Finding a Voice that works


Well, have gotten off to a good start on the next novel, an historical adventure, which if I can pull it off, will sprawl across late-15th century Europe and involve three knaves looking for gainful employment.

Problem is, I’m still in two minds about making the narrative first-person or third-person. I’ve written and published both and as readers and writers know, each has its advantages and disadvantages. First person can pull you in by giving a heightened sense of involvement and immediacy but at the price of a narrow focus and constrained viewpoint (and story-telling). Third-person narrative opens up the scope considerably but can take more work to develop engaging characters and intimacy. I’ve started the new WIP in first-person, as that worked to good effect with my first novel, Gideon’s Angel.  I still remember being bowled over by the voice of an emperor in I Claudius or feeling like I was sipping a single malt at my London club while listening to Harry Flashman regale me with adventures when reading George MacDonald Fraser’s series. However, I’m beginning to have second thoughts about this new WIP so I’ve decided to write the first chapter both ways and see what sits best with me. It has to be an instinctive decision for an author, listening to heart and head to find what will work most effectively for a particular piece. Like most things in the creative space of the mind, it has a lot to do with how one feels at the time. If nothing else, it should prove an interesting exercise in writing craft!

What are your preferences when it comes to reading a novel? First-person or third? Present tense or past?

Witch of Torinia: draft completed (now comes the fun bit)


My three finalists in The Witch of Torinia auditions

Happy to report the delivery of a bouncing, boisterous new novel, weighing in at 136,000 words. The sequel to The Guns of Ivrea is tentatively titled The Witch of Torinia and I’m hopeful that Solaris Books will launch it shortly after the New Year. Yet it wasn’t an easy birth by any means. Apart from the self-imposed pressure of avoiding dreaded “sequelitis”, writing a follow-on book (whether for a duology or a longer series) contains some particular pitfalls for authors. First, you’ve created a range of characters and like wayward teenage children, they stopped listening to you probably before Book One ended and now do what they like. With umpteen plot threads spraying out like a spider on crystal meth, the chief danger is a sequel that begins to run away from the author. Character arcs need to be tended to and assessed, plots and sub-plots prioritized and deconflicted, and with just the right narrative voice for  each scene. All the while never losing sight of the bigger picture for the secondary world you’ve created.

So, after a few bottles of wine and a couple of cigars, now comes the really important part: the edit. It requires a different part of your brain from the bit that gushed out the words to begin with. The more calculating, ruthless part of the grey matter to be exact. And it’s indispensable to the final product as is the work-over my editor at Solaris will be giving it in a few weeks. As a former journalist, I’m used to having my work ripped apart by editors and as an editor myself I learned how to dish it out too. Invariably, an honest copy-edit always means a better book. And that usually means rewrites.

Without giving too much away, this second book in the Valdur world dealsMorning_of_the_Battle_of_Agincourt,_25th_October_1415 with the consequences of actions taken by the major characters: a religious schism and the launch of a war among the duchies. Whereas Guns of Ivrea dealt primarily with actions on the high seas, for Witch of Torinia, the focus moves to war on land with the scope for some tremendous set-piece medieval battles. To be sure, Captain Danamis will have his fair share of naval derring-do as well as some important secret-squirrel work for the Queen, but this novel really centres on Strykar, my jaded, slightly creaking mercenary and the tough choices he is forced to make. And of course, Brother Acquel’s personal burdens continue to grow as he faces the looming threat posed by Lucinda della Rovera, the titular witch. But an unlikely ally is on the way….

Hmm…better get out my blue editing pen…again.


A Fantastic Legacy: SF, Fantasy and London’s Savile Club

savile talk Apr16Many thanks to those who came to hear my talk last week on a few past members of The Savile Club in London, members who just happen to be among the most famous authors of science fiction, fantasy and horror literature.

The Savile Club, which was founded in 1868, quickly established itself as a meeting place and convivial watering hole for authors, artists, musicians, and scientists in the Victorian world and it is still going strong as it approaches its 150th anniversary.  With the help of my editor at Rebellion Publishing,  the talented and knowledgeable Jonathan Oliver, I had the pleasure of addressing a cross-section of the current membership last week in the ballroom where I attempted to put “speculative fiction” into perspective. My message: it’s not all about spaceships, ray guns, and bogeymen. Genre fiction actually often puts contemporary society and its concerns into sharper focus by injecting elements of the fantastic. In other words, the future is now.

The Savile boasted writers from every subject, but in what is now termed speculative fiction the club was particularly fortunate. Members here included HG Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, H Rider-Haggard, MR James, Rudyard Kipling (yes, he did write some SF and fantasy),  and Algernon Blackwood.

