Friday, 17 April 2015

Rough Magick by Kenny Soward

I should probably be blogging about my book deal with Realmwalker Publications but, to be honest, my head is still a bit of a spin about that. Instead, I'm going to post this book review, Rough Magick by Kenny Soward from Ragnarok Publications. This review is long overdue but not for the reasons you'd expect.

Steampunk kind of passed me by. I knew it was out there, knew it was "in fashion" so to speak, but there was something about it that didn't entirely appeal, there was always something else to read (or write) first and I passed over several times.

As it turn out, this was a big mistake! I don't know if Kenny Soward's work is representative of most steampunk, but if it is then I'm going to be spending more time reading it.

As I said, I don't know much about steampunk so I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of a setting. Was this going to be an alternate history? An adventure in a quasi-victorian world? As it turned out, it was neither. Soward blends technology with fantasy, using gnomes as the mixing bowl.

The worldbuilding is rich and extremely well done, as a fantasy world complete with dragons, magic, and elves, blends seamlessly with steam-power, tinkers and electrics. I've not read about gnomes since Shannara and Dragonlance and neither treated the race particularly well. This though, this is something vastly different to those experiences.

Little touches are rife throughout the text, with modern day inventions re-envisaged through a gnomish lens. Musitron disks instead of vinyl or CD's, sound boxes instead of speakers, even the naming two of the gods in the gnomish pantheon, "Tick" and "Tock". They're little things, but enough to bring a smile to the lips.

The story builds slowly, woven into the fabric of the worldbuilding and it's done very well. One sign of really good fantasy is when the reader forgets that they're reading about a non-human character, and Soward manages just that. His characters are as flawed as the next man on the street. Pride, guilt, deep bitter jealousy and resentment... they're all present and I think it's these uglier character flaws which serve to make this story so effective. This is no cliched fantasy tale about a brave knight in pristine armour off to fight an evil dragon. It's the story of a brother and sister,  Nikselpik and Niksabella, simply trying to get ahead in a world which seems unwilling to let them.

The relationship between these siblings is severely damaged with both blaming the other and remembering events differently. Even though this is a very minor aspect of the book, I have to say it was one of the parts I enjoyed the most and which most drew me into the characters.

The story is complex with enough enemy factions to make you wonder what the connections are and how many hidden ones will be revealed in later books. Rough Magick  is part one of a trilogy and, even if you weren't aware to start with, this becomes obvious about two thirds of the way through the book, when it's clear there simply aren't enough pages left to completely end the story. Though it ends on somewhat of a cliffhanger, enough of the tale is resolved to not annoy those who hate endings like that. Not without its flaws this is an amazing debut novel and a series which I will be following.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Gavrain goes to the dogs

Gavrain paused on the slick slate tiles as balance threatened to abandon him and pitch him flailing down into the street. The drop was easily thirty feet from the edge of the roof, and the hard cobbles below did not look like they would make for a pleasant landing.

He sucked in deep breaths, trying to calm himself. Making your way across a slippery roof in the dead of night under a misting rain was bad enough. Trying to do it with legs that shook from nerves, was sheer stupidity.

He'd caught wind of the stones over a week ago, listening in to drunk caravan guards gossip in one of the seedier dockside taverns. The ale there tasted like the filth-filled water under the wharves, but it was a good place to pick up gossip and hints like this one.

Helgan was a merchant-come-fence. He was also a gambler and a drunk, which was a bad combination of the best of days. His morality came and went with his luck at staying off the drink and finding the right numbers on the dice. The man was also fat to the point of corpulence and someone that Garvrain privately despised. He'd been forced to use him more than once to dispose of small items of jewelry he'd obtained but he hadn't used him in over a year now. He was tight, and the margin from a fence was already tight enough without needing Helgan to pinch harder.

Helgan had a new guard dog apparently. Stupid of him really. His dog would be no better than the tall, spike-surmounted walls he had around his warehouse. You didn't guard against thieves with dogs and walls, you guarded against thieves by not letting people know you were sitting on five, near perfect, feldanian diamonds.

"What use is a dog anyway," he snorted to himself as he reached the chimney of the roof. "Toss down a steak and they're happy."

The walls would be no problem either. There was little point in having high walls covered in spikes if part of your property was spitting distance from a taller building.

He shrugged the coiled rope over his head and shoulder and looped it around the chimney stack. It was good thick brick, easily able to support the weight of three men, let alone one slightly skinny thief.

Two good kicks was enough to push him out away from the side of the building and down past Helgan's spiked wall. In moments he was down and crouched low in the shadows, listening for any noise.  After a few minutes his smile spread, the dog was probably sleeping.

Helgan's shop was on the edge of one of the poorer areas of the city, where it could straddle the needs of those with "acquired items" looking to sell, and those looking to actually buy some of his honest wares. His most expensive items however, he kept in this small warehouse.

Gavrain made his way to the small side-door, pulling his roll of picks from his pack. The lock was a good one and well maintained. Stupid of Helgan really, he should know better. It's much harder to pick a rusty lock.

The door opened noiselessly, swinging inward on silent hinges. Gavrain shook his head again. If there was a guard dog, Helgan was doing nothing to make its job any easier. He made his way through the rows of crates and boxes, stacked sometimes twice as high as he was. as he walked by the light of a shuttered lantern attached to his belt by a thin cord. The thin beam of light was just enough to light his passage but nothing that would have been seen through the small windows, even without the tall walls surrounding the yard.

He knew the gems would have only arrived recently. They were probably from a fence in another city. Items this valuable were almost worthless when it came to try and sell them in the same patch as they were stolen.

He turned a corner and wandered. Where to begin? The place was much larger than it looked from the outside.

The panting sounded like the laughter of a particularly stupid man. "Hur, hur, hur..."
Gavrain froze in place before turning slowly. The dog was huge, easily as big as some of the mules and small ponies used on the farmer's carts that rattled into the city on marketday. Not just tall, but thick-bodied too, with teeth that shone in the light of the lantern and spoke eloquently of pain and tearing flesh.

"Hur, hur, hur." The mammoth/dog crossbreed panted again, walking slowly towards him.

Gavrain reached into his pack with one hand and tossed the steak to one side of the approaching behemoth. Poisoning a dog is really rather contemptible, but Gavrain had weighed his options and decided that, on the whole, he'd much prefer his skin in one piece.

The dog gave the steak a cursory glance and huffed in the canine equivalent of a shrug before it carried on with its unhurried approach, clearly not interested.

"Of course! Why would you want a bit of steak when there's a whole juicy thief right here," Gavrain muttered as he stepped backwards, trying not to spook the monster into anything involving teeth.

Three quick steps and a leap had him scrambling up the side of a pile of crates. He'd half expected the dog to leap but it just watched him as he hauled himself onto the crate and looked down at the beast.

Some people say dogs can't laugh or smile, those people are wrong Gavrain decided.

"Hur, hur, hur," panted the dog. It turned abruptly, and loped off into the darkness beyond the light of his lantern.

"Okay, now what." Gavrain whispered to himself, before wondering why he was whispering. The top of the crates formed a pathway of sorts that rose and fell with the stacks. He took a cautious step, and then another, feeling for any wobble or shift in the crates as he went. The dog was nowhere to be seen.

"Couldn't have been a carpenter like your Ma' wanted, could you Gavrian?" he muttered to himself as he lowered himself down onto a smaller stack and then hauled himself higher again.

He stopped with a sigh as the lantern illuminated the wall ahead of him. Going backwards was clearly going to be no help and a quick glance to either side of him showed only more rows of crates and boxes.

A flicker of movement drew his eye and the dog emerged from the shadows. It came closer and sat in front of the stack of crates he stood on, panting as it watched him.

 "Hur, hur, hur...." Your move.

It was a wide gap, but was it too wide? Gavrain gauged the distance to the rows of boxes either side of him. "It's not like you've got a choice," he sighed. The dog would be on him in moments if he didn't make this though. He deliberately moved to the wrong side of the crate, closest to the dog. Then he spun, took two quick steps, and hurled himself across the gap that had been behind him. The dog was up and running instantly, claws scraping on the stone floor as it raced to the end of the row of crates.

Gavrain clung to the edge of the crate, feet scrambling for purchase in a frantic counterpoint to the noise of the animal that was racing towards him. His foot caught, and he surged upwards onto the op of the crate in time to see the dog land. That had been too close. He had felt the wind of the dog's passage underneath him, heard the clack of the teeth as they closed on the air he had just passed through. He slumped down on his shaking legs into a cross-legged position, and tried to breathe normally. Below him the dog sat and looked up at him, watching.

"Hur, hur, hur..."

The next row of crates was closer, he could make that with no trouble. He crossed in a light jump, the dog following along below him, and then he saw the window. It was small, and set high in the wall, but it would get him out. The diamonds be damned at this point.

"You should have bought a cat, Helgan." He laughed, and made his way over the crates.

The scratching gave him pause. A scrabbling sound, much like he'd made when he hauled himself up the side of the crates as the dog raced towards him. A glance into the darkness showed him nothing but he made the next two jumps quickly, fear taking precedence over prudence.

The window was high, even from the top of the crates it would be hard to reach. It was also small, barely wide enough to fit his shoulders through. He looking behind him into the gloom, shining the narrow beam of lantern-light back and forth. Nothing.

A quick look at the wall showed him that would be no help to him. The only way to reach the window, would be to hurl himself at it.

"Come on then, lad." he said. "Let's be at it."

The crates shook as his feet raced along them, rattling loud enough to blanket any other noise. He barely heard himself yell as he threw himself into the air, arms outstretched to grab for the windowsill. His head crashed into the wall a fraction after his knees. He'd turned it, rather than mash his nose but the blow was still enough to make his grip loosen.

His hand clutched convulsively at the windowframe and he scrabbled at the wall again with his feet, inching himself upward. There was no room or time for finesse, his arms would give out if he tried to be quiet about this. His open palm slammed into the middle of the window, smashing the wooden frame and glass panels outwards.

Gavrain pulled his head up and began to worm through the gap, inching his way forward with legs flailing ineffectually beneath him. And then he was stuck. One arm was wedged behind him, pressed close to his side, the other outstretched and grasping at nothing as it reached through the broken window.

He had several minutes of blind panic as he wrenched his body back and forth, trying to move in either direction, before he managed to calm himself. There would be a way out of this, he just had to stay calm and reason it out.

"Hur, hur, hur." The sound came from underneath his legs, loud enough to hear clearly despite the fact his head was outside and the dog in.

A scrabble of claws on stone and then the teeth sank deep into his leg, the weight of the animal tearing his flesh and forcing him back through the window.

Shock held him for a moment, pressed its hand tight over his mouth, and then it fled and he began to scream.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Gavrain and the Dragon

Gavrain reached to wipe the sweat from his forehead again, and the gauntlet clanged loudly against his helmet. He swore to himself in a whisper, and watched the entrance to the cave. Nothing, no signs of movement. If it weren't for the scorched and gnawed bones carpeting the rocks at the cave entrance, he would have sworn it was abandoned.
The stones were slick with the drizzle that misted down from the sullen clouds hanging low in the sky. Where the sun was sulking he couldn't have said, but he would have cheerfully given a forefinger for the rain to be gone.
"Get on with it, Gavrain!" he hissed to himself in a whisper thick with fear.
The sword was heavy in his hands, he'd left the shield with the horse. It was too heavy to drag over these rocks in full armour, and it would be of little use against the beast anyway.
An acrid stench wafted from the cave, sulphur mixed with the stench of rotten meat. Almost masked by this, was the dry smell of snakes or lizards, the scent of the wyrm. Gavrain shuddered despite himself, and tightened his grip on the broadsword they'd given him, before pushing him out on this fool's quest.
His feet were as silent as he could make them on the stone floor of the cave, but sabatons were not designed for stealth, and they scraped and clanged the second he tried to move any faster than a nervous burglar.
The cave mouth gaped wide, and the tunnel opened wider still as he made his way in and around the corner into the chamber. He'd been told what to expect of course, but even so the sight took his breath away. A mound of gold and treasure large enough to dwarf his wildest imaginings. Small holes in the high roof of the cave, easily a hundred feet or more above him, provided a dim light. Despite the deep shadows, he could see the dragon was gone.
Within three steps he knew he'd been wrong. The smell was too fresh, too thick, for the dragon to be anywhere but in the cave. He froze for five frantic heartbeats and then searched the gloom. Full armour is not, however, designed to allow the wearer to look above them.
The leathery flap of the beast's wings was the only warning he had before the creature crushed him to the ground, pinning him easily beneath one gore-stained claw.
He had no time to scream, or even to think to beg for mercy. The huge head snaked down, teeth shining in the dim light. In one grinding crunch his head and chest were gone, devoured by the beast.
The dragon swallowed hungrily, oblivious to the twisted metal sliding down its throat along with the would-be knight's life. A long black tongue licked at the red-tinged lips as it considered the remnants of its meal.
"Nom!" said the dragon.