Review: Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner

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Ellen Kushner’s second-world fantasy Swordspoint is one of those books I wish I’d picked up a while back, and for some reason never did. It’s a novel which  bursts with the kind of elements I love in historical fantasy the most: courtly intrigue, superlative world building, queer characters and swords. Lots of swords. Don’t ask me why – there’s probably something very Freudian behind it which I’d rather not think about.

Anyway, set in an unnamed city which seems part restoration London, part Quattrocento Florence, disputes are settled at swords point; the nobility often hiring professional swordsmen to fight on their behalf in matters of honour. Enter Richard St Vier who is the best of them all – a man with a murky past who is skilled enough to be choosy when it comes to his patrons. And his lover, Alec – a man with an even murkier past, who tends to bring out the psychopath in Richard, egging him on to yet bloodier deeds.

Richard becomes embroiled in the machinations of the nobility who live on ‘the Hill’ – the smart side of town, and finds his own reputation and ultimately his life jeopardised as a result. And while I’ve read other reviews referring to this story as a ‘fantasy of manners’, with an emphasis on capturing atmosphere and character, I found myself gripped by the plot, as Richard becomes an unwitting pawn on an intricate playing board.

The one thing that niggled was the representation of female characters who were, for the most part, scheming aristocrats a la Dangerous Liaisons, happy whores or eventually docile wives. I could have done with a woman whose role went beyond fairly obvious stereotypes. I also felt there were a few subplots that would have been worth a bit more development. Richard didn’t seem particularly haunted by one of the more shocking events from his past; and Alec’s foray into astronomy was little more than a passing allusion.  However, there was so much else going on here that it was hard to keep track of those lesser plot lines.

The novel is beautifully written in clear, precise prose and with an attention to detail that leaves you in no doubt, as a reader, of how Kushner wants you to feel – from the dangerous alleyways of Riverside, to the refined gardens and palaces of the Hill. It’s a book which very much serves as an antidote to fantasy conventions of good versus evil, or tradition versus modernity. Really worth a read.

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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.

Review: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

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I decided to read The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock after listening to an interview with the novel’s author, Imogen Hermes Gowar on the Guardian books podcast (which is, by the way, always worth a listen). You can find the interview here:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2018/mar/13/man-booker-international-and-the-womens-prize-for-fiction-where-to-start-reading-books-podcast

What attracted me to the story was the way Hermes Gowar has isolated an aspect of late eighteenth century London society – its fascination for exotica and curios – and taken that as a reference point for exploring the city at large, in terms of its changing physical and cultural landscapes.

The story hinges on the moment when merchant Jonah Hancock discovers that his ship has been sold in exchange for what is claimed to be a mermaid. Devastated over the loss of his vessel, Hancock nevertheless endeavours to recoup his losses by putting the mermaid’s mummified remains on display.

In fact, public fascination with the mermaid gains Hancock access to social spheres which, as a ‘middling’ kind of merchant he has never previously enjoyed: from the luxury and sensuality of an upmarket King Street brothel to the newly moneyed circles of Mary-le-Bone and Blackheath. In the process, he meets renowned courtesan Angelica Neal who proves as alluring as the mermaid itself.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock emerges as a work of textual archaeology, revealing the hidden histories of those people who frequently serve as little more than ‘local colour’ in received versions of national history. In contemplating her future as Hancock’s wife, for example, Angelica realises the extent to which her own identity will ultimately be lost; concealed beneath a series of socially-prescribed roles:

These claims upon her will only multiply – she will be mother-in-law, grandmother, widow, dependant – and accordingly her own person will be divided and divided and divided, until there is nothing left. (p.372)

The novel also references characters who slip through the net of white-washed historical narrative such as Polly – a mixed race prostitute, displayed like the mermaid as a curiosity.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock throws the reader headfirst into the murky waters of a city on the brink of change: into its new role as a capitalist powerhouse. In this respect, London itself emerges as a protagonist in the novel, transformed by a burgeoning economic reality which sees social climbers like Mr Hancock encroaching on the terrain of the upper classes.

