YOFR: Book You were Excited to Buy but Haven’t Read Yet

Well, this category for my Year of Fun Reading Challenge had quite a few options for me! My Kindle and bookshelves are groaning with books I have bought with great excitement but haven’t read yet. Good thing I have decided to only review speculative fiction books for this challenge, or I would be in real trouble.

In looking through my To Be Read pile, I found A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic, Book 1), by V.E. Schwab, and immediately knew this was the one.

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Love this cover! 

 

For one thing, it takes place in London, one of my favourite cities in the world. But it’s not quite the London we know. In this world, there are four Londons, Red, Grey, White, and Black. Grey London is “our” London, where most people are unaware of the existence of the others, or that magic is even possible.The book is set in the reign of mad George III, adding historical details to this rich fantasy, which also pulled it to the top of my list of books I haven’t read yet. Historical fantasy? Set in London? I’m in!

Grey London is dirty and boring, lacking hardly any magic. Red London is called Arnes by the people there, ruled by the Maresh Dynasty, a place where magic is commonplace and revered. White London is a dangerous place, ruled by a succession of kings and queens who murder their way to the top. People here fight to control magic, and the magic fights back, draining the city of colour and life. Black London is cut off from all the other worlds, for their safety, for something terrible happened there once, and to open the locked door that leads there will bring that terror to the rest of the worlds.

Kell, the main character, was raised in Red London, and is an Antari – a magician with the rare ability to travel between all the worlds. Kell is an adopted son of the royal family and due to his ability to travel between the various worlds he is an ambassador, carrying correspondence between the three kingdoms.

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It always amazes me the talented people who do fan art for books they read. This is an image of Kell, done by Londei on DeviantArt. Note his black eye, which marks him as an Antari. I love that detail in the book as I have two different coloured eyes…maybe I’ve got some magic, too? 

He also plays a dangerous game as a smuggler, bringing magical artifacts and other items between the Londons, and it is this activity that brings him into danger when he accepts a commission from a stranger to deliver a letter, and discovers she has given him a powerful magical stone instead, an artifact from Black London that he must return to that closed world or bring disaster to the others.

This brings him into conflict with Holland, an Antari from White London who serves that Kingdom; his adopted Royal family, who both respect and fear Kell for his rare ability to Travel; the evil and sadistic King and Queen of White London, twins who have a secret of their own that will bring disaster to Kell and those he love; and finally, to Delilah (Lila) Bard, a cut-purse in Grey London who steals the stone but also saves Kell’s life.

I loved the world-building in this book. The distinctions between the worlds are clear, and the descriptions of them fascinating. The characters are interesting and complex. Lila veers into cookie-cutter “badass girl” territory but there’s more to her than that, and I particularly enjoyed seeing how the relationship between her and Kell grows and changes throughout the book.

Schwab is a good writer. The first paragraph of the book immediately pulled me in:

Kell wore a very peculiar coat.

It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.

The first thing he did whenever he stepped out of one London and into another was take off the coat and turn it inside out once or twice (or even three times) until he found the side he needed. Not all of them were fashionable, but they each served a purpose. There were ones that blended in and ones that stood out, and one that served no purpose but of which he was just particularly fond.

I admire this beginning, and not only because it’s intriguing. Notice how it also tells you several things about this book and about the main character, all in a few words. There’s magic (cool!), travelling between Londons (? what? what’s that?), and a main character who obviously has a need to blend in at times and stand out at others (hmm, now what’s that about?). And, perhaps he is a little bit vain, or at least aware of his appearance, as indicated by that last phrase.

There’s a lot to learn here about how to tweak interest and keep your reader turning the pages, no?

This is an adult historical fantasy, and that made me happy! I have written before about my general dislike of young adult books, so it was great to have a book that was firmly in the adult camp (although I do see it described as YA in places). The one quibble I would have with the book is that I wished it was longer, and that Schwab would have taken a little more time in showing us the worlds and deepening the characters. I would have liked to have spent more time there! This has the feel of a Young Adult book, however, in terms of length and in how we don’t get to linger too long in any one place in the plot. But the subject matter is quite dark at times, and thankfully there is no teenage girl having adult sexual relationships with older men or warrior-chicks in the midst of a love triangle in this book. Phew.

Thankfully this is the first book of the trilogy. We get a good introduction to the characters and to the worlds, the story moves along nicely and leaves us wanting more. I will definitely be checking in with Kell and Lila to see how this all turns out in the other two books, A Gathering of Shadows and A Conjuring of Light.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars. This would be a 5 star rating from me if Schwab would have developed this a little more and made it just a bit more meaty. But on the whole, this was a great read.

 

 

 

 

 

Fiction Feature: Two Sides, Pt. II

Last week I shared Part I of this story. If you missed it, please start there! Here’s Part II…hope you like it!


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Two Sides, Part II

By L.A. Smith

I tossed and turned, thinking through my options, but by morning my decision was made. I had to move fast, before the Jack could snare any more. It was up to me to stop him. Tariq wanted to help me, but he had no idea what he was up against. Taliban or no, the Jack was a bird of a different stripe. He would tear the innkeeper to pieces if he stood in his way.

It would have to be a fight. I would have to challenge him in a duel, and to the victor belonged the spoils.

I checked my computer first thing. I had sent out a couple of messages last night, to other Watchers, asking some questions, looking for some support. But when I tried to log into my mail, it didn’t work. Nor could I access the internet. Service was down.

We are in this ’til the end. Together. Jacks lied as easily as breathing, but something about those words wouldn’t let me go. Something bad is coming.  I felt it too, deep in my bones.

My cell phone was dead, so I grabbed at the landline but it had no dial tone. I strode to the window and pulled aside my curtains, looking into the rain-lashed day.

It was blowing pretty hard, leaves and branches scattered on the streets. An orange light flashed down the road, and I craned my head to see.

Telephone company truck.

The storm had taken down our phone service, and had screwed up our Internet connection too, it seemed.

I had no doubt that if I tried to take my car and drive out of town, a road would be blocked, washed out by the rain, or my car wouldn’t start. Something would happen to prevent me from leaving.

I took a deep breath, letting the curtain fall.

#

Later that day, I stood by the door to the Lantern, composing myself. I had spent some time going around to the people I had already talked to, and some more that I hadn’t. Good ol’ Bob at the Thrift Store, he had done as I had asked, warned his friends against the Jack. He was pretty dismissive of the movie talk that had sprung up overnight, not being one to be dazzled by bright lights.

But just in case, I had used a little sparkle of my own, one that he could not help be dazzled by.

This was desperate times. If I lost the coming fight, the Jack would still be here, with no one to stop him. I’ve seen what happens to a town when a Jack wins. I didn’t want that to happen here.

So I warned as many as I could, reinforcing my words with a little sparkle, trying to turn back some of those the Jack had gathered under his wings. It worked pretty good, actually, and so I was feeling a little more confident as I stood by the door, getting ready for the end game.

He would be out of here by midnight, I resolved. I had cut his influence. Now I just had to   best him in the fight that was coming. I clenched my fists, took a deep breath, and pushed the door open.

The Jack looked straight at me as soon as the door opened, his eyes springing to mine like he had been waiting for me. He looked sick, greyer than he had been yesterday, the lines on his face etched deeper. He nodded at me and hacked into his handkerchief.

I pushed through the crowd that flocked around him. ”I’ll meet you at the Trench in an hour,” I said. “I have something to show you.”

Something sparked in his eye, and a smile spread on his face.

My friends were looking at me with gaping mouths, and again I was reminded of chicks waiting for their next worm.

“Oh, aye,” he said, and even though the music was pounding, I could hear him as clearly as if we were the only two there. “In an hour.”

