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My Top Reads of 2012

Inspired by the recently agented Jennifer Williams AKA Senny Dreadful, I thought I would dust off the blog and post about the top five books that lit my fire this year. I have the obligatory year in review post coming up too so yes you could say my posts are like buses.

Trinity Rising by Elspeth Cooper

This is the last book I listened to on Audible. It’s book two of a fantasy secondary-world quadrilogy called The Wild Hunt. The basic premise of the world in which the tales are set is that there is a ‘hidden’ world beyond a veil, a barrier between them, and that this veil is under threat. Should it break bad things will happen.

I read book one, Songs of the Earth, on my Kindle and I found it to be a solid, well written, fantasy tale but I just didn’t get enormously excited about the plot or the characters. Amazingly for a mid-series novel, where we normally just get a load of filling before the big showdown at the end, Trinity Rising instead got me enormously excited, about everything. We follow some great characters, from all sides of the good-evil divide, the writing is as elegant as in the first book, but the themes are a lot darker and grown up. There is the elf healer Tanith from the first book, along with Gair from book one, sulking over his lost love. Both of them are thrown into different environments so we get to see different sides of them. We also meet Savin, the antagonist who was vaguely distant in book one, and see what an evil and twisted git he really is. Interestingly the plot is non-linear and doesn’t follow immediately on from the last page of Songs, we see particular events again from other points of view, which certainly makes them much more interesting. The best bit for me was a new character, Teia (apologies for the spelling, I didn’t see it written), similar to Gair in that she has  hidden talents for magic, a chosen one, but far more interesting to me for the cultural setting and the situation in which she finds herself – pregnant and ostracised from her tribe. She is a young tribeswoman of the plainsfolk – a kind of Sami/Viking/Mongol people – being oppressed on every side, at one point even her family are forced to reject her.

Really enjoyed this, was left in tears at one point. Definitely looking forward to the rest of the series.

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

I’d heard lots of good things about this, and lots of bad, but bad in a good way such as the protagonist is a horrible bastard who does terrible things. That sounded perfect to me and I was not disappointed. It’s the first in a series called The Broken Empire, all told in the first person by the titular Prince Jorg. We meet him in a very unprincely situation with a gang of cutthroat mercenaries who he, at only fifteen years of age, manages to bring to heel as together they sack a small town. We soon learn that it’s all part of a greater plan, and in flashback we discover why Jorg is who he is, what he has suffered and lost, and what he plans to do – become king, and eventually emperor. A typical ambition realised and told in a very original way. Every character is fleshed out, every setting is distinct, but the best thing has to be the snappy dialogue and Jorg himself. I look forward to following his exploits.

Red Country by Joe Abercombie

As everyone probably knows, Joe Abercombie likes to take fantasy and dress it up in unusual ways. Red Country is no different and it views fantasy through the filter of a western. Not a genre that has seen a lot of popularity in recent years, but Abercombie makes it work with huge success. No high noons, shootouts or  sheriffs, this is still the First Law setting and is about exploring unchartered territory, tracking loved ones across pitiless lands and settling old scores . . . and knives, you can never have too many of those.

Several familiar faces rear their heads, but most are new, wittily and sharply drawn as always without ever falling into caricature. The protagonist is a feisty young woman called Shy South who sets off with her stepfather to retrieve her kidnapped younger brother and sister. Do things work out okay in the end? That’s up to the reader to decide I suppose, but things are never what  they seem in these stories, which is why I love them.

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

I had been looking forward to this for a while as it takes us out of the quasi-medieval Europe of typical fantasy and takes us to quasi-medieval Arabia. Like me, Saladin is an unabashed D&D geek and I was keen to see the monsters and settings that would be brought to life from Arabian folklore. It did not disappoint, the ghuls were truly terrifying, the magic internally logical and yet still magical, and best of all the protagonist was an overweight old man. Not your standard fare. In fact three of the main characters are well past their physical peak and the youngsters are often the sullen voice of reason. But it all works, splendidly so. Another one to follow up in 2013.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

I have to say, after this monster of a tome, book two in the Kingkiller Chronicle, The Wise Man’s Fear, had a lot to live up to, and it fell short of the mark for me. That doesn’t stop me admiring this vast debut of Rothfuss – it is another twist on fantasy delivery – fantasy as an autobiography.

The protagonist Kvothe is a bard and magic user, depicted in layer upon layer upon layer of story, so that we can’t see where the truth ends and the legend begins. We start in the present, through the eyes of Chronicler, the man who is transcribing the story, then we enter the tale itself as Kvothe tells it to him in reminiscence. Parts are missed, embellished, switched back to, interrupted. Other characters step in with their version of events. We follow him from a blissful childhood, discover everything about all the people around him, to the streets where he scratched out an existence as a beggar, and eventually to the University where his prodigious talents earned him great fame and  also countless troubles. His search goes on and on, pulling the narrative as he hunts some strange creatures that destroyed his loved ones, but this is essentially a device to keep up momentum. It’s a vast world, with hundreds of little side alleys to explore. Rothfuss is a master storyteller, and I hope that book three returns to this form.

Destination: Publication

Well I’ve reached a milestone, a pretty big one if I’m honest. Still waiting for the truth to hit me but perhaps this will come in time, perhaps at Fantasy Con when I meet up with all my fellow contributors and the editing team.

After Alt.Fiction I was asked to write for an anthology by Adele Wearing, who recently set up a new imprint – Fox Spirit. She liked what I wrote enough to deem it publishable, stick her neck out as an editor and say ‘this is worth reading’. I find that mind-blowing really. Given what a solitary exercise writing is, it’s easy to forget that the aim of the game is to share it with as many people as possible. Even more amazing, people are going to be paying money to read what I have written. Granted there is a heap of talented folk in there – both well established veterans and emerging authors – but still, my name will be alongside theirs, with a little (c) beside it.

So . . . can I call myself a writer now? Will I keep moving the goalposts? I don’t know, but I’m just so gosh-darned pleased that I got to this stage.

Can’t thank everyone involved enough. So instead I will talk a bit more about the book instead of rambling at my own astonishment.

It’s an anthology of tales, all featuring Nuns and Dragons. Many genres, many outlooks, all different. Mine is a fable about getting things done – guess that’s something many writerly types can relate to – The Tale of Sister Amagda and the Thrice Bound Wyrm. The Ebook is available now through Amazon or Wizards Tower Press, print version to follow in the near future. Reviews have been very favourable, and a great amount of interest has been generated. I’ve bought my copy,  and I’m looking forward to reading everyone’s tales!

Short Story – Robbers

You’d be ill advised to walk the quarter at this hour but that’s exactly what I’m doing. None of us expect trouble on our own doorstep do we? And yet I can hear trouble approaching: a frenzied whispering and sliding of feet. Drink warms my veins and my ears still ring from the tap room, but it’s not enough to distract me from the hushed conversation taking place just a few yards away.

On instinct I press myself to a wall, almost slipping in something soft and reeking as I try to make out the words.

“Hurry up!”

“I’m trying, he’s fucking heavy!”

Two voices, a man and a woman. The shuffling continues. Where I’m standing a weak stream of light spills through the narrow street, showing the wet cobbles, a bottle, a broken jar, rags and nightsoil. I squint hard towards the sound of them speaking. Two pairs of feet appear, taking small, awkward steps. As they come forward I see they bear something large. A person, slumped into a U shape between them as they stagger and hurry under the weight.

They wear boots, cloaks that hang to their knees and, jutting from beneath the fabric where they bend to their task, swords.

This is no bickering couple, my mind races to keep up with what’s happening. Timing my movements with theirs I slide beneath a window. The light from within casts a pale yellow rectangle in the street in which I’ll be able to see them better as they move past me. I cross my hands and grip my sword and dagger. I wait.

Robbers.

They’ve jumped some poor sod and are taking him somewhere quiet to finish the job.

I bite down the urge to just let them pass, as if I’d never seen a thing.

It’s none of your business, just go home.

They come into the light. Long threads of blood run down the slack fingers of the man they carry. To my astonishment, I take a pace forward. Self defence, that’s what this is, they’ll probably be after me next anyway. I draw my weapons, heart pounding, suddenly very angry and gripping tighter than I would like.

“Who are you and what are you doing?” I hear myself say. I step out and press the tip of the sword into the back of the nearest person. It’s the taller of the two, most likely the man. Everything becomes very still. Someone barks with laughter in the next street, something small scampers in the dark. It seems muffled through the blood rushing in my ears.

“None of your business!” hisses the woman, she faces me, squinting in the light over the man’s shoulder. She has dark, tightly braided hair, long limbs and amber eyes. As she snarls I see one of her front teeth is missing and just above it her lip is scarred deep.

The man doesn’t move.

“Yani!” he whispers back at her in warning, partially answering my question.

“Well Yani,” I say, sounding more confident than I feel “I think two people carrying a body down my street is very much my business. For one thing-”

The man lets his shoulders drop, and there’s a thud as he lets go of the body. My cheeks grow hot as he pivots on his toes, turning towards me. In the same graceful motion he draws his sword, holding it high and pointing it at me. He takes a few cautious paces back, his face a knot of concentration. Yani scowls at him, still holding the body under the arms.

