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Fiction: The Break-In

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It was supposed to be a harmless teenage prank. Break into the abandoned church and nick something. He expected her to return with a rusty candlestick or rain-soaked hymnal. If she didn’t chicken out. He hadn’t expected her to creep out of the ruined abbey dragging a four-foot long sword behind her.
“Where’d you find that?” He really hadn’t expected her to stare at him, then raise the blade like it was weightless.
“I was chosen,” she said. Then her expression hardened. “And I can see what you truly are.”
“Oh,” he said, scrambling away from her. “Hell.”

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Hugh Likes Fiction: Witchmark

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Witchmark
Written by C. L. Polk
Published by Tor

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The Skinny: Polk’s debut novel is a perfectly crafted queer fantasy masterpiece.

Witchmark is a remarkable queer fantasy novel that I picked up almost on accident. It follows the story of Dr. Miles Singer, a psychiatrist (and secretly, a magician) in the country of Aeland. Aeland recently won a war with neighboring Laneer, but thousands of veterans are returning with unusual psycological trauma. When a dying man is brought in to the hospital by handsome stranger Tristan Hunter, Miles will join him to unravel these mysteries. But finding the truth will mean returning to his past, and risking a fate worse than death.
Polk’s story is an excellent puzzle box of a story, with an incredible Edwardian-inspired setting that is richly conceived but also elegantly told. There is a lot of world-building that is vitally important to the story, and Polk is deft at delivering it without bogging down the reader in fictional history. Her other really great triumph is the way she depicts the motivations of her characters. As a gay man myself, I can strongly relate to Miles and his sister Grace’s situation, and being at odds with your family but still loving them. This dynamic is really well represented, and it isn’t one I often see in queer fiction.
And yes, this book is very queer. It’s so queer that the magic system has top and bottom roles. But it is also very sweet. I loved Mile’s and Tristan’s relationship and the way it unfolded. The romantic elements are definitely safe for work, in my view. All of the naughty bits occur off of the page.
Witchmark is a stunning debut novel from C. L. Polk and I can’t wait to read the follow up due out in February. You can find it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or your local independent bookshop.

Fiction: Capturing Light

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“Where are the flowers?” I looked up from the painting.
“They’re on the table.” I said, gesturing to the bouquet.
“But you haven’t included them. And the vase is wrong. That looks like a perfume bottle!”
“I can’t draw what’s really there,”I said. “Have you ever heard the idea that taking a picture captures your soul?”
“What nonsense.”
“Inauspiciously worded wish. Now I can’t paint anything alive without capturing it.”
“That’s bullshi….”
I finished adding the tiny figure inside the jar. It was a fairly good likeness of him.
“See what I mean?” I asked, but he was gone.

Fiction: Her Monstrous Bridegroom

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1433730548_1df471bd29_o“I don’t know about the shroud,” Princess Audra said, glaring at her reflection in the glass. She reached up and fussed with the stiff, white embroidery. A bony hand slapped her on the wrist, as quick and sharp as a whip.
“It is a veil,” the matron corrected.”And it is traditional.” She had a habit of stressing that last word. Tradition. Everything had a tradition, everyone needed to follow the traditions, always remember the traditions. Tradition, tradition, tradition. The invaders had so bloody many of them, and she had been forced to learn them all, ending with the wedding, the most horrifying Tradition of all. “You only need to cover your face until the end of the ceremony.” The princess wanted to weep, but she refrained. She couldn’t cry in front of the matron. She had made it quite clear the consequences of that behavior soon after the invasion.
But it was a shroud, no matter what she called it. It was her death, the death of her people. When the strange invaders came with their machines and their armies, they hadn’t stood a chance against them. And it had been made quite clear that their continued existence was a sufferance. Their enslavement was a mercy. Their tortures an ‘education.’
And yet, what greater horrors would the monsters inflict if they didn’t conform to their rules. If they didn’t allow themselves to be ‘civilized.’ If she didn’t lay back and let their general take her, like an apple from a tree.
‘It is time, let’s get you out there, and remember your manners. He isn’t wedding you for your beauty.” The matron yanked her roughly to her feet and adjusted the veil around her. The skeletal old woman showed surprising strength when she wanted to. Grabbing her so that the fabric of the strange gown wouldn’t tear, hitting her so that the marks wouldn’t show, that was the matron’s way. Audra pulled herself together, and reminded herself that this was for her people, that this was all she could do, for now.
An honor guard waited outside the door. Their horns were gilded, and their claws tipped in jewels for the occasion. She couldn’t bear to look at them as they marched in formation around her. She clutched the roses Matron shoved into her hands tightly, ignoring the little thorns she had neglected to remove. She tried to remember the vows, all the things they expected her to say, all the surrenders they would demand of her. She looked at the rich carpet, imported from the invader’s country, rich and red as blood, and so different from good grass under her feet.
After the ceremony, there would be a feast, and she would be forced to smile and wave as the general’s troops came and congratulated him, made little gifts of their fealty. And the air would be thick with the smells of liquor and blood. She wouldn’t be allow to gag. And after that, would be the wedding night.
She considered the possibility of killing him then, while his guard was down, after he took what he wanted. It was possible he would do nothing to her. He had seemed as disgusted with her shape as she was with him, after all. But the tradition must be maintained, and he would probably take her, just for the form of it, even though there would be no one there to watch. She prayed there would be no one there to watch.
She could smother him to death. She could press all her weight against him with one of his soft pillows and crush the air from him. She could claim it was an accident. They might believe her. But there would be others. Cutting off the head wouldn’t kill the serpent. She needed to be patient. She would to play their games, their politics. And she knew something would be irrevocably lost, but it was the only way to preserve what she could. When fighting monsters, one must think like a monster. Her father had refused. He had clung to his honor like a branch in a torrent, and they swept him away. She couldn’t make the same mistake.
They reached the doors of the chapel. They opened, and strange music, a chorus of bellowing iron beasts rose around her. She marched forward, staring straight ahead at her monstrous bridegroom. He waited next to their priest, his gleaming armor polished, his jeweled dress sword at his side. He stood tall, but he stared at her with impatience, his face all hard angles and bristling mustache.
She took slow steps, as though she could wait out destiny. But she reached him, and he pulled the veil back from her face. It caught briefly on her horns, as gilded as her guards’. He wrenched it free and looked up at her. It was strange, she thought, that this man, this human, stood a foot shorter than her, weighed a hundred pounds less. But he and those like him conquered them so utterly. She would learn his secrets, and she would turn them against those that had taken her kingdom. She would make herself a monster, if that’s what it took.

Cover image by Lori Greig

Fiction: The King is Dead

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The King is Dead

On the night of his fifteenth birthday, Gep’s father took him to see the king. His father was the Minister of State, and he was thus afforded this great honor. The royal family were very rarely seen in public. He was taken through one of the twenty-seven gilded gates of the Impassible Palace, and they made their way through the cyclopian maze of buildings in the dead of night, meeting no one.
His father ushered him down a long staircase, a flickering lamp the only light as they descended far below the earth. Finally, they came to a golden door. The room within was alcoves. Each contained a plinth on which rested a skull on a red velvet cushion. The last in the line wore a bright golden crown. Gep’s father said nothing, waiting for him to reach his own conclusion. It was a common test, although the circumstances were never this ghastly before.
“The king is dead!” Gep shouted. His father frowned and tilted his head. A sign that he was partially correct, but had missed something.
“Not so loud, boy. You are a man now. It is past time you were inducted in the mysteries.”
“How long, father?” Gep managed at last. His shock was overwhelming. His family genuflected at the royal portrait of King Rekir IV every morning with great ceremony. And now, he was staring at the king’s crown on the empty, grinning face of the skull.
“Him?” his father asked in a casual tone he’d never heard before. “A bit more than three years. He still has another seven or eight years in his reign before he’ll be murdered by his jealous brother. Of course, the royal guard will sniff out the truth of the matter, and not long after presiding over a lavish funeral, he will be tried, and his virtuous son will take his place. That is as far as the omens have worked things out.”
“But who rules the country?” Gep asked, still staring at the empty eye sockets. His father sighed. He’d hadn’t had this much difficulty when he was the lad’s age, but then, he hadn’t been quite so reverent as Gep. That was going to be a double-edged sword.
“The ministers, of course.”
“But how can a kingdom run without its king to oversee it?”
“The ministers have always run the government. They simply no longer do so at the whims of an inbred madman.” The boy flinched, as though he expected divine wrath to settle on his father that very moment. Nothing happened for a long while.
“How long has this been happening?” Gep asked, looking back at the long line of skulls. His father smiled.
“A very long time. My father inducted me in the conspiracy when I was your age. And his father before him, and so on.” Gep was silent for a while, as he worked on the implications.
“But how? Why hasn’t someone noticed before now?”
“Let me show you something,” his father said. They took another winding path up and down through the palace. They emerged on a balcony overlooking a vast, empty square. A building on far side was covered in scaffolding. It was being torn down, or remodeled, or rebuilt. It was impossible to see beneath the fabric. There was always some work being done in the Impassible Palace.
“You have never seen the king, or any of the royal family. Everyone knows they exist. They read the newspapers, they hear the gossip, they see the portraits and pay their respect. But they are apart from common concerns, protected by layers of guards. They are shrouded in a maze of bureaucracy as thick as these walls. They are kept alive in story alone, in chance encounters and the barest hints. In a few days, a palanquin will be brought to this courtyard. The workers will stop, and they will bow to their king. A hand might emerge, the barest hint for any brazen or bold enough to look up from the stones. And they will tell that story, and they will believe in the king who approved their work and graced them with his presence.
“So there is no king,” Gep said, almost dejectedly.
“Not at all, boy. There is a king, and he’s better than a flesh-and-blood ruler. Flesh and blood is fragile. It’s weak. It goes mad, it makes unreasonable demands. It drains the treasury. It exhausts the country in vanity and pointless struggle. But an idea? An idea is immortal as long as someone believes it. And the citizens believe very strongly. They work hard for their lord, and they are happy and prosperous.”
“But who leads them?” Gep stared up at his father with fear in his eyes. Behind him, the shadows were being chased away by a rising sun.
“We do. The ministers keep the country working in the king’s name.”
“But how do you agree?”
“Come with me, Gep. It is time for you to see what I really do.” The Minister lead his son up to a tower, a group of men and women were waiting for him. They ignored Gep and immediately began argue with his father about a dozen matters of state. He cleared his throat and brought the meeting to order. Each in turn presented their business. They sat at a mahogany table in fine robes and determined the fates of millions. Gep watched as they worked for and against each other, and he understood. He smiled as the sun rose over the Impassible Palace, and his suddenly rosy future as a head of state.
Afterwards, the minister of finance spoke to the boy.
“What do you think of our conspiracy, young man?”
“I am overwhelmed, sir. I don’t understand how people can be ruled by an idea.”
“People are constantly ruled by ideas, and it is important to remember that ideas can replace people quite easily.” Gep didn’t understand the threat for a long time.

Cover image by Loizeau shared under a Creative Commons, Attribution, Non-Commercial, No Derivatives License.

Hugh Likes Fiction: A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe

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A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe
Written by Alex White
Published by Orbit

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The Skinny: Spaceship is Magic

Alex White’s new novel, A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe is a seamless Sci-Fi/Fantasy adventure about the misfit crew of a smuggler ship caught in a galactic conspiracy. White is a remarkable stylistic juggler, matching magic and high-tech space opera in a believable, lived in universe filled with despicable anti-heroes you can’t help rooting for.
When well-to-do racing star Nilah Brio witnesses a bizarre murder on the track, her only hope may rest on the dubious shoulders of fighter pilot turned con-artist Elizabeth “Boots” Ellsworth. But after selling fraudulent treasure maps for years, have they stumbled on the real thing? And more importantly, can they avoid the powerful forces on their trail long enough to get it?
White’s novel is an action-packed thrill ride of an adventure novel. But what really impressed me is the well thought out universe White creates for his characters to bust their way through. The magic system is intricately crafted, and feels like a real part of the world rather than set dressing. The technology of the setting uses magic in a number of surprising and delightful ways. Each character has their own magic, of varying types, and they can use it like a signature, or to interact with technology, or even fire weapons. Everyone except Boots, that is, who is one of the rare people born without magic. It’s a nice bit of the story that builds the world and characters in interesting ways.
With this first novel, White offers us a character-focused look into a compelling fantasy future. Fans of Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet will find a lot to like in this scrappy crew of adventurers, with plenty of space-faring action and interplanetary politics to satisfy the most hard-core old school Space Opera fan. You can find A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe at your local independent bookstore, or from the usual digital suspects. I heartily recommend it.

Podcast: “Ears to the Ground” on The Melting Potcast!

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Hey Freelancers!

Have you heard the latest Freelance Hunters story, as presented by the ever-extraordinary Melting Potcast crew? Well wait no longer, and click HERE!

When the town of Corn Hall is reported missing, the Freelance Hunters grudgingly return to investigate, but nothing can prepare them for what they find there.

As always, thanks to August, Erin, and Theo for another great performance!

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