#

The Trench was an odd thing. It was a scar in the earth, an opening to unknown depths. About 400 feet long and no one knew exactly how deep. In some spots geologists had measured over 8,000 feet down, but their readings always went a little wonky, and so the jury was out on it.

Needless to say, you couldn’t just walk up to the thing, there was too much of a risk that someone could fall in. An enclosure ran around it, with a gate. A building stood nearby where you could buy tickets, along with a gift shop, and a walkway going over and around part of it which had a self-guided tour.

It may seem odd that I had asked the Jack to meet me there, as it was a popular spot with tourists and locals alike. But that wasn’t where I was. That Trench wasn’t the only one in town. There was another one, that only the locals knew about, about a mile from the big one. A smaller scar, about 30 foot long, but just as deep, as far as we knew. It was on private land, and not easily accessible.

Not a problem for me, though because that land had been my Gramma’s. It belonged to my cousin, now, but I didn’t stop in for a visit. This meeting was just for the Birdman and me.

I had no worries that he would go to the other Trench. He would know where to go, where I was. That’s just the way it was, between Jacks and Watchers.

And in the meantime, the others, who had heard my challenge, would go to the other one, for no matter that the Jack would dissuade them, slip away unseen, his hold over them was such that they would follow.  Some of them would figure it out, when they got there and we weren’t there, and head over to the right place. But by that time, it would all be over. One way or another. I would make sure of that.

So at the appointed time I was waiting, mentally assessing possible scenarios for the upcoming fight, looking over the landscape, rehearsing strategy.

This Trench was in a clearing in the woods in the back of the property, at the top of a small rise, a crack in the earth like a crack at the top of a loaf of bread. I was waiting at the bottom of the rise, and I saw the blue jacket coming a ways off, even though the day was waning and the shadows starting to lengthen.

The rain had stopped, but everything was drippy and soggy, and it was cold.

He approached, hacking and sputtering as he came, and I thought I saw him weave unsteadily on his feet.

I frowned. He couldn’t be drunk. The Jacks aren’t affected by alcohol. If they get drunk on anything, it was on the misery and chaos they caused in people’s lives.

He came to a halt in front of me, panting heavily, coughing wetly again.

“Sick, are you?”

He smiled, faintly. “Never mind that,” he said, waving my words away. “I’ll do just fine.”

“What’s this about?” I said, abruptly, curiosity besting my resolve to be quick. “You’re needling me into a fight you can’t win. That’s unlike your kind.”

He barked a laugh, which turned into a wheezing cough. He bent over, hacking and gasping, and as he did, he staggered. Even though I should have known better, I took a step forward, instinctively putting out a hand to steady him.

And he came at me, fast. He was already bent down, low, and he propelled himself forward, grasping my outstretched arm and using my momentum against me to pull me towards him.

His head rammed into my gut like a sledgehammer, and the wind was knocked out of me.

But my training held me in good stead. My reflexes were pretty fast, and I managed to slip away from his grappling hands, staggering a few steps away and giving myself a couple of seconds to get my lungs working again.

Even so, it could have gone bad for me except for the Jack’s weakened condition. The exertion had caused him to cough again, and he was bent over, wheezing just about as bad as me.

I recovered a split second before him. No more Mr. Nice Guy. I darted forward, and as he lifted his head to get his bearings my uppercut caught him squarely under the chin.

I had put everything I had in it, and it would have dropped most men. But this was a Jack, and even debilitated by whatever mystery sickness had gripped him, he was made of pretty strong stuff.

It rocked him, alright, but he managed to stay upright. I didn’t give him any time to recover. I was on him hard, got a couple more punches in before he got his hands up.

The next thing I knew I was staggering back, reeling from a powerful right hook. I felt my eye swelling and cursed my luck.

But it was the only sound blow he landed, as it turned out.

As fights go, it was pretty quick. The sickness that had laid him low had taken away most of his strength. But even so…it was odd. I felt like he was holding something back.

But, whatever. I would take any advantage I had. I soon knocked him down, and paused for a moment as I crouched over him, my fist cocked. I had him, and he knew it. I could see the acceptance in his eye, and my blood surged in triumph.

I lowered my fist. He would surrender to me, and leave, and that would be that.

But he grimaced.  “Finish it, Watcher. Do it. Y’know ye want to.”

The thought had crossed my mind, I admit it. It was the reason I had chosen this spot. I could throw him down the Trench and no one would ever know. But that was going to be the last resort, if I couldn’t best him any other way.

I had beaten him fairly. I wouldn’t kill him now, in cold blood, so to speak. It wasn’t the way I worked.

He saw my hesitation. “I’ll come back, and collect them again. It’s too much fun to be had here, stealing them from right under yer nose. Ye ha’ no idea, what I’ve learned already. The secrets yer friends carry, it’s like to turn yer stomach, Watcher.”

“Enough,” I said, shoving myself upright. “I’ve won. Time for you to go.”

He clambered wearily to his feet, hacking once or twice. He wiped the spittle off of his chin, his beady eyes glittering with malevolence as he eyed me. “Not yet, Watcher. Yer not quite ready, me thinks.”

Ready? I didn’t have time to puzzle it out, because he came at me again, quicker than a snake striking.

It took me by surprise, so I was a split second too long in my sidestep away from him. He clipped me, spinning me around, and then he was on me, and it was different this time. This time he was giving me everything he had, nothing barred.

I did the best I could, knew that if I could hang on long enough this blaze of effort would wear him out. But it was too much. He was in close, punching, twisting, wrestling me, and I laid a few blows on him, but glancing ones, only.

He was strong, and quick, and had fought many more times than me, even with all my practice bouts. I held my own for a few moments, but soon I was on the ground, the Jack growling as he wrapped his hands around my throat and began to squeeze.

In panicked desperation I heaved up, ripping and tearing at his face.

And it worked. His grip around my throat slackened, for just a second, but it was the second I needed. I tore his hands away, and pushed him off me.

My momentum kept me going, and I had no thought now, for mercy. He had shown me none. He was scrabbling away, but I leapt on him, and our positions were reversed.

My hands around his throat, my guttural roar loud as I squeezed.

Everything fled from me except for the fight to survive. Rage filled me, mixed with disgust for this creature and his ilk; my strength renewed by the memory of the friends I had lost to the Jacks before and fear for the friends here already caught in his snare.

He was heaving under me, but he was getting weaker, I could feel it, and pressed harder, triumph surging.

“Stop this! Chris! STOP!”

The voice was loud in my ear, the shock of it like a cold dash of water in my face, and it loosened my grip.

It was Tariq, who shoved me off the Jack. I sprawled inelegantly beside the Birdman, who was heaving and hacking in great wheezing breaths.  “Not this way, Chris, you must not!”

“What the hell–” I sputtered, scrambling up and pushing Tariq aside. It was his turn to go sprawling. I grabbed the Jack by the collar, hoisting him up, intending to smash his head against the hard ground.

He grabbed at my arm, a twisted grin blooming on his face. “Secrets,” he whispered, and choked and sputtered again, “I know them all—“

But I was foiled again by the barkeep, who leapt to his feet. “Christian!” he roared.

I tell you, I felt that, right in the heart of me, my name resonating there like the clanging of a bell, and  I dropped the Jack out of my suddenly numb hands,  falling to my knees beside him.

A memory opened up: my Gramma’s voice firm as she prayed for me. Lord, bless this boy, who bears your name and does your work, in his hour of trial and time of testing. 

I was young, maybe 5 or 6, and we sat on the porch of her house, looking out towards this very spot, although the Trench itself was hidden by a line of trees. I was impatient, thinking only of the cookies she was baking for me, that smelled so good.

For a split second, I was there, seeing my Gramma, her white hair around her like a halo, wishing she would stop talking and get me a cookie.

