PitchWars – Pimp my Bio

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So, here’s my #PitchWars bio. For those who’ve come across this as a fellow contestant, best of luck. For those who have come across this by accident and don’t know what PitchWars is, here’s some background info: http://www.brenda-drake.com/pitch-wars/. And for any mentors looking at this, all I can say is “Pick me! Pick me!”

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My name is Georgiana – it’s  pronounced George-gee-ah-na  – and not, as many people seem to think, pronounced the same as Georgina, only in a posher accent. Leave my fancy extra “A” out of my name at your peril!

As you can probably tell from this (now rather under-used) website and blog, I wrote and self-published The Cavaliers, a trilogy of vampire novels set at Oxford University. I’ve since written two other, quite different novels, which I’m aiming to publish conventionally.Firstly, The Dictator’s Wife, an adult romantic thriller about a military coup in the UK. Secondly, my actual PitchWars entry, My Love is Vengeance, a YA fantasy about a sixteen-year-old girl seeking revenge on the feudal lord who killed her brother while trying not to fall for his charms or give in to her dark side.

I’m British, and originally from Yorkshire. For those who don’t really know British geography, think Winterfell. I used to sound like a Stark bannerman. My Sean Bean-esque accent has faded over the years – it comes out when I get stressed or over-excited though. Part of my Yorkshire heritage is being a massive Sheffield Wednesday fan. (For those who don’t know that’s a football or *shudder* “soccer” team).

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I studied history at Oxford University – I still adore everything historical, particularly the three Rs: Renaissance, Restoration and Regency. Afterwards, I converted to Law and now live in London with my husband, Freddie. If I’m a Stark, he’s definitely a Lannister, and his accent makes him sounds like a stereotypical British villain. He has other awesome qualities, but I think deep down, that’s probably what attracted me to him 😉

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We both work for the UK Government. This has not made for a relaxing last few months. Still, getting to pose outside Ten Downing Street sort of makes up for it.

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I love any type of story that takes me away from the here and now: futuristic, historical, fantasy or simply weird, dramatic things happening in a contemporary setting. I’m generally less of a fan of stories of ordinary people doing ordinary things in the present day, though I’ll make an exception for anything that includes unconventional narratives, unreliable narrators or tricksy, experimental story-telling.

I am an unashamed lover of alluring villains and villainous (or at least seriously morally ambiguous) protagonists. That’s Gone Girl-style ladies and Darkling-style gentlemen. I particularly enjoy tales that feature sinister characters as possible love interests. And to be clear, that’s villains, not bad boys. I have zero interest in muscly, drug-taking hardmen who take a ‘treat em mean, keep em keen’ attitude to their love interests, but I can’t resist those hell bent on world domination.

Other things I love are posh characters (and classes colliding), well-executed twists, complicated plots with lots of hidden clues, elaborate world-building I can obsess over, elaborate plans, and doomed or forbidden romances. Some of my favourites include:

YA Fantasy and Paranormal

  • The Grisha Trilogy
  • Daughter of Smoke and Bone
  • A Court of Thorns and Roses (though I couldn’t get into a Throne of Glass for some reason – I keep thinking I ought to give it another go)
  • This Savage Song (and other VE Schwab books)
  • The Young Elites
  • The Red Queen
  • Everything by LJ Smith – they are a bit dated now, but basically defined my mid-teens and I still feel no one does sexy villain quite so well

Adult fantasy

  • Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire (love, love, love the books and the TV show. My husband introduced me to the books years ago, and geeking out about them is a core component of our marriage!)
  • The Kingkiller Chronices
  • Prince of Thorns – which pushes my ability to root for the villain to its absolute limit
  • American Gods

More realistic and/or literary books

  • Gone Girl
  • Cloud Atlas – and basically everything by David Mitchell
  • Prep – and basically everything by Curtis Sittenfeld apart from her latest one, Eligible, which was fun but forgettable
  • Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies

I fanatically review every book I read, so you can get more of a feel for what I enjoy on my Amazon review page: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/cdp/member-reviews/A1M4SYONBR2PXM?  or on Goodreads.

I spend far more time reading than I do watching TV and films, but I do have a few recent favourites: Outlander (enjoyed the books too, but prefer the adaptation), Lord of the Rings (likewise), House of Cards, Boardwalk Empire.  I also think I might be the only person in the world who genuinely enjoyed Jupiter Ascending – mostly thanks to Eddie Redmayne’s space villain’s eyeliner and shouty voice, and this review. http://www.themarysue.com/review-jupiter-ascending-the-worst/

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The Dictator’s Wife and My Love is Vengeance

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I’ve just produced my PitchWars Pimp My Bio entry and it’s made me realise that most of the info on this blog barely mentions my two newer, non-Cavaliers manuscripts, and where it does, some of the titles and descriptions are quite out of date. So to cut through any confusion, I thought I’d put both of their queries and opening few paragraphs in one place.

MY LOVE IS VENGEANCE (aka. The Vengeful Vizieress, aka. The Separation of Powers)

Sixteen-year-old Tara Moran comes from a family of Advisors, the right-hand men and women of the aristocrats who govern their world. Tara’s psychic bond with her twin, Gene, allows them to combine his strength with her intelligence – until Gene dies in a duel with the ambitious young Duke Longville.

Vowing revenge, Tara becomes Duke Longville’s Advisor, intending to manipulate him and provoke a popular uprising that will lead to his death. Tara expects to despise working with Gene’s killer. Instead, she feels a traitorous attraction towards Longville and discovers they share the same telepathic connection she once shared with her brother – a connection that only twins and soulmates are meant to possess.

Destroying the Duke she’s sworn to serve would see her cast out of the Advisors, penniless and a shame to her remaining family. Forgiving him – or worse, giving into his declarations of love – would be a betrayal of her dead twin and the solemn oath she made at his grave.

Tara treads an uneasy path, her love for Longville increasing at the same time as her schemes against him escalate and her sense of right and wrong blurs. Tara must decide which is more important: the bond she had with her brother or the one she has with the man responsible for his death – before she becomes a villain that neither of them would want to know.

THE VENGEFUL VIZIERESS is a 87 000 word YA fantasy. It combines the political scheming of RED QUEEN with the deadly romance of THE GRISHA and the dark, anti-heroine protagonist of THE YOUNG ELITES.  The world merges aspects of dark ages and seventeenth century England with modern political structures.

My history degree from Oxford University, my career working for the British Government and my love of fantasy novels and dark heroines have all come together to inspire this book.

Chapter One

The point of Gene’s blade lunged towards me. I staggered backwards, out of his reach, barely able to keep my balance on my spindly legs.

“Defend yourself!” Gene threw the whole force of his body in my direction. “For heaven’s sake, Tara. You need to repel me.”

“I’m trying,” I replied, darting to the side and forcing my sword up to meet his, while my heart shook like a ship on a storm-tossed sea. My waist-length hair swept from side to side, slowing my movement and threatening to break out of the green ribbon that restrained it.

Gene’s sword collided with mine and the impact reverberated through my bones. I tensed my stomach, held my breath and pushed back with all the strength I possessed, but he stood his ground and forced me to the floor.

“We could always do this the easy way.” Gene’s mental voice echoed in my mind.

No mind-melding. No possession. I’ll try harder,” I snapped back through our connection.

The tip of his blade touched my throat. I threw my sword to the floor. “I surrender. Gods help me, Gene, I surrender. Can’t you go easy on me, just for once?” My voice shook in sync with my muscles.

Gene raised one dark eyebrow. He withdrew his weapon, took my arm and helped me to my feet.

“Go easy? Why? Because you’re a woman? Because you’re my twin sister? The examiners won’t go easy on you. Neither will the scions of the Great Advisor Families. And the peers will exploit any hint of weakness. They all want to prove that we’re nobodies.”

“How about you go easy on me because I’m hopeless? You’ve had sixteen years to teach me to duel.” I rubbed my trembling sword arm. “I’m useless, you’re brilliant. It’s a fact of life. Just like the way I’m a thousand times better than you when it comes to rhetoric and poetry.”

Gene handed me a glass of water. I downed it in the sort of unladylike manner that would have earned me a lecture from my mother, spilling half of it over my chin in the process.

“We might have been born advisors, but you know as well as I do that birthright counts for nothing until we pass the Examination.” Gene crossed his arms. “York Place believes in merit and in good all-rounders. There’s nothing more pitiful than those who have the blood but lack the qualifications.”

I scowled at my twin, but I scooped my sword back up in my aching arms. “Fine. Give me the best you’ve got.”

Gene smirked. “My best would kill you. But I’ll give you enough. Raise your elbow. How many times do I have to tell you?”

I forced my elbow up, my sword behind it, concerned that my skinny wrist might snap in two.

THE DICTATOR’S WIFE (aka. Checks and Balances, and more lightheartedly known as Cuddles and Coups or The Price of my Love)

THE DICTATOR’S WIFE is an 81 000 word adult dark romantic thriller. It’s the story of an oppressive regime told from the perspective of the rulers, not the rebels.

Marianne Helmsley always believed that democracy was overrated. In 2022, Marianne and Julien, her charming but ruthless husband, led a military coup against the British Government and ruled as the autocratic First Lord and Lady. But then the resistance murdered Marianne – or so everyone believes. In reality, following a heated disagreement with her husband, Marianne faked her death and fled in disguise to the rebel group known as the Treaty.

Five years later, the leader of the Treaty needs a volunteer to infiltrate the Regime and assassinate the First Lord. Marianne – by now utterly trusted by the rebels, who have no idea of her true identity – decides it’s time to return home and atone for her sins. Trying and failing in her mission would mean torture, death, and vicious retaliation against the rebels, but success would restore democracy.

The Treaty expect their assassin will have to sneak into the Regime stronghold as a stranger. Instead, Marianne makes a triumphant return as the long-lost First Lady, claiming the rebels have held her prisoner for years. The First Lord welcomes her back with open arms and rights and wrongs no longer seem as clear cut as they did in the Treaty camps. Still in love with the man she’s meant to kill and reminded of the joys of absolute power, Marianne must choose between freeing the country and breaking her heart or ruling at Julien’s side and losing her soul – before both sides seek to execute her as a traitor.

Chapter One

I became a triple-agent on the eighth anniversary of Britain’s military coup.

That morning, I stepped out of the lift and into the Treaty’s underground control room, fighting to keep my breathing under control. It never ended well when David summoned the officers of the Treaty together.

I pushed through the ranks of stern-faced men and women dressed in combat trousers and canvas jackets until I reached our leader.

“Good of you to finally join us, Melanie.” Without another word, David set our hacked CCTV feed to show Somerset House.

I stared at the images that appeared on the huge screen behind David. The elegant arches and columns of the Regime’s London headquarters formed a stark contrast to this utilitarian network of abandoned mines that we’d repurposed as a hidden centre of operations.

I dutifully studied the armed soldiers guarding the archway and the helicopters hovering above the courtyard, but it was the larger-than-life portraits covering the front of Somerset House that caught my attention.

The painting on the left showed a striking man in replica nineteenth-century military uniform. Honour the First Lord demanded the words inscribed above the image in a huge font.

The text above the right-hand painting was more mournful: Remember the Eternal Blessed First Lady. The woman depicted in the image appeared as fragile and innocent as a rococo shepherdess, but my co-conspirators considered her a she-devil in life and their most high-profile victim in death.

“The Regime bombed Derby last week for supporting our cause. Yesterday, they wiped out an entire platoon. We need to stop the First Lord once and for all.” Years of outdoor living had given David the pronounced muscles and hearty glow he could only have dreamt of in his old life as an academic. When he spoke, people listened.

I ignored him.

My eyes lingered on the second portrait until its features blurred. Until I was content the so-called Eternal Blessed First Lady’s curves, red lips and Dior gown bore no resemblance to my soldier’s body and weather-beaten face. The Treaty camp didn’t possess a mirror, but I could well imagine the changes wrought by five years of camping in the peaks and hiding in mines, wracked by cold, hunger, and the constant fear of discovery. Besides, the dictator’s wife had been famous for her Rapunzel curls, and I’d cropped my hair to the skull five years ago when I’d fled to the Treaty.

I’d broken my nose to change the contours of my face. I’d tanned my pale, English rose skin and covered my blue eyes with brown contact lenses. I’d readapted the Birmingham accent I’d previously tried so hard to replace with cut-glass tones.

No one had recognized me before. No one would recognize me now. If there was one thing both sides agreed on, it was that the dictator’s wife was dead.

 

Checks and Balances – First Chapter of my new novel

For a while now, when I’ve managed to post at all, I’ve been hinting about the new novel I’ve been working on, Checks and Balances. It’s rather different from the Cavaliers, being a very British thriller, with dystopian elements. It’s also finally finished. I could go on all day about my inspirations and the plot and characters, and how much I’ve enjoyed writing it, but instead, I’m going to jump straight in, and provide the first chapter. Enjoy!

Comments are very welcome, as are beta reading volunteers.

The Peak District, Year Eight of the First Lord and Eternal Blessed First Lady’s Glorious Regime. June.

I stepped out of the rickety lift and into the Treaty’s underground control room, fighting to keep my breathing under control. It never ended well when David summoned the officers of the Treaty together. What desperate plan or restrictive new decree did he intend to announce today?

David stood under the screen that showed our hacked CCTV camera feeds. Years of outdoor living and physical labour had given him the muscular tone and hearty glow he could only have dreamt of in his old life as an academic. I pushed through the massed ranks of stern-faced men and women dressed in hardy, unflattering outfits, and took my exalted position directly opposite our leader.

Michaela leaned against the reinforced metallic wall of the abandoned mine, shivering in the English summer chill. Her wavy obsidian-black hair had grown out of the practical cropped style we all sported, and into an elegant bob. She’d swapped her usual guerrilla uniform for a vintage silk gown someone had decided would pass muster in London. The emerald dress showed off her curves and emphasised the youthful beauty that shone through even in army fatigues.

I glanced from her to David. “What’s going on? I haven’t seen Michaela in weeks, and now she’s glammed up like the wife of an officer of the First Lord’s Army. Are we punishing her for flouting your arbitrary rules, or is the new style your doing?”

David crossed his arms. “I’m sending Michaela to Somerset House. She’s going to find her way into the First Lord’s presence. She’s going to charm him and allow herself to be seduced. She’s going to gain his trust and steal his secrets. And when the time is right, she’s going to kill him.”

His unblinking eyes and fixed mouth dared me to defy him in front of his supporters. He should have known I could never resist a challenge.

I bunched my fists. “That’s insane. The First Lord has his pick of the girls in the capital. Even if he did choose Michaela, she’d be a moment’s entertainment to him, not a military confidante, and she wouldn’t get within a mile of him with a weapon. Worse, there’s a chance that far from seducing him, she’ll be seduced and used against us. Julien can be very charming, very persuasive.”

“I am a loyal servant of the Treaty,” Michaela snapped. “I’ve been a member since it was founded, since I was a young girl. My father gave his life to kill the First Lord’s wife. The Treaty brought me up. I didn’t walk in off the street with no history like you.”

I thought of the tiny, shy, twelve-year-old I’d met when I’d first thrown myself on the Treaty’s mercy, five long years ago. I struggled to reconcile her with this beautiful, arrogant, seventeen-year-old ingénue.

I grabbed Michaela by her billowing, ribboned sleeves. “I didn’t ‘walk in off the street’, Michaela. I left behind my life as the wife of an officer of the First Lord’s army, because I believed in the cause. It’s easy to be loyal when you’ve known nothing else, when you owe the Treaty everything. I made sacrifices to serve.”

I’d told the lie so often my mind instantly conjured a clear image of Oliver Bonham, the senior army officer who’d never existed. It amazed me that all of them, even David, had bought my story when I’d turned up at their camp and continued to believe it.

David grabbed hold of me from behind and broke my grip on Michaela’s arms. I trained every day, but my strength was still no match for his.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures, Melanie. The Regime bombed both Derby and Hull this month for their sympathy to our cause. The army wiped out an entire platoon last week. There’ve been too many deaths, too many prisoners. Everything you say may be true, but we need to use every weapon at our disposal. We need to find out where the Regime plans to strike next, and we need to stop the First Lord once and for all.”

“You’d know, I suppose. You and your PhD in politics.”

David claimed to be a working class hero, but he’d spent longer at Oxford than I had, and came from a much wealthier background. Token student protests about global warming and globalisation had mutated into something more extreme once the First Lord and Lady came to power. In a different world, he’d have become a professor and written the occasional scathing article for the New Statesman. Instead, he shot down helicopters and interrogated captured soldiers. As did I.

He released me, without rising to the bait, and turned to the computer’s controls. The Regime strictly controlled internet access, but the Treaty attracted plenty of support from the technological fringes of society. They’d managed to set up a functioning computer network underground, and enabled us not only to use the internet freely, but to view most security cameras at will. Luckily for us, with Government focussed on war and the borders closed, British technology had barely progressed over the last decade, making our hackers’ jobs far easier than they’d be in more progressive societies. .

David set the feed to show Somerset House from the Strand. Its elegant arches and columns formed a stark contrast to the grey, utilitarian network of abandoned mines and tunnelled caves where I spent my nights after long days of raids on nearby towns, manning anti-aircraft posts and watching for Regime troops.

I tried not to torture myself with sights from my old life, but Somerset House’s beauty wasn’t what David wanted us to reflect on. He wanted us to see the heavily armed soldiers guarding the gate and pacing the street. The helicopters hovering above. The giant banner with the First Lord’s winged unicorn insignia hanging above the archway, and the two even larger portraits that fanned down either side. Honour the First Lord demanded the one on the left, above an image of a striking man in replica nineteenth century military uniform. Remember the Eternal Blessed First Lady mourned its companion on the right-hand side. The woman in that painting appeared as studiedly fragile and innocent as Marie-Antoinette’s idea of a shepherdess, despite the Treaty regarding her as having been a psychotic she-devil.

They were symbols of the Regime’s power and illustrations of why we fought. And in the case of the painfully rococo portrait of the Treaty’s most high-profile victim, a reminder of what the organisation could accomplish. All designed to make me agree that Michaela should take her chances.

“Let me go instead.” The words tumbled out of my mouth before I thought through the implications of what I was saying, before I considered the madness of it. It could be my chance, at last, but equally, it could be suicide.

Everyone stared, trying to find the nicest way to raise the obvious objection.

“Look at yourself,” Michaela spat, after the silence had gone on too long. “Don’t you realise you’re old? They say you were beautiful once, but you couldn’t seduce secrets out of a minor official anymore, never mind the First Lord.”

Her words stung, but I fought hard to keep any signs of hurt off my face. In my old, privileged life, I’d had every hope and expectation of still radiating youth and beauty at thirty-five. Few things hold back the clock like wealth and power. The Treaty camp didn’t possess a mirror, but I could well imagine the changes wrought by five years of camping in the peaks and hiding in abandoned mines, wracked by cold, hunger, and the constant fear of discovery.

David gave Michaela one of his patented “gentle looks”: an innocuous sideways glance, a half-smile. From anyone else, it would have been utterly unremarkable, but it shocked her into a guilty silence more effectively than a lesser man’s glare or shouted reprimand. The leader of the resistance could communicate a hell of a lot with just his eyes. He shared the trait with his greatest enemy.

David put a muscular arm round my waist, and I managed not to flinch. I’d almost grown used to his touch over the years. He’d never dream of forcing himself on a woman, and as far as he knew, I enjoyed our embraces every bit as much as he did. In reality, I slept with him because I needed security, I needed status, and I needed secrets. Plenty of women, both those who fought for the Treaty and those loyal to the Regime with overactive imaginations, found his cropped blond hair, bright eyes, and sculpted figure to be attractive, but I kept my heart safely out of proceedings. There was only one man I’d ever loved. Only one man I ever would love.

“Melanie, you’re still beautiful. But the evidence shows that, like all powerful men throughout history, Julien takes mistresses in their late teens and early twenties.”

I put my hands to my head and tried to push away the awful mental images his words created. How many mistresses had there been? How young and how beautiful?

“Precisely. Michaela would be one in a long line. I could provide something different. We’re the same age, I believe, the First Lord and I. I can offer shared memories and experiences. I can wave my ex-husband’s name around and claim the Treaty have held me prisoner for all this time. If I pretend to feed him information, perhaps I can get some in return. I believe Michaela when she says she’s committed, but you must have heard the stories. No seventeen year old can be relied upon to stand against his charm, his beauty, the glow in his eyes, the way he contemplates people like he can see into their soul and makes them feel like they’re the only person in the room.”

No seventeen year old could resist the insistent touch of his hands. The arms that make you feel protected against any dangers. The kisses that make you lose all control.

“And you think you’re immune, do you? Far beyond that sort of childish infatuation at the grand old age of thirty-five?”

Now it was my turn to get “the look”, but I’d developed some immunity to that, too. I made determined eye contact, refusing to glance away as his blue eyes burned into mine.

“I think I’ve developed a little cynicism. I think I’ve come to understand the games people play at court. I think I’ve stopped believing in love. I’m quite confident I can stand before Julien St John Helmsley without falling to my knees in paroxysms of lust and adoration.”

I’d never been less confident of anything in my life.

“Perhaps you’re scared, David.” The others had wisely stayed quiet so far, but now Christopher, David’s de facto second-in-command in spite of his youth, stepped into the fray. He looked like a taller and more muscular version of Michaela, with his silky black hair and the huge, dark eyes that made him appear disconcertingly sweet. “You’ll send my sister because the end justifies the means, but you can’t bear the thought of your woman in the First Lord’s bed.”

Christopher chose his words well. David would never willingly admit to traditional attitudes like jealousy or having a woman who was “his”. Furthermore, he prided himself on always putting the Treaty and the ultimate goal of overthrowing the First Lord and freeing the country over every consideration. He’d always claimed he would give his life. The least he could do was give my virtue.

David punched the rickety lift doors. “Of course I can’t bear the thought of her in that bastard’s bed. I can’t bear the thought of any woman suffering that fate. I can’t bear the thought of the man who destroyed Nottingham, blockaded the north, and took away the country’s most basic rights touching anyone or experiencing any earthly pleasure. I can’t bear the thought he’s still alive, still ruling us all, after so many good men have died. I can’t bear the thought of him, full stop.”