This is a multi-layered jewel of a book, injecting London’s past with an immediacy which makes you question how far removed we are from such a reality. The fetishising of women’s bodies and the hunger for what we perceive to be exotic or grotesque are after all as characteristic of our contemporary media as they ever were for 18th century London society.

A beautifully written, startling and disturbing piece of fiction.

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

Review: Survival Instincts by May Dawney

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Given the fact that the hands of the ‘Doomsday Clock’ are currently set at two and a half minutes to midnight; given the constant barrage of media reports on climate change, nuclear proliferation, terrorism and rising geopolitical tensions, it’s perhaps not surprising that dystopian fiction keys into some of our deepest collective fears. How might we function in a world without technology – or an excess of it? Will we be able to resist the political extremes of totalitarianism or anarchy? What happens to us if, stripped of our humanity, we’re forced to fall back on our most primitive instincts, with the survival of one meaning the destruction of others?

This last question is what haunts May Dawney’s novel, Survival Instincts. War has ravaged the planet: humanity has all but obliterated itself. Only a few survivors eke out an existence either as ‘wilders’, relying on their own wits and skills to hunt and fend for themselves, or in defensive communities and homesteads.

Lynn Tanner is a wilder: a woman who has learned the hard  way that she can rely on no one but herself. She makes her way across the scarred landscape which was once New York State, scavenging and searching for hideouts, preying on wild animals for food and being preyed upon in turn by wolves, bears and other predators.

Lynn is forced to question her own values and instincts, however, when she is taken prisoner by a group of homesteaders and tasked with a quest which could well lead to her death. Accompanied by Dani, a hunter for the community, and her dog Skeever, Lynn finds herself suddenly forced into a position of trust, and experiences emotions which challenge her entire sense of who she is and whether there might be more to life than mere survival.

This is a gripping, beautifully written and uncompromising story which asks significant questions about how people might function when deprived of even the most basic comforts. Dani and Lynn’s unfolding relationship is perfectly paced, as the two women are beset by issues of trust and yet somehow start to believe that love might be more than just a luxury; it could imbue their lives with real meaning. It’s a story which confronts the daily grind of survival in a realistic way, and it does what all good speculative fiction should – it leaves you thinking long after you’ve read the final page about how we would function in such a future, and how distanced we really are from it.

Survival Instincts is simply an exceptional read, and a book which stays with you long after you’ve finished it. Highly recommended.

Review: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is a novel which confronts the legacy of slavery head on, tracing the lives of generations of Ghanaians and Americans who live, consciously or not, in its shadow.

The story opens in the eighteenth century with the arrival of British traders to west Africa, who manipulate tribal antagonisms in order to further their aim of capturing and transporting local people across the Atlantic. Half-sisters Effia and Esi are caught up in the violence and trauma of this experience: Effia marrying one of the slave traders, while Esi is put on board a slave ship and taken to the United States. The novel follows the lives of their descendants up to the present day; their lives transformed by colonisation and by segregation; by casual hatreds and prejudices, but also through solidarity and love.

Gyasi’s prose style is delicately poised and detached, serving to emphasise the horrors that her characters are forced to endure. As each generation dreams of a better life for their children, reductionist narratives of race and skin colour serve to impose apparently insurmountable limitations. Yet this is also a story of healing – of homegoing – of roots first ripped out but ultimately replanted. It is, therefore, against all the odds a tale of hope.

Anger simmers beneath the delicate prose of Homegoing. But at the same time, it is an extraordinarily compassionate book, and a novel which subtly picks apart its complex subject material. A must read.

Review: Just Jorie by Robin Alexander

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So before I review Just Jorie, I’d just like to say that this was a story which broke my audio book virginity, if you can forgive the expression. I haven’t listened to audio books before, simply because for whatever reason Amazon Audible wasn’t available in Poland until recently. And now I’ve tried one, I’m absolutely hooked – it means I can fit more books into my week without even trying!

