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Book Review: Aukland Allies by Mike Reeves-McMillan

AucklandAllies_MRMCover_rev104Genre: Urban Fantasy with Steampunk Highlights

Description: As bit players in the world of magic, Tara, Sparx, and their clairvoyant acquaintance Steampunk Sally are careful to stay clear of New Zealand’s supernatural politics. So after Sally uses her powers to win a little money at blackjack, it’s a nasty surprise when hired goons come after them.

Hitting the streets, they try to find out who these Blokes in Black work for, why such a dangerous and powerful figure has his sights set on three magical nobodies–and how to protect themselves.

Another fun read from Mike Reeves-McMillan, author of the Gryphon Clerks series. Disclaimer called for as usual; I beta read for Mike (and vice-versa) and I beta read this book. What I usually expect from Mike is a book with very deep and powerful characterization, but a bit of a disorganized plot that could be tighter.

Aukland Allies is an exception to that rule. It’s fast-paced, with a well-knit story line that blends a thrilling struggle against nefarious foes of awesome power with nerdy personal conflicts and a bit of off-beat romance.

The story is set in Aukland, New Zealand, where Mike lives. That’s an unusual setting for urban fantasy. Most UF stories are set either in the United States or in the UK. But it works well, and the descriptions of the city and its barely-tamed environs are a large part of the book’s considerable charm. One delicious scene has Sally overcoming an armed and magically potent attacker using local wildlife as a weapon, in a way that strangers from the northern hemisphere would never expect.

Aukland Allies is not only a great story in its own right, but it has the potential to start an urban fantasy series that’s unusual and way above average. It’s got a subculture of magical practitioners, with shadowy, authoritarian people in positions of power, fascist nasties like the Blokes in Black, and much youthful rebellion and challenge to fossilized tradition.

Applying my usual objective system, I’m going to give Aukland Allies five stars. This is the first time I’ve done that for one of Mike’s stories, but this one has superior characterization and writing (as his usually do), and also a superior plot.

If you like urban fantasy, geek culture, or occult stories, get this book.

It’s available at Amazon and other outlets for $2.99.

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Book Review: Three Great Lies by Vanessa MacLellan

TGL CoverGenre: Portal Fantasy

Publisher: Hadley Rille Books

Description:

While vacationing in Egypt. . .

Jeannette Walker, a cynical scientist jaded by swarms of tour groups and knick-knack shacks, is lured by a teenage tour guide to visit a newly discovered tomb. No other tourists there! Inside the chamber, she tumbles down a shaft and 3000 years back in time.

Now, in a world where deities walk the streets and prophecy heats up the air, Jeannette is desperate for normal and the simple pleasures of sanitation and refrigeration. However, a slave master hawking a cat-headed girl derails her homebound mission, and Jeannette–penniless in this ancient world–steals the girl, bringing down the tireless fury of the slaver.

Saddled with a newly awakened mummy and the cat-headed girl, Jeannette contrives a plan to free them from the slaver’s ire, but will she have to dive into the belly of the beast to succeed?

This debut novel by Vanessa MacLellan is one of the most thoroughly researched works of fiction I’ve ever read. The details in the fantasy version of ancient Egypt into which the protagonist falls are meticulously presented, from the sand infesting the bread to the unfiltered quality of the beer to the conservative, deeply religious character of the culture. That was the second thing I noticed as I read this book. (I’ll get to the first thing in a moment.)

The story is one of self-discovery and personal evolution alongside a struggle against unreasonable authority and the birth of unlikely friendships. The “three great lies” of the title are, on the surface, a fortune cookie message that Jeannette received at a restaurant in our world before she was transported to that one. On a deeper level, each of the main characters (Jeannette, Aboyami the mummy, and Sanura the cat-headed teenage daughter of Bast) has a strong belief about herself or himself that proves to be a lie. Jeannette believes that her goal, the thing she desires most, is to get out of the primitive, superstitious madhouse into which she has fallen and return to modern civilization. Aboyami has lost his heart scarab and believes that he needs to get it back and proceed to the afterlife. Sanura believes that she is lost without her litter mates and needs to return to being just like all the other kittens. None of these beliefs is true, but the protagonists must undergo a confrontation with a slaver and some tomb-robbers and a great deal of personal growth before they can discover the truth. All of which makes for a truly inspiring and satisfying story.

Now for that first thing I noticed, which prevents me from giving this book five stars, which I normally would, for a great story, extraordinary characterization, and above-average writing. The story begins poorly. Ms. MacLellan makes a common first-novel mistake by plunging into the main action before giving the reader a chance to get to know and care about the main character. We learn later the reasons why Jeannette is the way she is, but in the beginning all that comes across is a shallow, frivolous person who doesn’t care about anyone but herself and is incapable of understanding a foreign culture. Within the first few pages, she suffers a fall and is transported into a weird land where she has a hard time surviving, but this reader at least didn’t much care, until later in the tale’s unfolding. A little time spent with Jeannette before she finds herself in this predicament, a presentation of the betrayal by her fiance and her best friend that forms such a wound across her life, a bit on her tragic family background — some understand of who she is — would have fixed that, so that when she did find herself stuck in Kemet, we would feel and care about her problems.

As it is, all of that comes out over the course of the story, and Jeannette grows in strength, compassion, courage, and understanding as she deals with the problems she faces. She forms a strong bond with the other two protagonists and unfolds like a blossom. The plot is gripping, the character development profound, and the ending immensely satisfying. If you, like me, find yourself put off by the slam-bam beginning and the unappealing character of Jeannette in the first part of the book, and are tempted to abandon it — do yourself a favor, and resist that temptation. Get past that first section, and Three Great Lies will greatly reward your patience and persistence. This is a wonderful story, and we can expect marvelous things from Vanessa MacLellan in the future.

Available from Amazon for $5.99 (Kindle) or $16.00 (print).

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A Sip of Fear: Publication Announcement

A Sip of FearA Sip of Fear, volume one of The Illuminated, is now live on Amazon and Smashwords. It should be up at most other e-book retain outlets within about a week. You can read the first three chapters in the three posts prior to this one, or by reading the free samples from the retailers.

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A Sip of Fear (Chapter Three)

A Sip of FearHere’s the third chapter of my new novel, A Sip of Fear, volume one of The Illuminated. A slight hitch happened on the way to publication, so the book will be available tomorrow rather than today. I’ll post links to the book at Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords in a new post then, and add it to the sideboard. I’m going through the Smashwords distribution system for other outlets (Barnes & Noble, Apple, etc.) so it should be available there within a week or so.

Meanwhile, hope you enjoy this third installment.

 

I encountered Ela-Tu for the first time when I was fifteen.

Magic fired up in my brain a few years before that, surrounding me like music that never stopped playing. Feelings coming my way from other people, auras and borderline realities seen from the corner of my eye, strands of fate plucked like chords or whispering secrets in my ear.

A lot of people have a little sensitivity to the Power. It’s much more common than most people realize. The sense you get when you’re being watched. The knowledge of who’s calling on the phone before you answer it. The fear that grabs the heart when a loved one is in danger, felt before the word comes. The desperate prayer in troubled times that gives birth to a miracle of shifted odds. Many people know such things. Magic in small amounts is nothing out of the ordinary.

I have more than a little of it. That’s rarer. Those with the ability to become virtuosos of the Art gulp down occult lore like drunkards. We can’t help it, even though the payoff is scant. Most of what’s written on the subject is complete crap made up by sensation-mongers and scam artists. A small subset covers better ground, but amounts to poor, if honest, understanding of one of the biggest puzzles life has to offer. Only a few rare tracts offer real, sound knowledge, because only a few of us have ever discovered that knowledge.

Among the cream of the magical world, the Illuminated are in a class by ourselves.

As far as I know, anyway. Maybe there are others out there that would make us look like amateurs, keeping themselves hidden from us because they can. I can’t speak about hypotheticals like that.

What I do know is that Illuminated always come from the ranks of those who have a special gift of magic and have studied the art, and nearly all Illuminated have at one time or another dabbled in the summoning of spirits. Now, spirits are of several kinds. Most spirits spring from the mind of the magic user in a form of controlled imagination that endows the creature with a measure of the summoner’s free will. That sort of spirit is useful for enhancing spells or managing them in an intelligent way while the mind of the magician is engaged elsewhere. But is the spirit real or imaginary? In the shifting world of the mental moonscapes, pregnant with sorcery, where meaning takes the place of mass and association replaces distance, everything is both and the question can’t be asked or answered.

But some spirits are different. Some touch on older and stronger magic, dangerous and seductive. Among those are the ones we call the Luminous. The Luminous defy all of the arts of ceremonial magic. You can’t command a Luminous by invoking names of God, sigils, or words of power. You can’t negotiate a pact with one of them; the terms of bonding are fixed, take it or leave it. The Luminous may come to your call, or you may call it without realizing what you’re doing, or it may summon you — or it may ignore you altogether and leave your efforts empty of result. But however it happens, meeting a Luminous changes your perspective on yourself, your life, and the cosmos, and after the bonding you are never the same.

For me, it happened when I played with spirit summoning, a teenager who knew almost nothing, certainly not what I was doing, and sent a call out to a spirit who could help me be a healer. No name. No idea what I would call. I just wanted to heal the sick and hurt. It seemed right.

For six weeks when I was fifteen, every night I drew a magic circle in the air with a consecrated wand and focused my will and desire. Every night I sent the call. Every night I went to sleep wondering why I bothered, why I persisted when nothing ever followed.

Until it did. Until she came.

When Ela-Tu answered my call, resistance was impossible. I fell in love. Since then, I have had more lovers than I can count — a side effect of bonding to a spirit of Life — but no matter who shares my bed, I have always been hers. I will be hers until I die.

ξ

Being Illuminated comes at a price and carries an obligation. I thought about that as I walked along Golden Gardens Drive in the misty rain the next day. Sometimes the obligation isn’t a problem. I didn’t mind looking for signs of illness in the trees and wildlife and healing it, or doing the same for people. But Erica walked beside me as a reminder of other obligations that weren’t so simple.

