses to describe. Sex brings with it, its own joys, disappointments, dangers and delights. When mixed into a speculative world, it adds a richness and depth, even an element of reality if you will.
So then, what differentiates good sex writing from bad sex writing?
For starters, sex has to be anatomically and physically possible. It “might” be possible to fuck someone in the arse and suck their clitoris at the same time…but it’s highly unlikely! A scene like that would most likely make you stop reading while you tried to imagine how it could be achieved, but the aim of the writer is to keep you reading. Anything that makes you stop is bad. I once read a scene where the male twisted the woman’s boobs like doorknobs (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the picture). It just made me wince, roll my eyes and stop reading.
Unlike other genres, Science Fiction gives the writer opportunities to stretch what is anatomically possible with the introduction of aliens. The short story, "Spar" by KIJ Johnson, is an award-winning example of great interspecies sex with seemingly incompatible anatomies. The opening line alone tells us so much: “In the tiny lifeboat, she and the alien fuck endlessly, relentlessly.”
(Honestly, do yourself a favour and read the full story, here’s the link: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/johnson_10_09/ )
Overuse of clichés and euphemisms are also sure signs of poor sex writing. If you read a cock/penis described as a beaver cleaver, love truncheon, or towering pillar of manhood, my advice is to hurl that book away. Unless it’s a parody, in which case giggle on!
Having said that, readers of fantasy are often more accepting of highly descriptive language. As an example, G.R.R. Martin uses more florid descriptors of body parts than I would, but he gets away with it because we expect it of him.
As for any scene in a story or novel, a sex scene must have a purpose. It should reveal something about the plot, characters, or their relationships. Sex can be used to explore power dynamics, reveal secrets, show attitudes, and define moral frameworks. And, unlike other story elements, sex can be used to arouse the reader. This is the magic of sex.
Gods of Fire
Gods of Fire is my first full length novel. A historical fantasy, it centers around Guillaume, an elf of mixed race.
Sentenced to death as an infant by his grandfather then abandoned by his mother, Guillaume grows up with no idea of who or what he is. All he understands is that he has a voracious sexual appetite and the power to render himself irresistible to any woman he desires. His life is thrown into turmoil when his full powers are revealed in a violent display of fire and murder. Forced to leave the only home he has known, Guillaume sets forth to unravel the mystery of his heritage. His quest takes him through France and deep into Africa. As his powers grow, only his lifelong companion, Smoke, can help him control the depraved primal urges that threaten to overwhelm him. When Smoke loses her influence, it’s not only the lives of those close to him that are threatened. Can the world survive the ancient being that Guillaume becomes?
Gods of Fire is on sale at most of your favourite online bookstores via Books2Read.
About Jacqui Greaves
Jacqui has lived an adventure-filled life, spanning a range of careers and countries. She’s wrangled kindergarten children, driven buses, researched humpback whales, spoken at the United Nations, visited Antarctica, farmed deer and, most recently, written strange and sexy fiction. A New Zealander, currently living by the beach in Melbourne but on the move back to NZ, Jacqui has two novella’s published in the PNRLust Anthologies and several short stories in online publications. Gods of Fire is her first full length novel.
Jeannette Bedard is a blogger and science fiction author whose book Day 115 on an Alien World is a futuristic mystery. In this guest post, she shares her journey in becoming a writer.
Sci-Fi Author Jeannette Bedard
It was a dark and stormy night...
This was the first line of the first piece of fiction I ever wrote. I think I was about ten at the time and the story was about a wizard in his tower working on potions. This wasn't my first foray into imaginary worlds, just the first one I wrote down--sadly, I don't have a copy now.
As long as I can remember, my imagination has been swimming with stories—almost always set in a fantastical world (futuristic or fantasy) filled with adventure. But, I've never considered myself much of a writer, being mildly dyslexic and a non-linear thinker.
