Thursday, October 23, 2014

Medea's Disciple

           Greetings, Everyone! It's Cybelle here on this gloriously chilly Friday morning! As some of you know, Halloween is my favorite day of the year, and I like to celebrate it for the entire month of October. Therefore, I am delighted to offer a small contribution to this year's Heroines of Fantasy Fright Fest: a slice from my novel in progress, provisionally titled Medea's Disciple. It is graphic--consider yourselves warned!


In ecstasy, Alphonse embraced the book tighter still and sniffed its ancient pages. A sweet, heady fragrance blossomed from it. What’s happening?

Wild-eyed Erichtro turned her face to the moon and issued another command. “Hide yourself, Artemis!” Clouds raced to cover the lunar profile of the goddess, and a luminous mist wrapped itself around the sorceress. Thus attired in rags and borrowed moonlight, the Thessalian led Sextus and his men across a field of fallen soldiers until she spied the perfect vessel for prophesy: a young soldier whose throat had been cut. She tied a noose around the dead man’s neck and ordered the Romans to drag him over crags and rocks until they reached a mountain cave consecrated to her rites. At the mouth of the cave, Erichtho further mutilated the corpse’s chest and filled the cavities with her own blood. The hardened Roman soldiers shrank back in horror, and even Sextus Pompeius began to tremble. 

The sorceress chided them, “Put aside your terror, cowards! Soon life will be restored to this body. You will hear him speak, though you yourselves are turned to stone. I could show you the Stygian lakes, the Furies and mighty Cerberus, so why should you fear the pitiful shades that quake before me?” The witch returned to her work, rinsing the entrails of their filth. Once finished, she poured a noxious potion over them, and uttered an invocation to all the gods who rule over the dead. “I do not call upon a soul long accustomed to the darkness of Tartarus, but one that still lingers at the edge of the abyss. If he heeds our wishes and drinks of these potions, he will only join the other shades once. Let this former soldier of Pompey prophesy to the great general’s son if you are honored by civil war.”

 Momentarily, the soldier’s ghost appeared beside her, his pallid features contorted with terror at the prospect of reentering his putrid, broken body. The shade gestured soundlessly for mercy, but Erichtho cared not. Enraged that the gods had allowed the fallen soldier such a timorous display, she beat his corpse with a live snake and threatened the Furies with all manner of punishment if they did not force the dead man to do her bidding. Soon dark blood began to drip from the wounded body, and it warmed to life. The dead man’s limbs shook violently as his muscles tensed and flexed. At once, the corpse shot up from the earth, its eyes wide and mouth contorted in a grimace. "Soldier," she said, "I give you my word that you will never again be forced to return to the living if you speak the truth to Pompey’s son." Yellow tears poured down the dead man's battered face, as he told Sextus of Roman ghosts in turmoil. The gods of the underworld were preparing to welcome the Pompeians, father and son alike. When the prophesy had been spoken, the witch constructed a massive funeral pyre. The corpse strode into it with gratitude for his final death.

Stroking the book's soft cover, Alphonse changed the course of his reverie to follow Sextus on his journey back to the camp. In the dark hours of early morning, the general shivered uncontrollably with the knowledge of his certain death. Watching the doomed man drift into a fitful sleep, Alphonse succumbed to a nightmare landscape of his own. In the aftermath of the ancient battle, the young nobleman found himself navigating a path through the field of fallen soldiers. In the sweltering heat of the August sun, rotting bodies emitted a foul stench and flies swarmed over the remains. Then, in the distance, he saw a strange animal trotting toward him at a rapid pace. Though the beast had a distinctly canine aspect, Alphonse realized that it bore little resemblance to any dog he had ever encountered. Far larger than a wolf, the creature had a curved muzzle and the long pointed ears of a donkey. Its tail arched high over its back and terminated in a pointed tuft. As it approached, the beast looked directly into Alphonse’s eyes and grinned, revealing a mouthful of sharp, white fangs in a set of powerful jaws. Though Alphonse had no doubt the animal could rip his throat out in a matter of seconds, he felt no fear and returned its smile. Seemingly encouraged, the beast began a joyful dance over the bodies of the dead, springing wildly from corpse to corpse. At the sound of snapping bones, the creature emitted a high-pitched giggle that both horrified and delighted Alphonse. He found himself laughing with it, hands over face in an unconscious display of embarrassment. As the creature raced around him, cracking ribs in a frantic finale, the corpses began to wail and grunt in ghastly imitation of life. In the rapidity of its circular dance, the beast became a giggling whirlwind of noise and filth. It came to a rest only when the last corpse had been exhausted of its ability to produce pleasing shrieks and snaps. Alphonse applauded in sincere admiration, and the beast nodded and bowed in recognition. At length, it grinned again and walked toward him. Rubbing seductively against his legs, it spoke in a honeyed masculine voice, “You’re a handsome one! Our sorceress chose well.”

“What sorceress is this? And for what purpose have I been chosen?”

“Come see,” the beast whispered, rising on its hind legs to lick Alphonse’s ear. “Climb on my back. I’ll show you.”

