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Descent by Ken MacLeod

DESCENT Ken MacLeod

Author of 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award-nominated Intrusion tells a science fiction story for the twenty-first century – what happens when conspiracy theorists meet Big Brother?
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THE LASCAR’S DAGGERGlenda Larke

The start of a brand new epic fantasy trilogy from the author of the Stormlord series – full of scheming, spying, action and adventure.
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Category: Guest Post

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The extraordinary novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (UK | US | ANZ) launches today, published by Orbit in the UK and Redhook in the US.

No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes . . . Until now.

Here the author Claire North tells us what advice she would give to her past self, in case she got the chance to live her life all over again . . .

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Your teachers and elders are not always right.  Age does not necessarily bring wisdom, and if you feel uncertain about yourself, someone else’s certainty does not make them right.  If anything, the more certain the other person is, the more you should question it. Have faith in your own mind, judgment and intelligence, and use it to question everything, even people who seem to be ‘above’ you in whatever place or time you happen to be in now.

Your friends are the best of you.  When you are down, remember that if a person can be judged by the company you keep, then you are frankly, amazing.  Because your friends are amazing and then some.  By which extension – when you meet them for the first time, trust the geeks.  They have found a thing they love and they have the guts to stand up for it, and through it, themselves.  When you’re trying to work out who you are, they can help.

Physicality is in your power.  The questions you ask about how you look, and more importantly how other people perceive your looks, is based on a false premise.  Charisma and confidence is a thing created in the mind, in how you see yourself and how you feel about yourself.  The rest is fluff.

Regret is not the same as wisdom.

When the monkey in the hoodie says ‘yes’ to ‘fixed’ and ‘off’ he is, in fact, wrong.

Concision is a rarer grace than wit.

Above all: do not be afraid.  Running away from something stupid or dangerous isn’t fear, it’s just good sense.  The rest however, the fear that will hold you back, is self-inflicted and can be beaten.  Do not be afraid.

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Nature abhors a vacuum—nowhere more so than in politics. Remove a dictator, and a hundred evil wanna-be despots arise in his stead. Depose a king, and the nobles squabble among themselves. Take down a tyrant, and the underlings kill each other off until only one remains.

In my first Ascendant Kingdoms novel, ICE FORGED (US | UK | AUS), the war between Donderath and neighboring Meroven got out of hand after years of ground assaults, leading to devastating strikes and counter-strikes by the mages on both sides. The strikes were intended to kill the king and the families of the nobility, which they did. But the strikes also severed the bond that enabled mortals to control magic, making it a wild force of nature. The civilizations of Donderath and Meroven, which had depended upon magic, collapse.  Leaderless, with the magic gone and the infrastructure in ruins, Donderath and Meroven descend into chaos.

Unfortunately, anarchy has its advocates.

One of the aspects that intrigues me with the Ascendant Kingdoms books is the tension between order and chaos.  On the plus side, chaos can permit natural talent to rise, unencumbered by inherited position, social convention or historical precedent. More often, this means that might makes right, the strong oppress the weak and justice fails.

Among those who see opportunity in chaos and anarchy are men who have styled themselves as warlords, mustering Donderath’s defeated returning soldiers to their ranks and gathering the displaced farmers and tradesmen who have nowhere else to go. Bandit gangs and highwaymen prowl the byways and the city streets now that the king’s guards are no longer to be feared. The talishte—vampires—are split between those who see an opportunity to take the power for themselves as the strongest predators and subjugate mortals, and those who prefer the rule of law. Mages also split between those who desire to use their power to rule over the non-mages by magical force, and those who prefer to work in service to governing powers.

Between the warring factions are the farmers, tradespeople, soldiers and townsfolk whose entire existence was upended by the war and the Cataclysm that resulted from the mage strikes. Unlike the court mages and the battle wizards who worked magic on a grand scale, the common people relied on small magic to make their lives easier in hundreds of ways. Before the Great Fire, magic kept milk from souring and healed sick children and lamed horses. Magic shored up wobbly walls and kept fences together and kept the river from flooding its banks. The Great Fire burned their towns and destroyed their leadership. They lost their livelihoods and crops to fire and flood, along with losing their livestock to illness and their sons to the war. Some try to make the best of it and get on with their lives. Others choose sides, pledging themselves to the service of one of the new warlords.

Blaine McFadden was willing to be stripped of his lands and title to save his sister from dishonor, and the murder he committed resulted in his exile. When he discovers that he is the only living Lord of the Blood and returns to restore the magic, he finds that creating some degree of order is necessary to enable the lands to rebuild. The title he never coveted is now his, along with the responsibilities. And it is increasingly clear that he’s going to have to win a new title—that of ‘warlord’—in order to live long enough to accomplish his goal and protect everything he holds dear.

REIGN OF ASH (US | UK | AUS), book two of the Ascendant Kingdom Saga, releases today! Read an excerpt now or start from the beginning with ICE FORGED.

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Glenda Larke’s exciting new epic fantasy novel, THE LASCAR’S DAGGER, came out just last week. It is a tale of spying, of action and adventure in an unfamiliar land.

I was 21 years old when I discovered what it was like to be an alien.

I had just landed in a strange country at night, then was driven along dark country roads with rubber trees meeting overhead. Near our village destination, a coconut tree had fallen across the power lines, so when I met my husband’s parents for the first time, along with his brother and five sisters, it was by the flickering light of tiny coconut-oil lamps.

I soon discovered that my meagre knowledge of formal, grammatical Malay was about as much use in his village as a meagre knowledge of Oxford English would be to someone hearing Geordie dialect for the first time. The matriarchal society that was my husband’s by birth still used the Sumatran dialect they’d brought with them from Indonesia centuries earlier. I barely understood a word. At that point, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of not belonging, of being way out of my comfort zone.

As lovely as my in-laws were, I learned then, and in the years that followed, how challenging it is to be the stranger, the outsider. And as if that first total immersion by lamplight wasn’t enough, I did it again, repeatedly — living for years not only in west Malaysia, but also in Austria, in Tunisia, in Borneo. I had to learn the same tough lesson over and over, which was this: those around me weren’t weird. I was. It’s always the stranger who’s the alien.

It might have been a challenge for me to adapt, but it was also wonderful — a fascinating learning curve that never ended. No wonder, then, that I am intrigued by protagonists who are flung into unfamiliar worlds they don’t quite understand . . .

Like the lascar, for example, one of the protagonists in my new epic fantasy novel, THE LASCAR’S DAGGER, Book One of The Forsaken Lands. He is friendless and alone, half a world away from the place of his birth, learning to survive in a country where people dismiss his half of the globe as “forsaken”, that is, forsaken even by God. Or like Saker, the priest, reluctantly thrust into life at a royal court when he’d much rather lead a life of action. Or Lady Mathilda, a royal who must marry a man she doesn’t know and move to a foreign land for reasons of State. Or Sorrel Redwing, on the run from the law, learning to live in disguise as a servant. All are characters way out of their comfort zone.

Of all of them, the lascar has the hardest task because he’s the furthest away from all that is familiar. But then, he also has a very special dagger, or kris . . .

My husband wore a Malay kris the day we were married, tucked into the waist of his national costume like the warriors of a bygone era. The traditional form of the kris, usually with a wavy blade, is crafted from iron and meteorite nickel. Part of its mythos is the belief in a presence of a spirit (whether for good or evil) within the blade. Just as the kris in legend often possesses supernatural power or ability, so it is with the lascar’s dagger of my novel. Just what it’s up to is quite another matter, and for that, you’ll have to read the book.

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With her brand new epic fantasy adventure THE LASCAR’S DAGGER out today, we asked Glenda to tell us a bit about the book and the story behind that title.

“What’s your book about?” It’s a question dreaded by every fantasy author.

After all, what if Tolkien had said, “A company of little guys with hairy feet who go on a long journey to throw a ring into some molten rock under a mountain…”  Would you have bought the Lord of the Rings trilogy?