But anyway, onto the book itself. Just Jorrie is the sweet and engaging tale of two women who find true love for the first time at forty (or thereabouts). It’s mostly set in New Orleans and focuses on Jorie (Marjorie Andolini) and Lena Vaughan, who find themselves thrown together by chance while waiting for a plane home. They decide to make the journey back by car together, and end up discovering out a lot more about each other than they’d bargained for.

Lena is forty, a high flying businesswoman who for some reason never seems able to meet the right guy. Jorie works for her family’s car parts company and is out and comfortable with her identity as a lesbian. Ostensibly worlds apart, they both begin to realise that each might be the other’s ‘one’: that certain somebody who’ll bring magic, love and security into their lives.

For Lena, this means a late-in-life examination of her own sexuality. For Jorie, it comes with plenty of concerns: is Lena just toying with her? Is it possible that someone with Lena’s background could fall for her? And that’s without taking into account the helpful ‘advice’ which comes their way and threatens to rock the boat, courtesy of various friends and family members.

The key note of the story is its humour. Avoid reading or listening to this book in public, because you will laugh. A lot. The dialogue is fast, sharp and witty and the characterisation is just perfect – especially when it comes to the Andolini household, and Jorie’s crazy Aunt and Gramps who never hold back. And I loved how easy it was to relate to all the characters and the situations they found themselves in.

Put simply, Just Jorie is a beautifully written, upbeat romantic comedy. And I can definitely recommend the audio version, narrated by Lisa Cordileone, who brings all the characters to life.

Leda: An Extract

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When Hal goes bad, she goes really bad. Here’s an extract from my latest book, Leda – Part Three of The Duellist Trilogy. 

Tipping the Balance

This bloodsucking leech of a world which just seemed to keep taking until Hal had no more left to give…it had finally thrown something back. Leda was the break of sun through storm clouds; she was flower petals mingling with the sand and heat of the desert. She had returned.

Hal held Leda at arm’s length, unable to speak, taking in the girl’s outlandish clothes ˗ the shirt and trousers twice her size, besmirched with mud and torn to rags. Her ill-fitting boots and the heavy sheepskin draped over her shoulders. Her wild curls were plastered to her face with rain and sweat and dirt. She was thin: half-starved, Hal guessed, and pale with exhaustion. And somehow aged, as if in weeks she’d witnessed years. Unwilling to let the girl go again, Hal drew her closer, squeezing her so hard that Leda yelped.

“Where have you been?”

“If I told you, Hal, you might not believe me. I’ll write you another book some day. It all seems more like a story than the truth.”

Hal read the suffering in Leda’s face, the lines of worry etched into her skin. “A tale to frighten children with?”

Leda looked away. “Something like that.” She gnawed on her lower lip and shivered. “My saviour, Oræl,” she said.

Drawing from Hal’s embrace, she threw an arm around the shoulders of her companion: auburn haired and golden eyed, strong and long of limb, her face freckled, weather-worn and honest. Hal warmed to her immediately.”Is it true?” she asked. “Did you save her?”

“We saved each other,” Oræl said. Hal detected a crofter’s accent, thick and melodic. She observed, too, how Oræl leaned towards Leda, as if drawn to her on an invisible thread.

There was a snapping of undergrowth, a pummelling of the ground, as Roc’s army marched outwards and onto the moors. Leda gripped Oræl’s hand in fear.

“Don’t worry, Leda. That’s the rest of us. Magda is here and Jools, and…”

“Mother?” Leda asked, the breath catching in her throat.

Hal shook her head, guilt and loss stealing up on her in equal measure. “Leda, your mother is Josen’s prisoner.”

“What?”

“It was my fault. We argued and…”

“Well, well, well…the moors do deliver up their treasures!” Jools jumped down from her horse, her voice sharp with surprise. Hal closed her eyes in frustration.

“Leda, from which well of hope did you spring?” Jools grinned, swinging Leda around. “Sometimes it’s like all your birthdays rolled into one, ain’t it, Hal?” She caught Hal’s eye and winked. “Well cheer up for the spirits’ sakes! Something good’s happened for a change.

“She doesn’t know yet,” said Hal.

“What doesn’t she know?”

Hal hissed with irritation. “Leda,” she began gently.

“We’ve already heard, Hal. We passed through Lake End and they told us everything. We were headed for Hannac, but…” her voice trailed away, her eyes deepening with sorrow. “Now Dal Reniac needs us. I’ll talk to Castor, I’ll do anything to stop him.”

“Well, what do you know?” Jools said, elbowing Hal in the ribs. “That’s exactly where we’re headed too, isn’t it, Hal?”

Hal winced. “My dead are at Hannac.”

“But it’s the living in Dal Reniac who need us now, Hal.” Magda, pushed her way through  the throngs of soldiers. Word of Leda’s return was greeted with cheers and shouts as the news carried through the ranks. Magda embraced Leda warmly, kissing her on her forehead.

“Hal, you can’t help Hannac now. I know how desperately you must want to get back there,” Leda said. “I want that too, believe me. But we have a duty to the city. And to Edæc.”

Magda threw Hal a confused look. “But my brother’s probably dead, Leda.”

“No! At Lake End they said he fled to Dal Reniac before Castor had reached Hannac.”

Relief flooded Magda’s face. “Spirits, may it be the truth,” she whispered. A snort of contempt from the older of the two prisoners cut through her prayer.

“So these are Castor’s spies?” Jools turned her gaze on Davic and his companion, still held at knife point by Roc’s men. “Hal, they’re all yours.”

Reluctantly, Hal shifted her gaze from Leda to Davic. “It seems odd, doesn’t it?” she asked. “We hear so many reports of Hannac destroyed, of all its people put to the sword or burnt alive. And yet here you are, Davic. Wandering the moors at will.”

“I escaped, Hal,” Davic gasped. “It was awful. I ran, and…they were screaming. People running, Castor’s guards everywhere, blood…” spit flecked his lips.

“Yes. So I imagine. Every hour of every day and night.”

“He’s lying!” Leda cried. “We heard them talking before you arrived. They were speaking about you, Hal, and of the thieves…and of what Davic had done at Hannac.”

“Well is that so?” Hal wetted her lips with her tongue. She’d never trusted the boy. He’d always had a tendency to whine, to blame others for his own weaknesses, to gossip and gloat over the tenants’ misfortunes. She’d tolerated him for Luc’s sake. “And just what is it that you did at Hannac, Davic? Perhaps your friend here can enlighten us. I don’t remember seeing him before.” She slipped her sword from her belt, waving it an inch from the spy’s face. “You’re a Berasé man, perhaps?”

He watched her for a moment, a thin smile creeping across his dark, unshaven cheeks, his eyes fuelled with hatred. And then he hawked hard and spat in her face.

After all those nights spent dreaming of murder and revenge, after the days of riding, hollowed out and lost, she surprised herself with her restraint, dragging the back of her sleeve across her cheek. But then, she realised that for the first time in days she had power. She was in control. And she was prepared to take her time.

“Your friend doesn’t seem to like me, Davic,” she said. “I wonder why?”

“It’s true what I said, Hal! I met him on the moors. I was wandering for days. My Da killed, and Arec and all of them.” He broke into pitiful sobs. “It was hell.”

“I’m sure. Tie them both to that tree over there.”

As Davic and the older man were dragged to a thick oak tree on the fringe of the forest, Magda laid a hand on Hal’s arm. “Hal,” she warned. “We’re no better than they are if we…”

“I know what I’m doing,” she growled, hit by a sudden flash of anger. “And you’d do the same in my place. Jools, give me your knife.”

“With pleasure.”

She was wrong of course, and Magda was right. She knew it in the very fibre of her being. What she wanted to do now would break her apart. It would send her spiralling, plummeting away from herself, from all the rules she had ever consciously clung to. And yet she couldn’t stop herself. Something had snapped within her back at Roc’s fortress. She couldn’t hold herself back. The world had demanded too much for her to care about restraint anymore.