As the beast spoke, Alphonse became aware of the same heady fragrance invading his nostrils. He recognized it now as the lovely warm scent of lotus blossoms. Waves of desire flooded his young body. He looked into the creature’s crimson eyes and caressed its curved muzzle with the tenderness of a lover. “Yes,” he said, “Show me.”

The beast returned to all fours, and Alphonse wrapped himself around it, pressing his face into the shaggy fur on the back of its neck. Instantaneously, the beast leapt forward and bounded across the length of the battlefield. Over hill and stream it ran until it reached a stony mountain, which it scaled with the agility of a mountain goat. When it came to a recess in the jagged rocks, the beast stopped moving. “Inside,” he whispered.

Alphonse had no desire to let go. “You’ll take me, won’t you? We’ll go together.”

“No, handsome one. I have other affairs.”

“Will I see you again?”

“Very soon.”

“How will I find you? I don’t even know your name.”

“I am Seth, who killed Osiris and stole the eye of Horus. I am Chaos and Destruction. And I will find you, handsome one. Do not delay.”

Reluctantly, Alphonse climbed off Seth and made his way into the cave. Inside, the dying embers of a funeral pyre illuminated its ancient walls. Beyond it, he saw a small woman seated on the floor of the cave. Dark eyes glittered in a flawless, unlined face framed with thick, black hair. She rose as he approached and addressed him in Greek. “Welcome, Alphonse! You’ve found your way to me at last! But you look surprised. Am not as you expected?”

“Oh, forgive me. Somehow I thought you would be older.”

“Well, sometimes I appear so. But why are you blushing? We’re old friends.”

“How can you see me blushing in this light?”

“Your discomfort would be obvious even under the moonless sky. Come now, this timidity doesn’t suit a handsome young soldier such as yourself.”

“No, I suppose it doesn’t. What must you think of me? But how can you say we’re old friends? I would certainly remember a place like this and a woman like you.”

“We are near Pharsalus, in the region of Thessaly. Caesar, though greatly outnumbered, is about to defeat Pompey’s army. The latter will sneak out of camp in the clothing of a civilian and make his way to Egypt, where he will meet his fate. Thence the winding waterways will carry his soul to the shades of his ancestors. I’ve seen you watch the dead man speak his prophesy a hundred times.”

“But you can’t be Erichtho, she’s…”

“A wild hag? Now you see me clearly, and not through the eyes of a hostile Roman. You know me by another name, too. Come closer. Look at me!”

As Alphonse studied her face in the flickering light, he began to recognize the calm determination of an older woman and gasped in recognition. “Daphné!”

The sorceress nodded. “I need your help, and you will be greatly rewarded for it. Now, go back!”

On her command, Alphonse awoke with a start and found himself in the library once more. The scent of lotus permeated the room, forbidding him to dismiss the experience as dream. He put the book aside and went in search of Daphné.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Morrigan Remembers...

Greetings, everybody...  I bid you welcome, for this, my contribution to the Heroines of Fantasy Fright Fest...
I’m not a great fan of writing short stories.  It's too much effort, for too little reward.  I mean this in the intellectual sense; it’s like listening to Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier when I’d much rather be absorbed in a vast sweeping epic symphony.  But occasionally, just occasionally, something connects in my head and out pops a story.
Today I’m going to post part of a story which is certainly horrible, and which was inspired by an incident which took place more than two decades ago. I was tending a much-loved horse on a cold January night. The local fox-hunt had been around that day, and one of the huntsmen was out in the pitch black freezing fog, blowing his horn to recall a stray hound.  That's all you could hear, a desolate hunting horn, interspersed with the lonely voice of the hunt servant.
At around the same time, I was working as a council archaeologist in Glasgow: I’d stumbled across references to a very peculiar Neolithic site in South Lanarkshire which consists of a vast circular bank and ditch, built in the middle of nowhere in a hollow halfway up a hillside. It was reused as a burial place in the Bronze Age. 
Years later, the ideas finally connected and a story was born. The end result was, I suppose, my tribute to the Bronze Age and Scottish Archaeology.  It also provided an ideal a way of exorcising my hostility towards fox-hunting!   
As an interesting afterword, I finally visited that site on a field survey just last year.   Yes, there was a raven.  And yes, I showed him/her deliberate courtesy, just in case...
Unfortunately, I can’t share the whole story with you, because it’s just too long.  But here’s the opening – extra Brownie points to those who spot all the archaeological references! 