A few years later, when I was in high school, I started mulling over a new story idea and I started writing it down. The story was military science fiction – a genre I’d never read any books in at the time. At that point in my life, I don’t think I’d even read any science fiction then either beyond A Wrinkle in Time. But, I kept at it, taking the manuscript with me to university—two years later it was done.
I don’t remember the full plot of my book, just snippets of a post-apocalyptic Earth, space ship battles and a futuristic prison. My original idea included pegaus-style horses with wings, but couldn’t come up with any reasonable explanation of how they could possible generate enough lift to get off the ground so I edited them out. The title was Twilight– chosen over a decade before that title was linked to vampiric romance.
I still have a copy of this one. The stack of printed pages are thick enough to be roughly 70,000 words, an okay length for a novel. I’ve been debating if I should read it or not. Over the years after that, I wrote two more novels that are still stashed (un-read) in binders on my shelf along with notebooks full of ideas.
To my surprise, when I started grad school in a mathy, science discipline, the first piece of advice my supervisor gave me was to start writing--and he wanted to see my early drafts. I handed in a potential thesis chapter right away with my non-linear thoughts and taciturn writing on full display.
He was brutally honest about the state of my writing, but he was also clear that the mechanics of writing could be learned. He pointed out that writing about science is an exercise in storytelling (or at least it should be) and that the only way to become a good storyteller was to practice.
After our conversation, I walked out his office and started a blog (Tangent Ramblings) to write about science. I didn't think I had more than a half-dozen posts in me—that was in 2011 and I've been writing posts ever since. I think I'm up over 300 now.
Fast forward a few years, and I realized I liked the mechanics of telling as story, and I was getting better at it.
Then I read The Martian, which I enjoyed greatly. It was the first science fiction I’d read in years and it set gears into motion in my head pondering my own fiction again. This is the scenario I started with:
You are in an atmospheric suit on an alien world and there’s a leak in it. Alarms are blaring as your bubble of breathable air is bleeding away. Slap a patch on the leak and you’d be good to go. Mark Watney managed it – but you’re not this lucky. What if the suit was also covered in mud? How would you find the leak then? Muddy gloves wouldn’t get far in cleaning the suit off. But it still could be worse, what if the mud was about to freeze? What if you’re completely alone?
Ideas flowed from there and grew into an entire novel. This time, I didn't put the book on the shelf after the first draft. Instead, I kept working on it. First by dissecting its structure, morphing my non-linear thoughts into a logically flowing story. I shared it with as many people who would read it and incorporated their feedback.
Three years later, I bit my lip and released the completed novel to the world--Day 115 on an Alien World. The book is widely available both in ebook and print format and I've been amazed at the all the positive feedback! Here's my favourite review so far (from Amazon): “I'm a sucker for well-written sci-fi adventure novels, and boy, did this one deliver!”
I think I can declare myself officially bitten by the writing bug as book 2 in the series (Far Side of the Moon) is also now out and book 3, Abandoned Ships; Hijacked Minds, is in its final stages on track to be released early summer.
I'm still debating if I dare to read my first novel. Perhaps someday I'll make up my mind—until then it'll remain stashed on my shelf.
Jim Webster is a fantasy author who, among other things, writes short stories as inspired by old, "rustic" paintings and artworks. He currently has a short story series called Rustic Pursuits with this very concept on his blog, centered around a hapless poet named Tallis from the fantastical city of Port Naain.
Jim has generously agreed to share one with this for the following (terrifying) piece of art:
Obviously as one’s fame grows, it’s inevitable that one will find oneself in greater demand. This I had been promised by my elders. Yet I confess that this fame seemed to take a long time to come. Admittedly Port Naain is a large city with any number of poets, some of whom are perhaps my equals. And yet, I always struggled to find patrons. Indeed I found that those patrons I had valued my abilities as a master of ceremonies, able to maintain order in their soirees, keeping the musicians sober, the singers chaste and everybody appearing in approximately the correct order. The fact that I could engage in witty banter, produce amusing verse when needed and could hold a room spellbound with my stories and verses was merely a useful bonus.
Still, I did get offers of work, in Partann of all places. This area lies to the south of the city; the populace is rustic and unsophisticated. Indeed the further south you travel the more unsophisticated do they become, until finally they lapse into little more than barbarism. My offer of work came from the Tweil family. I didn’t know them; they almost shared a name with a prosperous Port Naain family, the Tweel. From what I could discover the two families may have been connected a couple of centuries back. Still, I received an invitation, on elegantly headed notepaper, to perform some of my latest works to an audience of family and invited guests. The only disadvantage was that their estate was perhaps forty miles out of the city and this was going to take me at least two days to walk. I had to set off immediately.
So I bade my wife Shena a fond farewell, crossed the Paraeba Estuary on the Roskadil ferry and set off, on foot, into Partann. The first day I made good time. I slept in a stable, paying for my keep with a few romantic verses and some help with the chores. Next morning I set off, confident that I was in good time.
It was about noon when I came upon a group of Urlan camped by the site of the road. I like the Urlan, although I confess I am always courteous in their company. Trained from childhood in arms, they are consummate fighters, chivalrous with a strong sense of honour, and if they do take offence, you can be dead before you even understood what exactly you’d said.
Still these were a merry crew, none of them older than twenty, and some of the younger ones barely fifteen or sixteen. As an aside I would recommend the young Urlan to you. They can be so intensely serious, but their innate courtesy means they tend to be polite to artists. So when I mentioned I was a poet travelling to perform, they were genuinely interested. One maiden called Keikel, perhaps the youngest as she had no more than four shrunken heads hanging from her sword belt, asked where I was performing. I mentioned the Tweil estate.
It was then they informed me that I’d spent that day marching in exactly the opposite direction. Instead of being a mere five or six miles from it, I was nearer twenty. I could have wept.
Then the maiden suggested they lend me a horse. Their leader, a knight by the name of Brodan Vect, agreed with her. He pointed out that they were intending to travel in that direction for the hunting. They could camp near the Tweil estate, and when I left, I could meet up with them and regale them with tales of my successes, before leaving the horse with them and returning home.
To be absolutely honest they didn’t actually say, ‘regale them with tales of my successes,' but they certainly said they’d be interested to know how I got on. They even suggested that, if it seemed appropriate, I ask the Tweil family whether they would mind the Urlan hunting across the estate. So I thanked them, mounted the horse I had been loaned, and set off at a canter.
Now others might think that this would be a chance to disappear with the horse and sell it in Port Naain. After all I’d make more money on that than I would entertaining the Tweil household. Still anybody who suggests this course doesn’t know the Urlan. They live for war and for hunting. Hunting horse thieves is considered a particularly honourable pastime. Indeed, if it’s an Urlan’s horse the thief has stolen, that Urlan feels pursuing them to the ends of the earth and slaying them is almost obligatory.
I arrived at the Tweil estate perhaps four hours after noon. I had been musing upon the origins of my horse. The trouble is that some of the Partannese aristocratic families are not enamoured of the Urlan. They feel that the Urlan do not treat them with the respect they deserve. Actually I think the real problem is that the Urlan do treat them with the respect they
deserve. Still, having a mare with Urlan markings might not be tactful. So once I was in the grounds I picked my way slowly through the woodland, watered her at a stream and fastened her behind a spinney where she was screened from view, but had some decent grazing to keep her busy. Then I walked back through the grounds to the house.
I was greeted with almost total disinterest from the maid who opened the door to me. She merely directed me down a corridor to the Morning Parlour. Even as I approached the parlour door I could hear somewhat discordant singing and I looked inside to see perhaps a dozen people standing around the room, clutching tankards whilst a young lady, elegantly attired, kept them all talking and simultaneously kept their drinks topped up as well. She saw me enter and beckoned me across to the table on which stood a punch bowl.
