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@MalCatlyn is back!

To mark the upcoming release of his latest adventures, Elizabethan spy Mal Catlyn will once more be tweeting his exploits for the next three months. Why, you might ask, would a spy be broadcasting his whereabouts on a public network? Well…

  1. He could well be using one of the many cunning ciphers that were invented by 16th-century cryptographer Thomas Phelippes;
  2. He’s a spy, so you can’t trust anything he says;
  3. The internet didn’t exist in 1594, so who’s going to read them? Duh!

As with his previous outing, #malsdiary, I’ll he’ll be tweeting in “real time” (give or take 418 years), segueing into the events of The Merchant of Dreams in January.

Mal’s Diary

Want to read the original “Mal’s Diary” tweets, all in one convenient free download? I’ve compiled an ebook version of the feed for your reading pleasure:

ePub | Kindle | PDF

Friday Reads: Waiting Room, by Emma Newman

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).”

Waiting Room

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.”



“Thanks for hosting, Anne!”

Free Short Story: Hopeful Monsters

Back in the summer of 2009 I started an online writing course, and one of the earliest exercises was to come up with story ideas. To kickstart my imagination I went over to and picked out some themed anthologies that looked interesting. One was “The Tangled Bank“, a project celebrating the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. I decided that if I, a biologist, couldn’t write a saleable short story for this semi-pro market, I might as well hang up my laptop! So, I set to work and soon came up with an idea. The first draft (about 400-odd words) was written on my iPhone, then I polished and expanded it to fit the anthology’s 1000-word minimum.

What I ended up with was a Kipling-esque fairytale that’s nothing like my usual writing, but I was pleased with the result and so I sent it off. To my delight the editor was on the lookout for short, light pieces to balance the long, serious SF he’d received, so he snapped it up! And so it was that I got my first ever fiction sale.

The anthology came out in February 2010, with exclusive electronic publishing rights for one year only, so I thought I’d celebrate the first anniversary by sharing this story for free:

Hopeful Monsters: A Darwinian Fairytale

For the record, the story gets its title (and its original inspiration) from an early and now-discredited theory of evolution whose name had stuck in my mind from my undergraduate days.

When short stories aren’t stories

Dave Truesdale, editor of Tangent Online, has caused a bit of stir recently by announcing a new direction for his reviews. On the one hand, I strongly disagree with some of his claims, particularly that SF&F is “a genre infested with politically correct thinking”. Truesdale seems to think that part of the “decline” is down to some magazines allegedly having a rigid policy of including as many female authors as male, i.e. the fiction written by women is poorer quality and only chosen for PC reasons. Frankly this attitude beggars belief, and only serves to show up the level of sexism that still pervades some areas of the genre – science fiction in particular. That same sexism, or at least a distinctly male aesthetic, also appears reflected in Truesdale’s distaste for stories that focus on characters’ emotional lives rather than cool ideas.

On the other hand I have to say that short SF&F does sometimes leave me very disappointed. I’ve recently been dipping into short fiction in order to research markets for my own work, and a depressing percentage leave me feeling ‘meh’. I won’t name names – I don’t want to bite the hands that might feed me one day! – but when I read “stories” that lack either narrative arc or good writing, I begin to wonder whether the editor in question knows his or her stuff.

Not every piece of short fiction has to have a beginning, middle and end, or tension and high stakes, but if it hasn’t got any of those, it had better be either the most stupendously cool idea I’ve read in ages, or such gorgeous prose that reading it is still time well spent. I come to speculative fiction for that wow factor that I mentioned in an earlier blog post, and when I don’t get it, I’m unlikely to come back for more.

So, I’m going to carry on writing the occasional story that is really a story, and hope that there are still readers out there that feel the way I do – and markets to feed both sides.