Hal crouched in front of the two men, now bound to the broad trunk of the oak, Davic whimpering and crying, the older man still capable of contempt, his eyes hard and fixed on the point of Jools’ knife which she waved before his face.

“So who are you, Sir? I like to put a name to a man I’m about to hurt.”

His lips tightened to thin, white lines. She considered him for a few moments, balancing the knife on the tips of her fingers, rotating it over and over. And then she drove it hard into his left shoulder. There was a collective gasp, punctured by a few ugly cheers. Magda dived forwards to stop her, but Roc and Cesary held her back.

“Bastard born bitch of a whore.” He spat the words out at her in his pain, sweat beading his brow, blood blotting the worsted of his jacket and fanning out beneath his armpit and across his chest.

“Well he’s right about the first part,” said Jools helpfully, peering over Hal’s shoulder.

Hal threw her a look of disgust. “Now, Sir, no more speculating on my birth, my character or my occupation. We’re here to talk about you. And what you were doing wandering the moors with Davic.”

“Kayetan!” Davic suddenly screamed. “His name’s Kayetan!”

“Good. That’s good. Now we’re getting somewhere.”

“Don’t utter another word, fool!” Kayetan gasped, his face draining of colour.

“Davic,” leaving the knife buried in Kayetan’s shoulder, she twisted round to face the Hannac boy. Leda stood just to the left of the oak. The girl’s face was bereft of emotion, her grey eyes cold and impassive. Something told Hal to stop: to pull out the knife, to patch Kayetan up, to leave him to heal and Davic to his guilt. To stop this vile, bloody performance before more damage was done. But she couldn’t. The anger, the sorrow, the fracture to her spirit: it all ran too deep.

“Davic,” she said again.

He was a crumpled, weeping mess. A hot trickle of urine leaked out onto the grass between his legs, steaming as it hit the cold earth.

“I want you to watch what I’m about to do to Kayetan,” she continued.

“No!” He moaned.

“Watch him!” She seized the boy’s hair, twisting his head around until he could not help but look at the older man. “Because I’m going to do it to you too…”

Davic’s breathing grew feverish and ragged, his sweat coated her hand.

“…unless you answer all my questions. For the sake of your father who was ˗ I assume he’s now dead ˗ an honourable man, I’ll give you a chance. But tell me, what really did happen at Hannac?”

“I ran,” he said, but this time there was no conviction in his voice. “I escaped.”

“But Leda says otherwise. And with all the best will in the world, Davic, I trust her far, far more than I ever trusted you.”

“I…ran.”

“No you didn’t.” She curled her fingers around the handle of Jools’ knife. And then she twisted, Kayetan screaming as the blade ground through gristle, tendons and muscle.

“I think he’d rather you told the truth actually, Davic. Isn’t that right, Kayetan?”

“You monstrous traitor.” Kayetan was breathing hard through his nose, his jaw clenched in a bid to stop himself from howling in agony.

“Now I’m certain that he doesn’t like me.” She turned back to Davic. “I don’t blame him. I’ve been there myself, you see. I know how he feels. At first, you think that the torture will stop…eventually. When you realise that’s not about to happen, you start thinking about death, and what a relief it would be.”

Kayetan seemed to be fighting a battle with consciousness, his eyes rolling in their sockets, his breathing feverish.

“I don’t think he’s quite there…yet,” Hal said. “When you realise that they won’t even grant you that mercy, you wonder if you can bring yourself to beg. For death, I mean. It’s an awful thing. It takes you apart piece by little piece, until you forget who you really are. I don’t think you ever truly recover.”

Leda was still there, hovering behind Davic, her expression one of crafted ice. Hal immediately regretted the confession.

“But look,” she said. “I don’t want us to get that far. So for the spirits’ sakes!” She grabbed his hair again and shouted into his face. “Tell me what happened!”

He twitched and spasmed, his body now jerking beyond his control. He closed his eyes. “Arec let him in,” he said at last.

“So it was all Arec’s fault?”

“No! He thought…he though Castor would respect the ancient laws of hosts.”

