Guest post …

Just a quick post at the moment, to say, check out my guest post over on Madison Wood’s spiffy writing blog, where I was her Tuesday guest this week!

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The sword Lakkariss

“…a sheathed sword, lying alone in a web of ice.”

Actually, this is my windshield this morning. But Moth’s Lakkariss could be under there, spinning its cocoon of frost.

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The Black Box on Year’s Best List

The Black Box, with a cover by Connie, is on the 2011 Year’s Best list published by Resource Links, a Canadian periodical for teacher-librarians. The Black Box is the third of the Cassandra Virus books, science fiction for 9-13 year-olds set in the near future, but the story stands on its own even if you haven’t read The Cassandra Virus and The Drone War.

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Valentine’s Day Book Giveaway – The Serpent Bride

Update … Congratulations to Anna D., whose name was selected by Mr Wicked as the winner. Please note that the contest is now closed.

I’ve suddenly realized it’s Valentine’s Day, or will be tomorrow. I know that if I go out Mr Wicked will present me with a slipper (my own) when I get home, or possibly a sock or best yet, the Extremely Deflated Soccer Ball, his most prized possession. What other token of love does one need, really? However, to get more into the spirit of things, I’ve decided to have a spur-of-the-moment book giveaway.

Long, long ago, in a — no wait, just long, long ago, in the previous century, I wrote a collection of short stories based on ballads from medieval Denmark. These literary fairy tales are out of print now, though vague plans are in the works for a reissue sometime in the next several years or so. I do have some copies of the original edition, including, of course, the famous typo in the table of contents. (People keep pointing that out, so I’ll get it out of the way now. Yes, I know “plumage” does not have two m’s. These things often appear spontaneously after the proofs are corrected. Thank you.) In one of my favourite books, Farjeon’s Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard, the wandering minstrel hero sets out to cure a farmer’s daughter of lovesickness by telling “ten new love stories”. The Serpent Bride is, in best wandering minstrel tradition, the retelling of “ten old love stories”. (Half of which involve shapeshifters. Don’t blame me; they were there in the sources, honest.)

So, if you enjoy literary fairy tales (very different in tone from Blackdog, and yet … Scandinavian shapeshifters!) and would like a chance to win a signed copy of The Serpent Bride, a collection of literary fairy tales from way back in 1998, and if you live in Canada or the US, here is what you should do:

Go to The Serpent Bride page of my Pippin website, here.

Listen to the MP3 excerpt there or watch the video.

Go to the contact form on one of my websites, the Pippin site or the Blackdog one

… and send me your name and the name of the male hero from either one of the stories in the samples (or, given the fuzzy recording, your best guess at it). Make sure your email address in the form is correct!

The names of all who send a correct answer by midnight, Atlantic Standard Time, on Valentine’s Day 2012 will be written on small pieces of paper and offered to Mr Wicked. The winner will be whichever he first attempts to eat. I’ll then get in touch to find the winner’s mailing address.

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Ebook of The Storyteller and Other Tales

This is a duplication of the post on my other blog, so apologies to any subscribers who have had it announced to them twice.

The Storyteller and Other Tales has just come out as an ebook for Kobo and other epub file readers. Published back in 2008, The Storyteller is a collection of four pieces, one of which is a foretale to Blackdog. (What’s a foretale? It’s a word I like better than prequel — perhaps it will catch on!) The others pieces include a Bronze Age secondary world fantasy, a story about Merlin’s daughter and the fall of Roman Britain, which I think is one of my best short pieces ever, and a prose-poem on the Battle of Maldon. The eponymous story is, of course, the one Connie and I are adapting as a graphic novel (details on the mangasaga blog). As the back-cover description says, “The Storyteller” itself is about Ulfleif, “a warrior-princess who would rather carry a lyre than a sword … drawn into an unfinished tale by the storyteller Moth,” as “old lays of vengeance and betrayal wake into bloody new life around her.” There wasn’t all that much about the bear-demon Mikki in Blackdog, but he’s one of my favourite characters; I think “The Storyteller” is as much about him as Moth.

I see there are links to a few of the bookstores carrying the new ebook down at the bottom of the Storyteller page on my website but I think the webmaster is still updating that. It’s also available through Kobo and in the US, Powell’s, Diesel E-books, Books on Board, Pages E-books, and in Australia, Angus Robertson and Borders. Those in the know, i.e. the publisher’s people in charge of such things, tell me it will also be available in the UK through the Book Depository and W.H. Smith, though it isn’t yet.

P.s. The collection, which has had some reviews I’m very proud of, is still available as a physical book, too.

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Dispatches from the writing front # 6: The Eternal Cave of Children’s Books

The “dispatches” series usually ends up on my other blog, but this post is manga-related. Connie’s been doing some research, finding setting references to fire her imagination, and last night we were talking about caves and looking at cave images here and there. I’ve always had a fascination with caves, as well as mountains, and they (caves and mountains both) do tend to get into my stories a lot. Connie was looking for a good place for the devil Ogada to have been imprisoned, he being the one “in stone”. Some of the pictures she found for inspiration really seemed to hit on what I’d had in mind for the sacred place of the god Narva in Blackdog, even though I hadn’t seen images of that particular cave before. (It’s the Dirou caves, if you’re interested — but you have to imagine all the little tourist boats away.) Anyway, aside from the big shallow cave at St. Martin’s, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a real cave. I was thinking about what my prototypical cave was and the answer, of course, is that it’s the eternal cave of children’s books. In England, and I know this from extensive childhood reading, you can hardly go out the back door without finding a useful cave, ideal for headquarters for your gang, for camping in, or, if on the coast, full of smugglers and/or German spies, depending on era. It’s a Rule. (Just like, dogs always come when called and growl only at villains or stout policemen on bicycles.) But my prototypical cave is from Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. The underground bits of that gave me shivery, fascinated thrills when I was a kid and they still do today. That, my friends, is a cave. Stone, water, darkness . . . pursuing Svarts. That’s what’s always in the back of my mind when I think about caves. I was an adult, researching my big history of children’s fantasy literature, Quests and Kingdoms, when I discovered that Garner’s caves were real. They’re actually Bronze Age and Roman mines. It’s hard to describe how exciting that was. Something awe-inspiring I had thought was fiction was real.

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Podcast on Functional Nerds — with bonus woofing

John and Patrick at Functional Nerds interviewed me about Blackdog for their podcast last week, and the interview is now up here for your listening pleasure. The white dog of wickedness decided to contribute his two cents’ worth, so for the first couple of minutes you can also hear, faintly, his deep-chested commentary on the fact that I’m talking to a computer screen.

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Falling in love with the dead

As Connie was working on the pages that would show Mikki as a young man (young hanyou?) telling stories of his travels to Vartu’s skeleton, bound by the Old Great Gods in his demon mother’s den (an old tribal grave-hill), we started wondering about how we could show this without making him seem really strange in the head. Falling in love with a corpse? A bit creepy. It works well in “The Storyteller”, told in that slightly elevated, remote style that Moth adopts in the hall, but seeing it unfold, one is much closer to the characters, in a way. It should be kind of sweet, not “Ew, yuck, what’s wrong with him?”

Sketch of page 23 -- Mikki and Ulfhild's grave

When I started thinking about it, though, men (and women — though probably not bears) have been falling in love with dead people ever since we became people by beginning to tell stories. (Well, and giving rocks sharp edges, that was important too.) People can fall in love with the idea of a person; that’s what teen crushes on pop stars and celebrities and the guy with the cool leather jacket are all about. People can feel a bond with fictional and historical characters or a portrait painted two centuries ago; they start to wonder about them, to weave a more complex personality around the details that exist. That’s what Ulfhild of Hravnsfjell is to the young Mikki, someone from history — from his mother’s history, as Moraig was appointed guardian of her prison-grave, but also from the sagas of his father’s people, “the folk of the kings in the north”. She’s a story, and she’s real. She’s also someone with a lot of shadows and gaps in her story, a faithful King’s Sword, a traitor, an alleged fratricide. She’s a villain in most of the sagas, but there’s enough there to make her an interestingly tragic one, just the sort of person to capture the imagination of a child, and then a lonely teen. By the time he’s a young man, however old that is in years, Mikki being a demon and semi-immortal, Ulfhild-Vartu has been, in effect, his imaginary friend for most of his life.

In the short story, Mikki’s father is killed before he’s born, while in the manga, it happens while he’s a baby. (This sort of inconsistency is perfectly consistent with the idea of storytelling! Why did we do it? We liked the mental images we had of Moraig and Sammur and their shapeshifting baby.) In both versions, though, his human father isn’t around as he’s growing up; Moraig, though a devoted mother, is both a bear and a demon, and maybe doesn’t appreciate the social needs of a young human. Demons are mostly solitary; little Mikki doesn’t have a teddy bear, and he doesn’t have friends in some nearby village to play with, either. The Hardenvald is still wilderness. What he does have is a skeleton, which is human enough to be the framework around which to weave an imaginary friend. (A couple of my uncles are supposed to have had a dried, smoked mackerel as their teddy-bear equivalent during the hard years of the War — little children need dolls and will personify what they can get.) Once he grows up, gets humanly-itchy feet and starts travelling, Mikki learns all the stories of Ulfhild of Hravnsfjell, his childhood imaginary playmate, and keeps on imagining her. Humans respect demons, and the Northrons seem to have a closer involvement with them than most of the folks of the world, but there’s still a bit of distance, a bit of awe; his cousins accept him as kin, as a friend, whatever he looks like, but maybe there aren’t that many young Northron women who want to get too closely involved with a man who’s only a man at night. So, there’s also a bit of isolation; he’s going to be an outsider everywhere and forever, because he’s more social than a normal demon, and, well, more furry than a normal human. Maybe his mother isn’t really interested in his stories of the world, his voyages with his sea-raider cousins, his travels through the Great Grass. Thus Mikki keeps on going into the grave, like anyone returning home to their familiar childhood landscape, going almost ritually to see the old familiar places, to revisit their childhood selves. He keeps telling stories to the bones.

Ulfhild-Vartu is dead and not-dead, bound and sleeping and yet still a presence in the world. And for most of her life, she was lonely, too. Who knows what that might have had to do with it, all unconsciously, for both of them?

And then there’s the whole saving-his-life thing; heroic rescue by a naked woman with a sword is always a good start to romance.

Of course, falling in love with a ghost from history isn’t necessarily going to translate into a healthy marriage. Devotion to a saint, fascination with Helen of Troy or Eleanor of Aquitaine, courtly love, might not stand the test of reality. But then again, who knows, maybe once you had time to get to know the real person, maybe it might. And Moth seems to be trying very hard, these days, to be the person Mikki thinks she is, trying to live up to his trust. Maybe because he wanted to see her, neither Ulfhild the King’s Sword nor the devil Vartu, he actually managed to do just that.

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Podcast on Adventures in SciFi Publishing

There’s an interview about Blackdog online now at Adventures in Sci Fi Publishing. I talked with Shaun Farrell about a lot of things, including the Silk Road, Mikki with his clothes off, things to avoid in writing epic fantasy if you don’t want medievalists, historians, etc. to groan, but we also talked about the manga a bit. You can listen here. I also wrote a post to go alone with it, about “Five Things You Should Never Do in Epic Fantasy”.

Now, while you’re listening, go back one post and look at that great sketch of Mikki and Moth some more. I know I promised a post on why Mikki, who’s a nice guy and relatively normal, really, as wer-bears go, would fall in love with Moth, who was, to put it baldly, quite dead at the time. Not, you know, coolly dead in any sort of pale and interesting Goth way (nor Visgothic, Vandal, or Burgundian either). More skeletal. I think that’ll have to wait till next week now.

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a sketch — Mikki + Moth


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