The Ice Woman wore a hooded jacket. Her glossy brown hair framed her face in tight curls under the hood and collected drops of rainwater to sparkle in the cool air. I turned to her and tried to smile. Then I noticed that some of those water drops had frozen, beading her hair like woven-in gems. My breath smoked. Hers didn’t. Not a good sign. She was angry.

She was always angry with me. By her lights, I deserved it. Most people would agree with her. The problem is, I didn’t have much choice in the matter. And it’s not as if she didn’t know that going into our relationship. She picked up on the thought without my having to say anything.

“I know,” she said. She looked at me. I felt the temperature drop. “I knew what you were. I asked you if you could be faithful to me.”

“And I told you probably not,” I said.

“Yes. I should have listened. I couldn’t. I —” She stopped and frowned. “You meant a lot more to me than you should have.”

I stopped to inspect the wide blackened hole in an oak tree, burned some years past by lightning. The tree had sprouted around the dead area and now it looked like a dark door into mystery. I smiled. The tree didn’t need my attention. I turned back to my ex-girlfriend, who did.

“You meant a lot to me, too, Erica. Really, you did. And you still do. I didn’t cheat on you because I didn’t care. I did it because —”

“I know, Gordon. You did it because Ela-Tu wanted you to. She never wants you to say no to anyone. She probably won’t be happy until you have a couple of dozen offspring.”

“She hasn’t pressured me about that, actually. Kind of surprising.” I touched her arm, and despite everything, felt a surge of desire. Ela-Tu still wasn’t talking to me, but her influence remained strong, and my powers hadn’t weakened. I stopped myself from pulling Erica into an embrace. She wouldn’t have appreciated it, and it would only have hurt her more. “I’m sorry, Erica.”

“I know that, too. But it doesn’t really help.” She sighed. “And I’m sorry, too, Gordon. You can’t help being what you are.” She paused. “How’s Rose?”

“The same.”

“You’ve cheated on her, too, haven’t you?”

“It’s not against our rules, Erica, so no, it’s not cheating. But if you mean I’ve had other women, yes. And one man. Rose understands. I’m not saying she never gets jealous, but she handles it.”

“She shouldn’t have to.”

I shrugged.

Erica sighed. “Right. She has you because she can handle it, and I don’t because I can’t. So it goes.” She shook her head. “Tell me about Shadow.”

“You’ve decided I’m not crazy?”

“No. But Marcus doesn’t think you are. He believes you, so I’m prepared to listen. Why do you think the bogey-man is real?”

I explained the evidence that Rose had found. “So the pattern shows that Shadow is real.”

“Wait a minute. What did she consider a Shadow sighting anyway?”

“Reports from people who saw him. Or said they did. What else?”

“Yeah, but nobody knows what he looks like.”

“There are stories. Someone who blends into the shadows, moves really fast, and kills Illuminated. He wears a black cloak and hood. He’s incredibly strong. He’s got an aura of death around him that any magician can see, Illuminated or not. Several of those elements together in a report equals Shadow. Except a few of them were false alarms.”

She shook her head. “I don’t know, Gordon. Have you considered the possibility that you’re both fooling yourselves? This seems like a pretty shaky basis —”

“Shh. Someone’s coming. Keep your voice down.”

A man approached us from ahead on the road. Erica nodded and continued in a whisper.

“Rose could have unconsciously created this pattern she saw out of background noise.”

“I doubt that, Erica. She’s a mentat. She doesn’t make mistakes that way. If it was me doing it, yeah, you might have a point.”

The man drew closer to us. He wore a black wool jacket with a hood. Something about him felt — off, wrong. His aura seemed dark and cold. I smelled a faint odor of decay.

Could this be Shadow? I doubted it. He moved like a normal man, and I couldn’t sense the signs of Illumination. But still, there was something about him.

As all this was running through my brain, the man stopped, hands in his pockets, about ten feet away.

“Gordon Greenbough?” he said.

“That’s me,” I said. “Who are you?”

He pulled his right hand from his coat pocket. A pistol came with it.

“Shadow says hello,” he said, and shot me twice in the gut. I fell. As the pain hit me in a delayed reaction, the road and the trees spun wildly and everything went dark.

ξ

When I woke up, I was still in the park. My head rested on something soft. A bit of exploration confirmed that it was Erica’s lap. With some embarrassment, I removed my hand from her thigh and sat up. That’s when I remembered getting shot.

A moment of panic ensued as I felt about my midsection, but the wounds had already healed. My clothes were a lost cause, bullet holes in my jacket and shirt and stained with lots of my blood. As I brushed myself off, two small objects fell to the ground. These proved to be mangled bullets, expelled from my body by muscle contractions as the healing power worked on me. I slipped them into my pocket for souvenirs.

“What happened?” I said.

“You got shot,” said Erica.

“Yeah, I remember that part.”

“I got the guy who shot you,” she said, nodding at something to my left. I looked that direction and saw a man maybe in his thirties, dressed in a black wool jacket with a hood. His body lay crusted with ice in a thin but solid layer, slowly melting into the undergrowth. His open eyes stared at the sky and his open mouth shrieked in silent shock. “I dragged him away from the road and then did the same to you. I know it’s not a good idea to move someone hurt as badly as you were, but I know how quickly you heal. He should have aimed for something that would kill you instantly, like a head shot.”