Down in the valley, the hounds are calling. The emasculated bray of the horn rings out once, twice.
Morrigan’s dark ears swivel and she looks up, curious, not frightened. She sniffs the air, remembers hunts from long ago, when her power was at its zenith. The horns were different then. Strident, glorious...
She blunders through undergrowth. But ‘she’ isn’t a ‘she’. She’s a boar, all male reek and power.
Hounds nip at her heels. Morrigan turns at bay with a roar, eyes glittering red, breath steaming in the cold air. When Morrigan tosses her head, hounds are thrown aside like straw. They yelp and whimper as she stamps their bones into the mud...
Morrigan settles comfortably back into the brambles. Her gold eyes gleam in the dim light, the ground beneath her damp with dew. Drops of water hang like jewels from the gossamer that sags amongst the twigs.
It’s an ancient place. It reminds her of times past. While the trees and shrubs are not old, they taste the age from earth and water. They whisper it to those who can hear. But such places are few and far between now. Only small islands remain, in a sea of land that’s been ripped by the plough, over and over again, throughout the centuries.
She sees the flash of sunlight on bronze, hears the shouts of men erupt around her.  It’s only now that Morrigan feels truly alive. They drive their spears deep, into her body, but Morrigan feels no pain. Her rage is primal, she thrusts herself forward, making the spear squelch more firmly into her guts.
Perhaps, when Morrigan recalls these times, she understands what it is to be old. She’s lived through aeons, and now...
She cannot recall a time when her powers have been so weak.
It’s been two thousand years since the Christchild came, but Morrigan doesn’t mourn the passing of the ancient days. She’s incapable of mourning. She observes the movement of sun and moon with a dispassionate eye, knowing that like the moon, her strength waxes and wanes.
Though these days, even the Christchild’s power is waning. Men worship new gods. They no longer care for the land, instead they take green fields and strip them bare to bedrock. Thousands of years, lost in an instant. Old places despoiled, their magic forgotten, and where they once stood, houses are built, row upon row, identical.
Morrigan wanders far and she’s seen it for herself. Perhaps even she mourns the destruction of the wild places, the old places, and the memories they carried. Perhaps that’s why, when she finds them, she clings to them. She likes to laze in the shadow of the standing stones, to lie on hilltops where once the bones were picked clean by the carrion birds, where the corrupt flesh was scoured from the relics of the ancestral dead.
The horn sounds again. A twig snaps, closer to hand. Morrigan’s being quivers with expectation, her snout twitches as she catches the whiff of Man.
Voices. “It’ll be over soon.” The speaker’s a male. A tall, slender young man. He sounds disgruntled. His hair’s dyed, jet black with a streak of vivid red. He wears it long, tied back in the old warrior way...
Her long tusk pierces flesh, blood runs warm over her jaws. A young man screams, but he’s brave. He will not yield. With his last strength, he draws his sword, slashes down. The bronze blade strikes her neck, hacking through muscle, bone, but Morrigan isn’t held captive in mortal flesh. She just shakes her head and gores him harder.
Their eyes meet briefly. Burning red against ice-cold blue. She sees terror, but she also sees courage.
Morrigan respects courage. This time, she will be lenient. The boar’s form is shrugged lightly aside. She’s a raven fluttering up into the trees. She looks down at the men below, croaks loud as they crouch about the fallen warrior.
Morrigan lifts her head, suddenly watchful. The young man’s not alone. There’s a woman with him. Like him, she wears clothes that make her fade into the vegetation. She’s young, too. But she’s smaller, broader. Her brown hair’s tied back and she has a silver stud in her nose.
“Poor bloody fox,” she says.
“We missed all the action. Knew we were heading out the wrong way.” He glowers at the earth. “We’d better move, and see what they’re up to.“ He grimaces.  “I should’ve guessed that the Bill was too good to be true.” He kicks the turf. “Bastards.” 
Rummaging in his pocket, he pulls out a thin roll of white paper the length of his finger. A copper coin comes with it; it’s sitting in the palm of his hand. He stares at it, tosses it up into the air with a sigh. It spirals down, gleams briefly as the sun catches it; there’s a plop as it falls into the clear water of the spring.
They carry the young man home to the village, and then the rituals begin. The sword must be broken, and offered to the water, for it has touched immortal flesh and so it can no longer stay in the realms of the living. The spearhead, too, is split from the haft and given to the ground. All through the night, they burn fires and sing songs in her honour.
“What was that for?” the girl asks.
“Aw, you know.” Lighting the rolled-up paper, he breathes deep. “Throw a coin into a fountain. Make a wish.”
He sighs, and smoke drifts from his lips. “They believed it, in prehistoric times. Offering a sacrifice to the water gods was potent magic.”
Morrigan sits atop the roof thatch, preening glossy black feathers. Women chant at the young man’s bedside, but Morrigan knows that this time he’ll live. He’ll limp all his life, but he’ll bear the scar like a mark of honour. Some men are warriors because they carry the spear and the axe and the sword. He’s a warrior because he’s fought the gods, and lived to tell the tale.
“So what would you wish for?” the young woman asks.
“I wish...”  He pauses.  “I wish we could get rid of this fucking hunt.”
Morrigan’s nostrils flare.  She smells the copper, the magic metal. She feels the slide of the coin through the water, the grate as it settles down into the silts of the stream bed,
Once she’d have ignored such a paltry offering. But after a thousand years of waiting, Morrigan is bored. They’ve used the old magic, so she’ll grant their wish. She’ll hunt again. She’ll live again.

A Fright Fest Beta Test!

BETA TESTEric here! Time for a Fright Fest chase scene from my novel, BETA TEST. This takes place on the night the extra-dimensional aliens who use Earth as a playground return, after being kicked out of their favorite game. They're not happy, and they're tearing the world to shreds. And they really want to kill our hero Sam Terra, his girl-friend-in-a-man's body Molly Maddox, and Sam's friend Melvin Dutta, who's just kind of an ass. The trio has stolen an ambulance to drive across San Francisco in the carnage, when a visitor materializes on the gurney in back.


