Thursday, December 31, 2009

Warpsword by Dan Abnett & Mike Lee

I am a huge fan of Warhammer 40,000 fiction.  I think it is brilliantly done, combining a deep philosophical/religious undertone with fast-paced action, a moody, gothic environment, and great storytelling.  As I have gradually shifted to adding a little more fantasy to my reading plate lately, I had been meaning to get into some of the fantasy side of Black Library's buffet, with Warhammer.  Particularly after reading Andy Remic's Kell's Legend, which is cut from a similar mold, I thought that the time was right.  And then it just never happened.  I have no idea why, but my tastes diverged from that region a bit.  Yet, when I picked up the December releases from Black Library, the time finally was right.  The Chronicles of Malus Darkblade: Volume Two, the second omnibus of the novels following the saga of the titular character, Malus Darkblade, seemed like a good place to start.

The Chronicles of Malus Darkblade: Volume One (which contains the novels The Daemon's Curse, Bloodstorm, and Reaper of Souls, as well as the short story "The Blood Price") set the stage, introducing Malus Darkblade, a dark elf who becomes possessed by the demon Tz'arkan, and must search out the five artifacts that were used to bound the demon in place.  If h fails, Tz'arkan will hold his soul for eternity.  While these stories look like a lot of fun, and I want to pick up a copy of the omnibus one day, they aren't necessary to enjoy The Chronicles of Malus Darkblade: Volume Two.

The Chronicles of Malus Darkblade: Volume Two begins with the novel Warpsword.  Having recovered three of the five artifacts, Darkblade sets out for Har Ganeth, home city o the god Khaine.  Here is the resting place of the Warpsword of Khaine, the fourth item needed.  However, Darkblade's half-brother, Urial, wants to lay claim to the sword himself, and he is in far better position to do so.  What begins as a quest of espionage becomes outright was as Darkblade's plans go awry, the artifact may be more (or less) that it appears, and old enemies return.

If Warpsword is any indication of what Warhammer has to offer, then I can't wait to dive into more.  The novel was fast-paced, extremely full of action, and a clever plot that even managed to pull off some dry humor.  The character Malus Darkblade is very well thought out.  He has far more dark in him than good, but he still manages to be a character you cheer for.  His story was full of plot twists, and you could almost feel his exhaustion as he waded through fight after fight and injury after injury.  Abnett & Lee make a solid team, mixing the moody atmosphere with an exciting tale.  The story occasionally felt like it lagged a bit, but that was a rare occurrence indeed, and was made up for every time with an over-the-top action epic the following chapter.

The chracters are great, the setting is excellent for the story, and the plot was wonderful.  The most fun I have had reading a fantasy novel in some time.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Basic RolePlaying Quick-Start Edition

After reading the reviews section of the latest issue of Black Gate on role playing games, I was left a bit flummoxed. On the one hand, role playing games have such a stigma attached to them, that even accepting-of-all-fiction me was a little wary, but on the other hand, it sounded like it could be fun. So, pushing aside any embarrassment, I went to Chaosium’s website, and printed out their free download of Basic RolePlaying Quick-Start Edition, a PDF copy of their $11 booklet. I had only small gaps of time to read, so the 50 page rulebook made good reading that I could set down and pick back up again.

The idea behind the Basic RolePlaying (here on out called BRP) system is that, using an easy to learn game mechanics system, you can play any type of game you like. The included short adventures gave a breath of this, with games taking place in the stereotypical fantasy settings, but also in post-apocalyptic environments, 1600s France, World War II, even a bank heist. The rules system (based almost entirely on percentages) was a very easy to learn system, requiring almost no memorization or searching for rules. I played a couple of test games with my girlfriend, and found the free adventures a little quick and a touch to simple, although I would imagine that is partly because they were free. The scenarios you pay for were exponentially longer than these 1-2 page things. However, despite their shortcomings, even they were fun to play around with a bit.

I think that, to get the full effect of BRP, I will need to pick up some other adventures from their website, and possibly a copy of the complete core rulebook, Basic RolePlaying. However, with limited funds, and the great expense of the core rulebook, it may be a little while before that happens. Until then, we will see what adventures may come my way, but I will make sure to keep an open mind towards role playing, and to look for BRP games. They were very easy to pick up for this brand-new beginner, and had enough to them to make me come back for more.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

“Thunder from Fenris” by Nick Kyme

After far too long away, I was able to grab some copies of new Warhammer 40,000 fiction, and I had to throw all sense of what I was reading next out the window in my excitement to finally return. I decided to dive into all four December releases from Black Library (Two 40k, two Warhammer), and began with the new audio Warhammer 40,000 story, “Thunder from Fenris,” penned by Nick Kyme. Kyme is currently receiving quite a lot of acclaim for his novel Salamander, the first in the Tome of Fire trilogy. I had read a couple pieces by him (see Assault of Black Reach: The Novel and “Fires of War,” the prequel to the Tome of fire trilogy), and I thought both were good but not great. I haven’t read any of the Space Wolf books (all of which are now conveniently packaged in two omnibuses, The Space Wolf Omnibus and Space Wolf: The Second Omnibus), but this looked like a neat product to dive into.

On the planet Skorbad, Chaos had taken a very strong hold, but the work of the Cadian Imperial Guard and the arrival of the Space Wolves had pushed most of it back. There are only lingering pockets of Chaos infestation left, when the worst happens: one of the Space Wolves goes feral, under the curse of the wolfen, and changes into a beast that has killed one of his own. The Space Wolves must track down their stricken brother, while facing a legion of Chaos-infused zombies.

The story was fast-paced, and the narrator did a brilliant job with voices, with interesting background sound effects taken from the Warhammer 40,000 computer game, Dawn of War. The characters were a little too much the same, so that if they didn’t get different voices by the narrator they would be easy to confuse, and the story had moments that let my thoughts stray while I was listening to it. The action was well-written, and it was performed quite well.

“Thunder from Fenris” left me with much the same feeling as Assault on Black Reach: The Novel and “Fires of War” did. Every piece by Kyme that I have read (or listened to) left me feeling that he has a lot of potential and just isn’t quite reaching it. Maybe he did it with Salamander, which I haven’t read. I will continue to read his work, although it won’t rush to the top of the pile, until he hits consistently what he does in parts now. When Kyme is hot, he is with the best Black Library has, and if he kept that up throughout the whole story, I could easily see him becoming one of the most popular authors they have.

Keep an eye out for “Thunder from Fenris” for an hour’s entertainment. It may not be a staple of your audiobook library, but it will still be a pleasing way to pass the time.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Black Library Previews Catalogue September-December 2009

Many of you know, I am a fan of the Black Library, especially Warhammer 40,000, and I have been eyeing Warhammer for a while now. I recently snagged a copy of The Black Library Previews Catalogue September-December 2009 (a little on the late end of that, I know, but there was a mix up in a system and my name got skipped on a reviewer list, not that I’m complaining, just explaining) and thought, for those of you that don’t pop over there often, I’d give a bit of a run down. Also, because of technical difficulties, I don’t have copies of September’s, October’s, or November’s books, so this will give you a look at what is out there, as well as what to look for from the December releases that I just picked up today. The catalogue contains short preview excerpts from the upcoming books, and was a wonderful way to while away an hour.

September 2009

Empire by Graham McNeill (Book Two of the Legend of Sigmar trilogy) [Time of Legends]

Salamander by Nick Kyme (Book One of the Tome of Fire Trilogy) [Warhammer 40,000]

Space Hulk: The Novel by Gav Thorpe [Warhammer 40,000]


Cadian Blood by Aaron Dembski-Bowden (Imperial Guard novel) [Warhammer 40,000]

Shamanslayer by Nathan Long (Book Eleven of the Gotrek & Felix series) [Warhammer]

Space Wolf: The Second Omnibus by William King & Lee Lightner [Warhammer 40,000]


Innocence Proves Nothing by Sandy Mitchell (Book Two of the Dark Heresy series) [Warhammer 40,000]

Blood Pact by Dan Abnett (Book 12 of the Gaunt’s Ghosts series) [Warhammer 40,000]

Iron Company by Chris Wraight (Book 2 of the Empire Army series) [Warhammer]

Liber Chaotica [Warhammer]


Forged by Chaos by C. L. Werner (Book Three of the Age of Reckoning series) [Warhammer Online]

The Chronicles of Malus Darkblade: Volume Two by Dan Abnett & Mike Lee [Warhammer]

Titanicus by Dan Abnett [Warhammer 40,000]

“Thunder from Fenris” by Nick Kyme (Space Wolves audio short story) [Warhammer 40,000]

Friday, December 25, 2009

“The Jekyll Island Horror” by Allen M. Steele & The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks (Part 1)

This may seem like an eclectic topic today, and it admittedly is, but it worked quite well for me. There are two short pieces for us to look at.

