Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Last Post of 2009!

So, here we are - mere hours away from the beginning of Arthur C Clarke's second Odyssey! ;-) Let's hope that the remaining hours are good to us - it'd be really shitty having a, well, shitty end to 2009.

I thought this would be a good time to also let you know what my resolutions, SFF-wise, are:

Firstly, I'm planning to finish all the Small Press & self-published books I've received by March, at least.

I'm also going to fit in at least one Angry Robot book a month (I still owe you all my review of Kaaron Warren's Slights), as well as one Macmillan SFF title a month.

Added to that, well, to read more Science Fiction. I picked up another Greg Egan a couple of weeks back, and there's still much more to choose from on my shelves. :-)

Also, I want to purchase at least one item from Amazon.co.uk; Why? Well, I'd like to support the authors and books I review even more by posting reviews there, to help out with the all-important Amazon rankings. :-)

And that's about it - I don't think I'm over-reaching. :-)

Have you guys got any SFF-related resolutions planned? I'd love to hear them. :-)

In any case, I hope the remainder of 2009 is kickass for you all, and that 2010 starts off with an EPIC bang! :-)

See you next year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

SFF in South Africa

Since I'm the only SFF reviewer from South Africa and in South Africa, I thought that it was way past time to post this 'article' / 'essay' (or whatever it turns out to be) and get all of you outside SA an inside-seat to the state of SFF here. :-)

So, where to start? I guess the best place would be my introduction to SFF.

Comics. Argue if you want, but I'm pretty sure it'll be the same for many of you out there. My parents got me started with Wendy, Casper, Spooky, and later, Archie. This is what started me reading, and you can be damn sure I'm always grateful for that. :-) Pretty soon I graduated to the comics and characters that we all know - Superman, Batman, etc and the first comic I remember reading from DC was an issue of Flash, in the post-Invasion days, where Wally West was homeless and buggered. (This is probably why Wally West, and The Flash, is my favourite DC character - yes, way above Batman, even).

You see, comics opened up such a massive world for my imagination to play in that I was completely hooked, and by the time I was in my first year of High School, I had a collection in excess of 1000 different comics. By then I had already started reading actual books (we're not that backward here!), but I still see comics as my first taste of SFF, and I collect what I can today, too. :-)

I also read plenty of books, too, but these were along the lines of Enid Blyton's The Famous Five and Franklin W. Dixon's The Hardy Boys stories. The first adult book I read was Stephen King's Pet Sematary, and I was nine years old (blame my dad for leaving his books lying around!). After King, I never touched another book meant for my age-group. :-)

The first Fantasy book I ever read was David Eddings' Pawn of Prophecy, and that led to me reading every Fantasy book in our school library in less than a year (granted, that's not such a big claim, since there weren't that many books to begin with, but still, the hunger started there). The first SF book I ever read? Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

And what an introduction those books were! Eddings (may his name always burn brightly) showed me magic, evil, battles; Clarke showed me the gorgeous beauty of space and the true meaning of the word 'extra terrestrial' (sorry, Spielberg), and from then on, I devoured everything I could get my hands on. Sometimes I would focus on SF for an entire year, and then Fantasy - I marveled at Clarke and Lee's Rama Cycle, was completely blown away by The Reality Dysfunction, and holy hell, when I discovered Robert Jordan... Let's just say that Fantasy really became fantastic!

But the question that I'm going to try and answer here is this: is the rest of South Africa the same?

As the first part of my answer, here's a shocker for you - a fact that will go a long way to explaining just why I'm the only reviewer in South Africa:

A book needs to sell between 2000 and 5000 copies to be a national BESTSELLER. I can see you doing a double-take, but that's the average. To put it even more in perspective, there are about 60000 to 70000 active readers in South Africa, and those numbers are split between every kind of book you can imagine.

What sells well here? Cookery books, Misery Memoirs, biographies, business books, and fiction along the lines of Wilbur Smith, Danielle Steel, etc.

Now, when I started working as a bookseller in 2001, I immediately felt at home in the SF section; 'S' for Science Fiction, and 'F' for Fantasy. Don't worry, I shook my head, too. Talk about not caring about the distinctions, right?

Anyway, one of the first things I noticed was that readers of SFF here were and are starved for material to read, and this problem has two parts;

The first, and, I suppose, most important, part of the problem, is how long we have to wait for books. You see, because we're such a small market here, our publishers / distributors have to acquire rights to get the books into the market. What this means for us is that we have to wait an average of 3 months from the date of publication for the books to hit our shelves. With the huge international publications such as the Harry Potter novels and The Lost Symbol that period is null and void, but with everything else the 3-month rule applies. (Sometimes we strike it lucky - case in point, Peter V Brett's The Painted Man; the publisher's here sent me a copy in late July 2008, and my review of it was the review that got me started in the blogosphere.)

The second aspect of the problem is that there isn't much book knowledge among book sellers here. I'm not saying that the majority of us are complete dunces, but book sellers here think they know a lot and don't actually know as much as they think they know. The knowledge we do have must, necessarily, be focused on the books that make the most money in our market, and none of those books include anything from SFF (once again, JK Rowling would be the exception to the rule). I'm an aberration, of course. :D

A smaller, though no less important, part of the problem is that every bookseller or manager has their own opinion on what will sell and where it should be sectioned. A good example of this would be Cormack McCarthy's The Road; I took it out of Fiction (mainstream, non-genre if you like) and put it in Science Fiction & Fantasy (we're lucky enough to have the section named as such in the our shop). What happened? 3 copies sold in a week, whereas in Fiction, 3 copies didn't sell in a month. Now it's a mainstay of my section (yes, I'm in charge of SFF in our store) and when I tell people that the book they're looking at is by the same author of No Country for Old Men, they seem a bit shocked. You see, there are just some books that don't sell in sections where they should normally go, so experimentation is needed in our market.

Now, my section pulls in more money than any other section in the shop, and this is directly sure to Stephanie Meyer's Twilight Saga books being sectioned there - I'm pretty damn excited to see how my section will hold up once sales start dropping off, but thankfully, it wont be happening any time soon. Why did I section Meyer in SFF? Well, it just didn't fit anywhere else. Plus, why pass up the opportunity to show off the non-vampire stuff? Browsing in my section opens up universes. :-)

But there are still books that don't sell. :-(

Gemmell, for instance, has dropped off quite a bit - but James Barclay is rising to the occasion. Steven Erikson is consistently a good seller, and so is Robert Jordan, as is Trudi Canavan and (brace yourselves) Terry Goodkind. (Hey, no matter what Terry says, I will put his books in SFF!) On the SF side of things, well, that's a bit of a struggle, unfortunately. :-( Sales for SF are slow and sporadic. Why? Blame Peter Jackson, I s'pose, but I think this goes deeper.

So see, we South Africans are a strange people. Our history makes us farmers, predominantly; that's the foundation we come from. And farmers don't have time to read. Centuries and decades down the line, you've got people who read at school, because they have to. You see, it's just not an important part of life here, it isn't encouraged. Sad, but true. The situation is changing, thanks to the likes of Rowling and Meyer (not so much Peter Jackson - I still get customers saying that they tried to read The Lord of the Rings but didn't like it because Tolkien left out scenes that were in the movies); more people are reading here, teenagers, yes, but they are reading. This leads to sales across the board, but still not as much as I would like to see.

I've been blogging now for a year and four months, and I've run a couple of giveaways which have completely failed. Either readers here are inherently distrustful of anything free, or they just weren't interested. I also consistently get more visits from the USA and UK than SA, even though everyone I know is on Facebook, so it's not a problem of internet access. As long as I can read, though, I'll be blogging and reviewing, and I've now got a reputation among SA publishers that I need to uphold, anyway. :-)

These are the reasons why the SFF market in SA is so small, and the only thing we can hope for is that (and this is a fact, not me being egotistical) more book sellers like me get into the book trade. We also need the publishers to take a more active role in bringing more SFF into SA, but that depends on sales. And above all, as book sellers, we need to make damn sure that all of our customers keep coming back. More sales means that we can experiment with them, take chances, and get them to read outside their comfort zone.

The small SFF market leaves us with another problem, though; loads and loads of people writing SFF, but no-one getting published. :-(

So, there we go. We've got an uphill climb, all the time, but damn it, it's an incredible climb with spectacular views! :-)

Be EPIC!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Good (and bad) news from Michael J Sullivan, author of The Riyria Chronicles

Robin Sullivan, Michael's wife, sent me an email last week that informing me about some good and bad news concerning Michael's books, news that needs to be spread. :-)



The first batch of news, and this is good news, is this (taken from this post on the blog that Michael and Robin run):

"It is only Christmas Eve but the holiday season has already been very good to me. Sales of The Crown Conspiracy, Avempartha, and Nyphron Rising have been phenomenal."

Now, that's the kind of news that every author wants to hear! :-) I mean, imagine being on your first Epic/Heroic Fantasy series and receiving that news? Surely a cause for celebration if there ever was one! :-) I'm pretty damn chuffed for Michael and Robin - not only does this signify that The Riyria Revelations (3 books available so far in this great series) is being read and enjoyed by scores of readers worldwide, but that the work they put into this series has borne fruit, and continues to. :-)

Unfortunately, there is a slightly crappy situation that has arisen, and this is also one of those situations that authors the world over can probably sympathize with; it concerns The Crown Conspiracy:

"Amazon is out of stock. Book Depository is out of stock. Powell’s is out of stock. Barnes & Nobles is out of stock. Abes Books is out of stock. Everyone except rare booksellers—who are offering the book as outrageous prices—are all out of stock."

So, there you have it. :-(



But what does this mean? Well, basically, if your order your copies of Book 1 The Crown Conspiracy, you wont get the book in the advertised time because it's on back-order, awaiting stock (i.e. the second print run). You see, the entire print-run has sold out. Awesome, awesome news, no doubt about that, but that means that thousands of readers, wanting to dive into the world that Michael has created, will be out of luck getting copies of the book.

BUT DON'T DESPAIR!

Michael and Robin, showing a level of planning-for-the-future that may amaze you, have a solution:

Using this link (which will take you through to Michael's website), you can order copies of the The Crown Conspiracy, and you'll be able to get copies! :-) You see, they bought several hundred copies! So hundreds of lucky people out there will be able to get hold of the book and start their journey into The Riyria Revelations! :-) Also, Avempartha and Nyphron Rising are also available to order; there's still stock available of those two books. You may see, however, that the books are a tad more expensive than what they cost on Amazon, and that's totally understandable; I mean, how exactly would Michael be able to match the discounts that Amazon offers? Well, here's the solution: Michael offers a 15% discount, plus he will personalize the book for you - that means a signature and/or dedication. :-) And that includes not only The Crown Conspiracy but Book 2 and Book 3, too.