Now I have seen many punch bowls in my time. Most of them are glass and are often very fine, with a matching ladle which will hold enough to fill a small wine glass. This allows even a grasping host to pose as wildly extravagant by offering you a second ladle full. On this occasion, whilst I call it a punch bowl, I’ve seen smaller cauldrons hung over fires cooking stew. The ladle she was using to serve punch with was better suited to serving porridge. She asked me my name, and ran her finger down a list which lay on the table next to the punch. Finally she found me, smiled and offered me a tankard of the punch.
At this point she was called away by one of the other guests and I took the opportunity to glance at the list. Frankly I was a little put out; it was a collection of nobodies. A few of them I’d vaguely heard of. When I looked round I decided I might know some of them slightly, but none of them were persons of solid literary merit. In fact, if she had set out to create a list of those Port Naain would never miss, then with the obvious exception of myself, she had done a excellent job.
I sipped my punch. I’m glad I did; if I had tried to drink off a mouthful or two, then I’d have had a coughing fit. The damned stuff was almost pure alcohol.
I looked inside the bowl. There was a little fruit floating in the liquid, probably enough to flavour it, but not enough to threaten it with dilution. To be fair, it was pleasant enough, but not something to drink on an empty stomach. I moved away from the bowl and made an attempt to join in the nearest conversation. One has to be collegiate.
I’m afraid it wasn’t really worth my while. The others had obviously been hard at the punch for some time and their conversation had frankly suffered.
When the young woman came past to top up our tankards, I asked when we were to dine. Frankly, I was hungry. She glanced towards the clock and said she thought it could be three or four hours.
As she moved to the next group I came to a decision: I had to get something to eat, if only as a defense against the punch. I had noticed that there was a door behind the punch bowl table, and detected it led to the kitchens. So when I could see the lady was caught up in some discussion with another group, I quietly made my way to the table, surreptitiously emptied my tankard back into the bowl, and slipped through the door.
I found myself in a short corridor leading to a large kitchen. Much to my surprise it was empty, and there was no sign of any cooking being done. On occasions like this, the kitchen should be the very centre of activity. Yet this was empty, there was no fire in the grate--indeed, the range was cold.
I looked round. Stacked tidily next to the door there were a dozen empty bottles. I picked one up and read the label. It was ‘Urlan plum brandy,' produced by Grine Halstrop, Brewer and Dyer. Whilst Halstrop may not produce the worst beers in Port Naain, it is rightly a contender for that particular crown. It also produces a range of spirits which are just that, pure spirit. The only thing the Urlan would have done with this stuff was to use it to clean rust off armour.
I looked round the rest of the kitchen, hoping to find something to eat. Eventually I’d assembled a small loaf, some sausage, and four bottles of excellent wine. These latter were so out of place I did wonder how they had come here. Now I felt that morally I owed one bottle to the maiden who’d lent me the horse. The other three could be sold to help me cover my out of pocket expenses; given there was no meal and everybody was drunk, I couldn’t envisage getting paid. So I decided to take the bottles out to my horse, stow them in the pack behind the saddle, eat the bread and sausage, and then return to the house. There, with the others, I could await developments.
The kitchen door opened onto a small kitchen garden. On the other side of that was a low wall and on the other side of that I could see the woods where my horse was. I crossed the garden. To my left, towards the back of the house, there seemed to be a ruined building or two, and there was also a fire burning. I couldn’t see it, but I could smell the smoke.
I left the kitchen garden by the gate which led to the woods, and once in the woods I made my way closer to the ruins. There I could see a considerable number of people, dancing and cavorting around a fire pit covered with a metal grill.
This appeared to be the real party. Even as I watched, the dancing came to a halt, and the participants, in various states of undress, started instead to sing. Or perhaps they started to chant, because there was more rhythm than melody. As I watched and listened, the hairs on my neck started to rise. The whole thing seemed fey and unseemly.
Then, out of the shadows of the ruin came the woman who had been serving punch. I didn’t initially recognize her because now she was dressed only in her shift. She was leading a man who was stark naked and very drunk. She led him to the edge of the fire pit and he stood there, swaying unsteadily, looking round in a confused manner.
Suddenly she stepped behind him, grabbed his hair, pulled his head back and with one swift movement, slashed his throat with a knife. The man’s blood spurted out, and she pushed his body forward so it collapsed onto the grid.
The chanting grew louder and more fervent, and the woman gestured towards the ruins. I saw two women bring out another victim, naked and almost incapacitated by drink.
The crowd emitted a mighty ululation and one loathsome entity stepped forward out of the crowd, seized the victim, and carried him to the fire pit. There it opened its overly wide mouth, bit off the victim’s head and cast the corpse onto the grid.
Making sure I couldn’t be seen, I made my way back through the woods to where my horse was waiting. Behind me the tone of the chanting grew ever more malevolent. Around me the woods seemed to grow darker, and I felt around me a growing sense of evil. I began to sense presences, to feel them rather than see them. I saw strange misshapen creatures, tenebrous in the shadows. They seemed almost but not quite men and women, moving through the trees near me.
The chanting, and the blood poured onto the fire, were drawing them out of the woods and into the light. By the time I got to my horse the poor creature was wild eyed. Something far larger than a man was crashing through to underbrush towards me. I could hear it, but fortunately it was still out of sight. Hastily I mounted the horse, my plans for a meal forgotten. I left the bottles in my coat pockets, reached forward whilst still in the saddle to untie my mount, and then guided it back to towards the house.
Unfortunately, as I came up to the ruins, it was obvious that things were building to a climax. Mixed now with the dancers were other stranger and more repugnant entities. They capered rather than walked, they yammered when they should have been silent.
Indeed, one such burst out of the bushes behind me and lunged for me. The horse skittered sideways away from the threat, and then we were seen from the ruined window. The woman in her shift saw me and threw herself out of the window at me, whilst behind her, something darker and more terrible howled and charged towards me.
I was saved by my horse. Whereas I was almost petrified with fear, sheer terror awakened in my gallant mount’s breast the urge to flee.
Clinging desperately to her neck I gave up any attempt to control her. I occasionally risked a glance backwards to discover that the pursuit was close behind. Ahead I could see the gateway onto the road. The gate still stood open.
We passed through at speed and without any prompting on my part the horse turned right, back the way we had come.
Something grabbed my leg. Instinctively I groped for a weapon and pulled a bottle out of one of the deep poacher’s pockets in my coat. I turned and saw the woman in the shift was alongside me, running as fast as the horse. I gave no thought to how she might be achieving this but brought the bottle down on her head. She let go of my leg as she avoided the blow and I hastily abandoned the bottle, clinging once more to my gallant mare’s neck.
Suddenly as we rounded a corner I saw a small force of horsemen across the road. My mare burst through a gap between two of them and stopped dead, quivering and shaking. I fell off her and groggily got to my feet.
The Urlan were here but were dressed for war, not hunting. The late evening sun glinted on mail. Some wore steel helms; others had helmets with bronze face masks. Some, probably the maidens, had long hair hanging down from under the helmets. All wore totems, charms and the shrunken heads of their defeated enemies.
One, in the second rank looked down towards me. “Stick close if you can.” I recognized the voice of Keikel, the maiden who had loaned me the horse in the first place.
Slowly, I mounted the horse again and turned it to follow the others. As I caught up with her she smiled encouragingly at me and handed me a long dagger. I held it clumsily, but tightly.
Now we were riding with lances raised. My pursuers came round the corner in a mob and stopped abruptly as they saw the force awaiting them.
Keikel raised a horn to her lips and blew it. I heard answering calls in the distance, all from well ahead. As the notes of the horn died away a hideous demonic creature stepped forward from the mob. It raised above its head a sword which shone with an otherworldly light.
Brodan Vect shouted, “Now!” and the line of horsemen, lances lowered, crashed forwards.