With my latest book – THE LASCAR’S DAGGER – I discovered a new problem.

“What’s your book about?”

“A lascar, and the spice trade and –”

“Alaska? Really?” (At which point I am on the receiving end of a peculiar look.) “I didn’t know they had a spice trade! And have you even been to Alaska?”

Er, no.

So I usually end up telling people about lascars instead.

The word ‘lascar’ rather carelessly bundles together men of many different nationalities. The only thing they had in common was that they were south Asians who worked for Europeans. They could come from any country from Yemen to Indonesia. They were mostly sailors, although sometimes the term was applied to the servants of British army officers. Generally, they were worked hard and were poorly paid.

Possibly the very first lascar was an Indian who sailed with Vasco da Gama in 1498. By 1660, they were so common on board British ships that the British Government enacted a law to limit their employment to no more than 25% of the crew. By the First World War, there were over fifty thousand lascars actually resident in Britain; lascars were in fact the first wave of Asian migrants.

But THE LASCAR’S DAGGER is not just about a man and his knife. It’s about a western civilization on the cusp of change as it comes into conflict with cultures on the other side of the globe. It’s about ambition and greed and the spice trade. It’s a fantasy, set in a world that never existed, but which evokes a time when Asia and Europe were on a collision course. In our world, Asia lost, and most countries ended up under colonial rule. In my world … there may be a different ending.

The cast of my trilogy is large and varied: clerics and royalty, merchants and servants, assassins and beggars, a lawyer, a prince, a privateer and a woman wanted for murder … and more importantly, there’s the lascar — and his blade.

The lascar’s dagger is, in fact, a character too, one that can manipulate events. After all, I write fantasy and there’s got to be magic, right? Better still, with magic, perhaps one can change the course of history.

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Last year, out-of-work travel writer Zöe Norris found herself in the Big Apple — looking for work and finding more than she bargained for.  Mur Lafferty’s THE SHAMBLING GUIDE TO NEW YORK CITY (US | UK | AUS)  is a hip and fun take on urban fantasy, which Cory Doctorow called “an unbeatable mixture of humor, heart, imagination and characterization.”

We’re thrilled to bring you the exciting sequel, GHOST TRAIN TO NEW ORLEANS (US | UK | AUS), which is available now!  Zoe and crew head south for an assignment in the Big Easy.

Since today is also Mardi Gras, it seemed appropriate to ask for Mur’s excellent travel advice on enjoying the celebration….if you’re a vampire that is.

Plan ahead

The most difficult thing in New Orleans for vampires is accommodation. New Orleans is 8 feet under sea level, and graves and coffins and any sort of tunnel system are nonexistent. You must plan early to book a crypt, or find room in some of the hotels that feature sunlight-tight rooms. These hotels and the rentable crypts are often booked by November, so plan early.

Know the local laws

Every city has laws specific to itself, for example, no earth demons welcome in Boston, and zombies must visit only downtown hospital morgues for brain retrieval. New Orleans is no different. Hunting can only be done in the cemeteries, all parties must be invite-only to limit the number of humans that try to attend, and the legally drunk limit is drinking one pint of blood that has a .10 blood alcohol content. So watch how many parting humans you partake of.

Do not dress in costume

Mardi Gras in New Orleans is the one time and place  where you can be yourself. You can dress in clothes that you find comfortable, even if they are from the 1300s, and you can avoid putting on makeup to disguise the paleness of your skin. Out and proud, that’s the chant of local vampires, as they proudly display all that they are this one time during the year.

Catch Mardi Gras throws

If you attend the correct parades, you may have a chance to catch throws such as frozen blood cubes, candied brain bits, or hedgehogs. These parades are often late at night on side streets to not attract too much human attention. WATCH OUT: some hunters will throw rosaries and crucifixes at eager vampires looking to catch throws, so make sure you know what you’re asking for when you get your loot.

Ask before you participate

Many parades will allow you to join them, if you ask before the parade begins. Parades are a wonderful opportunity for all supernatural creatures to walk in the open with no disguises. Even larger creatures such as dragons and wyrms can pass themselves as floats in a parade. But do not join a parade as it’s moving along; the vampires in the parade may see that as a threat.

Watch your children

Since so many supernatural creatures fit in seamlessly with the chaos that is Mardi Gras, many sire vampires will use it as a “coming out” party or “Debutante ball” for their newest progeny. The baby vampires will likely still be hesitant to use their new powers, but most likely they will be excited for the opportunities to hunt and party and get drunk like they did in life. This means they will be more liable to step out of line, attract the attention of the authorities, accidentally kill a party attendee, or worse. It’s a fun, family-friendly event, but that doesn’t mean your children don’t need watching.

Watch for thieves

Thieves are wonderful, and Mardi Gras is full of them. They’re very good at what they do: lifting wallets and cell phones and the like. Thieves also make for very tasty pickings, as their blood is usually spiked with adrenaline, so after one attempts to rob you, capture him and take him somewhere safe (like the nearest graveyard) and feast away. The best part is, authorities will often look the other way if you can produce proof that you were only protecting the other humans. (Usually handing over the thief’s stolen goods will get you in the clear here.)

Be careful

Remember what we said about accommodations? We have more vampires killed simply by being out all night and suddenly unable to find a safe place to hide when the sun comes up. And we’re talking old vampires, people who really should know better. But there is no better place to feed freely on drunks than Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and even the most cautious vampire can get in trouble if she has had a few too many tourists. You do not want to realize it’s 5am and your only sanctuary is a porta potty, which isn’t very light tight to begin with.

No dangerous behavior elsewhere

You can actively hunt in the graveyard, and even show many of your true colors to drunk humans who think you’re just kissing them roughly on the neck. Anything goes at Mardi Gras, which makes it an ideal vacation spot for vampires and other supernatural creatures. But when you step into the working part of the city, where there are fewer parties and more people just trying to enjoy an evening, you will stand out, and the authorities will notice you. Stay in the French Quarter, stay within the invite-only parties, and stay within the cemeteries.

Read an excerpt from GHOST TRAIN TO NEW ORLEANS or start from the beginning with THE SHAMBLING GUIDE TO NEW YORK CITY!

 

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UNFETTERED should not exist.

Not in a perfect world. In a perfect world, cancer does not exist. And even if it does exist, in a semi-perfect world, there is adequate healthcare insurance covering fantastic healthcare.

Unfortunately, I found out how imperfect the world is in 2011 when I was diagnosed with Stage 3B Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

I was prepared for the cancer. I had been diagnosed ten years earlier with a far graver form of the disease.  I knew what to expect – the surgeries, the chemotherapy, the fatigue and sickness. In 2001, I beat the cancer, but I had to be a mentally tough bastard to do it.

I knew it would be no different in 2011. The cancer didn’t frighten me. But it was paying for treatment that became the real problem.

I live in the United States where, in my opinion, the healthcare system is broken. Due to my pre-existing cancer diagnosis, I did not qualify for health insurance. I would not be denied healthcare but that healthcare would have to be paid out of pocket. My treatment would cost about $200,000. I would undoubtedly have to declare medical bankruptcy, ruining my financial future for the next decade.

The bastard came to the fore. I knew there had to be a way out. While I went through treatment, I began asking my writer friends if they could donate short stories for an anthology I would sell to offset those medical costs.

UNFETTERED is the result. Read the rest of this entry »

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Why Powered Armor?

In the interview section at the back of FORTUNE’S PAWN, I explained that the reason I originally decided to write the Paradox books was because I wanted to read an action packed SF romance and couldn’t find one, so I created my own. This is a true story, but it’s also true that my sudden reading urge wasn’t the only reason I decided to write about a female soldier turned mercenary who fights aliens, has a romantic subplot, and gets herself involved in a conspiracy that might doom all sentient life in the galaxy. You see, before all that, before Paradox and the xith’cal, even before Devi sauntered into my brain and informed me that I was writing her novel right that minute, I was already on the hunt for somewhere to put the Lady Grey.

