Review: Snap by Belinda Bauer

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I don’t read thrillers very often, but I’ve recently been on something of a crimefic roll after reading Alias by Cari Hunter  https://katecudahy.wordpress.com/2018/09/20/review-alias-by-cari-hunter/

Snap, by Belinda Bauer, was on the Booker longlist – a major achievement for a work of genre fiction – and comes with enthusiastic endorsement from Val McDermid, who has described it as “the best crime novel I’ve read in a long time.”

What attracted me to the book, however, was its intriguing subject matter. Based on the unsolved murder of Marie Wilks, Snap focuses very much on the trauma suffered by a victim’s family in the wake of their a loss. Jack Bright’s mother is brutally killed when he is just eleven years old. She leaves her car at the side of the motorway to make an emergency call and never comes back, leaving Jack to fend for himself and his two young sisters, Joy and Merry.

Cut to three years later and the kids have slipped off social services’ radar. Supported by Jack’s talent for breaking and entry, they are living in hand to mouth squalour. When an opportunity to track his mother’s killer presents itself, Jack seizes it, endangering both himself and his siblings.

For me, the thing which really shone through the whole book was Bauer’s portrayal of Jack – quickwitted and resourceful, yet the psychological damage he has endured and his age make him incredibly vulnerable. The plot never stalls, and there are sufficient twists to turn this into both a real page turner and a story which pivots sympathetically around a young boy’s deep sense of loss.

What I wasn’t so convinced of, however, were Bauer’s portrayals of the ‘supporting cast’, who  emerge at times as mere thumbnail portraits, veering towards stereotype and caricature without true depth. This was particularly the case with the crew of police officers introduced later in the story, ranging from the hard bitten, unorthodox veteran detective, to his fey, vein assistant, both of whom came across more as cliche than rounded character.

A really entertaining read but not Booker material.

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Hal and The Firefarer on sale!

Both Hal and The Firefarer are free to download until Thursday 27th September. Hal now includes the bonus story ‘Orla’ – a steamy short about Hal’s first love.

Hal

A stubborn, strong-willed, disinherited aristocrat, Hal leaves the imperial court at an early age to make her living with her sword. Finally, she seems to have found all she needs in life – that is until she meets Meracad, the daughter of a rich businessman. The two girls are about to find out that true love comes at a price. All of that changes when Hal falls in love with Meracad Léac, the freedom-craving daughter of a wealthy merchant. Meracad’s father will stop at nothing to ensure his own wealth and position, and plans to marry Meracad to Bruno Nérac, a powerful northern lord. Hal’s world is about to be thrown into chaos when she sets out to save the woman she loves …

The Firefarer

Ash covers the homes of the Ahi, flames consume their lands. Their hopes rest in Hori, a young boy who seems able to channel the mountain’s destructive powers. Through him, they hope to carve out a new life across the sea, enslaving the artist enchanters of the Pagi and taking their land. But the Ahi are not the only people to covet the Firefarer and his powers …

Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

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Sally Rooney has been described as the “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” (Guardian): a writer who explores the loves and lives of Millenials, turning accusations of shallow self-absorption on their head. That’s simply not who her characters are. Her books may brim with references to lives lived online, to friends with benefits and clicktivism, but the young adults who populate her novels are politically tuned-in; emotionally astute; voracious readers and sparkling conversationalists.

To a large extent, anyway, this is what I took from Normal People: Rooney’s Booker long-listed novel about a pair of Sligo teenagers who fall in love – and then somehow seem to keep on almost wilfully missing each other. Both Marianne and Connell are attractive, frighteningly intelligent and both are, in their own ways, damaged – Marianne by her own family and Connell by the pressures of small town life and social class.

In this respect, Rooney plumbs deep psychological depths to establish why Marianne – so gifted and so beautiful – should experience such self-loathing. And why it takes a real tragedy before Connell is able to shake himself free of his own complexes and prejudices.

While Connell and Marianne came across as fully realised and recognisable individuals however, I felt this book could have been twice its length if Rooney had given more substance to the supporting characters. We only hear of Marianne’s mother through second-hand reports, for example, yet she is so pivotal in her daughter’s decline. And then there are the endless succession of boyfriends and girlfriends who never quite match up to the real thing: overprivileged, or intellectually challenged, a series of   emotional stooges contrasted with Marianne and Connell’s perfect pairing.

At its heart, Normal People is a love story – at times achingly painful, at others joyous, and there is obviously something timeless about that which goes beyond immediate concerns around technology and peer group prssures. I think, though, that I would have enjoyed a richer background texture to the book – a more in depth exploration of those forces which steer Marianne away from what she views as ‘normal’. And to which Connell sacrifices so much.

A fascinating read, but I’m not convinced it lives up to the hype.

Sample Chapter – The Firefarer

Three exiles, one destiny.

When Vito’s monastery is destroyed, he is thrust into the dangerous world of deceit and enchantment which lies beyond its walls. 

Moran, lost scion of a lost people, embarks on a quest from which she may never return. 

And Muna, descendant of warriors, will stop at nothing to protect her brother the Firefarer: hunted for his fabled powers of destruction.

Three strangers, one fate.

The Firefarer: the deadliest secrets lie in the heart.

 

PART TWO: CHAPTER ONE

SPIRITS

Consciousness crept up on Moran ˗ stealthy, remorseless. She opened her eyes to catch a blur of waves and sky, her face pressed into the wet grittiness of the beach, surf breaking over her bare feet. Her stomach pulsed and she brought up a mouthful of brine before rolling onto her back, her skin now almost blue with cold. High above, clouds scudded across a raw swathe of sky, chased by the biting wind which blew down from the north.

With a long, low groan she pushed herself upright, resting with her hands flat on the sand, her legs crossed before her. The sea was grey, crested with foam, whipped up by the storm which had driven her back onto the mainland and away from the Source Isles for which she had so desperately aimed. It were almost as if the spirits themselves had conspired against her.

Moran dug her hand around a small clutch of pebbles ˗ polished smooth as glass ˗ and turned them over in her palms before carefully throwing each one back into the sea. At least, she decided, her appearance ought to be enough to scare away any Pagi who might happen to stroll across the beach. The thick plaid of her dress was now ripped at the shoulder: loose, sodden and misshapen. Wind tugged at wet locks of hair, and she shook and trembled as the cold mined beneath her skin, burying deep within her body until she could no longer feel her fingers or toes. If she stayed here, she would die ˗ her body washed out once more to sea, drifting beyond sight or memory. And so with an effort which seemed to wrench her limbs from their sockets she rose, turned, and dragged herself up towards the dunes which fluted off the beach above her and offered some hope of shelter.

A hollow amongst the sands staved off the worst of the wind. She fished around for driftwood, finding a few bare pieces on the beach and then concentrated on lighting a fire, splitting a piece of wood and stuffing the groove with dry, matted grass before working over it with a slim stick. The process seemed to take hours. The light was fading, and with it went the dregs of her strength. When a spark finally caught in the tinder, she could have wept. She transferred the precious flames to the driftwood and, as the fire caught hold, she stripped and laid her tattered dress before it to dry.

There would be no chance of catching anything to eat, she realised. The evening was drawing in and the sea was too wild. And so, lying naked on the sands as close to the fire as she dared, she drew an arm up beneath her head and fell into fitful sleep, with the break of waves and the crackling of flames for company.

She could not say what had woken her. Soft footfalls on the sand, perhaps, the sense of another presence. Moran stirred, moaned and rose, trembling. The fire had long since died away to red embers and the wind had picked up. Shivering, she tugged on her dress.

“You’d make the spirits blush, sister, lying there without a stitch on.”

“Carin?” She craned into the shadows, picking out her sister’s dark, sinuous outline. “How did you know I’m here?”

Carin leant forward and prodded at the cinders with a piece of wood. A few fine wisps and sparks spiralled upwards into the night air. She tapped her temple with a dirt-encrusted nail. “You know how.”

“Spirits?”

“Amongst others.”

Moran experienced a sudden surge of relief. At least she wasn’t alone to face the perils of the mainland. Carin rose, and Moran stared up into her sister’s face, into the sharp, angular features, the closely cropped dark hair, her eyes two gleaming slivers of jet. “Too bad I lack the skill, Carin.” She drew her knees up in front of her and rested her head on them. “In fact, I’ve nothing left now.”

“Self-pity doesn’t become you, sister. Besides, you can’t say we didn’t warn you.”

Carin reached above her shoulder, drawing out the trident she kept strapped to her back. A small eel dangled limply from one of its prongs. “I imagine you’re hungry.”

“Ravenous.”

“Best get that fire started again, then.”

They stoked up the charred fragments of driftwood, flames lapping around fresh tinder. Carin crouched down, her dress tucked about her thighs and twisted the trident over the rising heat, the eel hanging from one of its prongs. When it was cooked, she ripped it in two, passing half to Moran who sank her teeth straight into its salty, smoky juice. It slithered down her throat; warmth spread through her body, restoring energy and strength. Carin handed her a leather flask and she sipped from it, gasping as the sharp, fruity tang of alcohol burst across her tongue.

“Where…where did you get that?” she choked.

Carin shrugged. “Some old woman by the road ˗ too blind to see me for a Ruach. She called it best summer liquor. I call it rancid bilberries. But it goes down all the same. So…” she leant forward, her chin cupped between rough, strong hands, her face half lit, half in shadow. “What happened?”

Moran sucked in a deep breath, releasing it in a long sigh. It was all too fresh, too painful to put into words. And yet find words she must, if she were to restore her sister’s love.

“I ran.” She shook her head, the shame rising within her like a sickness.

“She made you go?”

“No. I never even said goodbye. I…I left without a word.” Tears caught in her throat. She swallowed them down, masking her grief with a bitter little laugh. “Her brother ˗ he warned me. He was always good to me. Her whole family was. They’re good people, Carin ˗ the Pagi are not all animals.”

Carin shook her head, stoking the fire with the butt end of her trident, provoking an angry blast of sparks. “You’re blind, sister. They kill us. They maim, torture and persecute us. Enslave our children, humiliate our old men. They hate us.”

“It’s not true!” Fury entered Moran’s voice. “You’re as bad as they are if you can’t see that ˗ if you think they’re all the same. That’s how they think of us ˗ that we’re savage, barbaric, primitive, dangerous.” Her voice shook under the strain of emotion. She’d gone too far and she saw it, registered the flash of indignation in Carin’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered then. “You’re not like that.”

“Go on.” Carin’s tone was stony, unmoved. “Tell me your story.”

Moran remained silent for a few moments, gathering her thoughts, listening to the crash and suck of waves as they hit the beach, the hissing of burning driftwood. “I saw what was happening, but I closed my eyes to it,” she said at last. “Everyday brought new tales of executions, lynchings and hardships. Her family sheltered me as best they could. I taught languages well, they claimed, and above all else they valued knowledge. They left me the keys to their library, time to be with her. They saw our friendship blossom, saw no harm in it. I taught her Ruach, Ahi, even the antique languages ˗ old Pagese, ur-Ruach. She was…she is a good student, ready to listen, to learn, all heart and ears.”

Her words faltered, her memory straying to a time before the fall. Andre lying naked in her bed, a shaft of sunlight rendering her skin golden, her hair snaking over her shoulders as she recited love poetry in old Pagese. The sudden sense of loss felled Moran like a blow.

“It was her brother, Estachien, who finally told me to leave. They could no longer protect us, he said. At night the town’s people would surround the palace with torches in one hand, unsheathed blades in the other. They would demand the expulsion of any Ruach. And so, like an adulterer or traitor, I slipped away. I saved my own skin. I ran for the coast, sleeping by day in hedgerows, hidden, dirt smudged across my face for camouflage. At night I ran like a hunted beast, avoiding the lights and laughter of their villages until at last I smelt salt on the air. A line of rafts and coracles rested on the beach. I stole one out in the pale dawn light. I thought, if I could only make it to the Source Isles, hide amongst their rocks and forest, then perhaps word would reach me of new times, of better times. And then I would come back, search for her once more, beg her for forgiveness…”

“But the storm.”

“Yes. The storm. I clung to the broken hull of my little boat until, all my energy sapped, I let go and gave myself up to the waves.”

“The Golach commanded the storm.”

“What?” Almost feverish with grief, she seized Carin’s flask, gulping down a sour mouthful of liquor.

“The winds told him of your fall, sister. But he wants to hear it from your lips, as you have told me now. He offers you redemption.”

“Redemption?” Moran snorted. “Nothing can repair my mistakes.”

Carin shifted stiffly. “He considers your offence to have been against the Ruach, not Ol Adama.”

“Against the Ruach? An offence? What business is it of his who I love?”

“It’s his business if you bed the enemy, sister ˗ the scum who killed our parents, our friends…I told you once before ˗ bed them and forget them. It’s a hollow victory but it’s better than none. We shared this land with them once, we lived beside them as neighbours.” Carin’s dark eyes seemed to capture the fire’s light and hold it. She rose, her back to Moran as she continued to speak. “It was their arrogance, their blindness, their magic, the filthy corruption of their arts which made them think they had the right to mistreat and kill us, to see in us animals, vermin. The spirits weep, sister.” She turned around, her face streaked with tears, her lips quivering with rage. “And you claim to love one of them?” Her fingers folded around the polished bronze of her trident. “I will spear her on this, as if she were an eel, if I ever set eyes on her.”

“You will not, you ignorant, heartless bitch!”

The fury welled within: a hot, harsh seam of violence which she knew had lain, hidden but not dormant, for months. Rising, fists clenched into balls, she ran at her sister, knocking her off her feet. They landed amongst the dunes, punching, kicking, scratching blindly in the darkness, just as they had as children. Back then, their mother would settle such arguments with a few keen blows of her belt. But now there was no mother to punish her wild daughters, no father to shake his head in despair when they traipsed inside, all ripped clothes and split lips. Now there was only the night air, the breaking waves and the spirits who, Moran knew, were not on her side. Nor had they ever been. For, unlike every other Ruach, she lacked the gift to conjure them.

And so, her strength once more at an ebb, she surrendered at last to her sister’s brute power, Carin’s sheer size and hardened muscle overwhelming her until she lay, stretched out upon the sands, blood issuing from her nose and the air forced from her lungs. And at that, she laughed.

“What’s so funny?” Carin growled, slumped against a dune, the fight now gone from her.

“Us. We never grow up, Carin. Do you think we’ll still be doing this when we’re a pair of old hags?”

“We’ll not live that long, sister.” Rising, she towered over Moran. Blocking out the moon’s pale rays, she extended a hand and Moran took it, seizing Carin in an embrace, clinging to her, tears leaking from her eyes, mingling with the blood which streaked her face.

“What does the Golach want of me?” she whispered.

“I don’t know, sister,” Carin replied. “He told me only this ˗ for there to be redemption, there must first be sacrifice.”

Moran buried her face in Carin’s shoulder, still weeping like a child. “Take me to him,” she said at last.

The Firefarer is free on Amazon until Thursday 27th September.

 

 

Hal and The Firefarer Free on Amazon!

Both Hal and The Firefarer will be free to download between Sunday 23rd  and Thursday 27th September. Hal now includes the bonus story ‘Orla’ – a steamy short about Hal’s first love.

Hal

A stubborn, strong-willed, disinherited aristocrat, Hal leaves the imperial court at an early age to make her living with her sword. Finally, she seems to have found all she needs in life – that is until she meets Meracad, the daughter of a rich businessman. The two girls are about to find out that true love comes at a price. All of that changes when Hal falls in love with Meracad Léac, the freedom-craving daughter of a wealthy merchant. Meracad’s father will stop at nothing to ensure his own wealth and position, and plans to marry Meracad to Bruno Nérac, a powerful northern lord. Hal’s world is about to be thrown into chaos when she sets out to save the woman she loves …

 

 

The Firefarer

Ash covers the homes of the Ahi, flames consume their lands. Their hopes rest in Hori, a young boy who seems able to channel the mountain’s destructive powers. Through him, they hope to carve out a new life across the sea, enslaving the artist enchanters of the Pagi and taking their land. But the Ahi are not the only people to covet the Firefarer and his powers …

Review – Alias by Cari Hunter

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Thrillers really don’t come any better than Alias by Cari Hunter. The story begins with a fatal car crash high in the wintry wastes of Snowdonia, and a victim whose amnesia means that she’s lost track of her own past. And it ends in a bloody and terrifying finale which had me on the edge of my seat. This is a book which sucks you in from its mysterious start to its shocking conclusion, and Hunter succeeds in racking up the tension on every page.

Rebecca/Alis stumbles from the wreckage of a hired vehicle unable to remember who she is, let alone the identity of the dead woman beside her. With the help of Detective Bronwen Price of the Welsh police, Alis gradually pieces together a past in which she was almost certainly caught up in a criminal underworld. But whose side was she on? And can she trust the people who now claim to know her?

There is so much detail in this book – a no holds barred realism which sweeps the reader along as Alis tracks her pre-amnesic self from north Wales to the backstreets and suburbs of Manchester, risking her life in search of the truth. And the slow burn romance which develops between Alis and Price adds extra tension to this multi-layered narrative, as it could jeopardise their whole investigation.

I downloaded the Audible version of Alias – which I can’t recommend enough. Nicola Vincent captures all of the characters perfectly, bringing out the snarky, clever dialogue at one moment; Alis’s deep trauma and fear at others. What more can I say? Download it now!

Review: Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

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I like kind of drifting into and across books. Sometimes finding a new author is like being involved in a massive paper chase, in which one good read leads to the next. The reason, for example, why I picked up (or rather downloaded) Daisy Johnson’s novel Everything Under was because it was recommended by Fiona Mosley, whose novel Elmet I greatly enjoyed. And I read Elmet due to a fascination with the concept of the Celtic/English hinterland of Elmet presented by Nicola Griffith in her work of historical fiction, Hild.

Indeed, there are a lot of points of comparison or overlap between Everything Under and Elmet. Both stories concern people who live on the peripheries of society. Both explore the relationship between gender and identity. And both use myths, history or legend as a base point for exploring contemporary British culture. Thus, the myth of Oedipus leaks into the lives of Johnson’s characters, steering them inexorably towards tragedy.

Gretel is a lexicographer, whose lonely existence is shored up by a fascination with language and semantics. She embarks on a journey in search of her mother, Sarah, who abandoned Gretel when she was just thirteen years old. But it now emerges that Sarah is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and her fading grip on language means a loss of the past itself; her story delivered up in half-remembered fragments.

Through this confused web of time and memory, Gretel gradually pieces together the story of how the almost idyll of her childhood – spent amongst the ‘river people,’ drifting physically and metaphorically along the fringes of society – was splintered and destroyed by the arrival of a boy named Marcus. And of how Marcus may in fact have once been a girl – Margot.

There are so many strands to this complex and disturbing narrative that one reading doesn’t do the book justice. Johnson reveals the way in which we become trapped or ensnared by language or stories in so many different ways. Both Gretel and Sarah are haunted, for example, by the idea of the Bonak – a water creature hunting the river banks. Yet the border between genuine danger and self-imposed fear is a fluid one, and the Bonak turns out to be a term coined by Sarah herself, as she and Gretel share a private language.

In a sense, language in Everything Under takes on the role of fate in Oedipus Rex. It condemns people to relive the same, inescapable narratives; unable to veer course from self-imposed systems of semantics and association. “Again and again,” says Gretel, “I go back to the idea that our thoughts and actions are determined by the language that lives in our minds. That perhaps nothing could have happened except that which did.” Only with the disintegration of language, ultimately, can release from the past be found.

Everything Under has been longlisted for the Man Booker prize, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a novel which reads like a river, meandering, free flowing, and at times sucking the reader into dangerous and disturbing depths. And ultimately, it reminds us of why myths like Oedipus still carry resonance in our fractured, fragmented times. Highly recommended.

Review: Autumn by Ali Smith

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This was a re-read of Ali Smith’s novel Autumn, the first instalment in her ‘Seasons’ Quartet. It is, after all, a book which you can only take so much from on a first reading, since it is so wide-ranging in terms of its frame of reference, and it is crammed with internal echoes which are easily missed.

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017, Autumn has been described as a post-Brexit novel, but it’s much more than that. True, it considers the way we become victims of our own lies and prejudices; erecting fences and borders in a deluded attempt to keep ourselves safe. But it also has a lot to say about the way we construct stories, about the way those stories unfold in time and space, and in turn construct our own sense of identity. And deep down, it’s also a love story of an extraordinary kind.

Danie Gluck is 101 years old, sleeping and suspended in his own subconscious; his memories merging with his dreams until it becomes impossible to know where the past ends and imagination takes over. His sole visitor at the Maltings Care Providers Plc is young art historian Elisabeth Demand, who befriended Daniel when he was her neighbour over twenty years earlier. Daniel’s conversations with young Elisabeth about art, books and story-telling, time, truth and lies, created a bond between them which Elisabeth later recognises as a kind of love. The love which enables one person to see another clearly. For as Daniel says, “we have to hope…that the people who love us and who know us a little bit will in the end have seen us truly. In the end, not much else matters.” (160)

Flitting freely between perspectives and time, Autumn is a bit like being on the inside of someone else’s memories. “Time travel is real,” Daniel claims. “We do it all the time.” This does not just concern personal memories but myth, literature, art, politics and popular culture, all of which get incorporated into Daniel and Elisabeth’s sense of self; their lives fusing with the books they read and the art they witness. Memory, then, emerges as a kind of mental collage, analogous to the collages of pop artist Pauline Boty whose joyous life and tragic death forms another narrative strand of this complex and beautiful novel.

As Smith states in an interview with Norwegian writer Linn Ullmann, “…love is multiple, various, takes all forms, is non-exclusionary; it will not be coralled, will not be given a shape, refuses to be fixed, and in that way unfixes us all. Thank God.” Few people can write with such truth about love, and of how much we lose in its absence.

Review: Beowulf for Cretins by Ann McMan

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Sometimes you find yourself yearning for the characters you encounter in books to be people you really know. They’re so artfully brought to life that you think, “I would give anything to be in on this conversation; to sit down with this lady and share a bottle of wine with her.”

At least, that was how I felt about Grace Warner – hapless heroine of Ann McMan’s novel Beowulf for Cretins. With her self-deprecating wit, her inner conflicts and her absolute devotion to the woman she loves, Grace is the kind of character you root for from beginning to glorious end.

Following a messy break-up, Grace finds herself indulging in an “over-night rental” – as she terms it – with a beautiful stranger at a party. Back at the liberal arts college where Grace works teaching freshman English, it turns out that her one-night stand just happens to be her new boss. And while Grace ends up falling hopelessly in love with Abbie – the new president of St Alban’s college – she knows that it’s a relationship which could spell disaster for both of them.

Both Abbie and Grace are the kind of leading ladies who really don’t get enough airtime in fiction: mature women who are warm, intelligent and flawed enough that you can fully relate to them. At the same time, the novel dishes up an eclectic “supporting cast” of characters ranging from CK – a punk physics genius who pulls no punches as Grace’s best friend – to Dean – Grace’s ‘Cro-Magnon’ of a brother, and of course Grendel – the misfit freak of a dog that Grace finds herself saddled with.

The dialogue fairly zings with wit, and beneath the comedy there’s always a hint of the insecurities and sensitivities which make Grace such a fascinating character – from her lapsed Catholic heritage to the jealousies and politics of campus life.

Just a perfect read which made me want to rush out and buy all of Ann McMan’s books right away.

The Fresco and the Fountain – Sample Chapter

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I’m currently working on part two of “The Artist Enchanters Series” – The Fresco and the Fountain which I hope will be ready by late spring of 2019

Part One – The Firefarer – is currently available here: http://www.amazon.com/Firefarer-Artist-Enchanters-Book-ebook/dp/B01KN439A0

This is the first book I’ve decided to write away from Wattpad, for the simple reason that I needed more leeway to experiment with narrative structure. As with part one, I have also opted for more of a decentralised narrative. This time, however, the story is told from four perspectives not three, the fourth being that of the elector Lino Ampelio Ol Terenzo. The reason for this is that I felt that he was a character who really needed more ‘air time’, and also that I need more practice in writing three-dimensional villains.

The following is the first chapter I’ve written from Lino’s perspective. All critique is welcome.

***

Lino

Sunlight fingered its way between the heavy drapes, settling in pale spots on the carpet and bedclothes; specks of dust dancing in the slants of its rays.

Lino Ampelio Ol Terenzo stirred, wresting free of ragged, torturous dreams; nightmares which broke across his sleeping mind like furious waves. He moaned, his nightshirt a damp rag pasted to his skin with sweat. And those same dreams now threatened to break the seal of his conscious thoughts: to flood his waking mind.

Faintly nauseous, Lino crawled off the bed, stripped himself of the soiled nightshirt, hung over the washbasin and poured water over his head.

He looked up. His reflection stared back: eyes wild and deep in their sockets, his skin pallid, water dripping from sodden lengths of hair and beard, pooling at his feet. Fire…he had dreamed of fire…again. Of forests aflame, stags and boar rushing through the heat; bristles and fur fuming, screaming as they ran. And far away; far beyond all help, the tortured cries of men and women as the inferno swallowed them whole. Such a dream had not laid claim to his unconscious mind in weeks. Not since…

Three loud raps on the door to his chambers splintered his thoughts. Struggling into fresh hose and shirt, Lino charged across the bedroom and through the solar beyond, flipped open the spy hole and peered out. Viewed through convex glass, Tomiso was a bulging, swollen head attached to fine, tapering limbs. Lino tore back bolt after bolt, jerked open the door and ushered in his servant.

“Where is she?”

Tomiso gnawed on his lower lip, casting a wild glance around the chambers. “She’s not here, then?”

“Tomiso…” Lino clasped the young man’s shoulders. “I cannot endure another night such as the last. What happened?”

“The dream sculptor…” Tomiso shrank beneath his grasp… “She’s gone, my Lord Elector. Fled. Escaped!”

Lino dragged a shaking hand over his own face, his palm slippery with sweat. “Find her. Bring her back here. Or…Tomiso…” he shook a finger at Tomiso, who was already departing the room. “I’ll have your hide for hers.”

Tomiso stalled, his back turned to his master, and nodded. “Very well, my Lord.”

***

Watery sunlight spilled between the tiled rooftops of Terenzo, settling over cobbled streets. But the first heavy rains of autumn had lashed the city nights before, and the wheels of Lino’s carriage sprayed through puddles; the dry dust of the streets now a thick, viscous paste.

Edging forwards in his seat, Lino lifted the blind and peered out. As instructed, his driver had taken a circuitous route along winding alleys and some of the safer backstreets so as to avoid unnecessary attention. Even so, he caught the mocking, jeering calls from taverns and stall handlers as he passed…and flicked back the blind.

Terenzo had been so quick to turn against him: like a heat-crazed dog, fawning one moment, baring its teeth the next. One misjudgement, one slip was all it had taken….and he was suddenly to be reviled: the butt of a thousand jokes, the world’s whipping boy. Grieving mothers assailed him in the street, wailing for their lost sons and daughters. Hidden hands strewed pamphlets through eating houses and inns, claiming that he – Ol Terenzo – was in the secret pay of the Ruach.

Lino snorted, contempt tempering his rage. Those same fools, all of whom had begged him for deliverance from the Ahi; who had themselves proclaimed the Firefarer a gift, not a curse. All of them who’d willingly slaughtered or enslaved the Ruach in the name of Pagese purity. Now they had made him their enemy. And, he thought, scratching at his beard, they would regret it.

The carriage turned a corner and arced into the forum. Lino waited a few moments, savouring the calm before clambering out, squinting into the light. Behind him lay the steps and colonnades of the Kolegio within which he had, several years before, secured his electorate. He took in the wide open sweep of the forum itself, flanked on all sides by artists’ studios and academies of music; by garrets in which scribes worked day and night, penning miraculous texts;  the cellars and inns whose chefs concocted dishes to delight and deceive. This was all his work. He, first of all patrons, had attracted these artists, the greatest of their kind, to work here in Terenzo. To pursue their vocations with utter freedom. To spread the fame and glory of the electorate beyond its borders. And was that good work now to be undone by a handful of his rival electors?

The forum was hedged in with silence. Indebted as the artists were to Ol Terenzo’s patronage, they would not risk raising their voices against him. But as he climbed tiled stairs to the sandstone portico of the Kolegio: as he entered it and strode along a corridor strewn with paintings, littered with sculptures, lined with books, a hiss rose and broke on the air, rising in volume as he approached the Chamber of the Electors. The Pagi were at work somewhere, hiding behind screens or in alcoves, seeking to threaten or disturb; to steer him from his course. The fools.

And in contrast to the stillness of the forum, the Chamber of the Electors was awash with sound: with the shrill pipe of a woman’s laughter, the dull mutter of gossip, the harmonies and cadences of human voices which dried or shrivelled away as he crossed the threshold and took his place at its very centre.

Dreamed into being by ancient architects, the chamber was cavernous, and no living artist had yet discovered how a vault of such shape and space might be housed within the modest square of the Kolegio. Funnelling from floor to ceiling in a series of ever widening circles, light streamed in through a glass dome set high in the roof. Beneath this most mystical of designs – for the dome could not be seen when outside the building – the Pagi sat on ringed benches of stone protruding from the walls: artisans and assistants at the top, master artists and craftsmen below, ascending in rank until at the chamber’s very base, at its deepest point,  the electors themselves sat on five stone thrones, one of which, as Lino knew it should be, lay empty, and one of which, as he knew it shouldn’t, was now occupied.

“And what…what is this?” Sweeping his robes beneath him, Lino claimed his throne and cast suspicious eyes on the young, blonde-haired woman who occupied the throne of Ol Lauro, her bare arms resting along its sides and her delicate frame caught in a fusion of saffron gauze and silk.

Struggling to command his own voice, Lino addressed the woman directly. “Why are you in Ol Lauro’s throne?”

Her smile was tight and chill, her words imbued with the subtle melodies of birdsong. “Because I am his successor.”

“My Lord Elector, you were too late.” Benasto Ol Hauriro narrowed his eyes, watching, waiting for Lino’s response. Ol Hauriro was built like a bull, with a head so wide and flushed one could imagine horns sprouting from his temples. And yet, as Lino was aware, this minotaur had once studied under Artemisia of Warvum, and had committed to canvas images so vivid, so perfect in form, colour and dimension, that they had been assumed real.

Lino turned, surveying the front most circle of stone benches. So Avala was not here. At least he did not have her to thank for this betrayal.

“I was not late,” he said carefully.

“The Pagi have voted.” Rising, Ol Hauriro spread his arms wide in a gesture which embraced the entire chamber. “And their word is that Sybilla Ol Lauro take her Uncle’s place.”

Lino swallowed down his gall. “And Ol Caneto? Or any of the other candidates?”

Ol Haruriro shrugged, his head dropping into his shoulders so he appeared entirely without a neck. “Absent, I’m afraid. But it is said that the new resident of Libarum – whom you failed to invite to the Kolegio – has netted a haul of fine artists. And Ol Caneto among them.”

“I did not invite him,” said Lino, picking with feigned disinterest at lint on his cloak, “because he is a mere tenant at best, at worst a pretender. And no one can tell us how he came by that seal.”

Still, this toying with his brother would have to end soon. If Vito chose to disclose his secret, it would take but one credulous artist to leak word of it through the electorates. A sudden thought occurred to him: a way of stalling that particular threat, of extracting its sting. He tossed the idea about his mind as a street juggler might throw a ball, testing it for weight. And then archived it away in his memory.

“We could have asked him how he came by it,” said Petro Ol Diacomo, “if you’d invited him.” The architect’s eyes were grey flecked gold, his nose hooked, his jaw straight. His hair – metallic in hue – spiked away from his forehead in uneven tufts, all of which conspired to give him an avian, almost hawkish appearance. “Perhaps,” Ol Diacomo continued, “he might know the whereabouts of the missing dukes themselves.”

Lino stiffened. “In these dark days, who can tell what became of them? Mauled by animals, the prisoners of wild Ruach, massacred by the Ahi? They vanished without trace.”

“After dining with you.” Ol Diacomo’s smile was thin and strained.

“I saw them to their carriage.” He shook his head. “A mystery. A tragedy.”

“Which leaves Andretta Ol Adama sole heir,” Sybilla cut in with her singsong voice. “She wasn’t, I believe, with her family when they arrived in Terenzo, my Lord Elector.”

“No,” he said, his chest tightening. “She wasn’t.”

And there was another secret of which his brother was keeper. The boy was steeped in them. And becoming more dangerous by the day.

“And if Andretta is still alive…” lilted Sybilla.

“Doubtful.” Lino scratched at his cheek.

