Sasquan World Science Fiction Convention report

Yes, I am back from Spokane, glad to escape the land of the red sun, to rainy New Hampshire.

Smoke from nearby wild fires gave the city an apocalyptic feel.

Smoke from nearby wild fires gave the city an apocalyptic feel.

At the con, I enjoyed talks by Ken Liu and Kate Elliot about world-building, sparking some new ideas for my next project:  epic, historical, Asian–all the good stuff.    I also attended the conversation between George R. R. Martin and Robert Silverberg, where they talked about the history and future of the genres and of Worldcon itself.  Steven Barnes led two sessions of Tai Chi, which, with him, is part inspirational gathering and part exercise, and always worth the visit.  I attended a talk by James C. Glass about Australian Aborigines as the first astronomers, which was fascinating, and went to one on Imposter Syndrome run by Crystal Huff (highly recommended if you suffer from this).

Here are some favorite quotes:

“Growing old is like making ice sculpture in the desert.  There is less ice every day, but if you get a little bit better at sculpting every day, you can still make something great.”  Steven Barnes

“The internet makes it too easy to say stupid things and multiply them indefinitely before you can call them back.”  Robert Silverberg

“The idea of the nation-state was created out of iron and blood.”  Ken Liu

This year’s much-anticipated Hugo Award Ceremony was very enjoyable, with both hosts and recipients keeping the mood light and focusing on the community of science fiction.  Wired magazine had a great article about the event and the results.  I like to attend the ceremony in part because (like GRRM and Robert Silverberg) I can imagine myself up there some day, and in part because of that sense of community–the anticipation of a few thousand fans sharing the excitement of what is to come.

My own events were a lot of fun, especially the panel on Learning to Love Your Deadline, wherein I tried to remember if I had ever missed a deadline in my publishing career (causing Patricia Briggs to look for a heavy object with which to bludgeon me–thankfully, nobody had a hardcover handy).  It was great to see some new faces at my reading as well, and I think I gave some useful feedback to three new writers at the Writers’ Workshop.

Outside the con, a group of artists worked feverishly to repair and refresh these amazing lanterns for the Chinese Lantern Festival–wire frame creatures with lights inside and brightly colored fabric outside, an intriguing process to watch.  And where else but Spokane can you feed raw meat to tigers?

A tiger gets a treat at the Cat Tales tiger rescue center.

A tiger gets a treat from a guest at the Cat Tales tiger rescue center.

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Goodreads review: Medieval Ghost Stories by Andrew Joynes

I discovered this book on the recommendation of a scholar who presented a paper about revenants (roaming dead) in Medieval England at this year’s Kalamazoo Medieval Congress. Since this is a topic near to my heart, in more ways than one :-) I picked up a copy at the publisher’s booth.

This book gives some great insight into the role of the supernatural in the lives of people around the turn of the first millennium, up to the 1300’s. It is well-organized by topics including: Ghosts and Monks, Ghosts and the Court, The Restless Dead, and Ghosts in Medieval Literature. Each of these sections includes a general introduction, placing the manifestation in context, then a series of excerpts from period works–chronicles, sagas and stories–that describe what happened and to whom.

As a fantasy author, and also as the leader of teen camps where I am frequently called upon to tell horror stories, this is just the kind of material I keep an eye out for. It includes some more familiar pieces, like the werewolf Bisclavret from Marie de France or a tale from Boccaccio’s Decameron, but also many other works from less known sources–local chronicles and the like.

Most of these stories take place on the cusp of the Christian emergence, as local populations settle into the expanding religion, and are given a theological spin by their authors (frequently priests and monks–the most educated people of their day). So we hear souls tell of the torment they suffer because of their sins, and we see Guinevere offer to have masses sung for the restless spirit of her mother. These spirits are often laid to rest at last by the intervention of priests or of proper Christian burial.

To me, the most interesting narratives here are those from the Scandinavian sagas, where Christian motifs overlay a local aesthetic. Hence a woman wronged in life whose corpse is being brought to a monastery for burial to atone for the wrongs done her rises up in the night to make a meal for her funeral party because the miserly host has not done so–thus chiding the host for his failure to provide hospitality due to guests.

Although eager to find Christian meaning in stories of ghosts or the walking dead, Christianity in general had an uneasy relationship with the entire concept. The dead, according to doctrine, lay quietly to wait for judgment, if they were not already taken up, or sent down. The body was not animate of itself, and the soul had already been accounted for–so Church fathers are often at pains during this period to insist that ghosts and revenants simply didn’t exist, even as many laypeople accepted the stories as the proof of Heaven or Hell–because these spirits desired to reach the one, or to speak out in warning about the other.

But there is another category of stories, warning the living to make much of life–and especially of love, in which groups of wandering spirits are show as joyous or as despairing in proportion to their willingness to share love while they were alive, bringing to mind later works, like Andrew Marvell’s “To his Coy Mistress.” Suggesting that man’s fascination with the dead, and his willingness to use them as examples to the living, whether for instruction or seduction, goes on.

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Sasquan is coming! See you at Worldcon?

In a little over a week, I’ll be in Spokane, Washington for the annual World Science Fiction Convention, this year entitled Sasquan.

I’m a bit of a convention junkie. I enjoy meeting and mingling with other writers as well as meeting fans and readers–ideally introducing new readers to my work.  I always come back feeling fired up about writing, and about the science fiction and fantasy genres.  This year’s worldcon promises to be especially stimulating for a variety of reasons.

I’ll be mentoring as part of the writer’s workshop (for which registration is closed–sorry–but look for it next year!).  You can also find me at these events:

Kaffee Klatche – E. C. Ambrose

Thursday 13:00 – 13:45, 202B-KK3 (CC)

Join a panelist and up to 9 other fans for a small discussion.  Coffee and snacks available for sale on the 2nd floor.

Requires advance sign-up–please join me!

Learning to Love the Deadline

Thursday 15:00 – 15:45, Bays 111B (CC)

Deadlines – love ’em or hate ’em?  Are they different depending on the length of your project?  Are they different depending on whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction?  Can the deadline make you a more disciplined writer?

Reading – E. C. Ambrose

Friday 16:00 – 16:30, 303B (CC)

And I will be minding the Science Fiction Writers of America table for a bit, probably on Wednesday, as well as autographing there on Sunday.  Times TBA


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The Faithful Hound

This week, I had to say goodbye to a dear companion, but this isn’t really a personal blog, so rather than eulogize Jordi directly, I thought I would talk about just a little of the history of the faithful hound in the Middle Ages.

Jordi in happier times--he was always happiest in winter.

Jordi in happier times–he was always happiest in winter.

Dogs are often viewed as symbolic of loyalty, which is why they appear at the feet of knights on their tomb effigies.    There have long been stories of dogs who linger on their master’s graves, or, nowadays, who wait fruitlessly at the train station for masters who do not come home.  Hereward the Wake, the famous hero of Ely who fought against the soldiers of William the Conqueror, until he drained the fens so the Wake could no longer escape, was said to have had such a hound.

This kind of loyalty can also be turned against the hero.  According to some sources, Scotland’s King Robert the Bruce possessed a devoted mastiff who had to be left behind at the manor when Bruce was on the run from the English in the highlands.  Some clever Englishman got the idea of taking the dog with them, and using it to track him down, knowing that the dog would pursue its master with great delight until they could be reunited, but a Scottish sympathizer let the dog go rather than see this love subverted.

In France during the 13th century, a cult rose up around the grave of a greyhound venerated as Saint Guinefort when certain miracles were said to occur at the site. The dog had been martyred by its own master when it defended a child from a wolf, only to be taken by its bloody mouth for the aggressor.  The knight who owned and slew the dog grieved mightily over his error, and buried the dog with great solemnity.  Naturally, the Catholic Church did not approve of a canine saint (no matter how many people then and now believe in the divine nature of the dog), and repeatedly tried to discourage its veneration.

The fact that a character even owns a dog, or that dogs love him, is often used by contemporary authors to show that someone is worthy. If such a creature loves, it is thought, then the master must be worthy.  I suppose I am guilty of this myself, with the relationship between the exiled Prince Thomas and his deerhound Cerberus in Elisha Magus When the dog accepts Elisha, too, he uses this as evidence that he is worthy of trust.

Elisha held out his hand to be sniffed. Gravely, Cerberus pushed his wet nose against Elisha’s fingers, then gave him a single, long slurp, and lay down at his master’s side.

Casting a quick look at the dog, the prisoner turned as quickly away, his eyes shining. “What have you done to my dog?” he whispered, his voice cracking. “You’ve cast some accursed spell on him.”

At that, Elisha laughed, shaking his head. He had gotten a fright from that knife brandished against him, but, try as he might, he couldn’t see the danger now. Here was a man loyal to his king, seeking justice as he saw it, heartsick because his dog seemed to have deserted him. Letting go his irritation, Elisha said, “It’s nearly impossible to cast a spell on a being with willpower of its own. All I did was try to help him, to make him comfortable, nothing more. If that’s a spell, I believe it’s commonly known as kindness.”

Cerberus returns in Elisha Rex, as, alas, my own dog cannot.  But his spirit is echoed there, one of a long line of faithful hounds.

a knight's tomb in Ely Cathedral shows him reclining, with a small dog at his feet.

A knight at rest in Ely Cathedral, with a small dog as his companion.

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Heroes and Antiheroes: The Integrity of Prince Hans

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the Readercon convention for science fiction and fantasy literature in Burlington, MA.  One of the panels was about heroes versus antiheroes:  what makes the difference?  How flawed must a hero be to swing to the antihero side?  How about pushing all the way to villainy?  After all, most people are the heroes of their own story, whether or not they seem evil to others.

Prince Hans, from Disney's Frozen

Prince Hans, from Disney’s Frozen

It occurred to me that this is one of the reasons I enjoyed the recent Disney juggernaut “Frozen.”  I’ve written before about the world-building, but it’s really the take on character that I appreciated most.  The characters make and solve their own problems.  They pursue their own goals (love, freedom, kingdom) with clear intent and enthusiasm.  And Prince Hans is right out there, using different tactics to gain the leadership role he seeks.

The last of many brothers, he has no chance for such a role in his own kingdom of the Southern Isles.  In the middle ages, spare sons might go to war, be given lesser positions in subservience to the heir, or even enter the church as another means of advancement.  Hans wants none of this.  So he travels to a distant realm, probably with the thought of meeting and marrying Queen Elsa.  Instead, he meets her little sister, so desperate to be loved that she falls for him right away.  He’s adept at fostering a connection with her, and thus, with the crown.

When Elsa freezes the kingdom and Anna rides of after her, Hans is given his big chance to prove his leadership, and he does so in spades, distributing blankets and needed supplies, opening the palace to nurture the citizens (in a way it has not been open for years).  He collaborates with officials of the kingdom, as well as with its allies, and in every way shows himself to be an able administrator, and likely, a worthy king.  When he brings Elsa back to face justice, he is not wrong: it is her power that has cast the kingdom into a possibly irrecoverable state, and it may be the only course to kill her.

We are encouraged by our sympathy for Elsa, built mainly through her relationship with Anna, to view this decision in a negative light.  But if Elsa had not been able to balance her power and restore the kingdom, what alternative would have remained?  Sure, I understand her urgency to escape from her prison, but what are the other choices for the kingdom, frozen by her magic?  The idea of magic dying with the one who cast it is common in many magical realms–we don’t know if that limitation exists here, but it’s not unreasonable.  Thus if Elsa neither removes the curse (Anna’s solution), nor dies (Hans’s solution), the kingdom will be ruined–and possibly many lands beyond.  We don’t know how far the freeze extends.

Hans can thus be viewed as an antihero, taking actions in pursuit of an important goal (saving the kingdom, clearly heroic), but actions that will have a negative impact on at least one other character we have been led to care about, Elsa herself.

His refusal to kiss Anna is a bit more problematic. He knows that he doesn’t love her, and thus cannot save her.  Honestly, little harm would have been done by his kissing her anyway.  They could both have been heartbroken and confused about why it doesn’t have any effect, and she dies in his arms (exactly as he later claims she did).  He could also have refused to kiss her as an act of personal integrity, knowing his “love” cannot save her, and thus refusing to succumb to that hope or allow her to do so.

But this is a Disney film, and, in spite of its unconventional approach to ideas of heroism, true love, and sacrifice, it can’t really go there–leaving the viewer with the impression of Hans as merely an ambitious young man, working to secure his goal.  He does ask Elsa to bring back the summer, and she refuses, leaving him no alternative.

It’s interesting to view Hans as a person of integrity, having come very close to achieving a kingdom, and now doing his sincere best to work in its behalf, willing to make himself unpopular by killing the queen in order to save the kingdom.  Any decent lawyer could get him off the charges, simply by pointing out that the only clear solution to saving the kingdom would be killing its cursed queen.

Readers, what’s your verdict?

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Book Launch day, Elisha Rex!

Today is the big day, the launch of book 3 in my Dark Apostle series of fantasy novels about medieval surgery.  Please help me celebrate and spread the word!

Cover for Elisha Rex, book 3 in The Dark Apostle series

Cover for Elisha Rex, book 3 in The Dark Apostle series

Once again, artist Cliff Nielsen has captured the spirit of the book–we find Elisha a changed man, in more ways than one–but here’s the cover copy to whet your interest:

“Blending magic and history, strong characters and gripping action, E. C. Ambrose brings a startlingly unique voice to our genre.”

—D. B. Jackson, author of Thieftaker

Elisha was once a lowly barber-surgeon, cutting hair and stitching wounds for poor peasants like himself in 14th century London. But that was before: before he was falsely accused of murder, and sent to die in an unjust war. Before he discovered his potential for a singularly deadly magic. Before he was forced to embrace his gifts and end the war…by using his newfound abilities to kill the tyrannical king.

So who is Elisha now? The beautiful witch Brigit, his former mentor, claims him for the magi, all those who have grasped the secrets of affinity and knowledge to manipulate mind and matter, and who are persecuted for it. Duke Randall, the man who first rose against the mad King Hugh, has accepted him as a comrade and ally in the perilous schemes of the nobility. Somehow, he has even become a friend to Thomas, both the rightful king and, something finer, a good man.

But there is another force at work in the world, a shadowy cabal beyond the might of kings and nobles, that sees its opportunity in the chaos of war and political turmoil—and sees its mirror in Elisha’s indivisible connection with Death. For these necromancers, Elisha is the ultimate prize, and the perfect tool.

When the necromancers’ secret plans begin to bear black fruit and King Thomas goes missing, England teeters on the brink of a hellish anarchy that could make the previous war look like a pleasant memory. Elisha may be the only man who can stop it. But if he steps forward and takes on the authority he is offered to save his nation, is he playing right into the mancers’ hands?

Why does it seem like his enemies are the ones most keen to call him Elisha Rex?

I have already drafted the fifth and final book in the series, but I promise, there’s plenty of excitement yet to come!

If you want to check out some of the behind-the-scenes stuff I researched for this volume, try my blog entries about:

Crows and Ravens

Defense Against the Dark Arts

A Defense of Trepanation

The Execution of Traitors





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How Democracy Killed the Mongol Empire

This week-end, we’ll be celebrating Independence Day, and all that it stands for:  freedom, justice, democracy.  Enjoy your cookout and fireworks.  This year, we also celebrate another milestone in self-determination, the signing of the Magna Carta by King John of England, acquiescing to the demands of the barons, and paving the way for future battles and statements of rights.  But during that key year of 1215, something else was happening on the borders of Europe, something much more alarming to the citizens of Eastern Europe in particular:  the Mongol Invasion.

Map showing the initial expansion of the Mongol empire under Genghis Khan

Map showing the initial expansion of the Mongol empire under Genghis Khan

These scrappy horsemen from the steppes, under the leadership of Genghis Khan as he is termed in English, determined in 1206 to begin their expansion.  In fairly short order, they had conquered many of the other tribes of the steppes, spreading outward into northern China, up into Russia, and down into the Middle East.  They sent emissaries offering alliances if the people ahead of their movement would surrender willingly, and they destroyed many cities and peoples who did not.

They moved so fast and attacked so furiously that the European border observers, who originally hoped that the strangers might join forces with them against the armies of Islam, became alarmed and began asking for aid from the Pope and the Holy Roman Empire.  The Mongols eventually established the largest contiguous land empire in history, outdone in its size only by the British Empire of several centuries later.

The influence of the Mongolian invasions on history and culture are still being examined these many centuries later–they are both lasting and far-reaching.  What might have happened to Europe if the Mongols had spread, as was their intent, all the way to the Atlantic?  And what stopped them from doing so?

The Mongol system of governance was not simply a monarchy in which the eldest son of the current ruler automatically became the ruler next, and thus passed the leadership down the same bloodline.  Instead, different tribes and factions had the right to put forth candidates, and the most suitable candidate (or the one who had the most allies in the Mongolian heartland) would be acclaimed as the Great Khan.  When Genghis passed away in 1227, therefore, the leaders of the far-flung armies–princes of the blood–had to return to Mongolia to participate in the council to determine the next ruler.

Genghis had four officially recognized sons, but he had designated Ogodei to succeed him, and divided leadership of many parts of the new empire among the other sons and grandsons, and his wishes were obeyed fairly readily.  When Ogodei passed away in 1241, many of the other princes were already unhappy, and the new council took longer, not accepting Ogodei’s chosen successor as they had his father’s.  Eventually, leadership passed to his nephew, who died on the way to meet a challenger from the same generation, Genghis’s grandsons.  This in-fighting among the candidates for leadership resulted in long gaps during which Europe could breathe more easily.  And in the long-term, the system of governance which required gathering in council, debating and acclaiming a leader, rather than merely bowing to a clear successor, resulted in the fragmentation of Genghis’s great enterprise.

In-fighting, back-biting, candidates accepting alliances in exchange for power-sharing, struggles to gain enough support to win the council. . .the foundations of democracy, even in such a distant place and time.

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