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


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!

Want more Freelance Hunters? Follow me on Patreon for early chapters, short stories, news, and more!

Patreon Fiction: Mapmaker

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Hello Readers! If you follow me on social media, you may have seen that I’ve been making some upgrades to my Patreon feed lately. This includes weekly flash fiction and other goodies. You can visit patreon.com/hughjodonnell to have a look! Today I’m releasing a story here to give you a sample of what is going on every week in my feed for the low, low price of $1 a month! That’s like, a quarter a story!


It has been a long time since Mapmaker was taken. He does not know how long. He has not seen the sun since then. He does not know where he is being held. He has only seen stone walls, dull, smoking torches, and the undead soldiers of The Necromancer.
Mapmaker prepared to return to the capital as soon as he heard of the invasion. He expected to be called out of retirement to help defend the kingdom. He had surveyed and drawn every inch of the land, and knew her down to the smallest detail. He had never married. How could one devote love to another, when all his energy went to his maps. He traveled to the palace, to lay battle maps for the king. The Enemy caught him first.
They tortured and interrogated Mapmaker regularly since he was brought here. The Necromancer’s generals and strategists, the ones he kept alive, wanted maps. Fortifications, barracks, ports. They wanted military targets, but those were not the maps he drew.
Mapmaker is a proud man. He never made a map he knew to be false, and he refuses to start now. Instead, he wastes the generals’ time. He maps peaceful villages, gave directions for forest paths far from the front lines. For every useless map, they punish him severely, but it another day lost to the Necromancer’s forces. It is all Mapmaker can do for his country.
Once, he stole a piece of chalk and tried to keep track of the days. He made a mark for every time the guards took him, each time he ate the strange food, each time he slept. He gave up when he ran out of chalk. Most of one wall is covered by the little tally marks, like a map backwards in time.
The guards never speak. Mostly, they are dead things. They move awkwardly, like puppets, and stare with sightless eyes. Occasionally, one is a living man, who watches his companions with mute horror. The price for failure in The Necromancer’s army is self-evident. He begs these living servants for information. How fares the kingdom, the war, and his apprentices. They dare not answer.
He was traveling with a pair of students when his coach was ambushed. He does not know what became of them. When he sleeps, he dreams. Sometimes he dreams they are killed in front of him, as a punishment. Sometimes they are pressed into the Necromancer’s service, and come to his cell as unseeing, stumbling things that do not recognize him. Sometimes he dreams they have all escaped together. Those are the worst ones. Mapmaker sleeps poorly.
His cell opens with the tooth-gritting noise of metal on stone. Two armored zombies enter to escort him. Mapmaker guesses they were made about two weeks ago. He has been imprisoned long enough to learn the cycle of the zombie guards. With so great a supply of bodies on hand, The Necromancer does not bother to prevent his guards from rotting, and they last about a month before they fall apart. These two are halfway through the process. Although they are covered in plate mail, he can tell by the stench.
The old man shrinks back from their outstretched arms. He is running out of safe places to map. He has drawn every safe place he can think of, and does not know what they will do. If they torture him today, perhaps this is the day he will break, or the day they will finally kill him.
The corpses lift him to his feet and march him out of the room. They are neither rough nor gentle. They move with a rote, measured steps. When he was a young man, under the old king, An inventor brought a mechanical elephant to court. It marched, trumpeted, and even bowed. It was decorated to almost look alive, with a hide covering and glass eyes, but there was something too precise about its movements. As horrific as they are, The Necromancer’s soldiers remind him of the elephant.
As they march him down the hall, he wonders what happened to the elephant. He has not seen it in many years. Perhaps it broke down, or is sitting forgotten in a dusty store room somewhere underneath the palace. It takes his mind off of what is to come.
To his surprise, they take him somewhere different today. After a few minutes of confusing twists and turns, he finds himself in a huge circular tower. The stone floor is marked by a chalk circle. Inside, soldiers are building something. Some set colored stones into the floor, Others lay down planks and spread papers on them, almost haphazardly. Others light candles at fixed points outside of the circle. Mapmaker tries to get a closer look, but the rotting guards push him towards a staircase ascending to a platform. Like a bucket on a chain, they guide him up.
The stairs spiral a long way to the top of the tower. By the time he reaches the platform he is winded and sweating. He aches from a thousand pains. He was frail when they brought him here, and this is the most exercise he has gotten in months. The Necromancer, in his black robes embroidered with gold thread, is waiting for him.
This is the first time Mapmaker has seen the leader of the enemy, but there is no mistaking him. He cannot tell how old he is, or even if he is truly still alive. Fear claws at the old man, and he simply wants to flee. The other guard stands on the stairs and prevents his escape. The Necromancer looks him up and down, purses his thin, dry, lips, and asks a question.
“Have you ever heard of sympathetic magic, Mapmaker?”
Mapmaker has not.
The wizard smiles. It does nothing to put Mapmaker at ease. “Sympathetic magic is one of the oldest forms, but quite powerful. Observe.” He take a little object, about an inch tall, out of his pocket and sets it on the railing. The doll made of wax and brass. A bundle of brown hair sticks out of the top. It reminds Mapmaker of a candle. The Necromancer picks it back up and without effort snaps it two. One of the guards blocking the stair collapses without making a sound. Mapmaker feels sick to his stomach. The Necromancer’s smile widens.
“If you wish to control a man, or learn his secrets, or kill him, there is a simple method.” The Necromancer recites as though they stand in a classroom. “Make a figure of him, fill it with his blood, or his hair, or the clippings of his nails. “Say his secret name, and he is yours, to do with as you wish.” The mapmaker trembles. He thinks of how much hair he has lost, how long his nails have grown, how often they whipped him until he bled. The Necromancer could have made quite a large doll of him, by now. Mapmaker finds his courage. He is a servant of the Kingdom, and he swears he will die before he gives up. He looks the Necromancer in his colorless eyes.
“Why are you telling me this? Are you going to kill me?”
“Kill you? Why, you are my best and most trusty servant! Look below you!” The Necromancer gestures out over the railing to the ground below. The old man turns and sees what the servants are doing. A new nadir of fear and horror strikes at him, filling his belly with ice. He understands immediately what they are making.
At this height, the circle takes on meaning. The red, black, and gray stones resolve into mountains. The green and brown become forests and fields. The blue stones become lakes and rivers. And set among them are the papers. From their locations he knows what them must be. He has been making them all of his life.
“Lovely, isn’t it? Your greatest work. We milled the paper from the trees of your forests. We made the ink from plants and stones we gathered here. We hewed the very earth of your little country to remake mountains. If you want power over a man, build his likeness in a doll. Bind it to him with his hair and blood. If you want power over a country, draw a map. The principle is the same.” Mapmaker stares in horror. He cannot look away.
“I never mapped a military target. Never once since you captured me.”
“Commendable. But you drew these instead. And they will serve me just as well.” The Necromancer spreads one hand out over the map. The candlelight catches on gold rings.
“What are you going to do?” Mapmaker whispers.
Below him is the most detailed and beautiful map he has ever seen, and it terrifies him. The Necromancer doesn’t answer.
A ball of poisonous green flame appears in The Necromancer’s hand. He holds it out over the pit for a moment, then lets it drop. It falls for a long time.