She rocked back on her heels. Arec ˗ he would have done that, the trusting fool. He would have seen Castor as another Diodiné: a firm, fair respecter of tradition. “And then what?” she asked quietly.

“Castor and his men…they murdered, slaughtered, burnt…all of them.” Bending over in his bonds, he heaved and retched, vomiting into a patch of leaves. Ready to throw up herself, she backed away, rose and turned.

Still caught between Roc and his son, Magda shook her head. “What are you doing?” she asked.

“Whatever it takes.”

Hal twisted back round and peered down at Davic. “So they all died, did they? All of them? Your father, Arec, Elis, the tenants, their children?”

He nodded, a few strings of drool flecking his lips and chin.

“Except for you.”

“He betrayed the Crofter, you stupid cow!” Kayetan suddenly brayed.

“What?”

“He betrayed the Crofter from here to hell and back.”

“No!” Davic gasped.

“You told them Edæc had run?” She dropped back down to face him. “Did you?”

There was a silence, broken only by the angry mutterings of Roc’s men. And then Davic screamed, “Yes!”

“Why?”

“I thought it would save us if I told them Edæc was gone.”

Before she even realised what was happening, Leda had slapped Davic hard across the face. “How could you? Davic, we were children together ˗ all of us. We were friends!”

“He was never one of us!” Davic rasped, ducking from her blows. “He was always yours!”

“Leda!” Hal seized Leda’s wrists, drawing her close until the struggle had left her, until she had exhausted herself.

“Didn’t make any difference, anyway.” Kayetan’s laughter was a hoarse rattle of phlegm. “Fabiac and Gric handed him over to Castor once he reached Dal Reniac. He screamed for you, Leda Nérac, when they strung him up. Screamed and yelled your name, he did, thinking you were dead. Wept like a babe.”

She tensed in Hal’s arms. And then she fled, ripping from her grasp, running down into the forest. Without a word, Oræl turned and followed her.

“And you too.” Kayetan fixed his leer on Magda. “You’re Brighthair, aren’t you?”

Magda had wrested free of Roc and Cesary; was prowling with soft, dangerous steps towards him, her revulsion at Hal’s cruelty now giving way to abject, undisguised horror. “They hung him?”

“Aye. With a placard around his neck: ‘Lord Crofter.'” His laughter was like a rook’s harsh caw. “You’ll see him before you reach Dal Reniac. In fact, you’ll probably smell him before you see him by now, I’d expect.”

Magda ran, bowling into Hal who pushed her back. “Magda, don’t. We need him alive,” Hal yelled, but Magda had already forged past her, dragging the knife from Kayetan’s shoulder. His eyes rounded in fear as he saw his own death before it hit him, as she plunged the dagger deep into his chest. Blood bubbled out between his lips and he flailed helplessly against the ropes. And then he sank, the life moaning out of him as Magda stepped away, staring at her own hands and shaking, her face twisted with torment. Hal reached for her but she staggered from her grasp and disappeared amongst the troops.

“Well,” Hal breathed. “It looks as if it’s just you and me now, Davic. So you really had better start giving me more. What are Castor’s intentions in Dal Reniac?”

Davic swivelled around, unable to look away from Kayetan’s corpse; at the way the dead man’s head lolled on his neck like a ball on a string, his body folded in upon itself. Then he looked at Hal. “He’ll bend it to his will,” he said, his voice now strangely sober, the tone of a man who’d witnessed so much terror that he’d been purged of all fear. “Or he’ll break it.”

“I see. So Gric and Fabiac let him in?”

“They opened the gates to him, yes.”

“And if he’s so certain of his power, why send spies like yourself back outside the city?”

“Because…Hal, did you mean it? Will you let me go?”

“I always say what I mean, boy.” She was tired suddenly, so tired of all this pain, this cruelty, of the damage she’d inflicted on others and upon herself.

“An army’s coming.”

“Well of course an army’s coming, boy!” Roc sounded incredulous. “My army!”

“No!” Davic panted. “From the east. Another one. When he heard of it he…Castor…he decided to send out scouts everywhere.”

“She’s done it!” Jools suddenly screeched, performing a mad little dance. “Oh my darling! Oh my princess! She’s a diamond, a little beauty! Oh! Oh, Kris! Oh, you’re a genius, mate!”

“Jools!” Hal turned to her, shaking her head. “Please!”

“Don’t kill me! Please, Hal!” Davic begged again.

“Shut up! Shut your lying, betraying mouth, Davic!” She pulled the knife from Kayetan’s chest, her hands now slippery with blood and raised it before the boy’s face. He closed his eyes, whispering to himself in prayer. And then she brought the blade down hard against the ropes. When he opened his eyes, he was free.

“Listen to me, Davic.” Before he could scrabble to his feet, she’d grabbed him by the back of his neck and forced him to his knees, his face hovering an inch from Kayetan’s slumped body. “You see what I did? You see what Brighthair did?”

He nodded, snivelling and sobbing, his entire body heaving. “I’m going to give you a horse. I’ll even give you an escort, just so I know you’ve made it to the gates of Dal Reniac. And once you’re in, I want you to deliver this message back to your Master, back to Castor.”

He shifted beneath her grasp but she held him down, pressing the knife to his neck. “Tell Castor that I’ll do the same thing to him. Look at him, so that you remember every detail. Can you do that?”

He nodded again.

“Good. Now get up.”

He was on his feet, his face flushed, his eyes red.

“And go.” She was so exhausted that she could barely stand herself. “Go!” She pushed him towards a pair of guards. “Follow him. Make sure he gets there,” she said.

“He won’t tell Castor.” Jools bent to retrieve her knife, wiping it on a rag.

“Once he’s inside Dal Reniac, he’ll have no choice. They’ll find him.”

“I never knew you had it in you…” the thief said, jabbing her thumb at Kayetan’s mutilated body, her eyes glittering with what might have been admiration.

Hal felt sick. “Neither did I,” she whispered, heading for the forest. “Leda!” She yelled out into the trees, but there was no reply. “Leda!”

Had she lost her again? Desperate, she scrambled down the bank: running, clinging to branches for balance.

“She’s here!” Oræl’s voice filtered back up to her through the woodland. Hal ran, slipped, cursed and ran again, spying at last the two women as they clung to each other ˗ Leda shaking, her knuckles white where she gripped Oræl’s shoulders. Over Leda’s head, Oræl stared at Hal with a look which almost bordered on fear. Hal glanced down at her hands, still running crimson with Kayetan’s blood. Bending over, she plucked some leaves from the ground and wiped them across her palms. The crofter backed away, leaving Leda alone amongst the trees.

“What have you done?” She turned to Hal, drawing her hands across her face, her lips twisted with shock and disgust.

“What do you mean?”

“Hal, you just tortured a man. You tied him to a tree and you…that wasn’t defending yourself or fighting in battle. That was sadistic. It was…oh, I haven’t words!”

“Leda…Edæc’s dead!”

“I know he’s dead! I know that. I feel it with my entire body. But will your butchery bring him back to me?”

“Butchery?”

“Yes! Let’s call it by its real name. Let’s not pretend. What makes us different from Castor, Hal, is that we don’t torture or kill others just because we have the power to do so. And the minute we do…as Magda said, we’re no better than they are!”

“Magda…who just drove her knife through a man’s heart out of revenge?”

“She was finishing what you’d started. What would my mother have said, Hal?”

“Oh…” flooded with shame, she turned away, unable to look at Leda. “You play your cards so well.”

“This isn’t a game and I’m not holding any cards. What would she have thought?”

She was so weary, her spirit so weighted down now. Hal leant against a tree, her back to its bark and slowly worked her way down until she was sitting amongst the roots. “She’d not recognise me,” she said at last. “These days, Leda, I barely recognise myself.”

Her face swollen from crying, Leda stared at her for a long time. The fog had lifted, but rain had taken its place ˗ light, gentle, as if the sky itself were weeping. With a long, mournful sigh, Leda flung herself down onto the wet earth beside Hal. “I still see you, Hal Hannac,” she said at last. ‘You’re still there. Just try to do what you do best. Defend us with your sword if you have to, take the fight to Castor. But please, no more torture. No more cruelty.”