Then I was back, the Jack howling and twisting, and Tariq, stern and resolute with his hand stretched towards me.

“What—“ I croaked, disoriented. None of this made sense.

“Look,” Tariq said, gesturing at the Jack.

His howls, though weaker now, still rent the air. He twisted and bucked, but he seemed to be unaware of me, his eyes rolling in his head. Something was terribly wrong with him.

Suddenly his eyes righted, focussed on mine again. “Do it, fool,” he rasped, his voice a low snarl. “I want you to do—” A fit overtook him again, and he went rigid, for a moment.

It would have been easy to finish him off. He was helpless, caught in the grip of whatever illness had overcome him.

But the blood lust had left me, and I felt nothing but pity and horror as I watched him shake and gnash his teeth, howl in one last unearthly screech, and then, in a great shudder, fall still.

He was dead.

We were both frozen there for a moment, the Jack and I, until Tariq squatted down on his heels beside us, and I tore my gaze away from the Jack. “How–?” My tongue stalled, tripped up against all the questions I had.

He regarded me solemnly, and I had to resist the urge to squirm under that measured gaze. “Christian,” he said, shaking his head. Again, I felt that chiming resonance within me as he said my name, muted this time. “You are a Watcher, but you do not see.”

Sudden fear seized me. Was he a Jack?  I pushed the fear aside. It couldn’t be. They had one name, only. And Tariq wasn’t it.

But who is he? I wanted to interrogate him, to find out what was going on, to find out exactly how much he knew, and how he knew it. But the words died in my mouth in the face of his quiet regard. “I don’t understand,” I managed.

A faint smile crossed his face. “Ah. At last you show some wisdom.” He gestured at the Jack again, lying between us.”Look at him.”

The command in his voice was such that my head snapped down without hesitation. The Birdman was perfectly still, absolutely dead. My eyes roved over him, but I saw nothing that jumped out at me.

I looked back at Tariq. “What killed him?”

“His time was over. Is that not so, for all men?”

“But he was sick, or something. I’ve never seen a Jack—“ I broke off.

“Look at him,” he said, again.

Prodded by a sudden impulse, I reached towards the body, rolling it towards me. The head lolled limply, his hair caught in a sudden gust, lifting off his face.

Shock went through me like a bolt of lightning, and I dropped him as if burned, scrabbling to my feet. There, behind his right ear, was a small birthmark, in the shape of a star.

A mark identical to my own.

Tariq rose to his feet smoothly. “Now you see.”

And suddenly, I did. I had always wondered where the Jacks came from, who I was, what this strange dance we were engaged in meant. With a slow shudder of horror I saw the truth. “He knew he was dying,” I whispered, and Tariq nodded. “And he wanted to somehow change me—“

Tariq shook his head, sharply. “Don’t be foolish. He was only prodding you down the path you were eager to go.”

“What are you talking about? I don’t want to be a Jack—“ But then my mouth snapped shut as memories of my day rushed back. I had gone around to my friends, to people I loved, and had used my influence on them, sparkling  at them to quiet any questions they had about why I was so insistent on them staying away from the Jack. I had seen their acquiescence, felt it, smugly satisfied in my success. They had been wrapped around my little finger, snared just as securely as a Jack snared his victims.

And then what? I had come out here to run the Jack out of town, or I had tried to tell myself that, but in the face of Tariq’s unwavering gaze I had to admit to myself that really, I had come here to kill him. To take my revenge, to toss him in the Trench—

I staggered, a wave of dizziness washing over me. “I would be like him.” I gasped, backing away in horror.

“Yes,” he said, quietly, and that word pressed in on me so hard I almost fell to my knees again.

“And if I had done it, if I had killed him…” I couldn’t finish.

”You would have risen from his death, tossed his body back to the depths, and had taken his place as a Jack, your name erased, your legacy turned to his purpose. And you would have done it eagerly.”

I could see it as he spoke; see me finishing the deed, see me striding away from here, whistling, not a care in the world, my corruption following me like a dark shadow.

And but for Tariq, I would have done it. “Why are you here?”

Something flashed through his eyes, a burnished flame, and then he smiled, and shrugged. “You asked for my help, remember?” His eyes caught mine, his gaze serene, and the breath caught in my throat.

I had a million other questions, but I couldn’t get them out as he turned, walking away rapidly.

The clouds were beginning to part, the death of the Jack bringing the usual summer sun back. Tariq had almost reached the trees when a sudden spear of sunlight stabbed the ground in front of him, and he walked through it and into the trees.

Or maybe he disappeared into that light. It was hard to tell, from where I was standing.

I looked down at the Jack, at one of my own, who had nearly succeeded in capturing me in the same darkness that had enveloped him, and shook my head.

With some effort, I dragged him to the top of the rise, and panting, rolled him into the black rift at the top.

I listened for a long time, but I did not hear anything from the depths.

Finally I stood, wearily, and made my way down the rise, heading for the trees. I was halfway there when my friends appeared. George, and Jim, and luckless Ed.

They approached me, worry on their faces, and congregated around.

“Holy cow, Chris, what happened to you?” Jim said, whistling as he looked at my eye, the bruises on my face. “Where’s that guy?”

I shrugged. “Gone.” I grinned then, feeling light as a feather. “We had a little disagreement.”

George frowned. “You chased him off?” He let out a breath, and I could almost see the Jack’s spell dropping off him. “Ya know, he was a bit creepy. I bet he wasn’t going to make a movie after all. I heard he was a con man. You likely did us a favour.”

He clapped my shoulder, the rest crowding close, eager to tell me what they really thought of him.

Just like chicks around their mama, looking for a worm.

I grimaced. “Come on, fellas, Never mind. Look, I’m tired. Been a rough day. Let’s go to the Lantern, shoot some pool. Waddya say?”

They grinned, and nodded, and I hadn’t used any sparkle on them at all.


Want more original fiction? Here’s the links to my other stories up on the blog:

Two Sides, Pt. 1

Chasing the Prize

More

Life for Life

Dust 

A Delicious Irony

“Red”

This Strange Thing Called Fear

 

 

Fiction Feature: Two Sides, Pt. 1

I’m trying to be more intentional about sharing my own original fiction here on the blog.  This story is one of my personal favourites, but it’s too long to share in one post. So, I’ve decided to give it to you in two parts. Part II will come next week. I hope you like it…all feedback welcome!


 

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Two Sides (Pt. 1)

I knew a Birdman would turn up eventually, but it was still a shock when I found one at the Lantern.

Tariq, the barkeep, caught my eye when I entered and nodded towards the table where my friends were sitting. I looked over and the breath caught in my chest.

Jim, George, and luckless Ed, they were all there, and one of those creatures was with them. To their eyes he would seem an ordinary person, but I knew better.

His blue coat was faded and torn, lapels shiny with use. Despite his down-and-out appearance, he sat like an eagle among the chicks, claws ready to rend and tear. His eyes met mine, and I saw laughter in them. Not fresh, clean laughter. More like the throaty chuckle of a raven on the roof.

The sight of him snapped all the tiredness out of me, the shock of it quickly turning to anger. It had been four years since I encountered one, in a town far from here. My faint hope that I had seen the last of them evaporated.

Jim saw me, and his face split in a grin.”Hey, Chris, c’mon over. Got someone you oughta meet!”

Steeling myself, I sat down at the table.

“This here’s Jack. He’s new in town, just came today.” Jim had been at the liquor long enough for his limbs to be loose, his smile goofy.

He needn’t have bothered with the introduction, for the Birdmen were all named Jack. This one had black hair flecked with grey, a five o’clock shadow darkening his chin. The picture of a scruffy, middle-aged down and outer.

Which was odd. Normally they didn’t look a day over thirty.