I’ve been in love with powered armor since I watched my first mecha anime as a pre-teen renting anime tapes from Blockbuster in the dark days of the mid-90s. The idea of wrapping a person with all our fragile, soft flesh and emotional instability inside a machine that granted super human powers, but only under limits and often at huge costs, was like catnip for my young story-obsessed brain. I actually liked the price even better than the power it bought. Power alone is boring. It’s what power does to people—why they want it, how it changes them, and what they’re willing to do to keep it—that’s where the novel is.

If you’ve ever enjoyed a well told superhero story, you already know that the most compelling part of a any hero is their humanity. We don’t love Batman because of his toys, we love him for what he does with them, and why. We are, in short, far more interested in the man than the bat. Similarly, superheroes who have no weaknesses are boring. Even Superman, the most wish-fulfillment of all wish-fulfillment characters, needed kryptonite to be compelling in the long term.

Powered armor takes this idea a step further. Devi’s suit gives her what are essentially superpowers. She’s super fast, super tough, and super strong. She has eyes in the back of her head, the ability to look up almost any information with a thought, and a literal photographic memory. But none of this power is really hers. She’s just the driver, the breakable, fragile human at the heart of everything, and the knowledge that her power can be damaged, taken away, or even simply run out of energy, is what makes her plights that much more interesting and tense.

Powered armor certainly wasn’t the only way I could have done this. There are a million ways in Science Fiction to make someone super powered. I could have given Devi implants, or made her a genetically modified super soldier. But all of these things would have been hers, and I didn’t want that. I wanted Devi’s powers to be something she something she had to pay for and  could only use at great personal risk, because the person who has the guts to willingly put their neck on the line for the power to achieve their goals is also the person who can function without it. Take Superman’s powers away and he becomes a whiny embarrassment sulking in his Fortress of Solitude. Take Batman’s money and gadgets away and he’s still freaking Batman.

This vulnerability is why I think powered armor is such a staple in our collective imagination. It’s the ultimate unstable power—a supreme weapon that’s stealable, breakable, hackable, and only ever one technological glitch away from being a metal mausoleum—and the character who chooses to use it even in the face of all those flaws is practically guaranteed to be the sort of hardcore badass you want to read about. I put Devi in the Lady Gray precisely because I wanted her to be the sort of heroine  who, when I blasted her suit full of holes, would use the sharp edges to go for her enemy’s throat. The Lady Gray made Devi every bit as much as she made the Lady Gray, and I wouldn’t want either of them any other way.

Rachel Bach is the author of Paradox, a three part, heavy ordinance blast of Science Fiction that starts with FORTUNE’S PAWN (US | UK | AUS) and continues with HONOUR’S KNIGHT  (US | UK | AUS), out now! Want to find out more about the Paradox series? Read the interview, which appeared in the back of FORTUNE’S PAWN.

 

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There’s a whole fantasy trope based around the protagonist of the story discovering that, after the initial skirmish with the forces of evil, he or she is the Chosen One, the one person who has all the skills – mental, physical and magical – to defeat the big bad and win the day.

And we love hearing about them because we can dream we are them. We’re no longer ordinary; quite the opposite. We become, for the length of the tale, extraordinary; possessing such skills, strength and stamina that no other mortal can command. The Chosen One is the archetypal super-hero story: think of Greek and Persian legends, and you’re halfway there already.

But when the story ends, the clouds come over, the sky darkens, and the world becomes colder, harsher and less caring. We’re not the Chosen One. We’re nothing unusual. Not only can we not take the battle to the forces of evil, we don’t even know where to start. We simply have to accept the way things are, with no hope of changing the slow grind of life.