Hugh Likes Fiction: Sorcerer to the Crown

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Sorcerer to the Crown
Written by Zen Cho
Narrated by Jenny Sterlin
Published by Recorded Books
At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, Zacharias Whythe is the Sorcerer Royal, head of the Society of Unnatural Philosophers and possibly the greatest sorcerer in England.  But Zacharias is also a freed slave, and his adopted father, the previous Sorcerer Royal, died under mysterious circumstances with his familiar nowhere to be found.  And if his situation weren’t precarious enough, magic is drying up in England.  If he doesn’t solve the situation soon, his enemies in the society will have everything they need to literally take his head.
But the solution to his problems might lay in the hands of two extraordinary women.  Prunella Gentleman is a half-Indian orphaned girl with untapped magical potential and a mysterious inheritance.  Mak Genggang is a Malaysian witch of immense talent with a temper to match, who might save English magic, if she doesn’t declare war on it first.
With a colorful cast of fashionable faerie-folk, scheming society girls and treacherous wizards, this debut novel is an outstanding romp.   It addresses the realities of race and gender in early nineteenth century England in ways that other fantasy romances like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell shy away from.  And it remains clever, fun, and surprising at every turn.  I particularly enjoyed her interpretation of the Faerie peerage.  But my favorite character has to be Mak Genggang by a country mile.  A sassy, no-nonsense witch, she stomps through the novel like a force of nature that reminded me of the witches from the Hayao Miyazaki version of “Howl’s Moving Castle.”  She’s fantastic, and I hope she makes a reappearance in later novels.
I listened to this book via Audible, and the audiobook was narrated by Jenny Sterlin, who does a great job with the material.  Her reading is lively and her characters are strongly delivered without being overacted.  It is an excellent way to experience the story.
Sorcerer to the Crown is the first part in a trilogy, but ends quite satisfyingly, and I give it a hearty recommendation for anyone looking for a historical fantasy novel that’s a bit less vanilla.  You can find the audiobook on Audible, and the print version is available from Amazon or your local book store.