“But if she is…”

“My fellow electors!” His patience fraying, Lino’s voice rang out through the chamber with greater force than he had intended. “You forget, I think, that only  through unity will the Pagi triumph over their enemies. That is why we have disposed of the hateful Ruach. It is how, eventually, we will defeat the Ahi.”

“Eventually,” snorted Ol Hauriro. The word was taken up and carried by hundreds of voices, whispered to the heights of the galleries, counterpointed with hisses and low, derisive mutterings. “Eventually was to have been on the plains of Labrenum when our armies faced the Ahi. Eventually was to have been the moment you found the Firefarer and persuaded him to our cause. Your promises of purity…of unity…hold no sway for those Pagi mothers now grieving their lost sons and daughters…” spittle laced his lips  “…now scattered in ashes over the grasslands. While the Ahi lick their wounds, reinforce, and no doubt prepare to attack us once again.”

Lino opened his mouth to protest, but was cut short by bleats of indignation blown down from the benches, which rolled and fused and rocked the chamber with sound.

“We propose…” Ol Hauriro continued, “we propose to invite this ‘pretender’ as you style him, this tenant, this lapsed monk of Libarum. That we invite him here to tell us all he knows. And if necessary, to elect him Duke!” His words were punctuated by calls from the crowd, by the catcalls of aproned artisans; the howls of Pagi artists cloaked in the anonymity of the crowd. Were he to have visited their studios in person, Lino had no doubt that they would have cowered and whimpered and fawned before him. A bitter rush of bile plugged his throat. These Pagi whose attentions he’d courted, for whom he’d sacrificed so much. Mired in their own politics, in their feuds and quarrels, they were blind to the real enemies within – the Ruach – and without – the Ahi. Now, the former disposed of, he had led them to unite against the latter. One defeat, just one, and their resolve had crumbled, and with it their loyalty.

“So invite him,” he said, his voice cracking with suppressed anger.

Ol Hauriro nodded his bull’s head in triumph. “We will.”

“At least we might find out whether he came honestly by the seal…and if,” Lino licked dry lips, “if he knows the whereabouts of Andretta.”

“And as for your electorate…” Sybilla Ol Lauro was already settling into her Uncle’s throne. Lino considered her, as a collector of rare butterflies might consider a fine specimen before pinning it to a board. To challenge him, she must be confident of her cause…or ignorant. Vain, perhaps, as Simone had been, veiling his decrepitude behind an illusion of youth and beauty. Perhaps she too was an ancient hag hiding behind an exquisite mask.

“What of it?” The chamber had quietened; his voice sliced through the still air.

“Well…” perhaps regretting her boldness, Ol Lauro’s laughter chimed like a fine peal of bells. “…Well after such a defeat, Ol Terenzo, after such…failure. There are those who might question your own capacity to govern.

The Kolegio fell as silent as a crypt. Their fear simmered; he sense it on the fringes of his consciousness. It gave him strength. And in an instant, he caught and held an impression of his own power, of his own potency stretching out for years to come. It were as if the future might be his to claim alone: a virgin territory ripe for conquering.

“You are right, Sybilla,” he said.

She smiled, inclining her head graciously.

“As are all those who would wonder at my apparent pride after such…such calamity.”

Ol Diacomo shifted warily on his throne. “You wear your humility like a change of clothes, I fear.”

“It is not so!” he shook his head, rising to pace the floor, shading his face with a shaking hand. Perceived through tear-glazed eyes, the chamber was a blur of light and shade. “In fact, the burden of my own failure has weighed upon me like a stone around my neck these last months. I dream, my friends. I dream of release from it.”

Ol Hauriro rubbed a fleshy hand across his jaw. “If release is what you seek…”

“Do you doubt it?”

If it is what you seek, there is only one way. A public declaration of penitence in the forum…and the submission of your electorate.”

He stared at them, dragging his palm across his eyes, freeing them of tears. “A public declaration, you say?”

Ol Hauriro nodded. “That is the law.”

“Here, before the Kolegio?” His voice shook and cracked.

“From its steps. And the renunciation of your keys to the electorate.”

“Of…my…keys. Spirits!” His howl was plaintive and hollow. “I see…I understand…that in spite of all my years of service for the good of the Pagi…you no longer think me fit for the role of elector.” The words frothed and spilled from Lino’s lips. “And that is your right. I will…a day from now…I will perform my penance. And offer up the keys.”

He crumpled, sinking back into the throne. Reduced to almost childish sobs, Lino covered his face with his hands.

The electors were rising, the chamber shocked into feverish, frenzied uproar, his name thrown about the Kolegio amid cheers…and cries of protest.

Ol Hauriro’s heavy, paw-like hand rested on his shoulder for a brief moment. “It is for the best, Lino. It is the right decision.”

He nodded, his face still hidden behind clasped hands, his chest heaving with grief.

The fools.

***

Cover picture Darcy Lawrey