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Story News: ‘A Little Blood, A Little Fire’

a little blood a little fire sk farrell

My story “A Little Blood, A Little Fire” was featured in the June issue of Swords & Sorcery Magazine.

I wrote this last summer, while house-sitting for a friend. It was an experimental little play-around with the backstory of Azarelle, the main character from my currently-breathing-a-bit fantasy novel, “Daughter of Wax”. I liked the way it turned out, so away it went, and I’m very grateful to editor Curtis Ellett for picking it up.

Story completed despite this fine fellow trying to get me to play outside instead

“A Little Blood, A Little Fire” is told from the perspective of Azarelle’s father, Angelo, who is reflecting back on her childhood. At what point did he realise she had sorcerous powers? And at what point would it have really been wise to intercede?

I’ve been fiddling around in the world of this story for 20 years, and I’m very fond of it. As fond as you can be of exsanguination cages and demon princes, that is.

The story can be found here.

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News: Reading at Event Horizon, 10th May

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I’m excited to be reading at the fantasy takeover of Shoreline of Infinity’s regular sci fi night Event Horizon tomorrow.

event horizon shoreline of infinity edinburgh

Last time Eris from A&I hosted an Event Horizon, it was fabulous, so… no pressure.

I read out loud all the time for my pupils. In fact, I read the end of Jamila Gavin’s “Coram Boy” in class today and sobbed like a baby. I figure I’m less likely to do that with my own work.

There’s a grimdark monster I’m looking forward to sharing with people.

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Story News: ‘Pauline and the Bahnians’

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My SF flash fiction “Pauline and the Bahnians” was a runner-up in the inaugural Shoreline of Infinity flash fiction competition. This tickles me thoroughly, because it’s a light-hearted little scribble, and I’ve been writing such dramatic, grim fantasy for the past few months. I’ll take it as a sign from the universe to lighten up somewhat. It’s also lovely, because I wrote the story to celebrate my grandmother, Actual Pauline, who was 80 this year. I thought I’d share some notes on how the story came to be.

Shoreline of Infinity presented two gorgeous pieces of artwork as writing prompts for their competition, a house at the edge of the universe by Becca McCall, and characters viewing a planet from a chrome spaceship gantry by Siobhan McDonald. I chose to write about Becca’s work, but Siobhan’s picture is actually still nagging at me: for some reason it reminds me of a SF ‘Wizard of Oz’, and now I want to write that (although probably not in flash format!)

becca mccall shoreline of infinity

Art by Becca McCall

Becca’s dreamy space cottage brought to mind a beloved family home. In 1990, my maternal grandparents, Actual Pauline and Bernard, moved from the Home Counties to a cottage in Shropshire, near the town of Craven Arms. Having worked in the City all his life, my grandfather was keen to get away from people. Far away. VERY far away. No doubt this urge is what drew him to the cottage on the hill, set in a few acres of totally wild land, reachable only by phoning the railway company and asking if it would be ok to drive your car across the railway line, then crawling up a gravel drive that seemed never to end. When my grandparents moved in, this little haven didn’t even have electricity, and I remember a lamp hanging precariously from the wrought ironwork of the spiral staircase that led from one floor to the next.

Over the next couple of decades, they – aided each summer by various children and children-in-law, who would be allocated tractors, chisels, hammers, chainsaws or, er, tea-making duties, depending on their capabilities – turned the cottage into a beautiful home, and its grounds into an incredible garden. We grandchildren spent our summers there, too, roving around the forests, camping out in the garden, building dens, eating barbecued food, and making our annual pilgrimage to ‘Julie’s Castle’ – more properly known as Stokesay Castle, which my grandmother’s friend Julie managed for English Heritage.

Me (L) plus Sister & Cousins at the cottage

There came a time when my grandparents had to leave the cottage, of course. That drive, all that land, that distance from medical help, and that bloody staircase, were not suitable in later life. Still, all three generations continue to carry wonderful memories of summers and Christmases spent there.

Becca McCall’s cottage sparked off these memories, and I wondered: if it were possible to go and live on the very edge of the universe, would that be remote and inconvenient enough for my family? We love us a bit of inconvenience. Would my grandmother leap at the chance to have another far-off cottage, this time out in the stars? Well, yes… but there might be hostile aliens out there. What would she do? Having seen, as a child, my nan face down the fox-hunting party that tried to ride across her land, I had a fairly clear idea. “Pauline and the Bahnians” comes from there.

I had an urge to write epistolary fiction. It’s never appealed before, but several things coincided to make me give it a go. I read “The Sun God At Dawn, Rising From A Lotus Blossom” by Andrea Kail in Lightspeed Magazine, and absolutely fell in love with it. I also heard Jo Walton read “Jane Austen to Cassandra” at the EIBF edition of Shoreline’s sci fi cabaret (Event Horizon) and loved that too. Those are both clever, literary, rich examples, and “Pauline” is short and silly, but the idea of letters had stuck. Also at the summer Event Horizon, I heard Pippa Goldschmidt (one of the flash competition’s judges) read her story “A Throw of the Dice”. This one’s created from journal (or space log) entries rather than letters, but that idea of moving a story on, stage by stage, with plenty of dramatic irony and meaningful gaps left, put another little piece into the inspiration puzzle.