David’s attitude was hardly unusual in our circles. People generally didn’t risk their life by joining the Treaty unless they despised and disapproved of the First Lord and his Regime. But for most of my fellow rebels, Julien functioned as an abstract symbol of everything they believed had gone wrong with the country. David hated him in an oddly personal way.

I touched David’s arm. He spun towards me and raised his hand. For a second, I held my breath and braced myself, but he dropped his arm and regained composure. I allowed myself to breathe again, thankful not to face the same fate as the door. For all my grandstanding, I’d never coped well with physical pain.

“We all feel that way,” I soothed. “And that’s why we have to do this, and we have to do it right. How exactly do you expect Michaela to get herself admitted into his presence? She might wander the capital for weeks and never find an opening. But as the returning wife of a war hero, I’m sure I could approach some colonel or other and beg an audience.”

David bowed his head. I had no wish to know what thoughts of old atrocities were running through his mind. The screams as Regime bombers turned Nottingham into a wasteland. Paul, the Treaty’s first martyr, tortured to death. Treaty Members and suspected Treaty affiliates rounded up and imprisoned or worse.

“You’ll both go,” he snapped. “Claim you’re distant cousins or something. Let the great ruler decide whether he prefers youth or experience. Just make him fall for one or both of you, make him talk, and then destroy him.”

Michaela and I nodded our heads in sync, all thoughts of our early argument put aside. David had spoken, and there was no point in arguing with him when he slipped into this mood.

“You’ll need to go to the infirmary and have them fit you with a hormonal implant,” I said to Michaela, gentler now. I touched the characteristic raised bump on my upper arm. “You’ll never pass as a loyal citizen without one, and we don’t want you carrying the First Lord’s heir.”

Michaela shuddered. The Treaty regarded avoiding the implants as a key sign of resistance. Nonetheless, after a moment’s hesitation, she let herself into the lift. Mercifully, it was still functioning, despite David taking his temper out on it. Presumably, she was heading for the tunnel where we’d developed a makeshift health centre.

Why had I talked myself into this? An unknown, pretty commoner like Michaela could try her hand and would either strike it lucky or return home defeated. And if I were really the imprisoned wife of an army hero, I’d have a pleasant homecoming and some sharp questioning.

But neither of those descriptions applied to me, and I’d face one of two fates. I’d be either shot on sight or welcomed back into the fold like the prodigal son.

I genuinely didn’t know what to expect. No one else would dare to make the decision, so my fate would be entirely in the hands of the First Lord. And while people called him many things, no one ever accused Julien St John Helmsley of being predictable.

***

God knows I possessed no loyalty to the Treaty, but leaving them behind still disconcerted me. I’d often felt trapped, surrounded by so many people, but companionship offered a degree of security. Both Michaela and I knew how to fight and how to survive in the wild, but part of my brain still screamed that horrible fates awaited women who wandered alone in the wilderness.

Michaela carried the glamourous dress she’d modelled in her backpack, and I’d packed a similar relic of my old life. The slightly outdated styles would fit with our claims of imprisonment. For the rigours of the journey, we both wore our usual outfits of cargo pants and tank tops, with a padded jacket over the top. Thanks to the controls the Regime had put in place, we couldn’t take a train without showing ID or travel by road without passing several checkpoints. London was unreachable. Instead, we laboured on foot towards York, where we’d throw ourselves on the mercy of the city garrison controlling the north. I’d introduce myself and seek safe passage to Somerset House and a re-admittance to court. I’d decide what to do with Michaela when we got there.

Freed from the need to impress the senior men of the Treaty, Michaela reverted to the sweet young girl I’d once known. Just like she had years ago, she besieged me with questions about the capital. About the court. About the ruthless men of the army and their glamourous wives. About Julien.

“Do you think he’ll take me as a mistress?” she asked one evening, as we hiked along a rough path under low-hanging trees. The swagger in her voice when she’d discussed the prospect in the camp morphed into a kind of all-consuming fear.

I passed her the hip flask and she took a good swig of the rough moonshine within. I wished it was a single malt, but its fiery taste helped to drive away both the chill and the fear. “Honestly? I don’t know. I was only the wife of a mid-ranking officer, remember? I’m no expert on his whims.”

“They say he’s incapable of love. I hear what the refugees and defectors say. There are many mistresses, but there’s no emotion. He sees the beautiful women as no different to the impregnable palace and the fine wines.”

I glanced at her. Her bloodshot eyes and washed-out face mirrored my internal exhaustion. We’d avoided all but the smallest villages, and these wild expanses sapped our energy. “The last thing you want is for him to love you. You can manipulate lust. Love can destroy everything in its path.”

She nodded. “It’s not true though, is it? The First Lord’s not genuinely incapable of love. The mistresses might be mere playthings, but I’ve seen the posters of his wife on foraging missions in the cities. The Eternal Blessed First Lady. The mistresses don’t get posters. Surely, they show he loved her, before my father killed her to break his spirit.”

I shrugged and resisted the temptation to point out that, far from breaking his spirit, losing his wife just seemed to have pushed Julien over the edge. I always wondered what had become of Christopher and Michaela’s father, Michael, David’s second-in-command before my arrival.

“Posters prove nothing. He just likes to remind people the Treaty killed her. It helps to keep the populace’s mind turned against us.” David would have been proud of my rhetoric.

“Did you know her?”

It was useless. Two days walk from the Treaty encampment and Michaela had already filled her mind with romantic fantasies. If she came before Julien, he wouldn’t even have to turn on the charm. She was already in love with the idea of courtly love and tragic romance.

“The woman on the posters? Waist-length spirals of golden hair, tremulous blue eyes and a pious, innocent gaze? No, I never knew the Eternal Blessed First Lady.”

“But you knew the person behind the pictures?”

Perhaps I’d over-estimated sweet Michaela’s naiveté.

“I met her once or twice, from a distance, at military events. I keep telling you, my husband was just a mid-ranking officer.”

“Halt! Who goes there?”

I cursed as the army patrol stepped out of the trees and onto the path, hemming us in. Normally, I walked with my senses finely attuned to any hint of danger, but I’d allowed myself to become far too absorbed in Michaela’s questions. She’d stirred up old memories until I’d lost all sense of my surroundings. Might they buy the line that I was the wife of a mid-ranking army officer?

The soldiers’ long red coats wouldn’t have looked out of place at Waterloo or Lexington, but they were Kevlar-lined and made to the latest technical standards. The bright colours and elegantly lethal tailoring brought back memories of another time. Once, the sight of the First Lord’s army had meant safety. Once, they’d bowed. Even through my mounting panic, I still struggled to regard them as a true threat.

The short soldier to my left hit Michaela in the stomach with the butt of his rifle and pushed her against the tree as she screamed, and I snapped back to the reality of the situation.

“Who are you and where have you come from?” the short man asked as he fiddled with his belt.

A second solider took a firm grip of my arm, but I seemed to offer less sport than Michaela.

The third solider, this one taller and scrawnier, addressed Michaela. “Respectable women don’t walk on the moors alone. Are you whores of the Treaty?”

When she didn’t answer, he walked over and slapped her face. At least it distracted the first soldier from whatever degradations he’d been planning.

“Is that a no? If you’re not some Treaty slut then bow before our beloved Lord.”

I swivelled my head around in panic, but of course, Julien wasn’t there in person. The third solider reached into his bag and pulled out a framed photograph of the First Lord. Even in a miniature reproduction, at a distance of ten metres, his green eyes seemed to bore into mine. Tremors ran through my body, and my captor tightened his hold.

“Bow before the First Lord,” the soldier repeated, slapping Michaela again while the first solider loosened his grip to allow her space to accede to their request.

Bow, I willed Michaela. Just bow, once, and we might actually make it out of here alive. According to the new constitution, everyone must bow before the First Lord and before images and statues of him, which dominated most parts of the country. But when anyone joined the Treaty, they made a solemn vow never to do so, no matter the provocation. It’s one of our organisation’s defining features, and the rebel leaders had drilled the rule into Michaela since childhood.

You’re on a spy mission. The usual rules don’t apply. You were planning to sleep with the First Lord. Of course you have David’s dispensation to bow to his image to protect our cover. Didn’t he tell you this? Didn’t he explain how you needed to behave?

Michaela shook her head and spat at the image. I flinched, both with the foresight of what this would mean for the two of us, and an old remembered sense of wrongness, an old memory of the first time I’d seen someone defile Julien’s image. I’d known Michaela wasn’t up for the task. She’d fallen at the first hurdle, too thoroughly indoctrinated to make the right choice.

The first soldier punched her in the face, and she slumped forward. Before, they’d been showing off their power and toying with a beautiful woman for their own twisted sense of amusement. Now, though, she’d angered them. It seemed Julien still had some truly loyal minions.

I thought of the gun in my pocket. Though by no means the world’s greatest shot, I was competent. David—and before him, my husband—had long ago made sure of that. If I distracted the guard who had me in his grasp, I could reach it and get one shot off before they overpowered me. The first soldier had his trousers around his ankles. It would be satisfying to shoot him in the face, before he had his sick way with Michaela, but then what? The second I fired, they’d turn their guns on me.

I saw it all. She would talk. She would damn us as Treaty spies. But before that, she would to suffer.

“How about you?” the man gripping me demanded. “Will you bow before your leader?”

He released his hold on me and reached for an identical photograph. Pale skin. Black hair. Pronounced cheekbones and sculpted lips. I tried to avert my eyes. Holding an image of Julien this close to me was like thrusting a crucifix in a vampire’s face.

The sensible approach would be to bow, but the first soldier had a screaming Michaela on the ground, and I suspected the moment for compromise and collaboration had passed.

“Actually, I’m not required to bow,” I replied.

“Everyone must bow before the First Lord,” he snapped.

I reached for my gun while the soldier remained bamboozled by his indignation. He flinched back at the sight, but I had no interest in him. Before anyone could gather their wits and try to stop me, I aimed and fired a single bullet straight into Michaela’s skull.

The shot was better than I’d hoped. She didn’t even have time to scream before her suffering ended, along with the risk of her saying anything she shouldn’t. I thought of the little girl I’d first met and of the sparky young creature I’d come to know over the last few days, with her hopes of romance. I didn’t regret my decision, but that didn’t mean it didn’t hurt. Story of my life.

The soldiers froze in a moment of stunned silence, and in the confusion, I thought I might be able to get another shot off after all. But the soldier who’d been holding me all along pulled me into a headlock. The others drew their guns and surrounded me.

“Drop your weapon,” the second soldier cried.

I considered blurting out my whole story, but I doubted they’d believe me.

“I’ll drop it,” I replied, fighting to keep the tremor out of my voice. “Just promise you’ll take me to the nearest barracks. There’s something I need to tell your commanding officer.”

The second soldier nodded. I dropped the gun, and while my captor kept a tight hold, the third soldier slammed his rifle into the back of my head. Sickening pain reverberated through me, before I slipped into darkness.

***

The dim strip lights on the roof did little to alleviate either the dinginess of the windowless room I woke up in, or the throbbing in my head. My captors had secured me to a sturdy metal chair, and the three of them now milled around, accompanied by a few other soldiers of the First Lord’s army.

“I see you’re awake,” the taller of the three soldiers said. “I’m looking forward to hearing your explanation of what happened out there. You’re Treaty, that’s obvious enough from the outfit, the refusal to bow, and the prowess with a gun. But where were you going? And what were you so scared about your pretty friend telling us?”

“I want to see your commanding officer,” I said. My dry mouth made speaking difficult. I must have been unconscious for several hours.

“General Moreham is entertaining senior officials of the Regime tonight. He wouldn’t want to be pulled away from the dinner table to deal with the likes of you.”

Moreham. I’d worried that people had moved on, and the commander of this garrison would be unknown to me, but Moreham would recognise me anywhere. He might even show me some sympathy. The senior officials bit alarmed me more. Please don’t let his guest be Peter, or I’ll never make it back to London in one piece. I pushed the unwelcome thought aside.

“You don’t know who you’re dealing with. Call Richard, please.”

The soldier’s eyes widened at my use of his commanding officer’s first name, but he didn’t relent. “Then perhaps you should tell me.”

“Fetch Richard.”

In reply, he picked up a metal bar, which I’d have struggled to lift, and smashed it into my bound right arm. I screamed, as much at the foreboding sound of cracking bone as at the sudden rush of pain.

“Don’t do this. If you hurt me, you’ll pay.”

The soldier laughed in my face. “You think the Treaty is going to burst in here and save you? You think Red David’s going to ride up on his white steed and whisk you away? We’re in the middle of a fortress, you stupid cow. Forget the Treaty. The First Lord’s Army are in control here.”

Slumped in my chair, I laughed. “I’ve already forgotten about the Treaty. I had business with them, but they mean nothing to me. It’s not the rebels who’ll make you pay. If you hurt me, Julien will destroy you, destroy your Regiment, destroy your home and your family.”

“Julien who?” the solder asked. He raised the bar, as if to hit me again, but this time, his voice carried a note of doubt.

“Oh for God’s sake. Which Julien do you think I mean?” I twisted my head and nodded lightly at the giant poster that dominated the left wall. He’d gelled his hair back for the picture, and he wore a rather fetching military outfit, but my pain and fear prevented the image having much of an effect on me.

With all of the “First Lord” and “Beloved Leader” crap they spouted, I wasn’t entirely sure they even knew Julien’s first name, but they seemed to get the point.

“Sir, I think we should get Moreham down here. If it’s all bullshit, and she really is just some worthless Treaty bit-player, he’ll be annoyed at having his dinner disturbed and might give us extra patrols and half rations for a week. If she’s a big name in the Treaty, or something else entirely, and we handle this wrong, we could be court-martialled.”

My interrogator scowled, as though the thought of taking advice from someone of an inferior rank physically pained him. “I don’t believe a word the little bitch is saying, but I suppose that makes sense. Go and get him, and on your head be it if he’s angry at being disturbed.”

“Who should I tell him we have down here?”

“Tell him it’s Marianne,” I called, before the head goon could give his suggestion. My real name reverberated strangely on my lips after so many years of being Melanie.

“Marianne who?”

Again, I laughed. “He’ll know which Marianne you mean. Or at least, the suspicion will be enough to make him put down his port and visit the dungeons.

The soldier heaved open a heavy wooden door and slammed it behind him. I hoped that my faith in Moreham wasn’t misplaced. He’d always been a little too fond of wine and a little too reluctant to be proactive.

“So, Marianne. I don’t have any intention of looking stupid in front of the commander of the garrison. You travel with the Treaty, you shoot your companion dead, you expect “Richard” to know who you are, and you threaten to bring the wrath of “Julien” down on my head. Who the fuck are you, and what’s your game?”

I studied the floor and resolved to hold my silence until Moreham appeared.

“Answer me, Marianne.”

He mercifully dropped the rod, but then balled his right fist and smashed it into the side of my face. I cried out like I’d been stabbed. I’ve always been mentally strong, but I’m a coward in the face of physical pain. Still, it was far from the worst punch I’d ever taken.

“You said I might get in trouble for hurting you, but it seems like that ship’s already sailed. If you’re as precious as you claim, I might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb.”

He hit me again, on the other side this time. Despite my attempts to stay strong, I sobbed uncontrollably, which only made me choke on the blood that flooded my dry, aching mouth.

“Tell me the truth,” he screamed, glaring at my face as though the blood and the sound of my pain personally insulted him.

Was this what he’d signed up to the First Lord’s Army to do? Perhaps he still regarded me as a Treaty member, despite my claims to the contrary, and believed that made me fair game. After all, the army hadn’t started the bombing campaign.

“If I thought you’d believe me, I’d tell you,” I sobbed. “But you’d think I was lying or deluded. Please stop hitting me. Please wait for Moreham.”

“Tell me,” he screamed again, squeezing my broken arm until I screamed in turn.

“What the hell is going on down here? This had better be worth my dinner being disturbed. I have important guests here tonight. Extremely important guests.” Moreham’s pompous, well-educated voice cut through the dim room.

I’d never heard such a welcome sound in my life, though pain prevented me calling out in reply. I stared at him, resplendent in his ceremonial uniform.

“Jones, unhand the prisoner. We’re not barbarians, and whoever the girl is and whatever she’s done, she’s not much danger to you sitting tied to a chair, surrounded by men, in an army dungeon.”

Jones stepped away, and I took a ragged breath. “She claims to know you, sir,” he said, saluting. “I suspect it’s Treaty lies and if that’s the case, I’m sorry to have called you down here. But she insisted on speaking to you, and we decided not to risk denying her.”

“Who are you, girl? Ross here claimed you’re called Marianne, but the only Marianne I know is dead.”

“It’s me, Richard,” I said in a choked voice.

He crossed the room as if he were trudging through mud, as though he wasn’t ready for the moment when I’d confirm what he already knew.

Between the dirt and the blood, I’d struggle to recognise myself in a mirror, and Moreham hadn’t seen me in five years—five years in which I’d changed immeasurably. But he put one hand on my shoulder, used the other to gently tilt back my bruised head, and stared at my face and into my eyes.

He drew his ceremonial sword. I flinched, but he skilfully cut my bonds without touching my skin or ruining my khaki jacket. He took a sharp intake of breath. “It’s really you, isn’t it?”

“It’s really me.”

He leaned in and whispered so that only I could hear. “Part of me thinks I ought to run you through with this sword right now and save you, me, and my sworn lord an awful lot of trouble. God knows what you’ve been up to, but I doubt any of it was good.”

I tensed, but instead of doing as he’d threatened, he touched the sword to my forehead in a formal gesture.

“Even so, I know who I swore my oath to.” He straightened up and faced the crowd of bemused soldiers.

“Jones, Carter. I appreciate that you acted in a manner you thought appropriate at the time, but I need you to leave, now. I need you to head out of town immediately and get as far away from here as possible.”

They both saluted, and then stared at the far wall, perhaps wondering what their punishment would be and what rules they had actually broken. The army didn’t exactly have a zero tolerance approach to brutality against political prisoners.

Jones trembled. “But sir, that sounds like desertion, and everyone knows that’s punishable by death.”

“A deserter always has the chance he may evade his pursuers. Or if the worst comes to the worst, it’ll be a bullet to the back of the head.”

Carter knelt on the ground. “Sir, I don’t understand. I’m a loyal soldier of the First Lord. I want to fight to keep this country safe from the rebels and leave him free to carry out his great works. How can you ask me to turn my back on that?”

“Do you remember Olivia Livelton?” Moreham asked the two puzzled men.

Jones frowned. “She was a mistress of the First Lord. The daughter of some western army major.”

Moreham nodded. “Indeed. And do you remember what happened to the colonel who subsequently raped her?”

Every man in the room shivered. Some things didn’t need to be put in to words.

“There are worse ways to die than a deserter’s bullet, gentlemen,” Moreham said, softly.

I wondered what had happened to the colonel. The Treaty denounced the ingenious tortures of the Regime, but in my opinion, army rapists deserved whatever awful fates befell them.

Moreham turned his attention from Jones and Carter and barked out orders. “Smith, go to the infirmary and bring a doctor and a stretcher. Melville, go to the servant’s quarters, summon my wife’s lady’s maid, and have her find make-up that’s capable of hiding bruises. Chrisson, go to the state dining room, pour our most esteemed guest a large whisky, and ask him to retire to my study. Or if he won’t move, which is of course his prerogative, ask all the other guests to depart to the drawing room so that he has some privacy.”

None of them quite seemed to understand Moreham’s orders, but the Regime had trained them to obey, and they all headed towards the door. Before they or the fleeing Jones and Carter could reach it, it swung open and a figure walked into the room.

“I gave strict orders not to be disturbed,” Moreham snapped.

“Moreham, you’ve been hours. The champagne’s getting warm and the Lobster Thermidor is getting cold. If it’s nothing, then for goodness sake, come back to dinner and have the man who called you punished. But if something’s going on, I want to know about it.”

The speaker walked into the room, and Moreham’s complaint died on his lips as he fell to his knees. All around me, the soldiers did the same, wide-eyed and open-mouthed with awe. I shook. I was not ready for this. Perhaps I never would be, but certainly not here, broken and dirty and covered in blood. I’d wanted to meet him as an equal—or as close as anyone got nowadays—looking beautiful and elegant and staring confidently into his haunting face.

“Bow down, for goodness sake,” Moreham hissed.

I laughed through the pain. “I don’t have to bow, remember?”

I’d made my Treaty vow never to bow to the First Lord, like all the other rebels, but it hadn’t actually made any difference to my position. I’d meant what I’d told Carter in the forest. Alone of everyone in the country, I didn’t have to bow to Julien. We’d written it into the damn constitution. And yet, as I glimpsed his piercing green eyes and aristocratic face, the subconscious urge to prostrate myself before him almost overcame me. I leaned back in the chair and kept my aching head firmly raised, and as his gaze swept over me, I saw genuine shock on his face for the first time I could ever remember.

Everyone else continued to kneel as he walked towards me in a trance. A kiss or a bullet to the head. They seemed equally possible.

And then, he reached me, and his arms closed around me, drawing my head into his velvet-covered chest. I shook and cried in his embrace.

Julien utterly consumed most of my mind and my senses—the smell of the woody, lemony scent he’d always worn, the feel of his fine clothes, after years of mass-produced rubbish, the sight of his tall, lean figure and long, elegant hands and swept-back dark hair.

Part of me, though, still maintained enough composure to register the presence of the soldiers, and I smiled at my tormentors’ shock. There must be few experiences worse than suddenly finding yourself in the glorious presence of the man you’re sworn to serve—the man you revere and idolise almost as a living —only to see, in this moment you’ve dreamt of all your life, your liege lord passionately and hysterically embracing the woman you’ve spent the last hour torturing. Your liege lord, who may be glorious and all-powerful, but who isn’t particularly known for mercy. It almost made me sorry for Jones. Almost.

Julien tightened his grip. I flinched and cried out as he caught my broken arm. It was never a good idea to show weakness in front of him, but the pain overrode my caution.

Julien straightened and touched my arm probingly, while I whimpered.

“Who broke her arm?” His voice exploded like a gunshot in a darkened room.

With my good arm, I gestured towards Jones. “He did.” I could have been merciful, but what had they done to earn my forgiveness?  Julien’s spirit always got into my blood and made me want vengeance and power.

I hadn’t thought Jones could physically press himself any deeper into the floor, but somehow he managed it. “My Lord, I’m sorry. I meant no harm. I just wanted answers from her. She was clearly with the Treaty, and she wouldn’t bow to your image.”

Julien laughed. “She isn’t required to bow to me.”

God, I’d almost forgotten that laugh. Sweet, ringing and full of joy, with the tiniest hint of madness to provide a touch of seasoning to the sounds. I curled my bruised lips into a smile, pleased he’d remembered our agreement, delighted he still believed it.

“Who do you swear your oath of loyalty to, soldier?”

Jones forced his body still further into the ground, but raised his head to speak. “I swear it to you, sir. I’m utterly loyal to you.” I suspected Jones might cry. The First Lord tended to have that effect on people.

“Very good. Your fealty is noted. And who else do you swear loyalty to?”

For a moment or two, Jones seemed unsure what Julien expected of him. Finally, he managed to whisper out an answer. “To the Eternal Blessed First Lady.”

Really? They still swore the oath after all this time? Oh Julien. You old sentimentalist.

“Indeed. And I’m afraid you’ve broken your vow. By rights, I really should have you tortured to death, but I’ve got better things to do today.”

He gave me a meaningful glance, and I still couldn’t decide whether the “better things to do” involved laying me down and kissing every inch of my body or hooking me up to electrodes and running an electric current through it. Julien could communicate a thousand implications with one glance, but he was not an easy man to read.

He pulled a solid gold gun out of the bejewelled holster at his hip. Instead of further attempts at conversation, he pointed the tacky weapon at Jones and shot a bullet straight into his bowed head, which exploded on impact. He’d always been an exemplary shot. Without pausing for breath, he fired another shot to execute Carter.

I pointed to one of the other soldiers. “That one tried to rape my friend.”

He didn’t even hesitate, just swung the gun away from the ruined bodies of Jones and Carter, and fired towards the solider who’d pinned Michaela to the tree.

“And who broke your nose?”

I shrugged. “That one’s an old wound.” I shuddered at the memory of that blow, but I’d die rather than see the man who’d inflicted it punished.

“Moreham, what sort of barracks are you running here? Breaking women’s arms? Attempted rape? You’re clearly not setting the sort of example I’ve come to expect.” Before I could beg him not to, he fired at the general’s chest, at the man who’d once been his superior and who’d helped him to deliver his coup. No one dared to scream.

“Now, as I came in, I heard orders around getting medical assistance and running baths and finding clothes, all of which sound like excellent ideas. Anyone who was supposed to be helping, for God’s sake, get on with it. Everyone else, if you head to the second floor, you’ll find a feast in progress. Help yourself to the food and drink. The burgundy is particularly good.”

Bowing and scraping, most of our companions rushed for the door, but some hesitated.

Careful of my broken arm, Julien leaned in and kissed me. “Go, all of you, before I lose my customary cool. I want a moment alone with my wife.”

Review: The Young Elites

I have been so bad at writing this blog recently. On the plus side, I’ve been so good at writing the mysterious new book I mentioned in my last, long ago post and which now a)has a name, and b)is now finished bar the final edits. More news on Checks and Balances in a few days time.

In the meantime, mostly to reassure any regular readers that I haven’t either died or had my internet connection cut, here’s a review of my last read.

20821111

THE BLURB

I am tired of being used, hurt, and cast aside.

Adelina Amouteru is a survivor of the blood fever. A decade ago, the deadly illness swept through her nation. Most of the infected perished, while many of the children who survived were left with strange markings. Adelina’s black hair turned silver, her lashes went pale, and now she has only a jagged scar where her left eye once was. Her cruel father believes she is a malfetto, an abomination, ruining their family’s good name and standing in the way of their fortune. But some of the fever’s survivors are rumored to possess more than just scars-they are believed to have mysterious and powerful gifts, and though their identities remain secret, they have come to be called the Young Elites.

Teren Santoro works for the king. As Leader of the Inquisition Axis, it is his job to seek out the Young Elites, to destroy them before they destroy the nation. He believes the Young Elites to be dangerous and vengeful, but it’s Teren who may possess the darkest secret of all.

Enzo Valenciano is a member of the Dagger Society. This secret sect of Young Elites seeks out others like them before the Inquisition Axis can. But when the Daggers find Adelina, they discover someone with powers like they’ve never seen.
Adelina wants to believe Enzo is on her side, and that Teren is the true enemy. But the lives of these three will collide in unexpected ways, as each fights a very different and personal battle. But of one thing they are all certain: Adelina has abilities that shouldn’t belong in this world. A vengeful blackness in her heart. And a desire to destroy all who dare to cross her.

It is my turn to use. My turn to hurt.

THE REVIEW – 4 STARS

If someone had told me there was a book that basically takes the plot and characters of the Grisha Trilogy, pops them in a Renaissance Italy fantasy world instead of an Imperial Russian one, adds in a healthy dose of Assassin’s Creed 2, and throws Warner from Shatter Me in there too, I’d have had two thoughts – firstly, “that sounds horribly derivative,” and secondly, “that sounds like the perfect YA novel, and I must read it right this second.”

The Grisha is probably my favourite YA I’ve read since I’ve been too old for the genre, the Renaissance was my specialist subject at university, and Assassin’s Creed is my favourite computer game of the last five years. (I’ve never actually read Shatter Me, so I may be wrong on that one, but enough people have recommended it to me because off my love of villainous love interests that I feel like I can speak with authority!*)

No one had given that me description of the Young Elites, but for the first 80% of the book, for better or worse, that’s what kept churning through my mind.

In this Renaissance Italy-esque world, a strange disease killed every adult that caught it, marked every survivor, and gave a selected few strange powers linked to elements and emotions. Our “heroine” (I’ll get to those quotation marks in a moment) Adeline knows she was marked, but doesn’t discover she also has particularly special (but dark) powers until the opening of the book, years after the fever. She joins the titular Young Elites, a group of similarly gifted youths, and along with them, plots to overthrow the Queen and put the Crown Prince on the throne.

Said Crown Prince leads the Young Elites, controls fire, is super hot, brooding and charming, and is the perfect mixture of a slightly more chilled out Darkling and a slightly edgier Ezio (and is even called Enzo). Apologies to anyone who doesn’t get either of those references, but basically, if he feels a little cliched, he’s also basically everything you want in a romantic hero. We also have Teren, the psychotic, sadistic and obsessive leader of the Inquisition, tasked with wiping out the Young Elites, despite secretly having powers himself. He’s also super hot and super intense, but miraculously, somehow manages to avoid becoming one side of a love triangle. He starts out as the villain and remains the villain despite having nice eyes. Whether he’ll manage to keep this feat up in subsequent volumes is anyone’s guess!

For that first 80% of the book, I really enjoyed it as a fun but predictable read. Everything was well done, but nothing felt really new or unique and nothing that happened really surprised me. Now, unlike some people who get up in arms about it, I don’t really mind books not being original – after all, no novel’s been truly original in centuries. Give me “good” over “different” any day. On the other hand, I never felt it ever quite reached the heights of the stories it was clearly inspired by.

Halfway through, I’d almost have put money on where I thought the plot was going to go, so it was a pleasant surprise when, towards the end, there’s a major plot development that sends things off in a different direction and turns this into quite a different sort of novel. This turn of events genuinely shocked me and made my take far more of an interest in the book. It also made some of the comparisons feel a little less fair. It’s hard to explain without giving huge spoilers, but as it’s basically the USP of the series, I think I can get away with saying that the take home message seems to be that the “heroine” of this novel is basically going to be the villain of further installments in the series – and not even through the influence of a man! I didn’t actually see much evidence of real villainy here, and I really wish the author had a)moved things in this direction earlier, and b) ramped them up a bit, and I hope she really goes all out in the sequel. But there’s nothing I love more than a good anti-heroine or even villain protagonist, so I’m excited to see where this goes.

It’s worth a read if you like the sources I’ve mentioned (and according to other people, also X Men, which I know nothing about), but if you ever feel it’s too much of a rip-off, keep plowing on, and hopefully the ending will change your mind. This book didn’t quite hit the heights of greatness, but I did enjoy it, and it’s left me really looking forward to the next installment now the world is set up and the unique factors are coming out of the inspirations.

*Since I wrote this review a few days ago, I’ve finally got round to reading Shatter Me, and I’m pleased to say I stand by this comment. Also that everyone was right to constantly recommend it to me – review on that one and the sequels I’ve subsequently devoured coming soon. (Anything to put off actually talking about Checks and Balances in public. It feels like my little secret at the moment and I love it so much!)

What I did on my Christmas Vacation (put one novel on hold and wrote 25 000 words of another one)

In what must rank as one of my longer gaps between posts, I noticed that my last entry was way back on the 31st October.

Normally, I’d feel a vague sense of guilt at such a dereliction of writerly duties, but this time around, I feel no shame. Because while I love writing blogs, I love writing books more, and in large part, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing in my absence.

Now, here are some pictures, all of which have something in common:

The Seaman’s Hall at Somerset House

A vintage Dior wedding dress

The headquarters of Birmingham council

Kim Jong-Suk, the first wife of Kim il-Sung, former first lady of North Korea and grandmother of the current “Great Leader”

The connecting factor is that they are all things I’ve looked up in the last few days as part of my research into the new book.

You may remember that my last post was all about my plans to take part in NaNoWriMo and attempt to churn out 50 000 words in a month, and about the new book I was intending to write, called the Separation of Powers. (see link)

Now, the good news is that between then and now, I’ve written 78 000 words – not bad for two months work. The bad news is that not all of these words are part of the same book, meaning that instead of having a first draft of something nearing completion, I have two half written stories. Woops.

Right through November, I dutifully stuck to writing 1,666 words of the Separation of Powers each day (or in practice, missing a few days and having a few marathon sessions), and though I found it a bit of a challenge to be writing something other than The Cavaliers, I was generally quite pleased with the result. I hit and even slightly exceeded my goal of 50 000 words on the last day of November, and felt quietly proud,  conscious that there was still a long way to go until even the first draft was complete, and determined to write the other 50 000 words before too long.

But first, I wanted a little break after such effort. And then I had a week of feeling ill, and some hectic days at work, and suddenly it was Christmas and the word count stayed resolutely around the 50 000 mark.

But over the Christmas holidays, with several days off work, albeit many of them filled with visits to family and friends and taking part in festive fun, i was sure I could get some more writing done. But somehow, when I was at home, lounging around with a book and a drink felt preferable to sitting down in front of the computer and putting fingers to keyboard.

And then, on Christmas night, after a lovely day together, my husband was playing some new computer game while I read a new book (we’re cool like that in my house). The video game featured a crazed tyrant who had once loved the hero’s mother.* And as I sat there, tipsy from the day’s champagne and port and wonderfully relaxed, it triggered memories of a story I always used to make up in my head when I was trying to get to sleep or bored on a bus, and that I’ve always vaguely intended to one day get down on paper. And despite my conscience screaming that I ought to do the sensible thing and finish the novel I was already 50 000 words into, I decided there was no time like the present.

I woke up on Boxing Day with possibly the strongest urge to write I’ve ever had in my life, and it’s not like I tend to be unenthusiastic about writing. We spent most of the day having a nice meal with family,  while ideas for the opening chapter continued to percolate in my head, and when I got home, despite it already being about 8PM, I sat down and wrote something ridiculous like 8000 words without a real break.

And somehow, the words have just kept coming, kept flowing out of me. I’ve never really struggled with writing, never found it a chore or suffered from real writer’s block, but I’ve never known it be quite like this either.

You know that feeling, when you really love a book and all you want to do is read it and talk about it and how everything reminds you of it? I’m currently feeling like that, only it’s my own book I can’t stop thinking about and just want to write. I sort of wanted to blog about it before now, but this is the first time in days I’ve managed to sit in front of my computer and not just start blasting another chapter.

As of yesterday, I was up to 25, 318 words in 11 days. I’m slightly electrified, and slightly terrified that either the inspiration or the enthusiasm is suddenly going to run out and leave me with two half-written books.  But I really  hope they don’t, because while there are plenty of plot holes that need resolving and motivations that need fine-tuning and scenes that are going to require a re-write, I honestly think there’s something really good at the heart of this book.

I was tempted to give you a blurb or a tiny extract or at least some further details, but while I’m on a roll, I sort of don’t want the world to intrude (even writing this much about it feels a bit like tempting fate or breaking the spell) so for the moment, I hope the pictures are sufficiently intriguing…

On the other hand, for anyone who was more intrigued by my description of Separation of Powers, I’m still hoping to finish that before too long. My vague ambition is to have a draft of both books before the summer.

And finally, this is a picture that may or may not demonstrate how much I’ve internalised this new story. Having been there and done that in the past, I wanted to carefully avoid making a character who matched my physical description too closely, so for a start, I gave her blonde hair, on the basis that mine is usually a very dark brown. And then on Saturday, I went to the hairdressers, and this happened, which I swear is just an unfortunate coincidence. I’ll only really start to worry if I suddenly develop a brummie accent.

blonde hair

*Incidentally, the book was Station Eleven, which I’d highly recommend. I’m hoping to get a review of that and some of my other holiday reading up over the next few days, if I can put my previous story down for a minute or two.

I’d also like to point out the rather odd fact that I never play computer games, but I always obsessively follow the plots while my husband works his way through them.

NaNaWriMo and The Separation of Powers

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It is a feature of the peculiarly UK conception of the separation of powers that Parliament, the executive and the courts each have their distinct and largely exclusive domain. Parliament has a legally unchallengeable right to make whatever laws it thinks right. The executive carries on the administration of the country in accordance with the powers conferred on it by law. The courts interpret the laws and see that they are obeyed. – Thanks, Lord Mustill.

I’m equal parts nervous and excited today, because tomorrow brings the start of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. For those not familiar with this annual tradition, the idea is quite simple – authors commit to starting a new book in November and writing 50 000 words before the month is up. http://nanowrimo.org/

I’ve done this oNaNoWriMonce before, in November 2012, when I wrote the first 50 000 words of Ivory Terrors. It took me much longer to actually finish off that book (which ended up about 150 000 words long), but I’m not sure I’d have managed it at all without that initial boost.

It’s quite a stressful commitment to make on top of a full time job, but it’s a great way to get a novel off the ground, and it gives you an amazing sense of just what you can achieve when you put your mind to it and prioritise writing above all else. If you divide it up equally, you need to write 1,666 words each day of the month – though I found I tended to do a bit of mid-week writing, but mostly make my word count up by marathon weekend sessions. At times, the relentless pace and the need to write on those days when my heart wasn’t quite in it means that not everything I wrote that month survived the later cull – and most of what did make the final cut required heavy editing. But a first draft is never going to be a perfect draft, even if you spend years agonising over it, and I’m a strong believer in the principle that it’s always better to have written something. It’s easier to edit a slightly ropey scene than to stare at a blank screen.

This time around though, I suspect things may get a little more challenging than in November 2012. At that point, I’d already written the first two books in the Cavaliers Series, I had a very good idea of where I wanted the plot to go, and I knew my characters and my world inside out.

Now, I’m starting something completely new. In some respects, I think that makes it even more important to get some serious writing done in a short period of time, so that I can immerse myself in the story and start to understand it. With the exception of a few tiny pieces, I’ve written nothing but The Cavaliers since April 2010. The thought of writing something totally different is both exhilarating and terrifying. I’ve mapped out a plot and written myself little bios of all the main characters, but in my experience, until you actually start writing, you don’t really know how things are going to turn out – I’m a big supporter of the old saying that you know a book is going well when the characters start behaving in ways you didn’t expect.

The new book is called The Separation of Powers. I’ve been thinking about this one for a while, and I’ve hinted at it in a few blog posts recently. It’s going to be different from the Cavaliers in a few ways – it’s basically full-blown fantasy rather than paranormal or urban fantasy, it’s in the first person, and while I hedged my bets slightly with whether the Cavaliers was YA, NA or adult, this is definitely adult – which doesn’t mean full of sex and violence (thought there’ll inevitably be a bit of both) but is more to do with the age of the characters and the themes and outlook and writing style. I feel like I learnt so much about writing from the Cavaliers Series – from pure experience, from reviews, from beta readers – and I hope I can take a lot of that with me, and that all the changes (especially the change to first person) won’t mean I have to go back to the beginning of the learning curve.

There’ll inevitably be more about both my experiences of NaNoWriMo over the next few weeks and about the Separation of Powers over the next few months, though forgive me if I’m not blogging very regularly over November – the book writing will always have to take precedence. Wish me luck – and if you’ve got a new book idea floating around your mind, I’d strongly recommend giving it a go yourself.

In the meantime, here’s my first attempt at a Separation of Powers blurb:

Most twenty-something Advisers have only two interests in life –  progressing through the ranks of York Tower and finding someone eligible to settle down with. I’ve only got two aims too:  bloody  revenge and absolute power. I don’t expect you to like me, but perhaps you’ll begin to understand me. Just don’t expect a Romeo and Juliet story. This is really more of a Romeo and Tybalt affair.

A Ruler will say he wants to declare war on a rival county or have a rebellious peasant executed. But it’s an Advisor who will draw up the maps, come up with a plan, and ensure the death warrants are signed in triplicate. Once upon a time, the Advisers wanted more. They dreamed of a world where they would use their intelligence to do what was objectively best for the country. They declared war to get it, and for decades, the Rulers, Adjudicators and Advisers fought and the Commoners suffered. Finally, the Fae Queen forced an uneasy truce, which has held for a hundred years.

Now, the bonds are starting to weaken. Tara’s twin brother Gene was meant to be the saviour of the Advisers, the one who’d usher in a new era of respect and power, maybe even revive the old dreams. But Gene is dead, stabbed while a thousand Advisers sobbed and a thousand Rulers cheered. Tara knows there’ll be no justice for her brother – despite the truce, the Three Great Powers are still technically at war, and for a Ruler to kill an ambitious Advisor isn’t a crime but a patriotic duty.

Tara may not have her brother’s strength, charm or fighting skills, but she’s got intelligence, ruthlessness and cunning – and she’s going to destroy the Rulers, starting with the young Duke who murdered Gene.

Tara isn’t going to let anything stand in her way. Not her friends, not her family, not innocent bystanders. Certainly not the rules of the Separation Treaty or the customs of the Advisers. And above all, not her traitorous attraction to the man she’s meant to be destroying. She’ll cut out her own heart before she gives in to her feelings – but she’d rather cut out someone else’s first.

And once revenge is out of the way, she can start thinking about power. Tara has no wish to make the world a better place – she simply wants to ensure she’s the one on top when the dice stop rolling.

The Separation of Powers is a modern fantasy novel with a female anti-hero and a political flavour.

My Inspiration for Characters in the Cavaliers Part 4 – The Friends

So far, my character guides (see Augustine, George, Fea) have focussed on some of the more dramatic and powerful characters in the series. But today, I’m bringing the human element back with a quick run-through the principles and inspirations behind a selection of Harriet’s closest friends.

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One of the first lines in Oxford Blood is: “She’d applied to Oxford University not only for the intellectual challenge and the doors it could eventually open, but also in the hope of meeting the man of her overheated teenage dreams.”

Like so much in the series (and the first book in particular) this was based on my own experiences. Sitting at home in the Summer of 05 desperately waiting for October and the first day of term, I did allow my mind to wander more than once to the charming, handsome men who were inevitably lying in wait at Oxford, just waiting to seduce or be seduced by a nice northern girl.

What I don’t remember consciously thinking about was the friends I’d make – all those guys and girls who wouldn’t capture my heart but would capture my imagination. But in reality, despite the fact that I did meet the man of my teenage dreams (and married him), one of the best things about Oxford was the friends I made. Nothing bonds people like living and working together under situations of extreme academic pressure and even more extreme beauty, and the majority of my close friends today are ones I met at university. Despite the fact that there’s no mention of a pre-Oxford Harriet daydreaming about her potential pals, based on the “five years later” epilogue to Ivory Terrors, I suspect she’d say the same thing.

This is a generic ” big group photo of friends at Oxford” photo and in no way meant to imply that anyone pictured here is any sort of inspiration for Cavaliers characters!

When I was plotting Oxford Blood, however, I have to admit that I sketched out the heroine and the love interests and the villains long before I started thinking properly about the friends. When I think of the books I love, it tends to be these sorts of characters that jump to mind. But when I think about it more closely, I’d say that most of the books and films I really love have a strong supporting cast too. The best example of a well-developed friendship group in a paranormal context has to be Buffy, and I think it sums up everything that’s wrong with Twilight that the heroine seems to abandon her already fairly tenuous friendships the moment she gets a nice vampire boyfriend, and never bothers to discuss the situations she finds herself in with them.

Josh

Josh grew out of a dual frustration. The fact that so many paranormal heroines seem utterly irresistible to every man, and the fact that it seems surprisingly rare in fiction for women to have platonic, straight male friends. People talk of the Bechdel test – does a book or film contain a scene where two named women talk to each other about something other than a man. But actually, particularly in the romance genre, I suspect that books where a man and a woman talk to each other with no sexual tension or romantic undercurrent are even rarer.

I play with this in the scene in OB where Harriet accuses Josh of having a crush on her and is immediately (and honestly) corrected:

“Come on, one more dance. I hardly see you nowadays.”

Harriet frowned. “Josh, no. We’re having fun. I liked dancing with you, but I can’t cope with the way you’ve got to either hit on me or cause a scene every time we spend time together.”

Josh turned red. “Bloody hell Harriet, I think all the attention you’ve been getting has gone to your head. You don’t have to worry. I don’t fancy you, okay.”

Harriet took a step back. “But you’re always trying to spend time with me alone. And you’re so hostile towards Tom and so ridiculously over-protective of me.”

“It’s called being a good friend,” Josh said, shaking his head. “I’m worried about those posh bastards you insist on hanging around with, and maybe it does make me a bit over-protective, but you’re just not my type. If you really want to know, there’s someone else I’ve got my eye on.”

Later, in Ivory Terrors, Harriet refers to Josh as, “her gay best friend who just happens to be attracted to women.”

I have loads of male friends, and I find it odd, in fiction and reality, when people don’t. Josh is based heavily around a strange combination of three of the ones I was closest to at Oxford, (although his physical description is actually based on a fourth person, who was more of an acquaintance).  Several of his scenes – from the one in which he comes round to check that his piano-playing wasn’t disturbing Harriet only to be offended when she claims to have found it soothing, to the one where he lectures her on the evils of “posh boys” – are almost word for word based on real Oxford conversations with one inspiration or the other that I noted down in my diary at the time.

The other important aspect of Josh is his (relative) ordinariness, compared to the members of the Cavaliers. Mostly, readers see things through Harriet’s eyes, and she’s utterly fascinated with the Society and more than a little in love with at least two of the Members. She’s by no means utterly blinded to the problems with the society, buts she has a tendency to excuse their worst excesses and glorify some of their more morally ambiguous ones. Sometimes, Josh goes too far in the opposite direction, but he at least provides a counter-balance to this – long before he knows the Cavaliers are vampires or murderers, he hates them on principle for their clothes, their accent and their attitude to life.  I think my most liked quotation on Goodreads is Josh’s response to Harriet, after that crazy night when she’s gone to the Cavaliers Winter Party with George, found out they are all vampires, and then slept with Tom for the first time. Harriet (and I’d hope the reader) is in a frenzy of lust and excitement and drama, and it’s easy for her and us to forget about the problems with the society. At least until Josh brings everything back down to earth: “So, did you spend the night with the blond rich wanker or the dark haired posh twat?”  That one’s not an exact quote from any of my male friends, but given the right circumstances, I can just about imagine it being.

Caroline and Olamide

Harriet’s other two closest friends can’t really be discussed in isolation from each other. They were deliberately written to reflect the two sides of friendship – the friend that wants to party and the friend that wants to talk (or the fun one and the sympathetic one) – and the two sides of Oxford: the work and the play.

Harriet’s been torn between two women her whole life – between the dangerous glamour of the mother who abandoned her and the loving dullness of the aunt who brought her up. Caroline and Ola continue this dynamic, though unlike the older generation, these two very different girls end up getting on just as well with each other as with Harriet, despite the way that on almost every issues – from class to sociability to glamour to work ethic – she sits somewhere between the two of them.

Perhaps surprisingly, considering that Josh was so heavily compiled from various friends, the two female friends are some of the characters that owe the least to anyone I know in real life. I did have two quite different best female friends at university, but I didn’t consciously bring any of their traits to bear on Ola and Caroline. They were much more “types” – but I wanted to show that the rich, hot girl can be a good friend not just a bitch and a rival, and that the dowdy, quiet girl can both be fun and have her own life.

As the first book progress – and even more so as the series goes on – the friendships evolve and the two girls develop. Clearly, Harriet is my main protagonist, but to some degree, I wanted the books to be the story of a group of friends and the effect that both Oxford and the Cavaliers have on them. I didn’t want a situation where the main character was off growing and having adventures, while her friends stay frozen in a fixed situation and personality. One of my favourite scenes in the series (even if it killed me to write it – however much I mock her and some of her attitudes, I’m basically always rooting for Harriet!) is the one where Caroline sleeps with George and Harriet pretty much goes into shock at the idea that anyone could interfere in her special little love triangle. If Josh aims to remind the reader that the Cavaliers are problematic, Caroline and Ola aim to remind us that Harriet isn’t actually at the centre of the universe. And the companion piece to Josh’s quote above is Caroline’s, “When you say he’s your soulmate, I think what you actually mean is that he’s utterly gorgeous and you’d really like to get him naked. Let’s not get too melodramatic here.”

Katie

I don’t want to linger too long on Katie, as there’s not that much to say. Fundamentally, if Caroline was intended to show that the heroine can become genuine friends with the sort of rich, glamorous female characters who so often belittle them in books like this, Katie twisted this in a slightly more complex way. She can be a bit arrogant and bitchy and competitive, but she’s basically a decent person. But we’re mostly seeing her through Harriet’s eyes – and Harriet is seeing her as a rival for Tom’s  affections and mistaking her self-confidence for snobbery and disdain. As  a result, for most of Oxford Blood, she’s portrayed as a mean girl, whereas in reality, Harriet is pretty much in the wrong on all counts, from dismissing her warnings about George as being based on jealousy, to going home with Tom when he’d taken Katie as his date for the Winter Party. I genuinely like the way they start to become friends in Book Two, and how in Three, we finally get a chapter or two from Katie’s perfectly pleasant POV.

Review: Prince Of Thorns

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Generally, I research books quite heavily before I pick them up. There has to have been a good review, a personal nomination or a blurb/cover/extract that’s really blown me away. I don’t know quite how Prince of Thorns ended up on my Kindle. I purchased it months ago, seemingly on a total whim, knowing nothing about it other than it was a fantasy novel and increasingly popular.

I also generally only have one or two unread books at a time and read them almost as soon as I buy them, so it’s also odd that this one hung around so long, getting passed over every time for something new that caught my eye. I guess a new fantasy series just feels like a major commitment, and it wasn’t one I felt willing to make.

After a run of books I really didn’t enjoy (notably We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Kiss Me First) I finally got around to giving this one whirl, still knowing nothing about it and not having even read the blurb. This was Saturday morning, lounging in bed. By Saturday night, I’d finished book one, started book two and forced my husband to start reading it (he liked it too – I’m a great wife!).

PRINCE OF THORNS – Mark Lawrence – 5 Stars

(Now I’ve pasted it, I actually blame this cover for my delay in reading this book. See this old post for my checkered history around books featuring hooded men with big swords, two of which I’ve just realised are actually referenced in this review – fantasy cover designers, please try to branch out!)

Prince of Thorns (The Broken Empire, #1)

The opening chapter of this book involves a band of brigands slaughtering most of the male inhabitants of a village, raping their daughters, looting the corpses and then setting the whole place on fire. All of them seem to be having a wonderful time, particularly the deeply sinister first-person narrator.

Having picked this book up without knowing anything about it other than that it was a highly recommended fantasy novel, I wasn’t sure what to make of this attention-grabbing but disturbing opening. Had the author written a prologue that was broadly unrelated to the rest of the novel to set the scene and demonstrate the grimness of his world? Or was the hero going to swoop into the village and be avenged on this bunch of murderous psychopaths? And then, as dying villager muses that his murderer could be no more than fifteen, the chapter ends with the line, “Fifteen! I’d hardly be fifteen and rousting villages. By the time fifteen came around, I’d be King.” And I came to a shocking realisation that this sadist was actually our protagonist, the titular Prince of Thorns. Basically, if you’ve ever read a Song of Ice and Fire and wished that the whole thing was narrated by Ramsay Bolton, then this is the book for you.

The fashion nowadays is undoubtedly for fantasy characters to be presented in moral shades of grey, and often even to be outright anti-heroes. But I’ve never read anything in the fantasy genre that makes the “hero” so utterly, irredeemably villainous. The closest comparator I can think of is a Clockwork Orange, and the main character, Jorg, did seem to share some characteristics with that books hero beyond his love of ultraviolence – a scene where he sits and reads Plutarch following a massacre particularly jumps to mind. I can imagine some people really struggling with this approach to characterisation, but frankly, I loved it. It made for such a different read and the author did a fantastic job of making me root for Jorg while hating myself for doing so. He also struck a nice balance between explaining his behaviour (trauma and a desire for revenge following the brutal death of his mother and young brother, the need to survive and thrive in a cruel world, a horrible father) without ever excusing it. Jorg is almost painfully self-aware, and makes no excuses to the reader. I have an awful tendency to fall in book-love with villainous characters, but some of Jorg’s specific actions as well as his overall attitude to life were sufficiently beyond the pale that I never got to the stage of liking him. Nonetheless, he fascinated me.

While it’s undoubtedly both a clever and a well-executed device, an evil hero is by no means all this book has going for it. The world is interesting, firstly because the concept of a hundred little principalities fighting to seize control of what was once a united empire allows for lots of politics and scheming. Secondly, because what it quickly becomes clear that what as first feels like a classic medieval fantasy world is in fact a post-apocalyptic earth where the survivors have lost the use of technology and returned to feudal ways. And somehow also gained a degree of magic – possibly through radiation left behind by a nuclear war, though that wasn’t fully explained. I’m not sure this always 100% worked (why would people replicate medieval norms quite so exactly?) but it added an extra level of interest and distinguished the setting from your average fantasy novel. It did remind me a bit of the approach used in the Book of the New Sun series, where what appear to be towers are actually abandoned spaceships, but that’s no bad thing.

The plot is entertaining and flows well. The writing is great. It’s not over-clever or pretentious, it simply works. At times it’s actually quite funny, if you can cope with dark humour. The violence is ceaseless and at times extreme, but it’s never really gratuitous or lingered over. Most of the really bad stuff (the rapes, the torture of a bishop by sticking needles in his brain etc etc) happens “off-screen” and is mentioned in passing by characters, not described in loving detail by the author. I’m not someone who likes to read about violence for violence’s sake or who will choose to read a book because it boasts of being “dark.” I could never get on with Joe Abercrombie’s book, partly because the world depressed me too much, but despite the fact that the world and the protagonist presented here are if anything, even darker, it somehow kept me entertained and almost cheerful, swept along by the sheer energy and enthusiasm of the protagonist. In his absolute determination to succeed in his quest to become Emperor of his fragmented world whatever it takes, he reminded me of Lucifer in Paradise Lost, though unlike Milton, Lawrence knows full well he’s of the devil’s party.

There are some books I’d recommend to nearly everyone. This is not one of them. If you like clean-cut heroes, shy away from violence or simply want to see some signs of joy and goodness in your fantasy worlds, you should probably stay away. But if you’re looking for a very different and original fantasy novel and think you can cope with a dark world and a morally empty lead and a ruined world, this is a great and surprisingly fun read.

Review – The Bone Clocks

If there’s one book that I mention more than an other on this blog (with the obvious exception of The Cavaliers, and possibly LJ Smith’s books) it’s got to be Cloud Atlas. In various Top Ten Tuesday lists, as the prime example of my belief that the best books blur the line between literary and genre fiction, and perhaps most substantively, in this article on film adaptations, which goes into a lot of detail about why I love it so much. I’m not sure I’d say it’s my favourite book – how could anyone who truly loves reading and has genuinely varied tastes ever hope to pick just one? – but it’s definitely in my top five.

David Mitchell wrote two books before Cloud Atlas was published in 2004 (Ghostwritten and Number9Dream) and has written two other books since (Black Swan Green and the Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet). I loved Ghostwritten and I enjoyed the others enough to make me consider David Mitchell as one of my favourite authors rather than merely the author of one of my favourite books. But nothing has caught my imagination in quite the same way.

One of my new year’s resolution, going into 2012, was to review every book I read that year. Not only did I stick to it, I’ve kept it up ever since, and now have a grand total of 84 book reviews. I want to write a proper blog post on the subject soon, but somehow, knowing you’e going to write a review makes you read in a slightly different way. I was therefore very excited when The Bone Clocks was released, not only because it was the first Mitchell book in four years, but because it would be the first one I’d get the chance to review after my first reading (my recent review – 5 stars, obviously – of Cloud Atlas is here, but reviewing something after a re-read just isn’t the same).

THE BONE CLOCKS – 4 STARS

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THE BLURB

Following a scalding row with her mother, fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes slams the door on her old life. But Holly is no typical teenage runaway: a sensitive child once contacted by voices she knew only as “the radio people,” Holly is a lightning rod for psychic phenomena. Now, as she wanders deeper into the English countryside, visions and coincidences reorder her reality until they assume the aura of a nightmare brought to life.

For Holly has caught the attention of a cabal of dangerous mystics—and their enemies. But her lost weekend is merely the prelude to a shocking disappearance that leaves her family irrevocably scarred. This unsolved mystery will echo through every decade of Holly’s life, affecting all the people Holly loves—even the ones who are not yet born.

A Cambridge scholarship boy grooming himself for wealth and influence, a conflicted father who feels alive only while reporting from occupied Iraq, a middle-aged writer mourning his exile from the bestseller list—all have a part to play in this surreal, invisible war on the margins of our world. From the medieval Swiss Alps to the nineteenth-century Australian bush, from a hotel in Shanghai to a Manhattan townhouse in the near future, their stories come together in moments of everyday grace and extraordinary wonder.

THE REVIEW

One of the characters in this novel of many narrators is Crispin Hershey, an author whose books clearly owe something of a debt to Mitchell’s own. So when Crispin is constantly offended that everyone thinks his latest offerings aren’t up to the standards of his greatest literary and commercial success, it seems fair to say that it’s something that plays on Mitchell’s mind. It therefore makes me feel slightly guilty to say that if I were going to sum up this book in one sentence (which I’m not – concision was never one of my strong points) it would be: “a lot like Cloud Atlas, but not quite as good.”

There’s something about Mitchell’s way with words and way with a story that makes me enjoy everything he writes, whatever the genre and style. Cloud Atlas is one of my all time favourite novels, but I also enjoyed the relatively straightforward narrative structure of his more recent offerings, Black Swan Green and the Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Underneath all the cleverness, he’s fundamentally got a fantastic imagination and an amazing ability to tell a story.

Nonetheless, I was excited to see that here, Mitchell had returned back to the style of his earlier works and to what (I think) he does best: short stories that somehow coalesce into a complete novel, genre-bending and experiments with style, complex structures and narrative devices, and a blurring of the lines between literary and genre fiction.

That said, while you would never exactly describe the Bone Clocks as a conventional novel, it was actually rather lighter on tricksy devices than I had anticipated.

On the positive side, it felt much less like a cleverly linked combination of short stories than some of Mitchell’s books, and more like a coherent plot that happened to have several narrators and go off at a few tangents. Basically, it’s the story of Holly Syke’s life from 16 to 75, mixed with the story of an ancient battle between the Anchorites and the Horologists.  In some sections, Holly was front and centre whereas in others she made little more than a cameo appearance. Similarly, some sections were basically full blown fantasy, while in others, this paranormal war was only hinted at. But the two poles of Holly and Horologists held the novel together as a coherent whole rather more effectively than comet birthmarks or ghosts really managed in earlier works.

On the less positive side, most of the chapters – despite having different first person narrators – felt oddly similar to each other. They were all told using a linear, first person narrative and used a broadly modern literary style. I rather missed the real jumping around between forms – now a diary, now an interview, now letters – and styles that so wowed me in earlier works. Chapter Five, cheerfully abandons the “basically realism but there are a few weird things going on” approach  in favour of just giving into the temptation to write things like, “I can invoke Shaded Way acts without disturbing the Chapel, but the Cathar’ll detect psychosoterica from the far side of the Schism.” But while this chapter shattered the genre divide (and there’s nothing I love more than when serious writers bring a bit of fantasy into their novels), it still stuck to the same approach. This isn’t an attack. They were good stories, the succession of first person narrators had engaging and differentiated voices, the modern literary style was smoothly executed. It’s just that it didn’t amaze me, and I was longing to be amazed.

It’s always something of an inevitability with this sort of book that there are going to be sections you like more than others. Here, I struggled with the overly long and overly self-indulgent section about the author, and even more so with the rather preachy “global warming is a bad thing” end section. But I loved Holly’s working class teenager in the eighties bit and the wonderful noughties section that cut back and forth between a war reporter’s time in Iraq and time at a family wedding as he weighed up the relative importance of family and duty. It’s inevitably going to divide people, but personally, I also loved the hardcore fantasy section. Generally, I find that literary writers are rubbish at this sort of thing, but I thought Mitchell cobbled together an interesting enough mythos.

Oh, and I suspect it goes without saying that I loved the chapter about the posh, handsome and caddish Oxbridge student who seduces our heroine and then joins an evil cult that grants him eternal life. I once claimed that Mitchell could take any writer’s novel and write a better version of it in one chapter.* Now I know how it feels when it happens to you!

Finally, maybe it’s just my imagination or my slight obsession with that book, but at times, I sort of felt that Mitchell was rehashing characters from Cloud Atlas. One of the nicest things about being a Serious Author is that people tend to give you the benefit of the doubt. If a real fantasy author had several characters in his new book that were rather similar to characters in an earlier work, he’d be accused of laziness and predictability. If Mitchell has done so, I can only assume that it’s some clever device. But come on. Was Hugo Lamb not just a 1990s Robert Frobisher?** Wasn’t cynical author Crispin just a tad reminiscent of cynical agent Timothy Cavendish? And brave war reporter Ed seemed to take a similar approach to life as brave crime reporter Luisa. And actually, those three stories come in the same order in both books, which probably means our too clever for his own good author is doing it on purpose.

This may be the longest review I’ve ever written, and I think that’s indicative of both the complexity of the book – which makes it very hard to summarise or reach an overall conclusion on – and my rather conflicted feelings, between admiring what Mitchell has done, and somewhat unfairly wishing that he’d done a little more. I don’t think this book is for everyone – the fantasy element will put some people off, while the unconventional structure will drive others away. But if you can bear a combination of fantasy subplot and state of the world pretensions (to quote a rather self-referential in-novel review of Crispin Hershey’s latest offering), give it a go. There are some flaws and misteps, but there’s also both brilliant storytelling and real literary cleverness waiting inside.

*From my review of Cloud Atlas: “I found the latter story reminded me of Never Let Me Go, which came out at more or less the same time, but I actually found the Cloud Atlas chapter to be better, even though it was only one small part of a much bigger whole.” 

**To be fair, Frobisher is one of my all-time favourite characters in any novel, and Lamb was one of the best characters in this book, so I’m not exactly complaining about a possible rehash, but and as with the book overall, the newer character was just not quite as compelling as his comparator.

The Riot Club and The Cavaliers – dining societies in fiction and in life

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Here’s the trailer for The Riot Club, a film that’s just been released this week. Look at the beautiful Oxford buildings. Look at the handsome but psychotic boys in white tie. Look at the girl with the (dodgy) northern accent. Oh, they are all members of some sort of evil dining society. If you want a synopsis of the Riot Club, think Oxford Blood without the vampires.  Basically, I like to sit back and pretend this is a trailer for the film adaptation of my books. That’s not so wrong, is it? (Seriously, watch and allocate characters to actors. It’s quite astonishing how well they map together- check out Harriet at 0.17 and Augustine at 0.43, for a start!)

I haven’t yet seen the film (it’s so on this weekend’s to do list), but the plot isn’t new to me, and not just because it’s eerily similar to the sorts of plot that tend to flow out of my brain. Before it was a film called the Riot Club, it was a play called Posh. And let me tell you, when I see adverts for a play about an Oxford dining society featuring attractive young actors, nothing and no one is capable of keeping me away from the box office. I went to see this in 2012, when I was busy finalising Book One. As I sort of knew what was coming, just for fun, I dragged Freddie along, we wore black tie, and he walked round in the interval drinking champagne and drawling, like an extra or a piece of interactive performance art.

In between deliberately trying to provoke the rest of the audience, I had mixed feelings about the play, and from what I’ve seen and read so far, I imagine my reaction to the film will be broadly similar. On the positive side, there were the aforementioned formally dressed men. On a less shallow note, the writer had also clearly researched certain aspects of Oxford life rather well, and there were some very clever lines and some very funny comments. On the negative side, it’s probably some of the least subtle satire I’ve come across, and it relies far too much on the idea that posh=bad, and membership of a dining society=outright evil. I also got the distinct impression that 90% of the point of the play was to create a stick to beat the ex-Bullingdon Tories with.

It never ceases to amaze me the extent to which so many people are absolutely fascinated with class, and have such a love-hate relationship with aristocratic trappings. Dining clubs are admittedly a bit of an odd phenomenon, and when I started writing the Cavaliers, I was very much playing up to the media controversy around the Prime Minister, the Mayor and the Chancellor all having been part of the same club (for anyone not familiar with the concept, see my article here – weirdly, it’s consistently one of my most visited web pages).

But do I really think there’s a conspiracy? No. Do I really think that the Bullingdon (or indeed the Piers Gaveston or the Stoics or anything else) is the route of all inequality in our society? No I do not. Yes, it’s a little disturbing that the Government is currently dominated by both a certain type of person and, perhaps more oddly, by what sometimes appears to be a group of old friends and rivals. But unlike in the Cavaliers, in real life, a dining society isn’t a gateway from obscurity into power. Rather, the only people asked to join the big societies are those who are already rich and well-connected. They’d have got on just fine without the club – they really are a symptom, not a cause of the old boys’ network.

In my experience, most dining societies are borne neither from a desire to rule the world nor an urge to smash things up and humiliate “poor people.” Rather, just like football fans, sports teams or political gatherings, they are about two things – getting drunk with likeminded people, and a sort of tribalism that divides the world, at least for one night, into a safe categorisation of them and us. And in the case of dining societies, there’s some extra fun to be had from dressing up and showing off. To the best of my knowledge (based on both personal experience and extensive book-planning research) the smashing places up, while true and abhorrent, is also very rare – a few isolated incidents over decades, not a systematic campaign of violence. The murdering, which we get in both the Riot Club and the Cavaliers (and in it’s American incarnation, in Donna Tartt’s the Secret History) has no basis in fact whatsoever.

When I created my imaginary dining society, I made the members vampires. As a consequence, I made most of them be awful human beings most of the time- I cannot abide overly friendly vampires. My books are paranormal romance/urban fantasy first and foremost, but they also contain a hint of satire – and hopefully, it’s all so exaggerated that everyone can see it’s not a genuine attack on Cameron and Boris and Osborne. In keeping her characters as broadly realistic humans while still having them do and say terrible things, the Riot Club’s writer ultimately sacrifices the clever social commentary of the premise and the opening, for cheap, overblown attacks which hint at a genuine belief that the Prime Minister once entertained himself by beating pub landlords to death.

In conclusion, dining clubs are a bit ridiculous, but not actively evil or a direct cause of any of societies problems. And based on my experience with Posh, the Riot Club is probably worth a watch for the scenery and the eye candy and the wonderful Oxfordyness, but pretty heavy-handed. And most importantly, it would have been much better with vampires.