“If he was trying to kill me. I’m not sure he was.”

“Maybe he was just a bad shot.” She stood up and brushed leaves and twigs off her jacket. “You look a mess, Gordon.”

“Thanks for saving me. I’ve never been shot before. It feels weird.”

“Weird?”

“Well, it hurt. Now I feel kind of itchy. And a little woozy. Probably the blood loss. Also I need a shower and to change clothes.”

“What should we do with him?” she said, nodding at the corpse.

“I don’t know. He’s kind of — I mean, if they find him before he thaws out, that could be a problem.”

“Yeah.”

“Let me try something.”

I knelt beside the corpse and put my hands on his jacket, reaching inside him with my magical senses and the special health-sense that Ela-Tu gave me. He was dead, of course, no way I could heal that, but plenty of things were still alive inside him, cells of his body that hadn’t died yet and bacteria. I encouraged them to greater activity. I also pulled power up from the ground, which I often did when healing living things. In a little under a minute, the ice covering his body started to crack. The melting accelerated. Pretty soon most of the ice was gone, the ground under the corpse just a little damper than the surrounding turf.

“There,” I said, standing up. “He’ll still be a medical mystery, but it won’t be as blatant. Let’s get out of here.”

“Do you have anything to change into?”

“No.”

“Here.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a spare windbreaker. “It’s a little small for you, but it should cover the bloodstains.”

“Okay. Thanks.” I slipped into the windbreaker, which was a little small for me as she said, but not too bad. Erica is nearly as tall as I am. I could wear her clothes in a pinch. I’d done it before.

“I guess I believe in Shadow now,” Erica said as we walked back to our cars.

“That couldn’t have been him, though.” I frowned.

“No, I don’t think I could have killed Shadow that easily. He was probably a mind-control victim. Spooky.”

“No kidding. This whole thing is spooky.”

“Shadow must know who you are, Gordon. He knows your name. That guy asked if you were you. Right?”

“Yeah. That’s pretty scary.”

She bit her lip. “I don’t want you to die.”

“Thanks.”

“I mean it. There have been times I was so mad at you I thought I wanted you dead, but I don’t. Do you think Shadow is aiming for you? Has he picked you as his victim?”

“I don’t know. Pretty cocky to announce it like that if he is.”

“Yeah.” She folded her arms. Her brow furrowed. “He feeds on fear as well as blood. That’s what the stories say. Maybe he’s trying to scare you.”

“Doing a good job of it, then.”

“What are we going to do, Gordon?”

“Find him. Stop him. Kill him if we can.”

“How?”

We came out of the park to where my green rebuilt Karmann Ghia was parked. Erica’s SUV was right behind it.

“I don’t know how,” I said. “Everyone has weaknesses, though. We’ll find Shadow’s.”

“Okay.” She smiled. “I’ll call you later. Just to make sure you’re all right.”

“Thanks.”

I got in and started my car. My hands trembled so badly I had to take several deep breaths before I could make the key do its job.

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A Sip of Fear (Chapter Two)

A Sip of FearHere’s the second chapter of my new novel, A Sip of Fear, volume one of The Illuminated. I’ll publish the third chapter here next Friday, which is also publication date, so I’ll have links then to the book at Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords as well. Meanwhile, please enjoy this sample.

 

Shadow was real!

I stood on my balcony the next morning. Our apartment is on the second floor of the building and we have a covered balcony facing the sunrise. The air smelled sweet and, as usual, damp. The sun played a low-pitched note in my mind as it rose triumphantly over the horizon. A crow flew down and landed on my shoulder. That fit my mood. Birds often came to visit, landing on me or on the balcony rail. Pigeons and jays were common, songbirds rarer, and on one occasion I drew a red-tailed hawk.

In a mood like this, a big bird as black as my fear responded to the squawk in my brain and landed on my shoulder. I turned to look into its little dark eye.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “He won’t hurt you. I’m the one who’s dead.”

Shadow was real!

I was jumping to conclusions. I knew that. He might not come to Seattle. He might not come for me. That ominous arrow pointing north from Los Angeles might bend. Maybe he’d go east from Portland, heading for Chicago or for some enclave of earth burrowers out in the countryside.

But I couldn’t help being afraid.

Shadow was real!

The crow screeched in my ear and flew away. Yeah, in this mood I was no fun. Can’t blame you, bird.

Rose came out on the balcony with two cups of coffee. She handed me one, with cream, no sugar. I took a gulp of it, my hands trembling. She hugged me and ran her hand up and down my back.

“I’m scared, Rose.”

“I know. Me, too.”

“What should we do?” I said.

“Thinking about it,” Rose said. “The Illuminated need to know he’s real. Together we might be able to do something about him.”

“What? How do you stop someone like Shadow?”

She shrugged. “How do you kill a dead person? That might be impossible. But maybe we don’t have to kill him to stop him.” She shook her head. “We need more information.”

I had to smile at that. “You Djehuti adepts. You can never have enough data.”

“Well, we don’t want to make a mistake, not with something like this. There’s so much we don’t know. How much of the legend can we trust? Also, how much of the vampire stories are true about Shadow? Can you kill him with a stake through the heart? Can you poison him with garlic? It’s a swamp of misinformation. But I did some more digging into those sightings. Each one, he stayed a little while, a few days or a week, once as long as three weeks. Each time, an Illuminated died. No explanation of how or why. Then Shadow left. It’s reasonable to believe he killed those Illuminated.”

“Yeah. That fits the legend.”

“But he only killed one. You’d expect him to stay and clean the whole town out, kill every Illuminated in the place. He never does. He kills one. Then he leaves, goes to the next town and does it again. He’ll do the same in Portland, then move to the next target. If he comes north, he could stop in Vancouver or Olympia or Tacoma, or skip all of those and come here. Seattle’s the biggest city in Washington and has the most Illuminated. But that’s no guarantee. He could go anywhere.”

I drank some more coffee. I probably shouldn’t; I was wired enough already. “There’s a cowardly part of me that wants to hunker down and pray that he picks someone else to kill. Odds would be in my favor.”

“I know — but.”

“Right. But. But if he doesn’t kill me, he’ll kill someone else. There aren’t that many Illuminated in Seattle and most of them are my friends. Who should I prefer as victim? Marcus down at the Green Woman? Erica? You?”

“No matter who the victim is, we all suffer. We grieve, and we live in fear, and Shadow feeds.”

I sighed. “We need to stop him if we can.”

“And I don’t think we can do it alone.”

“Can you put something on a flash drive so I can show people, prove to them Shadow is a real person?”

She grinned and fished in a pocket. “Already done,” she said, handing me the drive. I pocketed it.

“Well, since Shadow seems to take his time, I guess I can make us some breakfast before I go talk to people. But I’d better not put it off too long.” I kissed Rose and held her, enjoying her smell and the feel of her body while I still could, while we were both still breathing. “I’ll make some phone calls after breakfast.”

ξ

Erica Jenner picked up the phone. I hadn’t been sure she would. “Hello?”

Well, that explained it. She didn’t check caller ID.

“Hi, Erica, it’s Gordon.”

“Oh. Hello.”

“Look, I know you’re still mad at me and I don’t blame you, but don’t hang up.”

“I’m still here.”

“Erica, this is really important. We’re all in danger. I need to talk to you.”

“So talk.”

“I mean in person. I want to show you something.”

A moment of silence, then, “This had better be important.”

“It is.”

“I really don’t want to see you, Gordon.”

“I know.”

“I’ve just gotten to where I can think about dating someone.”

I swallowed. Massive guilt. Erica always knew how to play that card, but in this case I deserved it.

“Well, what’s this about?” she said.

Deep breath. “It’s about Shadow.”

She laughed. “What?”

“Shadow is real.”

“Oh, come on, Gordon.”

“I can prove it.”

“Gordon — wait a minute. You and Rose broke up, right? She dumped you, didn’t she?”

“What? No. No, we’re fine.”

“What game are you playing, Gordon?”

“No game, I’m serious. Shadow is real. He was in Portland a couple weeks ago. He might be coming here. One of us is going to die if he does.”

“Gordon — never mind. I knew you were a two-timing backstabbing jerk, but this is a new low even for you. Don’t call me again.”

Click.

I put my phone on the table and rubbed my eyes. Rose came over and massaged my shoulders. “Starting with Erica might not have been the smartest move,” she said.

I laughed. “Get the worst out of the way,” I said. “So when my ex is on the list, she’s the first one I call. Things can’t get worse after that.”

“Hmm.”

“Who should I try next?”

“Marcus.”

“No, I’ll save him for later. I could use the Green Woman as a meeting venue. Show everyone the evidence at once.”

“Call Marcus. He can help you persuade people to listen. He has that kind of charm. He also likes you better than any of the others, and he has a more open mind than most.”

“I’ll try Frank Nguyen.”

Rose shook her head and smiled. She kissed my cheek and walked away, not saying any more.

Frank wasn’t pissed at me the way Erica was, but he still thought I was crazy. Jenny Carrow didn’t listen, either.

“Call Marcus,” said Rose.

I sighed. “All right. I’ll call Marcus.”

I did. He remained skeptical when the call ended, but invited me to the Green Woman that evening to show him the goods.

Rose was right, of course. She usually is. Sometimes I have to show I can think for myself, though.

Yeah, I know. Dumb. I have a mentat for a girlfriend. I should listen to her.

ξ

I let the doors of the Green Woman close behind me. She hung over the bar — the Green Woman, that is — on a wooden panel like something that would hang over the door of a medieval inn, painted as a gorgeous female face with big green eyes and ivy twined in her green hair. I always liked that image. The Green Woman looked a lot like Ela-Tu, who still wasn’t talking to me.

The bar served as an unofficial gathering place for the Illuminated in Seattle, although of course we weren’t its only customers. Only six Illuminated that I knew of had permanent residences in Seattle at that time: Rose and me, Marcus, Erica, Frank Nguyen, and Jenny Carrow. Doug Walker migrated as did most werewolves, and a few Illuminated probably lived loner lives outside my knowledge, but still the pool of potential Shadow victims wasn’t large. Illumination is rare and precious and I didn’t want to lose any of my peers.

The place was medium busy, mostly with regulars. Marcus tended the bar, taking the mid-day shift before Lana arrived. A middling tall man about my age with black hair cut short and a gym-shaped body, he smiled as I approached. Sally, not an Illuminated, in her twenties, red haired and pretty, carried drinks and bussed tables. I sat at the bar.

“Glass of the house red, please, Marcus,” I said.

“Coming up,” said Marcus. “I want to see this proof of yours, Gordon, but let’s wait until Lana gets here.”

“Okay.” He served me my wine, which fell into the category of “not bad for a house wine.” By the time it reached my lips, though, it could have won awards. Being a bio-mage has plenty of perks to it.

As I sipped and waited, an Illuminated I didn’t recognize came in. She stood no taller than five two and had a petite body that drew my eyes away from her face over their great reluctance. Wavy night-black hair sluiced down her back except for a couple of strands artfully arranged in front to embrace her breasts, which were contained but not concealed by a form-fitting white body suit. Her head was a little large for her body, as usual for short people. It was far from unattractive, though. Her eyes, big and blue as the sky, contrasted sweetly with her hair in the striking combination called “Black Irish” along with her fair skin.

I couldn’t help smiling as I saw her walk in the door. She smiled back. A voice in the corridors of my mind whispered, here comes trouble, but I couldn’t help it. I followed her movements with my eyes, still smiling, as she came up to the bar and sat beside me.

“What will you have, beautiful?” Marcus said.

“That red wine looks nice,” she said in a mellow contralto that made my blood vibrate.

“Coming right up,” Marcus said.

“Allow me,” I said as he served her glass, and applied the same magic to her wine as I had to my own. She sipped it and her eyebrows shot up.

“Oh, my,” she said, “a bio-mage. My name’s Sarah. Sarah Cole.”

“Gordon Greenbough,” I said, holding my hand out. She took it, and I reached for a sense of her Luminous as I touched her hand. I couldn’t get a clear impression, except of presence and considerable mental power.

Sarah laughed. “Asta,” she said.

“Beg pardon?”

“My Luminous. Her name is Asta. I’m a glamor-mage. Illusion, graceful mind-working, that sort of thing.”

“I see.” That made sense. I wondered how much of her beauty consisted of illusion, but what difference did it make? All beauty is illusory.

“Asta is hard to read. I’m new in Seattle, and I’d heard this was the place to introduce myself to the local Illuminated. Glad to see I wasn’t misinformed.” She turned to Marcus. “What’s your name?”

“Marcus Jones.”

“Good to meet you, Marcus,” said Sarah, holding her hand out. He took it, smiling. I noticed that she had long fingers. Graceful hands, like the rest of her. She closed her eyes briefly. I knew that she was reading his Luminous, and would find that Marcus was a tinker-mage. Thotis, his Luminous, made Marcus a designer of amazing inventions that shouldn’t work, but did. Tending bar might seem an unusual occupation for a tinker-mage, but Marcus owns the Green Woman. It’s his cover and his day job.

In fact, it’s not at all unusual for Illuminated to have livelihoods that seem out of touch with our powers. It lets us do what we do discreetly and not attract unwanted attention. I heal people, but I do it in secret and take no credit for it. Meanwhile, I make money as a writer and editor, and nobody connects that with bio-magic.

Might as well plunge right in, I thought. “This may not be the best time to come to Seattle, Sarah.”

She blinked. “Why is that?”

“You’ve heard of Shadow, I imagine.”

Her laugh was as pretty as she was. “Who hasn’t? You’re not saying he lives in Seattle, are you?”

“God, no! What a thought! No, he travels about and doesn’t seem to have a permanent residence, but he last surfaced in Portland two weeks ago. Before that he was in Eugene, before that in Oakland, and before that in Los Angeles. You see the general direction.”

“Hmm. So he might be coming here.” She shook her head. “How do you know all this? And what makes you think there even is a Shadow?”

I sighed. “You don’t believe me, of course.”

“Well, it’s a lot to take in. But I’m listening.”

I smiled. “You think I’m a harmless nut, Sarah. If you thought I might be right, you’d be terrified.”

“I’d be terrified if Shadow was about to drink my blood. He’s not here now. I hope not. If he’s on his way, I can always leave town. I’m good at going unnoticed when I want to.”

At that moment, Lana walked into the bar, tying her apron in place, her dark hair in a tight bun. After she took over for Marcus, he turned to me. “You said you had proof that Shadow is real.”

“Right. Let’s get a table and I’ll show you.” I hoisted my backpack with my laptop in it. The flash drive from Rose was still in my pocket.

ξ

“Wow,” Marcus said. “I never —” He shook his head.

“That’s eye-opening, all right,” said Sarah quietly.

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s odd, isn’t it, that nobody thought to do a test like this before. We were so sure that Shadow was a myth, we didn’t even bother to check the available evidence.”

“Could your friend be wrong?” said Sarah. “You said she cropped out some of the sightings.”

“Yes, but that was less than one sighting in ten. The rest of them fit this pattern linked up by dates. I’m very sure. Shadow is real.”

Silence prevailed at the table after that. Finally, Marcus stood up. “Well,” he said, “I guess I need to help you persuade the other Illuminated. I could start with Erica.”

“She froze me out already,” I said. “No pun intended.”

“You cheated on her, Gordon,” said Marcus. “You’re not the best one to convince the Ice Woman. Her skepticism is off the charts just because it’s you.”

“I guess so. Feel free to try.”

“I can probably get others on your team, but I don’t know how we can stop Shadow even if all of us work together.”

“Why did you call her the Ice Woman?” said Sarah.

“She’s a frost mage,” I said. “She can drain heat out of things. Or people.”

“Well, she might be the answer, then,” Sarah said. “Freeze Shadow solid. Even if it didn’t kill him, what could he do if he’s a block of ice?”

“Maybe,” I said. “The problem is that we just don’t know. We have only the vaguest idea of Shadow’s powers, and we don’t know anything about his weaknesses, if he even has any.”

“Oh, everyone has weaknesses,” said Sarah. “Of course he keeps his a secret. Hell, he keeps his existence a secret. I don’t think he would if he was really invincible. Do you?”

“Probably not,” said Marcus. “Maybe Rose can help us figure out what can stop him.”

“If she has enough data, she can figure out anything,” I said. “She can’t work in the dark, though.”

“Well,” Marcus said, standing up. “I’m going to go phone some people and see if I can get them to take a look at the evidence. That’s the first step. We can get together and talk about the next one after we’re all on board. You two stay as long as you want. If you need anything else, just flag down Sally. I’ll be in the office.” He clapped me on the shoulder, gave Sarah a last wistful smile, and left.

Sarah said, “Well, here I am in the big city, and sure enough, things are exciting.”

I laughed. “Yeah. I could do with a little less excitement, actually. Although we can’t be sure Shadow will come here. We could be worried about nothing.”

“If he doesn’t come to Seattle, we go after him. Right? We can spread the word, get a task force together. Unite the Illuminated world against a common enemy. One step from world peace.”

“Heh.”

“I’m really glad I met you, Gordon. For a lot of reasons.” She smiled and covered my hand with hers, which made me jump a little.

“I’m, uh — I’m with someone,” I said.

“Of course you are,” said Sarah. “Rose. I heard it in your voice. Anyway, bio-mages are always with someone. Usually more than one someone. Right?”

“Not always.”

“Nearly always. That’s what I hear. Not many men say no to me, Gordon, and bio-mages seldom say no to anyone. And I also hear it’s really worthwhile to get one to say yes.” She stood up and kissed my cheek. “I’ll be in touch.”

She walked out, throwing me a last smile over her shoulder.

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End Stretch for A Sip of Fear

A Sip of FearI’ve been berating myself for not managing to post another article here for two weeks, in spite of greatly expanding my pool of possible topics. The truth is, I’m in the final stretch of getting my new novel, the first in a new series, ready for publication. A Sip of Fear is out to beta readers and I’ve heard back from one of them. I’ll make further revisions to the story based on their suggestions, give it a last proofing and copy-editing pass, finalize the cover design, and publish. It will probably be out by the end of next month.

This makes it difficult for me to concentrate on anything else. Not just this blog, but my other work in progress, The Rapier (volume 3 of the Refuge series) is being shamefully neglected. So, what the hell. I’ll say some things about how A Sip of Fear has developed and what readers can expect.

The premise and world building of The Illuminated are covered elsewhere, so I won’t go into those again. Suffice to say that the Illuminated are magic users, each of whom has a familiar spirit called a Luminous who provides one specific power or a related group of powers. The main protagonist and viewpoint character is Gordon Greenbough the bio-mage, who has healing and other life-related powers. The main antagonist initially is Shadow, a mysterious undead assassin bonded to Apep, the spirit of Death. Shadow’s character develops in the course of the story and she becomes much less mysterious, and also less unambiguously an antagonist.

The essential problem is that Shadow is coming to kill Gordon. He has no way to stop her. She is invincible: immortal, indestructible, superhumanly strong and fast, able to kill with a touch, and completely immune to Gordon’s powers as a bio-mage, which affect only living things. But there’s more to this. Turns out that Shadow normally kills only akusala, which are Illuminated who turn utterly evil. She’s coming after Gordon, who is not akusala, because of an arrangement between her Luminous and his. It’s a test. Gordon’s Luminous, Ela-Tu, wants him to evolve in some unknown way. If he manages to do that, his evolution will reveal a path to surviving Shadow’s attack. If not, he’ll die.

In the course of seeking this way out, Gordon learns about akusala, meets an akusala bio-mage, encounters Ela-Tu’s dark side twin, Ela-Lin, gets to know Shadow herself and deals with questions of life and death and good and evil — as in, what are these things? As I wrote this story, I found the character of Shadow evolving in ways that I really liked. She turns out to be nothing like what one would expect from a stereotypical undead killing machine. She’s full of passion and idealism, and all too ready to love. I am nowhere near finished thinking about where to take future stories in the series, but one tempting possibility is to write books from the viewpoint of other Illuminated, and in that case I will certainly want to create at least one centered around Shadow.

But I’m not sure I’ll do that. The other option, more conventional, would be to write the whole series from Gordon’s perspective.

Anyway, this is my explanation and apology for dropping the ball here. I’ll have an announcement when the book is actually published. In the meantime, hopefully I’ll be able to pull it together soon.

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Writing Deeply (Part IV)

A Sip of FearThis is the fourth and last installment in which I engage in navel-gazing. (Ahem.) In which I explore the fact that I can’t write fiction that’s just escape.

In this case, I actually tried to. I made a conscious decision to write something with more of the standard urban fantasy tropes. It’s written in first person (and not even alternating first-person like The Star Mages). It’s got werewolves. It’s got a vampire (sort of). It’s got secret magicians. It’s got a ticking doomsday clock and imminent death.

I discussed the world-building of The Illuminated in an earlier post here, so I won’t go into a lot of detail about that again. What I will say is that, despite my best efforts, spiritual themes and philosophical depth crept in, and now A Sip of Fear, volume one of the series, is looking a lot like my earlier efforts except in superficial detail.

The Illuminated

Gordon, the main character, is a bio-mage. He’s bonded to the Luminous spirit Ela-Tu, whose domain is Life. Shadow, the adept of Death, is in town and intends to kill Gordon. Bad news. It prompts some philosophical outpouring on the part of Gordon’s sister Clara:

“I imagine what I would feel like if I was in your position. And the thing is, I am in your position. Shadow won’t kill me because I’m not an Illuminated, but death comes for every person sooner or later. Sometimes we see it coming. Sometimes it comes out of nowhere. It could happen any time, any place, to anybody. You face a chance of death every time you open your eyes. Shadow just adds one more possible cause to a long list.”

“Pretty philosophical. I’m not sure —”

“But that’s just it, Gordon. You’re not sure. You never can be. Except about one thing. Sooner or later, by one cause or another, you are going to die, and so is everyone you care about. You talk about Shadow as if he was some evil person, but death isn’t evil. It’s part of life, part of nature. It’s the dark side of your own Luminous. Shadow is doing you a favor.”

I frowned. “I can’t see it that way.”

“No. But you need to. I’m not saying you shouldn’t fight him. Of course you should try not to die, until there’s no way to do that. But death should find you ready. You’ve been warned. Shadow is telling you something that was always true, long before you heard about him. He’s telling you that you’re going to die. Take that knowledge and own it.”

But this isn’t just bad-guy-comes-stalking. It turns out that Shadow has a benign Purpose and things are much more complicated than Gordon thought:

“Do you know what an akusala is?”

“Never heard of it.”

“Not surprising. The word is Sanskrit for ‘evil’ or ‘lacking virtue.’ An akusala is an Illuminated who turns evil. When one of us goes bad, he goes really bad. Not just greedy or selfish or cruel like an ordinary bad human being. An akusala ties into something on the spirit plane, a kind of twisted version of his Luminous. If you were an akusala, you’d be walking corruption, bending all life to its undoing. You’d unleash plagues, turn fertile lands into desert. I’m not just guessing here, Gordon. There have been akusala bio-mages and they’re nightmares.”

“Sounds bad. Why haven’t I heard of these things?”

“Well, that’s what’s interesting. A thousand years ago, akusala were all over the place. In fact, there might have been more akusala than kusala — that’s an Illuminated who does good. But today they’re almost gone. They still pop up every now and then, but kusala have become the norm for Illuminated. What do you suppose happened?”

“I have no idea. Are you saying Shadow is an akusala?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Why not? He’s a serial killer.”

“Yes, but he’s too controlled to be akusala. He doesn’t do rampaging massacres. He goes to a place, kills one Illuminated, and then leaves.” She took a sip of wine and paused a moment. “What I think is that Shadow kills akusala. I think he’s the reason why there are so few of them around now.”

I shook my head. “Why is he coming after me, then?”

That’s the question, all right. Gordon gets an answer from Shadow in person:

“It’s — an arrangement between your Luminous and mine. When Ela-Tu feels one of her adepts may be ready to face a test — me — she informs Apep and he informs me. I was in Paris when I received the call, ending an akusala mind-mage buried deep in the French fascist party, the Front National.” He spoke the name with a perfect Parisian accent. “So I came to America to seek you.”

“You took your time getting here.”

“There was no hurry. The American Illuminated needed some weeding, so I weeded them on the way. I do not enjoy this duty, Gordon. I would prefer not to kill bio-mages, except those that are akusala of course. I don’t wish to kill you, but I must, unless you can pass the test.”

“Test? What test?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s a mystery of Life. You may unravel it. I never will. You must unravel it. Or you will die.”

“How many bio-mages have passed this test of yours?”

“It’s Ela-Tu’s test, not mine. I’m only her instrument in this.”

“How fucking many, Shadow?”

A pause. Then: “None.”

And so Gordon must find a way to transform himself in order to survive. Life and death. Good and evil. Personal transformation. Can things get any more cosmic than that? Probably. I’m just getting started here.

No books of The Illuminated have been published yet. A Sip of Fear should be ready by the end of this summer, hopefully.

And since that’s the whole list, it’s enough about me. Next week — well, I’m not sure. Something else, though.

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