“The Jekyll Island Horror” by Allen M. Steele

I am a huge fan of horror fiction, pulp era fiction as well as pulp era pastiche, and Allen M. Steele, so when I got my copy of the January 2010 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction in the mail, I moved that story to the top of my reading list. While “The Jekyll Island Horror” wasn’t as good as Steele’s Coyote Trilogy, it was still a fun read.

Prefaced by a short introduction that plays the trope of “This tale is true, as handed down to me by [story-teller/witness],” seen in numbers of books including the John Carter of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs and many other pulp practitioners. We then move into the manuscript that Steele was “given,” which is a tale of a valet to a rich man in the 1930s, who happens to be present to an incident on Jekyll Island that proved to him that aliens have visited Earth.

Written in pulp style, Steele captures that mood quite well. The lead up to the horror of the title is a little long-winded, but the denouement was a lot of fun. Keep an eye out for this novelette.

The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks (Part 1)

The Zombie Survival Guide is a faux-how-to book on surviving zombie apocalypse. As it isn’t a narrative, it is a book that is easy to pick up and put down, and seemed like the perfect thing to dive into when I am in between novels and figuring out what to read next. So, prepare yourselves for the first serial review here at Luke Reviews!

The first section of Max Brooks book, titled “The Undead: Myths and Realities,” covers a lot of ground, working a background primer, under the pretense that you have to know what you are fighting to survive it. The book was quite scientific, surprisingly, yet it still managed to play a number of tongue-in-cheek jokes to the genre, which is easy to do with its vast history. I read the first half of the section, and had a lot of fun hitting all of the characteristics and rationale behind the zombie phenomenon.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Black Gate—Spring 2009 (Issue 13)

Moving back to the realm of short stories after far too long an absence, I snagged the latest issue of Black Gate off of my shelves to finally sit down and read it. What with all of the bouncing around lately, and Black Gate's over-sized format, it would have been difficult to pop in and out on the bus, so I was very happy to finally settle down with it for a bit. After a wonderful editorial on the origins of SF Site (a website you must check out), and a letters column (that is sadly missing in most fiction magazines today), the stories begin.

“The Beautiful Corridor” by Jonathan L. Howard: A short piece on a woman who is working her way into the center of a temple full of traps to find a holy figure, Howard does an excellent job of keeping the story light-hearted, and the pace swift. This is a very fun story, and an excellent introduction to my reading of Black Gate.

“The Good Sheriff” by David Wesley Hill: Hill presents a “weird western,” with a cowboy from Texas trying to find his way home from a land of demons and monsters. A very well-told tale that takes a very odd idea and plays with it rationally. Well worth the read.

“The Face in the Sea” by John C. Hocking: This wonderful story tells of Viking-like people returning from a raid on their enemy’s stronghold to recover their princess, and one shaman’s all-out assault to stop them. A very well told story, reminiscent of Robert E. Howard. I’ll be looking for more by Hocking.

“Behind the Magic of Recluse” by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.: An interesting article about the scientific underpinnings of the magic system Modesitt uses in his Recluse series. It seems like it would have been more informative to a reader familiar to his series, it was still a very neat look at an alternative to the generic magic systems.

“Naktong Flow” by Myke Cole: An interesting story with more of an Eastern cultural flavor, Cole tells us of a country making a last ditch effort to rid themselves of an evil. It felt like it was less about adventure and action and more about setting and mood, and it fit in just the right spot in this issue.

“The Murder at Doty Station” by Matthew Bey: A light tale that was okay, but not great. Its brevity helped it, but I felt it was a bit forgettable.

“The Evil Eater” by Peadar Ó Guilín: A wonderful story that mixed in just the right amount of horror. Another new author to check out more of. This story of a restaurant of more than good food is a great read.

“Bones in the Desert, Stones in the Sea” by Amy Tibbetts: A sad, poignant, and well-written story that made the cultural in the story seem perfectly incorporated, playing a large part without feeling forced. Tibbetts presents us with a tale of a brother’s love for his sister, and how far he will go to protect what is hers after her death.

“Spider Friend” by L. Blunt Jackson: A brilliant fable-like tale, with an ending that I didn’t see coming, but that didn’t interrupt the wonderful style that Jackson worked throughout. One of the best “modern fables” I have read.

“The Naturalist, Part III: St. George and the Antriders” by Mark Sumner: I haven’t read this one yet, but it looks brilliant. I got to it, but I wanted to save it for another time, as it is a bit longer, and wasn’t quite what I appeared to be in the mood for. However, I promise to return to it, and will give you all of the details.

There were a few other stories in here that I felt rather apathetic towards, in part as they weren’t quite up my alley, and in part because of an overly busy schedule. This issue also contained a number of comic strips, and two brilliant review sections, one on gaming and the other on fiction. I have never seen a magazine have such a detailed, extensive reviews section that covered so many books. It was a wonderful surprise to find them in here. I’m not into roleplaying, so the one section wasn’t much in my interest area, yet I still found some neat reading in it, and glad that I skimmed it on a whim. The fiction reviews section was lovely, and covered far more than the large press magazines do. A wonderful assortment of books were discussed. One day I may attempt to see if I can’t sneak my way into there somehow.

All in all, Black Gate kept my attention far better than any other fiction magazine has. As opposed to copies of Asimov’s, where I find some things I like, and others that just don’t appeal to me, Black Gate contained not a single story that I detested, and only a couple I was ambivalent to. Almost all of the stories I found immediately wonderful, engaging, and very easy to lose oneself in. The quality was beyond impressive, and the extras (reviews sectionS) were brilliant. Anyone who is a fan of adventure or fantasy should immediately check out Black Gate (and their website allows you to buy a single issue “preview copy”). For the cover charge, it contains a LOT of content (224 pages, full magazine size, not digest), good stories, interesting essays, wonderful departments, even an illustration for each story, which is a feature sadly missing in most other magazines. Grab issue 13 while you can, and keep your eyes peeled for the next issue!


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Post-Hiatus Rating System

Now that Luke Reviews is preparing to return, it seemed like the perfect time to introduce the new rating system. The books reviewed before this mark will retain their number, but the new system will be a bit stricter. I wanted to announce the change, so the new books didn’t seem to pale in comparison to the previous ones. Here is a breakdown of what the numbers (out of ten) roughly mean:

10: One of the best books of the year. A must read. Worth reading again.

9: An excellent book. One that I would pick up again, but is missing that “x-factor” to make it a full 10.

8: A lot of fun to read, and recommended.

7: A good book.

6: Above average, but not by much.

5: An average book.

4: Below average, but not by much.

3: A sub-par book. Deeply disappointing.

2: Got halfway but couldn’t finish.

1: Couldn’t get halfway.

I hope that this will give a little more explanation behind the numbers, and will stop the strings of 8/10 that seemed to continue to crop up. This will give a more honest, more complete spread than before.