You don’t have to build a totally coherent world view in a piece of flash, but there could be a bit of a head-scratching plot hole in “Pauline” – how did an 89-year-old lady get to the edge of the universe? The answer’s in the second letter, where she mentions having her brain-state copied and relayed. I didn’t imagine her physically going to the Edge; rather, her consciousness has been beamed into some kind of android or cyborg body. I was reading a lot of Ken MacLeod at the time of writing (the Corporation Wars books), and so I picture the Pauline of the story as inhabiting a sophisticated, chicken-feeding, robotic frame. Like Ken’s Carlos the Terrorist, but with a good deal more chill.

I actually wrote quite a bit of the first draft of “Pauline” AT an Event Horizon… I had to go friendless one month, and I’m not always bold enough to go and make new pals during intervals (by ‘not always’ I mean ‘pretty much hardly ever at all’). Perched on a bar stool being very antisocial, I got the rough shape of the story down on my phone. I think this is pretty science fictional. We’re really fortunate to have Shoreline running Event Horizon in our city: if you’re in Edinburgh and looking for varied, friendly, SF entertainment, you can’t go wrong.

My thanks to Pippa, Eric and Noel for choosing my story as a runner-up: you can find Issue 10 of Shoreline of Infinity (and all their back issues) here.

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I’ve Been Reading: Josiah Bancroft

senlin ascends josiah bancroft review

“EVERYONE IS TALKING”, says the front cover of the beautiful ARC of Josiah Bancroft’s “Senlin Ascends”. Not just a wry allusion to the Biblical Tower of Babel, but a statement backed up by myriad Goodreads quotes, from writers and readers alike, all expressing huge enthusiasm for the book. Bancroft self-published “Senlin” in 2013, and put in a massive amount of legwork promoting the title. Positive whisperings and mutterings accumulated, but the process was extremely draining (as detailed in his first Reddit AMA last winter).

2016 saw Bancroft entering the book into Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, and although it didn’t make the final, it captured the hearts of the tide of new readers it richly deserved, most notably Mark himself. I first heard of “Senlin” by way of Mark (probably on Reddit, I think…) towards the end of that year, and am amongst a kind of secondary crowd of readers attracted by his banner-waving. By the summer of 2017, all this chat about “Senlin Ascends” had echoed up to lofty enough reaches that Orbit got to hear of it, and snapped up all three of the Books of Babel series (“Arm of the Sphinx” was self-published in 2015, and we anxiously await “The Hod King”.)

Much as the train disgorges passengers to be swallowed up by the Tower at the beginning of the book, an eager new audience will flood to get lost in the story’s heights when Orbit releases it in January 2018. This slightly complicated history has given “Senlin Ascends” a relatively long period in which it has been a ‘shiny new discovery’ for the people who have come to it in stages. And hey, when you’ve just discovered something, and that something is wonderful, you do indeed tend to talk about it.

senlin ascends josiah bancroft review

‘Senlin’ ARC and art loot

Everyone is talking about the adventure in this book. The premise is set up and executed with perfect economy in the opening chapter. Tom Senlin, uptight and socially awkward headmaster, arrives with his new wife, Marya, at the foot of the Tower of Babel, a phenomenal construction about which he has dreamed and taught his students for many years. Within the space of ten pages, his preconceptions have been shattered, his wife has been lost, and his life-long obsession with decorum, rules, and etiquette have to be cast aside. It’s deliciously written: there’s a playfulness of rhythm and musicality to the way Bancroft pens sentences like, “They descended through shale foothills, which he said reminded him of shattered blackboards, through cypress trees, which she said looked like open parasols, and finally they came upon the arid basin.”

Senlin and Marya’s characters are powerfully conveyed in scant few paragraphs, a witty, sweet, orientating breath in the quiet, and then BOOM, we’re off. Robberies, duels, imprisonments, escapes, chases, torture, heists, hijackings, threats, promises: “Senlin Ascends” packs all of this in, escalating the stakes and excitement levels as Senlin makes his way up the various ‘ringdoms’ that comprise each layer of the tower, clinging to tantalisingly thin traces of Marya’s prior passage. The action really is exhilarating: I don’t want to include spoilers, mindful of the pilgrims yet to make their way into the Tower’s front hall, but I will say that when Senlin needs to leave the Baths, and has a time limit within which to do so, there was absolutely no way I was putting the book down until I’d seen him clear, and that the ‘final showdown’ of the novel, which takes place at an airship port in a blizzard, had me literally gasping. And this was my second reading…

Everyone is talking, too, about setting, because without the wildly imaginative backdrop of the Tower, the adventure wouldn’t be half as gripping. Sure, Senlin has plenty of impetus to move through the Tower at pace, but the Tower has no inclination to let him. Its obscure customs, corrupt systems, and sheer geographical weirdness keep him mired in the gloriously bizarre detail of each ringdom. Not artificially, mind: this is still a very pacy book, and Bancroft hasn’t created the Tower only to force the reader through a boring Cook’s tour of all its various crevices. But the world-building casts a powerful spell, creating an irresistible illusion of a complex, fully-formed world. Who built the Tower? Who controls it? What are the upper reaches like? These mysteries only get more potent as “Senlin” progresses.

The conceit of each floor being a different ringdom, with a different ‘personality’, creates huge page-turning momentum. It’s a similar joy (and terror!) to reading Enid Blyton’s “The Faraway Tree” as a child: if you stick your head up, what new and mind-blowing world will you find? “Senlin Ascends” takes us through four of the Tower’s zones: the gloomy, beer-sodden basement, the absurd Parlour theatre, the outwardly luxurious steam-powered Baths, and the terrifying, electric-skied drudge-pit of the Boudoir. Each one would have been robust enough to serve as the setting for an entire novel.

