August 1, 2014

#FridayFlash – Riding Ever Onwards

This is part seven in my Astral Mage serial. Continues from The Queen last week!

The horses were saddled and ready in the courtyard when Artemuse and the Queen reached the stables. Artemuse gulped when she saw Mirage, a gigantic beast of a black stallion. The Royal Crest on his saddle gleamed, a flash of gold against burgundy leather

“He’s a big horse,” said Artemuse. She hung back, too nervous to approach him. She’d never had any occasion to learn to ride – her wings took her wherever she needed to go.

“Don’t be afraid, Arti. He’s perfectly friendly.”

Artemuse looked at Mirage, and she swore she saw amusement in the horse’s eyes. The Queen swung herself up into Prado’s saddle, and gestured towards the stallion.

“But…surely he’s used to the Monarch?” asked Artemuse.

“Oh he hated him. It’ll make a change for him to carry someone who doesn’t wear spurs, for one thing.”

Mirage arched his neck and nudged Artemuse with his nose.

“You see? Just climb up, Arti. We don’t have a lot of time.” The Queen smiled but determination coloured her tone. Artemuse nodded, finally realising that the responsibility for the safety of Rhodenius had passed out of her grasp, and into the influence of the Queen.

Artemuse placed a foot in a stirrup and hauled herself up into Mirage’s saddle. Her behind had barely touched the leather before the Queen gave a cry and the two horses clattered out of the courtyard. Artemuse clung to the reins, her knuckles white, as Mirage followed Prado into the cobbled streets of the city.

She had no idea how to control Mirage, but after a few moments, her stomach unclenched. The stallion avoided obstacles with ease, veering around them or leaping over them, before Artemuse even saw they were there. His muscles bunched and stretched beneath her and a flicker of trust in his abilities tickled her mind. She wasn’t sure she’d ever enjoy riding, but Mirage knew what he was doing better than she did.

The horses almost flew in their haste. They’d reached the lower levels of the city by the time Artemuse noticed how quiet the city was. The alleyways and squares should have been thronged with people, shouts ringing out among the everyday clamour, yet the streets were empty. She wanted to call out, to ask the Queen what was wrong, but the wind kept snatching her words away.

The northern gateway to the city lay ahead. Fewer people travelled into Rhodenius from the north, preferring not to travel across the Lesian Plains, so the gate was smaller and less ornate than those serving the other entrances into the city. The portcullis was up and the thick doors stood open, with two guards bearing halberds at either side. Artemuse never travelled into the city through the gates but even she could tell that the number of guards along the wall was less than usual.

The guards stood aside and the horses galloped through the gateway. Narrower and lower than she’d expected, Artemuse wondered how on earth Eddister could have led the Statue Army through it.

The Lesian Plains were a vast expanse of grassland, bordered on all sides by mountains. Rhodenius lay within the southern mountain range where the peaks were at their lowest, and Artemuse’s tower clung to one of the smaller cliffs. The ground swelled and fell in an undulating pattern that deceived the eye – the Plains looked empty, but Artemuse knew Lord Draumir’s advancing army could be anywhere.

The Queen pulled Prado’s reins, and her horse drew level with Mirage. She leaned across to Artemuse.

“I’d imagine the Army are but a few miles from here by now. Our own militia should be catching them up from the western gate,” she shouted.

“Why was the city so quiet? Where did the people go?”

“They’re still there, I just strongly suggested they stay in doors until we return. If we don’t return, they’ll abandon the city,” replied the Queen.

“How?” Artemuse couldn’t imagine how thousands of people would be able to leave the city quickly if Lord Draumir should approach. Surely he’d find them on the road, and cut them down where they stood.

“There are more tunnels under the city than the one Eddister guards, Arti.”

A great shadow fell across the land. Artemuse looked up to see a vast creature circling in the sky above them.

“What’s that?” she asked, pointing upwards.

“What’s what?” The Queen followed her gaze, but shook her head.

Realisation dawned. If Artemuse could see the creature and the Queen couldn’t, then whatever it was flew on the astral plane, not within the mortal realm. There was only one thing it could be.

“It’s a Vaal’kyr,” shouted Artemuse.

Looking more closely with her mind’s eye, she saw thick black feathers, talons like scythe blades and a long snout filled with vicious fangs. A long tail tipped with a razor sharp dagger trailed in the sky behind it. Deep green eyes burned with intelligence, and the creature gave a deep nod when it caught her looking. Artemuse could sense emotions on the astral plane, and the creature was respectful but alert.

She wasn’t sure what she’d expected the Vaal’kyr to look like, or how they’d act, but the monstrous yet graceful animal was not what she’d pictured at all.

“Where there is one, there will surely be others,” replied the Queen. “In what direction is it?”

Artemuse pointed the way, and they guided the horses towards the circling Vaal’kyr. They sped across the plain, the horses kicking up grass as they ran. A second Vaal’kyr joined the first, and a third, and Artemuse realised they were running up an incline. She could only dread what she’d see when they reached the top.

Continued next week!