Now, I'm sure some of you will still want to order The Crown Conspiracy through Amazon, Powells, B&N, but the second printing wont be available until around March 2010 - if you're willing to wait (and you probably wont be disappointed, I believe), then go ahead and place your orders. But if you aren't willing to wait, order your copies from Michael and Robin, and you'll be able to get the books signed and personalized, too. :-)

For those lucky bastards out there who have Kindle's, there's no need to worry: The Crown Conspiracy is available at this link. :-)

So, there we have it - The Crown Conspiracy has SOLD OUT it's first print-run, but there is still stock available at this link, and you can get your copies personalized, too. :-) Good news all round, in my opinion! :-)

If you'd like to see what I thought about The Crown Conspiracy, check out my review here, and here's my review of Avempartha. A review of Nyphron Rising will be up early in 2010, so keep your eyes peeled for that. :-)

Be EPIC!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

I just wanted to wish all of you, religious or not, a wonderful 25th of December. :-) Whatever this day means to you and however you will spend it, I hope that you all enjoy it! And let's hope, too, that there's plenty of SFF on its way to you! :-)

Be safe,

Be EPIC!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Pre-Christmas Post

Here we are again! Man, seriously - it feels like a couple of months have passed since this time last year! And just why is it that time goes faster the older you get? *shaking my head* Last year at around this time I was absolutely knackered after a hectic day at Fascination Books Kolonnade (and I'm buggered after today, so nothing's changed), I had set up the desktop in the lounge so that I could smoke while I write (which worked out well, as I wrote 'Stalker' because of that move, and the desktop has since been destroyed by lightning but I've got my Acer Aspire One!), and my girlfriend was away on holiday visiting her mom (same thing again this year). Sounds like not much has changed, right? ;-)

Well, many things have, and for the better. :-)

First off, I moved the blog to Blogger. I decided to move it because Blogger just offers more - case in point, as I'm the only South African in South Africa that blogs about SFF, I couldn't really afford to upgrade on Wordpress to be able to upload videos and music files. Sure, embedding a video still worked, but even thinking about that restriction P'd me off a bit. I also wasn't able to add widgets, java-stuff, etc, and the old blog looks pretty damn boring compared to this blog, don't you think? I still miss the old blog, though; it'll always be my baby, and without it, I wouldn't have made impact I did, made the friends I've made, or learned as much about blogging as I have. I've been blogging now for over a year (July 2010 will be 2 YEARS!), and in that time, I've been welcomed into one of the coolest groups on the planet - I receive free books from publishers and authors, I get to talk about what I'm passionate about, I get to chat with authors, editors, agents and fellow bloggers, I get to read some awesome books, and, above all, sometimes my opinion helps people choose what they want to read! How awesome is that?! :-)

Besides that, this year saw David Jooste joining me as a fellow reviewer, an occurrence which I'm very grateful for. :-) Sure, David has read and reviewed some awesome books before I did, but he's added immeasurably to the blog, and has also been embraced by fellow bloggers. :-) His joining me as a reviewer is also another reason why I decided to create a new blog - it just didn't seem fair to me he reviews SFF on a blog with my name in it.

Another awesome event that took place: Jasper Kent let me know that my review of Twelve (reviewed here on the old blog and here on this blog - both posts are exactly the same) is quoted in the paperback edition of Twelve! :-) How damn awesome is that?! :D I absolutely cannot wait to see my quote on one of the best-selling trade paperbacks of 2008. :-)

This year also saw me being lucky enough to have read Paul Hoffman's The Left Hand of God (reviewing coming up early next year), and I was also one of the veryyy lucky bastards to have received a limited edition proof copy of Stephen King's Under the Dome - almost 2 months before it was available (thanks to Jonathan Ball Publishers for that!). :-)

Much, much more has happened this year! And that makes it an awesome year for the blog, no doubt. :-)

Will 2010 be bigger and better? Count on it! :-) I've had some ideas about things that I'll try out sometime next year, plus there are some incredible titles coming up (and more interviews, too). :-)

The next post will be a look-back on 2009, so until then,

Be EPIC!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

An Update for Independant Publishers and Authors

I'm sure plenty of you out there have been wondering about how far along I am with the books that you've been so kind in sending through - either as eBooks (PDFs) or as bound books; this post should clear up everything. :-)

Since the start of the old blog and the creation of this new blog, many independent Publishers and authors have send through books for me to review, and right now, I'll have to necessarily put a freeze on accepting books to review. Everyone who knows me knows how much I love reading and that I'll never have enough books, but I'm doing some authors out there a disservice by accepting more and more and adding to my reading-load, so as of this post, (unless we've already corresponded and I have agreed to accept more books / PDFs from you), please don't contact me until I announce that I'm open for accepting more books / PDFs to review.

This isn't about me deciding I've had enough - believe me, it really isn't! - but many of you are waiting for reviews from me, and I'm reading as fast as I can; adding more is not just putting more pressure on me as a reviewer but is also creating an apprehension on the part of the authors and publishers who have been awesome enough in sending through material for me to read and review.

I'm also limiting this to independents, and you might think it unfair, but look at it this way - authors with big, established houses such as DAW, Bantam Spectra, Harper Voyager, Gollancz, Del Rey, Tor, Orbit, etc have already got a huge network of reviewers, and although it pains me to say so, if I don't review a SFF title from one of them, someone will. Independents, however, are more limited, and need more help from us Reviewers - they don't have the marketing, promotional or monetary support that the big publishers enjoy, and many authors put their own hard-earned money into getting their books printed, shipping them out to reviews, etc.

So that's my position on this - I'll read and review what I've got at the moment, and then open for for submissions. :-)

Here's the rundown of what I've got - reviews guaranteed:

Stephen Zimmer: The Exodus Gate & Crown of Vengeance

A.J. Scudiere: Resonance

Adin Kachisi: Rise of the Anakim

Corey K Cotta: All of Yesterday's Tomorrows

Spencer Baum: The Demon Queen and the Locksmith

Edward Morris: There Was a Crooked Man

Leona Wisoker: Secrets of the Sands

Brian Libby: Storm Approaching

Michael J Sullivan: Nyphron Rising

Brian Rathbone: The Dawning of Power

David W Barbee: Carnageland

Curly Raphino: Fire in the Ocean, a New Testament

Leigh Bridger - Soul Catcher

Katherine Gilraine: The Index: Book 1 - Mages

Fran Jacobs: The Shadow Seer

Visions - Volume 1: Strider Nolan Media
Visions - Volume 2: Strider Nolan Media

Robert Preston: The Siege


As you can see, that's quite a list! And I'm pretty sure, too, that you understand why I've chosen to close submissions for reviews. I've got a lot of reading to get through!

At the moment, I'm reading Storm Approaching by Brian Libby, The Siege by Robert Preston, The Exodus Gate by Stephen Zimmer and All of Yesterday's Tomorrows by Corey K Cotta. As soon as I'm done with those, I'll be launching into Nyphron Rising by Michael J Sullivan (received this in October already!), and then I'll be announcing the next batch of books to be read. I guarantee reviews of all the titles listed, and I'll send the authors and publishers links to the reviews as soon as they are up.

So please be patient - I'm hoping for two reviews before the end of 2009! :-)

And please also understand that I will also be reviewing books sent to me by the bigger publishers - I must also repay their awesomeness, just as I must repay yours. :-)

As always,
Be EPIC!

P.S. If I've forgotten you ( and I may have ), please send me an email to remind me and I'll amend this post and add you to the reading list. :-)

P.P.S. My fellow reviewer David is (as far as I know) not laboring under any reading restrictions, so feel free to contact him. :-)

Monday, December 21, 2009

John Jarrold's Corner: News & Mark C Newton News!

I've got one last batch of news for you from John Jarrold for 2009, and it really is awesome news!



PRESS RELEASE – TWO-BOOK DEAL FOR SF NOVELIST PHILIP PALMER

Bella Pagan, Commissioning Editor of Orbit UK, has acquired two new novels by British SF author Philip Palmer. The agent was John Jarrold, and the deal was for World rights.

These novels – the first is entitled HELLSHIP – are both due for delivery in 2010, and will see a concerted push by Orbit on both sides of the Atlantic in 2011.

Philip’s first novel, DEBATABLE SPACE, was published in 2008, with RED CLAW following earlier this year. His work has drawn praise from the Guardian, SFX magazine and many other sources, both in print and on-line. The latter novel features in the Top Twenty SF novels published in 2009 in leading genre website SF Crowsnest’s reader poll. His third SF novel, VERSION 43, comes from both Orbit UK and Orbit US in 2010.




Wonderful news for Philip! :-) Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy, and I'm really chuffed that we'll be reading more of his incredibly funny blend of hard SF / Space Opera! :-)

Next up, here's the official US cover of Mark Newton's impending entrance into the US Fantasy market - Night's of Villjamur! (I quite like the cover, btw)



Mark is also looking back on 2009 in this post, and head on over to Pat's blog to read an excerpt of the sequel to Nights of Villjamur, coming in 2010! :-)

Be EPIC!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Review: Avatar (Movie Review)



Last night a friend and I went to go watch Avatar, and we were both completely blown away! Not only is it an incredible 3D movie (and the first I've seen), it's also a movie with a very strong message - a message that I'm afraid will go completely un-noticed because it has been packaged in entertainment.

So, we sat down, watched the previews of other movies -and the plethora of TV ads that are the irritating norm for SA movie-goers- and when the movie started, we slipped on our 3D glasses...

The first thing that grabbed by attention -during the main character's voice-over- was, of course, the 3D. Even though you don't see much in the beginning, it's still amazing, though it was introduced in a manner that made you want to say, "Okay, that's cool, but not breathtaking or amazing." I'm glad that James Cameron took this route, because it would have been terrible to showcase everything the 3D technology could do in the first ten minutes of the movie.

As the movie progresses, James really ups the ante - and as the world of Pandora is revealed, the 3D tech almost overawes you -almost, I say, because James balances showcasing the tech with the absolutely stunning world he has created; Pandora really is an alien world, and is stunningly beautiful! Everything from the plants to the landscapes to the creatures - the CGI is so realistic that you'll find yourself thinking on more than one occasion that there must be a world like Pandora somewhere, and that James Cameron traveled there to shoot the movie. It will, without a doubt, take your breath away!

Another aspect in which this movie really works, and which ties in to Pandora itself, is the culture of the natives - and this is where, I believe, the message and lesson of Avatar will be glossed over and forgotten in the hype and beauty of the movie:

I bet if all the delegates at Copenhagen watched this movie, they would be awed, would enjoy it, would cheer at the movie's climactic battle - but would they get the message? Would any of us? The story at the heart of Avatar is about destruction, and the hope that it can be halted, or at least staved off. Either way, I really hope this movie is not only enjoyed and celebrated because of its utter beauty and the incredible technology employed within it, as well as the fact that it looks at issues the whole world is facing, and forces us to acknowledge those issues and deal with them.

Avatar is a movie that you simply must watch in a movie theatre - watch in in 3D, watch it in IMAX, as many times as you can!

9/10

Thursday, December 17, 2009

An Aside: Introducing Darius Pretorius - Part 2

Hey everyone, I'm back with some incredible artwork from my talented friend, Darius. :-)

Once again, if nudity doesn't sit well with you, then DON'T LOOK AT THIS POST. Don't say I didn't warn you. :-)

Phoenix


Darius didn't supply names for the rest of the pieces, perhaps fittingly. :-)













There we go, two posts (this and the previous post of Darius' beautiful artwork. :-) Remember, if you'd like to contact Darius for any reason (hopefully to tell him what talent he has and how beautiful his work is) then drop him a line at the following email address:

Darius (dot) Pretorius (at) iprosol (dot) co (dot) za


That's it for now! Until tomorrow,

Be EPIC!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

An Aside: Introducing Darius Pretorius - Part 1

Hey guys and girls, I thought I'd change things up a bit by posting something new and non-SFF related.

Darius is a friend of mine, and he's an artist, too; we got to talking about his work a couple of weeks ago and I offered him the opportunity of getting his work onto the blog so that it could be seen by a wider audience, which I feel is needed and completely justified. Darius' work is beautiful!

This post will show 6 pieces, and tomorrow's post will show the remaining 7 pieces. And please note, these are photos of the pieces, not JPEGs. :-) Also, I'm warning you straight out - there is nudity in some of the pieces, so if it offends you, DON"T LOOK AT IT.

Enjoy!

Chimp


Desert


Desert Symbols


Desire


Madonna


Nymph


I'll be posting the remaining 7 pieces tomorrow. :-) If you'd like to contact Darius, you can reach him at this email address:

Darius (dot) Pretorius (at) iprosol (dot) co (dot) za

Until tomorrow,

Be EPIC!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Desert Spear by Peter V Brett - My Fan Video

I made this video on the 15th as a thank-you to Peat - for The Painted Man, being such an awesome guy, and for helping out a blogger from South Africa to get a foothold in the blogosphere. :-) Thanks Peat!

Hope you all enjoy it!



I hope you've pre-ordered your copies already! Click here for US, here for UK and here for South Africa.

Be EPIC!

Review: Angry Ghosts by F. Allen Farnham

I've owed Allen this review for a while now, and I'm happy to finally post it. :-)

Angry Ghosts follows the story of what might happen when the absolute worst happens - humanity is practically wiped out in a surprise attack and those that remain are left to struggle and survive, but don't let this simple plot-explanation fool you - Allan has crafted a tale that explores what it means to be human, and what it means to survive when you are vastly outnumbered and outgunned.

Diving into the review, the first thing that I noticed was Allen's ability to describe movement and action - his descriptions are so well written that you hardly notice them; they sort of creep up upon you and bushwhack you while you're not looking, and as the world takes shapes around you in more and more detail, you realize that Allen is extremely good at painting scenes and descriptions that resonate and come alive in your mind. He also writes battle scenes like a master - the action is brutal and frenetic, whether its hand-to-hand or a battle between vessels in space. These are the kind of scenes that would translate extremely well onto the big screen!

The world that Allen has created for Angry Ghosts is also very well realized, and its obvious that he put in a lot of effort to make sure that everything had a depth and history too, from the vessels to the weapons to the clothes the characters wear, including the worlds they live in. Everything has a purpose and is not just background-clutter.

Allen also manages, while sharing his tale, to force us to look at our own lives - how we live them, what we consider to be right and wrong, even what we sacrifice to survive. He builds a convincing stage that reflects us at ourselves - if that makes any sense - and often times you'll be left thinking, Man, if only that were so; the world would be a better place.

The tale does leave you with some questions, though, and I sincerely hope that these questions will be answered by a sequel - Angry Ghosts works on its own, but it is clear that this is the opening tale in a story that has the potential to be a series that will explore and play with many ideas that have been done in SF and Fantasy, but which I'm pretty sure Allen will be able to put his own unique spin on.

Definitely a novel that deserves to be read and enjoyed; highly recommended!

8 / 10



To order your copies of Angry Ghosts, click here for US and here for UK.

For more info on F. Allen Farnham, check out the Cadre One Publishing website and the blog. Also, check out this review on Only The Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Review: The Wheel of Time Book 12 - The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson




So, I finally managed to get a copy and read it. Practically a month and a half after it was published worldwide, but I did get it. And here are my thoughts:

I will admit that I was a bit worried about the book after I read the first chapter posted at Tor.com; I immediately picked up that this wasn't Jordan, and my instinct was to be a bit put out and disappointed. Until, that is, I realized the most important thing - this was Robert Jordan's book, but he did not write it. Some of you might be thinking, Huh? That's obvious! But think about this a little. Is any negative response towards the book justified, when taking into consideration that Robert Jordan was unable to write this book? If you were looking for a book written by Robert Jordan, there are plenty to choose from, including some westerns, but The Gathering Storm is not one of those books. Robert Jordan did not write this book! I'm just trying to make you few who might hate this book understand that. It is his book, but he did not write it because he, very sadly, died. Brandon Sanderson worked off notes, worked with Harriet and Mr Jordan's assistants, to write this book. So it is Robert Jordan's book, and it most definitely is a worthy Wheel of Time book. :-)

Okay, to my thoughts:

The prologue, in which a farmer we have never met before decides to pack up and move towards the building storm -to do his part in the battle that is coming- was an incredible piece! This section, more than any other, really brought home to me how close Tar'mon Gaidon is, and sets the tone for The Gathering Storm as well as The Towers of Midnight and A Memory of Light. In my opinion, the best of all previous Wheel of Time prologues!

And then you read further... Rand takes center-stage, and this Rand is dark and brooding and, worryingly, terrifying. I really came to like Rand, to commiserate and sympathize with him, but this Rand... This Rand was not the Rand I knew. I'm not saying that Brandon didn't capture him, that Brandon totally destroyed the character - I'm saying that, in a way, I didn't want this to be the rand I knew and liked. Like Min and Cadsuane, I didn't want to acknowledge the fact that pressure -and who has more immense pressure on him than the Dragon Reborn- changes a person; rand could not be the same person he was when we met him on the Quarry Road. He had to become harder and darker and ruthless. And when I understood this, I was able to read on - wincingly, and on the edge of my seat.

Falling deeper into the book is was a joy - not only did Brandon manage to capture the characters -even Aviendah- perfectly, but his understanding of the world and the story came through gloriously. You can tell that Brandon really has a deep and abiding love of the world and characters created by RJ, and a deep respect, too. I never once got the feeling that characters were reacting in ways that were at odds with how RJ wrote them, something that must have been incredibly difficult to do. I mean, not only was (and he still is, I believe)he under immense pressure from fans, the general Fantasy community, Tor, etc but he also had to handle characters and events that have been with us since 1992! A tall order, but something that Brandon accomplished in grand style, in my opinion. :-)

Moving to the events of the book, there are plenty of major surprises! Rand, as I said before, is terrible - by terrible I mean he's the kind of opponent I would cross oceans to escape! Now, more than any time before, he has embraced being the Dragon Reborn, and what he does in this book will knock your socks off! One event, in particular, will have the Forsaken s******g their pants, that's for sure! Brandon (via RJ's notes) sets the pace and keeps to it, charging the story through glimpses of the Forsaken, a very important and fateful day in the life of Tuon, Mat entering a creepy village, one of Egwene's Dreams coming true, and more events involving Rand. I was left breathless on many occasions, my girlfriend glancing at me and frowning most of the time because of me cheering or gasping or shaking my head or swearing, and on occasion, even laughing! There are some truly hilarious moments in the book, and not just in chapters devoted to Mat. :-)

In my opinion, Brandon succeeds at respecting and, in some ways, enhancing The Wheel of Time, as well as pushing events onwards towards the Final Battle. This book is definitely a worthy successor to the legacy and brilliance of Robert Jordan and I wouldn't mind at all if Brandon was asked to do the two other prequels that RJ planned to do or the Outrigger novel.

All in all, while this may not be the book we were waiting for -because RJ wasn't able to write it- this is definitely a must-read for all Wheel of Time fans and without a doubt one of the best books in the series. Not only did I enjoy it immensely, it also left me with the need to go back and read the rest of the books - not for re-reading purposes, not because I want to refresh myself on events and character arcs, but because I want to relive meeting the characters, watching the events unfold and learning about the world and its history. After The Gathering Storm, I love The Wheel of Time all the more!

My verdict: Very entertaining, exciting and a worthy addition to The Wheel of Time - 9 / 10!



To order your copies, click here for US, here for the UK, and for those in SA, use the Kalahari link at the top of the page or click here to order from Exclusive Books.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Back with Content!

Ah, it feels so good to be back! :-) We ended up getting a new ADSL modem and I can now connect to the internet through my notebook -the desktop still being a pile of once-electronic slag- so all is well! :-)

I thought I'd give you guys some cool stuff to check out on this crazily hot -in Pretoria, South Africa, at least- Sunday afternoon. :-)

First up, some new cover-art from Angry Robot for forthcoming novels -

Here's Kaaron Warren's Walking the Tree:



And here's the blurb for you, too; sounds like it'll be an incredible read!

Botanica is an island, but almost all of the island is taken up by the Tree.

Little knowing how they came to be here, small communities live around the coast line. The Tree provides them shelter, kindling, medicine – and a place of legends, for there are ghosts within the trees who snatch children and the dying.

Lillah has come of age and is now ready to leave her community and walk the tree for five years, learning all Botanica has to teach her. Before setting off, Lillah is asked by the dying mother of a young boy to take him with her. In a country where a plague killed half the population, Morace will otherwise be killed in case he has the same disease. But can Lillah keep the boy’s secret, or will she have to resort to breaking the oldest taboo on Botanica?


Next up, I've got Colin Harvey's second Angry Robot offering for you - Damage Time!



It’s 2050 and sea-levels have swamped today’s coastal regions. New York City is protected by tidal barriers and the USA is bankrupt.

Detective Pervez (Pete) Shah serves with the NYPD’s Web Crimes Division as a Memory Association Specialist. When he’s accused of murdering a glamorous woman in a bar, he must find the killer, save himself … and the world.


There has been some debate about the cover art over at Walker of Worlds, and while I believe this isn't a terrible cover, I think it could be a bit better. :-) What do you think?

Next up, Andy Remic's sequel to first book in The Clockwork Vampire Chronicles, Kell's Legend; here's Soul Stealers!



The sequel to Kell’s Legend – more blood-soaked, action-packed, vampire-laced dark epic fantasy.

Kell is being hunted. The vampires are fighting back against him, and the mighty hero finds himself the prey of two beautiful but deadly vampire assassins.

Their bronze fangs are coming for him.

He will strike back.


And here's Lavie Tidhar's first novel for Angry Robot, The Bookman;



A brilliant criminal stalks the streets of London. Scotland Yard is on his trail. But how can the city remain safe when every book is a potential weapon?

Angry Robot have also started their own 12-Days-of-Christmas thing, and every day from now until Christmas they'll be posting a little something from their authors on the site. Today, launching the cool endeavour, is Collin Harvey and his short story, Alternativity.

Also in the news, awesome fantasy author John Marco has started blogging again! Let's give him a massive Welcome Back! :-)

Peter V Brett is hosting a competition that'll have thousands of entries, I'm sure - he's giving away ARC's of his eagerly awaited sequel to The Painted Man, The Desert Spear! Check out the link for details on how to enter.

Tomorrow I'll have my review of the excellent Jordan-Sanderson twelfth Wheel of Time novel, The Gathering Storm, and on Tuesday I'll be posting my review of F Allen Farnham's Angry Ghosts. It absolutely kicked Brandon Sanderson's Warbreaker's arse - check out this link for details on how and why. :-)

Oh, and get ready for some for KICKASS Star Wars Force-Unleashing!



Until tomorrow,

Be EPIC!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Why I Haven't Been Blogging...

Hey Guys and Girls, so here's the problem:

Last week Wednesday there was a huge storm, lightning, cloud-bursts, the works, and while I was at work, lightning struck at home. My girlfriend phoned me and said that the power had just gone out and that she thought something inside the TV had exploded. It turned out that our satellite decoder had been struck, and it's now stuffed. We've been catapulted back into the 50's with that decade's black-and-white imagery. :-(

But that's not all. My desktop was struck, too; apparently it got such a massive hit that the processer's mounting has melted, which in effect means that the motherboard is now about as useful as a cardboard-screwdriver. So that means I'll have to get a new desktop. :-(

But that, too, is not all. The ADSL modem was struck, too, along with the phone line. Now, the modem survived intact, but the phone line is messed up, so no internet. I've still got my notebook to work on, but I have no connecting to the internet.

I've looked at my options and, if everything goes well, will be up and running again in the week of the 16th. Hopefully. :-( So, please understand that until then, there wont be any new content on the blog. David, too, has had a run of bad luck (his laptop was stolen on his birthday, no less), so we're both a bit screwed at the moment. :-(

But I can still be reached (for all of those who have our email addresses, and I'm on Twitter, too (just search for RealmsGalaxies), and my Blackberry is still okay. :-)

Hang in there and we'll be up and at it again before too long! :-)

And Be EPIC!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sherrilyn Kenyon - The League Trilogy Competition

Hey everyone, some awesome news from St Martin's Press regarding Sherrilyn Kenyon's new (and now complete and entirely available) trilogy, The League, comprised of the following books:

Born of Night



Born of Fire



Born of Ice



To celebrate this new trilogy from Sherrilyn Kenyon, St Martin's Press is offering 20 readers in the USA a chance to win free downloads of all three books! :-) If you'd like to enter, check out this link. :-)

And here's a new trailer for you all to enjoy - since all the books are now available, the book trailer has been redone! Enjoy!



For more info on Sherrilyn and The League, check out these links: The Official Website for The League, Sherrilyn's official website, and the website dedicated to The Sanctuary.

Until tomorrow,

Be EPIC!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Free Fiction - Mercury Retrograde Press Presents!

Hey everyone, thanks to Barbara Friend Ish I have some great free fiction for you! :-)

Edward Morris' There Was a Crooked Man has been serialized; the first book, Book Zero - Death Inc. is ready to be read and enjoyed! Taken from the website:

"Welcome to the world of master fabulist Edward Morris, where History has been pulled down a Hieronymus Bosch rabbit-hole and everything makes far too much sense...

Things are strange out in western Pennsylvania. It's a matter for debate whether they've always been that way. But if things are getting creepy in Powersburg, we're going to need a new word for what's coming into the County Morgue..."


If you're interested -and who wouldn't be, come on- then click here for the main site; you'll see that the serializations have been split into 'canvases', so go ahead and start at 1 if you don't want to be confused. :-) A new canvas is posted every Friday, so set your alarms, mark your calendars, whatever you need to do!

The link will take you through to the page set up on Mercury Retrograde Press' website for the serializations, and this is how I'd suggest you proceed; make a cup of coffee, or juice, or prepare your favourite poison, and then settle down and bookmark the site before you plunge in. :-) And once you're done, check out what else Mercury Retrograde Press has to offer - you're sure to find something you'll enjoy. :-)

And don't forget to spread the word!

Be EPIC!

Monday, November 30, 2009

A Very Short Review of New Moon

Hey everyone, hope you all had an enjoyable weekend! :-) Mine could have been much better, but hey, you take the good with the bad, right?

Anyway, so I went to go watch New Moon. I really should have waited for DVD, as well as listened to @mattlibrarian; it was a waste of time and money.

We sat down to watch it, thinking that the hype must be deserved - after all, other than Harry Potter, this is the biggest movie-series to hit the cinema in recent history, and millions of poor girls lose their minds every time the simple word, 'Edward' is uttered aloud. An d I will admit, in many cases, this mania towards The Twilight Saga is deserved - it takes a sharp eye to notice when the masses are ripe to exploited, and the teams of people behind the marketing drives have gone well above the call of duty in making sure that everyone alive (practically) knows about the movies.

I'll also freely admit that I liked the first movie; Twilight was not only not as soppy as I thought it would be, but it also succeeded in making Vampires interesting again - at least for me. (I still believe, though, that Lestat, Marius and even poor Louis would put a huge smackdown on the Cullen-family, in terms of both power and pure style) I walked out of that movie thinking, "Okay, not bad, I'll be watching New Moon when it hits the screen." I wasn't hooked on Stephanie Meyer's books (I have yet to read any of her work) but I was on the front lines, working in a bookstore as I do. So seeing the mania grow did its part in insulating me from its effects, you could say. :-) But yes, I did enjoy Twilight, the movie.

But New Moon... It really was a waste. First of all, the director of Twilight should have been kept on to direct New Moon. Twilight flows where it must, speeds when needed, and had a palpable atmosphere of danger when Bella was being targeted by the rogue vampires (including Victoria). New Moon supposedly upped the stakes, pushing Bella into more danger, but you couldn't tell. And that, I'm afraid, was mostly due to the acting of Ms Stewart. The only time there was any real emotion from her was in the sequences when she was having nightmares, and then we didn't even get to see her face, just heard her screaming. I've never been so frustrated by an actor before, honestly. There was no variation at all in her acting, and Bella (as far as I can tell from friends who have read all the books) was ripped to shreds. She seemed like an Emo-chic that I would just as soon frown at and ignore than have to rely on her to tell a tale that'll keep me interested.

Another aspect of the movie that dragged it down even further into the muck was the pacing - I was literally waiting for something to happen that might push my heart-rate up a bit, even during the (I have to admit) excellent fight-scenes involving the Wolves Vs Vampire and Vampire Vs Vampires. The movie dragged too much. And someone please explain why it seemed that no-one could speak coherently? Or at a steady, normal pace? Why did it take 30 seconds to say three words?

Anyway, suffice it to say that I did not enjoy the movie at all. But I will say this - I'll be reading the books. Often, an adaptation is terrible because it's difficult to adapt it to the screen, and that usually implies that the book itself is excellent. Case in point, Thomas Harris' Hannibal. So I'll read the books, sometime, and offer my thoughts on them - hopefully before Eclipse hits the screen. :-)

Until then,

Be EPIC!

Friday, November 27, 2009

New Projects Coming from Stephen King

Now, I hope most of you have read Under the Dome and have given yourselves over to a King-fest (I know I would like to!), but if you've read of Stephen King's work and are starved for new material, you'll have to still wait a bit. :-)

The King has announced one project, and the web is a-buzz with rumors of another - the projects being a return to the worlds of The Dark Tower and a sequel to The Shining.

The King has said that he'll be writing either a novel or a series of interlinked stories set between Volume 4: Wizard and Glass, and Volume 5: Wolves of the Calla, and that these stories (or the novel) will have the title The Wind Through the Keyhole. There has been much debate on this, with some saying, basically, Leave It Alone, and others foaming at the mouths for more Dark Tower material; I'm of the latter - The Dark Tower saga is such an incredible tale that I would love another addition to it - goodness knows that the worlds King created for the series (worlds which link to his body of work in many ways) have almost limitless tales waiting to be told! :-) (Thanks to Piotr for the info!)

I'll keep you updated on news concerning The Wind Through the Keyhole, though, :-)

Now, concerning a sequel to The Shining, King hasn't yet decided whether to actually write the book or not. The story might focus on Danny, he who has the Shine, as a 40-year old, and might be titled Doctor Sleep. It'll be interesting to see in which direction King takes the character and events, and I for one am, of course, itching to read it! :-) (Thanks to Lood for the info!)

What do you think? Return to the Dark Tower or write a sequel to The Shining or both?

Be EPIC!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Quick Update...

... of absolutely bugger-all. :-) I have nothing specific to blog about today, but I will tell you that I'm reading The Gathering Storm - Brandon was an excellent choice! The book, while a bit jarring in the beginning because of it not being in the voice we know, has grown to be an absolute page-turner; Brandon really knows the world, the conflicts and the characters, and I'm really happy with what he's done so far. :-)

I also started reading Aliette De Bodard's Servant of the Underworld (coming in Jan 2010 from Angry Robot), and as I said on Twitter, this is definitely going to be a memorable book! Imagine an urban fantasy set in ancient Mexico and you've got a good idea of what you're in for. :-) Expect that review up soon, too!

I'm also reading plenty of other books at the moment, jumping around as the mood takes me, but more on that after my Wheel of Time and Angry Robot review. :-)

Be EPIC!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

New Novels in-Coming!

News from TOR (thanks to Chloe Healy) and John Jarrold!



Some great news for all you Hard-SF / Space Opera lovers out there (like me): Gary Gibson (who's Nova War should be on shelves everywhere, so get on Exclusive Books' case if it isn't) has signed with TOR for three more novels! :-)



"Gibson has already begun work on the first book in the new contract, the working title of which is Final Days. The second will be a sequel and the third a standalone novel set in the same world as The Shoal Sequence, the second book of which, Nova War, has just been published to rave reviews."

Julie Crisp (Mark C Newton's editor, too) says of Gibson and the incoming novels: "Gary is easily considered one of the up-and-coming stars of, not only the Tor UK list, but space opera in general and is constantly aligned with Alastair Reynolds, Peter F Hamilton and Neal Asher as a leading name in British hard SF. So I’m thrilled to continue working with him on his very exciting books."

What does gary have to say about the news? Taken from his blog, "I just got an offer for Tor for three new books, starting with Final Days, which I've blogged about in the past. The other two books are a sequel to Final Days, called The Thousand Emperors, and Core (very much a working title), a standalone story set in the same world as Stealing Light and its sequels. Off to a restaurant to celebrate."

Awesome news! I'll have to get my ass in gear and get some Gibson's under the belt! :-) As I've said, Nova War is already available in SA, and I'll keep you updated on the paperback-release date, as well as release dates for Final Days, The Thousand Emperors, and Core. :-)



Now for news from John Jarrold:

Eric Brown's new deal with Solaris!



PRESS RELEASE – NEW SOLARIS DEAL FOR ERIC BROWN

Jonathan Oliver, commissioning editor of Solaris Books since the imprint’s acquisition from Games Workshop by Rebellion earlier this month, has commissioned a new SF novel from Eric Brown, GUARDIANS OF THE PHOENIX. The agent was John Jarrold, and the deal was for UK/US rights. The book is due for publication late in 2010.

“Eric has been a mainstay of Solaris since their very successful publication of his novel HELIX,” said John Jarrold. “This proposal looks fascinating, and I can’t wait to read the finished novel!”

Great news, especially considering the fact that, for a while, everything was so up in the air with Solaris. :-)

And great news for Jaine Fenn fans!



PRESS RELEASE – TWO-BOOK DEAL FOR SF NOVELIST

Jo Fletcher, Associate Publisher of Gollancz, has acquired two new novels by British SF author Jaine Fenn. The agent was John Jarrold, and the deal was for World rights.

These novels, titled BRINGER OF LIGHT and QUEEN OF NOWHERE, are due for delivery in 2010 and 2011 respectively and will be published under the name J N Fenn, as will all the author’s future novels.

Fenn’s first novel, PRINCIPLES OF ANGELS, was published to critical success by Gollancz in 2008, with CONSORTS OF HEAVEN following this year and GUARDIANS OF PARADISE forthcoming in 2010.

***

Awesome stuff all round! Long Live SF! :-)

Be EPIC!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Book Trailer: Sherrilyn Kenyon's Born of Ice

Hey everyone, I've got another awesome book trailer for you! :-)

Enjoy!



Check out this link for the site dedicated to The League, this link for Sherrilyn's official site, and this link for the Official Sanctuary site. :-) Wanna get your hands on the book? It'll be available from the 1st of December, so you'll have to pre-order your copies! Click here for UK, here for USA, and for those in SA, please use the link at the top-right of the blog.



Click here if you'd like to read an excerpt from Born of Ice, and, as always,

Be EPIC!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Awesome Books, Awesome Covers!

Hey everyone, thought I'd let you all have a look at some covers that have recently seen the light - some are for new books, some are rejackets, but they all deserve a spotlight. :-)


First up we have the new jacket of Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold; I have to be honest and say that I like the original cover more - I've supplied it, too. :-)


Next up, the preliminary (i.e. not final, so don't go nuts yet) cover for Brent Weeks' next novel:


I have to say I like this - it shows that a brand is definitely being created for Brent's work, and it'll always make his books leap off the shelves, visually. :-)

Then we've got the much-debated US paperback-cover for Mark C Newton's excellent Nights of Villjamur - not my favourite cover but a a pretty cool cover nonetheless!


Next up, some more striking cover art from the forthcoming Angry Robot title, Servant of the Underworld by Aliette De Bodard!


And now, the US cover art for Robert Redick's sequel to The Red Wolf Conspiracy: The Rats and the Ruling Sea. As you see, the title has been truncated somewhat. :-)


Next up, the cover of Jasper Kent's sequel (and book 2 in the series) to the excellent Twelve:


Hopefully all the covers are kept the same for the UK releases - more author branding is never a bad thing, though I'm interested to see what happens with the US covers. :-)

Next up, I've got a new cover for Brian Ruckley's Winterbirth. It's the Czech translation, and I quite like this! Wouldn't mind a copy on my shelf! ;-)


What do you think of the covers?

Be EPIC!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Angry Robot Free Fiction: Kell's Legend Part 4!

Hey everyone, here's the fourth and final excerpt of Andy Remic's Kell's Legend, Book One of the Clockwork Vampire Chronicles, from Angry Robot; enjoy!





‘Wait.’

Kell’s hushed whisper, despite its low tone, carried with surprising clarity. Nienna and Kat froze instantly in place. Both young women were walking a high-rope, skating thin ice, breathing the tension of the besieged and sundered city. Again and again they passed corpses, shrivelled husks, sometimes piles of men, women, heaps of disjointed child corpses, huddled together as if for warmth; in reality, all they craved was a chance at life.

Kell lowered his hand, half-turned, gestured for the girls to join him. They scampered down the cobbled road, gloved hands holding cloth over the freezing skin of their faces, swords sheathed at waists more as tokens than real weapons. Both girls understood that in real world combat, their lives hung by a thread. And the thread was named Kell.

‘See,’ he hissed, gesturing towards the Selenau River, flowing like ink beneath swirling tendrils of ice-smoke. ‘The enemy have a foothold here; now it’ll be damn impossible to steal a boat.’

Nienna watched the albino soldiers, streams of them in their hundreds, marching down the waterfront. Many dragged prisoners, some kicking and screaming. These, they locked in huge iron cages which had been erected beside the sluggish wide river. Many dragged corpses, and these they piled in heaps as if… Nienna frowned. As if they were waiting for something?

Nienna’s eyes searched as far as the false horizon. Sometimes, ice-smoke parted and she got a good glimpse down a length of the river. Huge black and red brick factories lined the water; they were mainly dye-works, slaughter houses and tanneries. The sort of place which Nienna had been destined to work before her ‘nameless benefactor’ stepped in with university fees. Huge iron cranes stretched across the river for loading and unloading cargo. Wide pipes disgorged chemical effluence, dyes and slaughterhouse blood and offal into the river. Even in winter, the place stunk to high heaven; in summer, vomit lined the waterfront from unwary travellers.

Kat edged forward, and crouched beside Kell. She met the old warrior’s gaze and he had to admire her edge. ‘What about another way out of the city? There’s too many of the bastards here.’ She spat on the ground.

‘They will have the gates covered. This whole situation stinks, Kat. I’ve seen this sort of… slaughter, before. The Army of Iron don’t want anybody getting out; they don’t want anybody to spoil their master plan. If somebody was to get word to King Leanoric, for example…’

‘That is our mission!’ said Katrina.

‘No girl. Our mission is to stay alive. Anything else – that comes later.’

In truth, Kell still felt deeply uneasy. What sort of conquering army simply committed murder and atrocity? It didn’t make sense. Slaughter all the bakers, who would bake bread for the soldiers?

Murder the whores and dancers, who then to provide entertainment? Soldiers marched on their stomachs, and fought best when happy. Only an insane general went on a pointless rampage. Kell had seen it once before, during the Days of Blood. Bad days. Bad months. Kell’s mouth was dry at the thought. Bitter, like the plague.

The Days of Blood…

A dark whisper. In his soul.

A splinter. Of hatred. Of remorse.

You took part, Kell. You killed them all, Kell.

Visions echoed. Slashes of flashback. Crimson and shimmering. Diagonal slices, echoes of a time of horror. Screams. Writhing. Slaughter. Whimpering. Steel sawing methodically through flesh and bone. Worms eating skin. Eating eyes. Blood running in streams down stone gutters. Running in rivers. And soldiers, faces twisted with bloodlust, insanity, naked and smeared with blood, with piss and shit, with vomit, capering down streets with swords and knives, adorning their bodies with trophies from victims… hands, eyes, ears, genitalia…

Kell swooned, felt sick. He forced away the terrible visions and rubbed a gloved hand through his thick beard. ‘Damn you all to hell,’ he muttered, a terrible heaviness sinking through him, from brain to stomach, a heavy metal weight dragging his soul down to his boots and leaking out with the piss and the blood.

‘You look ill.’ Kat placed a hand on his broad, bear-clad shoulder.

‘No, girl, I am fine,’ he breathed, shuddering. And added, under his breath, ‘on the day that I die.’ Then louder, ‘Come. I can see a tunnel under the tannery.’

‘That’s an evil place,’ said Kat, pulling back. ‘My little brother used to collect the piss-pots used in the tannery; he caught a terrible disease from there; he died. I swore I would never go inside such a place.’

‘It’s that, or die yourself,’ said Kell, not unkindly.

Kat nodded, and followed Kell and Nienna down the street, all three crouching low, moving slowly, weapons at the ready and eyes alert. As they approached the tunnel, an incredible stench eased out to meet them: a mixture of gore and fat, dog-shit, piss, and the slop-solution of animal brains used in the bating process. Kell forced his way inside, treading through a thick sludge and coming up grooved and worn brick steps into a room hung with hides still to be stripped of hair, gore and fat. They swung, eerily, on blood-dried hooks. There were perhaps a hundred skins waiting for the treatment that would eventually lead to water-skins, armour, scabbards and boots. Kell stepped over channels running thick with disgorged brains.

‘What is that?’ gagged Nienna.

‘When the skins arrive, they need to be scraped free of dried fat and flesh. The tanners then soak skins in vats mixed with animal brains, and knead it with dog-shit to make it soft.’ He grinned at Nienna, face demonic in the gloomy light where shadows from gently swinging skins cast eerie shapes over his bearded features. ‘Now you can see why you were so lucky to be accepted into the university, girl. This is not a place for children.’

‘Yet a place where children work,’ said Kat, voice icy.

‘As you say.’

They moved warily between swinging skins, the two women flinching at the brush of hairy hides still strung with black flesh and long flaps of thick yellow fat. At one point Kat slipped, and Nienna grabbed her, hoisting her away from a channel filled with oozing mashed animal brains and coagulated blood.

‘This is purgatory,’ said Nienna, voice soft.

Kat turned away, and was sick.

As Kell emerged from the wall of hung skins, so he froze, eyes narrowing, head turning left and right. Before him stood perhaps twenty large vats, four with fires still burning beneath their copper bases. This was where excess flesh and hide strips were left to rot for months on end in water, before being boiled to make hide glue. If nothing else, this place stunk the worst of all and Kell was glad of the cloth he held over his mouth.

Then Kell turned, frowning, and strode towards a vat containing the foul-smelling broth and hoisted his axe. ‘Are you coming out, or do I come in axe-first?’

‘Whoa, hold yourself there, old fellow,’ came an educated voice, and from the shadows slipped a tall, athletic man. Nienna watched him, and found herself immediately attracted; something the dandy was no-doubt used to. His face was very finely chiselled, his hair black, curled, oiled back, neat above a trimmed moustache and long sideburns that were currently the height of fashion amongst nobles. He wore a rich blue shirt, dark trews, high cavalry boots and a short, expensive, fur-lined leather cloak. He had expensive rings on his fingers, a clash of diamonds and rubies. His eyes were a dazzling blue, even in this gloomy, murky, hellish place. He had what Nienna liked to call a smiling face.

Kat snorted. Nienna was about to laugh as well, so ridiculous did the nobleman look in this evil-smelling tannery from hell; until she saw his sword. This, too, had a faint air of the ridiculous, until she married it to his posture. Only then did she consider the broad shoulders, the narrow hips, the subtle stance of an experienced warrior. Nienna chided herself. This man, she realised, had been underestimated many times.

‘Why are you skulking back there, fool?’

‘Skulking? Skulking? Old horse, my name is Saark, and Saark does not skulk. And as for fool, I take such a jibe as I presume you intend; in utter good humour and jest at such a sorry situation and predicament in which we find ourselves cursed.’

‘Pretty words,’ snorted Kell, turning back to Nienna and Kat. He turned back, and realised Saark was close. Too close. The rapier touched Kell’s throat and there was a long, frozen moment of tension.

‘Pretty enough to get me inside your guard,’ said Saark, voice soft, containing a hint of menace.
‘I think we fight the same enemy,’ said Kell, eyes locked to Saark.

‘Me also!’ Saark stepped back and sheathed his blade. He held out his hand. ‘I am Saark.’

‘You already said.’

‘I believe it’s such a fine name, it deserves saying twice.’

Kell grunted. ‘I am Kell. This is Nienna, my granddaughter, and her friend Kat. We were thinking of stealing a boat. Getting the hell away from this invaded charnel house of a city.’

Saark nodded, moving close to Nienna and Kat. ‘Well, hello there, ladies.’ Both young women blushed, and Saark laughed, a tinkling of music, his eyes roving up and down their young frames.

‘Saark!’ snapped Kell. ‘There are more important things at play, here. Like the impending threat on our lives, for one.’

Saark made a tutting sound in the back of his throat, and surveyed his surroundings. And yet, despite his smile, his fine clothes, his finer words, Nienna could see the tension in this man; like an actor on the stage, playing a part he’d rehearsed a thousand times before, Saark was enjoying his performance. But he was hampered, by an emotion which chipped away at the edges of his mask.

Fear.

It lurked in his eyes, in his stance, in a delicate trembling of his hand. Nienna noticed. She enjoyed people-watching. She was good at it.

Saark took a deep breath. ‘How did you know I was here?’

‘I could smell you.’

‘Smell me?’ Saark grinned then, shaking his head. His face was pained. ‘I cannot believe you could smell me amidst this stench. I like to think I have better grooming habits.’

Kell had moved to a window, was standing back from the wooden shutters and watching soldiers down by the river. He turned and eyed Saark warily. ‘It was your perfume.’

‘Aaah! Eau du Petale. The very finest, the most excitingly exquisite…’

‘Save it. We’re moving. We can escape via the pipe which dumps tannin and slop out into the river. If we head down into the cellars, I’m sure…’

‘Wait.’ Saark brushed past Kell and stood, one manicured hand on the shutters, the other on the hilt of his rapier. Suddenly, Saark’s foppish appearance didn’t seem quite so ridiculous.

‘What is it?’

‘The carriage. I know it.’

Kell gazed out. A carriage had drawn alongside a cage full of weeping prisoners; all women. The carriage was black, glossy, and had an intricate crest painted on the door. The horses stomped and chewed at their bits, disturbed either by the stench of the tanneries or the moans of the women. The driver fought to keep the four beasts under control and their hooves clattered on ice-rimed cobbles.

‘Well, I know him,’ snarled Kell, as General Graal stalked towards the carriage and folded his arms. His armour gleamed. He ran a hand through his long white hair, an animal preening. ‘He’s the bastard in charge of this army. He called it the Army of Iron.’

‘You know him?’ Saark met Kell’s gaze.

‘The bastard sent a couple of his soldiers to kill me and the girls.’

‘He was far from successful, I see.’

‘I don’t die easy,’ said Kell.

‘I’m sure you don’t, old horse.’ Saark smiled, and turned back to the distant performance. The carriage door was opened by a lackey, and a man stepped down. He was dressed in furs, and held a cloth over his face against the chill of ice-smoke, which was dissipating even as they watched – its job now done. The man had shoulder length black hair, which gleamed.

‘Who is he?’ said Kell.

‘That,’ said Saark, staring hard at Kell, ‘is Dagon Trelltongue.’

‘The King’s advisor?’

Saark nodded. ‘King Leanoric’s most trusted man. He is, shall we say, the King’s regent when the King is away on business.’

‘What about Alloria?’

‘The Queen?’ Saark smiled. ‘I see, Kell, you have little schooling in nobility, or in royalty. It would be unseemly for a woman to rule in the King’s absence; you would have her meeting with common-folk? Doing business with captains and generals? I think not.’

‘Why,’ said Kell, ruffled, ‘would Trelltongue be here? Now?’

Saark transferred his gaze back to the two men beside the carriage. ‘A good question, my new and aged and ragged friend. However, much as I would love to make his acquaintance at this moment in time, I fear your escape plan to be sound – and immediately necessary. Would you like to lead the way, Kell, to this pipe of disgorging effluence?’

Kell hoisted his axe, looked at Nienna and Kat, then tensed, crouching a little, at what appeared behind the two women.

‘What is it?’ hissed Nienna, and turned…

From the hanging wall of skins, moving leisurely, gracefully, came a Harvester. Its flat oval face seemed emotionless, but the small black eyes, coals in a snowman’s face, searched across the room. Vertical slits hissed with air, and the creature seemed to be… sniffing. The Harvester gave a grimace that may have been a smile.

‘I followed you. Across the city.’ The voice was a dawdling, lazy roll, like big ocean waves on a fused beach.

Saark drew his rapier, and gestured to the two women to move. He took a deep breath, and watched as the Harvester lifted a hand. The embroidered robe fell away leaving five long, pointed fingers of bone…

‘I thought I explained, sweetie. You’re just not my type.’ But terror lay beyond Saark’s words, and as he and Kell separated, Kell loosening his shoulders, axe swinging gently, Saark muttered from the corner of his mouth, ‘Watch the fingers. That’s how they suck the life from your body.’
Kell nodded, as the blast of terror hit him. He stood, stunned by the ferocity of fear which wormed through his mind. He saw himself, lying in a hole in the ground, worms eating his eyes, his skin, his lungs, his heart.

Come to me, came the words in his head. A song. A lullaby. A call stronger than life itself.

Come to me, little one.

I will make the pain go away.


The Harvester drifted forward, and with a scream Saark attacked, rapier moving with incredible speed; a lazy backward gesture slapped Saark a full twenty feet across the tannery, where he landed, rolling fast, to slam against a vat with a groan.

Five bone fingers lifted.

Moved, towards Kell’s heart.

And with tears on his cheeks, the old soldier seemed to welcome them…



CHAPTER 3
A Taste of Clockwork.


Anukis awoke feeling drowsy; but then, the ever-present tiredness, like a lead-weight in her heart, in her soul, was something she had grown to endure over the years, something which she knew would never leave her because… because of what she was. She stretched languorously under thick goose-down covers, her long, curled, yellow hair cascading across plump pillows, her slender white limbs reaching out as if calling silently across the centuries for forgiveness.

Anukis glanced at the clock on the far wall. It was long, smooth, black like granite. Through a glass pane she could see tiny intricate cogs and wheels, spinning, turning, teeth mating neatly as micro-gears clicked into place. A pendulum swung, and a soft tick tick tick echoed through the room. Anukis’s eyes stared at the clock, loving it and hating it at the same time. She loved it because her father, Kradek-ka, had made the clock; and just like his father before him, he had been one of the finest Watchmakers in Silva Valley, his hands steady, precise, incredibly accurate with machining and assembly; his eye had been keen, not just with the precision of his trade, but with the delicate understanding of materials and what was perfect for any machine job. But it had been his mind that set him apart, indeed, highlighted him as a genius. Anu’s grandfather had accelerated and pioneered the art of watch-making, turning what had once been a relatively simple art of mechanical time-keeping into something more… advanced. This way, Kradek-ka had upheld the family traditions, and helped to save, to prolong, and to advance their race. The vachine.

Anukis rubbed at her eyes, then stood, gasping a little at the cool air in the room. Naked, goose-bumps ran up and down her arms and she hurried into a thick silk gown which fell to her ankles. She moved to a porcelain bowl and washed, her long, dainty fingers, easing water into her eyes, then carefully, into her mouth. She rubbed at her teeth, cold water stinging, then moved to the window of her high tower, gazing out over Silva Valley, eyes scanning the high mountain ridges which enclosed the huge tiered city like predator wings around a victim.

Anukis smiled. A victim. How apt.

Maybe they’ll come for me today, she thought. Maybe not.

A prisoner of the High Engineer Episcopate since her father had died (had been murdered, she thought hollowly), she was not allowed out from a small collection of rooms in this high tower suite. However, what the high-ranking religious Engineers and Major Cardinals did not realise, was that Anukis was not a pure oil-blood like the majority of the city population lying under a fresh fall of snow below, pretty and crystalline, a pastel portrait from her high window.

The smile faded from Anukis’s face.

No. She was far from pure. She carried the impurity seed within her. Which meant she could not drink blood-oil. Could not mate with the magick. Could not… feed, as a normal vachine would feed.
Anu could never enjoy the thrill of the hunt.

There came a knock at the door, and a maid entered carrying a small silver bowl which she placed by Anukis’s bed. With head bent low, she retreated, closing the door on silent hinges, hinges Anukis herself had oiled for the purpose of freedom. Anu moved to the bowl, glanced down at the tiny, coin-sized pool of blood-oil that floated there, crimson, and yet at the same time streaked with rainbow oils. This was the food of the vachine. Their fuel. That which made them unholy.

Anukis could not drink blood-oil. In its refined state, such as this, it poisoned her, and made her violently sick. She would be ill for weeks. To the Watchmakers, the Major Bishops, the Engineers, this was heresy, a mockery of their machine religion; punishable by exile, or more probably, death. Anu’s father had gone to great pains to protect his daughter for long years, hiding her away, dealing with the amoral Blacklippers of the south and their illegal import of Karakan Red, as it was known. Only this unrefined, common source – fresh from the vein – would, or could, sustain Anukis. And, she was sure, it was this subterfuge which had led to her father’s untimely death…

A face flashed in her mind. Vashell! Tall, athletic, powerful, tiny brass fangs poking over his lower lip. He was prodigal, a powerhouse of physical perfection and one of the youngest ever

Engineer Priests to have achieved such a rank. Destined for greatness. Destined for leadership!

One day, he would achieve the exalted rank of Major Cardinal; maybe even Watchmaker itself!

He had asked Anukis to marry him on two occasions, and both times her father had rejected Vashell’s advances, fearing that for Anukis to marry was for Anukis to die. But she saw the way Vashell looked at her. When he smiled, she glimpsed the tiny cogs and wheels inside his head, saw the glint of molten gold swirling in his eyes. He was true and pure vachine; a wholesome, blood-oil servant to the Vachine Religion. Vashell, a spoilt prince, an upstart royal, had got everything he ever wanted. And, she knew with a shudder, he would never stop until he possessed Anukis.

And… when that happens? She smiled sadly to herself.

Well, she would have to kill him. Or failing that, kill herself.

Far better death than what the Engineers would do to her if they discovered her tainted flesh…
Anukis opened the window and a cold wind gusted in, chilling her with a gasp and a smile. Far below, the sweeping granite roads shone under fresh snow, most of which had been swept into piles along the edges of the neat, gleaming thoroughfares. Buildings staggered away, maybe six or seven storeys in height, and all built from smooth white marble mined from the Black Pike Mountains. The architecture was stunning to behold, every joint precise. Arches and flutes, carvings and ornate buttresses, many inlaid with precious stones to decorate even the most bare of Silva Valley’s buildings – gifts from the all-giving Pikes. And the city itself was huge; it drifted away down the valley, mountains rearing like guardians to either side, for as far as Anukis could see. And her eyesight was brilliant. Her father had made sure of that.

The scent of snow came in to her, and she inhaled, savouring the cold. The vachine had a love affair with cold, but Anukis, being impure, and contaminated, preferred a little warmth. This, again, was a secret she had to jealously guard. If the Engineers discovered what she was… and the things she did when darkness fell…

Despite its well-oiled silence, Anukis caught the sound of the door opening. She also sensed the change in pressure within the room. Her eyes shone silver with tears and still gazing out over her beloved city, the one which her grandfather, and father, had given so much to advance, she said without turning, her voice a monotone, ‘What can I do for you, Vashell?’

‘Anukis, I would speak with you.’ His voice was soft, simple, almost submissive in its tone. But Anukis was not fooled; she had heard him chastise servants on many occasions, watched in horror as he beat them to death, or kicked them till they bled from savage wounds. He could change at the flick of a brass switch. He could turn to murder like a metal hawk drops on its prey…

‘I am still in mourning. There is little to say.’

‘Look at me, Anu. Please?’

Anukis turned, and wiped away a tear which had run down one cheek. With the tiniest of clicking sounds, she forced a smile to her face. Ultimately, her father would want her to live. Not sacrifice herself needlessly for the sake of sadness, or misery, or impurity. She took a deep breath. ‘I’m looking, Vashell. You have picked a bad time to intrude on my thoughts. And I am barely dressed. This is an unfortunate time to receive company. But then, if the High Engineer Episcopate keeps me a prisoner, I suppose my body is theirs to do with as they please…’

‘Hush!’ Vashell stepped forward, but stopped as Anukis shrank back, cowering almost, on the window-seat. ‘If anybody hears you speak so, your life will be forfeit! They will drain your blood-oil. You will be husked!’ For a vachine, there was no greater shame.

‘Why would you care?’ Her voice turned harsh, all the bitterness at her father’s death, all the poison at being kept prisoner rising to bubble like venom on her tongue. ‘You are a party to all this, Vashell! You said, twice, that you loved me. And twice you asked my father for the gift of marriage. Yet you stand by the Engineers whilst they keep me locked here,’ and now her eyes darkened, the gold swirling in their pupils turning almost crimson in her flush of anger, ‘and you collude in the capture of my sister.’

Vashell swallowed, and despite his mighty physical prowess, he edged uneasily from one polished boot to the next. ‘Shabis is fine, Anu. You know that. The Engineers are taking care of her. She is well.’

‘She is a young girl, Vashell, whose father has just died and whose sister has been imprisoned. When can I see her?’

‘It will be arranged.’

Anukis jumped down from the window-seat and strode to Vashell, gazing up at him. He was more than a head taller than the slender female, and she herself was nearly six feet in height. ‘You said that a week ago,’ she snarled, staring up into his eyes. Vashell squirmed.

‘It is not easy to arrange.’

‘You are an Engineer Priest! You can do anything!’

‘Not this.’ His voice dropped an octave. ‘You have no idea what you ask. So many in the High Council outrank me.’ He took a deep breath. ‘But… I will see what I can do. I promise.’

‘On your blood-oil soul?’

‘Yes, on my eternal soul.’

Anukis turned her back on him, moved to the window. She gazed across the city, but the beauty was now lost on her; decayed. A sudden wave of hate slammed through her, like a tsunami of ice against a frozen, volcanic beach. She would see it destroyed! She would see the Silva Valley decimated, and laid to a terrible waste…

‘You came here to ask me, didn’t you?’

‘I can help you, Anu.’

‘By marrying me?’

‘Yes! If you become the wife of an Engineer Priest, you will be sacrosanct. The Engineers cannot keep you prisoner! It would go against the Oak Testament. You know that.’

‘And yet, still I choose to say no.’

Anukis felt Vashell stiffen, without turning to look. She allowed herself a small smile. This was one thing she could deny him. But when he spoke again, the smile slowly drained from her face like bronze from a melting pot.

‘Listen carefully, pretty one, when I say this. For I will speak only once. Your father was found guilty of heresy by the Patriarch; I do not know what happened to him, but we both know, without seeing the corpse, that he is dead. The Engineers wanted you and your sister dead, also; I am all that stands between the two of you, and the Eternal Pyre. So, think very carefully before offering a facetious answer… because, if I choose to withdraw favour, the last of your worries will be your separation from your sister.’

Vashell swept from the apartment, door slamming in his wake so hard it rattled the oak frame. Dust trickled from between well-machined stones. Echoes bounced down the stairwell.

Shivering, Anukis turned and stared at the elegantly carved portal, then back out over the city. She shivered again, and this time it was nothing to do with the cold. Above her, her father’s clock ticked, every second reminding her of a melting life.

Anukis licked ice-cold lips.

She thought about blood.

And that which was denied her.

Tonight. Tonight, she would visit the Blacklippers.



The sun set over the mountains casting crimson shadows long against granite walkways. Anukis listened, acute hearing placing guards down in the tower entry. She could hear muted conversation, the flare of a lit pipe, the laughter of a crude rude joke. Anukis pulled on her ankle-length black gown, belted the waist, and lifted the hood to obscure her golden hair and pastel features.

She moved to a heavy cabinet beside the door, lifted it with ease, carrying it across a thick rug and tilting it to wedge under the door handle. Moving back to the window, she watched the sun’s weak, crimson rays finally die like spread fingers over the jagged peaks of the Black Pikes; then she leapt lightly onto the window seat and prised open the portal.

An ice wind whipped inside. Anukis climbed out, finding narrow handholds in the marble and stone, and easing herself over the awesome drop. ‘Don’t look down,’ she murmured, but just couldn’t help herself. It was a long fall to hard granite ruts polished smooth by brass wheels. Anukis eased herself along the narrow crack, moving only one hand, or one boot, at a time, so she always had three points of contact. The wind snapped at her with teeth. Away from the window, darkness fell like molten velvet. Anukis felt totally isolated. Alone.

For perilous minutes she eased herself around the flank of the tower, to where she’d discovered a worn vertical rut. Above, tiles converged into a marble trough which had grown a leak, probably a hundred or more years previous. This in turn had allowed water to groove the marble facade, giving slightly deeper handholds, almost like steps, down which Anukis could climb several storeys to a sloping ridge of tiles.

Several times she almost slipped; once, gasping, she swung away from the wall and her boots scrabbled on marble as sweat stung her eyes, and she felt a finger-nail crack. But she calmed her breathing, stopped her panicked kicking, and hauled herself up on bloody fingertips, regaining her handhold, saving her life.

Down, she eased, an inch at a time, as the wind mocked her with brutal laughter.

Below, Silva Valley spread away, some sections well lit, others deep dark pits of intimidation. Despite Watchmaker rule, not every vachine was equal; a complex religious hierarchy existed which sometimes led to murder and civil unrest. Royal torture was delivered for gross acts of sacrilege, but the vachine were powerful, proud, and physically superior. The illegals took some ruling. Only the Machine God kept them sane.

Anukis hit the tiles lightly and dropped to a crouch. Her eyes scanned, swirling with gold, finding the patrolling Engineer Deacons and their minions and watching them as she had watched from her cell window. With care, she eased across sloping tiles on her carefully plotted route, and dropped down to a second storey balcony. She knocked a plant-pot, which clattered, and swiftly she scaled the rails, hung, and dropped to a lower balcony as light emerged above her, muttering voices casting curses on the wind.

Anukis landed on the smooth granite road, and checked herself. Tugging her hood tight, she hurried down the dark street, winding downhill to the Brass Docks.

Silva Valley was just that, a valley; but at its heart, a dissection, lay the Silva River, which emerged from a complex core of caves and vast subterranean tunnel systems beneath the Black Pike Mountains, and named the Deshi Caves. In his youth, Anukis’s father Kradek-ka had explored the tunnels in detail, had been part of several professional vachine expeditions to map the labyrinth beneath the mountains. But something odd had occurred which the more religious of the vachine called bo-adesh. Occasionally, the tunnels moved, altered, shifted within the infrastructure of the mountain vaults. Some said it was down to blood-oil magick; some said the Black Pike Mountains were alive, had been alive longer than Man, and were in contempt of vachine deviation and intrusion. Whatever, many of the under-mountain routes were mapped and used for travel on long brass barges, or even to reach other distant valleys; but some were prohibited. Dangerous. Death to those that travelled…

In those early days of exploration, many had been lost to the Deshi Caves. Anukis remembered long cold evenings, sitting on her father’s knee, staring into dancing flames as he recounted some of his travels, how they used blood-oil markers on the stone, ropes under the water, magick fires by which to see. And still many had died; hundreds had died, lost, drowned, or simply vanished.

Sometimes, an empty brass barge would drift from the mist of an early morning, a single bell chiming. Empty. No signs of struggle. It had been Kradek-ka’s view that terrible beasts lived under the Black Pike Mountains; creatures nobody had ever before seen… or at least, seen and lived thereof to speak.

Anukis shivered; and not just with the cold.

She stopped at an intersection, easing into shadows beyond the pooled light from a swinging brass lamp. Two guards passed and stopped beneath the yellow orb, lighting long pipes and exchanging pleasantries. Anu watched them carefully; these weren’t real Engineer Deacons; they didn’t have the shaved heads and facial tattoos of the Royal; but they were as near as damn it. And certainly authorised to kill Anukis beyond curfew. She smiled, her smile a crescent in a bloodless face. And the reason for curfew?

The vachine were running out of blood-oil.

The vachine had bled the cattle dry…

Oh, the irony!

The guards moved on, and so did Anukis, loping across the road and delving into more darkness. Down she strode, cloak pulled tight, breath emerging in short gasps of dragon smoke.

She rounded a corner, and the Silva River opened before her, vast, wide, and glass-still at the base of the Silva Valley. Buildings staggered in staccato leaps far down the steep descent before her, right to the ebony water’s edge. Anukis hurried on, down narrow back-streets of this vast and beautiful city, down ill-advised routes. Three times she spotted thieves before they spotted her, and circumnavigated their positions. Even so, she knew, she would have needed no weapon to deal with their kind. Outcast. Impure…

Like me, she realised.

But then, despite her disabilities, she was… special.

Her father had made sure of that.

Anukis reached the long flanks of the Brass Docks and halted, a few feet from the water, listening to the lilting slap against brass jetties. She waited patiently, searching out more guards; finally, she moved down a wide curving walkway which followed the crescent of the Silva River towards… The Black Pikes. And the Mouth, which disgorged ice-pure mineral-rich waters from deep beneath echoing mountain halls. She felt the Breath before she saw the river’s ominous exit; it emerged, hissing and singing sometimes, to wash cool mineral-scented air over those who stood within five hundred yards. Anukis walked into the breeze, which tugged annoyingly at her hood, and stopped by the Brass Docks warehouse block. She glanced right, where huge brass and bronze freighters bobbed at anchor, trade vessels and smaller navy vehicles, many unmanned and silent, some showing tiny yellow glows from fat-oil lamps. Carefully, she stepped down a narrow alley and entered a maze, skilfully negotiating a complex route which led her to a steep, dark stairwell.

From the depths, a cold breeze blew, and Anu skipped down slick granite, slowing as she reached the bottom. The crossbow appeared before the Blacklipper, strung and tensioned, and his teeth gleamed behind the black-tainted scarring of his lips.

‘Going somewhere, my pretty?’

‘I have business with Preyshan.’

The Blacklipper moved from the shadows, and she saw he was what they called a Deep Blood; not only his lips were stained black from the powerful narcotic, even the veins beneath his skin had taken the taint, showing a diffused map of web-strands beneath his pale white skin. Anukis shuddered inside; he had to be close to death to look like this. Ready for the Voyage of the Soul.

Seeing the shudder, the man smiled. ‘Don’t you be worrying about me, pretty one. I’ve had a good life. My Paradise awaits.’

‘One filled with blood-oil?’

The crossbow jerked towards her, and his eyes narrowed. ‘One such as you shouldn’t readily condemn, pretty, outcast vachine.’

Only she wasn’t an outcast.

Because – they didn’t know… yet.

And if the Watchmakers discovered her impurity?

She heard they had special chambers for just such occurrences.

Anukis shuddered, and squeeze past the leering Blacklipper, feeling his fetid rigor-mortis breath on her face, his body pressed close to her own, its muscles surprisingly iron-hard beneath his web-traced skin. She hurried on, down more and more steps, and deep into a maze of brass-walled corridors which eventually gave out to smooth-hewn tunnels, some flooded. Several times Blacklippers challenged her, and several times Anukis used her magick card. The name: Preyshan. One of the three kings of the Blacklippers.

As she entered the maze beneath the Silva River, so she could discern a distant booming sound. It was said to be the noise made by the souls of the drowned, banging on the river bed for spiritual release. Anukis moved on, hand touching the smooth wall where lode-veins of crystals and blood-red mineral deposits could be traced, glittering, in the glow of irregularly placed fat-lamps.

The corridor ended in an iron gate. She gave her name, and the gate swung open revealing a long, low chamber filled with perhaps fifty men, and only a handful of women. Many were Blacklippers, some from the south, over the mountains; Falanor couriers who had sworn an oath to keep from using blood-oil and its deviants in order to turn huge profits smuggling. Money, not blood-oil, was their own particular narcotic.

‘Anu!’ boomed Preyshan, striding forward, towering over the vachine and beaming her a generous smile. His lips were jet black, riddled with blood-oil, his eyes blue and wide. He wore a bushy black beard, and his size was prodigious beneath cheap market clothing. ‘So long since you last visited! How is your father?’

‘My father is dead,’ said Anukis, voice soft, her eyes lowered to the ground lest she fill with tears and betray her weakness here, of all places. ‘I think the Engineers murdered him.’ Preyshan reached out, a huge, black-nailed hand cupping her chin and lifting her eyes to his, where there came a spark of connection.

‘Truly, Anukis, I am sorry. He was a great man.’

‘And now he’s a dead man.’

‘You have escaped their machinations?’

‘For now. But I must return. I have come for…’ She did not say it. Could not say it. But Preyshan understood; after all, the only vachine who visited Preyshan and his underground minions were those in need of the impure, and the illegal, Karakan Red. Smuggled in from beyond Black Pike.

Fresh blood.

Preyshan gestured, and could sense the need in Anukis. A man ran forward with a small brass cylinder. He passed it to Anukis, who took it gratefully and unscrewed the top. Carefully, she consumed a small amount of the contents, and the Red glistened on her lips. As Preyshan watched, the blood shone against tiny, elongated canines of the female vachine before him, and he caught a sense of movement deep within her mouth; of whirring wheels, tiny cogs meshing and integrating, balancer shafts lifting, rotating cylinders and pumping pistons. He smiled, and it was a dry smile.

Paradoxical, thought the large Blacklipper, that as the vachine feed from man, so here, and now, in an ironic twist of fate and science, so men feed from the vachine to become Blacklipper. A twisted symbiosis? Ha! He could debate the philosophy all night.

Anukis gave a deep, drawn-out breath. Gold clouds, like golden oil, swirled in her eyes. She glanced up, a swift movement, lethargy gone as energy infused her, as blood infused her. ‘I’ll need to take more,’ she said, quietly.

Preyshan nodded. ‘Why not stay here, with us? You will be safe here, Anu. You know that.’

For an instant she saw the longing in the big man’s eyes, but then it was gone, a neat mask replaced, the portcullis gate closed. Anukis licked her lips, tracing the last of the Red and swallowing. Inside, she felt greased. Oiled. Whole again.

‘I cannot. The Engineers have Shabis…’

Preyshan nodded, and taking the woman’s elbow, guided her to one side of the low chamber. Here, where a breeze blew in from deep subterranean mountain tunnels, where they could not be overheard, Preyshan leant against the wall and interlaced his fingers.

‘If you stay, Anukis, I will fetch Shabis for you.’

‘How…’

He reached out, placed a finger against her lips. ‘You vachine are powerful, yes. But you do not understand my heritage; or my history.’ His eyes glittered. ‘The Engineers hold no fear, for me. Nor does Vashell.’

Anukis shook her head. ‘If I allowed you to do this, I would place you all in great jeopardy. Your whole world…’

‘I know this. We know this. Our existence is a dangerous one at best. But still…’ He touched her arm. ‘You know I would do this for you. For your father, the great man, but mainly… for you.’

‘I understand.’ Anukis stepped forward, reached up on tip-toe, and kissed him on his black necrotic lips. ‘You are a great man, Preyshan. I am lucky to be… loved, by such as you.’

Preyshan opened his mouth to speak, but his eyes narrowed, shifting over Anukis’s shoulder.

‘Breach!’ screamed a voice, followed by a metallic screech and a twanging sound as five crossbows disgorged industrial quarrels. Three vachine, tall, athletic, hands curved into gleaming metal claws, skin peeled back from faces revealing long, curved steel fangs bared and growling, screaming, leapt from the tunnel. Crossbow bolts riddled them, and one vachine was punched back, slamming the wall, body a torn and twitching marionette of tattered flesh and twisted, bent gears; savaged clockwork. The others leapt amongst the men in great bounds, claws slashing left and right sending severed limbs flying, and long fangs descending on throats, ripping out windpipes in a sudden harsh attack. Swords hissed from sheaths as the two vachine paused, hunkered on all fours like beasts, heads rotating, eyes glittering, tiny cogs and wheels humming in their skulls. The Blacklippers converged, sword and axes drawn, spears held in clammy hands, faces grim with a need to kill these invaders –

Preyshan ran forward, his own sword held in one great paw, his face merciless in the cold glow of brass lamps. The vachine leapt, fangs tearing at arms and throats in a mad flurry of ripping flesh and savagery and inhuman speed; swords slammed, spears stabbed, and Preyshan, as if with some primeval instinct, turned back towards the iron gates – open, now, with this sudden breach of violence.

His soul fell from his world.

In the tunnel, more vachine eyes glittered. And with a roar they flooded the chamber, ten, twenty, fifty of the clockwork vampires, bowling over and through the Blacklippers ripping at flesh tearing heads from bodies steel fangs and brass claws tearing easily through unprotected flesh and succulent raw bone…

Preyshan skidded, turned, sprinted back towards Anukis who stood, shocked, mind not registering what her eyes could see. ‘We’ve got to get out of here!’ he screamed at her, pounding across stone, but as he reached her he faltered, and his eyes met hers, and there was confusion there, and sudden pain, and he glanced down at the brass blade emerging from his chest. Blood bubbled around the wound, and his mouth opened allowing blood to roll through his thick beard. He reached out towards Anukis, and their fingers met, but Preyshan carried on falling to the floor and hit with a heavy slap. He lay still.

Anukis fell to her knees amidst the sounds of slaughter, tears on her pale cheeks, and she stroked Preyshan’s beard. Gradually, a presence drifted through her confusion, and into her consciousness. Sobbing, she glanced up.

Vashell smiled, placed his boot on Preyshan’s back, and pulled free his short brass sword, weighing the weapon thoughtfully.

‘What a surprise, finding you here in this den of iniquity. And I see, you’ve drank your fill of Karakan Red. And left none for me? Tut tut, sweetheart.’ He shook his head, eyes mocking. ‘No wonder you could never marry me, Anukis.’ He squared his shoulders. Took a deep breath through fangs stuck with torn flesh. ‘I see now, with your impurity, with your taint, with your fucking sacrilege, how we could never be compatible.’

‘Damn you, Vashell! What brought you here? Why kill these…’

‘Blacklippers? Why? You ask me why?’ He pressed the heavy brass blade against Anukis’s throat and lifted her, panting, from her knees using the point. ‘Because, my darling, they are illegal smugglers. Because, sweetheart, they undermine our core vachine society. And because, my beautiful little Anukis, they are the unholy, the impure, and the damned.’ He glanced over his shoulder, where savage vachine warriors had finished off the last of the Blacklippers in a bought of savagery that had sprayed the walls with blood. The chamber was littered with mangled corpses. The vachine started a low, metallic keening, and with fangs ejecting, savoured the kill. Vashell leant close. His breath was sweet. ‘Just like you,’ he said.





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