Everyone is talking about the characters. As mentioned above, the first chapter works super hard to leave us with a clear, graspable first image of both Senlin and Marya. He is quiet, and serious, and clings to the comfort of facts: “a reserved and naturally timid man who took confidence in schedules and regimens and written accounts.” She “read books while she walked to town,” “played the piano beautifully but also brutally,” and threatens to kiss camels. We’re told in this first chapter that Senlin “had married for entirely practical reasons,” and it’s likely that he believes this. But what we are shown is a man whose world has already changed, blown apart by the gentle miracle of love.

He seems cold and stuffy and rigid for about five minutes, but there are two threads running through the novel that prove him to be a character of remarkable depth and realism. One thread shows the book’s present, and in this, we see him desperate to find Marya, carrying out acts in turns brave, reckless, genius, and merciless in her pursuit. Through these acts, which make up a breathless and punishing ‘try-fail’ sequence, Senlin gains self-awareness, realising the limits of his world-view, owning up to and looking to grow from his failings. The other thread shows the past, untangling the story of how Senlin and Marya met, and fell in love. I’d argue there’s at least as much character development there: the scene on the station platform is the only bit of the book that draws tears from me! Bancroft structures his chapters with great cunning, so that these threads interweave thematically, keeping Marya present and relevant even though we hardly glimpse her at all within the Tower’s confines. Both Senlin and Marya are delightfully three-dimensional, and I finish “Senlin Ascends” a little bit in love with them both.

There’s a fantastic secondary cast too, of course. Brooding, conscience-torn Adam; heroic, feminist, realist Edith; powerful but deep Iren; jovial, world-worn Tarrou; rebellious, incorrigible, lovable Voleta; and of course the detestable Commander and genuinely horrifying Red Hand… to expand on any of them would be to ruin the story, so suffice to say they are brilliant, and triumphantly diverse. The Books of Babel explore disability and being neurologically atypical in really interesting ways: “Senlin Ascends” is just the beginning in this regard. As Senlin and Marya reveal their many layers in this first book, so the other characters will unravel and find their voices later on. You’re in for a treat…

Finally, everyone is (or should be) talking about the richness of Bancroft’s prose. His background as a poet shines through on every page, but there’s nothing self-satisfied about his written style. There’s just a fabulously confident deployment of sensory detail and of simile, most especially, that makes “Senlin” a vivid, phantasmagorical read. “I like this because of the similes” might seem like a ridiculous, English teacher comment, so to show you what I mean, here’s a particularly wonderful and figuratively dense paragraph, from the beginning of the first chapter of the middle section of the book:

“The tunnel was so rough and uneven that it appeared to have been chewed out by a monstrous worm. There were no brass rails, or arabesque carpets, or white wainscoting here. The passage was as unglamorous as a mineshaft. Engine steam clung to the stone like fog upon glass, so every step forward ended in a reckless, unsteady skid. A chain of electric bulbs, yellow as egg yolks and hardly more illuminating, hung from the ceiling. Through the gloom, Senlin saw no alcoves to hide in and no intersections to dart down. The only way to escape the amazon at his heels, her chains jangling like a tambourine, was to outrun her.”

Isn’t it gorgeous?

I don’t stumble upon this lovely weight of original, vibrant figurative language very often. The imagery suits the book perfectly, too; as Senlin tries to make sense of all the surreal, fantastic, and frightening scenes before him, trying to relate them to things he’s experienced or learned in the past, so too the reader is forced to approach every description from a weird and wonderful perspective. We learn to decode the incredible.

Speaking of being an English teacher, reading “Senlin Ascends” as an educator adds an extra layer of ironic humour. Bancroft punctures Senlin’s teacherly pride with his flashback depictions of our high-minded hero holding forth while his young charges seek to doodle, or beat each other up, or just loll around daydreaming about fishing. Senlin is so sure of himself, so invested in bringing THE KNOWLEDGE to these young minds, totally heedless of their natural inclinations and enthusiasms, or whether THE KNOWLEDGE is actually of any use to them. We’ve all been there! No earnest, worthy, pure-of-heart lesson plan survives first contact, but much of the job is just pretending that it’s all going precisely as you predicted.

The schoolroom farce is funny because the mockery is edged with affection. When Senlin whitewashes the schoolhouse and hammers down every loose nail during the summer break, I recognise that care and thoroughness. That’s a truth of the job, too, and I appreciate Bancroft’s efforts to make Senlin’s profession a multi-faceted aspect of his personality, rather than just a punchline, or a symbol of his rigidity. Also, I love Senlin’s attachment to his guide book to the Tower of Babel. Like many a teacher, he has a textbook, and his belief in that textbook is unwavering (I have a poetry anthology about which I have very similar feelings…). Bancroft uses extracts from this guidebook as chapter epigrams, to brilliantly comic effect, and it’s as much this unravelling of academic certainty that breaks Senlin as it is the physical and emotional hardships he endures. Teachers! You will love this book…

So what genre is “Senlin Ascends”? It’s an adventure novel. A fantastical, weird adventure. I’ve seen the word ‘steampunk’ floating around, and it makes my nose wrinkle a little bit: yeah, there is literal steam-power in this book. There are also airships, and mechanical body parts, and pistols, and gasmasks, and uncanny creatures, and, er, funny brass wall attachments. I feel like the term carries genre and trope expectations that “Senlin” doesn’t fit, however. It’s too weird, too far out there. It’s too old-fashioned… in a good way. In spirit, it’s much closer to the unwitting progenitors of the genre: I can’t help but think HG Wells (himself a teacher) would have checked it out of the library and gasped happily into a little sherry as the action unfolded. While I’m chucking comparisons around, it tickled the same part of my brain as Mervyn Peake’s writing: a very lean, much faster Gormenghast. It also reminded me of watching Terry Gilliam’s “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” as a child: the same massively imaginative, topsy-turvy, oh-shit-this-is-actually-scary awe. Other reviews will point you in the direction of more accurate comparative book titles; I don’t think my brain works that way. Also, I wouldn’t want to narrow it down: “Senlin” will appeal to readers in so many of the different corners of the fantasy genre.