Image by Inanti. Edits by me.

July 25, 2014

#FridayFlash – The Queen

By Adolf de Meyer [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

This is part six in my Astral Mage serial, following on from The Roost last week!

Artemuse sailed across the palace courtyard and dropped neatly through an open window into the throne room. She landed on a torch bracket high in the ceiling and looked down, expecting to see guards or courtiers fawning over the Monarch. Instead, she saw only the Queen, no longer sitting in the smaller throne as she had been on Artemuse’s earlier visit. She now sat in the Monarch’s throne, her chin cupped in her hand.

Artemuse sailed down to the floor and allowed her feathers to shed, revealing the skin beneath. She wrapped her cloak around herself and approached the Queen, already bent low in anticipation of the curtsey she would be expected to perform.

“Stand up, Artemuse. You bow to no one.”

The Queen did not even look at her, and Artemuse realised she was not staring into space after all – she was gazing into a crystal bowl of water in her lap.

“Where is everyone, your Majesty?”

“The Vaal’kyr took my husband. I sent the guards to call the army to action. The courtiers…well they were just getting on my nerves. They’re so inane.”

A heavy weight thumped into Artemuse’s stomach – the Vaal’kyr had taken the Monarch? They must have considered him to be payment for the assistance they would lend. Artemuse didn’t know what they would do with him, and based on the legends, she didn’t want to know.

“I am sorry to hear about the Monarch.”

“I’m not. That fool would have buried his head in the sand of the Plains if he thought he could get away with it. No, I knew that what you had seen was true – I have seen it in the waters. They asked me for him, and I let them take him – they did so on the understanding I would become Monarch. At least now we might see some action.” The Queen looked up and smiled.

“I fetched the Guardian below the city. He has woken the Sleeping Army.”

“No, you woke the Sleeping Army. Eddister just took you to them. You really must learn to take the credit, Artemuse.”

Artemuse blushed.

“Now you’re here though, we must head out to the Plains together. Between the Vaal’kyr, the Statue Army and the city militia, we should be able to repel Lord Draumir with ease, but I don’t doubt that they could use our help.”

The Queen snapped her fingers, and a side door opened. A single guard, a boy of no more than fourteen, poked his head into the room.

“Send word to the stables, I need Prado. And have Mirage saddled for Artemuse.”

The guard nodded, and left, closing the door behind him. Artemuse bit her lip – Mirage was the famous black stallion ridden only by the Monarch. She wasn’t an expert horsewoman by any means, finding the animals to be capricious and unpredictable, and she was sure Mirage would be more difficult than most. Still, she’d come to the Queen for help, and the Queen needed her down on the Plains. She’d have to put her own feelings aside for now.

“Ben’s a good boy. The horses will be ready by the time we get to the stables. Are you alright, Arti?”

“I do have one question, your Majesty.”

“Call me Phenia.”

“Alright. I do have one question, Phenia. Why would Lord Draumir risk attacking Rhodenius? Surely he’s heard of the Vaal’kyr?”

“Of course he has, although I doubt tales of the Statue Army ever reached his lands. Don’t forget, those who encountered them didn’t lived to speak of it. You have to remember that many now consider the old legends to be nothing more than tall tales, or ancient boasting. Draumir probably assumes the Vaal’kyr are nothing more than a fairy tale to scare people into behaving themselves.”

The Queen set aside her crystal bowl, careful not to spill the water, and stood. Artemuse had forgotten how tall the water mage was, and fought the urge to curtsey – the Queen would tell her off again.

“Come along, Artemuse. I am sure Eddister will be keen to see you again.”

The Queen gave a lopsided smile, and swept off along the length of the Throne Room, her silver robes rippling like water behind her. Artemuse trotted to catch up, and they left the Throne Room together.

Continues next week with Riding Ever Onwards!

July 24, 2014

8 things Mummy did in Paris

Suitcase If you’ve been following me on Instagram, or you’re friends with me on Facebook, you’ll have seen a string of photos from my recent trip to Paris. Among them, you’ll have seen a collection of images that I’ve tagged #mummyselfie, as they feature my little crochet mummy that I made a few weeks ago. I’ve been calling her Mummy, but she’s actually based on Neferpenthe, the mummy villain in my latest novella, The Necromancer’s Apprentice. But where Neferpenthe is what you might call “a wrong ‘un”, Mummy has turned out to be rather cute – and rather popular! Her ‘selfies’ have been far more popular than any images of me – it could give a girl a complex! Anyway, I thought I’d document my trip using the images of Mummy for those who haven’t seen them.

We got to Paris on Thursday 17th July, and we were staying at the L’Horset Opera hotel on Rue D’Antin, just off the Avenue de l’Opera. It’s handy staying so near the Opera House as there is a bus route from Charles de Gaulle airport straight to the Opera, called the Roissybus, which makes transfers a bit easier.