Welcome to the return of Luke Reviews!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hiatus Until 12/23/09

Finals are here. With the pressures of studying for final exams and writing final papers, Luke just can’t keep up with Luke Reviews. He tried, but there is no time at the moment. So, until 12/23/09, no reviews will be appearing on the site. Please, please, please, take some time to enjoy the ‘Archive’ section, as there are a number of neat things in there, and feel free to shoot me an email [lukehf(AT)] with comments, questions, and ideas for when Luke Reviews returns. Thanks for your continued support, and look forward to the return, because there are some neat things on the horizon!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Being All Over the Place

I am sure that many of you have noticed that the “Currently Reading” image has changed a lot recently, and that there has been a dearth of reviews lately. So, a quick explanation while I hurry and catch up on reading. Finals week has reared its ugly head, as have a couple of bus trips, and it made reading hard. Lots of breaks made getting into books near impossible, when any other time I would have devoured them. So, to make up for this, here are some very brief thoughts on the books that I started:

Grey Knights by Ben Counter: A story following a group of space marines given the mission to stop all influences of the daemonic in the universe, this novel starts off with a huge action scene before moving into a tale of intrigue about a heretic member of the Inquisition. The pacing was spot on, the action was credible, and it stood up to my only other trip into Counter’s fiction, Galaxy in Flames, from the Horus Heresy series. From what I read, this is a solid book, and one that Luke Reviews promises to return to.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins: Collins is enjoying a very minor resurgence in the recognition of his work, including a new Broadway musical based on his thriller/mystery The Woman in White. I had always wanted to check out one of his novels, and I finally got the chance. Collins’ use of language is a wonderful example of all that can be done with the English language, yet it doesn’t distract from the shocking mystery set out at the very beginning, of a woman in white who escapes from an insane asylum. This one will draw you in very quickly, as it did to this reviewer. It might require a bit more patience than today’s thriller, but it rewarded me for it.

A Thousand Words for Stranger by Julie E. Czerneda: A few years ago I read Survival, the first book in Czerneda’s Species Imperative trilogy, and I loved it. It was a wonderful novel. Yet, for whatever reason, it was years before I finally picked up another of her novels. A Thousand Words for Stranger is Czerneda’s first published novel, as well as the first book in her Trade Pact series. This science fiction novel combines mystery, intrigue, and action to make it a very exciting tale. While it contained a few flaws that were shaken when I read the other novel by a more practiced Czerneda, it still contained the raw story-telling power that I look for in every book I read.

All of these books will get another look here at Luke Reviews, under the conditions they deserve. For now, I’ve moved on to short stories, which will help my short time periods for reading during the stresses of the end of a semester. The magazine Black Gate has been receiving a considerable amount of attention and good reviews, so I’m going to be giving its latest issue a read. I have very high hopes.

Thanks again for the patience. Luke Reviews will reward you for sticking with it!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Interview with Dan Abnett

As many of you know, Dan Abnett (author of a huge number of things, to include Horus Rising, Ravenor, Annihilation: Nova, and Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero, all featured here at Luke Reviews) is quite highly regarded here at Luke Reviews (Ravenor didn’t get a great review, but hey, no one’s perfect all of the time!). I recently got the chance to sit down and ask Dan a few questions. Enjoy!

Dan, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for Luke Reviews!

My pleasure, Luke.

Right off the bat, I just wanted to mention that you must be amazingly busy right now. War of Kings just wrapped up, with Realm of Kings on the way, along with both Nova and Guardians of the Galaxy, all from Marvel Comics (I only just read Annihilation, so far behind on the times). You are in the midst of Insurrection with 2000 AD (and that is getting rave reviews left and right) and The Authority for Wildstorm. Blood Pact didn't hit the stands too long ago, Prospero Burns is in the chute, and I just picked up a brand new paperback copy of Titanicus today, all from Black Library, and your first creator-owned novel, Triumff: Her Majesty's Hero has just hit the stands in the UK. How do you manage all of these different stories and universes, and for that matter, how do you churn out so many high quality stories so quickly? This seems like an almost overwhelming amount of fiction for one man to be putting out in such a small span of time.

Well, to be fair some of it was produced a way in advance. Some of these projects are going to press faster than others, so it just appears as if I’ve been ridiculously productive. Having said that, I am ridiculously productive. I find I work better and harder if I’m under the gun a little. A little pressure helps, so I do more work, then more…

You frequently work with collaborators (especially Andy Lanning). Do you find that easier/harder than working solo? More rewarding?

It’s just different. I’m a writer, and for most of the time I write on my own. But that can get very soul-destroying. A lot of writers (and comic book artists and so on) can get a little stir-crazy if they only have their writing space around them 24-7. Twenty years ago, Andy and I discovered we could have a laugh and be productive working together, and we’ve done it ever since on a regular basis to give ourselves a welcome break once a week or so from the solo freelancing life. It’s as rewarding. It’s differently rewarding.

Can you tell us about some of your upcoming projects? I know there are a couple more books signed for Angry Robot Books, and I am sure there is plenty more with Marvel, 2000 AD, and Black Library. Any hints, or are you sworn to secrecy?

Some of this stuff is still to be announced, but Andy and I have got a big cosmic project at Marvel - Realm of Kings - which is gearing into something bigger for 2010. I’m about to start work on my second book for Angry Robot, and I have more lined up for Black Library, and it’s just been announced that I’ve written the screenplay for the upcoming Warhammer 40K movie, Ultramarines.

Who (or what) inspires your work most, either in the field of writing or outside of it? Do you have a favorite author? Anyone we should look out for while we wait for the next Dan Abnett book to come out?

Actually day to day inspiration can be found everywhere for me: books, TV, newspapers, conversations. I absorb stuff for later use (I never go anywhere without my notebook). As far as favourite authors go - my all time faves are Ray Bradbury, Jorge Luis Borges, John Buchan, HP Lovecraft, Jack Vance, Alan Garner... actually, the list is vast. My favourite contemporary author is probably Kelly Link. I adore her work.

You work in both prose and graphic formats. What are the advantages to each of them? Do you find it hard to shift between the two, or does one fuel the other?

It’s nice to alternate, to keep things fresh. You can get tired if you do one thing for too long. Prose is great, because what you write goes (pretty much) directly to the reader. Comics are wonderful, because you get to engage with an artist and develop stories in ways that you couldn’t have done alone.

Thanks again, Dan. Any final words?

Thanks for letting me blah on.

Note: Luke Reviews is happy to let Dan blah on whenever he likes.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

FREE FICTION: Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero by Dan Abnett, Day Five

Luke Reviews concludes its preview of Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero by Dan Abnett, and out from Angry Robot Books. Helpful Links: Reviews of other Dan Abnett works here at Luke Reviews, Angry Robot Books, Parts One, Two, Three, and Four of Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero.


A Fourth Chapter

“Oh bollocks,” said Triumff, and resumed his thrashing attempt at escape. Water churned from his milling limbs. The swordsman ploughed after him.

Almost at once, Triumff realised things weren’t getting any better. A second line of bubbles was arcing around in front to cut off his flight. A moment later, another submarine assassin rose from the depths.

“Give gim gis gay! Gile gop gis gloogy ged goff!” the second attacker instructed his partner.

“Garden?” asked the first.

Triumff stopped and looked back.

“He said…” he began, but then he paused. “Why the bastard am I bothering to explain it to you?”

He set off again, breasting the flood, churning up sheets of spray, breaking off perpendicular to the pincer manoeuvre of the snorkel-blowing killers.

Five yards from the pool-side, he pursed his lips and whistled the first two bars of the song about the Guinea Coast.

Something flat, hard and fundamentally aerodynamic choppered out of the colonnade shadows like a startled grouse. It struck the second assassin square in the visor with a painful, metallic clang. The assassin crashed backwards into the water as if he’d ridden a steeplechaser full-pelt into an overhanging branch.

The flat, hard, aerodynamic thing whirled around, back the way it had come, still making the sound of someone thrumming their lips with their finger whilst they exhaled hard. It landed neatly in Uptil’s outstretched hand. It was Uptil’s “come-back”, a traditional hunting weapon of the Beach folk. It was essentially a flat stick with an elbow, but in the hands of a trained caster it could not only do serious hurt, but also reload itself into its owner’s hand for another go.

Triumff reached the edge of the pool, grabbed his towel and shook the Couteau Suisse out of its folds. He pressed the trigger and got to the rapier by way of only a pencil sharpener and an egg spoon. He flourished the long blade twice to enjoy the bee-buzz it made as it cut the air, and then raised the hilt to eye-level in a salute.

“Vivat Regina,” he hissed, and threw himself at the remaining assassin.

The assassin had never, in all his long days as a paid cut-throat and hit-man, been attacked by a naked man with a rapier before. Come to that, he had never been asked to take on a contract wearing swimming trunks and part of a brass band on his head. The hooded man who’d hired him and his mate in a Cheapside tavern had paid well, in advance, and so he hadn’t really questioned the details at the time.

Now his mate was floating face-down in the municipal baths with blood clouding the water around his crumpled visor-work after a collision with what appeared to be a flying shelf bracket, and he had his hands full with what was known in the trade as a “contrary client”.

There was only one thing he could do, and thankfully (for his sake) it was something he was very, very good at.

He would have to fight him and kill him.

The rapiers flashed against each other in a series of blinding strokes, the cutlery percussion of the blows ringing around the gloomy hall. Almost from the first riposte, Triumff knew he was up against a professional swordsman. He just hoped that the odd venue (four feet of warm water) would be on his side.

It was an ungainly fight. Their upper bodies flew and twisted above the waterline, their hips and legs paddled like spoons in syrup to keep up. It was remarkably easy to outrun your lower body, and therefore fall over, and therefore die. Triumff did his very best not to do any of those three things.

It might be noted at this point that when either sober or desperate, Sir Rupert Triumff was a considerable swordsman in his own right. Currently, he was both. It was even money, whichever way you looked at it.

Uptil looked on, aghast, from the vantage of the bath-side. He yelled encouragement, advice, and a few of the ruder words in his considerable vocabulary, unable to do anything else of use, since the fighters were too close for him to risk another cast of his come-back.

Something caught Uptil’s eye. Something was moving in the shadows further down the colonnade. Fearing a third assassin, he tore himself away from the blistering duel and moved in to investigate. He raised his come-back, catching a glimpse of a robed figure scurrying away towards the bath-house exit, too far away to get a clean cast. Uptil ran after it.

Uptil didn’t like leaving Rupert at such a crucial juncture, but something forced him to give chase, something like a lingering impression that the robed figure had possessed the head of a cat.

Uptil didn’t know much about cats, since they didn’t have them in Beach. He was pretty sure, though, that cats weren’t generally six feet high, and wearing a silk doublet and a cape.

There was no sign of a robed figure in the entrance hall, feline or otherwise. The front doors were bolted shut, and the three bath attendants were bound, gagged and unconscious on the floor of the ticket office. Uptil checked along both sides of the hall, his come-back poised for launch. There was no sign of an intruder.

Someone started hammering at the bolted doors. Uptil walked forward, and drew back the bolts. As the doors swung open, he nearly exclaimed loudly. At the last moment he remembered the Ploy, and settled for a hasty yelp of inarticulate fear.

In the pool, Triumff parried low against the assassin’s backhand, and then struck in, slicing the end off his assailant’s snorkel. The man made a noise like an un-bled radiator, and rained several more blows at Triumff, who backed and parried again deftly.

“You in the water! Stop fighting! At once!”

The words rang out in booming echoes across the Bath House. Out of the corner of his otherwise intently occupied eye, Triumff saw Lord Gull, standing at the head of a detachment of the City Militia at the pool edge. The soldiers were all big, armoured dreadnoughts from a SHAT unit (Special Halberds And Tactics), one of the Militia’s Anti-Affray Departments. Gull looked more furious than usual. If they wanted the fight stopped, Triumff knew that they would be able to do it with just two or three strokes of a skilled pike-arm.

“You want me to stop the fight?” bellowed Triumff, side-slicing with his darting sword, “You want me to stop it? No sooner said…”

He punched up, driving his basket-guard into the assassin’s visored face, and then raked downwards, the length of the man’s torso, with a slick blow that was almost surgical. The assassin collapsed messily into the water, which changed colour rapidly.

“…than done,” Triumff finished, slooshing away from his dead foe, waist-deep in the water. “That’ll teach him to call me a gastard. Afternoon, Callum. How’s the ear?”

A long row of pike-heads pointed down off the pool-side at him, each one ready to thrust. Gull stepped forward between the hafts, and glanced disdainfully down at the carnage in the water. Triumff, smiling up at his captors, could see Uptil, crouching nervously at the back of the colonnade under the watchful eye of a SHAT team member.

“I’m not going to allow our personal differences to get in the way, Triumff, you piece of worthless offal,” said Gull. “As Captain of the Guard, I’ve a job to do, and that involves arresting you for Causing An Affray In A Public Place and Participating In A Breach Of The Peace. Not to mention what looks like a double charge of manslaughter.”

“They were knifemen. Look at them. Paid to do me in. You know that damn well, Gull.”

“Perhaps,” said Gull, with what was almost a smile. “We’ll ascertain that after the Coroner’s been in and Forensic Physic have poked about. Until then, Rupert Triumff, you’re coming with me to The Yard for questioning. You men, haul him out.”

Huge, mailed hands reached down. With a resigned curse, Triumff allowed himself to leave the water.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

FREE FICTION: Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero by Dan Abnett, Day Four

Luke Reviews continues its preview of Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero by Dan Abnett, and out from Angry Robot Books. Helpful Links: Reviews of other Dan Abnett works here at Luke Reviews, Angry Robot Books, Parts One, Two, and Three of Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero.


The Third Chapter

which doth contain a most engaging

discourse upon modern issues

of discovery, and also

a visit to the bath-house

Almost every day, a ship of the Royal Unified Navy leaves one of Britain’s harbours bearing Letters of Passage that grant it the majestic right to discover, explore and, frankly, pillage less fortunate or well-known parts of the globe. On that St Dunstan’s Day alone, Sir Walter de File sailed out of Portsmouth on the Peacespite to see if there was anything of merit between Florida and Argentina, Lord Archimboldo cast off from Southampton aboard the Golden Shot in search of the South Indies, and Thomas Pickering, mariner, sailed his cog the Batty Crease into Toamasina and discovered Madagascar* (and stayed there, which is why Madagascar didn’t appear on charts until 2046. But that really is another story). Letters of Passage, granted by the Queen, were potent tools that gave the seafarer virtual copyright over anything he discovered in the name of the Unity. They were sweeping powers, but necessary. Without such an incentive, it was doubtful anyone would voluntarily spend two or three years in a badly caulked, leaking, unhygienic, overgrown barrel, adrift on the stormiest oceans of the world, braving corsairs, sea-serpents, kraken, bull whales, foreign powers, Scurvy, Rickets, Dutch Wart, hostile native peoples, famine, thirst, drowning, marooning, becalming, casting-away, mutinying, keelhauling, slipping off a topgallant in icy conditions and braining yourself on the taffrail, acting as a human lightning conductor whilst on watch in the crow’s-nest during a freak electrical storm, choking on a ship’s biscuit, scalding to death in the ship’s kettle, being operated on by the surgeon’s mate after grog-rations, smoking in the Orlop next to the Powder Room, going back to check on a lit 32-pounder, happening to mention out loud that you fancied some albatross soup, or, of course, falling off the edge of the world**.

Voyages of Discovery were a dirty, dangerous and complicated business and no mistake***.

The procedures surrounding a victorious return however, were simple. The explorer, bearing his Letters of Passage, was given a respectable length of time to rest, recuperate and get his land-legs back, before he was required to present a report of his discoveries to the Queen. The explorer would be celebrated, paid a considerable sum known as “a Regarde” to acknowledge his achievement, and would probably have the discovered place officially named after him. In return, he would formally hand the Letters of Passage over to the Queen, and, in so doing, bequeath the territory to the Unity.

Only then could further expeditions be arranged. This second wave of voyages would hurtle off along the trail blazed by the original explorer, and, using his notes, maps and gathered intelligence, thoroughly plunder, despoil and exploit the new-found corner of the world. It was the way things were done.

However, until the explorer had made his report and handed back the all-important Letters of Passage, none of that could take place. There was huge money in new discoveries, not to mention honour, prestige, fame, governships and nubile local women, and the Unity’s huge Exploitation Industry therefore waited with eager anticipation for the green light on a new Continent, as did the Church, which was hungrier for fresh sources of Cantriptic power than they cared to admit.