I cannot claim to have witnessed everything. My horse just kept up with the others, and I did my best to say aboard. When we were moving more slowly I did attempt to keep hold of the reins. The leading demon moved with remarkable rapidity; it sliced through the lance coming towards it, then stepped aside to allow the horseman past. But this merely put it in the path
of another horse which struck it so forcefully is was knocked sprawling.
It leapt to its feet, still holding the sword, but then Brodan Vect started raining blows down on it and it was hard pressed to do more than parry. The rest of the horsemen had swept through the mob, riding many down and were swinging round to ride back.
I had stayed back to avoid the demon. It was as I tried to get my horse to edge round the fight between the two champions that I saw the woman in the shift stand up from amongst the bodies. She had obviously thrown herself to the ground when the horsemen charged, and now she had a dagger drawn and was coming up behind the Urlan. Brodan’s attention was entirely given over to his demonic opponent, who had stopped giving ground and was starting to put in attacks of his own.
I urged my mare towards the woman and swung. When she saw me coming she ducked down to avoid my blow. I lunged at her with the dagger, lost my balance, and fell off my horse on top of her.
As she went to strike me, I grabbed her hand with the knife, and we wrestled in the dirt. She attempted to savage me with her teeth and twice I head-butted her in the face. Finally she manage to wriggle out from under me, turned to strike, and as she did she stiffened and collapsed forward. An arrow had taken her between the shoulder blades.
I glanced round. The rest of the Urlan had returned, two more had joined in the fight against the demon. The creature backed away from them, but only until it had its back to the trunk of a great tree. There it stood at bay. The Urlan landed blows on it, but the creature’s skin was tough. Not only that but it was covered in boils and pustules, and as the blades stuck, the pus which wept out would corrode steel and burn flesh.
The fight continued. It took three warriors to keep the beast in check. The Urlan made no sound, but the demon roared and cursed.
Behind me I heard a voice: “Tallis, step back please.”
It was the maiden Keikel, on horseback, with a great Urlan bow in her hands. Next to her was another Urlan who had discarded her lance but was now carrying what looked to be a great sharpened tree branch. As the creature roared, the Urlan bow sang, and an arrow hit the beast in the mouth, pinning the head to the tree. As her arrow struck, Keikel shouted “Now!" and the three men on foot threw themselves out of the way as the other rider charged through with the sharpened branch held in both her hands.
With the weight of horse and rider behind it, the lance smashed into the creature. Even as it fell the other Urlan returned to the attack, hacking at the neck with their swords and cut the creature’s head off. As they did so, the body faded, leaving nothing but a dark patch on the ground where the grass was dying.
Brodan Vect stepped away from where the corpse should have been, and saw me watching. He grinned at me. “Well, poet, you’ve witnessed an Urlan exorcism.”
I bowed slightly. “Then sir, I thank Aea that I am a poet, not a theologian.”
He laughed. There was genuine humour and good-fellowship in the sound. It heartened me and I think it boosted the others. He gestured and somebody fetched me my mare. As I approached her, I felt she looked at me with an air of reproach. To be fair, she was probably used to more martial riders. I mounted again, as did the rest of the Urlan. Keikel gestured for me to ride next to her.
She gestured ahead. “The other parties are in position, we heard their horns. They will be sweeping through the estate; we’ll take out anything they drive to us.”
It was dawning on me that this was long planned. “So, why are you all here?”
“Last autumn my brother was here on a hunting trip. Some of the peasants approached him with tales about what was happening on the Tweil estate. So he promised to help. We drifted here in small parties in the spring and did our reconnaissance. Then we gathered up the peasants, split them into three parties, each led by a couple of our sergeants, and they would be our beaters.”
She smiled. “You were lucky. If you’d come through any other day, you’d have missed all this.”
We rode forward, but we had no more fighting. By the time we arrived at the house, it was being thoroughly pillaged by the peasantry. I saw women staggering out with piles of bed linen and furniture. At the fire pit, the sergeants had a good fire going and were burning the bodies of the slain. We watched for a while as various creatures, some more or less manlike, were thrown into the flames and more timber was thrown on top.
Finally word was given to set fire to the house as well. I shared my bread and sausage with Keikel and passed around the wine. We watched as the house burned. It was dawn before the flames died down.
A man, whom I assumed to be some sort of village elder, finally came up to the Urlan. He took his hat off and bowed stiffly. “Our thanks for what you’ve done.”
The Brodan Vect bowed back. “We do what we can.”
The village elder gestured to his people. Four of whom then carried forward two bed sheets. They laid them down on the ground and opened them. Each was filled with the more valuable loot from the house. The elder said, “Take a sheet, the choice is yours.”
Brodan gestured to the nearest. “That one will do.”
The elder nodded and gestured for his people to take the other one away. He turned back to Brodan. “It’s an accursed spot. This house always brings trouble.”
Brodan nodded. “Yes, it’s the second time our kindred have been here.” He pointed to the older ruins around the fire pit. “My mother’s grandfather burned that.”
The elder didn’t look particularly surprised. “I trust we will not bother your family again in the future.”
Brodan watched as two of his sergeants strapped up the sheet full of loot and fastened it to the back of the horse I’d been loaned. He turned back to the elder. “If you want my advice, I’d take the whole lot down, stone by stone, until nothing is left. Get rid of everything and just plough the site.”
The elder half smiled. “And so your mother’s grandfather advised us. This time we will heed the advice.”
The Urlan decided they ought to camp to rest their horses and invited me to join them, which I felt was decent of them. I remember lying down and then I knew no more. When I finally awoke, they’d broken camp and departed, all save for Keikel who they’d left behind to keep an eye on me.
When I awoke she passed me a parcel, and with that she rode off to catch up with the others. I opened the parcel. There was bread, cheese, a good wedge of meat pie and a smaller package. When I opened that I found a necklace, silver set with pearls.
I walked back to Port Naain and gave Shena the necklace. She wears it occasionally. But not often, because it’s worth more than the barge we live on.
But yes, I like the Urlan; they’re honourable and are, after a fashion, polite to artists.
I should give a quick update before I let Shannon from Read & Reels take over. A couple of weeks ago I got a second job working at Panera Bread as a delivery woman (well, technically it's my third job; my full-time position is PCA/job coach for people with disabilities, writing is my second job, and now this). At the same time, a bunch of other stuff happened this month:
In the middle of all of this, I realized yesterday, Shit! I need to blog this week, too!
Guest post to the rescue!
Unlike me, Shannon O. apparently has her life way more in order, and managed to not only finish reading a book, but write a review for it, too. Please enjoy while I go out and buy a much-needed planner.
"Slithers" by W. W. Mortensen: Book Review
Thank you so much for having me on your blog! It’s so awesome! Seriously, everyone needs to be reading it!
Today I thought I’d share a review of a Sci-Fi Horror I read recently, called Slithers by W.W. Mortensen!
There are so many things to like about Slither! Perfect setting, a tense atmosphere, wrought with fear, great writing, and good pacing. See what I mean, LOTS of things to like. That said, the ending is so huge and complex, I feel the author should have dedicated more time to explaining it better. I mean, I get the gist, but with such existential ideas to contemplate, readers would benefit from a more thorough conclusion.
This is the first book by Mortensen that I've read, and this one didn't put me off. On the contrary, I'm quite intrigued by his other titles, especially Eight. He's clearly very talented and based on the mood he creates in this story alone, I'm more than keen to read more.
Some other things worth mentioning: I loved all the creepy crawlies in this story. They very much reminded me of King's creatures in The Mist, which is high praise because that is one of my favourite short stories, and the gory scenes were also brilliant! I just loved how vivid and descriptive they were, so well done sir. Ugh... I'm shuddering just thinking about some of them.
Ultimately, I think the theme is about the universal question "What if?", and Slithers is an original, and entertaining approach to answering it. It may not be for everyone but many of you will really enjoy it!
