The Hopeful Wanderer 20 – Catching Strays

Pure white light blazed in my eyes. A moment before, it had been the kind of vast, empty night that only farmland can offer. Corn rows marching away into the distance. Stars blazing overhead, etched sharply against the shapes of distant trees and a cluster of silos on the horizon. No artificial light for miles around, save for my own flashlight. Now I couldn’t see anything.

Throwing a hand up, I shielded my eyes, squinting against the intense glow from down the dirt road. Beyond it, I could just make out a hulk of green metal, dark rubber wheels rising higher than my head. Light reflected from cab windows above like the eyes of a wild animal. A row of long, sharp teeth glinted across the front.

A growl. Loud and rumbling, shaking the earth beneath my feet. Diesel smoke drifted to me on the still air, thick and sooty. The light grew brighter, nearer. Then those teeth started up, crashing together.

I stood right in the way, there on the road.

My boots sank into mud as I stepped off into the irrigation ditch. The combine rolled past me and I snagged a metal rung, swinging myself up the side, my mucky boots clanging mutely as I clambered toward the cab. The combine paused to examine a nearby irrigation system, ignoring me.

The cab door popped open. I plopped down into the patched driver’s seat, giving the dashboard an affectionate pat. “We’ve been looking everywhere for you,” I said, or rather, yelled over the engine roar. There was a reason why farm gates had to stay shut: combines would test any escape opportunity. Even worse than tractors. “Let’s get you back home.”

Catching the wheel, I angled us toward the barn, radioing the farmer to meet us there.


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Writing Life: First Rejection Letter

Rejection Letter

I have had, I would say, the unusual experience of receiving an acceptance letter before getting a rejection letter (as opposed to stunning, echoing silence in response to various queries). Yet you can’t win them all, so here is my first rejection letter, from Dark Regions Press for their Deserted Island contest.

Writers receive piles of these. Stephen King even pontificates on the massive number of his in On Writing. So many writers have brought up their experiences with rejection letters, the meaningfulness, the implication that the struggle continues, that I knew I wouldn’t feel bad when I eventually received mine. There will be more. But you know what that means?

I’m writing. I’m submitting. I’m trying.

Maybe, eventually, there will be another acceptance letter instead. This particular missive is going into a special folder in my file cabinet, then it’s back to work.


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Strive Against

Sadie Throckmorton has ambitions for the title of Supreme General. Unlike me, she’s about to get what she wants.

Based off Mage: the Awakening, a tabletop game of modern sorcery, in which player characters Awaken to their powers through resonance with one of five metaphysical towers and by writing their names on it. This is the story of my first character’s Awakening in our Storyteller’s alternate universe. (Doesn’t require any more knowledge than that to understand.)


Sadie Throckmorton has a flare for the dramatic and in that way, she and I are the same. But that’s where the similarities end. For one thing, I don’t have my parents handcuffed in front of a firing squad, but she does. I wouldn’t have chosen to stage their execution on the Naval Air Base runway, but she has. I would have waited for this spring rainstorm to pass, and would have dispensed altogether with the cameras broadcasting to the entire city, but that’s just not her style. Then again, I am not a usurping totalitarian at the height of a military coup.

But Sadie Throckmorton has ambitions for the title of Supreme General. Unlike me, she’s about to get what she wants.

“Ready!” Throckmorton’s voice rings out, punctuated by a timely rumble of thunder. She’s had a Private bring an umbrella to hold for her, keeping her tied-back blond hair and olive green coat dry. He looked terrified when he opened it up to discover he had snagged one with a bright pink and red floral print, but she doesn’t seem to mind.

The firing squad lined up next to her raises rifles.

In my arms, my younger sister, Teofila, whimpers. She has her head pressed against my chest, but I know her eyes, like mine, are glued to the figures of our parents, silhouetted alone on the tarmac, a thousand miles away on the other side of an iron line of soldiers. Despite their sodden blue coats, missing caps, and stripped medals, my mama and papa have their chins upraised and shoulders squared, proud airmen until the end. Rain courses through my hair and down my face, mingling with the tears on my cheeks. I grit my teeth, helpless with rage and frustration.

Mama’s fiery gaze is only for her executioner. “Sadie, you’re going to run this city into the ground,” she hisses. “My only regret is not getting to watch you burn with it.

Throckmorton looks distinctly unimpressed. “That’s Supreme General to you.” Mama spits at her feet.

For his part, Papa’s gaze finds us. More than anything, he looks sad, resigned. They fought so long against Throckmorton’s proposed military dictatorship and all of it amounted to nothing. To this. “Teo, Iggy. Take care of each other.”

The understanding that my parents are about to die crashes over me again and again and again. A sob catches in my chest and lodges there like a sharp blade. I nod.

“Take aim!” Throckmorton continues. Rifles rattle as safeties are flicked off. I can’t even identify those women and men commanded to execute my family; their faces seem shrouded in black. The backs of my eyes and the insides of my ears buzz.

Papa faces front again. Mama mouths “I love you” at us. Throckmorton draws breath for that final word.

“No!” For moment, I don’t recognize Teo’s scream. My arms are empty and she’s leaping between soldiers, bulling her way toward Mama and Papa, throwing herself in front of them, arms outstretched. “No!”

I’m reaching for her, but I haven’t moved. A high-pitched whine of feedback from the cameras splits the air. I squeeze my eyes shut.

“Fire!”


An engine is roaring, volume increasing, underscored with that distinct whine of terminal velocity. Louder, louder. Then, impact as a bi-plane crashes headfirst into the runway, exploding in a fireball of fuel and metal shrapnel. So close that the ground bucks beneath my feet, sending me stumbling. Searing heat licks at my arms and my face.

I duck, shielding my head, bits of hot gravel bouncing off my hands. When I dare to look, another plane follows, bursting itself on the same crash site as the first. Then another, and more, until the air fills with the steady hum of incoming planes. They’re bombers and seaplanes, trainers and rotocraft, sleek and trim or huge and menacing, raining down and destroying themselves against the ground. They begin to stack up, the pile growing and growing until it’s as tall as a house, as an office building, as a tower, before the onslaught comes to a halt.

In the quiet that follows, rain whispers against hot metal, the deluge fusing the mass of aircraft together, rusting them before my eyes. Now they look more like the old war era craft displayed in local museums. Smoke drifts low on the breeze, coating the back of my throat. I crane my neck back, watching as skeletal pilots slump in their seats or half-fall out of busted cockpits. They wear tattered bomber jackets and grin at me, eye sockets wide and empty. I hope that none of them know me.

From above, there’s a pop and a drawn out hiss. A bright red flare burns at the height of the pile, the stick lodged in the cockpit window of the topmost plane. I recognize the craft as the one I wanted to fly as a child: a Hellcat, though its chrome and black flanks are now streaked with soot, its tale crumpled and wings shorn off. My heart aches to know it will never fly again.

My grip slips off slick metal and gravel rolls away from my feet as I begin to climb. The tower of planes creaks and groans with my added weight, but holds, water running down the sides threatening to dislodge me.

I’m maybe a third of the way up when one of the skeletons speaks to me. “What do you want?”

I start but manage not to lose my precarious hold. The skeleton slumps over its dashboard, peering at me through muddy glass. “I want…” What do I want? I can’t remember. Without answering, I continue upward.

Another skeleton higher up repeats the litany. “What do you want?”

Irritated, I snap. “I don’t know! That flare, maybe.” The dead pilot does not respond as I pass.

At the top, I stand upright on shaking legs. The tower sways below me and I bend my knees to get my balance. The flare hisses and spits in the rain, still glowing bright. Beyond the light, another skeleton sits in the Hellcat’s cockpit. It’s wearing my clothes. It’s looking right at me.

Those sockets are black, bottomless pits. Tears well up from within and drip down its bony cheeks. With my voice, it asks, “What do you want?”

Chest heaving from the climb, I blink rainwater from my eyes. At last, I admit it. “I want power” —I snatch the flare from the window corner, pointing it toward the sky— “to protect my family” —a twist of my wrist forms the first letters— “and to kick Sadie Throckmorton” —my voice rises until I’m shouting, screaming to the empty runway— “in the fucking teeth!”

Now my name hangs across the sky in burning red letters above the Hellcat, suspended on nothing at all. “I am Ignado Savio Alvarez and I am not helpless!

I crack the flare stick over my knee and cast the broken pieces down the tower. They bounce off plane hulls with hollow thuds. I whisper, “I want my parents back.”

At my ear, I hear Papa’s quiet voice. “Things will be okay.”

Followed by Mama’s voice at the other. “But not just yet.”


When I come to, the sky has turned orange as the storm clears out, brighter than I’ve ever seen the sky look. My cheek is pressed against the wet, rough tarmac where I’ve fallen; my gaze follows the intricacies of the tar’s physical structure for what feels like an eternity. Nothing has ever looked so beautiful. All the while the metallic scent of gun smoke hangs in the air.

Above me stands Supreme General Sadie Throckmorton. She has her arms crossed and a sour expression directed my way. “Get up,” she growls.

I try to comply, but the world tilts and I slide back down. Having none of it, Throckmorton snags my upper arm and drags me to my unsteady feet.

Gripping my chin between vice-like fingers, she turns my head to take in the scene around us. “Look what you’ve done.” Instead of anger, she practically purrs. Somehow, from her, this is worse than fury.

Around us, bodies litter the runway. Every soldier, the firing squad, all the camera crew, even the poor Private, with that flowery umbrella flipped over next to his outstretched hand. My heart jerks painfully until I find Teo, sprawled like a newborn fawn next to the corpses of our parents. She seems unhurt, but she has Mama’s head cradled in her lap and can’t stop sobbing.

“Pretty impressive,” Throckmorton observes. She hasn’t let go of my arm and I fear she will sense my shiver at the praise. “Could use a bit more control, though.”

“Wh-what are you talking about?” I manage. Hope.

Throckmorton points at Teo, who flinches at the motion. “You protected her. With magic. Or something.” There’s a nasty glint of ambition or mania in her blue eyes. “And you killed everyone else. Almost got me too, if Private Salazar hadn’t taken the hit.”

I inwardly curse Private Salazar at the same time that I feel horrified about what I did. Glancing around, I rationalize that they were all accessory to my parents’ murder and decide that I don’t feel sorry. A memory nudges my mind – of replacing life with death, of compressing space between heart chambers, stilling every single one to silence. I push this away.

“You two are coming to live with me,” Throckmorton continues, tone gleeful, like we’re children again and she’s still our favorite aunt. Like my parents are still alive. Like she didn’t just murder them. She pulls Teo up, who doesn’t manage to move Mama’s head from her lap in time. The corpse flops to the tarmac and I close my eyes, gorge rising in my throat. When I open them again, Throckmorton has placed her palm on Teo’s shoulder, looking at me meaningfully. She squeezes until Teo winces, biting her lip.

“Do you understand?”

I nod, instantly catching on. Teo and I are in more danger than I can comprehend. Her safety depends on my compliance.

“Good!” Throckmorton steers us toward a nearby jeep, yet when she tries the ignition, it won’t start. Despite this, she’s still in high spirits. “Best to get a cleanup crew out here to take care of this mess, hm?”

It’s a long walk to the Command Center from here, but we start marching.


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The Hopeful Wanderer 19 – Butterfly Breaths

I drew in several deep breaths and blew them out, preparing to hold as long as I could. By my count, the constant practice while traversing this twilit forest had me up to a solid two minutes, though I still struggled. I had a feeling two minutes wouldn’t be long enough for what I wanted to see.

Gloom saturated a grassy glade where I sat with my back against a tree trunk, damp earth soaking my pants. A faint path passed through this, the very heart of the forest, on my left, ambling around a massive fallen oak tree. The log itself was ancient, mossy, rotten. Yet locals had detailed strange sightings here, even traded me the trick for getting a glimpse myself. I had to try.

Deep breaths. In and out. It would be worth the price I paid to see this even for just two minutes. Right as dusk changed to night, I sucked in as much air as I could and held. Instantly my heart rate jack-rabbited but I ignored its rapid beat, eyes trained on the log before me, straining in the dark.

A moment passed, two. Faint tinkling jingled through the air. Then a tiny golden glow flared on the log, emanating from a pale mushroom, cap glittering. Scores more followed, dotting the log, shining upon the glade like sunrise. Bejeweled blue butterflies appeared in the air, floating languidly above the glinting mushrooms, each carrying their own sparkling glimmer. Several flapped over to me, alighting in my hair, one on my nose. It smelled like sugar.

Lungs burning, I gasped. The glade went dark, butterflies vanished, the tinkling replaced with mere forest noises, punctuated by my rapid breaths.

I grinned and pumped my fist. That time, I had made it two and half minutes.


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Book Review: The Death of the Necromancer

High jinks rule the day throughout The Death of the Necromancer. The narrative comes packed with every aspect Victorian-era criminal life has to offer, plus necromancy.

The Death of the Necromancer Synopsis

Nicholas Valiarde is a passionate, embittered nobleman with an enigmatic past. Consumed by thoughts of vengeance, he is consoled only by thoughts of the beautiful, dangerous Madeline. He is also the greatest thief in all of Ile-Rien… On the gas light streets of the city, he assumes the guise of a master criminal, stealing jewels from wealthy nobles to finance his quest for vengeance the murder of Count Montesq. Montesq orchestrated the wrongful execution of Nicholas’s beloved godfather on false charges of necromancy–the art of divination through communion with spirits of the dead–a practice long outlawed in the kingdom of Ile-Rein.

But now Nicholas’s murderous mission is being interrupted by a series of eerie, unexplainable, even fatal events. Someone with tremendous magical powers is opposing him. Children vanish, corpses assume the visage of real people, mortal spells are cast, and traces of necromantic power that hasn’t been used for centuries are found. And when a spiritualist unwittingly leads Nicholas to a decrepit mansion, the monstrous nature of his peril finally emerges in harrowing detail. Nicholas and his compatriots must destroy an ancient and awesome evil. Even the help of Ile-Rien’s greatest sorcerer may not be enough, for Nicholas faces a woefully mismatched battle–and unthinkable horrors await the loser.

(Via Goodreads)

About Martha Wells

Martha Wells has written many fantasy novels, including The Books of the Raksuraseries (beginning with The Cloud Roads), the Ile-Rien series (including The Death of the Necromancer) as well as YA fantasy novels, short stories, media tie-ins (for Star Wars and Stargate: Atlantis), and non-fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel is The Harbors of the Sun in 2017, the final novel in The Books of the Raksura series. She has a new series of SF novellas, The Murderbot Diaries, published by Tor.com in 2017 and 2018. She was also the lead writer for the story team of Magic: the Gathering‘s Dominaria expansion in 2018. She has won a Nebula Award, an ALA/YALSA Alex Award, a Locus Award, and her work has appeared on the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Award ballots, the USA Today Bestseller List, and the New York Times Bestseller List. Her books have been published in eleven languages.

(Via Martha Wells’s Website)

My Thoughts

One again, I unwittingly picked up a sequel at the library, possibly because nowhere does the cover of Martha Wells’s The Death of the Necromancer indicate Ile-Rien #2, possibly because my library branch simply doesn’t carry the first in series installments. (Before proceeding to read The Death of the Necromancer, I started Black Heart, the third in Holly Black’s The Curse Workers series and had to put it down on realizing my mistake. Possibly, I myself am cursed.)

However! While the narrative makes what I assume are some allusions to the previous book, they’re explained well enough that I didn’t feel lost without Ile-Rien #1. If you don’t want to check out The Element of Fire before reading this one, you really don’t have to.

What I Liked

Over-Arcing Content

High jinks rule the day throughout The Death of the Necromancer. The narrative comes packed with all kinds of sticky situations, clever escapes, “high-speed” horse cart chases, disguises, traps, schemes, and every aspect Victorian-era criminal life has to offer, plus necromancy. The characters operate on a morally ambiguous level, skirting the edges of ethics without resorting to unwarranted cruelty. (I would’ve accepted something grittier, but it was nice.)

Characters

The ragtag group of Nicholas Valiarde’s followers reminded me very much of the Dregs from Six of Crows, one of my favorite books. I’m sure this has to do more with tropes than anything else, but they were character tropes that I already know I enjoy–the scheming, clever leader in Nicholas, the spitfire master of disguise in Madeleine, the fallen nobleman in Reynard, the surly bodyguard in Crack, etc.

Madeleine herself got not only just as much development as Nicholas but also point-of-view scenes throughout The Death of the Necromancer, convincing me that she functions as a co-main character. On top of that, the plot resolution(s) literally couldn’t have happened without her. 10/10 lady lead character.

There also appeared Inspector Ronsarde and Doctor Halle, who look like Detective Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, but only if you squint. When their names turned up toward the beginning of the narrative, I never expected them to become integral to the story but what fun when they did. Also, Gay Undertones for Days.

Motifs

The apparent main plot of The Death of the Necromancer cleverly fades back into a sub-plot as the narrative progresses, honing in on a comparison of Nicholas’s mindset in his own scheme of revenge compared to that of the main villain. Wells also often encourages the reader to empathize with Nicholas, then reminds us how the other characters see him as someone capable of ruthlessness, how the truth of who he is probably lands somewhere between the two perspectives.

Romance. I’m an absolute sucker for a pre-established relationship. Nicholas and Madeleine had something going on before the beginning of the narrative, with their intimate understanding of each other, their muted pining and worry when apart, their silly attempts at stoicism toward one another. They spent the whole time being partners. In crime. Working together as a team. I ate that right up.

Ending

The final confrontation between our characters and the Big Bad had a lot more running around than seemed reasonable, but the final revelation of the villain and his clash with the heroes did not disappoint. The denouement of The Death of the Necromancer took its time with wrapping up, making sure to tie up any loose ends using elements sensibly pulled from the plot. It also allowed Nicholas, despite his status as some kind of hero-criminal as far as the crown was concerned, to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes one last time, staying true to his clever nature.

What I Disliked

I liked The Death of the Necromancer, but it took me approximately an entire month to read it. (Likely incurring a fee at the library because guess who didn’t bother to renew?) Though the narrative featured many of the things I like–a ragtag bunch of morally neutral criminals, an intelligent mastermind leader, necromancy, a reasonable romantic element, and a realistic heroine–my main complaint comes of the pacing. Much as I said in my review of Sabriel, the somewhat older-fashioned narrative style just felt less punchy and more draggy.

The narrative also suffers some from too many similar names. A number of them start with an R or end in “-ard(e)” so that even up until the end, when I’d become familiar enough with the characters to tell them apart, I still had to stop and orient myself when one of these names reappeared on the page.

Recommendations

I’d absolutely recommend The Death of the Necromancer to fans of Sabriel for the many elements shared between the two, as well as to fans of Six of Crows for the Victorian-era heist aspect. Also for readers who enjoy a more subtle romance and plot integral heroines.

My rating: 4/5 stars
Goodreads raiting: 4.07 stars


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The Hopeful Wanderer 18 – Fishing for Fears

“It contains your greatest fear.” The kingfisher perched in the branches above me preened its green and gold feathers with a long beak and a self-righteous air. “I can see into it. Want to guess what’s inside?”

“It contains your greatest fear.” The kingfisher perched in the branches above me preened its green and gold feathers with a long beak and a self-righteous air. “I can see into it. Want to guess what’s inside?”

The bright bird offered the only splash of color on this snowy morning. Every branch, leaf, and stone bore a coat of glittering ice; pale dawn rays flashed through tendrils of fog rising from the surface of the nearby lake. At the end of the bough on which the bird perched, a perfect sphere of ice clung to a network of twigs, larger than a soap bubble but only just. Intricate patterns frosted its blue surface, delicate and unique.

“If I crack it,” the kingfisher continued, voice sly, “your fear will come out.”

On the lake shore below the tree, I stamped my feet in the cold slush and blew warmth onto my chilled hands, breath fogging white. “Is it heights?”

All I got for my guess was a contemptuous look.

“The inexorable passage of time?” I continued, tone blasé. “The bottom of the ocean? Meaninglessness? Needles?”

“None of those!” the kingfisher snapped, feathers ruffling.

I smiled. “Then it contains none of my fears.” Turning my face to the rising sun, I set off along the shore, boots crunching against thin ice. “Maybe the only fears it contains are your own.”

A stunned beat of silence. Then, behind me, several ringing taps, followed by a sharp crack and shattering glass. A high, frightened chirp. Feathers beat against air and when I turned, the kingfisher was winging away over open water. Where I had stood, a red fox trotted from the trees, watching the bird intently. Then it took off the other way around the lake, as if meaning to chase the kingfisher forever.


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The Hopeful Wanderer 17 – Accessory to Conceit

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Undulating waves of cotton candy pink and sapphire blue filled up my vision, shifting, swirling. Like gazing into a sunrise and finding it could dance. Over and over, the display stole my breath, made my heart sing. Dizzying me with euphoria. I desired nothing more than to keep watching; I wanted desperately to look away. Though I recalled no reason for either of these warring thoughts, they consumed me and tore at me, stretching me thin until soon I must break. A scream bubbled at the back of my throat, unreleased.

A harsh voice in my ear. “Wake up, human!”

I was standing knee-deep in a night-dark pond. Bright green lily pads clustered upon the watery surface and large gray rocks cluttered the rim. From among the cattails growing between these, crickets chirruped pleasant night songs. Cold water and mud oozed into my ruined shoes, the realization of which instantly irritated me. They would have to be replaced. Again.

Pink and blue light glowed from beneath the water.

As I clambered out of the pond, water sluicing from my pants and my shoes, I noticed a large land turtle perched atop one of the rocks. It regarded me with knowing eyes. As I sat down alongside to rest my rubbery legs, wondering how long I’d stood there, I said, “You woke me?”

The turtle nodded. “I guard this pond,” it explained. “Don’t mind my neighbor; he loves admiration.”

Cutting my gaze sideways, I saw a beautiful koi at the center of the bright glow. If a fish could look snooty and dismissive, this one managed it, turning his face from me in a huff.

“You’ve had enough of my attention,” I told the koi. With a nod of thanks for the turtle, I stumbled away, shoes squelching in the dark.


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