All of this explained the mounting frustration felt at Court over Rupert Triumff. He’d been away. He’d come back, flushed with success, explaining that he had discovered new lands in the Southern Oceans. He’d brought with him many astonishing finds and trinkets, including four hundred and six new species of plant, a lot of non-placental fauna, and a noble, dark-skinned autochthon as an ambassador of the Meridional Climes. Then, months had passed, months in which he showed no signs of making his report, months in which the Letters of Passage idled in his desk under lock and key, long, slow months, which the Unity’s reavers, exploiters and churchmen suffered with increasing impatience, hives, palpitations and stress-induced migraines.

No one had ever taken so long to deliver his report, not even Captain Jacob Tavistock, of the Blue Beagle, who came back from discovering Bermuda with amnesia, and had to have his memory gently nursed back by a team of specially trained Spanish inquisitors.

No one knew what to do about it. There just wasn’t provision in the statutes to deal with a holder of valuable Letters of Passage who was backward in coming forward. They were usually all so anxious to get their hands on their Regarde, buy a big place in Oxenfordshire, and marry a girl who was either a minor Royal or blonde or, best of all, both.

When a full six months had elapsed with no sign of Triumff, the Privy Council began to look into the matter, scouring the many volumes of regulations for a loophole. They consulted the Navy, the Church and the various lords that might know. Solutions there were none. The ball, it appeared, was firmly in Triumff’s court. It was up to him to take the initiative, and up to the rest of the government and other interested parties to lump it.

However, the interlude was now long enough for even a busy Queen to start noticing it, and that, as the Privy Council soon found out, was the one thing they hadn’t thought of. The simple way to get around the legal thicket protecting Triumff was to erase the laws, and the one person who could do that was the Queen.

The only thing that ever weighed heavily on Her Majesty was about half-a-ton of lace, silk, gauze, kapok, sequins and pearls. Nothing else troubled her or slowed her down much, particularly not minor foibles like statutes or civil laws. It was the matter of a moment, and the work of a scratching quill, to ascribe new Letters of Passage to another explorer and expunge the life, property, rights and memory of Rupert Triumff from the land.

Triumff might have been the only person who had actually been expecting as much for a while. He knew it was just a matter of time. He’d stalled for as long as he could, hoping the Court would swallow his ploy, but now he needed something else, some more active course to follow. He needed a new ploy.

That was exactly what he’d been afraid of, because, unfortunately, if there was one thing he really didn’t shine at, it was ploys.

Considerations of the possible size, shape, colour and cost of a potential new ploy, as well as how he might recognise it, filled Triumff’s mind as he paid a shilling to the doorman and entered the warm, damp embrace of the Dolphin Bath House at twenty past four. There was the best part of another hour before they shut for the night, and late-afternoon bathers, seeking a restorative for agued limbs made rheumy by a week of heavy rain, jostled about the place. Their pallid, portly shapes could be glimpsed in the steamy atmosphere, lurking under the green-shadowed colonnades, slapping across the tiled walks, or sliding walrus-like into the pools.

The warm, wet air smelled of soaked stonework, body odour, antiseptic and wrinkled skin.

A meaty attendant with arms like hams and a tight blue bathing cap came over and handed Triumff a clean towel.

“Changing over there,” he said, pointing to the doorways in the shadows of the western colonnade, marked variously “Miladies” and “Migents”, as well as three marked “Sauna”, “Jacuzzi & Cold Plunge” and “’Assail”. The attendant turned his moon-face back to Triumff. “No carousing, no splashing, no bombing and no pissing in ye pool. We close at six.”

“Thank you so much, I know the rules,” Triumff said, glaring. The attendant shook his rubber-capped head at Triumff and wandered away. The cap was so tight, he looked like a bald man with a frost-bitten scalp.

The Migents changing area was vacant, except for hooks full of unlaced doublets, capes, canions and wrinkled hose. Triumff stripped off swiftly, and then, with his towel knotted around his waist, crossed to the frosted window in the west wall. It was high up. He had to climb up on a bench to reach it, and in doing so knocked somebody’s slashed applique pansid slops and heavily bombasted codpiece into the puddles on the floor.

Steam had swelled the window’s frame into wedged plumpness, but three smart blows with the ball of his hand finally knocked it out. Cold, evening air rushed in and stung his flushed face.

“Uptil!” he hissed into the dark of the alley beyond. “Uptil!”

“Give us a hand up, mate,” muttered Uptil from outside. Triumff obliged by heaving the large man up and in through the window. It wasn’t easy, and it took a good few moments. Triumff prickled with agitation as he strained to counterbalance Uptil’s weight, expecting an interruption at any second.

Finally, he was in. Uptil was shrouded in a hooded serge cloak. He produced Triumff’s scabbarded rapier from beneath its folds, asking, “Want this?”

“Right, where am I going to conceal that?”

Uptil winked, and said, “Exactly. That’s why I fished this out of the garbage.”

He held out the Couteau Suisse.

“Okay, that’s actually quite a good idea,” Triumff admitted. “Now, stay out of sight, keep your eyes peeled, and if you hear me whistle, move like the clappers.”

Uptil nodded.

“And,” he added, “if anyone does see you, remember the Ploy.”

Uptil nodded again.

“The Ploy. Right,” he said, making his “lamps on, nobody home” face.

Triumff wandered out into the Bath Hall. No one seemed to spare him a second glance. Already, many of the bathers, sensing the approaching end of the day, were climbing from the pools and heading for the shower stalls. Triumff dropped his towel, wrapped the Couteau Suisse in it, and left it on the edge of the pool. Then he waded down the steps into the warm waters of the main bath. There was a stone seat against the side, beneath the water level, which one could sit on to bask in the relaxing heat. Triumff sat, wiped his face with a palm-scoop of water, and leant back, surveying the place with apparent disinterest.

Minutes passed. Triumff’s hawkish vigil relaxed somewhat as the gently lapping, tepid environment lulled and soothed away his aches and cares. He breathed deeply and shook his head, fighting away the drowsy weight that seemed to have suffused his brain.

When he next opened his eyes, he was alone.

Triumff stiffened with a start. The steady drip of water resounded from somewhere, but nothing else: no voices, no sign of life. He wondered how long he had been asleep. Surely the attendants would have woken him if it had passed closing time? That implied that it was still before six o’clock. Yet where were the attendants?

Triumff tried to whistle, but his lips refused. He was up to his chest in many thousands of gallons of water, and his mouth was dry.

Then he saw the line of bubbles. They were crossing the centre of the pool and heading his way. He caught his breath.

Plip plip plip plip plip, they went.

They were ten yards away, coming straight for him. The steps out of the pool were ten yards to his right. He fancied the idea of clambering out of the pool where he was, using the seat as a leg up, but his limbs felt dull and heavy, and didn’t seem strong enough to support him.

Plip plip plip plip plip, came the line of bubbles.

He became aware of how fast he was breathing.

“This is silly,” he whispered out loud. “I can’t just sit here, waiting to be harried by a line of bubbles.”

Five yards away from him, with a last, ominous plip, the bubbles vanished.

Triumff opened his mouth and then closed it again. He considered submerging to take a look-see. By the time he had decided not to, it was academic anyway.

The swordsman exploded out of the water in front of him like a breaching whale. He was heavily muscled, and dressed in a greased breastplate and leather shorts. His face was hidden by a fierce, full-visored helmet that had been reworked to incorporate a trombone-pipe snorkel and leaded glass eye-holes. A rapier glinted in his hand, and the space between Triumff’s naked body and the razor edge of the sword was diminishing alarmingly.

“Gniumpff!” raspberried the assassin tinnily through his snorkel, “Gie! Gie, goo girty gastard!”

Triumff threw his body to the left, thrashing against the slowness of the water. The stinging blade described a glittering arc, and rebounded loudly off the lip of the pool, against which Triumff had just been leaning.

“Gile get goo!” gurgled the assassin, turning after Triumff.

“Pardon?” yelped Triumff, heading out into mid-pool in a mix of headlong flight and doggy paddle.

“Gile get goo, goo girty gastard! Gore gonna gie gorrigly!”

The assassin’s snorkel tube sucked and farted out the words. Water jetted out of the top of the air-pipe.

“What?” asked Triumff desperately.

The assassin ground to a halt some yards from the fleeing Triumff and waved his arms in frustration.

“Gook! Gook!” he snorted. “Gie…” he tapped himself on the breastplate.

Triumff looked uncertain. “You?”

The assassin nodded eagerly. “Gess! Gie gam gonna gurder…” he pointed to his rapier and then to Triumff “…goo.”


“Gess!” bubbled the assassin, clapping his hands. “Gorrigly,” he added.

* And stayed there too, which is why Madagascar didn’t appear on charts until 2046. But that really is another story.

** No one still believed that the Earth was flat, but there were still many adherents to the notion that it might be unfinished in remoter areas (presumably areas where the hills and valleys still had some scaffolding up, the rivers had yet to be plumbed-in, and cherubic workmen lounged about smoking rollies out of sight of the Foreman). There were also quite a few reluctant ex-flat-Earthers around, who couldn’t quite go the whole hog and conceive of an Earth that was spherical, and therefore favoured the recherché “conical” theory.

*** Lord Marmaduke Latimer, Privy Seal to Elizabeth XVIII, was famous for drawing up his “Compendium Of The Relative Dangerf Of Sum Profeffionef”. “Nautical Exploration” came third, between “Being An Heretic” and “Being Out Of Favoure”, and “Generale Seafaring” came seventh over all, behind “Fightinge In An Foreigne War On The Lofing Side” and “Contractinge Ye Buboef”. Top of the list, of course, was “Being An Potentate Of The Southern Americaf”.

Monday, November 30, 2009

FREE FICTION: Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero by Dan Abnett, Day Three

Really quickly: I am sorry to leave you guys hanging on the next part of Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero. I was on a long ride via Greyhound Bus, and between the trip and the lack of sleep, it messed up my schedule a bit. Things should be getting back on schedule now!

Before we jump into things, I wanted to tell you guys a bit more about this project I’m working on. Renée Harrell has published a first novel (under a publisher-owned creative license), and are hard at work on getting some original fiction out there. Among a number of stories they have out there in the gauntlet is the novel Aly’s Luck, a science fiction action-adventure/comedy. They were looking for a reviewer to give Aly’s Luck a look and see what they thought, and I was quite pleased when they asked me if I was willing. I’m more than happy to do a favor of this sort for big fans of Luke Reviews. Renée Harrell is working on some really neat stuff, and I encourage you to check out their website, which is definitely worth a stop. Keep your eye out, because there will be some great stuff in the future from them, I guarantee it.

Luke Reviews continues its preview of Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero by Dan Abnett, and out from Angry Robot Books. Helpful Links: Reviews of other Dan Abnett works here at Luke Reviews, Angry Robot Books, Parts One and Two of Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero.


The Second Chapter

And so to Soho. Ah, Soho. What are we ever to do about it?

Number seventeen, Amen Street, Soho was a three-storey residence built in the Neo-Rococo fashion that was typical of its neighbourhood (to wit, generously proportioned and not quite buttoned up). It stood in a quiet, well-guttered lane just off the more commercial streets, which was surprisingly decent and presentable considering that it lay only a short stagger from some of the most disreputable taverns and stews in the City, as well as the Windmill Theatre, where the famous burlesque show “All The World’s A Fan-tail Stage” was now in its record-breaking seventeenth year (“Come and come again!” declared Jack Tinker in the Daily Mail), not to mention the Stratford Revue Bar, with its nightly presentation of such entertainments as “As You Lick It” and the ever-popular “Two Gentlemen of Vagina”.

Number seventeen had been built in the time of the ninth Gloriana, and had withstood five unseasonal gales, a Great Fire, two plagues, six riots and, in its more recent history, a number of apocalyptic parties. Rupert Triumff had purchased it with some of the five thousand marks the Navy had awarded him for his part in the Battle of Finisterre*.

His neighbour on one side was a nondescript member of the diplomatic service by the name of Bruno de Scholet. De Scholet was abroad for much of the year, and Triumff had only met him twice. He had come round to complain about the noise one evening in 2003, and then again about an hour later. To the other side lived the distinguished composer Sir Edoard Fuchs. Fuchs had made his name and fortune in the early nineteen-eighties with some top-ten galliards and rondeaus, but he hadn’t had a notable success since the release of his “Greatest Hits” sheet-music quarto. He lived off his royalties and the occasional guest appearance, and was almost permanently soused on musket. Fuchs never complained about the loud parties at number seventeen. He was usually at them.

The effects of three bottles of Old Skinner’s Notable Musket was by that stage of the day beginning to wear off the owner of number seventeen. It was three o’clock.

Rupert Triumff lay supine and rather Chatterton-esque upon a chaise-longue in the Solar, washed in the hazy light that filtered down through the high, leaded windows. He had bathed, shaved, put on a splash of his favourite aftershave (“A Scent of Man”), and changed into grey netherstock hose, patterned canions, and a dark damask shirt, all topped off by an embroidered peascod doublet of beige murray. Only the small grille of black sutures across his swollen cheek hinted that the previous parts of the day had been anything less than respectable. Triumff was idly rotating the large, brass armillary sphere that stood on the floor beside the chaise with his draped hand. It thrummed like a roulette wheel. On a side table nearby sat a half-eaten nantwich. The Couteau Suisse lay in a waste-paper bin beside the door.

A few yards away from Triumff, at an oak desk lined with copies of Wisden, sat a large man with braided black locks. The man was entirely naked, his gleaming skin as dark as turned ebony, and he had the sort of gargantuan musculature that would have made Rubens whistle like a navvie, and Michelangelo place want-ads for a big ceiling. Naked though he was, the man had a pair of small wire-framed spectacles perched on the end of his broad nose. He was perusing a huge book of charts.

The door to the Solar creaked open, and Agnew entered, bearing a tray of beakers. He offered them to Triumff.

“Your elixir vitae, sir,” he said in precisely the same disapproving tone of voice with which he would have announced “The Prince of Wales”, or “Who, precisely, has popped off?”

Triumff took one of the gently steaming beakers, and sipped at it gratefully. At the very beginning of their professional relationship, Triumff had discovered that Agnew could concoct a mulled herbal drink that almost Magickally abolished the effects of alcohol. Agnew, with affected ambivalence, called it “elixir vitae”, and sometimes hinted that it was prepared from an old Suffolk remedy of his mother’s. It was almost miraculously effective. Triumff had often been heard to joke that the Church Guild really ought to check up on Agnew for practising the Arte without a licence. He was not far wrong. The potion was Magick. Just because the Arte had been generally rediscovered during the Renaissance, it didn’t necessarily follow that Magick was unknown before that time. All the Renaissance did was to popularly rekindle the practices that had become esoteric since antique times. In many places, particularly among tribal groups, or in old rural communities, many forms of Magick had survived and thrived, thank you very much, in the form of folk customs, traditions and hedgerow remedies, which is why so many country witches looked on the Renaissance as simply the rest of the world catching up with progressive current thinking. The elixir vitae recipe had been in the Agnew family for so long, indeed, they had forgotten that it was Magickal. All they remembered, every New Year’s Day, was that it worked.

Triumff sipped at his beaker thoughtfully, and held out an object for Agnew’s inspection.

“D’you think Gull will want this back?” he asked.

“I doubt it, sir,” answered his manservant, placing the tray on the edge of the dresser. “But he will, I’m certain, be interested in acquiring some other portions of anatomy… your anatomy, sir.”

Triumff waved the notion aside, and sat up with a yawn.

“What’re you doing, Uptil?” he asked.

The naked man at the desk turned, and removed his spectacles with a refined gesture.

“Just looking, Rupert,” he said.


“Well, it never ceases to amaze me,” Uptil replied. “I mean, your Unity is meant to be the superior power on this Earth, and you know so flipping little.”

He pointed to the charts laid open on the desk. “Africa,” he said, with a sigh. “One of the greatest, strangest, most complex continents on the planet, and you represent it as a fuzzy triangle full of drawings of pigs and loaves.”

Triumff stood up and looked over Uptil’s shoulder. “They’re hippopotamuses. And huts. Look, there’s definitely a door in that one.”

“Well, pardon me,” Uptil said, grinning. “You know, when I agreed to come back from Beach** with you, I thought I’d be learning great wonders and notions from your oh-so-famous Empire, which I could take back and share with my people. I’ve been here now, what? Quite a while. It’s like living with flipping savages. You’re superstitious, uncouth, blinkered, arrogant, and you generally don’t smell all that great. You think Africa is full of loaves and pigs. You haven’t even mastered the simple combustion engine.”

“Hey,” said Triumff, “we’ve got Magick…”

The massive autochthon looked at Triumff sadly.

“How many times have I got to explain this?” he asked. “It’s your downfall, my friend. Magick is the cross you’ve crucified your cultural progress on, to borrow an analogy from your myths. Take my word for it. Yours would be a better world without the Arte.”

Triumff shrugged dismissively.

“You saw Beach, Rupert. You saw the way we live. We kicked out the ways of sorcery three hundred years ago, and we haven’t looked back.”

Triumff took a deep breath, and thought for a moment of the shining glass edifices of Beach, the smooth streets, the gleaming metal horse-less chariots, the smiling, healthy, clean people. He remembered their mpIII players, their Visagebook, and their ThyPlace, their reliable sanitation, their dry martinis, their surf boards. He remembered that all of it had only been possible because there were, in essence, no Wizards of Aus.

“Oh bollocks,” he sighed.

“Just remember,” he added, after a moment, “just remember the real reason you’re here.”

“The Ploy?”

“Right, the Ploy. I’m sticking my neck right out for your folks back home, so just take it easy with the old criticism.”

The sound of knocking drifted up through the house.

“Is that de Scholet again?” snapped Triumff. “We’re not even having a party. If it’s about the other night, tell him to sod off. If it’s Fuchs after a bottle of laughing juice, tell him we’ve joined the Temperance Society. I can’t afford to subsidise his problem.”

Agnew paused on his way out. “And if it is guests, sir? Are you entertaining today?”

“I’m a bloody scream,” said Triumff, flopping into his seat. Agnew disappeared.

“Better be on the safe side,” Triumff said to Uptil. The big man nodded, and then slumped into the corner, an expression of sullen vacancy suddenly investing his face. He began to pick at his ear.

Agnew reappeared.

“Sire Clarence, sir,” he reported.

Sire Roger Clarence, powdered, perfumed, teased, waxed, plucked, lipo-ed, laced, veneered, buffed, polished and heeled in the very latest fashion, flounced into the Solar. Clarence swam in the intermediate depth of the Court pool, and was one of Woolly’s more effective facilitators. Behind him came two pike-men of the Royal Household, sweltering in full beefeater uniform. They were meant to be in attendance, but one of them had caught the head of his polearm in the staircase ceiling, and they were both engaged in freeing it. Clarence paused in the doorway for dramatic effect, realised his dramatic effect was still outside on the landing fighting with three yards of halberd, and decided to make the best of things as they were. He waved Agnew aside with a lace nosegay so stuffed with scent it made the grim man gag, and turned to Triumff.

“Felicitations, stud,” he said, “I hope I’m not intruding, but it’s Court business.”

Triumff looked up from the book on fly fishing he had been pretending to read.

“Well, I never,” he said, smiling dangerously, “Roger Clarence, the man of whom they say in hushed whispers ‘his name is not an instruction’. Come in. Can I get you a diet malmsey, or would you like something stiffer with a cherry in it?”

Clarence turned up his nose and closed his eyes in protest. “You are an awful man, Triumff. So common. So unreconstructed.”

Triumff got to his feet and closed the book.

“Things must be slow at Hampton today to get you down to the sleazy end of town. Or are you slumming?” he asked.

Clarence looked at him contemptuously, and then shook open the newspaper he had been carrying under his arm. “Have you seen the rag this morning?”

Triumff took the paper and studied it. “Times Bingo… Coffers to be won?”

“The headline, you monstrous man! ‘New Continent Expedition Still In Doubt’. The Council’s sent me down here to gee you up. De la Vega’s expedition is champing at the bit. When the hell are you going to make your report?”

“When I’m ready,” said Triumff. “When I’ve assembled all the facts. I’m still studying the trinkets I brought back.”

Clarence eyed the hulking figure of Uptil, who was staring into space with empty eyes.

“Hnh,” Clarence murmured. Then he remembered himself and turned to glare at Triumff. “Well, Rupert, let me tell you, they’re reaching the end of their tether at Court. They’re saying your lack of enthusiasm proves there’s something down there worth exploring, something you’re keeping to yourself. De la Vega won’t be gainsayed for long. The time will come when the Queen will grant him his Letters of Passage anyway.”

“The Queen?”

“Yes, the Queen. She’s getting impatient.”

“The Queen?”

Clarence looked around the Solar with artificially wide eyes.

“Is there an echo?” he asked. “Yes, old Three Ex herself. Don’t fool yourself, Rupert, it’s been a decade since you were her blue-eyed boy. You’ve been away for three years, and you’ve hardly been a constant presence at Windsor since you’ve been back. De la Vega’s her favourite now, and Slee has her ear. The day’s long gone when you could string her along by force of your charm alone.”

Triumff glowered and sat down heavily.

“Cheer up, stud. All it takes is you attending on Her Majesty for an afternoon with your report. The Council will look it over too. Then you’ll be in her good books, and the whole Australia business can get under way.”

“Another month–”

“One week. That’s her final word. If I were you, I’d get it done and dusted before the Masque this Saturday. And please understand she’s being generous. You’ve had a year already. God knows, if you hadn’t once been her favourite, she’d have carted you off to the Tower months ago, and gone ahead regardless.”

Triumff’s shoulders sagged, and he looked at the floorboards, a dismal expression on his face.

“I’ll see you at Court then,” said Clarence, heading for the door. “Don’t disappoint her. It’s your head. And remember, this was a friendly warning. She could have sent a detachment of huscarls.”

Clarence paused in the doorway. He took a small fold of paper out of his tunic pocket. It was sealed with a ribbon. He tossed it to Triumff.

“By the way,” he said, “that was on your doorstep.”

Triumff caught the slip neatly.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Far be it from me to read another man’s personal correspondence,” smiled Clarence, “but it appeared to be an invitation from a man asking you to meet him at the Dolphin Baths at four-thirty. There’s a whole side to you I don’t know about, isn’t there? Vivat Regina!”

Triumff leapt to his feet, but Clarence had gone, taking his pike-men with him, and leaving nothing but a stench of cologne and a ragged hole in the plaster of the staircase ceiling.

“Clarence! What man? What man? Come back here!”

Triumff looked back from the stairhead. Agnew and Uptil were staring at him.

“Things,” Triumff said to them dolefully, “are turning so pear-shaped, they wouldn’t look out of place up a tree with a partridge.”

* With a rag-tag, badly victualled squadron (seven pinnace, three sprightly Hawkins, two luggers, half-a-dozen ketch and a galleasse) led by his own flagship, a hundred-gun galleon called the Blameless, Triumff had engaged and annihilated a flota of Portuguese Privateers off Finisterre in the summer of 2002. The pirate fleet, forty-strong, had been harrying Spanish treasure ships from the New World. The Admiralty later referred to Triumff’s tactics as “The instinctive genius of a man in whose veins runs salt-water, not blood.” The Times described it as “Typical and extremely jammy.” Triumff’s famous line at the hour of victory (“Oh, Spain! Sleep easy in thy bed, for England hath set thy foe to flight!”) is now reckoned to be a product of dramatic licence on the part of the battle correspondent. It is likely that what Triumff really said was “Suck on it, you gob-shites!”

** “Australia”, the terra incognito, is only the working name the Unity has given to the vast southern continent Rupert discovered. Many other names vie for popularity: “Lucach”, “Maletur”, “New Virginia” and “The Vast Southern Continent” are all contenders. “Beach” is a literal translation of the name Uptil’s people have for their land and, as such, is the best choice. As with all these things however, it doesn’t stand a cat in hell’s chance of being accepted formally.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

FREE FICTION: Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero by Dan Abnett, Day Two

Luke Reviews continues its preview of Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero by Dan Abnett, and out from Angry Robot Books. Helpful Links: Reviews of other Dan Abnett works here at Luke Reviews, Angry Robot Books, Part One of Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero.


