Most of my trip this summer will be done on bicycles, which have the dual virtues of being outdoors and of seeing things more closely and deeply than from cars or busses. I have a few upcoming novels and stories that need to feature some medieval-esque towns and castles, so France is always an excellent place to do research. I’ll also be spending a couple of days on the famed Mont St. Michel specifically for a book I’m writing that’s set in a similar monastery separated from the mainland by a causeway. So much opportunity for gothic fantasy there!
Travel has been a huge part of my life since I was a young boy. I drove $200 beater cars so I wouldn’t waste money that could better be spent on plane tickets and learned to love youth hostels and the sounds of other people snoring because it meant I could go on longer trips. My wife and I are a lot better off financially now, of course, so for the last ten years we’ve been able to travel as often as our schedules allowed. But of course, Covid came along and we’ve all been largely stationary for the past twenty months.
With the minor miracle of effective vaccines and the greater miracle of health officers making tough decisions, travel is starting to open up again. It’s not easy, of course, and there’s never an absolute guarantee of safety, but both the risks and the inconveniences of following COVID protocols are manageable for us now. So, we’re off to France, specifically, Dordogne.
Our Lady of Blades is the first book in the Duellist Series.
Story Journals are where I talk about the writing of the books I’m working on. I update these with the latest content at the top, so start from the bottom if this is new to you.
August 2021 – A return to the Court of Blades
Our Lady of Blades is one of the novels on which I’ve spent the most time not only writing but in long stretches of just thinking about the book, its characters, themes, and all the complex intertwining plots. It’s a mammoth project, but one that is now ready to get done . . . I hope!
January 7th – An incomparable work of unimaginable genius . . . or a mess, I’m not sure which.
This is by far the most complicated novel I’ve ever written from a structural perspective. It’s turning into The Count of Monte Cristo meets The Sixth Sense. May need to u-turn here somewhere . . .
December – Oh, hell, what am I doing?
Wrote myself not so much into a corner as a long, dark, and very deep hole in the ground. Now attempting to dig myself out.
November 21st – First 19K words meet with Jo’s approval
One of my favourite things about writing Greatcoats novels is working with editor-to-the-stars Jo Fletcher. In addition to being monumentally experienced and skilled in this arena, she’s also incredibly patient with me, and frequently agrees to read things that are nowhere near finished. Long story short, we’re in agreement now that this new opening is headed in the right direction.
One interesting note: so far Our Lady of Blades has more resonances with Traitor’s Blade in terms of approach than any of my other novels. I kind of like the idea of a return to that style.
November 1st – A new opening . . . and new problems.
There’s a strong Count of Monte Cristo vibe in my new opening, which I love, but by starting the novel the way I am, with the main character as a mysterious stranger who comes to town with their own devious plan, I’m going against a ton of modern narrative conventions. “Save The Cat” this ain’t.
October 15th – An excellent false start
Wrote the opening to the book and it had all the flair and style I was aiming for: swashbuckly, quirky, and full of intrigue. There’s just one teensy-weensy problem: it doesn’t work. I have this entire outline which makes perfect sense and has all the right dramatic beats but I’m realizing now that if I go ahead this way I’m going to end up writing an unintentional YA novel. Don’t get me wrong, I love a great coming of age story, but that’s what Spellslinger is for and I don’t want to dilute that series or this one.
So . . . back to the drawing board.
October 1st, 2018 – Duels, duels, and more duels.
This book is in many ways the biggest challenge for me since I first wrote Traitor’s Blade. The Duellist is meant to be a new series but set in the world of the Greatcoats, but I don’t want to repeat myself, so that means navigating new territory without any assurance that fans of the original Greatcoats series will want to come along.
I sometimes think every writer of military science fiction is secretly (some not so secretly) trying to write Horatio Hornblower in space. That would be terrific for me as a reader, since I loved the Horatio Hornblower stories of daring, honour, valour, and ingenuity overcoming adversity rather than brute force. Alas, I’ve never really found a science fiction series that gave me those same Hornblower vibes while offering a believable and intriguing context in which those adventures could take place.
Artifact Space is what fans of Star Trek the Next Generation who’ve longed for something updated and more reflective of a diverse human society yet still holds to that same core of optimism and idealism about human beings have been waiting for. It’s filled with intriguing space ship troubles, conflicts large and small, the spirit of camaraderie one would hope we’d achieve when going into space, and yet with all the intricacies of our human foibles intact rather than glossed over.
The story centres on Marca Nbaro, a new midshipper on the Greatship Athens – a massive space faring vessel run not by a purely benevolent government but by a consortium of business interests inspired (one suspects) by Venetian mercantile culture. Marca has a troubled past, and the things she’s had to do to get a position on the Athens frequently leave her vulnerable to those out to get her. But she also finds friends aboard the ship, and a growing sense of purpose even as the near-calamitous situations she winds up in reveal her strengths.
Because I’m not a frequent reader of sci-fi (not because I don’t like the genre but because I often don’t quite get it due to my own ineptitude), I often find myself shunted out of a book because the science is either so sparse as to be magic or so lovingly rendered as to be a textbook about things that don’t work in the real world. Kind of like when you read a fantasy novel with four thousand houses, countries, shires, and whatever else and realize you’ve just memorized a history that won’t actually help you at all in your daily life. Artifact Space manages to find a path for the reader in which the science of space travel is balanced against an equally enticing and complex culture and economy. Yes, I meant that: the economics are actually interesting here. More importantly, Cameron never piles on so much at once that you find yourself lost amidst figures and facts about either space travel or the intricate human culture that’s achieved it.
Another aspect of Artifact Space I enjoyed was that – as one would expect on a massive ship hurtling through space – the book is somewhat episodic. It’s not one long, drawn-out singular problem (though there is a mystery that threads the entire narrative), but more the ongoing adventures of Marca NBaro and the crew of the Greatship Athens. If that sounds like a pitch for this to be a television series, it is; I really, really want to see this as a TV show that sits somewhere between Star Trek the Next Generation and The Expanse.
Anyway, enough gushing. Let me grind my axe against the insufferably talented Miles Cameron here a moment by saying I wish he’d added a glossary and dramatis personae to the book. Every acronym, concept, and character is explained, but if you glide over those parts, you’ll find yourself later wondering what the heck that term is they keep using every time they’re referring to the organization they work for or the ones it competes against. However, if you’re reading this review, then I can save you lots of trouble later on by advising that you pay close attention when terms and characters are introduced. Cameron doesn’t drop stuff in for the hell of it – everything will be meaningful at some point in the story.
Artifact Space is the beginning of what I hope will be a huge series, rich in characters and the textures of a space faring society. For those like me who want to read sci-fi but often feel like an outsider looking in when picking up a science fiction novel, Artifact Space is a welcoming delight.
British Columbia has done a pretty good job of managing the Covid-19 pandemic overall, but one consequence of that is accepting certain public health rules which, though not draconian by any stretch, nonetheless make you long for the halcyon days of going to movies and getting on airplanes.
Fortunately, as places to be stuck in go, Vancouver is a pretty nice place to spend the Summer.
Historical Mystery Full of Twists and Suspence
The Devil and the Dark Water could almost be pitched as “J.J. Abrams’ Lost meets Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express set on a 17th Century ship”. Maybe the best way to review the book is to explain those elements.
Set on a 17th Century Dutch trading vessel filled with sailors, musketeers, and wealthy travellers, the characters are beset by the possible presence of an actual devil named Old Tom who, if the stories are true, can convince people to commit horrible murders and other crimes. The question of Old Tom’s reality or falsity is batted forth continuously both by events on the troubled ship and by the characters themselves, which is what gives the story that “Lost” quality. And while Stuart Turton gives us a more satisfying conclusion to his tale than J.J. Abrams ever did with his TV series, it’s impossible to make such an ending fully live up to all the suspense.
An equally compelling aspect to the story, however, is the Orient Express comparison: The Devil and the Dark Water features a rich cast of characters who at first appear to be brought together by chance but we soon realize there are hidden reasons for their presence. This adds to the tension because we don’t know who to trust, and when compounded with the powder keg of the sailors and soldiers on board constantly being at each others’ throats, makes for a suspenseful read.
Arent Hayes, the protagonist, is a compelling character – not least because he’s presented as the sidekick of Sammy Pipps, a Sherlock Holmesian figure who is also a captive on the ship and thus Arent is forced to do the detecting for once. Sara, the other main character, is equally engaging as a woman whose own cleverness and compassion have too long been chained by a cruel husband and society, at last unleashed to put her gifts to use.
I won’t say much more here. The Devil and the Dark Water entertainingly blends classic detective fiction, an intriguing historical setting, and the kind of you’re-never-sure-what’s-really-going-on storytelling style that happens to be one of my favourites. Turton’s first book, The Seven and a Half Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, was an excellent read, and I’m pretty sure I’ll pick up whatever he writes next. There aren’t a lot of storytellers like Turton out there, and I wish there were more.
It’s 1634 and Samuel Pipps, the world’s greatest detective, is being transported to Amsterdam to be executed for a crime he may, or may not, have committed. Travelling with him is his loyal bodyguard, Arent Hayes, who is determined to prove his friend innocent.
But no sooner are they out to sea than devilry begins to blight the voyage. A twice-dead leper stalks the decks. Strange symbols appear on the sails. Livestock is slaughtered.
And then three passengers are marked for death, including Samuel.
Could a demon be responsible for their misfortunes?
With Pipps imprisoned, only Arent can solve a mystery that connects every passenger onboard. A mystery that stretches back into their past and now threatens to sink the ship, killing everybody on board.