But hang on. That’s not necessarily the case. We know through experience that we can claim small, if temporary, victories that bring life and light to us and ours. And we know that being inspired by our fictional heroes and heroines can make us better people – G. K. Chesterton spoke the truth when he said: ‘Fairy tales don’t tell children that dragons exist; children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.’ Read the rest of this entry »

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The Spiritwalker Trilogy is an epic fantasy coming-of-age-and-revolution in a gas-lamp setting written in first person from the point of view of a single character. While I really enjoyed writing in the voice of Cat Barahal, the single character first person viewpoint also presented challenges. For example, I could only ever see other characters as Cat sees them, and any incident that she does not herself personally witness she can only report on (or hear a report of) later.

As I finished up COLD STEEL (US | UK | AUS), the third in the trilogy, I decided to write a short story “coda” from the point of view of one of the other characters, Cat’s beloved cousin Beatrice (Bee). I also decided that because Bee is an artist I wanted the story to be illustrated. I’ve written about “The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal” elsewhere (extensively here where I talk in detail about the process of creating a chapbook with illustrations).

The artist Julie Dillon did a fabulous job with the black and white illustrations for the Secret Journal. I also commissioned her to do a couple of color pieces, more for my own selfish desire to have the illustrations than anything else (although we are talking about doing a limited edition print run).

Julie did two spectacular pieces based on passages from COLD STEEL.

One, “Rising from the Sea of Smoke,” was debuted over at A Dribble of Ink last week. You can see it there or on Tumblr.

Today, Orbit Books is debuting the second piece, “Amazons.” (Click for a larger view.)

Amazons

I asked Julie to illustration the following passage:

A gust of wind rattled the branches. A drum rhythm paced through the woods. On its beat I heard a woman’s voice call out a verse, answered by a chorus of women singing the response.

A column of soldiers marched into view, although they were almost dancing, so proud and mighty were they, and every single one a woman.

Four drummers led them while a fifth struck a bell, the drummers prancing and stepping on their way with every bit of flash and grin that any young man could muster. Their shakos were as jaunty as my own. All wore uniform jackets of dark green cloth piped with silver braid. Some wore trousers, while others preferred petticoat-less skirts tailored for striding. Most wore stout marching sandals laced along the length of calf, brown legs and black legs and white legs flashing beneath skirts tied up to the knee. Four lancers walked in the first rank, tasseled spears held high, while the rest carried rifles and swords. A banner streamed on the wind. It depicted an antlered woman drawing a bow.

Amazons.

Of the piece, Julie writes:

“I made the viewpoint lower to the ground so the viewer is looking up at them a little rather than looking down, which I thought might give them a somewhat larger than life feel. I also tried to make their poses and gestures, most particularly the arms of the amazons in the front row, have a nice flow of movement between them, to try to convey the sense that they are moving a little more energetically.”

Read the first chapter of COLD MAGIC (US | UK | AUS), book one of the Spiritwalker trilogy.

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The Monster in the Mirror

Hardcore horror fans are sometimes dismissive of “creature features” – horror narratives that build their scare tactics around a monster.  Obviously there’s a very respected classical canon of monsters (vampires, werewolves, zombies, demons . . . ) that sit close to the heart of the horror genre and partially define it.  But then there’s a host of other beasties that are exiled to the outer darkness – or the Black Lagoon, 40,000 fathoms, outer space, the Korean sewer system, wherever it was they came from in the first place.

I can see the distinction, to be honest.  You look at a vampire (sparkly or not) and you think horror.  You look at the spiky cactus beast from The Quatermass Experiment, or the lolloping mutant in The Host, or Godzilla stomping on a toy Tokyo, and you think sci-fi.  Or depending on your tastes, maybe you think “that tea isn’t going to make itself . . . ”

There’s a deeper distinction to be drawn, though.  It concerns our relationship with the monster and the reaction that it draws from us.  Creature features are predominantly about spectacle, and they probably share more DNA with thrillers than with horror stories.  They can be scary, but it’s a fairly uncomplicated fear.  The fear of being eaten, say, or having your head ripped off.  Monsters in horror have the potential to scare us or challenge us in different ways. Read the rest of this entry »

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