Indie Review: Beneath the Surface by Lindsay Buroker

Someone posted a quote on twitter recently–sorry, I can’t remember who or where it came from!–that said the measure of a good book was dreading to read the last chapter, because you know it’s going to end. I’ve come across many Indie books that had this effect on me–and generally, it’s the same authors who do it time and again.
With Lindsay Buroker, it’s gotten to the point where I’ll put off reading her books, just because I burn through them so quickly. I’ve held onto Beneath the Surface for months, knowing that it’s shorter than most of her work–it’s a sort of “interlude” between books five and six of Buroker’s Emperor’s Edge series–but as book six was recently released, I thought it was time to dive in.

The first thing I love about Buroker’s work is that it’s character driven. I got into the Emperor’s Edge series because of the steampunk flair, but the people really made the book for me. The series features Amaranthe Lokdon, an erstwhile officer of the peace (Enforcer) who’s found herself on the bad side of the law for all the right reasons. She gathers about her a motley band of heroes (including fan favourite Sicarius, deadliest assassin in the realm) in an effort to clear her name. Each of these characters is vibrant and exciting–and despite the large cast, Buroker deftly avoids the all-too-familiar author’s trap of developing one or two at the expense of the rest. All of them are distinctly unique, and insanely likeable. Yes, even the cold-as-ice, dagger-at-your-throat assassin. Actually, especially him.
The second thing I love about these books is that Buroker has chosen to use each one as a focus for one of the main characters. This allows for some dedicated character development as the series progresses, and is part of why each of her characters are so fully fleshed out. Beneath the Surface deals with a newcomer to the group–Evrial Yara, also an Enforcer–as she wrestles with the fact that she’s gotten tied up with these outlaws. At the same time, she finds herself alone with the company fop Maldynaldo, who is pursuing her relentlessly with amorous advances–which she may or may not want to return.

Yara is a wonderful character because she’s a reflection of Amaranthe. Both are well written, strong leading women, but they’re not perfect. They each have doubts and weaknesses, and neither of them realizes just how strong they are. They both come from a “means to and end” mentality–though Yara is longer to come to that conclusion–and honestly just want the best for the Empire and their friends. And both struggle with a “maybe-romance” that is unspoken or unwanted, but too delicious to resist. In many ways, Yara is a “proto-Amaranthe,” and it’s great to watch the group’s leader gently mentor the newcomer. It gives Amaranthe yet another dimension to her character, and it’s even better for the reader as we watch Yara come to some conclusions about life that she otherwise wouldn’t have, but that always lingered beneath the surface.

The plot of this novella concrns some magical artefacts that will destroy millions of lives if the Emperor’s Edge doesn’t deal with them first–and of course, in the process, the group ends up looking like the bad guys. But that’s not really what Beneath the Surface is about. It’s about the things we leave unsaid, the feelings we won’t admit to ourselves until it’s to late, the road less travelled. At first blush, it’s a fun adventure for the crew to keep fans entertained until the next book in the series, but the real treasure is between the lines. There’s more character development and growth in this novella than in other books, and it’s so successful because a lot of it is implied. Buroker has done such a great job over the series of getting readers attached to her characters that we feel 100% invested in what they feel, even if it’s not voiced aloud.

And of course, it’s not just about Yara and Amaranthe. The relationships between Maldynaldo and Books (the group’s picked-on researcher) and Sicarius and the once-Emperor are touched upon as well. Not everything is revealed; in fact some important points are left unspoken. It’s very touching, and almost bittersweet. I have to wonder if, in the next instalment, some of the characters will find that it’s too late to say what should have been said. Which makes me anxious for the next book, but also very excited–it’s the kind of risk that takes a book from simply fun to instant classic.

You can find Beneath the Surface, as well as the rest of the Emperor’s Edge novels, at Kobo and Amazon. The first one’s free! Buroker also keeps an informative blog, and is very active on Twitter.

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Indie Review: Emperor’s Edge

I’m going to cheat a bit today–this Indie Review features not one, but five books. And, as this is going to be something of an overview, I’ll probably revisit each of them in time. But seeing as Lindsay Buroker is a large part of why I got into the Indie Writer’s community in the first place, I thought it was high time to review some of her work in depth (though I’ve touched on one of her short stories before).

Last summer, I received a free book from Kobo: a collection of short stories and excerpts from Indie writers designed to entice people into their new Kobo Writing Life publishing program. Buroker’s Ice Cracker II was the second story, and was easily the most memorable of the bunch. I found that the first book in the Emperor’s Edge series was free, so I picked it up and gave it a read. Making this book free is a stroke of brilliance on her part–it does a great job of drawing you into the story, and clearly sets up the next book–which explains the fervor of her fans, who wait with baited breath for each new entry.

The series concerns Amaranthe Lockdon, an Enforcer for the empire of Turgonia who finds herself on the wrong side of the law–not by choice, but by circumstance. She spends the series trying not only to redeem herself, but the names of her rag-tag teammates–not an easy feat considering one of them is the legendary and universally feared assassin, Sicarius. This quest for redemption is the overall arc of the series, but each book of course has its own unique plot.
There’s a common enemy too, though I won’t go into too much detail for the sake of spoilers. They’re known as Forge, and Buroker is great at giving just enough information about them book to book to keep the reader guessing–and wondering when it will all be revealed. What’s more, there’s no let down when much of it is revealed in book five, Blood and Betrayal. In the hands of a lesser writer, the revelation would have fallen flat with such a drawn out buildup; here, it’s satisfying and actually left me wanting to know even more. Which won’t be a problem for the work-in-progress book six, as book five lays down some tantalizing clues for what comes next.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I don’t want to give a book-by-book blow-by-blow; suffice it to say that it’s a great series, and well worth reading. Buroker is one of those Indie Writers who serves as an example to others–she’s made a comfortable name for herself already, and her stock is only going up. She’s one that new Indie Writers should be looking up to.

Back to the series. There’s a lot to like about these books, though I find them difficult to define. Most people would tell you they’re Steampunk/fantasy, but there are a lot of elements of detective/crime, romance, sci-fi and pulp adventure (in a good way) as well. And yet despite the mixing of genres, they don’t seem piecemeal at all; in fact, this diversity is a strength for the books. It shows that Amaranthe and company are adept as many different situations, and that Buroker is good at not writing her characters into pigeon holes. They’re versatile and always fresh–as is her writing style–and this versatility is a hallmark of the series as a whole. If I hesitate to categorize these books into a genre, I can safely say that whether you’re a fan of sword and sorcery, rom-coms, or 1950’s pulp scifi/adventure, you’ll find something to like here.

The setting is decidedly Steampunk, and this is probably the easiest way to define the books if you want to do that. Turgonia is a militaristic empire with a long Imperial history of war and conquest, which has taken precedence over the arts, business, or scientific advancement. But that’s changing. A new Emperor–Sespian–has been crowned, and though he’s too young to officially take the throne, he’s established a new paradigm that many of the more conservative people of the Empire find hard to swallow. While this conflict isn’t really at the heart of the series, it plays a large part, and serves nicely as a sort of “dynamic backdrop.” It causes ripples that affect the characters indirectly, and as the series progresses, those ripples get larger–or, rather, we start to see the turbulence beneath the waves.
The science of Turgonia is based, of course, on steam; you have trolleys that require a furnace, mechanical beasts guarding enemy hideouts, and stream trains galore. There’s also a healthy helping of the other trimmings one would associate with steampunk; swashbuckling fops, a system of magic that borders on science, great costumes, urchins and aristocrats. And did I mention a kraken? In addition to this, there’s an undercurrent of a mysterious alien technology. All of it makes for a vibrant and simply fun setting.

But the real strength of these books are the characters. Amaranthe is the perfect example of the type of female hero so desperately needed in fiction. She’s not helpless eye candy always in need of rescue, and she doesn’t depend on the male figures for her strength; in fact, the men in the books look to her for guidance, without her asking for such reverence. It’s simply earned, because she’s a strong, intelligent presence, and she knows what she’s doing. She has her faults, too, but even these turn into strengths in terms of the way she’s written. She’s impulsive, takes unneeded risks, and has been known to let her emotions get in the way of the mission. But none of these faults are because she’s a woman, like so many other women in fiction–they’re because she’s human. I have a lot of respect for Buroker for writing such a strong female character, and I hope to see a lot of writers follow in her footsteps.
Amaranthe’s counterpoint is the brooding and dangerous Sicarius, long ago the Emperor’s personal assassin, but now exiled with the coming of the new regime. He, too, is looking for redemption, though he doesn’t know it until Amaranthe comes along–or at least doesn’t believe it’s possible. Their relationship–and yes, there’s a certain romantic spark–is convoluted, mostly because Sicarius is so reluctant to express himself. He comes across as a cold, unfeeling killing machine, but the scenes he shares in private with Amaranthe are touching and sweet. The great thing about Sicarius is that he’s a well textured character–but only Amaranthe and the reader know it. He’s easily my favourite character in the series because of this, and I delight in every snippet of information we’re tossed as readers. The mystery is what drives his character, and that’s something I always enjoy–but there’s another layer here because despite the mystery, we get a clearer view of him than the other characters.

On a side note, I can’t help but imagine Sicarius as Wesley/The Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride. Which, I suppose, would make Basilard the giant Fezzik, with Maldynaldo cast as Inigo Montoya.

Which brings me to Amaranthe’s band of misfit teammates. As supporting characters, they’re remarkably well rounded, and they serve as a further counterpoint to Amaranthe and Sicarius. Akstyr is a young street kid with a criminal past who’s teaching himself the “mental sciences” (magic); Books is the…uh, bookish librarian who excels at research, but not so much in fighting; Maldynaldo is an unapologetic womanizing fop with a heart of gold (and knows it); and Bassilard is the mute muscle, erstwhile bouncer, and surprisingly good chef. There are other companions introduced in later books, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. All of them make a great team; they’re diverse enough that they stand well enough alone, but together their skills combine in surprising ways to get the job done.
The best part is how they relate to one another–Bassilard is a friend to all, though he distrusts Sicarius more than some; Maldynaldo makes a show of teasing everyone, including Amaranthe, though he’s not as shallow as he puts on; Akstyr refuses to show how much he cares, or how much he appreciates that others care, but hides it so poorly that everyone can see through him; and Books always seems uncomfortable, though you can tell there’s no place he’d rather be than at Amaranthe’s side. It’s a wonderful cast, and reading about them bickering or teasing or performing mundane tasks is half the fun of the series.
One of the things I like most about this series is that each book centers on one of these secondary characters, sharing the Point of View with Amaranthe. In their featured book, we get to see into that character’s thoughts and background in a much more intimate way, elevating them from secondary character to front runner. This has the result of making all of them seem like fully realized main characters, which is no small feat. It’s rare (George R. R. Martin and Stephen King being the only examples that come to mind) that a writer can have so many compelling characters sharing the spotlight without any of them seeming washed out. Characterization is certainly one of Buroker’s great strengths as a writer.

There’s an added bonus to these books–Buroker has started a second series based in the same “world,” 20 years earlier. I’ve only read the first book, Encrypted, which is about Tikaya Komitopis, a cryptographer (and another strong female character) who is sent on a mission to decrypt an alien artifact. This one focuses a bit more on romance, but there’s a fair amount of action and fun in the same vein as the Emperor’s Edge novels. And, a certain young assassin makes an appearance as well. Recently another novella–Enigma–was published in this series, and a sequel to Encrypted is coming soon.
I love it when writers visit their world through different characters and viewpoints because it gives the reader a much more rounded view of the setting. Any story has to concentrate on something “world changing,” otherwise it’s not worth telling–but this can throw a pair of blinders on the reader as they concentrate on the only story being told. When a writer examines the other side of the story, the world suddenly becomes much more real. David Alastair Hayden and J. M. Ney-Grimm are other examples of writers who do this well.

So there you have it. It’s only touching the surface of these wonderful books, but as I said, I hope to revisit them individually here for a more thoughtful review. In the meantime, I hope this serves as a decent overview, enough at least to convince you to check them out if you haven’t already.

You can find Lindsay Buroker at her blog, or on Twitter. Her books are on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords,  and Kobo–and the first book, The Emperor’s Edge, is free!

Indie Review: Scourge

by David H. Burton

Today I’m looking at a writer I’ve been eager to get to: David H. Burton. He’s written several books, and Scourge: A Grim Doyle Adventure, has been on my reading list for some time.

(I should take a moment to point out that the author of this review is not David Burton (no “H”,) the author of Hell Cop, which I have not read.)

The first thing to say about this book is that it’s simply delightful. It really is. If you’re in the mood for something fun, adventurous, and quick, this is a good choice. The first few chapters were marvelous–I got to grinning like a school boy with each new introduction of some wondrous contraption or magical being. This is one of the best examples of steampunk I’ve come across yet–though I admit I’m new to the genre and haven’t read the “seminal” works. Burton is able to weave technology and magic–and even biology–seamlessly, and in such a way that it seems absolutely normal, yet exciting.Each new mechanical oddity trumps the last, but it never gets old.

The story concerns young Grimwald Doyle and his brothers and sisters, who in the first chapters are whisked away into a fantasy world filled with gargoyles, Jinn, sprites and changelings. Mechanical contraptions are powered by absinth, and magic has all but died out–though there are rumours that evil mystics–the Darksworn–are summoning elemental powers to strengthen their rule over the world. Ultimately, it’s a basic “good versus evil” story, though it’s more complicated than that and it’s dealt with in a way that’s not at all cliche.

This is a book that’s meant for young adult readers, though there’s enough to keep the interest of adults in the book. In that respect–and some others–it’s comparable to the Harry Potter series, especially in its tone. This suits the book very well; the YA market is thriving for this kind of book, and as well written as it is, I’m sure it’s doing well. But for adults, this means there’s a sense of curiosity and awe that permeates the book as we discover each new marvel through the eyes of one just getting to know the world. Grim has to grow up fast and make some real adult choices, but he’s still young, and his ecstatic wonder is ours to enjoy along with him.

The comparison to Harry Potter doesn’t end there. The basic structure has a similar feel to it; Grim and his siblings are cast into an orphanage/school where they clean up after the rich students (they don’t attend classes themselves, but learn a lot about the world). There, they must solve a mystery that the adults can’t seem to fathom, and figure out which of the people they know are responsible. When I first recognized this pattern, I thought it was a strike against the book, but the narrative is so engaging that the concern melted away. If the trope is familiar, it’s unique enough that it stands on its own, and I actually ended up enjoying Scourge more than the Harry Potter books (which I found got quite repetitive). The only thing I found odd was that the adults can’t seem to figure it out. These are supposed experts in their fields, but are stumped; yet the children are able to puzzle it out with some simple research and logic, using information the adults should already have. Burton can’t be faulted for this, of course–the Harry Potter books have the exact same issue, and the whole point of books like this is for the young adults to be the heroes of the story.

The book is obviously the first in a planned series. The main plot of the book is resolved well enough, but there are a few hanging threads, meant to be picked up in later books. I can see this becoming a successful series–it’s got legs–but I haven’t seen any indication of a sequel yet. Scourge was published in 2010, so I can only hope that a new story is forthcoming (though I’ll mention that there is a short story for children, Simian’s Lair, which takes place in the same world).

The characters are engaging and interesting, though some could be further developed–namely all of Grim’s siblings. His sister, Rudy, gets a fair share of attention, but the other children seem to be mere mentions. Each of them has their use, but for the most part they fade into the background except for the scene in which they provide that use, and I wonder if they could have been done without. Other than putting across that Grim has a large family (and that his two fathers have taken to adopting children to protect them from the antagonist), there doesn’t seem to be much reason for so many siblings. But, this is something that could be developed further in forthcoming books, so I wouldn’t could it against Scourge.

Burton does a great job in characterizing those who get center stage. Grim is well rounded, as is Rudy and their Aunt, who has a semi-mysterious role to play. Their friend, Quinn, also had a great character arc, and I actually felt that of all the characters, he grew the most. He had a lot at stake, and his journey was satisfying. I’ll look forward to reading more about him.

The pacing of the book was a bit variable. It gets off to a raucous start, and drew me in completely–but once the inciting incident is resolved and explained, the book slows considerably while Grim’s new situation is described. While the chapters are short and progress quickly, it seemed that not much happened for what could be termed the ‘second act.’ There’s enough wonder to keep the reader interested, but I found myself wondering what Grim was meant to overcome, apart from fitting in at the orphanage, getting used to to horrible food, and slogging through his chores.

Once the action picks up again, though (maybe just under halfway through the book), there’s a mystery to solve. Things get interesting, and actually quite serious. The pace gets frantic. If the middle part of the book was a  bit slower, it’s made up for by the rest. The last third or more of the book moved at a breakneck pace as the stakes get higher and higher. I particularity enjoyed the journey Grim needs to make outside of the orphanage, searching for a particular item, and wanted to read more about that quest. The book ends with a great climax, and while there’s a promise of further adventures, nothing important is left unanswered.

In the end, I’d certainly recommend this book. It’s a fast read, and a lot of fun. If you enjoy steampunk, Harry Potter, or simply a nice adventure with an interesting mystery, this is for you!

David H. Burton has written several books with a fantasy flair. You can find him on Twitter or on his website. You can find Scourge: A Grim Doyle Adventure and his other works on Kobo, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or iTunes. Check it out!

Steampunk, (part 3) and short stories.

I mentioned a while ago that one of the introductions I had to the world of e-publishing was Lindsay Buroker. I read a couple of her short stories (Ice Cracker II and The Assassin’s Curse), and got hooked on her writing. But it also got me thinking that  I could get into indie publishing in the same way.

This is something I’ve been thinking about since I started this blog, and set out on this e-publishing journey to begin with. So it was with great pleasure that I came across Ryan Casey’s blog and his recent post, “Short Stories: Four Reasons Why You Should Write Them.” Check it out, it’s a good read.

It also validated part of why I’m going about this the way I am. My short term plan is to write a collection of short stories and use them as a sort of “test drive” through the process of uploading and publishing a book on the Kobo store. The thought was that this would be a simpler project than jumping in head-first with a novel, it would take less time and resources to get my work out there and start building a platform, and it would introduce readers to my work for a minimal fee (I’ll probably charge $0.99 for the collection, and possibly offer one of the stories as a stand alone free download). Ryan hit on those points, and more–which makes me think I’m on the right track.

But his post also got me thinking about what else short stories are doing for me. I’m getting a lot out of it:

  • It’s getting me “in the habit.” Writing the first draft of a short story is taking me, on average, three days, and because it’s a shorter self contained plot, it’s easy to keep engaged. I look forward to finishing them, so I can go onto the next one. The end result is that I’ve written three stories in the last week and a half, have started a fourth, and have a plethora of new ideas.
  • It keeps me accountable. Having a long term project like a novel is great, but it can seem a long ways off. It’s also a large project, which–for me–is an intimidating way to start off. Especially if the novel ends up not selling, in which case I’d probably feel like I’ve wasted a good deal of time and effort. By writing short fiction, I can give myself shorter term goals, which are easier to achieve–which in turn keeps me engaged in setting new, larger goals.
  • Short stories are helping with my “world building.” I want to get into fantasy writing because it means that I get to make the rules; yes, there are tropes and ideas that most fantasy will make use of, but I can still use those as a framework, and dressing it as I see fit. But building a world is a lot of work; you have to be careful about consistency and tone, and doing that over a longer project is challenging. Writing short stories is allowing me to experiment with the world as it’s being built, adding onto things piece by piece until I have a cohesive whole. I’d like to talk about world building in a future post, so stay tuned for that.
  • Finally, it’s Immediate. Not literally–I’ve given myself to the end of September for my first collection, editors willing–but it’s a lot quicker than a novel, which can take months to write, let alone editing and revisions. I’m the kind of person who is generally productive, but likes to see results, and short stories are fitting the bill. I get small nuggets of success at regular intervals, they’re quicker and simpler for my readers to digest, and I can build up anticipation for new stories by issuing them relatively quickly.

So, for me, short stories are the way to go, at least to get started. In my short time in the online writer’s world, I’ve sensed that this is the consensus view; if you have comments to the contrary, let’s open a discussion!

And now, for those of you who have been following my experiment in Steampunk, (you can find part one here and part two here) here is the conclusion of The Astrologers:

Almost everyone in the audience jumped to their feet and started pushing one another aside in an effort to get closer to Vesir. He stepped back reflexively, grinning as he did so–he obviously enjoyed the attention—and tapped the handle on his other palm.

“Not so excited now, please be calm! The Astrologers know all, but they can only answer one question. And, my dear friends,” at this point, he adopted a hang-dog expression, “my magnificent Automata are not inexpensive to operate. Perhaps if someone would be so kind as to make a donation…”

Dolle’s mouth fell open. This man was a…what was the word her father liked to use? A huckster?

Nobody seemed to notice the barker at his game, however. The people started digging in their pockets for coins, waving them and hooting like pigeons begging for a crumb of bread. Vesir placed the rod under one armpit and made a show of applauding his customers.

“Excellent, excellent, my friends! I knew there were philanthropists in this crowd,” he cooed. He leaned into one particularly excited young woman and added: “the last lot were certainly not so kind–nor beautiful–as this.”

With a twirl, his coat flapping behind him, Vesir stepped back toward his Astrologers and tapped the closest one on the shoulder. An arm raised with a mechanical, jerky motion, producing a velvet bag. Vesir saluted the automaton and took the bag. Beckoning to the young woman, he deftly pocketed her proffered coin, and both it and the bag disappeared into his pocket.

“Now, my beauty, what is it you would like to know? Remember, the Astrologers can tell all the secrets of the heavens!”

The woman looked suddenly sheepish and stumbled over her words now that she was on display. Eventually, she leaned in and whispered to Vesir, who smiled, showing pearly white teeth. As she went back to her spot in the crowd, Dolle could see her blushing.

Well, well, well!” Vesir exclaimed, clapping his hands. A secret question! Well, my young friend, it is safe with me–and with the Astrologers! They are modest machines, I tell you. No one will hear of it from I, the Magnificent Vesir!”

With another flourish–his theatrics were wearing on Dolle by now–he retrieved the leather handled rod and whirled it in the air again. He walked up and down the row of mechanical men, choosing one seemingly at random, and fit the rod into a hole in its side. Smiling widely at his audience, he whispered at the automata, his eyes never leaving the crowd.

“This is Aspect, one of my wisest and most articulate Astrologers. He will answer your question, dear lady. Behold!”

He began to turn the rod. As he cranked, the Astrolger made a series of clicks and whirs, its head turning this way and that, arms moving up and down as he marched in place. Thoroughly disillusioned now, Dolle had to stifle a laugh. It was hard to believe that these people were believing such a ridiculous display. It was interesting, however, to see the wheels and dials on its chest move. The pointers cycled around, moving at different speeds.

But they ate it up. People were clapping in time to the automata’s clanking rhythm. Some shouted their own questions, though Vesir paid them no mind. The woman was gnawing at her fingertips in anticipation.

Then there was a faint humming sound which rose in pitch until it was almost a whistle. The wheels stopped turning, as did Vesir; the pointers rested at various angles. The showman examined the Astrologer’s chest with great concentration, giving the occasional nod and “I see”, stroking the small pointed beard on his chin. Then, removing the rod and folding it into his pocket once more, and faced the audience. Without looking at his creations, he addressed them in a loud, triumphant voice:

“And what, my Astounding Astrologers, is the verdict?”

Aspect stepped forward and made a clunky sort of bow, then raised an arm in front of itself, as if preparing to declaim on a stage.

“All signs point to…yes.”

Its voice was tinny, and buzzed on the sibilant sounds; there was no variation in tone, no emotion at all. It could have been a series of pops and clicks and buzzes that conveniently happened to sound like speech–but the audience erupted with applause. The woman who had asked the question rushed forward to Vesier and hugged him, tears in her eyes, then ran out of the tent–dragging her astonished male companion with her. The others seemed to want to stay and ask more questions, but Vesir feigned fatigue–holding out his velvet bag, of course–and told them he must rest before the next show, as must his Astrologers. On the way out Dolle heard at least one man say he’d be back for the next presentation.

The entire show had lasted less than ten minutes. Dolle wasn’t convinced, and felt more than a little guilty for sneaking in–her father seemed to have been right. It was nothing more than a put-on.

Vesir took off his gloves and chuckled to himself, hefting the bag of coins before stuffing it back into his pocket. He approached the Astrologer who had answered the question, and kicked it in the shins.

“Another good one, old boy. This lot pays much better than the cheapskates back in Heira’kol!”

The automata didn’t respond.

Vesir laughed, and punched it on the shoulder. “All right, you lot, back to the wagon! A few of you could use a polish before the next set, I should think…” He trundled back around the corner, and the Astrologers turned to follow.

All at once there was a tremendous racket coming from outside the tent. Vesir came running back, head cocked to the side, listening. Spitting some words that Dolle wished not to have heard, he ducked into the wagon and reappeared promptly with a coiled whip. He ran out of the tent, muttering “Not again…”

Dolle was alone with the Astrologers, who had stopped moving in Vesir’s absence. She inched forward; then, realizing she was entirely alone, walked boldly up to the Astrologers.

“Sirs,” she said, bowing, “That was a very…interesting demonstration.”

There was no response. She tapped Aspect on the side, looking up at him.

“Aspect, sir, what was the question the woman asked?”

The Astrologer whirred softly, as if considering a response, then bent his head down to look at Dolle. His multi-faceted eyes were flashing with hundreds of colours, but they seemed somehow empty. In the same, lifeless tinny voice, it answered:

“All signs point to…yes.”

There it was, then. It was all a trick, a toy, nothing more than a cleverly programmed anima after all. She had to admit that these constructs were more complex than she’d ever seen, but they were no longer magical, or even impressive. They were just big, clunky heaps of metal and wisps of elemental magic. She almost wanted to cry.

A loud crash shook her out of her reverie. There was something just outside the tent. She could hear panicked voices yelling in terror as booths fell and tents teared. Something was thrashing about outside, and even as she heard the ear splitting roar, her father’s voice carried over everything, calling her brother’s name.

The crashing noises were coming closer to the tent. Now she could hear her brother’s voice, sobbing with fear. Other voices, men mostly, clamoured and called, chasing after her family and, apparently, whatever beast had gotten loose.

There was another crash as the animal bowled its way into the tent. It fell on its side, growling, and righted itself quickly. It was a large lion, painted green and with a red mane. Clumps of paper mache clung to its fur along its back and tail. If it noticed Dolle, it didn’t show it; instead, its gaze was trained on the circle of men surrounding it–Vesir included, brandishing his whip–while her brother cowered behind her father’s legs. He was bleeding from scratches on his arms and face.

Several of the Astrologers had toppled over, knocked aside by the animal, but Aspect stood firm. Dolle, hiding behind the automaton, ventured to step around it to get a better look at the lion. It still hadn’t taken note of her, but as she stepped into view, her father did.

“Dolle!” he screamed, more out of relief than anger. “Where have you been, we’ve been looking…”

He was interrupted by the lion’s roar; the beast crouched, ready to pounce, its tail flicking pensively back and forth. Its gaze turned between Vesir and the other men, and its quarry–her brother. Jim whimpered as the men approached slowly, trying to circle around and corner it. Dolle, behind directly behind the lion, was in their way. Vesir called out:

“Girl! Little one…back slowly away so we adults can take care of this.” He sounded more annoyed than concerned for her; his eyes were trained more on his automata than Dolle. Her father noticed.

“Why don’t you order that contraption of yours to attack it?” her shot back angrily, pointing at the Astrologer. “If they can do half what you say they can, surely they could do something other than stand around. Hey!” he called to Aspect, “Get the lion, save her, you great bucket of–”

“You’re not helping the situation, sir,” Vesir said. His voice was calm, but dripping with condescension. He expertly avoided answering the question. The Astrologer stood there, mute and seemingly unaware of the situation.

As they argued, the other men started inching carefully forward in a wide arc. Vesir threw a cold look at her father and followed, snapping his whip to get the lion’s attention. It worked: the creature turned to Vesir and growled; the man swallowed, mumbling something about the missing trainer, and readied his whip again. The lion picked up the cue, and backed away.

Directly into one of the fallen Astrologers.

It almost tripped, and snapped around suddenly, jaws clacking at the perceived threat. Instead, he found only lifeless metal–and Dolle. Its tail flicked again, and its eyes shone. It raised its head to sniff the air, and the lion advanced a few tentative steps. It didn’t seem interested in Dolle herself so much as the fact she was the only one blocking its escape. It made to crouch again, and then everything happened at once.

Her father screamed her name. Vesir cried out. Her brother wailed. The lion leaped forward. Dolle let out a surprised yelp, and clasped the Astrologer tightly, her knuckles going white. The other men charged forward, desperate to get to the lion before it got to her.

And for Dolle, time seemed to contract, moving in slow motion. Her surroundings faded, and her vision went silver-white. Her hands grew warm and began to tingle. They felt almost fuzzy–like when your arm falls asleep if you lay on it wrong–but painless. The sensation swept in a tangible wave through her body, concentrated in her hands once more, then left, flowing into the automata. Her vision cleared and she swooned, falling to the ground. As she closed her eyes, she could vaguely see Aspect erupting forward, tackling the lion and bringing it to the ground, all the while repeating the same phrase over and over in that tinny, humming voice, the last direction he had been given: “Save her, save her, save her…”

When she came to, she found a circle of faces peering down at her. Her father and brother, Vesir, other men–and Aspect. She stared curiously at the featureless automata, and she swore that it regarded her just as closely. The eyes, glittering with colours as before, were dancing. It held out a metal hand to her; tentatively, she took it, and it helped her to her feet.

“She appears to be adequately recovered,” it said. The voice was still mechanical and toneless. Even as she stood, her head still dizzy, her father swept her into his arms, crying. Behind him, she could see the lion being manacled and led back toward the cage it escaped. He brother watched it wistfully; in his hand he held a paper mache tail with a serpent’s head at one end.

The others drifted away, their interests lying elsewhere now, clapping Vesir on the back and congratulating him on saving the girl. He smiled smile and nodded modestly–“no problem at all, just my duty”–but his eyes were awash with confusion. When they were alone, he darted toward Aspect, running his hands all over its chassis, examining every bit of the Astrologer. No longer the unresponsive and obedient machine, it politely brushed Vesir’s hands away.

“Thank you for your concern, sir, but I am quite undamaged. Your ministrations would be more beneficial if directed toward the girl.”

Vesir stood back in shock and surprise, and shot a suspicious look at Dolle.

“What did you do to it?” he asked. There was no anger in his voice; on the contrary, there was a touch of awe, of wonder.

Her father let Dolle gently to the ground, and took her hand.

“Don’t you touch her,” he warned Vesir, who promptly backed away. “Come, Dolle. Jim, we’re going. I think we’ve had enough of the carnival this year.” He held out both hands, which his children dutifully took in their own.

As they started walking away from the tattered tent, Dolle turned, breaking her father’s grip, and ran toward Aspect, hugging its legs.

“Thank you,” she said. The automata touched her gently on the head.

“I am pleased to have been helpful,” it said. “And thank you, for this.” It placed a hand over its chest.

Dolle smiled. “You’re welcome, Aspect,” she replied.

Running back to her father, she waved at the Astrologer. It waved back, arm clinking softly with the motion, as Vesir looked on, agape.

My Attempt at Steampunk

When I started to get back to my writing, my first question to myself was “what genre will I concentrate on?” The things I’d written spanned a few–sci-fi, fantasy, general fiction, even non-fiction–but I thought it best to stick with one or two genres and build a base there. The larger projects I’m working on are basically fantasy, though I’ve thrown in some weird fiction as well; but science fiction has always been dear to me.

I wanted to share the story that first got me into science fiction. It’s by Issac Asimov, the king of sci-fi. I found this story extant on the internet–though I’m not sure if it’s in the public domain, so if anyone has a problem with my posting it let me know and I’ll be happy to remove the link. It’s called The Last Question, and you can click the title for the text.

This story is a perfect example of what science fiction should be. It’s got some solid (for the time) science to it, has real human concerns, and has a wonderful ending. It blew me away the first time, and still gives me chills whenever I read it. Check it out, even if you’re not a sci-fi fan. It might convert you!

Anyway, I digress. When I was considering concentrating on sci-fi, I started looking at some good examples. I read a lot of Bradbury, Asimov, and so on. I also came across Kevin J. Andseron, who, in a whirl of serendipity, I learned was giving a reading at my public library. I got to meet him, and he passed out pamphlets containing the first three chapters of his new book Clockwork Angels, which is based on the latest album of one of my favourite bands, Rush. Talk about synchronicity!

The book is great, and I can’t wait to read the whole thing when it arrives this fall. It also introduced me to Steampunk–along with the oft mentioned Lindsay Buroker–and it got me thinking. Steampunk, as I understand it, is kind of a blend of science fiction and fantasy; a fantasy world where technology and magic intertwine to create a unique setting. Exciting…and why shouldn’t I experiment with it?

So, for the first time on this blog about writing, I’m going to post a sample of my work. This is my first attempt at the Steampunk genre. I’ve taken ideas and the setting from my planned fantasy novel and am trying it out in a steampunk cast; if this turn out, I’ll refit the novel as a whole. I think it has potential, but I’d appreciate constructive feedback.

Please keep in mind that this is a first draft, hammered out over margaritas. Its not going to be perfect! Here’s the first part:

The Astrologers

The carnival was coming. The most exciting weekend of the year–spun sugar candy, games and prizes, a carousel, the Hall or Horrors (Jim’s favourite); and it was finally here!

Dolle got out of bed early that morning, earlier than she had any right being up, and knocked on her parent’s bedroom door. Their room was separated from the rest of the small cabin because, as daddy said, “adults need their own space;” Dolle had never understood why, but being the adults, she assumed they knew best. And one day, she would be old enough to have her own room too, so it didn’t matter too much. For the time being, she was content–most of the time–to share a corner with her younger brother.

Dolle was ten. She was old enough to know the Important Things in Life (or so she thought,) but still young enough to be enraptured by the magic of it all–and the carnival was the shining example of that magic, the one time each year when there were no chores and they could eat all the candy they wanted, when there were incredible things to be seen and wondrous fun to be had.

As soon as she heard her father grumble something under his breath and his mother sigh a muffled consolation that he’d “promised this months ago,” Dolle went to her brother’s cot and shook him awake. It didn’t take much convincing; he was just as excited as her. He sprang out of bed and immediately started rambling about seeing his first Chimera. The schoolhouse had been talking about it for weeks now, after one of the schoolchildren moved with his family to Dakadain from far off Heira’Kol, one of the earlier stops on the caravan’s tour. It had all Jim had been able to talk about. A real live Chimera!

Dolle didn’t care so much about that–though she had to admit she was curious. Mostly, she didn’t care for the side shows in the carnival. It was the games and food and craft fair she was interested in, something her mother agreed on. This year would be different, though. This year, the Astrologers were coming.

For centuries, the Alchemages had been working with Elemental Magic, working it for the betterment of the Toral, teasing the intricate secrets of nature out into the open for all to see and command. But only in recent years had there been significant progress in one of the obscure schools of elemental magic: artificial anima.

Most of these alchemical constructs were little more than basic tools, insect and rodent shaped objects built from cobalt, silver or steel and imbued with elemental magic. They had been around for some time, their novelty long worn off. Dolle had even seen one at work, at one of the richer farms outside Dakadain: a large brass bison that ran on condensed Earth magic, and helped till the fields. It was an interesting thing to see, but in the end it was little more than a magical tool. Most artificial anima were less useful, really just toys and trinkets.

But rumors had been circulating for years that a certain Alchemage-a powerful Aeromancer by the name of Vesir–had achieved an incredible feat: the creation of sentient, thinking automata. He called them the Astrologers, and they were supposed to be able to tell the future.

Dolle was learning about artificial anima at school, but her teacher had scoffed at the idea of automata when she’d asked. Machines couldn’t have souls, she said, and dismissed the idea out of hand. So Dolle intended to visit Vesir and learn all about them herself.

Her father was finally getting out of bed, and her mother had put a kettle over the fire and was starting to tend the flames when she asked if they could see the Astrologers. Her father dropped a slipper he’d been trying to fit over his foot, and her mother just stifled a laugh behind a hand.

“Dolle, you know better than that, I hope,” her father said. “Those things are just toys, I’m sure. Some sort of machine that only has a certain number of things it says, so that fraud Vesir always knows how to answer them.”

“But daddy,” Dolle whined, “what if they’re really real?” She stamped her foot on the floor to accentuate her point. “If people can make anima, why can’t they make other things?”

Her mother, having got the fire going, put some sausages on the flat-iron balanced over the coals, and started mixing some eggs.

“Because, dear, magic doesn’t work that way. Can you tell me what the Elements do?”

Dolle slumped in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest, depressed at the sudden appearance of a school lesson. At first she refused to answer, but with a stern glance from her mother, she reluctantly obliged.

“The four elements each have their special rule over nature,” she recited. It was a textbook answer. “Earth, Air, Fire and Water each have different properties, but none of them stronger than the others. When a mage learns to use Elemental Magic, he learns to bend those properties to his will–but they can never be more than what they were to begin.”

“That’s right,” her mother cooed, placing a plate of eggs and sizzling sausage before her father. He hungrily dug in, grunting his thanks when she added a cup of hot tea to the setting.

The Elements are powerful, but they can only do so much. When they are used for anima, that construct behaves like an extension of its Nature. But a Geoanima wouldn’t be able to fly, no more than a Hydroanima would be able to start a fire. And none of the Elements has the power to animate something so that it can think and feel for itself.”

Dolle had heard this explanation before, from her teachers at school, friends at the playground, and other adults from which she’d tried to learn the secret of automata. Not for the first time, she wondered–not aloud, for she’d learned long ago that such questions would only earn her scoffs and “isn’t she cute-s”–about the Elements. If none of them could animate a thinking, feeling creature on their own, how had GiSek, the Creator, done it for the Toral?

Knowing better than to press the issue, she started eating her eggs, silently chewing and scheming a way to see Vesir, without her parents knowing.

There we are, folks! I’ll put up other samples as they come.