Elisha Mancer cover reveal!

Yes, it’s finally here–the day I can share the amazing new cover art, by Cliff Nielsen, for Elisha Mancer, book 4 in my Dark Apostle series.  This volume takes Elisha to the Continent to track down his enemies before they can undermine the Holy Roman Empire, and the Holy Church itself!

Elisha Mancer cover art, by Cliff Nielsen

Elisha Mancer cover art, by Cliff Nielsen

Autumn, 1347. . .terror stalks Europe as necromancers conspire to topple kings, corrupt an empire and undermine the Holy Church itself.

Armed with a healer’s skill and a witch’s art, Elisha hurries to the Continent to warn the Holy Roman Emperor and discover how to stop the mancers’ plans.  But his enemies lurk in markets and churches, abducting innocents to torture and kill, using these slayings to open a passage through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.  If he fights for a single life, Elisha may well become the next victim.  With his affinity for both life and death, Elisha is by turns claimed for a savior, or for one of the very enemy he faces.

When he uncovers a scheme to lure thousands of pilgrims to Rome, Elisha’s hunt takes him from the opulent empire to the ruined Eternal City:  abandoned by the Pope, shattered by baronial squabbles, and now ruled by a madman.  At least, on the surface above. In the catacombs lurks an entirely different sort of leader, a master of death more powerful than Elisha himself.

A one-eyed priest, a seductive traitor, a stern rabbi, a merchant of bones—how can he tell friend from foe when he no longer recognizes himself? Every blow Elisha strikes draws him toward the wrong side of the battle.   When the enemy retaliates in blood, he fights to keep his humanity lest he be consumed by the spreading darkness and become. . .Elisha Mancer

Elisha Mancer launches on February 7, 2017, and will be available wherever books are sold.  You can pre-order now, on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or through your local independent book store!


Posted in books, Elisha Mancer, fantasy, fiction, magic, medieval, publishing, The Dark Apostle | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

What’s Your Sign? Ophiuchus!

It’s not the first time I’ve written about the conjunction between astronomy and astrology–for a long time, they were considered to be essentially the same thing. The only reason to study the stars was to understand how they governed those born beneath them.  But I wasn’t expecting the current kerfuffle about NASA’s new zodiac.

A lovely astronomical clock in Exeter, UK

A lovely astronomical clock in Exeter, UK

The plane of the zodiac, or the ecliptic, is the space through which the earth moves on its orbit, such that different signs are ascendant (that is, rising in the east when someone is born) at a certain predictable time of year, and those signs, since Babylonian days have been considered significant.  Greco-Roman culture adopted this concept by the 4th century BC, giving the astrological signs their familiar names, which you can find in some newspaper columns to this very day.

However, NASA now tells us, the axis of the earth has shifted.  Not only does it mean you were probably not born under the sign you’ve always believed, but there’s a whole new sign:  Ophiucus, the serpent-bearer. Okay, when I heard about that, I kinda wished I were born between Nov. 29 and Dec. 17 and could proudly claim my serpents.  Alas, not so.  I’m curious to see if astrologers are going to pick up the new sign and run with it, giving advice to the serpent-bearers among us (like:  grasp them right behind the head.  If you get bitten, don’t suck out the venom. . .)

According to NASA, however, the Babylonians knew about Ophiucus, and decided to expel him as a 13th sign because it was hard enough to divide the sky (and the humans beneath it) into 12 slices, never mind 13.  So it turns out that this “new” zodiac, is actually just an older one that had been discarded as messy.  As above, so below.  Life is messy, why shouldn’t the zodiac be?  After all, this is organic life imposing our vision on stars that have been around for billions of years, oblivious to our very existence.  Of course, we want to reach out to claim them and tame them, turning them into reflections of our own stories.

Now, Ophiucus is rising once again!  But one suspects the Babylonians were not the only ones already in on the secret.  What about the snake-handling cults of Appalachia, who take literally Mark, chapter 16, Verses 17-18, saying that the believers shall “take up serpents”?  It must also be the sign of the Slytherins, which suggests to me that dark days are coming.  Fortunately, wiki-how gives clear, concise instructions on how to handle the snakes.  Now if they could just give us some advice about handling politicians. . .


Posted in essays, history, religion | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Brief History of Jews in China

Continuing my inadvertent series about surprising cultural connections (and my ruminations on the fact that history so often repeats itself), I recently came across this article in the New York Times about the clampdown on public practice of Judaism in Kaifeng, China.   The article is interesting, but rather vague about the history of Judaism in the area.  That happens to be one of the subjects I’ve researched in the last year for an epic historical fantasy novel set in Song Dynasty China, during the Mongol invasions.

A re-constructed Song Dynasty building in Kaifeng, China.

A re-constructed Song Dynasty building in Kaifeng, China.

When I set out to write a book set in China, I was somewhat at a loss. China has a vast land area and deep historical and cultural richness.  Where would I even begin?  So, as I often do, I plunged into the research to see what might spark some ideas that resonated with the technology I wanted to write about.

Kaifeng almost immediately leapt out as a setting.  Situated on the Yellow River, Kaifeng was the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty, until the incursions from the horsemen of the steppes forced the empire to move south before the area was finally overwhelmed.  As the seat of empire, Kaifeng was home to Su Sung’s astronomical clock (the device which started me down this road) which was completed in 1090.  It was sacked by Jurchen raiders in 1126, then beseiged by the Mongols in 1232-3, though it later rebelled against Mongol rule.  So there’s all kinds of fascinating history to work with.

But the Jews were already there. Before all of that.  Some scholars believe the Jews first settled in Kaifeng during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), merchants from Persia.  According to tradition, they were invited to settle by the emperor, who wished to encourage scholarship in all forms, and had heard that the Jews were learned people. During  a later crackdown on foreign influences and religions, they were expelled, along with the Buddhists (hey–let’s crack down on foreign influence!  A thousand plus years later, they’re doing it again.) Only to return again with trade along the Silk Roads.

A sketch of the Kaifeng Synagogue

A sketch of the Kaifeng Synagogue

At any rate, there was a synagogue in Kaifeng from 1163.  The Mongol empire was notoriously accepting of a variety of religions and cultures, with minority advisors on staff, including Jews.  During the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty, many laws that favored Han Chinese citizens were lifted, to the benefit of Jews and Muslims, among others.  Some new restrictions arrived, naturally, but the Jews seem to have done well for a time under Mongol rule.  In 1368, when the Han returned to power, overthrowing the Mongols, the Han-centric laws returned in force, but the Jews were granted additional land and continued to prosper.

19th century rubbings of the Kaifeng stele

19th century rubbings of the Kaifeng stele

Two famous stele (tall stone monuments) erected near the site of the synagogue in 1489 and 1512 refer to the Jews’ loyalty to China, and the emperor’s decree that they should be free to practice their religion.  The Jews also expressed their appreciation for permission to re-build the synagogue which had been destroyed during earlier invasions.  In 1642 to quash rebellion, the Ming army broke the dam on the Yellow River, flooding the city, and killing many more people than they had intended, dispersing the Jewish community for a long time.  Stories from the era tell of a brave man who dove into the flood to rescue the Torah scrolls from the drowned synagogue.

The Jewish community became increasingly absorbed into the general population, intermarrying and letting many practices fall away, until a resurgence in the late 1900’s.   Even so, there is a continuous tradition of Judaism in the area, with many families proudly maintaining their Jewish heritage to the present day.

For me, as a writer, the Jewish presence in Kaifeng cinched its nomination as the primary location for my novel (working title:  Drakemaster). I wanted to look at medieval multi-culturalism, and that, plus the layering of invasion, siege and rebellion made this a fascinating time and place to research.  The more I study history, the more aware I become of our monolithic expectations of other times and places.  We think of the past as provincial, peopled by isolated groups, who might have traded goods, but little else.  The revelation of a Jewish population in China opened my eyes.  As is so often the case with minority groups, they were already there, and they deserve to be recognized.

Posted in fiction, history, medieval, Mongolia, religion, research, worldbuilding | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Medieval Engineers of Islam

Many of my historical projects have delved into the technology of the Middle Ages, and it’s a topic I enjoy researching. I am always discovering cool things–sometimes things I’m not, alas, in a position to use.  One fantastic example is the work of Ismail al-Jazari, who, in 1206 produced the absolutely stunning Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Devices.

A folio from the Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Devices.

A folio from the Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Devices.

This work details, in words and images, a hundred designs for inventions, many of them beautifully frivolous automata, like a water-propelled boat that sails across a decorative pool while the musicians on board perform on their musical instruments.  A series of tubes and shafts allow water and air pressure to alter, forcing the air out of the tiny flutes to make them whistle.

A boatload of mechanical musicians.

A boatload of mechanical musicians.

Others were more serious.  Religious observance has long been a driving factor in the invention and improvement of time-keeping devices (which I should use as a blog topic all by itself–idea noted), and Islam has been no exception.  One of the more elaborate constructions in the book is for a huge astronomical clock featuring more musicians (including drummers) who played the hours, in part so the faithful would know when to pray.  It tracked the moon and sun, and was able to compensate for the change in the length of day and night over the course of the year.

"Castle Clock" astronomical clock.

“Castle Clock” astronomical clock.

The book is beautiful and filled with mechanical wonders.  The link above to the wikipedia entry is worth following–it describes the different mechanisms employed in al-Jazari’s work, all the cams and pumps that make these devices go.

It may be easy to think of al-Jazari as an isolated genius, a quirk of a culture we now too often reduce to political terms, but he wasn’t the first Islamic engineer of such magnitude, and he wasn’t alone.  Check out the earlier creations of the Banu Musa brothers, who developed their own time-pieces in the ninth century and also wrote a treatise on geometry.

And a quick perusal of the wiki page for inventions in Islam brought up this quotation:  “Syrian Al-Hassan er-Rammah’s manuscript “The Book of Fighting on Horseback and With War Engines”(1280) includes the first known design for a rocket driven torpedo.”  Which even I didn’t know about.  As is often the case with historical research, the more I look, the more I learn.  Here’s an overview on the topic of science and technology in Medieval Islam by the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford.

In fact, the early Middle Ages are often considered a golden age of technology in Islam.  What happened?  War.  The crusades of Christendom, and the advances of the Mongols assailed the empire on multiple fronts and forced an interest in other pursuits.  Religious intolerance and violence on all sides broke centuries of learning and culture.  Did that time set up the on-going prejudice and mistrust that flavors current relations between the western world and the Islamic one?

My father is himself an engineer.  At a gathering of fellow engineers from all over the world, he reflected, along with a small group of new acquaintances, that one key way for the West to confront and defeat terrorists would be to target the people who create devices like IED’s, car or vest bombs, and other small-scale weapons.  They realized they were speaking of engineers targeting other engineers. . . a sobering thought on an occasion marked by international cooperation and good-will.

I don’t have a conclusion for this one, except to wonder what might be achieved for the world if we were able to create a new golden age when human ingenuity might once more be employed for delight and awe.

Posted in history, medieval, medieval technology, technology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Finding a new Vernacular: the Language(s) of Fantasy

I have spoken to a fair number of people who say they don’t read fantasy because of all the funny names–including agents and editors who are thrown off by too many made-up words.  This is one reason I recommend authors pare down on the invented words, especially in blurbs, pitches and queries, where they really aren’t helping you out.    But today, I’d like to think about a different question of language in fantasy–the words of the story itself.

At a workshop at Readercon, the brilliant and amazing Mary Robinette Kowal remarked that what we think of as “transparent prose style” is, in fact, just white middle-American public school English.  It is not magic. It is not a given of the rules of grammar or even of good writing that this “transparent style” exists (if it does).  The remark opened my eyes in a couple of ways and made me wonder if transparent style is even a worthy goal to pursue, or if, perhaps, I just need to revise how I think about it.

Cover image for One Night in Sixes, by Ariane Tex Thompson

Cover image for One Night in Sixes, by Ariane Tex Thompson


cover image for The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson

I tend to prefer writing that is relatively unadorned.  I think the goal of transparency in prose is for your words to readily dissolve into images and adventures in the mind of the reader.  The prose should be transparent in the manner of a window that allows the reader to look through into the world of the characters you are creating.  The words should not call too much attention to themselves, or it’s like distorting that glass or perhaps framing it with something distracting.  Muddy style, with excess phrases, convoluted sentences and hard-to-follow metaphors can so obscure the writing that it ceases to be worth the reader’s effort to view the story beyond.  But I am thinking now that, once the prose rises above that level of distraction and confusion, perhaps a different ideal for prose is in order.

Good writing should be able to illuminate the mind and heart of the author.  In my own work, and more generally in the genre of fantasy, most fiction is told through a third-person, close point of view narration, as if a camera rested on the shoulder, or just inside the head of a specific character for the duration of a scene.  (For those of you non-writers, this contrasts with either first-person narration using the “I” or head-hopping, where the narration skips around through a variety of perspectives within a scene.)

But the narration, to be true to the nature of the character, should be tinted by that character’s understanding of the world, their own attitudes, fears and worries, and their experience or expectations of the scene itself.  The glass should be colored by the words the author chooses and by the details being portrayed to lend weight to the perspective of the individual character.  This is often done in very subtle ways, such that the reader isn’t really aware of the narrative bias–allowing them to be more carefully manipulated by a skillful author, absorbing the perspective as if by osmosis.  Sometimes, it is done much more obviously–as in an op-ed piece in the newspaper where the writer strongly states how they feel about something, and the reader who agrees might find little to object to, while the reader who disagrees would point out every bit of prejudicial language.

The idea of transparent style being born of public school and wide-spread publishing practice suggests that there are many voices being left out or ignored because they adhere to a different standard for language usage.  These other vernaculars–languages commonly spoken–are starting to emerge in fantasy, with some striking results.  Sometimes, it takes a little while before the distinctive voice in a work can begin to dissolve into the window through which the story is viewed.  But I increasingly believe that adopting a prose style that more clearly colors the text can result in a deeper relationship to the story world and its characters.

If you are wondering how this, shall we call it, translucency of language operates in a fantasy context, allow me to recommend a couple of books.  For a step into the Western side of the vernacular, check out Ariane “Tex” Thompson’s One Night in Sixes and its sequel, Medicine for the Dead.  These beautiful and moving works settle the reader into the views of a variety of characters whose thoughts and language are clearly marked by their origins in a sidelong version of the American West.

And if you’re ready to step further outside, then check out Kai Ashante Wilson’s novella “A Sorceror of the Wildeeps.”  The story itself centers on a dangerous expedition across a jungle teeming with rumor and magic, and the language Wilson uses to tell it creates a surprising and dynamic relationship with the characters.  Fantasy fiction is meant to transport the reader, and this one uses some of the familiar tropes of fellowship and quest that hit the fantasy reader’s happy spot.  But it takes the idea of transport one step further, by transporting us into an alternative approach to the language of fantasy itself.  It’s a worthwhile journey, and one I’m glad I took.

Posted in essays, fantasy, fiction, Uncategorized, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Fundamentals for Life

I was recently cleaning up my hard-drive and reorganizing a bunch of files, deleting old things and, not coincidentally, searching for some of my idea notes for a new project when I came across a file entitled simply “Fundamentals.”  I thought it might pertain to the drumming workshop I take (“Taiko Fundamentals”) but it turned out to be a list of reminders to myself.  And so, I share them with you, and hope, in doing so, that I won’t forget them again.

Since this is a quasi-inspirational post, it seems appropriate to pair it with an inspirational image:  I took this shot of Long's Peak from the Flattop Mountain trail.  Someday. . .

Since this is a quasi-inspirational post, it seems appropriate to pair it with an inspirational image: I took this shot of Long’s Peak from the Flattop Mountain trail. Someday. . .


Be present with family and friends.

I feel better when I write.

I feel better when I exercise.

I deserve to be healthy and fit.

Listen with both ears.

Drink a glass of water upon waking.

Posture matters.

If I feel tired, cranky or dispirited, I need to drink more.

Protein for breakfast.

Be thankful.

“You are never given a wish without also being given the means to make it come true.  you may have to work for it, however.” (Richard Bach, Illusions:  The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah)

Do the hard parts first.

Share joy.

Surrender to the legos.

I have worlds enough and time.

Be open.

Pursue adventure.

I am who I am because I dare.

Posted in essays, personal | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Problem of Plagues. . .and other Medieval Usage Issues

I am working my way through my editor’s notes on Elisha Mancer, book four in The Dark Apostle series, and encountering the difficulty of words.  Words are, in a novel, the primary tool for delivering the story.  In a historical novel, they take on a special significance because selecting an appropriate word for the historical context can really make the sentence spark and the work feel right.  And selecting the wrong word will annoy readers in tune with the history.

Which brings me to the problem of plagues.  The Biblical plagues of Egypt, for instance.  In modern parlance, “plague” retains a similar sense:  a plague is, as the OED puts it, “an affliction, calamity, evil, scourge” (a plague of locusts, a plague of survey callers, etc.)  But many readers of medievally set historical fiction immediately leap to a single meaning of the word, which came into use around 1382 to refer to a pestilence affecting man and beast.  And “the plague” wasn’t conceived as a specific entity until the 1540’s.  But basically, I can’t use the word in its more general sense because of the era the books are set.  (for more about *that* plague, check out my previous entry on the Black Death versus Ebola)

But my difficulty with language then versus now doesn’t end with the plague.  There is also the problem of things being lost in translation.  Saints, that is.  While we now use the word “translate” to refer exclusively to taking words or ideas from one language into another (sometimes metaphorically), the origin of the term is actually the transfer of a religious figure from one location to another, as a bishop who moves to a different see, or, more frequently, a saint or saint’s remains taken to a different church.  It is this idea of holiness being moved or removed which brought the word to its present meaning, because the first work translated was the Bible itself.

Broadcast is another interesting example.  Nowadays, we are used to broadcast news, a television or radio phenomenon by which information is shared.  It’s actually a farming term, referring to the sowing of seeds by hand over a large area–the literal casting of the seed.  But most readers, finding the word in a medieval historical context would leap to entirely the wrong impression.  And so, rather than submit to a plague of criticism, I seek a good alternative.

Posted in essays, etymology, fantasy, history, writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment