Review: Touch, by Claire North: a deeply human and highly satisfying thriller

This is one of the rare books that I finished and thought–That is what I want my books to feel like. For me, it delivered a powerful emotional impact along with the ripping story and engaging characters. It’s the kind of book that made me want to race around forcing all of my friends to read it. No, seriously, read this book!


Kepler, our protagonist, can assume the minds and bodies of others through a touch. They (gender is intriguingly fluid for such entities) are one of a small number of people who discover they can do this. Some of those entities now live for the moment, bouncing between lives with no compunction about what happens to the people they leave behind, without memories of the occupation or what they did during that time. Some deliberately abused the power, but Kepler actually forms partnerships with their hosts, often agreeing to help them through a difficult circumstance–like an addiction the host suffers from, but which Kepler does not. So first of all, I enjoyed the elaboration of this premise, looking at all of the ways the power could be used.

When we first meet Kepler, their host has just been shot in an assassination attempt by a shadowy organization. Kepler is furious because, although the attempt was aimed at them, the assassin deliberately killed the host instead of leaving her alone after Kepler jumped to another body. Kepler determines to discover who wants them dead and why. After a few jumps in a fascinating chase scene, Kepler succeeds in jumping into the assassin himself. But while in a body, they have no access to the memories or thoughts of that person. In order to questions the assassin, Kepler must jump into someone else after securing the guy so he won’t get away.

Thus begins a very interesting relationship. It is exploitative? How would you feel to have someone take over your mind, then leave you behind? How would it feel to be on the other side–a disembodied personality assuming temporary identities?

I felt the author did a very convincing job of creating Kepler as an individual, and building all of these fascinating interactions with hosts and with others–many people don’t even know this is possible, and the few that do have widely varying reactions to it. There are some great twists along the way to a highly satisfying conclusion.

At a recent convention (I believe it was World Fantasy 2015) one of the speakers pointed out the way that a speculative fiction work reflects the world view of the author. This really got me thinking. . .so I think one reason I admire but don’t enjoy George R. R. Martin’s work is that his world view is significantly different from mine. I am ultimately a humanist (in spite of my “you don’t want to be my hero” tagline and often rather grim subject matter), and believe in the potential redemption of both individuals and humanity as a whole.

I found Touch to be very life-affirming on top of its adventure narrative. Read it because it’s a thriller that will leave you breathless. Read it because it’s the story of complex relationships that develop in startling ways. Read it because it will make you question ideas of identity. Just read this book.

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Anti-technology Fantasy and the Author’s War Experience

This past weekend, I was delighted to spend at Readercon in their new location in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Here is the description of one of the panels that got me thinking:

If Thor Can Hang Out with Iron Man, Why Can’t Harry Dresden Use a Computer? . Gillian Daniels, Elaine Isaak, Andrea Phillips, Alex Shvartsman, E.J. Stevens. In a series of tweets in 2015, Jared Axelrod pondered “the inherent weirdness of a superhero universe… where magic and science hold hands, where monsters stride over cities.” This is only weird from the perspective of fantasy stories that set up magic and technology as incompatible, an opposition that parallels Western cultural splits between religion and science and between nature and industry. Harry Dresden’s inability to touch a computer without damaging it is a direct descendant of the Ents destroying the “pits and forges” of Isengard, and a far cry from Thor, Iron Man, and the Scarlet Witch keeping company. What are the story benefits of setting up magic/nature/religion and technology/industry/science as either conflicting or complementary? What cultural anxieties are addressed by each choice? How are these elements handled in stories from various cultures and eras?

The ending of The Lord of the Rings, in which the hobbits reclaim the Shire and take down the mills is often cited as one reason that fantasy novels often ignore or even reject technology.  However, another title that came up was Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, published in 1889.  The work is often viewed as a satire of the chivalric ideal, and thus related to the idea of the Southern gentlemen who drove the Civil War.  Twain apparently blamed Sir Walter Scott and his medievalist romances for resurrecting knighthood as a worthy goal for contemporary men.

But it is hard to read the final battle, where thousands of knights cast themselves upon the Yankee’s electric fence and die under the fire of his Gatling guns, without feeling some dismay.  This is not the satisfying come-uppance of a backward society, it is the wholesale destruction of a generation of nobility.

Even as I read that line, the echo is clear, and some commentators have noted that Twain’s battle prefigures the catastrophic effect of the battles of World War I.  The Lord of the Rings, published in   shows the heavy influence of Tolkien’s battle experiences–the loss of his friends, and the devastating effects, in particular, of new technologies for slaughter.  He served in the army from 1915 until 1919, though much of the latter portion he spent recuperating from Trench Fever and declared unfit for active duty.  His service included front-line duty at the notorious Battle of the Somme, where the total losses are close to 1 million soldiers.

Mark Twain himself was only a soldier (in a Confederate militia) for two weeks, but his anti-war stance became increasingly set.   Twain’s “War Prayer” (1904) says, in part:

O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire;

A sentiment which covers both the killing of people, and the destruction of their idyllic setting, their “smiling fields”.

It got me thinking about how these seminal works in the fantasy genre suggest a link between their authors’ understanding and experience of war, and their anti-technology conclusions.  The advance of technology is often seen as an inevitable course, usually providing people with more and better and less expensive goods and services–but always tinged with the knowledge that this technology often degrades the land and lends itself to applications that will forward the cause of war.

Better, then, to remove the technology all together.  No mills mucking up the Shire, no Gatling guns to mow down the flower of chivalry.  The technology in these works may be seen as a frightful enemy which it is hard for man to stand or strive against.  Interestingly, the armored knights did not succeed, but the angry ents and the plucky hobbits did, striding into the fray armored with courage if little else, standing in for all of us who are, as the panel description suggests, a little fearful of what technology might bring.

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Developing Magical Systems, with Joshua Palmatier

Under normal circumstances, today would be my book launch day. Alas, that was not to be–but that means I can open up the blog to celebrate someone else’s launch:  friend and fellow DAW author, Josh Palmatier. . .

First off, I want to thank E. C. Ambrose for inviting me to guest blog here today.  I really appreciate it!  She asked me to speak about how I develop and integrate magical systems into my worlds, which is fortuitous because while I’m finishing up the third novel in the “Ley” series (the sequel to THREADING THE NEEDLE), I am of course looking forward to the next potential series.  And one of the first things that I have to do for that is to determine/develop/figure out how the magical system is going to work.  Because, for me, the world is created by the magical system, not the other way around.  In other words, the world develops from the magical system, I don’t take a world and integrate a magical system into it.  It simply feels more natural to me to have the magical system first, and then figure out what kind of world would develop around that, or because of that, system.

Cover art for Threading the Needle, Joshua Palmatier's latest novel

Cover art for Threading the Needle, Joshua Palmatier’s latest novel

For example, in the “Ley” series, I sat down with the intent of writing a world in which we’d tapped into the magic of the natural ley lines of the Earth and started using it as a power source.  Obviously, this would mean that important cities of influence would shift from waterways such as ports and rivers and lakes to wherever the nodes of the ley lines were.  So the setting for the book, the city of Erenthrall, suddenly became what used to be a mostly unimportant crossroads in the middle of the plains.  Its sole existence used to be as a central meeting place for caravans crossing the plains, since it was at the confluence of two rivers.  But suddenly it became the most important location in the world, because the central node used to control the ley, called the Nexus, was created there.  What used to be a baronial manse surrounded by a few cottages and a wide flat section of grassland where the caravans would pause to trade blossomed into a huge city with a hundred different districts and towers grown in the space of a day using the ley.  Writers need to think about how the use of magic—whatever kind of magic—might affect the economics of the world.  In this case, it completely altered the trade routes and central trading houses from shipping lanes to wherever the ley nodes were.

But magic is going to affect more than just economics.  Writers also need to consider how the magic in their world will change the everyday activities of the individual.  Will it change how the everyday person lives?  If so, how?  So once I visualized this city of Erenthrall, I began to ask myself how the ley would be used by those who lived in this city.  Would they use it for heat?  For light?  For transportation?  All of these questions birthed aspects of the city, such as heat stones powered by the ley, used not just to warm rooms but to cook food, along with ley globes to light homes and apartments and the streets at night, and ley carts and the equivalent of a subway system using ley barges.  And with these aspects added to the city, the world began to come to life for me.  Suddenly there were people moving through the streets, living in them.

These are the two extremes of the worldbuilding required when working with a new magical system—the macrostructure along with the microstructure.  There are levels that must be considered in between as well.  If someone is controlling the ley system, and people are using it on a daily basis, then someone must maintain the system.  This birthed the Wielders and the Primes—those who repair the system at the street level and those who control the Nexus, the power source itself.  Those are simple mechanical aspects to the system.  Writers also need to consider how the magic might affect the politics, government, relations with adjacent nations, etc.  And what about advancement?  Science doesn’t remain static; we’re constantly inventing new ways to use electricity and magnetism, etc.  Your world should also be coming up with new ways to use the magic to make life easier.  All of these things need to be considered when creating a new world with a magical system at its base.

So for me, the magical system always comes first.  Everything else grows from that base, and as I consider each of the aspects I mentioned above—and more—I find that the world builds itself and comes to life on its own.

Thanks, Josh!

If you want to know more about Josh and his books, check this out. . .

Author Bio:

Joshua Palmatier is an epic fantasy writer with a PhD in mathematics.  He has had eight novels published by DAW Books, including “The Throne of Amenkor” trilogy, Shattering the Ley, and Threading the Needle.  He is currently hard at work on the third novel in the “Ley” series, Reaping the Aurora.  In addition, he’s published numerous short stories in various anthologies and has edited four SF&F themed anthologies with co-editor Patricia Bray.  He is also the founder of the small press Zombies Need Brains.  Find out more about him at or on Facebook or Twitter (@bentateauthor).

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The Literary Dwarf, Tyrion’s Historical Forbears

Over on the Tales After Tolkien Society blog, after an entry about a particular Game of Thrones episode, someone asked about placing Tyrion into the context of the appearance of dwarf characters in medieval narratives, in particular Arthuriana.  Not long ago, I participated in the Malory Aloud readers’ theater performance at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, and one of my brief roles involved kidnapping a dwarf who was the companion of the scene’s protagonist, Sir Gareth.

This image seems to represent a Little Person as a court jester.

This image seems to represent a Little Person as a court jester.

In current conversation, the preferred term is little person, and we are aware of several physiological reasons for what is commonly referred to as dwarfism.  Tyrion, and many of his literary compatriots, have one of a variety of hereditary or genetic syndromes resulting in disproportionate dwarfism, as opposed to proportionate dwarfism.  In researching this article, I came across the story of Jeffery Hudson, a 17th century dwarf in the court of Queen Henrietta Maria.  He claims to have grown a good deal after being captured by pirates (his is quite a life and worthy of more study!).  Such growth is not unheard of in the case of psychogenic or psycho-social dwarfism which can be reversed, allowing for rapid growth when the causes of the psychological and physiological stress are removed.  But I digress. .

During the Middle Ages, like many other variances in humanity, dwarfism was perceived as a sign from God, either a judgment upon the parents (in Game of Thrones, Tyrion likens his position to that of being a bastard–the child his father would prefer not to acknowledge) or a reflection of the inner nature of the individual.

Some little people were taken into the courts of nobility, as a reminder that the noble family, with their presumed health and beauty, had been so fortunate as to be blessed by God, while others were not.  The dwarf, or another person with a physical or mental difference, would be fed, clothes, feted (we all remember the Hunchback of Notre Dame at the Feast of Fools, do we not?) as an earthly indulgence. They were often the lucky ones, in spite of being treated more like pets than like people, because, like other non-normative individuals outside the court, they would otherwise be reviled.  Infants with clear differences were often left, or meant to be left, outside–“exposed” as they called it–to live or die as God willed.  The popularity of dwarf entertainers is attested to in documents of Imperial Rome, and more recently in anthropological evidence.  (Generally more of the former than the latter–perhaps because Little People were considered such a curiosity that scholars and authors tended to exaggerate their number and presence).

Because they were perceived as outside of the natural hierarchy of humanity, they were often granted greater leeway in what they said and did, immune from the punishment that would ordinarily be imposed.  We commonly refer to this role as that of the fool or court jester. Indeed, during the Middle Ages, fools could be sorted into two varieties, the “natural”, an individual born different, and the licensed fool, an individual granted the status of the fool by official notice.  Rahere, the founder of Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital and the church of the same name, was one of the latter.

Tyrion fulfills this role in spades, serving as one can speak truth to power, always saying or doing something outrageous or insulting, but existing in a liminal space which protects him from harm.  He provides humor, but also commentary on the “noble” characters around him.  His physical stature gives him a unique status in his society. Likewise, the “natural” fool of the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance was perceived as touched by God in more ways than one–their remarkable form and their outrageous utterances both having a divine origin implying that they were worthy of consideration.

Such individuals appear in Arthurian legend, historical record, and, of course, the plays of William Shakespeare, where they often perform (like Tyrion) as both comic relief, and vital commentary on the action of the play and on its major players.  Another intriguing literary dwarf and jester was Edgar Allan Poe’s Hop-frog, who reveals the perfidy of the court in appearing to coddle an individual they clearly find revolting–and who then exacts his vengeance for their treatment.  James Thurber presents a dwarf jester in his fantasy novella, The White Deer:  a dwarf much abused by the king and his elder sons, but defended by the younger son, the work’s protagonist, who succeeds on lifting the curse placed on the titular deer and on her brother, the dwarf.

George R. R. Martin, a scholar himself, drew on these ideas to craft a character in alignment with medieval ideas of dwarfism, who both fulfills the role of the jester, and exceeds it.  Like the “natural” fools of the Middle Ages, Tyrion excites notice both within the novel, where he is often referred to as “the imp”, and from the readers.  His presence at first invites us, like the noble courts of old, to marvel at those different from us, and enjoy his entertainment value, then rebuffs this voyeurism by developing an engaging and remarkable human being, in the end no different at all.  Tyrion is someone we can identify with because we have all, to a greater or lesser degree, felt reviled and outcast at some time.  We can imagine his state as worse than ours, then surprise ourselves by admiring him, and perhaps even wishing we could be more like him:  more bold, more witty, more willing to exceed the roles we have been given.

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Dark Apostle News. . . or Not

Most of the time, this blog focuses on areas of research and musing about things both medieval and fantastical, but from time to time it also includes updates about my novels for the benefit of the fans out there.

Guardians at Heidelberg Castle

Guardians at Heidelberg Castle framing a void

Up until now, the Dark Apostle books have enjoyed an annual summer release, the first week in July, which means that I would now be leading up to the launch date announcement, where I link to my on-line footnotes to the book, after doing a cover reveal, and posting a plot blurb and all of that good stuff.  Alas, though I turned in book four in April of 2015, there have been some delays on the publisher’s end, so the book will not be a summer release after all.  The current plan is to launch book four in February, in time for Boskone–making one of my favorite conventions that much more exciting.

But hey, I can still post some footnotes, and give you some things to speculate on.  Book four is entitled Elisha Mancer, and moves Elisha’s journey to the continent, primarily the Holy Roman Empire (Germany, mostly) and Rome, as he tracks down the conspiracy of necromancers who plan to bring Europe to ruin.

You’ll visit destinations like  Trier and Heidelberg.

Meet striking characters based on historical figures from the 1340’s like Charles IV and Louis IV, the dual (and dueling) emperors, and the extraordinary Cola di Rienzi, the madman who ruled Rome.

Go underground in a medieval salt mine and so much more!

And yes, there are other hints hidden throughout my last year of blogging but that would be telling. . .


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Maps and Direction: Exploring a Metaphor

I recently stopped in at a local gas station/convenience store to look for a local area map that will help me think about where to buy my next house.  The woman next to me in line immediately asked where I wanted to go, and offered to give me directions.  On my way out of the store (empty handed–wonder if other people still buy maps any more), it occurred to me that people have begun to confuse directions with maps, as if, having an app for that precludes the necessity or advisability of having a map for the same thing.

But directions and maps are actually very different.  Directions will tell you how to get where you’re going, maps tell you about where you are.  Directions are useful if you are heading to a very particular place.  The contemporary version of directions, from an app like Waze, will give you turn-by-turn instructions, and suggest alternate routes if something goes wrong.

map of a hike I am planning

map of a hike I am planning


the trail description and directions for the same hike

Directions won’t help you find the most interesting route.  They won’t help you find another place you might like to go, or understand the territory you’ll be passing through.  Apps will find you a restaurant or retailer, especially if they have paid for the privilege.  But they won’t help you understand the growth pattern of an area, the way that topography affects the road systems and the lives of the people who live there.  They don’t suggest the landscape, the levels of congestion or the overall layout of the place.  If I want to *go* somewhere, I’ll get directions.  If I want to *know* somewhere, I’ll get a map.

The fantasy genre is sort of obsessed with maps.  It is one of the signs of epic fantasy that the book begins with a map, and some recent novels have several–a diagram of a key fortress, a street map, and a wide-view of the countryside.  One of my favorites series, the Steerswomen books by Rosemary Kirstein is, in fact, all about how the maps get made, and the maps in each book expand from the previous one as the character explores and understands the territory.

But many of the recent maps are really just a set of directions.  They display in a graphic format the five or six key places, and where they are in relation to each other.  Tolkien’s maps included mountains, swamps and forests, just as real maps usually do, and might include places the book isn’t even going.  They sketch an entire world by revealing a sense of the place, and suggesting that more lies beyond the borders of the page, just as any local map will include roads and rivers and mountain chains that parade off into the unknown.

It is useful to know, in an extended work of fiction, the relationship between the places mentioned. How long will it take them to travel through Mirkwood?  Which cities lie closest, or are there islands in that ocean?  In addition to my collection of maps both historical and contemporary, large-scale and intimate, I also have a few hand-drawn maps, where a stranger provides me with not only directions, but an idea of how those directions fit into the landscape.  I think the most interesting maps in fiction are those that operate in a similar way. They’re not just the geography of the place, but also suggest the history and the significance of that geography, like Kirstein’s maps, or the map in Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant, which is drawn by the protagonist to diagram the relationships not between the places, but between the nobles who rule them.

The long and the short of it is, directions are useful, but maps are a heck of a lot more meaningful.  Which got me thinking about this as a metaphor for writing.  One basic distinction many writers make is between “pantsers” who write by the seat of their pants, and “plotters” who develop outlines in advance.  In metaphorical terms, the pantsers are like those apps.  They have an idea of where they want to go, and the app–the muse–gives them turn-by-turn instructions for how to get there.  The route might be long, meandering, traffic-laden–it might be short, direct and boring.  The writer doesn’t know the route before they set out.

Plotters might be more like the people who use Mapquest.  They get all the directions in advance, including landmarks or distances, and a handy overview map that shows how the route fits together, and allows for changing the route and making other choices before the wheels hit the road.  (In case you’re wondering, when I drive someplace, this is how I go, and I try to also print a local map of the last few turns showing the neighborhood.)

But the maps. . .when I am writing something big, I’m not just picking my point A and point B and filling in the bits in between.  I begin with a broader picture than that.  Essentially, I begin by creating the mental map of the space in which the book (or the series) takes place.  With the Dark Apostle books, it involved actual maps of places, plus lots of research about the time period, the settings, the tools of the medieval surgeon, and all of those goodies.

My next project will be a secondary world epic fantasy.  Creating my map for this one involves world-building: in part, literally.  What is the substance of this place?  What landforms are important to the world?  Creating cultures and the settings they arise from and dwell in–along with the flora and fauna of those places (which sends me back to the research books again).  I get to create a cosmology, and develop a pantheon of religious figures and a variety of belief structures.  When I am finished with the brainstorming and development phase of this project, I’ll be ready to print up the directions to take me from the beginning to the end of the first novel–but I will also be able to see the territory it moves through, to consider how that route interacts with other places and other pathways, so I can return to the map and find many more stories.

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How do you Keep an Author in Suspense?

I am an avid follower of the Bulwer-Lytton contest for a truly terrible opening sentence for a book–entries are now open for 2016, if you are so inclined.  At the very least, you should click through to the 2015 winners and scroll down to Fantasy and Historical fiction if you’d like a good chuckle.  One of the finalists a few years back featured the typical dying victim of a violent crime, bleeding out on the floor from terrible injures, gasping as the detective leans over him. . . and revealing with his dying breaths exactly who the killer is, why they did it, and where to go to find them.  Thus destroying any hope of suspense.

Although studies suggest many people actually spoilers and enjoy a work more when they know how it ends, that is rather a different thing from a story having a complete lack of suspense.  In fact, I suspect that knowing the ending before knowing the middle creates a completely different type of suspense. It generates the tension between knowing how it ends, and *not* knowing how it got there.

One of my favorite books, The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, in effect is told backward and forward at the same time.  You know, at the start of the book, that the alien encounter for which the characters are so eagerly preparing ends badly–you know who survives to return to Earth, and in what condition he arrives.  At the same time, you get to follow along with the excitement of planning the voyage, building the team, discovering the aliens and learning their culture.  So the question is, what goes wrong in storyline A, the voyage, that results in storyline B, the aftermath.  By holding the image of the protagonist at his most optimistic, alongside the image of him at his most abject, the reader becomes desperate to reconcile the one with the other, and the ending of the book is actually the hinge point between the two narratives.

The fact of the matter is, most people don’t actually like to be surprised.  Surprises are often disruptive, like adventures to hobbits, they are an intrusion into an otherwise orderly and enjoyable life.  We might not mind being surprised by the details of an event–but honestly, we’d like to make sure we’re dressed for it, and have brought the right number of pocket handkerchiefs.    We’d rather the spouse says they are taking us out for supper, even if we don’t know where, than that they suddenly show up at the office, leaving us suspicious of motivation and looking for the hidden camera.

You see, suspense is at its best when you have an idea what to expect.  A surprise–someone leaping out of a closet to shout “Boo!” for example–totally lacks suspense.  So we are startled, and you can watch dozens of jump-scare videos on YouTube of this exact reaction.  Shortly after that, annoyance usually follows.  But people watch videos of jump-scares for the same reason we enjoy spooky movies or suspense novels.  You go into the experience knowing what will happen, but not when or how.  That knowledge builds a pleasant sensation of tension, which will then be cathartically released when the probabilities collapse and you reach a well-deserved ending.  David Farland refers to this as the Stress Induction/Reduction theory of entertainment.

Of course, individual readers have different thresholds for the build-up of tension, below which, it’s not interesting, and beyond which it becomes intolerable.  Some people love high-tension narratives, others prefer less. Some people re-read the same books repeatedly, in spite of knowing not only the ending, but also precisely how it all happens.  And different genres have different expectations of suspense.  In a mystery, the reader wants to keep guessing who the killer is, right up until the moment the protagonist figures it out, then think “Of course it had to be!”  In a romance, the reader wants to feel the tension grow between the hero and heroine throughout the narrative, but most readers also want to know this tension will resolve into a happily ever after.

I have been brooding on suspense because I am currently waiting to hear back from three different directions about three different book projects.  This is not a form of suspense I enjoy.  I would rather have the spoilers up front:  this book will be accepted, but at a lower advance than you’d like; this book will need another round of revisions; this book will succeed beyond your wildest dreams.  Then I could settle back in my chair, with my popcorn, and watch the sequence unfold until that ending arrives.

This is the trouble with suspense in real life.  I don’t know what genre it will be.  Is this passage of my life a romance, with a happy ending implied up-front?  Or is this a horror story, where my feelings of foreboding will pay off in disaster?  If the next few months are to be a fantasy narrative, will they be of the whimsical variety, the stressful but ultimately triumphant, or the grimdark?  Alas for me, only time will tell.

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