Can a club take credit for their genius? No, but as a meeting place it had a definite role to play as a point for the free exchange of ideas and conversation. One member, a newspaper editor who had one leg and a fondness for rum, once insulted Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson turned him into Long John Silver. And in a case of what you might call “cross-fertilization”, Algernon Blackwood wrote a story that was adapted for a West End musical that Savile member Sir Edward Elgar wrote the music for. A few decades later, in 1936, HG Wells’s “The Shape of Things to Come” was turned into a film with a score by his fellow Savilian, Sir Arthur Bliss and starring yet another Savilian, Sir Ralph Richardson. Ah, serendipity indeed.

photo: Markus Lind



The Merfolk finally surface!

My mermen look better than this guy

My mermen look better than this guy

It’s publication week for The Guns of Ivrea, my first secondary-world fantasy which combines traditional epic swashbuckling with a slightly contemporary edge. Set in a renaissance-like Mediterranean world, the story revolves around a set of characters that couldn’t be more different yet find themselves implacably drawn together. It has
mermen and mermaids, monks and mantichora, pirates and princes, ship battles and tavern brawls, and some inter-species romance to boot.
Guns of Ivrea You see, I had a conceit to pen a novel that evoked a 15th century-style fantasy, something that might not have been out of place on a table in Milan, Pisa or Venice when the Borgias were throwing their weight around and daVinci was sketching, painting and experimenting. I don’t know if I succeeded but it was a hell of a lot of fun to write it anyway.

It was also a bit of a challenge. The mechanics of writing an adventure novel with an aquatic species of humanoid needed some thinking. People have been writing about merfolk for centuries, but to sustain a mermaid character at book-length, in particular one that has a huge amount of interaction with the world of land-dwelling men, meant I had to consider some new ways of imagining what merfolk would look like. I took a cue from dolphins so my merfolk are actually air-breathing (with great diving abilities like marine mammals), blue-grey skin, and can survive out of the water (for a time). The big difference is that they have two legs. Sorry to disappoint those who have a thing for scales and tails but a woman who is a fish from the waist down tends to put a limit on the scope of a fulfilling romance.


Being an epic fantasy the book naturally has a variety of villains and villainesses, both major and minor. And with a few notable exceptions, most of the inhabitants could be considered to fall in the category of self-interested “grey” rather than white hats. Which, let’s face it, is the way of the world in much of real life. When I first started writing the novel my intention had been to be much more retro and binary: clear good-guys and clear baddies. But very quickly I realised that the possibilities and nuances of the “grey” character  would be much more interesting for readers—and the writer. You will find magic in The Guns of Ivrea but no duelling wizards with staffs. It is a much more subtle kind of magic that is supernatural and religious-based, rather than lightning bolts from the fingertips. I found this allowed more scope for building menace and dread around the leading dark character, Lady Lucinda della Rovera.

I’m currently in the final stages on a sequel entitled The Witch of Torinia, which will be published next year. That’s the thing with world-building in fantasy: once those people and places come to life, that world expands and those living in it take the ship’s wheel right out of your hands.

Mancunicon 2016 is coming

bee-no-text-header“Mancunicon”, otherwise known as Eastercon, is the great annual conference of the British Science Fiction Association. And beginning this 16th of April it will be the 67th such gathering. And as the organizers say, it wouldn’t be Easter without Eastercon.  The convention, which you’ve no doubt guessed will be held in Manchester, has four outstanding Guests of Honour: Aliette de Bodard, David L. Clements, Ian McDonald, and Sarah Pinborough. I’ve been asked to appear on a panel this year to talk about the changing world of horror fiction which to those of you not overly familiar with my work might be cause for a bit of head scratching. Historical fiction and horror?

But if my first novel, Gideon’s Angel, doesn’t evoke a bit of that old House of Hammer spirit, I’ll eat my cavalier hat and the ostrich plume too. I’m looking forward to talking about how the horror genre has morphed into so many others, following a similar path to fantasy in general– a continual re-invention of the familiar with the new– as genre fiction continues to explore virgin territory while also cultivating well-trodden paths.

“Them’s fighting words!”


British Fantasy Con is almost upon us (23-25 October) and the organizers have just released this year’s programme which looks exciting, jam-packed, and wonderfully eclectic with a cast of thousands (well nearly).  This year we’re in Nottingham and I’ll be participating on a panel session looking at crafting the perfect fight scene and hopefully later that weekend also reading from my forthcoming novel, The Guns of Ivrea, launching next February. Here’s the skinny:

British Fantasy Society



Blades, Wands & Lasers: Fighting the Good Fight-Scene

Whether melee, missile or magic, combat scenes can make for some of the most compelling in genre fiction or film. But what are the essentials for creating telling your story through action?

  • the mechanics of fighting: how much do you need to know?
  • from one vs. one to massive scale battles
  • making sense of mayhem: choreography, pacing, tension, tone & sensory overload
  • tips for showing character through action
  • weapons of mass destruction: when is too powerful, too much?

There’s only one way to settle it…FIIIIIGHT!!!

Moderator: James Barclay
Panelists: Clifford Beal, Juliet E. McKenna, Brandon Sanderson, Jo Thomas, Danie Ware

I’ll be in some great company and though I believe most of us are leaving our swords at home this time, should still be informative and fun if slightly less physical than Fantasy Con 2014.

Getting Medieval: all over again


Sometimes you have to prove to yourself you can still do things you did when you were younger, less wise, and with less to worry about. Put it down to male mid-life crisis (but I think I’m past the cut-off date now) or just a longing for a leisure activity that once I devoted inordinate amounts of time to. At any rate, I embarked on a rediscovery of something I last did some 18 years ago. The big question was: am I too old to give it another go?

The “sport” I’m talking about is armoured combat in the SCA. The SCA is the Society raglan1
of Creative Anachronism, a medieval re-enactment group started up at the University of California at Berkeley in 1966 and that has now gone global. Combat in the SCA (the whole spectrum of medieval arts and sciences is also catered to) involves attempting to recreate medieval tournament combat, on foot, using wooden weapons. While it may not be entire
ly historically accurate, at least it doesn’t involve silly choreography nor is it another  “Battle of the Nations” style bloodbath which uses blunted steel swords (you can check out the latter on You Tube to get a flavour). It’s generally low-risk with high levels of armour and weapons regulations. It’s also physically gruelling: imagine wearing full armour with a wooden shield and sword and then running around like a madman trying to “kill” your opponent—or opponents. It takes bags of stamina. Although there are referees, it’s all based on an honour system where the recipient judges the power of the opponent’s blow and whether or not it is a “kill”. This should not necessarily dent 14- or 16-gauge steel but it does happen.

Me second from right: the little guy in silver armour with the big sword

Me second from right: the little guy in silver armour with the big sword

I had missed armoured combat these past two decades. I first took it up at 17 when armour standards were low and the look was faintly ridiculous. Think cut-down and padded refrigerant canisters for helms and ice hockey gloves for gauntlets and you can form a mental image. But as the 80s roared ahead and life becoming more complicated and with babies arriving in the 90s, the demands of daily life took over. My SCA participation tended to wax and wane. A final burst of SCA once I relocated to the UK petered-out about 1998 after a tournament held at Hever Castle. Now, in 2015, part of me very much wanted one last dash into the breach. Before I was too old to lift a sword again.

I finally convinced myself to get back into fighting again for the purpose of “research”. I reasoned that a refresher in fighting in armour and regaining that unique viewpoint through a narrow eye-slit in a helmet would lend even more accuracy to my fighting and battle scenes in my novels. Well, that was the excuse anyway. Not entirely dishonest either. Even SCA combat can give you an idea of the rigours of medieval fighting: heat exhaustion, muscle fatigue, poor visibility, thirst, etc. Not to mention the role that luck plays on a battlefield.  Very good fighters can get beaten by overwhelming numbers or by a boot slipping in muddied grass. You get the idea. Despite that, the thrill keeps you coming back. I do think my experiences have improved my writing of action scenes. I have vivid memories of battle in the United States at the “Pennsic War” where we had over a thousand combatants on each side. I can tell you, the vantage from the field is nothing short of awe-inspiring when you look across to the opposite shield wall, waiting for the cannon to go off.

The bridge between outer tower and inner keep

The bridge between outer tower and inner keep

For the past few months I have been preparing from scratch. New armour and weapons, training with free-weights. However, attending practice sessions was difficult given the distance to the nearest group. That was going to be problematic: my past experience would never be enough to carry me through without some current practice sessions. This past weekend, and continuing all week, the SCA in the UK has held a magnificent event at Raglan Castle in Wales. We actually get to use the castle (or what’s left of it). This was the place where I was to get into harness once again, from a cold start. I suffered some humiliation at the “reauthorisation” where I had to undergo practice combat and armour inspections by the presiding knight marshal to make sure I was competent and not a threat to myself or others. After just two minutes I began to feel like superman after he’s inhaled a kilo of kryptonite dust: my shield arm began sinking lower, my legs felt like lead, my breathing became laboured. It was a worrying start that had me suddenly questioning the entire enterprise.

Skirmish in the fountain court

Skirmish in the fountain court

I passed the tests. The second day we “fought” inside the castle walls with groups of eight fighters on each side attempting to storm or defend the main gate, just a fraction of the forty or so fighters expected to arrive by mid-week. It was frenetic, violent, loud, chaotic—all rather good fun. I had wisely ditched the round shield and armed myself with a two-handed sword. This energy-saving measure plus the mega-surge of adrenalin allowed me to more than hold my own. As a matter of fact, given my age and the length of time out of action, I was damned pleased with my performance. Sure I got “killed” more than a few times. But I gave as good as I got, racking up several “kills” of my own. One against a very seasoned knight and not bad going for a knackered old man-at-arms.

But, O my brothers, the piper had to be paid. After about 90 minutes of bridge fights, courtyard fights and gatehouse fights, I was exhausted. Totally. Even after sitting one of them out. Then the muscle aches set in through arms and legs. I was anachronistically popping ibuprofen for the next 48 hours. Yellow-purple bruise on outer left thigh and what looks like third-degree razor burn on my chin from an ill-fitting gorget fix I had to do. I walked in feeling like Lancelot but walked out looking like Quasimodo. Could have been worse though. I could have just as easily convinced myself I was too old, talked myself out of it, and not even tried.

There’s life yet in the old war dog it seems.




Raven’s Banquet in limited edition paperback

Raven's BanquetA friend pointed out to me today that there’s no mention of the hard copy edition of The Raven’s Banquet on my blog, only of the ebook via Amazon. After I picked up my jaw from the floor, I responded with something like “Oh…yeh. Your’re right.” So much for my publicity skills. Well folks, there is a large-format trade paperback edition that was printed and it’s only available from the ForbiddenPlanet shop in London or through their online shop here:


A limited first edition and every one signed in my childish scrawl. Go ahead and treat yourself to some 17th century darkness and adventure.


Cover Reveal: The Guns of Ivrea

Guns of IvreaSolaris Books have announced the final cover for the first in the Valdur series of epic fantasy novels, The Guns of Ivrea. And here it is. A beautiful piece of cover art from artist Adam S Doyle that captures the spirit of the novel with a group of merfolk rising up from the deep. The novel is out next February but you can pre-order it now over at Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

Here’s the synopsis of the story:

One Island. One Crown. One Faith.

A thousand rivalries….

Acquel Galenus, former thief and now monk of no particular skill, indifferent scribe and even worse chorister, uncovers a terrible secret under the Great Temple at Livorna, one that could shiver the One Faith to its core. A secret that could get him killed. A secret that could enable an older more sinister form of worship to be reborn.

Pirate princeling Nicolo Danamis, mercenary to the King and captain of the largest fleet in the island kingdom of Valdur, has made one deal too many, and enemies are now closing in to destroy him.

Citala, fair-haired and grey-skinned, the daughter of the chieftain of the Merfolk who inhabit the waters of Valdur, finds herself implacably drawn to the affairs of men. She puts events in motion that will end her people’s years of isolation but that could imperil their very existence.

All their fates will intertwine as they journey across the land, through duchies and free cities riven by political intrigue, religious fervour, and ancient hatreds. Alliances are being forged anew and after decades of wary peace, war is on the wind once again…


Bloody Hell, I’m a Plantagenet!

Edward IV

Edward IV

With King Richard III reburied today in Leicester with all honours, I thought it was an appropriate time to let you all know a little secret about me. I am—if research is correct—a great grandson some 17 times removed, of King Edward IV, older brother of Richard III. OK, I know I had little to do with it but I still think it’s cool particularly as I’m a writer of historical fiction and fancy myself a bit of an historian. Being Yankee born and of a certain age, we New Englanders as children had ancestry drummed into us  the way other kids collect Top Trumps, particularly if your family is old pilgrim stock. I lucked out on having on a lot of the family history already researched although I filled in some gaps myself despite the Luftwaffe bollocking things up by fire bombing the Devon public records office in 1942.  But it was thanks to some distant relatives that I recently learned of the Plantagenet connection. It seems I’m descended on my father’s side from one of King Edward’s illegitimate children (of which he had several). “Princess” Elizabeth was formally recognized  by the king as his bastard and was allowed to be named Plantagenet. She eventually married Sir Thomas de Lumley, baronet, in Northumberland. As one does.

My other ancestor

My other ancestor

That said, just doing the genealogical maths, which sort of progress geometrically as the generations ensue, there have to be a hell of a lot of other Plantagenets running around the world today. Millions, in fact. Including, apparently, Benedict Cumberbatch. So really it ain’t that big a deal. The difference is I know about it and most Plantagenet descendants are blissfully unaware they had ancestors in the real Game of Thrones. Am I a “Ricardian”, one of those defenders of the much-maligned monarch? Well, I don’t know if my “great uncle” murdered my forebear’s brothers in the Tower or not. But hey, he’s family right? Gotta love the guy. I point the finger at those upstart Tudors who had just as much motive to see Edward’s line snuffed out. Right, enough said. I’m off to have the white rose of York added to my coat-of-arms over the mantle.