To conclude… I love this novel. It has an amazing, attention-grabbing setting, a plot that gallops at a thrilling, headlong pace, language to die for and characters I can believe in and feel for. 2017 has seen some exciting things happen in my life, but has also thrown up a lot of challenges; obviously on a global scale, it has been a total shitshow. I first read “Senlin Ascends” in January, and finished my re-read in November, so it has bracketed my year. Both times, I needed an escape, to burrow into a book and lose myself there, like I used to do with Robert Jordan’s novels when I was a teen. Both times, “Senlin” scooped me up in a sulphur-scented hug. It works like that: it draws you in to something exciting and distracting, but it’s also deep and hopeful and full of the strength of human spirit.

It’s also incredibly inspiring. To experience a book so original and imaginative and beautiful, and to know it took such perseverance and energy to get it out there… it’s a bit awe-inducing, as a baby writer. But there’s a path. He’s many floors above me in the writer’s Tower, but Bancroft is keen to leave muddy footprints on the walkways, so that others can follow. That gives “Senlin Ascends” a very special place in my heart.

senlin ascends arc competition

The Tower of Lipstick

You see, Josiah is such a warm and generous human being (he sent me this book just for building him a tower of lipstick: fancy that!), which is icing on the marvellously baroque cake. He always has time for those still daubing literary paint around in the manner of Ogier, and is a great cheerleader for others’ victories. The success of the Books of Babel is so thoroughly deserved, and I wish him all the best for the Orbit releases of “Senlin Ascends” and its sequel “Arm of the Sphinx” next year.

You can read “Senlin” news from Orbit here : the updated covers have just been released and are gorgeous.

Josiah is on Twitter here.

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Story News: ‘Song of the Land’

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My story ‘Song of the Land’ found a home in BFS: Horizons #5.

It’s a little bit of magic realism, or maybe historical fantasy (what do these things mean? No one knows…) set in the English Civil War, and its protagonist is a blacksmith’s daughter, Beatrix Haywood.

I originally wrote it as a flash piece (350 words), but then it grew some legs (and fur).

‘Song’ had roots in reading about Beatrice Harrison, the cellist who played with nightingales. Her story would fit right in a collection of fantastical tales. Other inspiration came from folk music, and spending a weekend in Haywood, near Doncaster – a weird, flat, leafy, boggy, rushy, sunsetty, ancient wonder of a corner of England.

Cheers to those who read this one for me during its development, and to Phil Lunt at the BFS for giving it a shot.

You can find out more about the British Fantasy Society on their website.

Onwards to the next job…



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I’ve Been Reading: Mark Lawrence, David Ashton, Ever Dundas, Owen Sheers

lawrence ashton sheers dundas
I miss reviewing stuff. There was a time – in another life, but spanning several years – where I’d churn out (sorry – lovingly craft) three or four album reviews a week. Hundreds and hundreds of the buggers. Hours and hours, words and words. It’s a mental jigsaw puzzle that goes together in a very different way to creative writing, and I used to enjoy it a lot. I’m not sure that book reviews will scratch the same itch. I’ve never been able to develop more than a passing tolerance for Goodreads, and I’m way more chilled (read: unsnobby) about books than I am about music; “whatever you enjoy must be good (for you)” is a zen state that comes more naturally when I’m talking about fiction. Still, I’m reading a lot this year, and so maybe I’ll have a go at scribbling about what I read. If nothing else, it’s a wee record for me. In that spirit, here are some scribbles.


Mark Lawrence: The Red Queen’s War trilogy (Fantasy)

“Prince of Fools”, “The Liar’s Key”, “The Wheel of Osheim”
prince of fools mark lawrence

Read in quick succession earlier this year, like lighting a fresh cigarette off the butt of the previous one. For real, I finished “The Liar’s Key” at 1 AM, and immediately fired into the first two chapters of “The Wheel of Osheim”. They are… addictive. Saying books are “page-turny” sometimes feels like a back-handed compliment, like if you blast through them, they must be an easy, cheap thrill. That’s just bollocks in the case of Mark Lawrence.

The plot here is gorgeously constructed, the characters are multi-dimensional and engaging, the language is often very beautiful (the descriptions of the cold of the Bitter Ice and the heat of Umbertide spring to mind). There’s a recurring Wilfred Owen reference that made my heart sing the first time I stumbled upon it. The first person narrative obviously keeps us tucked up tight with the protagonist, and the pace is fairly break-neck, but as they’re handled so well, both of these things are positives. If every book was a glacial, hundred-POV epic – much as I love those –  I’d curl up in a corner and cry. Lawrence finds some cunning ways to offer up narrative variety, too. Various devices (I shan’t spoil) let him pen chapters in third person past and first person present. It’s smoothly done, and gives opportunity for rich characterisation.

And what characters. Our narrator is Prince Jalan Kendeth, grandson of the Red Queen, a dandy and a coward, ripe for a transformational character arc, but determined (in an archly self-aware way) not to have one. He finds his lot chucked in with Snorri ver Snagason, a deep and honourable Viking, Jalan’s polar (har har) opposite in nearly every aspect. Together they gallop/sail/trek/hobble/crawl around the world, trying to work out what to do with Loki’s key, which, in the wrong hands, could untangle reality. The stakes are perfectly pitched, the conflict – both between and against the characters – teased out with the skill of a master musician. Supporting and opposing Jalan and Snorri are witches, trolls, bankers, automatons, drug dealers, royals, angels, torturers and necromancers, none of whom are anything like you’d expect. As in Lawrence’s first trilogy, dialogue sparkles (maybe… snarkles?), bringing this myriad cast to life.

I really love Jalan, sort of in the way I love Sterling Archer, to whom he bears a passing resemblance, and in complete contradiction to my real-life feelings about “bad boys” or “men who need saved from themselves” (BLEHHH). Jorg Ancrath, Lawrence’s narrator in the Broken Empire books, I also loved, but more in a ‘aw man, what a fantastic literary creation, I die of envy’ way. Jalan, I have trouble remembering isn’t someone I actually know. The barely-there skirting around the edge of Jorg’s (concurrent) story is subtle, and will raise a wry smile for fans. The near-miss Jalan has when reeled in to drinking with the Brothers in “Prince of Fools” is gold: the little glimpse we get of the tall, brooding, dark and deadly teenager in the corner is brilliant too. And there’s an important meeting sketched with the lightest of touches in “Wheel of Osheim”. But that’s enough. Lawrence clearly stated at the end of “Emperor of Thorns” that he was retiring Jorg on purpose: I loved this when I read it, and still do.

A little more is uncovered about the post-apocalyptic world of The Broken Empire, though, and this is a good thing, after all the unanswered questions of that trilogy. The technology Lawrence envisages humans developing is at the crux of the drama, with the Red Queen’s War trilogy gradually peeling back the layers of mystery about what the Wheel of Osheim actually is, and what brought about the disaster that changed the advanced Builder civilisation into the medieval-fantastical setting in which we’ve spent so much time. This’ll be a relief if it’s all been bugging you since “Prince of Thorns”, and means that the fantastical/scientific elements of the books aren’t just there for window-dressing, which I feel is kinda important.

Red Queen’s War being technically ‘far future’ allows Lawrence room for post-apocalyptic humour, too, and who doesn’t like a bit of that? I laughed far more than I should have about Skilfar’s shop mannequins. Sometimes dad-joke territory might be toed. I dunno, the homemade ship Ikea made me groan, but I have the kind of dad who would think that’s hilarious, so… maybe I’m just conditioned to groan. I started to get a pained look when Jalan was examining the symbols of his father’s office. “REALLY, Mark Lawrence?” I said to myself. Then I actually pictured what a cardinal would look like, bearing aloft the two objects I’m not going to spoil for you. Then I chortled. Damn it, it’s a fantastic visual. “That’s going to come back later,” I continued (I speak to myself a lot). And it does. And it’s explosively satisfying.

Reading these books was an absolute pleasure; it refreshed my love for the genre. “Red Sister”, first in a wholly new trilogy, has been on my bedside table for shameful weeks, and now it’s the summer holidays, I’m very much looking forward to diving in.

David Ashton: Shadow of the Serpent (Crime/Historical)

I went to see David Ashton speak at last year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, and he was fabulous: charismatic, masterly and wry. I quite fancy writing something historical and criminal (and magical) set in Edinburgh, so I knew about Ashton’s McLevy radio scripts and novels through poking around on that topic, but I wasn’t prepared to want to adopt him as my spirit animal/long-forgotten uncle. He had everyone in the room eating from the palm of his hand.

Anyway, “Shadow of the Serpent” is the first of the McLevy novels. James McLevy was a real police detective, serving Leith in the Victorian times. He’s sometimes given the honorific ‘The Father of Forensics’, and he left behind a diary. David Ashton has made McLevy entirely his own, however. In many ways he’s the quintessential literary crime-solver: he’s smart, he’s antisocial, he gets up everyone’s nose and he has a dark and complex backstory that starts to unfold itself over the course of the series. He has the same mischievous twinkle as his creator, though, and although we spend less time watching the world from his perspective than we might expect (more on that in a second), it’s hard not to get quite attached.

I love the language in “The Shadow of the Serpent”. Not just the delicious Scots inflections – all the haar, and scunners, and dreich, and wheesht and the rest of it – but the very cadence of the prose. Given his credentials, it’s totally unsurprising that Ashton is very, very good at imagining his prose spoken aloud. Characters are painted beautifully in just a few strokes: the first appearance of madam Jean Brash is brilliant. The setting, too, is resplendent in Ashton’s linguistic dressing, the glittering New Town just as evocatively portrayed as the filthy, foggy vennels of the Leith waterside.

But most people don’t come to a murder mystery for the similes. What of the thrilling crime itself? Well, “Shadow of the Serpent” creates an interesting flavour of dramatic irony, in that the reader knows the main suspect couldn’t possibly be the true villain of the piece, because he’s a really real historical person, and history just might have noted it down if such a figure was a sister-fiddling murderer of sex workers. To make this work, to make us start questioning our understanding of history, the reader – along with McLevy – has to be deftly led astray. The Inspector seems set for a professional calamity if he and the reader can’t get to the bottom of the crime; the manner in which the conflict is ramped up for him to a terrifying subterranean moment of truth is handled very slickly.

The point of view Ashton adopts in “Shadow of the Serpent” is interesting: chapter or even scene breaks are no guarantee that we’ll stay anchored in the mind of any one character; I’d send such larks back to my school pupils as “head-hoppy”, but here I think it’s a swerve towards a more omniscient style of narration, which of course was all the rage in the 19th century when the novel is set so… ok. It grated on my nerves a little to begin with, but my tastes run to either close-POV or whole-hog Tolstoy “let me tell you, reader…”, so that’s maybe on me. It is rather chilling to get to spend time behind the Serpent’s eyes, and the brief flitting to the shoulder of Lieutenant Roach, for example, is vital to understanding just how infuriating McLevy can be.

As a little aside, I’m usually apathetic about chapter epigraphs, but the ones in “Shadow of the Serpent” really resonated with me. Lots of Shakespeare, lots of John Donne, some Old Testament, and little snippet of the Lyke-Wake Dirge that I’d completely forgotten learning about at some dim time in the past, but which set my synapses whizzing. Great stuff.

In all, I did enjoy racing through this book, thought the setting was fantastic, ended up intrigued if not entirely satisfied by the explanation for the crime, and still wanted more of the characters. In fact… since I started putting together this blog post, I have actually blasted through “A Fall From Grace”, “A Trick of the Light” and “Nor Shall He Sleep” as well. I love the way Ashton keeps introducing actual historical figures: I know this is fairly standard in steampunk, for example, but Ashton’s version of the trope is lively and interesting. My favourite ‘actual person’ is the infamous poet William McGonagall, who featured worryingly prominently in my Scottish primary school education, and was every bit as eccentric and shit as Ashton portrays him. Having read more of the series, I see the obvious patterns (basically, if you’ve got an attractive, passionate couple, watch out – they’re probably the baddies) but I also see that the writing of each book gets stronger, and that McLevy and Mulholland’s character development is fantastically expanded from the starting point in “Shadow of the Serpent”.

I also wondered if Ashton would do more with madam Jean Brash and her nightingales as time went on: they start off as cardboard cutout ‘tarts with hearts’, but would they get more interesting? They absolutely do, as characters, as humans, with identities that don’t just equate to their profession. My next stop is “Mistress of the Just Land”, the new series that Aston was talking about when I went to see him. Here, Jean is the main protagonist, solving mysteries of her own.

In all, I’m really fond of Aston’s books, and they’ve been excellent ‘company’ so far this year.

Ever Dundas: Goblin (Magic Realism/Weird)

ever dundas goblin review

Hoorah for more than one serving of Scottish writing in my recent diet. Ever Dundas is a writer of the weird and wonderful, with many publications and award nominations to her name, and “Goblin” is her debut novel, published by Freight Books. More prosaically to me, she is my-friend-Dan’s-friend-who-is-an-ACTUAL!-author (to be said in a tone of hushed wonder), which is how I got to hear about this delicious text. When I started reading articles and previews about it, I was smacked in the face with colossal ‘premise envy’. Oh, wow. Just… you read the blurb, or a summary, and there’s no possible way you’re avoiding reading this book. Hook, line, sinker.

The novel intertwines two weaving time threads, each telling the story of an elderly woman called Goblin. In the past, Goblin survived the Blitz, and was a witness to the Pet Massacre, a little-known but utterly devastating snippet of WW2 history. In the modern day, Goblin has been summoned to London during the 2011 riots, because she knows about a momentous crime, and the blood that was spilled cries out for justice. I’m being purposely vague, because the whole joy of reading “Goblin” lies in uncovering all the little quirks and twists of the character’s life story. She goes to Cornwall and befriends a pig. She rambles about the countryside, picking up lifts from soldiers. She climbs through bomb craters. She trains chickens to do tricks. She runs away with my favourite circus since Erin Morgenstern’s, has heart-crunchingly poignant adventures in Eastern Europe, and then emerges in a gorgeous, sun-warmed, red-wine-and-shady-bridges Venice. It’s not a case of Goblin’s present being bland while her past is vivid, though: they’re very different, but actually, the sections with 81-year-old Goblin were amongst my favourites, especially when she’s interacting with her homeless friend, Ben (their dialogue is superb). The prose is rich, sumptuous, colourful, but also earthy and intimate. It boils down into something boldly experimental when it needs to, when Goblin is trying to take psychic flight from the traumas and darknesses she’s encountered (and boy, there are a few).

Two more things delight. One is that “Goblin” is a novel about identity. Goblin is… a goblin. Sometimes she, sometimes he, sometimes they, in a sensitive, nuanced, fairly visceral and bodily portrayal. It’s not forced, it’s just lovely. What I like about it is that it’s not ‘the point’ of the book, but it is ‘the heart’. Goblin ‘narrates’ her gender and sexuality, by which I mean she conjures them into being and endlessly twists them via language, but then again, she also narrates herself a voodoo familiar called Monsta, and she narrates the inner lives of her animal companions, and she narrates fantastical folklore beings like Amelia and Queen Isabella, who may or may not be wholly imaginary. In the same way she ‘narrates’ (spins, twists, casts, conjures) World War Two, and this is interspersed with her own re-narration of HG Wells “War of the Worlds”. It’s all story-telling. What a beautiful, psychologically real way of showing up social constructs, and illuminating both the slippery and powerful nature of words.