Rating... B or 3.75 Gooey Truck Drivers out of 5!
Thanks again for letting me share on DZA today, it warms my heart to see so many amazing blogs like yours dedicated to Horror and Science Fiction!
Shannon O. (a.k.a. Shanannigans)
Blogger & Publicist
Yay, Shannon! I am definitely adding this to my reading list.
Be sure to visit her blog Reads & Reels. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
With an excerpt from her upcoming novel Incantation
This week, the blog is being taken over by author and blogger Stephanie Barr. Last week she was kind enough to invite me onto her blog Rockets and Dragons for a post about Sovadron. So today, we’re going to be talking about the book Stephanie wrote with Mirren Hogan: Incantation. Including an excerpt from the novel itself!
Sure, you love magic and intrigue and, y'know, dragons. But there are plenty of reasons NOT to read the book I, Stephanie Barr, wrote with Mirren Hogan, Incantation:
Not to mention the fact that you can only find it in the book bundle Rite to Reign, which is a steal for 99 cents, because you also get more than twenty other great books by best-selling and award-winning authors.
And if you preorder it, you can get fifteen books and a custom spell book written by the authors.
And hey, here's an excerpt:
"I have just want you need." She ran to a large trunk in the back and began rummaging through it throwing this and that out over her shoulder. Some of the items were recognizable but plenty were a mystery. "This!" She trotted back, a carved crystal bottle between her withered hands.
"What is it?"
"Elixir of regeneration. One sip, and your magic will replenish. But only take one. If you take a second one in less than a month, you'll likely explode with the power."
David reached for it. "That will be twenty-five gold. Elixir doesn't come cheap you know."
David scrounged in his pocket and had to fish a few extra pieces from his other pocket. She handed him the bottle with a flourish, then turned her beady little eyes on Henry. "Now, for you."
He took a step back. "I don't know. I think maybe I'm fine after all." He didn't feel like exploding from using something wrong. He could endanger himself perfectly well without help.
"Come, come, the price has already been paid. You need only choose a card."
Henry sighed, but turned his face and tugged a card free. "It better not be the death card." He knew enough about tarot to know it only meant change, not literal death, but he still didn't want to see it.
"Strength," she said, her eyes brightening. "Aren't you the hidden treasure? Well, well." She gripped his hand before he could return the card. "Yes, yes, I feel it. So much strength. You only need the key. The key!" She tossed his hand aside and fetched an ornate jewelry box off the shelf, cackling to herself.
Henry wound a hand in the air near his ear, gesturing to David that he thought maybe she was at least a little bit crazy. They might be too, for listening to her.
"What kind of key?" he asked, not bothering to try to sound like he bought it.
"Well," David whispered to him, "she did know control is one of my weak spots."
"A-ha!" she exulted, swinging a silver chain over her head. "It's here," she said with great portent. "The key."
And there it was, a tiny silver key on a long thick silver chain.
"Well it's a key," Henry replied. "What does it do?" It looked like the kind which opened a child's diary, not a magical artifact of any actual use.
She ignored his reluctance and slipped the chain over his neck. "When the time is right," she said in a whisper with a blast of smoky breath, "it will let you open up the heart of your power."
"How much," said David, fishing the last of the coins from his pocket.
She waved a hand. "You've been such good customers. Call it a bonus."
Henry shrugged. “Thanks, I guess.” It probably wouldn’t do anything anyway. “We should get going.”
David nodded, but thanked the creepy old woman a little too warmly. Then, just before he left, he said, "Hey, do you know what unicorns eat? Is it the same as regular horses?"
"Of course not. Unicorns eat shit. They like cow and horse shit, but nothing makes them happier than dragon dung."
"Really?" David said before he was jerked out the front door.
"I think she was full of shit," Henry said, once they were out of earshot. "Who ever heard so much rubbish?"
So, if you want to read more, despite all the reasons not to, you can find it here.
And, if you do, don't forget your freebies:
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!