02VersaillesOn the Friday, we took a trip down to the Palace of Versailles – I’ve seen the palace of Herrenchiemsee in Bavaria which was based on Versailles, and it might sound heretical to say so but I actually think Ludwig’s copy is the nicer building. But here’s Mummy outside the Palace itself. We also visited the Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon in the grounds, and had a wander around the gardens, but the temperature got up to 36°C, which is far too high for a Northerner like myself, so it was a blessed relief to get into the cool of the Palace – even if it was jammed with massive tour parties.

Louvre On the Saturday, we decided to hop onto the L’Open Tour bus to see a bit more of the city – they operate five different routes, and it’s 32€ for a single day, 36€ for two, or 40€ for three. It’s well worth it because the buses stop at all the major attractions and you can hop on and off as much as you like while your ticket is valid. It’s certainly safer than using the Metro, and you get to see more of Paris. The ‘green’ line goes past the Louvre, and I just had to get a photo of Mummy with the glass pyramid. She doesn’t look entirely impressed though.

NotreDame

One of the main reasons for using the open top bus was to get to Notre Dame, which is on the green line. I’d always wanted to see it, and it’s a genuinely beautiful building. I actually preferred it to Cologne Cathedral which I saw last year. I couldn’t get any photos of Mummy inside due to the low light, but here she is outside.

We spent the rest of Saturday touring the green line, and we attempted the yellow line through Montmartre, but the roads had to be closed due to the Gaza protest outside the Gare du Nord which turned violent. Instead we explored the beautiful little shopping arcades just off the Boulevard Montmarte – I could have spent a fortune!

Catacombs On Sunday we went to the Catacombs – if you ever go, for God’s sake go well before 10am. We got there at 10:30am and I didn’t actually get in until 1pm! It’s incredibly atmospheric down there, even in the old disused quarry section of the tunnels. I was dying to know what lay beyond the security grilles that block some of the passages, but the ossuary was clearly the main draw for most visitors. I did feel a bit strange taking a photo of Mummy down there but as she’s a necromancer in the book it seemed logical to do so. She doesn’t look very happy though.

It’s funny, I’ve done tons of paranormal investigations in my time, and I’ve visited the catacombs in both Highgate and Kensal Rise Cemeteries, but I’ve never been as freaked out as I was in the Paris Catacombs. I don’t know if it was the sheer quantity of bones on show, or the heavy feeling of sadness that hangs in the air, but I was glad to get back out into the sunshine. Still, it was good inspiration for the sequel to The Necromancer’s Apprentice.

06LuxembourgGardens

After the Catacombs we rode the orange bus line all the way back around to the Jardin de Luxembourg in the Montparnasse area of Paris. It’s beautiful there, and they had a band playing at the bandstand – their rendition of the Pirates of the Caribbean theme was particularly good. There’s a lovely atmosphere in the park, and the Medicis Fountain is well worth seeing. Look, Mummy even looks happy to be among the pretty flowerbeds!

08PereLachaise

We continued the slightly morbid theme on Monday by visiting the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, the final resting place of such luminaries as Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf and Frederic Chopin (all of whom we visited, along with Jacques-Louis David, Georges Bizet and Georges Méliès). Mummy was pleased to see another pyramid! The cemetery is far bigger than I imagined, and with its street names and rows of sepulchres, it feels like a city of the dead.

09OscarWlde

Here’s Mummy with the tomb of Oscar Wilde. Sadly there is a glass partition around it to stop people from leaving their mark – you can already see the amount of lipstick marks on the stone. Still, I think he’d be pleased to know so many people are still dropping by. Jim Morrison’s grave is even more popular – it’s more awkward to find, and there were so many people there I couldn’t get a photo of Mummy with him.

10GeorgesMelies

Georges Méliès, one of the fathers of fantasy cinema, was more difficult to find, and clearly less visited than Morrison or Wilde. Still, without him we probably wouldn’t have a lot of the cinema we do now, and he was a genuine pioneer with his trick films and special effects. His 1896 film, Le Manoir du Diable, is possibly the very first horror film, and you can watch it on YouTube here. Due to his connections with the fantastic, Mummy was very pleased to meet him.

07ArtNouveauHouse

We got a ticket for the Batobus on the Monday afternoon, and had a boat ride along the Seine. We hopped off at the Eiffel Tower so I can run along to the Avenue Rapp to see the famous Art Nouveau house. It was designed by Jules Aimé Lavirotte, and it actually won him the Concours de Façades de la Ville de Paris. I’m a big fan of Art Nouveau, particularly its architecture, so it was nice to see the house.

11OperaHouse

We were leaving Paris on Tuesday afternoon, so we spent the morning at the Opera House. The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux is one of my favourite books, and the musical is one of only two musicals that I can actually stand, so the Opera House was one of the things I really wanted to see. The architecture is superb, and I actually thought it was a grander building than Versailles!

12OperaHouseBox5

Box Five is famously reserved for the Phantom, so I just had to go looking for it – and here it is! Mummy was pleased to find it as well. It’s a pity I couldn’t get in, but I have to remind myself it’s only a story…

making a mummy selfie

I’d also left my mother with my DSLR after she’d taken a photo of me on the balcony, so I was pleasantly surprised to find this photo on it when we got home – me taking a photo of Mummy! You can see the result of my photo above. Consider this a ‘making of’ shot.

I’m slowly putting my other photos up on Flickr, so you can take a look at my album if you’re interested! I’m also in the process of making more crochet mummies to sell as part of my Necromancer’s Apprentice merchandise range, which I blogged about here, and which you can find on Etsy.

If Mummy’s adventures have made you want to read more about The Necromancer’s Apprentice, it’s available from Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords, and Barnes & Noble!

July 18, 2014

#FridayFlash – The Roost

battlementsThis follows on from last week’s flash, The Sleeping Army.

Artemuse followed the passage, and it didn’t take her long to realise that it coiled upward in a tight spiral. She had no idea where the vaal’kyr roost would be, but it didn’t surprise her that winged creatures might prefer to live above the city, as opposed to under it. Her skin prickled, longing to shed itself in favour of her soft white feathers, and she rubbed her arms to distract herself. She couldn’t fly, not down here.

She wondered how Eddister was getting on, if the Sleeping Army was on the march. Should she still call them the Sleeping Army, or were they now the Awake Army? Artemuse stifled a giggle, and then shuddered. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d slept. Sleep deprivation must be starting about now.

Without warning the passage opened out into a small chamber, and a thick wooden door blocked her onward progress. A huge iron ring served as a handle, and she hauled on it, fully expecting the door to be locked. Instead, the door swung towards her, and the roar of the wind filled the passage.

Artemuse peered around the door, her eyes confused by the bright daylight beyond. She forced herself out of the chamber and onto a wide platform, bounded by high battlements on three sides. Vast nests, made of ebony and oak, lined the platform along one side, hugging the shelter of the battlement behind them.

Vast empty nests, thought Artemuse.

The vaal’kyr had already left their roost.

Momentary panic seized Artemuse, no longer sure of what to do. She’d thought her part in this drama would end with the ringing of the Death Knell, but the refusal of the Monarch to intervene had forced her to involve Eddister, and the Sleeping Army. He had sent her up here to speak with the vaal’kyr but now they were already on their way to the city.

Speaking of which, where was the city?

Artemuse clambered up the wall behind the nests, digging her fingers and toes into gaps between the stones. She looked over the battlement and gasped. The roost was indeed within the city, and she guessed that it was built into the side of the palace itself. The reason no one had ever noticed such a massive structure was obvious once she looked down at the glimmering, flickering city below.

The roost was on the astral plane. Somehow, she didn’t know how, she’d managed to reach the astral whilst still in her physical body.

The confusion forced her backwards, and she sat down with a thump, pressing her back against the comforting solidity of the wall.

“What do I do now?” She needed to ask the question allowed, yet the sound echoed, sending ripples throughout the astral plane. Artemuse winced. Her plan had never extended this far, and she’d felt comfortable handing control to Eddister. Only she couldn’t do what he’d told her to do, and now he was probably miles away, leading the Army to the Plains. The guards would be worse than useless, and she couldn’t go back to the Monarch…which just left the Queen.

Artemuse kicked herself for not thinking of it sooner. The Queen was the most powerful mage in Rhodenius, and while she didn’t understand astral magic, she’d be able to take charge and allow Artemuse to return to the tower. It was possible that she even knew about the Army, although Eddister’s existence was probably one mystery too far.

She stood, and moved away from the nests. The desire to fly uncoiled in her chest, and she allowed herself to be buffeted by the wind that roared across the platform. Her cloak rippled behind her, and her skin erupted into thousands of soft white feathers. The call of the snowy owl escaped from her throat before her mouth morphed into a beak. Her wings pulled her into the air, and lifted her above the platform.

Artemuse sailed over the battlements, and a loud pop that hurt her ears told her she’d broken the barrier between the astral and physical planes. The cold air rushing either side of her overcame the pressure change, and she spiralled down towards the palace courtyard.

The Queen would know what to do.

To be continued next week!

Clouds image by data9090 and battlements image by ColinBroug. Edits by me.

July 15, 2014

Meet my Main Character

Apprentice_eBook_smallI’ve been tagged in the Meet my Main Character blog tour by Rebecca Clare Smith, so I’ve decided I’ll join in the fun.

Here are the rules:

The taggee must write a post answering the same seven questions about their MC (main character). Then the taggee becomes the tagger and chooses five other authors.

I wasn’t actually sure which to use – Grey O’Donnell, Jyximus Faire, or even Fowlis Westerby, my beloved Cavalier ghost. That said, as The Necromancer’s Apprentice is my most recent title, I figured I’d put Jyximus under the spotlight. He’s the eponymous Apprentice, and the character most readers have yelled at whilst reading the book!

1. What is the name of your main character? Is he a fictional or a historical person?

Jyximus Faire. And fictional.

2. When and where is the story set?

I’m not entirely sure as to the ‘when’ – as with a lot of stories in fantasy settings, the time is that odd hinterland of different eras. I suppose there’s an element of the Victorian to it, but with Renaissance thrown in. It’s set in both the Underground City, which is where Jyx’s family lives, and the City Above, where Jyx studies magic and begins life as an apprentice at the House of the Long Dead.

3. What should we know about him?

He’s impatient. VERY impatient. He has a lot of talent and a lot of potential but unfortunately he knows it – he believes the Academy is holding him back and he studies magick he’s not really ready for.

4. What is the main conflict? What messes up his life?

Ironically the one thing that should be the start of an amazing life – going to work with the Necromancer General, Eufame Delsenza. She gives him simple tasks and he demonstrates the same impatience that gets him into trouble at school.

5. What is his personal goal?

It would be easy to think of Jyx as being a bit of an idiot, or even arrogant, about his abilities, but his impatience comes from a very innocent place – he wants to do well in life so he can lift his mother and siblings out of poverty. If he can just make it as a mage, or better yet as an assistant to Eufame, then they can leave the slums of the Underground City. He wants power but not necessarily for himself, more what it would enable him to do for others.

6. Is there a working title for this novel and can we read more about it?

It’s called The Necromancer’s Apprentice, and it’s available at Amazon, Smashwords, B&N and Kobo. There is also heaps of extra content available through my Underground City category, where I’ve got links to blog posts that discuss the world building in greater depth. You can also check it out on Goodreads where there are lots of lovely reviews.

7. When can we expect the book to be published?

It came out in March this year, and work on the sequel is underway!

Right, so now I’m going to tag…

  • Nerine Dorman
  • Sonya Clark
  • Tony Noland
  • Steven Montano
  • River Fairchild

July 14, 2014

Exploring the Underground City for real!

One of Edinburgh's closes on a fogbound night!

One of Edinburgh’s closes on a fogbound night!

I’ve never been much of a fan of the paranormal TV series Most Haunted, mostly due to their melodramatic histrionics, but I did decide to watch a ten year old episode at the weekend purely because the team were in Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh! I’ve visited the Close myself in March 2012, and it went on to inspire the Underground City in The Necromancer’s Apprentice, so I left it on TV so my mum could see what the Close looks like – and as I’m in the planning stages of book two, it seemed like a good way to ‘revisit’ the inspiration.

Mary King’s Close lies below the Royal Mile in Edinburgh – a close is simply a narrow street, and a whole network of them makes up the city’s Old Town. This particular close was named for Mary King, a prominent businesswoman who lived in the close in the 1630s. Originally open to the air, it was built over during the seventeenth century, and some of its floors now form part of the foundations of the Royal Exchange. Being buried under the Royal Exchange, many theories abound as to what must have happened in its murky depths, from plague victims being walled up alive, to rampant murder. Either way, it’s now a tourist attraction, and visitors can explore the weird atmosphere of the four connected closes (Mary King’s, Pearson’s, Stewart’s and Allen’s Closes).

Whether there are any ghosts down there I really don’t know, but there is something really odd about seeing a street, complete with windows, doors and gas lamps…and no sky above it all. Apparently some of the buildings reach to seven stories high, so that should give you some idea of the scale of the tenements in the Underground City. Many of the alleys in the Underground City are also called closes, and they’re connected by shadowy passages in which dark beings lurk.

For anyone who wants a taste of the street that inspired the Underground City, or they’re just curious about a buried street, then you can watch the full episode of Most Haunted on YouTube.

Otherwise you can read some stories set in the Underground City here, or you can buy The Necromancer’s Apprentice on Amazon, Kobo and Barnes & Noble. There is more about The Necromancer’s Apprentice on Goodreads. I’m also starting a merchandise range inspired by the book over on Etsy! Enjoy!

Have you ever been to Mary King’s Close?

July 14, 2014

#FilmReview – Maleficent

Maleficent has long been a favourite cinematic character of mine, as well as my favourite Disney character, and I was originally dismayed to learn that she was to be given her own film. I was even more dubious after the Wicked Witch of the West was so utterly ruined by Oz the Great and Powerful – I was genuinely worried that Disney might sanitise the Mistress of All Evil, or try to give her a romantic backstory. I’ll be honest, the presence of Angelina Jolie is pretty much the only thing that convinced me to give the film a try. Surely a strong woman and a self-confessed Maleficent fan wouldn’t let them ruin her!

Maleficent tells the Sleeping Beauty story from a different perspective to the original cartoon, granting us an insight into why she would go to such trouble to curse a baby – surely her anger at not being invited couldn’t be the only reason. We see her in her original form, as a beautiful winged fairy, determined to protect the magical moors on which she lives. This Maleficent, all eagle wings and long hair, is essentially a fairy eco-warrior, driving back the greedy humans who want to exploit the riches of the moors. Betrayed by the one human she thought she could trust, a young man named Stefan who promised her true love, and mutilated through the removal of her wings, Maleficent’s (justifiable) anger drives her to bring darkness to the moors. Scenes of walls exploding as she passes brought to mind Carrie from the 1976 film – this is a woman for whom anger needs a very physical outlet. Maleficent recruits a raven servant, Diaval (Sam Riley) and begins to spy on the now-King Stefan (Sharlto Copley), a man very much in the mould of Stardust‘s Septimus. When Stefan and the Queen have a baby, Maleficent decides to bestow her own gift at the christening.