It resembled a tub of rancid butter mixed with cat-hair in a shapeless mass on the ambulance gurney. It smelled worse. It shifted and grew, doubling in size each few seconds. Once it was the length of the gurney it took on a shape, obvious humanoid, with two legs, two arms, a head, an obese torso.

The protoplasmic goo congealed. Inside its translucent innards formed bones, and within the rib-cage came a heart, beating, and from that a reddish bloom spread throughout the chest cavity, pumped to the extremities, until it was obscured by reddish-blue musculature, wrapping the bones like hungry snakes. Finally, the body of a skinless, fat little dwarf lay on the gurney.

 "I gotta say," Melvin said, "That's kinda cool."

 "Jesus," Molly said. "You're an idiot."

 The dwarf finally formed a layer of skin, but it was like nothing on any normal mammal of Earth, just a pasty pinkish-grey that appeared ready to slough off at a touch, almost as gelatinous as the creature's original appearance. Its face was more pig than human, a wide upturned nose under deep set eyes and above two thick, blunt tusks. It appeared to be asleep.

 "Okay, not so cool."

 "Strap him down." Molly grabbed the seat-belt like restraint on the gurney and locked it into place around the thing's chest. Molly put a foot on the gurney and pulled the strap with all her—his— might to trap the thing.

 That's when it opened its eyes. It squealed like a sow, clawing at Molly with hands that had hoof-like nails.

 "Hurry up, Dutta!" Molly tried to help Melvin with the lower set of straps, but Sam swerved out of the way of a car in the middle in the road. At the same time, the alien-pig bucked and kicked, making Melvin drop the strap. Molly dove for it, avoiding a kick that connected with Melvin's forehead.

 "So not cool!" Melvin bawled.

 Molly got the second strap in place, but the thing was going to get loose, that much was obvious, no matter how tight it was locked down. Molly looked for other restraints, grabbed a towel and used it like a rope to tie its closest appendage to the side rail. He threw a roll of white adhesive tape at Melvin and said, "Start strapping!"

 The squealing creature did something unexpected. It projectile vomited on the back door of the ambulance. The smell hit Sam in the front like a stench tsunami. "Jesus, it smells like moldy shit souffle back there." "Gah...come look," Melvin said between retching.

 "Just keep driving," Molly said. "We got it cov—"

 The ambulance door on the right fell off.

 The alien-pig's sick ate the plastic and steel door like hot water drilling through cotton candy. The door's hinges were no longer there, melted to slag. The left door was slowly dissolving the same way, a hole by the handle growing, irising open. Alien-pig looked as surprised as everyone else, then smiled around its tusks, and took a deep breath as if it planned to yak up some more corrosive bile.

 "You fucker," Molly yanked the small portable oxygen tank from the head of the gurney and slammed the flat end into alien-pig's snout with both hands. It oinked once and fell unconscious.

 "Aaah! Look!" Melvin said.

 Molly did. So did Sam out of the passenger side mirror.

 An army of creatures was behind them, an assemblage that would have made the love-child of Tom Savini and Hieronymus Bosch blanch in fear. Brown hair and green gelatin and white skin now mixed with flames and horns and rocks to cover the skin (if it was skin) of their pursuers, an mob of monsters that made up for what it lacked in pitchforks and torches with a mad, pulsing enthusiasm for destruction. Every car that didn't plow into the oncoming creatures was overturned just for being in the way. Pedestrians foolish enough to be on the street were tossed into shop windows, at best. There were worse ways to go.

 The creatures ran to catch up. The ambulance was their prey.

 Molly said, "Faster, Sam! Faster! Or we're toast." Sam, going the wrong way on 10th, slid through the intersection on Howard Street, recognized a church/mosque/temple thing on the right, knew they were close to Market, and yelled, "Turn for Fell is coming up!"

 "Okay. Got it." Molly jammed the O2 canister into the crook of alien-pig's arm and strapped it on with more tape. To Melvin: "Get that other door open."

 Melvin looked at the still-dissolving door with disdain, then at Molly, then outside at the horrors hoofing toward them, a genuine pack of demons.

 "No way."

 "Sam!" Molly said.



 Careening between oncoming traffic, Sam pulled the gun from his pocket without hesitation and tossed it over his right shoulder. Molly caught the gun and pointed it at Melvin.

 "Alright, alright you crazy bitch. . ." Melvin kicked at the door and after a couple of hits it flew open. At the same time, a dragonfly-esque thing the size of a jumbo hoagie swooped down and landed on the door, but it screamed in agony when its six legs touched alien-pig's acidic spew. It flew off whining. Just after, the door officially came off its corroded hinges. It took out a rock-and-mud-covered beast the size of Schwarzenegger in his steroidal heyday, splattering sludge across the other monsters.

 "Get ready to release that brake when I tell you," Molly told

 Melvin, indicating the rear wheel of the gurney with the gun barrel.

 "How far to the turn?"

 "One block."

 Something clutched Melvin's leg. A fast moving critter with casters for feet and a face like a bag of smashed assholes had caught up to them. Melvin kicked at it, making a strangled noise of panic, until it dislodged.

 "Fuck," Sam said. "There's more!" The creatures poured in from either side of Market Street, a white-water river of malevolence. To the right, another Martian tripod turned their direction, ripping down the electrical cables strung over the road for the famed streetcars. Molly undid the heavy straps on the big oxygen tank stored near the side door and dropped it directly on alien-pig, the head end facing the front of the ambulance. It didn't wake the creature, so Molly wrapped the tank, creature and gurney twice with tape. He then tapped the unconscious monster not-very-gently on the forehead with the butt of the Ladysmith.

 "Wakey wakey."

 Alien-pig snorted, coming awake in an instant. Molly nodded at Melvin. He kicked the wheel release and jumped out of the way. As the gurney began to roll out, Molly used the small fire hatchet stored on the wall and knocked the head-end off the tank.

 The force of expelled oxygen rocked Molly backwards. The gurney shot out of the rig with jet-assisted take-off. The wheels automatically extended to the ground to keep the patient at the right height for caregivers. In this case, an army of mutated horrors were all the care alien-pig would get.

 Sam turned slightly left, heading onto Fell, still against one-way traffic and barely keeping the ambulance from rolling.

  Molly straightened, leaned against the turn, held the wall with one hand and aimed down the other. He—she—said nothing, just squeezed the trigger gently. The gun made a pop. It was deafening in the almost-enclosed space.

 "Maddox," Melvin said, "you suc—"

 The big O2 tank erupted and the smaller one went with it. The explosions weren't much in the grand scheme of get-away diversions, but it never-the-less curtailed the immediate pursuit when alien-pig's remains splattered across the entire throng. Acidic innards burned the bellowing monsters, napalm-style.

 "Never doubted you," Melvin said, not sounding happy about it.

  Sam whooped again, like he'd jumped a dry creek bed in the General Lee.

 Molly came up front and sat heavily in the passenger seat. "Okay, now we gotta get about twenty blocks."

 "And then we're safe from them?"

 Molly didn't say anything.

 "Fuck," Sam said.


BETA TEST by Eric Griffith

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY: "An unusually lighthearted apocalyptic tale." Sam Terra is having a bad week. He lost Molly, the woman he secretly loves, when she vanished before his eyes at the exact same time that ten percent of the inhabitants of Earth disappeared. Naturally upset, Sam follows clues about the global vanishing with questionable help from his friends including a misanthropic co-worker and a childhood pal. When Molly reappears in the body of a man during a night of monster-laden devastation, Sam finally learns the truth. Not just about her, but about the planet Earth and the entire cosmos surrounding it. What we consider mundane reality, others consider a game . . . and not a very good one. The whole thing is about to be shut down.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Wednesday Review: Rupetta by N.A. Sulway

Title: Rupetta
Author: N.A. Sulway
Publisher: Tartarus Press
Publication Date: 2013
Genre: Fantasy (with a dash of steampunk and romance)
Price: $4.99 (ebook), $19.00 (trade paperback)
Where to Purchase: Amazon   |   Publisher's Website
Reviewed by: Julia Dvorin

Hello fellow Heroines of Fantasy readers! Julia here again, this time with a review of Rupetta by N.A. Sulway. Nike Sulway is an Australian author and Rupetta only came to my attention because it won the 2013 TiptreeAward, which is an annual award given to the SFF work that best expands or explores our understanding of gender. (Ancillary Justice, which I reviewed back in June, was also a finalist for the 2013 Tiptree.)

Rupetta is the story of a centuries-old clockwork automaton whose mechanical heart must be “wound” through the touch and the psychic bond of a “Wynder”, ideally (but not always) a female descendant of the original maker. Her existence, and more specifically her immortality, sparks a religious and political movement in which she is elevated to a deity, and which is expressed by its followers in the “Rupettan four-fold law” (which reminded me somewhat of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics). Rupetta’s story is told in two plotlines which become increasingly intertwined: one as a ruminative history told by Rupetta herself to her love, and one which follows the story of Henri, the Obanite Historian-in-training who will become that love. 

Sulway’s world is interesting, with scholarly orders of Obanite “Penitents” who study history and whose highest goal is to replace their organic hearts with clockwork ones so that they too can become (almost) immortal, and a complex religious/political history full of heretics and secrets which get uncovered and slowly come into focus throughout the book. There is a tension between those who want humans and their lives to become more mechanical and orderly (like the clockwork Rupetta), and those who still believe in messy, organic ways of living close to the earth and the making of things by hand (this tension reminded me strongly of the central conflict between groups in Heather McDougal’s book Songs for a Machine Age, so if you liked that you’d probably like this too, and vice versa). Henri, one of the central narrators, is studying to become an Obanite Historian, but for her thesis she is researching the “Salt Lane Heretics”, a pair of women revolutionaries who years ago started a school for children that prioritized interacting with nature and taught through old-fashioned techniques of gardening, cooking, and farmsteading. The Salt Lane Heretics were shut down by the ruling powers (though it’s never exactly explained how or when) and years before Henri arrives on the scene, their stuff is squirreled away in untidy boxes and heaps just in case it might some day be of interest to any future historians. However, until Henri comes along the implication is that (like much of women’s history in our own world) it’s of such minor importance or interest that no one has bothered to do anything with it and even sorting the stuff into archival preservation standards is more of a waste-of-time punishment than actual Historical work. But of course what Henri begins to uncover in the archives and in her research becomes more and more interesting—and then dangerous—as she gets farther into it. (Disclaimer: I am a sucker for books about academics, especially academics who realize ‘hey, this whole system is flawed and hiding stuff’, so these were some of the most vivid parts of the book for me.)

I understand why this book was intriguing to the Tiptree Award committee. It is full of complex, strong women characters who drive the plot and express the central themes, but it also takes the somewhat familiar idea of a sentient “android” who struggles with emotions and comparisons to/effects on humanity, and expresses it in a way that feels particularly feminine. Made by a woman in a way that includes traditionally “feminine” craft forms like sewing and weaving, and given female form, Rupetta is a feeling being, though sometimes those feelings express themselves in a way that make it clear she is not human. It also contrasts and addresses the tensions between the traditionally male, emotionally-abstracted and intellectualized “life of the mind” and the traditionally female, embodied and emotionally-rich “life of the hands”. 

This book also spends a lot of time playing around with themes of religious fundamentalism and the ways in which politics and religion intertwine and shape culture in sometimes unexpected ways over time, but ultimately for me even though these themes are interesting ones, this interplay was not the novel’s strong point. The strong point for me was the insightful and beautifully written character development and romance(s) between the characters, especially since many of those romance elements were centered on female-female relationships and this is something I don’t think we get enough of in fantasy fiction (though this is changing). In general, I also really admired the author’s writing throughout the book—her use of language is really lovely.

On the maybe “not so great” side, at least for me as a reader: there’s a lot of what feels like a refusal of the author to directly clue the reader in to the world’s history and current religion/politics (instead, like many an SFF book, we are left to glean what hints we can through mentions dropped here and there). When that coyness in worldbuilding is mixed with a narrative that jumps around in time and plot intrigues that start to get much more complex as the book progresses, it wound up being a little frustrating to me. I appreciate tight POV, a little mystery and slow reveals, but I would have appreciated even more a few well-placed infodumps I could refer back to as needed.

In summary: you will like this book if you like gorgeous prose, a little steampunk and lesbian romance in your fantasy, and if you enjoy some thoughtful exploration of issues of immortality, religious history, and tech-vs-organic tensions.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Fright Fest: The Summoning

One of the darker scenes from High Maga, "The Summoning" relates the first attempt by Rishona, San'iloman of the Syrnte, to summon the Naether Demons out of the Underworld.

Warning: A handful of my readers have found this scene too much to stomach. It is a graphic account not only of the evil that can be drawn up from the Underworld, but of the evil that humans can commit against each other. You've been warned. Proceed at your own risk. 

The Summoning

Donatya led Merina toward the circle. The servant hummed an absent tune, white owl cradled between her swollen breasts, gaze unfocussed. She walked on unsteady feet, supported at the elbow by Donatya’s gentle touch as she knelt before Rishona.     

The San’iloman took the owl in a flutter of wings, calmed it, stroked it, kissed the miniature head, and pressed its shivering body over her heart. Accepting the obsidian blade from Donatya, the San’iloman closed her eyes, and murmured a prayer of sacrifice. In a single motion, she swept the knife and released the owl. Merina looked up as the bird fluttered away on silent wings. A gasp escaped her lips. Her hands came to her throat and clutched at a fresh river of blood. The San’iloman took hold of the servant and held her close.

“I am sorry, sweet Merina,” she murmured. “This had to be done. Today the Gods will write your name in the books of the immortals, for you have made a great sacrifice for the glory of the Syrnte.” 

Merina’s blood spilled dark upon Rishona’s ivory dress. She beat helplessly against the firm hold of the queen, squirming like a rabbit ensnared, passing one hand over her belly in desperate, rapid strokes as her knees slipped against damp earth.

Donatya retreated to the edge of the circle.

Achme talam nu. Bechnem ahraht neme. Salahm machne du.

The rim ignited in a high blue flame. A muffled scream sounded from beneath the mountain, and a tremor passed through the earth. Mechnes’s heart accelerated. He sucked in his breath and signaled the men to ready their arms.

Mechahne achnam
Talam nu ahram

Merina seized the ivory gown of her mistress in a soundless plea for mercy. 

Rishona paused and set her black eyes on the frantic servant. She bent low, stroked Merina’s hair, murmured in her ear. The servant’s struggles diminished, then ceased. Rishona wiped Merina’s bloodstained cheeks and placed a comforting hand upon her swollen belly. Her lips met the servant’s in a tender kiss. Then she laid Merina on the wet ground, where the pregnant woman twitched as gurgling whimpers escaped her lips. 

Talam nu ahram

An inky shadow bloomed beneath them. The trees shivered. The earth moaned. Rishona stood and retreated across the periphery of the circle, pace calm, slender back erect. The wall of flame left no mark upon her. She turned to observe her dying servant, and the world grew silent.

Merina’s body convulsed. Her eyes closed, and the tension left her limbs. Mechnes held his breath, hands gripping the hilt of his sword, eyes darting between the circle and his men, who watched with weapons drawn and shields raised. It was here, upon the threshold of death for Merina and her unborn child, that the Naether Demon had to find its way to the world of the living. Mechnes had waited long for this moment. All their dreams of conquering Moisehén depended on it. Yet as the ground beneath them groaned and shifted once again, a cold knot took hold of his belly. He found himself hoping the creature would not appear. 

A hollow scream shattered the silence. Inside the circle, the ground twisted, flowed into a vortex of soil and rock, dragging the slave’s limp body down toward the heart of the mountain. Merina disappeared amid unearthly howls and the sounds of tearing flesh. The earth exploded upward, bathing Mechnes and his men in a shower of dirt and gravel. Inside the ring of fire, a creature swayed on long glowing limbs, its predatory eyes lost in gaping hollows, its mouth an open pit dripping with blackened saliva. One ebony-clawed limb grasped Merina’s corpse by the ankle. The slave’s belly had been ripped open, her ribcage torn apart. 


Rishona lifted her palms in a gesture of supplication, speaking a smooth cadence of motherly love and reassurance. 

Hem alouim natue

The creature roared and lunged at her, hitting the wall of fire with an agonized shriek. Mechnes rushed toward Rishona’s side, but stopped short when she raised her hand in warning. The Naether Demon stumbled backwards and rocked on oversized limbs, the murky pits of its eyes steady on the San’iloman as it drew Merina’s corpse into a glowing embrace. Its head jerked around, seeming to focus on each of Mechnes’s men before turning toward the sky, the forest, the ground at its feet. It dragged one long claw through the upturned earth, gathered the loam and crumbled the rotting leaves in its pulsing grasp. Then it returned its empty gaze to Rishona.

Merolim, Matue. She stepped into the ring of fire. Hem alouim natue. 

Merina’s corpse slipped from the Naether Demon’s grasp. Shuffling forward, the beast pressed its flat muzzle against the palm of Rishona’s hand. Her breasts rose with a sudden intake of breath, a smile graced her lips. 

Natue¸ she murmured. Alouim natue. 

The Naether Demon nuzzled the places where Merina’s blood had soaked the ivory dress. A deep shudder passed through it, melting into a constant echoing purr. It lowered itself on lengthy limbs and released the weight of its body to the ground, reclining at her feet, resting its naked head against her soiled skirt, mouth yawning then closing again. Rishona stroked its glowing skin, a quiet hum upon her lips. When at last the creature closed its eyes, she looked at Mechnes, her expression one of triumph, passion, and joy.

“It is ours,” she said.


High Maga by Karin Rita Gastreich

War strikes at the heart of women’s magic in Moisehén. Eolyn’s fledgling community of magas is destroyed; its members killed, captured or scattered. Devastated yet undaunted, Eolyn seeks to escape the occupied province and deliver to King Akmael a weapon that might secure their victory. But even a High Maga cannot survive this enemy alone. Aided by the enigmatic Mage Corey, Eolyn battles the darkest forces of the Underworld, only to discover she is a mere path to the magic that most ignites their hunger.

“War propels the book forward, and the characters are at their best when the events engulfing them are at their worst.” –Publishers Weekly

Purchase your copy today:

Soon to be released in audio book!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Fright Fest Friday Fiction

Hi all, Julia here. It's Fright Fest Friday, and my turn to provide a bit of October macabre for Heroines of Fantasy. Wait, did someone say ghoulish? You want ghoulish? I got your ghoulish right here. This is a spooky sample from Ice Will Reveal, where both the reader and one of the main characters meet wraiths (aka ghouls, or as I like to fondly refer to them, zombies, even though they are technically their own variant) for the first time. It'll get much, much worse for Our Heroes after this...bwah hah ha ha!

Scouting was by no means Jarrod's specialty, but he tried to keep quiet, crunching through the snow from tree to tree in an attempt at giving himself cover. The sounds continued, then stopped, then began again, growing louder the farther away from his companions he went. Crackles, crunches, yelps, rustlings--what in Ahnweh's mercy could be out here, in the winter-locked mountains, so close to all that ravenous death? It was difficult to hear over the pounding of his heart.

Off the pathway the slope steepened, and even with his snow boots on he had to concentrate and balance carefully to keep from skidding down it like a runaway sled. The trees thinned off to his left; he headed there, hoping to see something.

When he finally slipped and squeaked his way over to the last tree, what he saw stole his breath and squeezed his heart with fear.

He stood on top of what must once have been a high riverbank. A hundred feet below was a chaotic tangle of beasts and people, fighting on the frozen ground. He saw the ummeks immediately, handfuls of deadly furred forms darting this way and that in blurs of snapping teeth. But who were they attacking?

There were perhaps two dozen people, but something was not right about them: limbs misshapen or missing, clothing tattered and too thin for the cold, grey and withered skin showing through the tatters. More than that, there was an unsettling strangeness to the way the people moved. Some were stiffly clumsy, hardly jointed; some were horribly quick and sinuous, as if their muscles no longer anchored tightly to the bones.

But this horror was as nothing compared to the truth that dawned on him next: the ummeks did not just attack the people. The people attacked the ummeks. With bare hands.

The ummeks dropped as soon as they were touched, crumpling to the ground with high-pitched yelps. Jarrod could see at least a half-dozen furred bodies lying still upon the ice. Most unnerving, the withered grey people were silent, except for the occasional grunt or moan when an ummek struck. He watched in growing horror as the number of ummeks dwindled and he could see the withered people more clearly. Despite the distance, he could tell that some of the people were shorter and wider than the others, and even though he had never seen a pureblood, there was no mistaking the heavy brows, broad noses and squared jaws of the Norenoni.

Jarrod's mind reeled; it was at least several breaths before he thought to duck back behind a tree. He stood with his back pressed hard against the bark and tried to bring his thoughts--and his breath--back in line.

These were the wraiths from Mother Corandonn's truevision.

But this was no army--there were perhaps only twenty of them, and certainly not all were Norenoni. And they had no weapons that he could see.

He couldn’t decide if it would be best to speed back to his companions with the news or watch longer and risk discovery. Then he heard the crunch of something coming through the snow from the trees not far off to his right, and the decision was removed from his hands.

He drew his sword--the scrape of metal on scabbard, too loud!--and crouched down low behind the tree trunk, wishing it were bigger, wishing he were smaller. He chanced a quick look around the tree, but couldn't see anything.

The crunching grew louder, and he nearly exploded from the tension of waiting without knowing what was coming--then it receded, down toward the river below. It sounded like something scrambled down the high riverbank--something big. Was there a path? Keeping low, Jarrod peered around the tree.

Goddess! What is that? He blinked and squinted.

Below him, another, even stranger figure had joined the others: a rider upon a mount. But the mount was no horse. It was unlike any animal he'd ever seen. It was vaguely ummek-like--four-legged and grey-furred, with a long tail and triangular head. But it was bigger than any ummek, bigger than most horses, and its proportions were those of neither wolf nor horse. Its head was huge, with a large underslung jaw filled with sharp fangs that its lips could not quite cover, and tiny up-pointed ears. The head sat at the end of a long, flexible neck, reptilian in appearance despite its thick fur. The body was squat, with most of its height coming from its long, thin legs. The legs ended in oversized paws, not hooves, each sporting four giant curved claws easily as long as a dagger blade.

The beast wore no proper saddle or stirrups; the rider was lashed to its back with a collection of ropes and rags. No bridle or reins either--the rider clutched the coarse fur at the base of its neck, more for balance than for control.

The rider was hooded and swathed in layers of ragged cloth, but one thing was clear--the rider had no legs. That explained the lashing, but only added to the mystery of how the rider controlled the grotesque beast.

He waited to see if the wraiths would attack this new presence as they had the ummeks, and indeed, they converged on the strange rider as soon as they saw it. But they stopped in a loose circle around the rider and steed. As Jarrod watched in amazement, each one approached the rider in turn and held up a hand. The rider leaned down and clasped each proffered hand, lingering a moment, then moved on to the next. Those touched withdrew and stood quietly a few feet away. When the rider had touched all the wraiths, it straightened up again and turned its steed in a circle in order to look in all directions.

As its hooded gaze swung toward him, Jarrod hurriedly ducked back behind the tree, his heart racing. Could it see him? He listened, hard, but heard nothing at this distance. Should he look again? Should he stay or go?

The tension and the stillness were too much for him. Sword in hand, he scrambled back up the slope with all the speed he could muster, silently cursing every crunch and squeak his own clumsy boots made. He was almost back up to the path when a noise behind him made him whirl in time to see the first wraith racing up the slope with arms outstretched.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Review: A Crack In Everything

Title: A Crack in Everything
Author: Ruth Frances Long
Genre: fantasy
Price: $8.97 (ebook) / $8.55 (paperback)
Publisher: The O’Brien Press
ISBN:  978-1-84717-635-6
Point of Sale: publisher’s website Amazon
Reviewed by: Chris Gerrib

I recently attended Shamrokon, the 2014 European SF convention, held in Dublin Ireland.  While I was there, Ruth Frances Long held a launch party for her novel A Crack in Everything.  Unfortunately for her, most people attending were just interested in the cupcakes, but she did sell me a copy of her book.  I’ve finished that book and greatly enjoyed it.

Isabel “Izzy” Gregory is a typical Irish teenager, living in Dundrum, a southern suburb of Dublin.  She does have a minor problem with electronics – it’s not infrequent that she touches an electronic device and it explodes – but other than that she’s solidly normal.  Or so she thinks.  While out and about in downtown Dublin, Izzy comes across an angel, a fae, and discovers that there’s a whole other city – Dubh Linn –interweaved into the city that humans see.  Izzy also discovers that some of the stories she was told as a child are real, and other concepts, such as angels being good, are not entirely accurate.

The story then becomes one of Izzy trying to figure out how to survive and use powers she didn’t know she had, while the fae Jinx, a werewolf-like being, has to figure out how to deal with Izzy and the various backroom deals and double-crosses of his world.  I have to admit I had a problem keeping all the various non-humans straight, which I think was in part intentional.

Dublin, the real city, plays a key supporting role in the story, and at several points I found myself digging out my tourist map of the city to see where the events were happening.  Having seen the city and then reading the book greatly improved my overall experience, but I think it would be enjoyable even if you never get to Dublin.

I highly recommend A Crack in Everything.  O’Brien is an Irish publisher, so my best recommendation for US purchasers is to buy direct from the publisher.  It appears to be the only way to get the ebook, while Amazon can get you the paperback.