He put his hand out across the table.”Pleased to meet ye,” he said, a friendly smile stretched on his face.

I nodded back, but there was no way I’d take his hand.  I’d seen men snared by a Birdman by just one touch. Doubt it could happen to me, but I wasn’t taking any chances. “Likewise.”

His hand hung there a moment, and then he drew it back, that smile easy on his face.

George looked embarrassed at my apparent lack of manners. “You had a bad day today, Chris?”

I just shrugged. He couldn’t know I was being far more polite than I should be. I should be kicking that jack-a-daw’s head in, so I figure my restraint was pretty good manners.

The waitress appeared, thumping a pint of my favourite brew down in front of me.

I looked up at her, to say thanks, but she only had eyes for the Jack. She smiled at him, a dimple flashing, never mind that she was fifty if she was a day. “Any more for you?”

His eyes twinkled as he hoisted his still-full mug.”Nothin’ more for now, lady-luck.”

She just about giggled, I swear. “Well, just let me know, will ya?”

He’d snared her, alright. And as I glanced at the men around the table, saw the way their eyes shifted to that Jack, drawn like iron to a magnet, my anger deepened. Not just Linda had been caught.

That’s what the Birdmen do. They draw people into their traps, and they take. They go through their lives and poke, peck, and steal, uncovering all the garbage, leaving it strewn and stinking behind them once they’d had all the fun they wanted.

Just like a crow through the dump, my gramma used to say. But not nearly as loud. It’s why I called them the Birdmen.

Gramma had the gift of seeing them for what they were, and she knew right away that I did, too. It was the birthmark that gave it away, the small dark shadow etched on my skin just under my right ear. Hardly noticeable, except to those who know what to look for. A mark shaped like a star.

Gramma taught me all she knew about them. It was her that had named me, encouraging my mom to lay on me the name of Christian, after her father.

A good, strong name, she told me, once I got old enough. It will help. The Jacks are sensitive to that kind of thing. 

When I see a Birdman my insides give a bit of a quiver, and I feel cold and hot all at once. Minor imps, Gramma used to call them. Those words are too cuddly. Nothing minor about the damage they cause, the lives they ruin. And nothing impish about the way they go about it.

They call us the Watchers, and can spot us just as easily as we spot them. Makes for awkward situations, sometimes. Like now, sitting across from one with my friends all around, oblivious.

“And you are—?” Jack turned his beady eyes back on me.

I smiled back, just as easy as he had smiled at me. “Christian.” I enjoyed the slight twitch of his shoulders on hearing my name. “My friends call me Chris,” I added, before he could comment.

He twitched again, with a cold flash in his eyes that no one but me saw. He got the message, though. The Birdmen are sensitive about names. Gram thought that it was because they all had the same name. And so they had developed elaborate and arcane rules about names, ways to control and manipulate someone else by understanding what their name meant.

But there were some names that were immune to their charmings.  Names like mine.

“Unusual name, these days,” Birdman said.

I raised an eyebrow. “Named after my great-grandpa,” I said, and took a small sip of my beer.  “How ’bout you, Jack?  Who you named after?”

I couldn’t help it. They think they are so smart, the way they sneak in the shadows, tangle up anything that’s good. Lord it over all those poor people who don’t even know what happened to them, once they’re gone. Don’t even remember them, for the most part, except in their nightmares.

Oh yeah. If I get a chance to get under a Birdman’s skin, I take it.

His eyes darted fury at me. “Not sure,” he said, smoothly, and tried on a smile again. “My daddy never tol’ me much about my family. It was just him an’ me, and he’s gone now.”

Stricken looks flashed around my friends, sympathy for that cuckoo. It just about made me sick.

I wanted to needle him some more, but as I glanced around the table, I  relaxed my clenched fists.The Jack had already caught them neatly in his claws. From now on, until he had his fun and left, all of these guys would want nothing more but to please him.

If I pushed him too hard, he would take it out on them.

“Sorry to hear that,” I said. There was no sorry in my voice, not at all, but my friends relaxed.

“Sorry,” Jim mumbled from beside me, his hang-dog eyes looking even more mournful as he looked at the Jack.

“Yeah, man, sucks,” George said, pulling deeply on his beer.

“These things happen,” Jack said, lightly. He slapped the table then, jovial. “Well now, friends, it’s been real convivial gettin’ to know ye. I was a-gonna move on from here tonight, try my luck down the road, but I think maybe I’ll stay awhile. What ye think, then, boyos?”

And as they all chorused their assent, piping around the table like hungry chicks at their mama, the Jack just sat and smirked, his beady black eyes hard on mine.

#

I tossed and turned that night. At 2 AM I gave up, heading for the kitchen, and was stopped by a sharp knock on the door. The cold curdle in the pit of my stomach told me who it was.

I clenched my fist, and turned to the door. Despite my revulsion, I was curious.  Usually the Jacks wanted nothing to do with us Watchers. Like I said, they preferred to operate in the shadows, in secret.

“Waddya want?” I asked, my voice low.

“Let me in. Let’s talk.”

I snorted. “Come on. Let’s not waste time. Tell me what you want, or leave.”

Silence fell, profound and deep, and then he cleared his throat, coughed once. “Neutral ground, boyo? Across the street, in that old park?”

I almost assented, but fortunately my brain kicked into gear before I opened my mouth. Obeying a Jack gave them power over you. It’s one of the ways they did their dirty work.

“Nice try.” I said, “The pier. I’ll be there in half an hour.”

There was a low chuckle, another cough, and then I heard the creak in the floor as he walked away.

I hurried to the living room, pulled the curtains back a notch and scanned the street below.

A lone figure strode purposely away from the building, coat tails flapping, and disappeared into the night’s shadows as he turned the corner. What kind of trap was this?

I had no fear there would be any more of them. The Jacks were always alone. Just like Watchers. Only one of us to a place. Two sides to a coin, Gram told me. Heads or tails. Just make sure your side always lands up. 

Just the way it was, a mystery I had yet to understand. All I knew for sure was that when a Jack showed up, it was my job to deal with him. My mission from God, or that’s what Gramma used to say. But she had more faith than me.

It didn’t take me long to get ready. Pulled on my jeans, a hoodie, my black bomber jacket.  It was the middle of summer, but I knew it was going to get colder.  It was part of the effect they had on a place.

I stopped at the door and looked at the icon that was hanging there, the one Gram had sent me, when I met my first Jack. St. Michael the warrior angel. I touched it briefly.

“Look after me, won’t ya?”

The serenity in his eyes gave me some courage, and I quickly pulled open the door, shutting it softly behind me.

#

It got progressively cooler as I neared the lake, and soon I was zipping up my jacket.

Traffic was light, and what cars I saw were heading away from the water. You might think that was a coincidence, but I knew better. A Jack mesmerized people up close, but repelled them from a distance.

Who knows why. Cancer took my Gramma when I was 15. She didn’t have long enough to teach me everything I needed to know. We couldn’t live in the same city, she had moved soon after I was born. Our phone calls had been sporadic, letters few. Not for lack of trying, but the odd rules that governed us made it so that letters were lost, phone calls dropped, e-mail addresses broken.

But she got a call through to me, near the end. Don’t be afraid, she said, her voice weak. Your name will guard you, but be careful. The Jacks will destroy you if your courage is weak. You’ll fall sometimes, but you have to keep getting up. Don’t let them win. Please. 

I had to blink sudden tears from my eyes, remembering. I curled my hands into fists and kept walking.

Mist was rising from the lake as the cold presence of the Jack met the sun’s warmth radiating from the earth. The water was black. No moon, tonight. Clouds were blotting out the stars. Soon the summer’s heat would turn to rain.

The wooden pier stretched over the water. At night, lights affixed to one side in regular intervals lent it a festive air. But tonight, with their warm glow only dimly showing through the fog that shrouded the pier, it was no longer festive. Eerie would be a better word, made even more so as I glimpsed the black silhouette of the Jack, standing at the end of the pier, waiting.

#

He stood perfectly still as I approached, my steps echoing off the wooden pier. The  water lapped and sloshed against the pilings.

The fog rolled around me as I walked, caressing my skin with clammy fingers. I tried to keep my fears under control. Birdmen could  sense fear from a mile off, and would exploit it in a second.

It’s why most people would call me cocky, arrogant even. But I have my fears just like any man. I’ve just learned to bury them.

The Jack’s coat was unbuttoned. He didn’t feel the cold. “Evening,” he said, pleasant-like, nodding his head. His words vapourized into steam as he spoke.

“What do you want, Jack? Tell me, and be gone.”

His nostrils flared in distaste, not liking the sound of his name from my lips. “I come to warn ye, and to deliver a proposition.”

I eyed him, skeptical. “Warn me about what?”

“Something bad’s comin’,” he said. He paused for a moment, letting his words sink in. “But you and me, if we work together, we can stop it.”

I must admit, I wasn’t expecting that. “Stop what?”

The Birdman shook his head, emphatically. “I will not name it, and call it closer. I have told ye as much as I can. It’s coming, Watcher. And when it gets here, you will rue the day ye refused my help.”

I snorted. “Really. Cute.”

He stood there, glowering at me. Rain started spattering, the wind gusting against us. I was impatient now, wanting this meeting over.

I took one step closer. “I’ve got a warning and a proposition of my own, Jack. You and I can go through the dance our kind always does, and in the end you will leave this town, considerably worse for wear. Or, you can leave now. Tonight. Make your choice.”

My hands balled into fists, and I held myself ready.

But he just sneered at me. “I will not leave. I canna. And neither can you. We are in this until the end, together. And if ye will not help me, the both of us will be destroyed, and your precious town an’ all.” His eyes were black holes of wrath. “You know how to find me. Ye change yer mind, come to me. But I tell ye true, I will be running the show, then. No partnership.”

Despite my anger, a tendril of fear was uncurling in my belly. He seemed to believe what he was saying. And no matter that for the Jacks, lying was as natural as breathing, I was almost believing him, too.

Almost.

We eyed each other a moment longer, then I turned on my heel to leave. Though the rain, I heard him again, his voice raised. “Test me words, Watcher. Try to leave. And when you canna, come to me. We’ll talk again.”

I hunched my shoulders at the words and kept walking, into the worsening storm.

#

The next day dawned grey, wet, and cold. The radio was full of chatter about an unexpected summer squall that looked to be settling in for a few days. Typical. As long as the Jack was here, summer would be but a memory.

My boss called to say I wouldn’t be needed that day. Too wet to work on the house we were building. Fine by me. I had preparations to make.

To rid yourself of a Jack was a tricky business. So much of it depended on when you first discovered him. If he hadn’t been around long, his influence was much less, and it was easier. Their magic only went so deep. But if he had time to weave his way into a community, to establish friendships, to start to glean all the nuggets he wanted from people’s lives, well, it became much more difficult. Almost impossible, in fact.  Just depended on his experience, and the people themselves.

Physical force was a method of last resort, but sometimes that was all I had. There was a reason I did manual labour for a living, a reason I took boxing and martial arts training. I wanted to be ready.

Thing is, weapons were useless. Knife, gun, whatever, had no effect on a Jack. So if it came to it, it was a knock-down, drag-em-out fight, ’til someone surrendered. Killing was the last resort, even if it was possible. Gram said it was hard to kill a Jack. I hoped the same would be true of me, but I had yet to test either theory.

The easier way was to cut off his circle of influence. Get to the people he had started to charm, and better yet, the people he had yet to meet. If I could warn them about him, then he was out of luck.

Watchers had some help with this. Sparkle, I called it. I could turn on the charm myself, get people to listen. It was more than just personality, it was a little magic of my own.

Like my Gramma said, two sides to a coin.

I used it sparingly, for it came at a cost. It fed the arrogance I needed to win. Frightened me, if truth be told. Luckily us Watchers didn’t encounter the Jacks very often. One every few years was the norm. Good thing. It wore on me.

My town was small, around 7,000 people. Everything was close to everything else, no place too far to walk to. It meant that nowhere in my town was off limits to the Jack, and the thought brought a cold shiver to my gut.

I touched St. Mike again on the way out. I was going to need all the help I could get.

#

I started at Second Best, a Thrift store at the end of Main. The owner was a good friend of mine, and his store far enough away from the Lantern to have escaped the Jack’s interest, for now.

I told Ben the Birdman was a con man and a thief, and to show him the door when he came in. Ben listened carefully, and by the time I left I knew I had convinced him, and that he would warn others about the Jack, as well.

But the rest of the day was a draw. Mike at the Cafe had already met Jack yesterday, and was lost to him. Same result at the travel agent, and a few other places. But I had better luck at the burger joint, and the jewellery store, and at the pharmacy and the liquor store.

So I was feeling pretty good when I got to Happy Tots, the daycare at the opposite end of Main from Second Best. But soon as I brought up the Jack, Celia, the cute twenty-something that ran the place, screwed up her face in a frown.

“Why, I met him  this morning! Nice guy, he was. Real nice. He brought some apples for the kids, and everything! They just loved him!”

I tried to warn her, used a little sparkle, but she was having nothing of it. I left there with a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach, all my previous successes like ash in my mouth.

I had made a tactical error. I should have came here first. The kids had no chance against a Jack, and through them he would get the parents. Some of those parents I had already talked to, but I may as well have not bothered. My warning would dissolve against the eager endorsement of their kids.

The rain beat against me as I made my way back along Main, kicking myself for a fool. Before I knew I looked up and I was back at the Lantern.

Cars lined the street on both sides. My fists clenched. There was no point in my going in, none at all, but I was angry. I shoved the door open and stepped inside.

Tables were filled, the waitresses hustling. I saw him right away, at the same table as last night. My friends were all there, circled around him, and a couple strangers, besides.

I pushed my way through the crowds to the bar, ignoring their table.  It took a couple of minutes for Tariq to notice me, but when he did he hurried right over. “Chris, welcome! Sorry, I did not see you there.”

“No problem. It’s busy.” I couldn’t quite hide the bitterness in my voice. I nodded at Jack and my friends. “He been here all day?”

Tariq looked over, a frown crossing his face, and then looked back at me, and shrugged.”On and off. What can I get you?”

Interesting. The Birdman had been in the bar long enough that Tariq should be fawning at his feet. But there are a few people, other than Watchers, who are immune to the Jacks and their charm. It looked like Tariq was one of them. “Just a Coke tonight. Got some work to do later. I’ll go sit with the guys. Can you bring it over?”

”Jenna will bring it,” he said, with a small smile of apology, gesturing at the packed room. “I’m a little busy.” He hurried off, and I watched him go, wishing I could explore his aversion to the Jack, maybe use it to my advantage. I’d have to talk to him later.

“Chris! There you are!” Ed waved at me to join them, and with a sigh, I pushed myself away from the bar, ignoring the grinning Jack and nodding at the guys as I sat down.

Jim raised a mug at me. “Cheers, bud!” he said. “Bout time you showed up. You weren’t working in that crap today, were ya?”

I shook my head. “Nah. Had some other things to do, though.”

My eyes met the Birdman’s, briefly. He nodded at me, imperceptibly, raised his glass at me, and then hacked a cough.

“Ya know, this Jack here, he’s quite the guy,” George said, eagerly. “Tell ’em, Jack, what you’ve been thinkin’.”

The Jack coughed again, into a dirty handkerchief he pulled out of a pocket.”Well, now, yer friend here, I don’t think he’ll be interested,” he demurred, waving a hand.

“C’mon, Jack! Sure he will!”

“Alrighty. Y’see, I’ve got meself a wee business.” I could see the amusement in his eyes. He loved this, playing for an audience, the real story one only he and I understood.

“You don’t say,” I said. “And what kind of business would that be?”

“I make movies. Documentaries.”

“He’s gonna do a movie about our town!” Jim announced, all wide-eyed. “And he wants to interview all of us!”

My stomach curdled at the thought, but before I could comment, Jenna arrived with my Coke.

“Thanks,” I said, looking up at her. Cute girl, with long bouncy black hair. But she had no time for me. Her sapphire eyes were fixed firmly on the Birdman.

He flashed a smile at her. “Ah yes, Miss Jenna here is gonna be in my wee movie, aren’t ye, darlin’?”

Jenna flushed, and shrugged. “Maybe,” she said, but we all saw her “maybe” meant “yes”, and the table erupted into raucous laughter.

Someone called out for another drink, and Jenna reluctantly tore herself away from the Birdman’s gaze and hurried away.

“Ah, a beauty she is,” the Jack said. There were a few ribald comments from the men, and I grew sick of it, suddenly.

I took a swallow from my drink and then stood up, dropping some coins on the table.”Look, fellas, I gotta go.”

“Come on, Chris, don’t you wanna hear about the movie? Jack here says we can all be in it. It’s all about the Trench.”

The Trench, a unique geological feature just outside of town, was a deep fissure in the earth that fascinated spelunkers and geologists alike. Everyone had a theory about what caused it, from a long-ago earthquake to a UFO landing gone wrong. It put our little town on the map, so to speak.

There would be no lack of people eager to invite the Jack into their homes and yammer away into a camera about it. And once in their homes, the Birdman had them. Simple as that.

“I’m sure I’ll hear all about it,” I muttered, and turned on my heel, eager to leave.

No one called after me. I didn’t have to look back to know they would all be pressing around the table towards the Jack, my presence all but forgotten.

I yanked the door open, but before the door shut I heard the Jack coughing again.

It gave me pause. I had never known a Jack to be sick. They seemed above any mortal diseases. He must be faking it, for sympathy, or something. But they didn’t usually need to stoop to such lengths. Yet another thing about this particular Jack that was not quite right.

It was dark outside now, rain still falling. I squinted up at the clouds sourly, and strode around the back of the building, to take the short cut to my apartment.

Just as I passed the back door, it opened, and Tariq stepped out, the security light illuminating his face. “Please, I would have a word.”

I joined him under the shelter of the eaves, the rain dripping all around us, washing away the usual smells of dank garbage and urine that haunted the alley behind the Lantern.

“This man,” he said, distaste in his voice, his shoulders hunching up slightly. “This Jack.”

I eyed him carefully. He was immune, all right, and wary. And as much as I was glad to see it, it worried me. Jacks weren’t too kind to the ones who saw them for what they were.

“What about him?”

“I think you do not like him.”

“You think right,” I said. “He’s bad news.”

“You know him, then?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“I wish him away from here,” he said, suddenly vehement. “But the others, they are excited by this movie—“

“Look, Tariq, you are right to be worried. But just stay out of his way, okay? I’ve got a plan. I’ll deal with him. He’ll be gone soon.” I spoke with more confidence than I felt. The Birdman’s inroad into the daycare had shaken me quite a bit.

“Let me help.“

“No. It’s too dangerous. Just lay low, try to ignore him.”

He frowned up at me. “I am not a child, Christian.”

Resolve filled his face and I remembered that he had come here from Afghanistan, fleeing the Taliban. He was no stranger to evil men and what they could do.

I placed a hand on his shoulder. “I know. Look, I appreciate the offer. But you see how he easily he can get people wrapped around his little finger. And if you try to move against him, they will all turn on you. You can’t fight them all.”

His face was grim. “And you can?”

“No. There’s another way.” I paused, unsure how to explain. “Let me deal with him, please. He and I, we have some history. I know what I’m doing.”

“Do you?”

There was something in his eyes that stopped my quick answer, and the words died in my mouth.

Just then the door cracked open. It was Jenna, the waitress. “We need you, Boss. It’s crazy in there.”

“Yes, I am coming,” Tariq said, and she closed the door.

He turned back to me. “I will help,” he said, stubbornly. “This is too big for you, I think. That man, he is no man. It is a jinni, come to bedevil us. Your pride will destroy you if you are not careful.”

He turned and pulled open the door, and slipped inside to a burst of laughter and music that faded as the door shut.

END PART ONE


Part two coming next week! In the meantime, if you have missed my other original fiction here on the blog, here are the links: 

Chasing the Prize

More

Life for Life

Dust 

A Delicious Irony

“Red”

This Strange Thing Called Fear

 

Book Review: Fifteen Dogs, by André Alexis

My stalled Book Bingo challenge is not going very well. But while I am not exactly reading suggested books on the bingo card, it has spurred me to read more Canadian speculative fiction, which I suppose is the point. So not an entire fail.

This month my local book club is reading Fifteen Dogs, by André Alexis. We are reading it at my suggestion, as it was the winner for CBC’s annual contest, Canada Reads, and it sounded intriguing to me.

Fifteen Dogs is a speculative fiction novel that has a fairly basic, but interesting, premise. Two Greek gods, Apollo and Hermes, decide to grant fifteen dogs human consciousness to see if it will bring the dogs happiness or misery.

I wonder, said Hermes, what it would be like if animals had human intelligence. 

I wonder if they’d be as unhappy as humans, Apollo answered.

 Some humans are unhappy; others aren’t. Their intelligence is a difficult gift. 

 I’ll wager a year’s servitude, said Apollo, that animals – any animal you choose – would be even more unhappy than humans are if they had human intelligence. 

 An earth year? I’ll take that bet, said Hermes, but on condition that if, at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy, I win.

The fifteen dogs are chosen at random, they are ones at a nearby veterinarian’s clinic, and the story follows the exploits of the dogs as they begin to cope with having human consciousness.

I love dogs, and I love stories about dogs and stories that have dog narrators. The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein, is one of my favourite books. And while I knew that Fifteen Dogs was more likely to be an exploration of what it meant to be human as opposed to what it means to be a dog, I still had high hopes that it would be one that I would really enjoy.

Unfortunately, not so much. In fact, I can honestly say I only finished it because we were reading it for book club.

Unknown

To start with the positive, though, the writing in the book is excellent. The prose is lyrical, and he does a good job of pulling all the stories of the dogs together, without making it too confusing.  The concept is an intriguing one, but the execution of it just doesn’t work for me.

This is a very depressing book. Alexis focusses on the negative aspects of humanity and dogs both, and I don’t think he gets the dog interactions exactly right, either. He sets his pack up using the concept of alpha and submissive dogs, which, although a very popular way of looking at dog psychology and behaviour, is becoming more and more outdated.*

So, marrying the idea of pack theory with humanity’s predilection for murder, greed, cheating, and selfishness makes for a very gloomy read indeed. Yes, the book is also a meditation on language, poetry, status, and power. And there are good points to ponder in the book about all those. But I just couldn’t get past my heartaches for the poor dogs to really appreciate them.

[SPOIER ALERT}

There is a lot of death in this book. Most of the dogs don’t make it out of the first few chapters. And like those dogs, the remaining ones die horrible deaths, especially the last one, due to interference by the gods, as Zeus tries to make something right but ends up making it worse.

Just as I quibble with the author’s understanding of dog behaviour, I quibble with his understanding of humanity. I will not argue with him that humanity is flawed, and that people do terrible things to each other. One can’t look at the nightly news and not come out believing otherwise.

But that is not all we are. And in my opinion, this book, which supposedly asks a question about  what it means to be human, only gives us part of the answer.

My rating: two stars out of five. One star for the excellent writing, one for the concept.


*if you are interested, here are a couple of articles about this.

https://www.whole-dog-journal.com/issues/14_12/features/Alpha-Dogs_20416-1.html

https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/dog-behavior-and-training-dominance-alpha-and-pack-leadership-what-does-it-really-mean

 

Fiction Feature: Chasing the Prize

This year I am being more intentional about featuring some of my original short stories here on the blog. This week’s story was a fun one to write. After all, who doesn’t like writing (and reading) about dinosaurs?

Chasing the Prize

by L.A. Smith

Amazon_Manaus_forest

Photo by Phil Harris, on Wikicommons

Jayda scanned the sky, for the thousandth time.

“Where do you think Stewart is?” Doug peered behind them, a sudden wind whipping his coat around him. He snatched at it and hastily zippered it up as the rain began to fall.

Jayda shrugged. Her rivals who were chasing the prize held no interest to her. She would find it first. She had to.

A pterodactyl. Could it really be?

“We should find shelter.” Riao, their guide, spoke from the back of their boat, where he manned the motor.

“Not yet.”

“Come on, we’re going to get soaked!” Doug said.

“It won’t last long. Keep going. We’ll stop if it goes longer than an hour.” Jayda had no intention of stopping, but she wasn’t telling them that.

In her pocket she felt a small vibration, and she pulled out her phone, surprised. They should be out of cell phone range by now. She sheltered it from the downpour to read the text.

This is crazy. We should talk. It was from Bryan.

Anger flared. Just her luck that the last message she got from civilization would be from her estranged husband. Seemed a fitting end to this crappy week.

But maybe her luck would change soon.

•••

After two hours, with no signs of the rain letting up, Jayda was forced to admit defeat, and they pulled off at a small inlet off the main river. They set up their tent, stringing a tarp over it to help deflect the worst of the rain.

Jayda watched the rain sheet down, and Doug sat down beside her.

“Maybe it doesn’t fly in the rain.”

“Who knows. Maybe it prefers to fly in the rain. Not like anyone is an expert on pterodactyl behaviour nowadays.”

“True.” He peered at the river, looking back the way they had come. “No one has passed us, anyway.”

“No. But that thing could be anywhere. Knowing my luck Stewart might get the scoop, after all.” Anxiety flared at the thought, and she stuffed it down with an effort.

“Aw, come on. We’ll see it first. The million bucks is ours. I know it.”

Darkness fell, sudden and complete, like it did in the tropics. Howler monkeys hooted close by, and further away some other monkeys screeched. At least it sounded like monkeys.

In the brief blurry video that had stunned the world the pterodactyl hadn’t made a sound, but the tour boat survivors swore they had heard a deafening screech before it had appeared, knocking two of them into the water. They had disappeared without a trace into the murky Amazon.

Doug froze, listening. “Crap. This place is creepy.” He blew out a breath and got up. “We should get some sleep, get an early start tomorrow.”

Jayda didn’t comment, and Doug soon walked away, his footsteps swallowed up in the jungle noises of birds and monkeys and insects. Even at night, this place was loud.

She doubted she would sleep much. She was so close.

Her marriage had fallen apart, she had lost her job at the Tribune. The million dollar prize for the first verified footage of whatever the tourists had seen was part of the tug that drove her on, but the bigger part was the drive to succeed. She had been on a downward spiral for so long. This challenge felt like the right way to turn that around.

***

 “Here,” Raio said, gesturing at a narrow channel. “This is where they saw it.” His face was placid, but Jayda saw fear flash through his eyes.

She didn’t blame him. Her stomach was in knots, too, as he steered the boat into the channel, the trees thick around them. In some spots they blocked out the sky completely.

Jayda bit back her frustration. If she couldn’t get a clear picture, this was all for nothing.

Doug’s tuneless nervous whistle scraped along her nerves, but she ignored it. She needed him. With her pictures and his writing talent, and the fame of being the first to verify the stories, their book would be a best-seller.

That would show him. Bryan’s book had been a mediocre success, at best.

They had travelled an hour down the channel when a sudden loud screech split the air, seconds before the creature appeared. Crested head, huge leathery wings, and a wicked serrated beak. Flashing impressions only, as Jayda dived to the bottom of the boat to escape it as it swooped down over the boat.

The camera. The thing had disappeared, but the screech deafened them again and Jayda twisted, scrabbling for her camera, scanning the narrow patch of sky above.

There. It was coming back, an arrow aimed right at them. Jayda took the shots as it plummeted. It’s wicked beak snapped just over her head, and she hastily flattened herself to avoid the dangling hooked claws.

“Look!” Doug pointed at the trees, at a huge mass of vines and sticks wedged between two thick branches.

A head popped over the edge: the twin of the pterodactyl, only smaller. Jayda pointed and aimed, taking the picture. Got it. 

The adult completed it’s clumsy turn, aiming at them again.

“Go, go!” Doug yelled at the guide.

She got a couple more pictures as Raio fumbled with the rudder, steering them away and gearing the motor up in to high speed.

She caught a last glimpse of the thing as it flapped clumsily back on the nest and then the trees blocked the view.

The glow of their success carried Jayda down the river until her phone buzzed again, at the same spot as before.

Please. I love you.

Doug saw her scowl, and looked over her shoulder before she shoved the phone in her pocket.

“Maybe you should give the guy a chance.”

A dull ache filled her at the thought of the tangle she and Bryan had made of their marriage. He loved her? He should act like it.  She shook her head. “It’s impossible.”

Doug snorted. “Impossible? We just saw a freaking pterodactyl. I’d say you had better redefine impossible. God moves in mysterious ways, and all that.”

“Hah.”

Rain started to fall again, a peaceful splatter this time. Jayda hugged her chest, breathing in the rich scents of the rainforest, the noisy chatter of birds and monkeys punctuating their passage as they slipped down the river.

They were going to pick up some supplies, send the pictures off, and then head back, to see if they could get more. Get a jump on the scientists that were bound to flood into the area.

It would be awhile before they got home. A month, maybe. It would be complicated when she got back, trying to navigate the book deals, the interviews. Trying to figure out what to do about Bryan.

Maybe the time away would be what they needed for a restart.

She peered down at her camera, looking through the pictures, thrilling again at the sight of the strange, otherworldly creature. Mysterious ways.

She found herself smiling, sadness evaporating along with the rain, hope flaring for the first time in weeks.

Maybe Doug was right. Maybe anything was possible, after all.


You can find some more of my short stories at the following links:

More

Life for Life

Dust

A Delicious Irony

Red

This Strange Thing Called Fear

 

Featured photo: The First Draft, by mpclemens, on flickr

Year of Fun Reading: A Book About Books or Reading

June marks halfway through the year (!) and so I’m also halfway through my Year of Fun Reading Challenge. This month I was to read “a book about books or reading.” So in keeping with my take on this challenge, which is, as much as possible, to read books in each category that are speculative fiction, this month I read Ink and Bone: The Great Library #1, by Rachel Caine.

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One of the great sorrows in the world is that the great library compiled in Alexandria, Egypt, founded in 3 BC by Ptolemy I, the successor of Alexander the Great, was destroyed by fire either in 48 AD by Julius Caesar or sometime in the third century AD  by the Roman Emperor Aurelian. The remaining books (in the form of scrolls, of course) were moved to a secondary site called the Serapeum (a temple) that was destroyed either in the fourth century or the seventh century, depending on what narrative you believe. But no matter when it happened, at some point all the accumulated wisdom from centuries past that had been collected in the Great Library was lost, except for copies that had survived in other places. There is great speculation about what could have been housed there in its vast collection (some say up to half a million scrolls!) but no one knows for sure, as the index of the scrolls stored there was also destroyed along with the library.

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One artist’s conception of what the Great Library might have looked like. It was part of the Museum of Alexandria, which included rooms for the study of astronomy, anatomy, and even a zoo. It attracted the great teachers of the classic era, such as Euclid and Archimedes. Image from crystalinks.com

When I heard that the premise of Ink and Bone was of an alternate history where the Great Library had not been destroyed, I was immediately excited to read this book. It’s about books, and reading, so how could I go wrong?

The story opens in a sort of steam-punky London. The main character, seventeen-year-old Jess Brightwell, comes from a family of book smugglers, which steal originals of books and sell them to the highest bidders. This is necessary because the Great Library of Alexandria has grown to be the repository of all books, and ownership of original books is only possible for the very wealthy and privileged few.  Alchemy allows the Great Library to deliver copies of books to anyone, but not every book.

This is a fun take on the real history of the Library. It is said that as soon as any ship docked in Alexandria, they were searched, and any scrolls found on them were taken to the Great Library, where copies were made. The copies were delivered back to the ships and the Library kept the originals.

The books in this story are not papyri, but instead what is called “blanks”, which are very like an e-book. No one has the original paper books or parchment scrolls, except for the Library.

Jess is sent by his father as a sort of spy to the training school for students who wish to be employees of the Great Library. The Library is the enemy of the book smugglers, and so he wants his son to find out all he can about how the Library works and the various raids that might be coming up against book smugglers. Jess manages to pass the entrance exam and is sent to Alexandria, Egypt, the site of the Great Library, to begin his training. His fellow students come from around the world, and they all are in competition for the six spots that are open to them. They have to go through various tests set out for them by their exacting teacher and mentor, Wolfe, in order to keep advancing towards their goal.

This is a YA novel (drat, I wish I had known that before I started it!) and there are several elements in it familiar to others. You have students in a school (Harry Potter), competition against each other to gain what they desire (Hunger Games) and a slightly dystopian setting (like so very many of the YA speculative fiction novels these days).

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But although in general I am not a big fan of YA fiction, I will say I did enjoy this book for the most part. Jess is an interesting character, and although there is a romance in the book it’s not quite as annoying as I find many of the love story elements of other YA books which have a female protagonist. In fact it was refreshing to have a male protagonist for a change!

There are definite twists and turns to the plot, which kept it interesting, and the interaction between the students and seeing them come together into a united group by the end was enjoyable to read.

But what I like most about this book is the setting. The whole concept of the survival of the Great Library and translating that into a more modern-day setting was intriguing. The big questions that book asks about censorship, and the power of knowledge, and the value of free access to knowledge as opposed to only knowing what “they” want you to know, added some thought-provoking elements to an otherwise standard YA novel.

There are other books in this series, but I’m not sure I will read them (YA is just not my thing, as I explained here.) But this one was a fun ride with deeper themes than most, all about the importance of books and the lengths taken to preserve them.  I give kudos to the author for indulging my fantasy of having access to the Great Library of Alexandria, but seeing as the Library in the book is a sinister entity, perhaps the lesson is that getting what you want is not always a good thing!

My rating: Three stars

 

 

 

Fiction Feature: More

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Matt was just getting off the subway when he saw her. It was rush hour, the people jostling and frantic, ejecting from the car like so much human vomit. And that was just about how Matt felt at the end of the work week.

His briefcase snagged on the door, slowing him down, and he looked back, to see what had happened. But instead, his eyes lit on her, way past the surging crowd, almost swallowed up in the dark of the tunnel beyond.

She knelt with her hands caught in the fur of a shaggy dog’s neck, and it was something about the way that dog was looking at her that caught his eye, or maybe it was the way she was looking at it? Matt couldn’t explain the sensation that pricked at him with a thousand tiny fingers.

He froze, seeing her golden hair that shouldn’t be shining so in the darkness, wonder unfurling like a blossom, and then he was jostled, snapped back into the human stream. When he looked again, she was gone.

A split second of inattention, that’s all it took.

He glimpsed the dog, though, weaving through the crowds, heading out the exit with the rest.

The tingle faded. A harsh curse in his ear made him realize he was standing still, got him moving again.

He forgot her in the bustle of life, the wearisome numbness of work and deadlines and pressure, until three days later, when he saw her again.

The weekend this time, walking home from the grocery store with bags dangling from his hands, no more thought in his head but to get home, put his feet up, watch the game.

The setting sun bathed the city with its last luminescence, everything aglow with the fading of day.

And there she was, just ahead. He knew it from her hair, from the golden strands that held the fading light. She walked slowly, with measured grace, and with his first glimpse his pace quickened, like his body knew before his mind that he had to catch up.

But he couldn’t. The people on the sidewalk, families and hipsters and geeks, became obstacles that blocked and delayed and harried his steps.

Just before she faded into the crowd, she turned back and looked at him, right at him and through him, and he felt that tingle again, stronger and deeper than before; everything ripe with possibilities and charged with meaning.

He heard something, too; a song, bells? Faint, and chiming. Her eyes were the green of mossy woods, and he felt the weight of them, just for a second, and then she turned, and was gone.

A word wafted through his mind.

More.

He saw her again, two days later, and again, a week after that. Brief glimpses. It was driving him crazy. Especially because every time, he forgot about her right after, until his eyes snagged on her and it all came back, the ache of it, and then she would turn a corner, or the bus he was on would whiz past. Or, maddeningly, the elevator door closed in his face just as he glimpsed her walking by, her head turning to look at him.

That time, though, he clenched his fists and fixed her in his mind, and he held on to her for a few seconds. Then the elevator door opened, his boss walked in, and just like that she was gone from his mind as thoroughly as she had disappeared from his sight.

Later, he sat on his balcony in the warm summer night, listening to the sounds of the city murmur around him, a cold drink in his hand. He felt restless, unmoored, aching for something he couldn’t even define. Then he heard it, ghosting above the traffic and the sirens and the heat.

More.

He stood up, looking down, and saw that golden hair, saw her, standing below, looking up at him.

Everything shifted around him, that tingle pricking at him, and he shouted, desperate. “Wait!”

He looked at her in agony for a moment, knowing that as soon as he straightened up, ran down there, the reason for doing so would likely leave him the moment she left his sight. “Stay there! Please!”

He sucked in a breath and ran through his apartment, out the door and down the three flights, tearing the door open, holding her firmly in his mind – don’t forget, don’t forget – and when he burst out onto the sidewalk and found it empty, he could have wept.

Except – there –  she was walking around the corner and he followed, into the Park, under the trees, the muggy heat cooling there, the whizzing sounds of the cars fading into a low murmur, his heart pounding loud as she stopped under the spreading oak and turned back to him.

“So. Will you come?”

Matt stopped short. “I’m here.”

“Yes. Here. Will you come?”

“Where?”

She smiled as slow as the sun going down. “It cannot be undone.”

Matt felt the truth of it. A door was opening. Once he crossed, he couldn’t come back. “But where—“

“Not where. You will be here. The same, you’ll see. But not. A world within the world. Where the edges are different. Where your word is true.  Deeper danger and stronger joys. The stakes are higher.” Her head tilted. “Your choice. Come, or no.”

She stood serene, her hand out.

The song was filling him to the edges, softening his thundering heart, opening his shuttered eyes.

More.

Matt stepped forward, the door closing behind him, and took her hand.

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This Girl, by Fio Karr, on unsplash

 


Featured photo: The First Draft, by mpclemens, on flickr