This is where the film begins to unspool as a version of the 1959 Sleeping Beauty, albeit one from a different perspective. We see Maleficent watching over the young princess – but more crucially, we also see her continue to protect the moors and heal damage. This is not the cruel Mistress of All Evil we might have expected. This is more an angry woman, grieving the loss of her wings and projecting her hatred onto a baby. As Aurora (Elle Fanning) grows up and begins to see Maleficent as her Fairy Godmother, Maleficent soon realises that Aurora is not the enemy – indeed, she’s probably the only one who can finally end the human’s lust for the moors. Aurora becomes the pure-hearted human than Maleficent thought no longer existed. That’s when she ventures into more ‘grey’ territory, as the villain begins to adopt heroic qualities ‘for the greater good’.

In essence, the film turns Maleficent into an anti-hero – and an exceptionally stylish one at that. Despite her anger, she retains a wry sense of humour, and a strange sense of responsibility for the child she has cursed. I genuinely could not see anyone but Angelina in the title role – and I like to think that a lot of Maleficent’s strength comes from Jolie herself. At its heart, Maleficent is a story of disempowerment at the hands of a man – and re-empowerment through the intervention of another woman. Indeed, the whole film is really a story about women and their relationships. Stefan’s betrayal of Maleficent might be the catalyst that sparks the conflict but the rest of the narrative is concerned with the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora, where one is malevolent the other is benevolent, and their bond leaves no space for Stefan, or even the rather wet Prince Philip, who only appears near the end of the film. Where Sleeping Beauty removed Aurora’s voice and gave her a handful of lines throughout the entire film, Maleficent gives her back her voice – so I guess you could argue that the film doesn’t just rehabilitate Maleficent, it also does the same for Aurora (who was originally so insipid she was painful to watch).

I still don’t know how much the Mistress of All Evil needed a back story, and I still think that the treatment of Maleficent in this film tries to insist she’s not evil, just misunderstood. That said, one of the original Maleficent’s attractions was her elegance and her ability to act – both of which are preserved in this film. However, where her actions in the 1959 cartoon seem to be inspired by pure but inexplicable evil, her actions in this version are at least given a context and motivation. However, I think the film’s embrace of women, and the positive relationships that can exist between them, is definitely a step in the right direction, particularly for a company like Disney.

4/5

July 11, 2014

#FridayFlash – The Sleeping Army

romanThis is part four in my Astral Mage serial, following on from The Guardian last week!

Artemuse followed Eddister through a maze of narrow corridors, their ceilings so low that even Artemuse had to duck. In places, Eddister simply crawled. Artemuse fought the rising panic that clutched at her gut, focussing on a point on Eddister’s back instead of the walls that appeared to close in at every turn. She’d grown used to the wide expansive sky surrounding her tower, to the feeling of spring breezes and an owl’s eye view of the world. These cramped tunnels were no place for her.

“Is it much further?” she asked.

“No.”

“Where are we?”

“Far below the city. These tunnels were built by the Death Cult – they originally ran below their central temple.”

They rounded a corner and the passage terminated in darkness. Eddister plunged ahead, disappearing through the doorway into a chamber beyond.

Artemuse’s eyes adjusted to the new gloom, and she found herself in a huge cavern. Darkness replaced the ceiling and the far end of the cavern – she could not begin to guess its size. Yet it was not the vastness of the of the cavern that caught her attention. Instead, her eyes were drawn to the monumental stone statues in front of her. Warriors sat astride giant chargers, and archers stood with huge bows hanging at their backs.

“Arti, meet the Sleeping Army,” said Eddister, sweeping his arm towards them and dipping into a low bow.

“Who were they?”

“Who are they, you mean! They’re only asleep. The Death Cult crafted them as a defence of the city, but as word of the vaal’kyr spread, fewer people attacked, and so they came down here to rest. It makes me wonder that Lord Draumir would take the risk.”

“Perhaps he has forgotten the vaal’kyr. Or perhaps he thinks them no match for his own wraiths.”

Eddister moved away between the statues. Even at his lofty height he still only reached the knee of the nearest warhorse. A flicker of hope sparked in Artemuse’s heart.

“Lord Draumir would stand no chance against such an army as this.”

“Exactly. The Monarch does not even know they exist. Many of the city scholars believe them to be simply myth, so they use the haze of legend to keep them in peace.” Eddister smiled, and Artemuse suspected he enjoyed his role as Guardian. She wasn’t sure what else he did with his days, but the Sleeping Army was a prize worth protecting.

“How do we wake them up?” she asked.

“You’ll have to do that. They’re asleep on our plane, but I assure you they’re wide awake on the astral plane. You’re the only astral mage I know.”

“What do I say to them? How do I ask them to wake up?”

“Explain the situation to them. If you can, seek out Lord Festiniog. He’s the battalion leader. He’ll sort out the rest. This is him,” said Eddister, pointing to a handsome man in spiked armour, sat astride a charger. The streaming mane of the horse was frozen in stone.

Artemuse made herself comfortable on the rough earth floor of the cavern, and closed her eyes. She reached out with her senses, feeling the pull of the astral plane, and clambered out of her mortal body. Seeing with her mind’s eye, the cavern was vast, and its ceiling was covered in beautiful paintings. She had no time to wonder how the Death Cult put them there, so high above the cavern floor.

The Sleeping Army milled about in the cavern. Small groups of men sat in clearings among the statues, laughing and telling stories of their exploits in war. Other men slept, and a few at the far end of the cavern practised their swordplay. Artemuse scanned their faces, seeking Lord Festiniog.

She found him near the doorway through which she and Eddister had come. He had watched their entrance, and he leaned against the wall of the cavern, the very picture of a soldier at ease. On the astral plane she found the Sleeping Army a more regular size, and Lord Festiniog was closer to the height of Eddister.

“I do not know you,” said Lord Festiniog as she approached.

“Nor I you, though I would have need of your services.”

“An astral mage seeking an army? Would you like to play at war?”

Artemuse had little time for verbal sparring, and told the commander what she’d seen approaching the city. She explained how the Monarch had not believed her, and had intended her for imprisonment, and she finished her tale with her visit to Eddister. Lord Festiniog listened carefully, scowling at the Monarch’s inaction.

“These people place a lot of faith in your abilities, Lady Owl,” he said as she finished.

“I know what I saw.”

“Then we must lend you our aid. The city never fell during our time, I see no reason for it to fall now.”

Artemuse hurried back to her body as Lord Festiniog rounded up his men to explain the situation. As she awoke, once again imprisoned in flesh and bone, she realised that Eddister had not moved from his position by the charger. If she didn’t know better, she would have thought that mere seconds had passed during her foray onto the astral plane.

“What did he say?” asked Eddister.

“He’s in. They’re going to wake up.”

“Good. I’ll lead them out, there are other tunnels more suited to their size, but you need to visit the vaal’kyr roost. You need to tell them what they face.”

Artemuse blanched.

“You want me to speak to the vaal’kyr myself?”

“I can think of none more qualified.” Eddister smiled. “Now take that door there, and simply follow the corridor. It will lead you straight to them.”

Artemuse hurried across the cavern towards the doorway. Vast sounds of creaking stone and grinding rock filled the air behind her as she plunged once again into the darkness of the tunnels.

Continues next week with The Roost

July 8, 2014

Cinematic Influences of the Magic Born Series

Everyone knows I’m a massive fan of Sonya Clark, and I reviewed her latest release, Witchlight, two days ago. I’m very pleased to be able to welcome her to the Cabinet of Curiosities today, to talk about cinematic influences of the Magic Born series! Take it away, Sonya!

WitchlightBooks and film may be different mediums, but all forms of storytelling can influence each other. In writing the Magic Born series, I was influenced by a few movies in particular that made a deep impression. The series is a mix of things: futuristic dystopian, romance, murder mystery, political commentary, next level urban fantasy, and a combination of magic and cyberpunk that I like to call witchpunk.

When you talk about futuristic dystopias, there’s no avoiding Blade Runner. I first saw this classic sci-fi as a child and it has stayed with me ever since. A massive cityscape, the extremes of privilege and poverty, and the singular image of a neon-filled, rain-soaked night−those things were in my head as I began to construct my fictional city of New Corinth.

In the Magic Born world, witches are identified by DNA test at birth and sent to live in urban zones, with no citizenship rights. Not every city has a zone. New Corinth is home to Magic Born Zone Number Thirteen, known locally as FreakTown.

The film Chinatown inspired the nickname for the zone. The movie’s twist and turn mystery plot with a highlight on corruption and family secrets is textbook noir. When outlining the plot for Trancehack, the first book in the Magic Born trilogy, I knew I wanted some of that flavor. A high-profile murder, a cop set up to be a fall guy, blackmail, politics, secrets and lies−I’ll always think of this book as my 1940s noir set in 2065. No one actually says to Detective Nate Perez, “Forget it, Nate, it’s FreakTown,” but only because I couldn’t find a place to make it fit.

The magic in this series is urban-based. Instead of invoking fire and earth, many of the witches in this world call on neon and concrete. Spelled apps and hex viruses are also part of the magical fabric. Using astral projection to enter cyberspace is called trancehacking, and it is my favorite bit of magic in the series.

So where did that come from? A lot of different sources, but visually it was inspired by imagery that made a lasting impression from another movie from my childhood−Tron. Neon color against a vast electronic night gave me a place to start, but the internet really opened up what a trancehacker could do, where they could go. That freedom was especially meaningful to characters trapped in the magic zones, forbidden by law from traveling or making a better life for themselves elsewhere. Here’s an excerpt:

In a quiet corner of cyberspace, he stopped to rest. In realspace he sat at his desk, eyes closed, stylus wand in one hand and tablet in the other. Pain behind his temple and squeezing the back of his head like a vise tried to kick him out of trance. He breathed through it until it subsided into a dull throb.

Vadim had taken refuge in the murky remains of a defunct site. Curious, he pushed energy into it. A ghostly echo of mournful song rose from the broken code, patchy and falling into silence at odd moments. Faint color rose around his avatar, a washed-out gold that shimmered as magic wafted through the site like a gentle breeze. He could have made sense out of something deleted more recently but this had to be decades old. There wasn’t enough HTML left to figure out the original purpose of the site. Beyond the faded lines of gold lay a vast expanse of velvet black. In the distance, bright lights shone like stars burning in a spectrum of color. A galaxy full of energy and information and worlds he could never touch while trapped in FreakTown. Melancholy rose from that part of himself that still yearned for something more, a part he’d learned over the years to keep locked up tight and hidden away. The emotion filled in the parts of the music skipped by broken code, turning it into a heavy, bass-laden industrial rhythm. Dark as empty cyberspace. Almost as dark as the realspace he existed in.

The pressure in his head told him he didn’t have much time left before he’d have to drop out of trance. As quickly as he could, he crafted a search spell and planted a marker in the site. With a push of will he cast the spell and watched it spread out in a ripple of electric blue. He would return for the information the search spell gathered as soon as he was able to trancehack again.

There is another cinematic influence for Witchlight, book two in the series, in particular. As it’s the middle book of the trilogy, I realized I was going to have to freeze someone in carbonite, but I can’t talk about that without giving away too many spoilers!

Thanks for popping over, Sonya! Witchlight is book two of the Magic Born series, and is published by Carina Press, having been released on June 30, 2014. It’s considered ‘Futuristic Paranormal Romance’, and is available in digital formats from Carina Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online book retailers.

About the author: Sonya Clark grew up a military brat and now lives in Tennessee with her husband and daughter. She writes urban fantasy and paranormal romance with a heavy helping of magic and lot of music for inspiration. Learn more at http://www.sonyaclark.net and sign up for her new releases announcement list at http://eepurl.com/bT3NL.

July 6, 2014

#BookReview – Witchlight

I’ve been a fan of Sonya Clark’s work for a while, and I reviewed Trancehack, book one in this series, back in May. I was quite glad to get my hands on Witchlight, although fans of Nate and Calla, the couple in Trancehack, may be disappointed that the sequel follows a different couple. Here’s the blurb from Amazon

Book two of Magic Born

In 2066, the Magic Born are segregated in urban reservations. The laws do not protect them, or their allies.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Marsden is a powerful player in New Corinth politics, but a closely guarded secret could destroy her life—she’s a hidden Magic Born. Her family has gone to great lengths to erase all her magic-related records, until a trancehacking outlaw discovers the last remaining one…

Vadim Bazarov smuggles Magic Borns through the underground railroad and threatens to reveal Elizabeth’s secret unless she helps him access blank ID cards. Elizabeth wants to hate him for having a stranglehold on her life, but can’t help being attracted to someone so sure of who and what he is.

Vadim initially sees her as a political ice queen, but is intrigued by her suppressed magical abilities. He trains Elizabeth to use her magic, and before long finds himself falling for her. But their newfound love may be shortlived; an anti-magic ordinance forces one of them to make a choice that will change both their lives for good.

I’d always quite liked Vadim in book one, although we didn’t see a great deal of him, and Elizabeth had a cameo during one of Nate’s press showings. She hadn’t made a massive impression on me and I was concerned how well she’d hold up as a main character in Witchlight. She’s an odd character – strong and icy in public, childlike and vulnerable in private, and flirtatious and passionate with Vadim. I suppose it’s testament to Clark’s writing that the combination works, and demonstrates the complex way that personalities work in real life.

Vadim is still as likeable as ever, and equally as complex as Elizabeth. I was pleased to see Nate and Calla throughout the narrative, but Witchlight also deepens the universe in which the books are set. We learn more about the darknet through Vadim’s own trancehacking, as well as understanding New Corinthian politics through Elizabeth’s position as a councilwoman. This is not some random backdrop to a paranormal romance story – New Corinth has its own moods and rules, and is as much of a character as any of the protagonists.

As ever, the parallels with segregation are obvious, with FreakTown becoming a “concentration camp” within the city. Given the breakdown in human relations that we see every day on the news, the world depicted in the Magic Born books isn’t so implausible after all. The magic takes more of a front seat in this book – unlike Trancehack, in which only one of the couple was Magic Born, both Vadim and Elizabeth are magic users, and Elizabeth’s empowerment through embracing her abilities is a positive step forward for women within this genre.

It’s a gripping read – I literally read the final 44% in one sitting. I think I want to dub these books the start of a new genre – witchpunk. Now Clark just needs to hurry up and release book three… *hint hint*

Five out of five!

You can buy Witchlight from Amazon, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble.