Flat periwinkles (a pantoum)


Whenever I’m over in the west – as I am now – I walk the beach nearby the village and pick up shells. I am incapable of walking on any beach, anywhere, and not picking up shells. Being the west coast, the local shells are mostly winkles, limpets, whelks and the like. My particular favourite is the yellow morph of the flat periwinkle (the wee ones above, with a much larger common periwinkle, Littorina littorea); I have hundreds of these by now (certainly enough to fill three bittermint boxes). When I’m in the city, I keep them to hand, like worry-beads. They rattle around in a most satisfying manner, and remind me of better places.

Flat periwinkles
Butter-bright against the shingle
Littorina littoralis,
Shining in the salt-wet sunlight
Beneath a periwinkle sky.

Littorina littoralis:
A precise match, name to nature,
Beneath a periwinkle sky:
Liminal; literal; littoral.

A precise match, name to nature,
Marking the line of division –
Liminal, literal, littoral –
Between opposing elements.

These yellow shells, those perfect whorls,
Littorina littoralis
Between opposing elements,
Butter-bright against the shingle.

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If you’ve been following this blog you’ll know I’ve a new book coming out in September, The Crooked Path. The back cover calls it a prequel to After the Ruin, which is close enough. The more accurate wording is ‘A book set in the same world as After the Ruin but whose events occur between the two short stories told in An End and a Beginning, which features some of the characters from those books and a good many others’ but that would have been a tad unwieldy on the back.


The Crooked Path is independent of but interlinked with After the Ruin, being a fairy-tale, after a fashion, to After the Ruin‘s high fantasy. Its stakes, though no less important, are on a different scale: fairy-tales concern themselves with individuals, not worlds. One of the joys of writing is how created worlds become alive due to the network of connections between stories. The first line of The Crooked Path begins Stories link together, and that is pretty well my credo in writing. No story exists in a vacuum, any more than any man is an island. Regardless of whether you think there are seven basic plots or thirty-six, ideas and themes recur, there are repeated patterns and motifs, and that’s without considering an author’s conscious references, external influences or desire to meet/subvert genre expectations.

All my stories* link together. Oh, you can start anywhere – there is a chronology but everything is written to stand alone. Even so, if you read more piece than one you’ll see how they are intertwined. There’s a shared mythology and a common history, and objects such as Assiolo’s book running through the whole.


Ah – that book, old tales out of the west of love and longing**. Assiolo comes across it in Banish Misfortune (the second story in An End and a Beginning) and carries it with him to Felluria in After the Ruin. Turns out Banish Misfortune wasn’t the first time Assiolo had come across the book but, the first time he saw it, he didn’t understand its significance. You’ll find that scene in The Crooked Path. I wrote it to dovetail with the events in An End and a Beginning. Because of what happened in those stories there’s necessarily a missing person in The Crooked Path, but that character was as real as any of those on the stage and it was important, I felt, to acknowledge their existence, even if I could do so only sidelong. The different stories stand alone but they are connected and informed by that scene. As a result, reading either having read the other changes the experience of both. Deepens it, I hope.

* To date that’s two novels and six short stories.
** The Tales from the Later Lands, in fact.

tll-cover-for-kindle atr-cover-for-web

Posted in After the Ruin, fantasy novel, Hadley Rille Books, Harriet Goodchild author, novel, personal opinion, short story, The Crooked Path | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A(nother) triolet

From the beginning
To the end
Blind fate sits spinning.
From the beginning,
Silently grinning,
Foe and friend,
From the beginning
To the end.

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Book review, and some thoughts on story-telling: Plastic Smile by SL Huang

Plastic Smile cover

Cas Russell, antisocial mercenary, has decided to Fight Crime. With capital letters, like in one of her friend’s comic books.

After all, she has a real-life superpower: with her instantaneous mathematical ability, she can neuter bombs or out-shoot an army. And it’s Cas’s own fault violence has been spiking in the world’s cities lately — she’s the one who crushed the organization of telepaths that had been keeping the world’s worst offenders under control. Now every drive-by or gang shooting reminds Cas how she’s failed, and taking out these scumbags one at a time is never going to be enough.

She needs to find a way to stop all the violence. At once.

But Cas’s own power has a history, one she can’t remember — or control. A history that’s creeping into the cracks in her mind and fracturing her sanity . . . just when she’s gotten herself on the hit list of every crime lord on the West Coast.

Cas isn’t going to be able to save the world. She might not even be able to save herself.

A wee while ago I reviewed books for Heroines of Fantasy (a site now sadly mothballed). One of my most pleasing finds was SL Huang’s Zero Sum Game, a furiously paced, near-SF thriller featuring the mathematically superpowered Cas Russell. Now Huang is about to release the fourth book in the series, and I was able to read it ahead of publication (for which many, many thanks).

I enjoyed it, too. Very much.

Cas is falling apart. Flashes of a past she does not remember – outside her dreams – are breaking into her conscious mind and she’s losing her grip on who she is. A stranger, Simon, might be able to help, but he is likely part of the problem, and Cas resists his offer. And, both in her resistance and in her solution to the building violence in the city, she comes into direct conflict with Rio, a very, very dangerous thing to do. Yup, that’s right. After being offstage for a couple of books, Rio is back, as formal of speech, literal of understanding, and psychopathic of behaviour as ever. With friends like him, Cas’s enemies look a lot less dangerous.

It’s no secret that I have been a fan of this series from the beginning. It’s high octane, escapist fantasy, full of explosions and car chases and secret desert hideouts. The protagonist is probably – no, certainly – not one of the good guys. Forget morally compromised – Cas didn’t have any morals to start with. Oh, she’s acquired some friends, Arthur, Checker and Pilar, along the way who are nudging her in the direction of a conscience but they are seldom too concerned by the body count that follows in her wake. Maybe Pilar is. A little.

Plastic Smile builds out of events in its predecessors and the long-term plot arc that has been building from the beginning gathers pace. Everything you’ve come to expect in Huang’s writing is present: a diverse cast; flawed characters; taut, snappy prose; a twisting, snaking plot; lots and lots of gunfire. The pace starts fast and gets faster. Gang warfare on the streets of Los Angeles is interwoven with Cas’s personal struggle to retain her identity and each plot thread pulls to tighten and tangle the other.

For me, the superpower/all guns blazing nature of these stories is window dressing for the intellectual positions they present, ones that have nothing to do with mathematics. Plastic Smile is, in large part, about free will and coercion, the right to make choices and whether – and when – it is right to constrain choices. What is the common good? And who gets to decide? People who are certain they know what is best should always be mistrusted, even in fiction, so I can’t but think Cas’s faith in Rio is misplaced. I’m also pretty sure it’s something she has no real control over: from Zero Sum Game onwards it’s been clear her relationship with him operates within limits that he knows well and she knows not at all. In fact, given her fractured mental state, is she competent to reject Simon’s help?

These are big questions and Huang deals with them reasonably deftly. Free-will and autonomy are underlying themes of the series and there are frequent philosophical undertones (Rio as justified sinner, for example). It’s violent stuff, but far from mindless violence. Moreover, despite the (always somatic) violence, I feel very little in face of the carnage littering the pages of these books. Sometimes I’d like to feel more, but the deaths dealt out in Plastic Smile are mostly to anonymous thugs or else to traffickers in children. No need to regret such deaths. We don’t, by the way, ever meet those children. Doing so would complicate the book, unbalance it, take it down into a deeper darkness. There’s nothing truly visceral about these stories. For all their action and adrenalin they are set to appeal to the head rather than the gut, and I’d have no reservations offering them to mid-teen readers.

The short version of this review is very much If you liked the earlier books, you’ll enjoy this too.  If you’ve not read Huang before, do give this series a try. (There are a couple of fairytales that show off Huang’s range as an author.) If that’s all you want to know, stop reading here.

I’ve said I’m a fan of the Russell’s Attic series, and that’s certainly true. And yet, stepping back to look at the big picture, there is an aspect of this type of story-telling I find dissatisfying. These books are the equivalent of multi-season TV programming. Taken separately, each novel is very enjoyable indeed as a few hours of fast action, high body count, low consequences escapism. Nevertheless, four books in, I’m finding the make a bad situation worse style of plotting providing diminishing returns: because the ante needs to be constantly upped, one becomes inured to action and the fast pace becomes less, rather than more, exhilarating. As one becomes accustomed to the setting and better acquainted with the characters, the long-term story arc becomes more important. The long game of Russell’s Attic concerns Cas’s background, identity and abilities. Her questions require answers. Readers want answers, a return on their investment. Drip-feeding information is less of an option and the tap needs to be turned to a faster flow, as it is in Plastic Smile. Answers, however, close down possibilities, thus, in this form of story-telling, every answer must lead to another question. It’s a balancing act between resolution and onward travel, and a very, very delicate one.

It’s a general problem with open-ended, multi-instalment story-telling. The story can’t end with the end of a book/season, so catharsis is never achieved and the reader/viewer is eternally teased but ultimately unsatisfied. It’s rather unfair of me to pick out Huang’s work in this regard since the books are well-plotted, well-written and highly enjoyable. In fact, I’ve been thinking about this rather vaguely for a while and reading Plastic Smile, and writing this review, has crystallised my thoughts. Of course, serial story-telling has been with us for a long time: Huang is working with the modern form of a tried and tested method of presentation. Nevertheless, Dickens or Gaskell knew they had a set number of instalments to complete their story and shaped their work within that constraint. It’s unclear at this point whether such a constraint exists for Russell’s Attic. I hope it does.

Buy links
Amazon US
Amazon UK

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Pantoum II

Another rose poem. Well, they’re coming into bloom even this far north. It’s a five stanza pantoum, though I’ve been a little loose with the form of the final stanza.

He thinks of ice upon a thorn,
Of frost, creeping across a rose,
And shivers, despite the sun, in face
Of all such things: cold, dead, lovely.

Of frost, creeping across a rose,
Of love’s decay, a cankered heart…
Of all such things – cold, dead, lovely –
Why speak? You know as well as I

Of love’s decay, a cankered heart.
Picture instead a perfect rose;
Why, speak: you know as well as I
The snow white bud that has no thorn.

Picture instead a perfect rose,
Each petal pearled by summer rain;
The snow white bud that has no thorn
And opens sweet as love upon the day.

Shaking his head, he turns away.
He thinks of ice upon a thorn,
A ruined garden touched by frost,
Of all such things, cold, dead, lovely.

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Publication date for ‘The Crooked Path’

I have a publication date for The Crooked Path.

It will be published by Hadley Rille Books on 22 September 2016, the day of the autumn equinox here in the northern hemisphere. It’s not a random date. The Crooked Path is a prequel (and in some sense a counterpart) to After the Ruin but, whereas that story is centred on the solstices when light (or darkness) has the upper hand, this one is all about balance: light and darkness, love and hatred, vengeance and forgiveness.

The cover is still in preparation but I can share a draft of the front cover artwork. Once again the image was created by the amazingly talented Yana Naumova, who has brought my creature to life in the most wonderful way. I wrote it as ‘half a fish and half a gull with an open beak and a thrashing tail and long, strong, feathered wings’ and left it to her to decide what it actually looked like. You can find more of Yana’s artwork on her Deviant Art page.

the_crooked_path_final_for_web  Image © Yana Naumova

A short blurb

Stories link together. What is done in one time and place spreads out across the world to shape the future: there is never a single beginning, never a simple end. But, since this tale must have a beginning, let it be when Almecu the potter carves a creature from dreams and driftwood. It carries him to a place where fair faces conceal foul intent, where two kings guard the firstborn tree by night and day, where only a living man’s love can undo a dead man’s hatred. And where, if he does not go carefully, the choices made in other times and places will cost him his life.

An even shorter blurb, courtesy of Irene Soldatos

A bored potter craves adventure, blunders in on something enormous, gets in over his head, and is helped by a mysterious piper.

Posted in Allegory, fantasy novel, Hadley Rille Books, Harriet Goodchild author, The Crooked Path | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Work (forever) in progress

There’s a story I’m trying to write. I’ve been trying for a long time now. Well, I’ve got the story – more or less – and all the characters. I know who they are and what they do. I know where it starts and where it finishes. There’s tweaks and changes I’ll make based on what people have said (thank you, good friends and readers), but all that’s fairly straightforward. What’s not straightforward is lifting it from where it is now into the better version of itself I want it to be.

Ah well, that’s my problem. If it were easier, I suppose the final satisfaction would be less. Here’s a bit in which Ardùvai, brooding by the seashore, gets mistaken for somebody else:

A seal stuck up its head in the water an arrow’s flight from land, curious as seals are to see what passed above the tideline. Little enough, Ardùvai thought bitterly: a man brooding all alone on things he’d done awry. Far better to be a seal than a man: they slipped from land to sea easy as he might from dream to waking, telling no lies and making no promises.

He heard men’s voices ’cross the shore, men’s boots rattling across the shingle. Ardùvai watched and did not move: ’twas only Elùthai’s oathsmen, harking after Kalanu for fear of sharing their comrade’s fate.

A shouting and a pointing. ‘There! The oathbreaker! Beneath the rock!’

Not all were Elùthai’s men, either; he saw then other faces in this pack and other colours knotting up men’s hair. A flash of red caught his eye. He stared at such a sight: Kalanu, amid the mob that hunted him; Kalanu, wearing the king’s cloak, red silk binding the barleystraw of his hair into the clansman’s knot, sunlight winking and glinting on the three gold eagles at his shoulder.

Ardùvai stood to meet them, his knife in his right hand. ‘What means this?’

Men crowded round, their drawn swords pointed towards him. Kalanu said, breathless and quick, ‘Take him.’

A moment’s pause, in which Ardùvai looked from one man to another, and then the swords were pricking at his throat, forcing him down onto his knees. ‘Drop the knife.’

Ardùvai put up his hand. ‘Enough, lads. You took me by surprise and I’ll own I need a watchman but the jest’s run its course.’

Elùthai’s smooth voice. ‘No jest, Kalanu. Drop the knife.’ A cold edge of bronze moved beneath his chin and Ardùvai felt a thread of pain and blood running in a warm trickle down his neck. He opened his hand and heard the clash and jangle as his knife fell to the shingle. A man reached for it and offered it to Elùthai, who took it, smiling.

Kalanu snapped out, ‘Bind him.’

Someone forced his hands behind his back and bound them wrist and elbow. He marked, as a man marks little things at times of great moment, that the seal was closer now, barely two shiplengths beyond the shore. A kick from a heavy-booted foot sent him sprawling at Kalanu’s feet and all around he heard men’s mocking laughter. The laughter of men who had sat this morning in his hall, had answered when he asked, had sworn their oaths to him by land and sea and sky. How can this be, he wondered, how can this be?

‘Look at me,’ the shoreman demanded. ‘What do you see?’

He looked up into Kalanu’s face. ‘A jackanapes in the king’s cloak.’

Another kick, to his head this time, knocked him back down. The world went briefly dark, his blood a distant rumble in his ears. He struggled ’gainst men’s laughter to his knees, spitting out blood, and heard Kalanu ask, ‘Who am I, lads?’

The roar went up, loud as thunder. ‘Ardùvai the king!’

‘And who is this?’

‘The oathbreaker! Kalanu the oathbreaker!’

‘Aye, so it is. Well, lads, you know the penalty. Where stands the tide?’

Ardùvai’s stomach lurched as he looked to the sea, knowing himself the answer even as it was shouted out. ‘Near at its trough.’

‘Well then, no time to lose. We can do this and keep our own feet dry.’

The seal was closer yet, resting at the edge of the beach with saltwater lapping at its flanks. It raised its head to look at the men from great dark eyes before it turned itself about and lumbered back into the water as they dragged him across the shingle.

The stake was oak, near a man’s girth in thickness and higher than a man was tall. Longtimes it had stood at the lowwatermark as a promise and a warning, a fitting death for one who had sworn his oath by land and sea and sky. The old wood was crusted with barnacles above the point a man could reach, its foot swathed round with slippery seagrass. Though never in his time as nightwatch had a man been given to the sea Ardùvai saw someone had, quite recently, smashed through its holes, clearing out the mussels and the winkles so a rope might pass through easily. That care, that forethought, made his blood run cold.


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Comfort reading: five novels

I posted a good while ago about songs. This post is about books (not mine, though do go and have a look at it!). These aren’t my favourite books (I’d be hardpressed to name those, and my list would change with mood and weather) nor those I decided to take to a desert island but they are ones I return to over and over when I’m a bit low or just need to revisit old, familiar friends.

Jane Eyre
I must have read this for the first time when I was thirteen or thereabouts. A couple of years later I had to study it at school for an English Literature exam. and it’s a tribute to Charlotte Bronte that not even two years of essay writing and character studies spoilt it for me. It’s easy to pick holes in the plot (She didn’t see through his disguise? Really? In the attic? Of all the people in all of Yorkshire she bumps into her cousins?) but doing so misses the point of what makes it a great book. Passion carries it, author sublimated into character, and the certainty of equal worth and equal feeling make it one of the few truly feminist novels.

Babel Tower
The third novel in Byatt’s Frederica Quartet is long and complicated and, I think, immensely satisfying. Something to wallow in; of the books on this list this is the one which offers the most complete immersion in a fictional world. It’s the real world, but the world before I knew it, Britain in the Sixties. It’s a book about books and about ideas. About being a woman, about motherhood, and mind, and sex.  About retaining one’s integrity as a person. Two trials feature, a fictional obscenity trial about a book (Babble Tower, the novel within the novel) and a real trial (the moors murders), and a divorce, and a custody battle. The running theme is the difference between what happened and what is accepted to have happened, story set in opposition to truth.

Endless Night
A later, rather atypical novel by Agatha Christie. Very dark and twisted. It displays her range, as a writer and creator of characters (often underestimated), and skill at plotting (often acknowledged, and with good reason) but it’s a surprisingly delicate and effective lovestory too. It also served as my gateway to William Blake, so many thanks are due for that too.

A Mirror for Princes
A fantasy kingdom, not entirely unlike mediaeval Europe. A generation ago a usurper seized the throne,  killed the rightful heirs and forced the surviving princess into marriage. On his death, the struggle to succeed him is compounded by betrayal, intrigue and incest. I came across de Haan’s novel in Morningside library when I was a graduate student and since then it’s been the fantasy novel I’ve read and reread more than any other (thank you, ECL!). It predates A Game of Thrones by the best part of a decade and is infinitely more subtle and engaging. I’m always surprised by how few other people have heard of it, and saddened by how long it’s been out of print. There’s a companion novel too, if, like me, it leaves you wanting more.

Austen at her most autumnal. Anne Elliot is the most Cinderella-like of her heroines, with the ugly sisters to prove it, but, unlike most Cinderellas, Anne had her chance of happiness and with a satisfyingly sensible, unByronic man too, and cast it away. On the advice of her fairy step-mother analogue no less. There’s none of the dazzle of Pride and Prejudice or the narrative slight of hand of Emma but a quiet tale of second chances and love returning, after hope of love’s return is lost. And Oh the joy when I finally got to the steps of the Cobb at Lyme Regis. Years it took before I got there, and, reader, I jumped down them. Didn’t slip, either.

Posted in A.S. Byatt, Agatha Christie, beloved books, book review, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Tom de Haan | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

On prologues

People differ on the subject of prologues. Some consider them unnecessary and advise leaving them out. Why not start at chapter one, they ask. That’s where the story begins. My answer to that is, although the story (probably) starts at the beginning of chapter one, the book is bigger than the story. A prologue does something very different from chapter one. It sets a mood rather than a scene. It doesn’t so much begin the story as create the mood in which the story can begin.

Not all books need a prologue. That, we can all, I think, take as a given. And prologues can be done badly. Prologues are often done badly, and this is at the root of much of the prologue hatred. But because something can be done badly isn’t a reason not to do it at all. It’s a reason to do it well. Done well, prologues offer something – a mood or tone or image – that thematically underpins the following story and holds it together. They are the book in microcosm. If you don’t believe me, (re)read Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan, or, if you want a more recent example, Pratchett’s The Shepherd’s Crown. And, though I’m not really a devotee of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, he does, I think, make good use of his prologues to show the bigger picture, the story behind the stories lived by his viewpoint characters.

And yes, I like prologues and, liking them, I write them. Here’s the prologue from The Crooked Path. It’s not a necessary part of the story but it is a necessary part of the book:

Stories link together, like beads upon a chain, like dancers joining hands to form the figures of the dance: there is never a real beginning, never a simple end. This story might have begun when a man stretched out his hand to take what was not his, and did not count the price. It might have begun when a sailor set out to cross an ocean none of his people had crossed before or else years later when his daughter looked upon a black-haired stranger and loved him. It might have begun at another time, in another place, when a musician was cast out by his own people because he had an ugly face, or perhaps it began far away in the west when a potter grew bored with his craft and sought for more to fill his life. All these are beads upon a chain, all these are chapters in a tale.


This is the moment of the autumn equinox. It falls in the evening, at the time when twilight thins into starlight. For a moment light is balanced with darkness across the face of the earth. Only a moment, a sliver of time: time enough to sing a lovesong, time enough to drink a health in friendship, time enough to light a fire. All these can change the world if they are done at the right time, in the right place. All these have been done or will be done: you shall judge for yourself if the times and the places were the right ones.

One time, diverse places: this is what is happening across the world. Somewhere, the wind blows from the sea through an empty window into a room in a black keep upon a rocky shore. The walls are hung with tapestries that billow gently in the wind. Then the deepest of the shifting shadows of that room clot into a man. Naked, he looks from the window at the land and sea whilst the starlight settles on his hair.

Far away, the shadows of this same evening fall across a girl seated by a pool. She is a little more than a child, a little less than a woman. For now she is safe within a walled garden in a white city, counting out red rowan berries (…he loves me, he loves me not…) that have fallen all about her on the mossy stone. Elsewhere in that city, an old man surrounded by old books finds a passage he has not read before and lights a lamp to drive back the dark around him.

At this moment in a western land, a potter sits before his wheel, blind to all but the cold clay taking form beneath his hands as he croons a wordless song of creation and remakes a little bit of the world. And the last to tell of is a twisted dwarf, a beggar with a piebald face who leans his back against a milestone and plays a wooden pipe though there is none to hear him. But, at the balance of the equinox, he holds his finger up to feel the wind change in its course and, weary, goes his way along a road he had not thought to take again.

But, the other side of time, the dancers whirl and swirl to the music of the stars and sea, singing the song of the wind upon the water. Pale-faced, dark-eyed, with their hair streaming around them like smoke upon the wind, they trace their patterns on the empty land and their dance has no beginning and no end.

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These are the margins. A (possible) pantoum.

I’ve not tried a pantoum before. It’s another form where lines are repeated, changing their places – and their meaning too, if the versifier is clever enough – between stanzas. There seems to be some freedom with the structure of the final stanza: I’ve taken advantage of this.

Look around. These are the margins:
End of the day, edge of the world,
The moment between ebb and flow
When the tide pauses and is still.

End of the day, edge of the world.
Take a breath. Remember this
When the tide pauses and is still:
Wingbeats, the curlew’s twofold call.

Take a breath. Remember this:
The sharpness of marram against the light;
Wingbeats; the curlew’s twofold cry,
Notes descending in the grey evening.

The sharpness of marram against the light.
Wing beats. Heart beats. Remember
Notes descending in the grey evening,
The moment between ebb and flow.

Posted in pantoum, verse | Tagged , | 3 Comments