The other is that “Goblin” is a novel predicated on a deep understanding of how a human can love an animal (or a whole collection of animals, in Goblin’s case). That might sound a bit twee, the way I’ve expressed it, but it’s not: it’s profound and very moving. Ever writes animals so well. I already knew this from hearing her read a short piece, “Northern Lights”, at a spoken word event: the way the cat moves and communicates in that story is so accurate, and in “Goblin”, chickens, crows, pigs, dogs and elephants all spill off the page in a similar fashion. The fierceness with which Goblin loves her animals, the ‘value’ they have (to give it so crass a term), and the meaning they give her life, are all extremely compelling elements of the book.

There are themes and, for lack of a better word, issues explored in “Goblin” that kinda creep up on you, and I’m not entirely sure how to write about them without spoiling aspects of the story, so expect vagueness here again. The issue of performing animals arises, and with this, plot and characterisation meld cleverly to ‘deal’ with it. Of course Goblin would have a view on the matter, and of course she wouldn’t just sit on her hands, but there’s no soapbox proselytising or easy fix here: just one person’s convictions gradually layering and fraying to a snapping point. Within Goblin’s highly unreliable narration, there is also the issue of how she perceives the ‘feeding’ of Monsta, and later how James (I’m not telling you who James is…) perceives this feeding, when it comes to light. So utterly sold was I on Goblin’s rendition, I hadn’t at all clocked how another character would interpret her actions (sorry, so vague! Read the book…). James ‘confronting’ Goblin – dispelling her magic as she’s literally casting a spell on him, grounding her back in the mundane – with his quiet empathy and care, was therefore a total suckerpunch. It was the second time during “Goblin” that I cried like a wee baby (the first being the central scene, where the pet massacre is revealed). For this reason, the reason of those ‘creeping themes’, this is such an important book. I wish I’d had it when I was a teenager.

I think “Goblin” is the ‘most real unreal’ book I’ve read. It has a beautiful truth, despite being so expressly a mermaid’s treasure trove of lies. Really, really special.

Owen Sheers: Skirrid Hill (Poetry)

owen sheers skirrid hill poetry review

My poetry habit usually takes full flight in the summer months, when I’m not working and can properly relax my mind into ‘grown-up writing’. I teach several lessons of poetry a week during term time, however, and although I’ve got a wealth of ‘firm favourites’ I know will do the trick for my teenagers, sometimes I fancy a change. It was fancying a change – and reading the poem Hedge School on an exam paper and loving it – that led me to “Skirrid Hill”.

Gee, this is gorgeous stuff. I mean, of course it is – it won a Somerset Maugham award, and was critically acclaimed all over the shop. But being heaped with silverware and lavished with praise doesn’t always mean poetry will connect: this does. While I find Sheers’ earlier work patchy sometimes, pretty much every poem in “Skirrid Hill” is like an arrow to the heart.

A good example would be Amazon. The first time I read the final line I ugly-cried at my desk for a full five minutes, and I still struggle to get through it without welling up (I promise I do enjoy reading..!). It’s a poem you fold away, darkly, ‘in case I need it one day…’ Marking Time is stunning, too – so sensual, so economically narrative. I wish I could write lovers so convincingly.

I really liked The Farrier: muscular and taut and rich in the manner of Sheers’ spiritual forebears, Heaney and Hughes. I ended up using this in class to make my pupils read punctuation more closely – you know, the kind of thing that sucks all joy out of literature for kids. I had found it super-interesting in preparation. It’d be easy to write this poem with a regular thunk-clink of the hammering of nails, but of course Sheers doesn’t do that: there’s an extremely sophisticated ebb and flow of rhythm underpinning the poem’s emotion, like the countryside breathing. I guess I’ll work harder at conveying my enthusiasm for that to ‘the youth’ next year. “It’s not magic, Miss, it’s just stupid semi-colons,” I was told, this time around. Sigh. They were warmer towards the lovely ambiguities of the poem, though, where the horse is both sacrificial bride and worn-out car, a thing to be touched lovingly, and something into which metal will be hammered.

However, my most favouritest favourite (“Hmm, SK Farrell, why aren’t YOU a poet?” asked no one, ever) was Winter Swans. Again, I read it with my teenagers, mostly because we were arguing about whether tercets are good (they ARE!). They said they understood the poem, and I replied that while they probably did, I wanted them to come back to it in their 30s, then write to me with their thoughts. Maybe they will. A lot of the time I read poetry just because I want to drown in language, but every so often, I read it and it touches on an emotion or experience I have also had, but have never tried to put into words. I wouldn’t have got Winter Swans at 15, but oh hell, do I get it at 30. It’s about silently making up with someone you love, and the tiny gestures that can thaw the cold war of a relationship. It’s a far vaster story than its 20 lines might suggest. It reminds me that I really must read more poetry…

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Inspiration: A Trip to Granada, Spain

granada spain alhambra nasrid

granada spain alhambra nasrid

I’ve always found place explosively inspirational when it comes to writing. Reading prose and looking at art generate a little zap of imagination each, poetry and music quite a bit more, but actually going somewhere and breathing it in and absorbing all the little details has always worked wonders. A number of characters and settings still brewing in my mind are the result of childhood and teenage trips to castles and coasts.
I do like a good castle or coast…

Granada: The Why and the How

One of the settings – the setting of the subplot – in my current long project sprang to life years ago when I watched a documentary about Siena (which I now can’t find, but the Cosima Spender one on Netflix is really interesting), and more specifically, the city districts (contrade) and the cutthroat, pageant-heavy horse race (palio) in which they compete. This mingled in my mind with another ‘actual place’ that has always seized my imagination: Moorish Spain. Countless videos, photo galleries, history books, travel accounts, fictional representations and films have added layers to the initial flash of stimulation, but, being itchy-footed, I always get to the point with ‘inspiration locations’ where I convince myself I have to visit them.

Siena at palio-time was never going to be an option: it’s fiddly, it’s over-subscribed, and it’s immensely expensive. Andalusia, however, is quite accessible, and from my first glimpse of a picture of the Alhambra, I knew that Granada, in particular, was going to be one of those places that wired my brain into the mains.

I put it off for ages. Although far simpler than a palio trip, getting to Granada from Scotland still needs to be filed under ‘a little bit fiddly’: direct flights depart from London, mostly, and by the time I’ve added ‘get to London first’ onto the itinerary of a trip, I’ve usually thrown a calculator out of a window and gone into a serious sulk. You can fly from Glasgow and Edinburgh to Malaga, but that’s two hours distant, and I wanted to go with my partner, who likes the arriving and chilling out bit of travel way more than the faffing about with foreign public transport bit (personally, I’m easy – sometimes that’s my favourite part. Promotional emails from InterRail elicit a Pavlovian reaching for the credit card. Anyway…). I didn’t want to talk him into something I wasn’t sure he’d enjoy. Icing on the cake, I was on a ‘saving spree’ for about eighteen months, which was as mind-meltingly fun as it sounds, and designated trips overseas as being out of the question. I put it off, and put it off. Then, of course, I cracked, and booked everything in a manic rush of plastic cards and glee. We arrived in southern Spain on the 3rd April this year, and it was sunny and beautiful and awesome.

As A Tourist Destination

Just in general as a place to go for a trip, or a getaway, or an adventure, Granada is perfect. Getting there from Malaga turned out to be pretty simple, and if Malaga Bus Station is somewhat less than salubrious, the ALSA buses themselves are very comfortable and swish, with helpful drivers and clear ticketing. We stayed for four nights, and afterwards felt perfectly recharged and ‘unwound’. I managed to create a detailed outline – almost draft 0.5 – of a weighty chunk of my book, mostly sitting on a bench under an orange tree in the Plaza de la Trinidad (which our hotel overlooked). Gorgeous streets, vibrant plazas, delicious food, friendly locals, rambling walks, cheap beer and wine, chilled out things to do, and views to die for – yup. I’d whole-heartedly recommend the city as a destination if a person was after a laid-back city break with culture and sun.

granada spain plaza trinidad


The area of the city known as Albaicín is the old medieval Moorish quarter, and every little twist and turn brought new inspiration. “IT IS ASSASSIN’S CREED!” announced my partner, the first time we started a hike up the winding, vertiginous alleys, and yeah, it’s pretty Assassin’s Creed-y. Meaning that you can absolutely imagine that you’ve left the real world behind, and are sneaking around on some quest in a fantasy town. Much of Albaicín is comprised of tiny, narrow, whitewashed alleyways, often incorporating steep flights of stairs and meeting each other at right angles. Over the top of these, trellises creak in the sun, trailing the most amazingly fragrant wisteria and almond blossom. There are heavy doors of dark, carved wood; sun-drenched, silent squares; house names and numbers displayed on blue and white tiles bordered with filigree; and sudden vistas either out across the hazy city districts down on the plain or up to the Alhambra. It’s magical.
 granada spain albaicin


We had to stop in at the Corral del Carbón to pick up our pre-booked tickets for the Alhambra (this guide is all you need if thinking about doing the same – worked perfectly). This quiet, cobbled square was an unexpected treasure. It’s a fourteenth-century caravanserai (an alhóndiga, technically), all columns and balconies and cool water and clean stone. Like the Albaicín, it feels like a time/space portal: you step through to its quiet, sunny space and into another world. I do actually have a desert-crossing caravan haulier in my WIP. Now I know where he sells his cargo…
 granada spain corral del carbon

The Alhambra

The Alhambra, though… the Alhambra made me cry. I can’t claim to be the world’s most sensitively artistic soul, but it was just exquisite, especially the Nasrid Palaces. I kept finding tears pricking my eyes, and everything I said came out as a sort of breathy snuffle. (Given that I mainly said, “It’s so beautiful, it’s so beautiful,” that wasn’t a great loss.) It’s a great ‘tourist site’ in that there are lots of different sections, each with their own charms, and the ticketing is cleverly worked so that as long as you hit your timed slot for the Palaces, you can experience the rest at a very sedate pace. It is a popular place, of course – more than 2 million pairs of feet cross the threshold every year, and even in early April there will be 6000+ people visiting per day – but it doesn’t feel overly crazy, and you only need a moderate amount of patience to enjoy yourself.

granada spain alhambra nasrid

granada spain alhambra nasrid

Did I get my expected dosage of inspiration? Very much so. All the scenes I outlined in a mad, citrus-scented flurry were set in the fictional location Siena and Granada originally spawned, and being able to ‘steal’ streets and alleyways and castle sections in which to imagine my protagonist made the job super simple. Since returning home, I’ve written all these sections, and again, the sailing was very smooth: words came easily, and although it’s all first draft blether, I feel like the sensory details that have woven their way through the prose are far more natural and useful than those in other bits of my manuscript.

granada spain alhambra

I’m aware this whole thing reads like demented copy for the Spanish tourist board, but I really, REALLY loved Granada, and it did some small wonders for my writing inspiration. And people brought me tapas. Endlessly. Go, if ever you get the chance.
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