This week, instead of the usual book review I am delighted to be hosting a free short story by fellow Angry Roboteer Emma Newman. Take it away, Emma!
“This is the twenty-ninth tale in a year and a day of weekly short stories set in The Split Worlds. If you would like me to read it to you instead, you can listen here. This story is part of the build-up to the release of the first Split Worlds novel “Between Two Thorns” in March 2013. Every week a new story is released. You can find links to all the other stories, and the new ones as they are released here, where you can also sign up to receive each story free in your inbox every week (starting at the very first one).”
When the woman with the nail through her hand left the waiting room Ben fidgeted. His arm was aching from keeping his left hand up in the air. And he looked like a dick.
His Mum tutted. “If you’d actually done what you were told, we wouldn’t be here now.”
“Everybody else does it.”
“That doesn’t make it a good idea. I thought you were more sensible than that.” When he didn’t answer she kissed the top of his head. “Is it hurting a lot?”
He shrugged. “Will they put a cast on it?” When Tim broke his leg everyone signed his cast and gave him tonnes of chocolate. Ben smirked as he remembered what he’d drawn on the back of the ankle. It had been worth the punch he got once Tim saw it on the removed cast.
“If it’s broken, probably.”
“Please be broken,” he whispered to it. If it was just a sprain he’d never live it down.
A man stumbled in, sweating and clutching a piece of cloth over his mouth like he was about to throw up. Ben picked out the three people who looked the most likely to be vomited on. He wished Tim was there so they could bet.
The man went to the desk and spoke through the cloth. The nurse, unimpressed, sent him to the waiting area. The man scanned the few empty chairs and then sat himself down opposite Ben. He still looked like he was about to throw up.
Mum shifted her feet to one side as she looked for another place to sit but there were no pairs of chairs free. “I’ll get you a drink darling,” she leaned over and added, “Tuck your feet under the chair in case that man is sick. And don’t bother him, he looks a bit weird.”
Ben took a proper look at the guy once his mother was gone. His right eye was badly bloodshot and his hands were covered in gravel burn. His t-shirt sported the new gold and red Flip logo, the same one Ben had got for his birthday.
“Did you have an accident?” Ben asked, pointing at the t-shirt with his good hand. “I got a Flip ‘board, that’s how I bust my wrist.”
“I came off my bike.” He was still speaking through the cloth.
Now he was closer Ben could see the cloth was a bandana. It was black with tiny skull and crossbones all over it. “Did you bust your teeth up or something?”
“No,” the man coughed. “I swallowed… something.”
“A fly?” The man didn’t reply. “Was it a-”
“You won’t believe me, so leave it, alright?”
“Tell me. Go on.”
“I think I swallowed a… fairy.”
“Eh?” It was the last thing Ben expected him to say. “Don’t be daft.”
“You ever had a fly in your eye?”
“Did the fly look massive?”
Ben nodded, remembering it well. When the tiny bug filled his vision the veins in its wings looked as thick as pencils.
“This twat stepped out into the road a bit ahead of me and got hit by a car and this thing he was carrying – it was jar or a lamp or something – it smashed. Those… things flew out of it. I swallowed one and it’s stuck,” he paused to cough. “But another went in my eye and it looked like a girl with wings and it was shining really bright, like a-”
“Sorry, is he bothering you?”
Ben jumped at the sound of his mother’s voice.
“No,” the man said, “it’s cool.”
“Benjamin Stephens,” a nurse called and Ben was ushered away.
Throughout the doctor’s assessment Ben thought about the man in the waiting room. Why say something like that? He probably liked winding kids up. Or he was tripping his ass off like Tim’s older brother did at weekends.
He whooped when he found out his wrist was broken. After a few days in a splint, once the swelling was down, he’d have a cast and all the chocolate he could want.
The man was still there when they went back out to reception with the cloth still over his mouth. Ben wanted to speak to him but his mother was steering him towards the exit.
“Mrs Stephens,” the nurse called her back. “I just need to go over a bit of paperwork with you.”
Ben waited until she was engrossed. “So I was thinking,” he said to the man. “If you did swallow a fairy, why are you keeping that bandana over your mouth?”
“I need the doctor to tell me if it’s really there. Otherwise I might be, you know, mental or something.”
“I can tell you,” Ben said.
The man shrugged. “Sod it. I’m sick of sitting here. You ready?”
Ben crouched in front of him and gave an eager nod. The bandana was pulled down and the man’s open mouth revealed.
“There’s something in there!”
The flap of skin at the back of the man’s throat was illuminated from behind, like he’d swallowed an LED and it had got stuck there. Ben could smell coffee on the man’s breath. The light got brighter as something emerged from the behind the skin but the source was too small to see properly. It shot out of the man’s mouth and zipped to the nearest window where it flew outside. Ben, who’d snapped his head back to avoid it, fell backwards into the chair behind him.
“Did you see it?” The man demanded.
Ben cradled his wrist to his chest, trying not to cry. His Mum rushed over and pulled him up by his good hand. She glared at the man. “Come on, we’re going home.”
“But what did you see!” the man said, but Ben didn’t know what to say.
“What was he talking about?” His Mum asked as they left.
“Nothing,” Ben glanced at the man as they passed the window. “He was just some weirdo.”
There are two reasons: firstly, last week was a major deadline for my day-job, so I didn’t have a lot of mental energy for writing, and secondly – this book is a fast read!
The Road to Bedlam is the sequel to Sixty-One Nails, picking up where the first book left off. Blackbird is nearing the end of her pregnancy when Niall’s daughter from his first marriage is apparently killed in a freak accident. However Alex is not dead – she has inherited her father’s fey blood and been bundled off to a secret facility for those who cannot control their powers (very reminiscent of Selma Blair’s character Liz in Hellboy). Niall is desperate to find her, but the Courts of the Feyre have more important things on their minds…
I confess I found the opening chapters a little slow. Shevdon understandably doesn’t want to short-change the impact on his protagonist of the apparent death of his child, but it does mean we spend quite a while with him in the mundane world as he tries to visit her in intensive care, attends a memorial service at the school, and so on. I felt this robbed the story of the forward momentum set up in the prologue, and it took a while to get going again. Maybe that’s just me, though; I don’t read much contemporary fantasy, so I’m accustomed to more “exotic” settings that are interesting in their own right.
Once Niall finds out the truth, however, it’s a steadily escalating adventure as he tries to balance his duty to Blackbird and his new kinfolk with his impatience to find Alex, and the book ends with an all-action finale worthy of a summer blockbuster! On the way, we get more fascinating glimpses into obscure corners of English folklore and tradition, like Oakham Castle with its great hall decorated with horseshoes of all sizes.
This is the real strength of Shevdon’s writing: the rich blend of ancient and modern, with a very English flavour (I would say British, but so far all the stories have focused on England, from London to Shropshire). I would love to see these books picked up by BBC Wales and made into mini-series – they would sit very comfortably alongside recent SFF productions like Being Human and Torchwood.
The third installment in The Courts of the Feyre is due out from Angry Robot next summer, so if you haven’t read the first two books, you have plenty of time to catch up!
I thought it was about time I did another book review focusing on my own corner of the genre. I’m still catching up on my reading, so at first it will be books that have been out for a while, but hopefully I’ll be more up-to-date soon!
My next “victim” is The Sword of Albion by Mark Chadbourn (published as The Silver Skull in the US).
Disclaimer: I have met Mark and he’s a lovely bloke, but I will try not to let that influence my review. After all, I’ve met other very pleasant authors whose books I was not impressed by, and I’m sure there are books I like whose authors are not so nice.
The Sword of Albion is the tale of Will Swyfte: swordsman, adventurer, rake, and England’s greatest spy. He is famed throughout the kingdom, thanks to ballads and pamphlets – so how can he work in secret when everyone knows who he is? The truth is that his real work is against an Enemy who have long known his identity, and his fight against them requires more than stealth and a ready rapier.
The story ranges from London to Edinburgh and down into the Iberian Peninsula, culminating in the attempted invasion of England by the Spanish – the famous armada of 1588. The action moves relentlessly from set-piece to set-piece, dragging the reader along in Swyfte’s wake as he is repeatedly captured and makes another dramatic escape. Think James Bond meets Pirates of the Caribbean; not only would this make a great movie, but since Chadbourn is a scriptwriter as well, it reads like a great movie.
Will Swyfte is not an arrogant mysogynist like Bond, however. OK, so he indulges in wine and women (sometimes to excess) to blot out the memories of the terrible things he has to do for Queen and country, but at heart he is a romantic, haunted by the memory of his lost love. His companions, though getting much less of the limelight, are also complex, well-drawn characters with believable motivations, though some are decidedly less sympathetic than Will.
The historical setting is well-drawn, with enough detail to satisfy the Elizabethan buffs amongst us without slowing down the action. The filthiness and smelliness of London is sometimes laid on a little heavily, but it does provide a contrast with the elegant, blossom-fragrant citadels of Spain.
I have only a few small quibbles, mostly the nitpicking of a fellow writer that will probably go unnoticed by other readers. There are a few places where information is repeated, or spelt out in narrative immediately after it has been explained in dialogue. And in one scene, Will somehow manages to hold a rapier to a bad guy’s throat and simultaneously whisper in his ear – pretty impressive with a blade that was normally around 36-40 inches! (I assume he is using the tip, since rapiers were not terribly sharp near the hilt). My attention did start to drift a little during the sea-battle, but that sort of thing is always hard to do in a novel. It wasn’t badly written – quite the contrary – but every time the action shifted away from Will towards ships in combat, I just wanted to skip ahead to the next bit of derring-do 🙂
I was also a little disappointed that the Enemy resorted to mundane physical torture, when they are so good at the psychological kind, but I guess it had to be clear that they were capable of inflicting horrible torments on those Will cares about. On the other hand, kudos to Chadbourn for writing torture scenes that didn’t give me nightmares. He sensibly focuses on the interrogation that is the point of the scene, rather than gratuitous descriptions of the torture itself. Books being so much more intimate a medium than film, it takes very little to make a strong impact on the engaged reader.
In summary, this is an entertaining page-turner with strong, sympathetic characters and a fascinating, terrifying setting – what more could one want from a fantasy novel? I for one am eagerly looking forward to reading more of Will’s adventures…