Hal rested the back of her head against the tree, rain dusting her face.

“Hal, I know…I understand what tips the balance between man and monster, I feel it so well. It would take so little to turn me into my father.”

“What?” Shocked out of her stupor, Hal turned to look at Leda. “What did you say?”

“I understand,” Leda said. “I could kill every one of them now, for Edæc’s sake. I could have stood and watched you rip out Davic’s heart. I come this close every single day.” She held her thumb and forefinger up to the air. “My fear over what you’re becoming…it’s my own fear. It’s fear for myself.”

Hal shook her head. “What are you talking about, Leda? You’re the purest thing living in this rotten world.”

“No, I’m not. And you see it…you and my mother. I know that you do. You see my father every time you look at me.”

“Your father? Oh, Leda!” Hal slipped an arm around the girl’s shoulders, pulled her close and kissed the top of her head. “You’re not Bruno Nérac’s daughter,” she said.

Leda stiffened. “Am I not? Whose daughter am I, if not his?”

“You’re mine.” Hal drew her closer. “You’re my daughter, Leda. You always have been. And you always will be.”

“Spirits!”

She felt the girl break again, her body racked with sobs as they sat beneath the tree, rain washing away the blood.

Review of “Building Love” by M E Tudor

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A sweet romance about real people finding real love.

Following the sudden death of her father, Patricia McNeal goes off the rails, taking drugs, partying and ending up pregnant at eighteen. Her mother Mandy, also coming to terms with the death of her husband, embarks on a new life and opens a B&B.

Enter Theresa Garland, working for her father’s construction company, who is tasked with turning Mandy’s dream into a reality. There’s a definite spark between Theresa and Patty, but it takes a great deal of soul searching and bitter experience before they can acknowledge it. And even then, both girls seem to be victims of their own pasts: of circumstances which it’s hard to keep secret in a small town.

What I liked about the book is just how easy it was to relate to the main characters. Both Theresa and Patty are strong, stubborn, beautiful women who’ve been dealt a poor hand in life and learn to make the best of it. And you find yourself really rooting for them in their search for love, family and security. The perfect summer read.

The First Fight: Final Chapter – Breaking the Rules

the first fight

So this short story (a prequel to Hal) is now complete and available to read on Wattpad while I edit it. Here’s a link to the last chapter:

https://www.wattpad.com/myworks/145657002/write/585247438

 

And here’s an excerpt:

Chapter Eight: Breaking the Rules

“You’ve only got yourself to blame, Hal.”

Hal cast mournful eyes on Marc.

 “I told you to be wary of Cara,” he said, dropping a summons to the palace into her hands.

“Yes, Marc.” She stared at the scroll, unwilling to break the seal. “So you did.”

Marc sat down on the bench beside her, slid his fingers beneath her chin and tilted her face to the light. “Ooh.” He scrunched up his brow. “A split lip is going to play right into her hands.”

“Yes, I think you’ve made your point.”

She drew away. If she still appeared tender and bruised from the fight with Orla, he could have no idea how raw she felt inside. It were as if she’d been hollowed out with a knife: her core cut clean away. Orla was gone; gone forever. And the impending threat of disgrace and exile was enough to drive her out of her mind.

With a long, throaty sigh, she unravelled the parchment and read aloud:

“At the behest of Lady Cara Thæc, the palace summons Halanya X, duellist and former imperial ward, to answer for her actions in bringing shame upon the court. May she present herself at midday on…Blah, blah, blah.” Hal rolled the scroll back up, leant against the wall, closed her eyes and tapped her forehead with the parchment.  “What can they do?” she asked at last. “Kick me out?” She turned to look at Marc.

“Well…” he stroked his chin. “That is one option. The others include…”

“Wait!” She raised a hand. “I don’t even want to hear it.” Grabbing her coat, she jumped to her feet. “Let’s just get this over with, shall we?”