Thanks for reading this article.  if you enjoyed it, please share it.  You can also support me on Patreon!

Hugh Likes Comics: Rat Queens

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Written by Kurtis J. Wiebe

Drawn by Roc Upchurch

Published by Image Shadowline

Perhaps I wanted to like “Rat Queens” a bit more than I did. It’s a very good book, make no mistake. The art is gorgeous in an ultra-violent sort of way, the characters are interesting, diverse, and well-used, and the action is intense. But there’s just something about this comic that didn’t impress me as much as I hoped it would.

It sounds like I’m damning this book with faint praise, and I suppose I am. It is a gory, snarky ‘Swords and Sassery’ comic in the exact same vein as Jim Zubb and Edwin Huang’s ‘Skull Kickers.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite hit its beats as well.

The eponymous Rat Queens are a quartet of adventuring ladies in the familiar mold: Dwarf Fighter, Human Cleric, Elf Wizard, and Smidgen (I E Halfling) Rogue. They, and the rest of the adventuring parties, are causing a problem for the town of Palisade. All they do is drink and fight, and it’s hurting property values. When the local Captain sends them all out on quests to get them out of his hair, the Rat Queens soon discover that they’ve been set up, and assassins are on their trail.

The dialogue is snappy, filthy, and funny, but the plot is pretty bare-bones. It feels a bit too caught up in the conventions of a certain unnamed table-top Role Playing Game. While the comic starts out as a parody there comes a point where you’re not lamp-shading tropes, you’re just using them. I think that’s what disappoints me about this comic. It’s so gamey that it doesn’t have much weight to it, even when extras are being cut in half and stabbed in the eye. There’s not any real conflict in all this slaughter. I’d have liked the Rat Queens to have come up against something a bit more epic. This first volume is all random encounters.

I do like the fact that Wiebe and Upchurch really put some thought into the design and structure of the world, giving it a real multicultural feel without seeming as forced as the other aspects. The all-female team of adventurers is not presented as strange or even particularly transgressive in the world of the comic. This doesn’t just apply to gender roles, either. Race in Palisade means a bit more than white with pointed ears or white with a beard and a highlands accent. “Rat Queens” presents modern fantasy pulp perfectly by including modern gender and racial equality, and never even calling attention to itself for it. Diversity can be a touchy subject in science fiction and fantasy, with a small but vocal minority demanding the ‘authenticity’ of confirming a bias towards Straight, White and Male. The Rat Queens are here to kick ass and quaff ale, and they don’t care how much blood gets on their outfits. That’s really refreshing, if messy.

“Rat Queens” is a style-over-substance battlefield romp with four lady mercenaries who say ‘fuck.’ Quite a lot, actually. It’s not for kids, but it is an entertaining but character-sheet thin comic for adults. If you’re caught up on “Skull Kickers” and nostalgic for your multi-sided dice, “Rat Queens” might be the comic you’re looking for.


Hugh Likes Comics: Amelia Cole and the Unknown World

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Amelia Cole & the Unknown World

Written by D. J. Kirkbride and Adam P. Knave

Drawn by Nick Brokenshire.

Published by Monkeybrain (digital issues) and IDW (tpb collections)

Amelia is a magician with an unusual talent: Thanks to her Aunt and Mentor Dani, she can travel between the ‘magical’ and ‘non-magical’ world, and she has a habit of using her powers to stick her nose into matter that the police would rather she didn’t.

When the two start to merge, Dani sacrifices herself to seal them off again, and Amelia finds herself alone in a THIRD place she knew nothing about: A world where magic and technology exist side-by-side.

After she manages to settle in, however, Amelia finds out that the two aren’t exactly equal. Magicians have special status in addition to powers, and Amelia attracts the unwanted attention of “the Protector” after she uses magic to save ‘mundanes.’

“Amelia Cole” is a story about finding your place in the world, and doing the right thing. The story is fairly nuanced. Amelia’s vigilantism causes as much trouble as it solves, but she still doesn’t hesitate to do what she can. She’s a heroine that works by guts and instinct rather than a damsel in distress. Even The Protector isn’t all-bad, even if the system he works within wears him down to a core of anger and frustration.

Brokenshire’s art is a real winner. His crowds and cityscapes breath with life, and more than a few hidden easter-eggs that reward careful reading.  The designs for Amelia are great as well.  It’s sad how rarely we see a comic book heroine wearing actual clothes.

Amelia Cole and the Unknown world marks the first part of what will hopefully be a long series of adventures. Volume Two, Amelia Cole and the Hidden War, continues her adventures in the strange world she finds herself in, and I can’t wait.

Amelia Cole and the Unknown World is available digitally through Comixology, and in print from IDW.

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