“Mowan! What are you doing?”

She looks at my sword and dagger, and lowers the body to the ground. When Mowan does not respond she draws her own sword and stands beside him. I realise, my insides turning to water, that I hadn’t thought this far ahead.

Mowan’s sword gleams sharp in the light from the window. Yani’s is dull, and I can see the blade is daubed with drying blood. Their points are level with my eyes, beyond the robbers’ faces glare at me. I can see Mowan is dark haired like Yani. He has a few days of scruffy beard on his chin.

“As my sister said,” his voice is deep and measured “None of your business.”

Their orange-brown eyes are hungry, like those of wolves. I don’t dare lower my weapons, they would be on me in a breath. I join my dagger with my sword, pointing both blades at each in turn. My heart squirms in my chest. I have to do something. I lunge at Mowan.

He doesn’t move, merely lifts his sword a little, parrying my attack as if he were shooing a fly. In the corner of my eye I see Yani move, her sword cutting high at my head.

“Fool!” she hisses. But I am ready. I catch her blade with my dagger and she frees it instantly, moving to stab me in the face.

“Stop.” Says Mowan. Yani freezes in the act, her brother’s hand on her hilt. She looks at him, chastened, but does not object. I now feel the cold tickle of Mowan’s sword beneath the soft flesh of my chin. For an instant I wonder how many people have died on that blade. He knows his business. I lower my weapons.

“I suppose this is all some unfortunate accident is it?” my voice creaks a little, irritating me for making me sound petulant, scared even, for in truth I am terrified.

Yani’s lip curls up, into what could be the beginning of a smile, but she snorts with disdain. When she speaks her eyes are on me, moving quickly between my face and my weapons, as if weighing me up. But her words are directed at her brother.

“This is getting us nowhere. There’s no time.”

Mowan is silent, staring thoughtfully at me. He takes a small pace forward, and I feel the point press into my skin without yet breaking it. Yani moves to cover him. I swallow, and plant my feet, telling myself not to simply turn and flee. As my weight shifts I become aware of the purse on my hip. A lot lighter than it was before the night began, but it might just save me.

With my dagger hand, I slowly draw back my cloak, showing my purse.

“Listen,” I say, but Mowan frowns. Yani’s eyes dart over me, studying, before opening wide in realisation.

“He thinks we’re robbers!”

Her face pinches briefly as she suppresses a laugh. Her expression moves to irritation. Mowan takes a pace back, and with great relief I feel the sword leave me. Anger rushes in to take the place of my fear.

“You’re moving about in the dark with a bloodied sword and a body, what am I supposed to think?” I say.

Mowan cocks an eyebrow, regarding me from head to toe.

“You’re hardly acting honourably, sneaking up on two people trying to help an injured friend.”

I scoff at the story, and the accusation levelled at me. “Self defence!” I say.

Yani sheaths her sword, draws up her hood and bends to take up the man once again. I can see now that he’s breathing.

“What are you doing with him?”

I gesture with my dagger, lowering the sword and covering the purse with my cloak. Yani snarls impatiently, but Mowan looks at me, his voice soft and dangerous.

“It’s no business of yours stranger. Put away your sword and be on your way.”

Not robbers then. I sag with relief. As I struggle to think what they might be I hear a hissing sound from further down the alley, like iron quenching. Mowan turns his face towards it, and I can see his eyes round and white with fear. I grip my sword once more.

“Yani, quickly!”

He’s about to sheath his blade and help his sister but she’s grunting as she drags the unconscious man to a nearby doorway. Drawing her sword she stands beside her brother.

“No time ‘Wan! We end this here, now.”

I expect her angry gaze to rest on me, but there’s only urgency in her voice, the way she moves. The pair share a brief glance, I feel almost ashamed to witness it. Together they turn to the sound at the end of the street. There’s a tiny light in the darkness, not soft like a candle flame but piercing white, almost blue, like a spark that does not die. I blink and pale ghosts of it swim behind my eyelids. The light’s getting closer and I can see a person carries it, but despite the brightness they remain in shadow, gliding steadily along the ground without quavering.

My gaze flickers to the boots of the injured man, to Mowan and Yani, their teeth bared as they ready themselves. It’s my cue to leave, get as far away from here as possible until all this has died away.

I still have my sword in my hand. We are all in far greater danger than I had initially thought. They’re not going to kill me. With cold realisation it occurs to me that I’ve waylaid them, two people trying to save a friend. They face something so terrible that it makes me want to run, beyond the city, out into the dark and not stop until dawn. I am anchored in place not by guilt, but by what drew me into this foolishness: to protect my city, my street, and now these people. I owe it to them to stay, and fight. I grip my dagger too.