At the very same moment that the Laird of Ben Phie was divorced from his left ear in Chitty Yard by means of a novelty potato peeler, the six days of solid rain came to an end. Spent clouds, wrung dry, slouched off grumpily towards Shoeburyness and the sea. A tearful sun, pale as a smoky candle, appeared over the Square Mile. The City’s mood swung.

At Leadenhalle, the cheap was reconvened amid over-enthusiastic announcements of apres-deluge bargains. By the Gibbon Watergate, on the Embankment, the men of the Cisterns and Ducts Guild slouched back the hoods of their oilskins and exchanged knowing, professional nods that hid their relief. In the stable adjoining the Rouncey Mare, Boy Simon woke up and remembered his own name after only a few minutes’ concentration.

The City shook itself dry. Casements creaked open in swollen wood frames. Damp boots were upturned on hearths. The residents of the ditch-quarters began to bail out their homes with a blithe London cheeriness that had been called “blitz-spirit” ever since the airship raids of the Prussian Succession. The marshy reek of drowned vegetation that had permeated the City for a week began to be replaced by the reassuringly familiar odour of refuse. In Cambridge Circus, pedestrians skirted a beached sea-bass gasping out its last moments on the cobbles.

Within an hour of the sea-change in the climate, one of the Billingsgate mongers sold a pint of shrimp, and there was considerable rejoicing. Within ninety minutes, a troop of the City Militia in Babcock Gardens began the onerous, though unusual, task of returning the barge Mariette Hartley to the river three hundred yards away. Several of the City’s bolder cats were seen for the first time in six days.

Two minutes before St Dunstan’s clock tower struck eleven, one of the faithful finally sold a lace memento to a passer-by. The parson of St Dunstan’s began a short service of thanks, and his congregation struck up with the Old Seventy-Sixth (“Though the fence is sharp, my Lord hath riches waiting”). Across the street, the Sisters of the Justified Madonna, who had ceremonially disrobed, pressed most of themselves against the windows, and shouted out messages of congratulation and other heart-warming communiques.

St Dunstan’s flock hurried indoors on the advice of the parson, all except a lingering choirboy, who was later assured by most of the congregation that he was irrevocably destined to have his eyes put out in the Fierce Smithy of Hades.

By noon, the sun had coaxed a mist of evaporation out of the Capital. Every inch of wood: every bridge-post, every newel, every beam, every door in the City groaned and sighed. From the villages and hamlets around the outskirts, it was possible to hear the complaints of the drying metropolis, faintly and distantly, like an elderly relative stumbling out of bed next door. A goat-herd in the Brent Woods, sheltering from the downpour under a broad oak, heard the faraway groaning, and cheered up, anticipating imminent relief from his misery.

At Richmond, the terraces, beds, rows, lawns, mazes, arbours and quincunxes of the Royal Palace blinked away the dew and woke up. Ornamental ponds finally stopped being choppy, and their lily pads drifted to rest, becalmed. The gardeners oiled and unleashed the mower from its lair near the boathouses. The Beefeaters started to whistle as they took off their weatherproofs and cycled off on their patrols. Maids on the south terrace began to beat carpets with wicker paddles, and maids by the wash-house began to hang out a week’s worth of damp laundry. Boar and turkey, penned in an enclosure north of the Chase, noted the approach of the Assistant Under-Chef with heavy hearts, and jostled the weakest present to the front.

On a gravel walk along the paddock, Cardinal Woolly of the United Church crunched maze-wards, with two pike-men and a small, obedient civilian in attendance. The cardinal’s robes were rich to the point of Papery. The civilian’s hose was all but out at the knees. Tugging at his ill-fitting ruff as he followed the cardinal, the civilian moistened the end of his lead-stick on his tongue and pulled open his notebook. He was a nondescript, bearded man with tawny hair, long at the back and absent at the front. His ear was punctuated with a gold ring. His name was Beaver, and being me, your servant the writer, he will have no further words wasted upon him.

“Know then, Master Beaver,” said his worship, “that the following declaration may be printed with my approval in your periodical.”

“Right ho, cardinal,” quoth I (Wllm Beaver).

The cardinal continued.

“Hereby, it is made known that her most Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth XXX, Mistress of All Britain, Empress of the Anglo-Español Unity, Defender of the Cantrips, Protector of the Jinx… and so on. You know the form and style, Beaver.”

“Ex Ex Ex, uh huh, right ho,” I said, nodding.

“Hereby, it is made known that Her Majesty has no comment yet to make on the seriousness of the threat made to the Channel Bridge by the Liberte Gauloise subversives, nor on the unsound rumours reaching our ears from Wiltshire. However, on the matter of the Great Masque this weekend, it is announced that it will now go ahead, thanks to the change in weather. Further, on the subject of the Spanish insistence of an expedition, forthwith, to the new-found Continent, Her Majesty is still awaiting consultation with said Continent’s discoverer, Captain Sir Rupert Triumff.”

Tee-Arr-Eye-umff… uh uh. Right ho. Go on, your holiness.”

“Sir Rupert maintains that the Terra Australis is a diverting realm, but largely lacking in precious metals or other exploitable resources. Further, its people are said to be ignorant of the ways of ensorcelment. Given the grave hardship of a journey to the New South Lands, he considers further missions there unworthy of the cost and effort. In this, the Privy Council and the Church are yet to agree. There is much still to be reckoned out. And all, of course, depends upon Sir Rupert presenting his Letters of Pa– Excuse me.”

We paused, at the turn of the paddock walk, as a Great Dane the size of a pony shambled across our path, trailing its lead and carrying a rose trellis in its mouth, complete with climbing rose. The cardinal sent one of the pike-men after it. We could hear his calls of “Easy boy, easy boy!” disappearing down towards the lake.

“Any official comment, your worship, on the rumour that Captain Gull of the Royal huscarls is currently minus an ear?”

“None whatsoever,” snapped the cardinal. “Ask him yourself.”

“I did,” said Beaver.

“What did he say?”

“He didn’t appear to hear the question, sir,” I admitted.

There was a splash from the direction of the lake. The hound retraced its steps across our path, dragging a chewed halberd instead of the trellis. The cardinal turned to the other pike-man. I closed my book with a shrug. The press conference was over.

The emerald privet of the Inigo Maze stood before us. A blue kite sporting the Royal Crest scudded along above it, its line secured to some moving point amid the leafy walls. We heard the unmistakable sound of female sniggering. Woolly straightened his robes, cleared his throat, and headed for the entrance arch of the maze.

“Your Majesty?” he called gently.

I felt suddenly chilly, despite the sun. I rubbed my beard in a nervous gesture particular to myself, and beat a retreat towards the gatehouse on the City Road.

Some fourteen miles west of the Palace, the timbered Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park shook with the sound of tramping boots and yapping bow-hounds, those robust, lugubrious, liver-spotted retrievers from Abyssinia, noted for their reliability as hunting dogs, their extensive dewlaps, and their copious spittle. “Drooling like a fine bow” is a common expression across the Unity. Almost every physical aspect of a bow-hound seems to loll.

A watercolour sky of the most dilute blue washed around the swollen sun. Fine mist, like cold smoke, rose from the soggy nettles and elderbushes, around about, and wafted through the forest of beech, mature oak and hawthorn. Distantly, fallow and roe, preternaturally sensing that something was up, scattered from deer-licks into the early afternoon.

The Windsor Lodge had been built for the twenty-fourth Elizabeth as a gift from the Duke of Cartagena, one Gonzalo de Ruiz, a keen huntsman and keener suitor to the Royal Personage. Many at Court said it was the Lodge that had put the final nail in Gonzalo’s coffin. This was untrue. The final nail had been put in by one Ralph Logge, a joiner from Church End, but it was a safe bet that Logge had only got the job as a direct result of Gonzalo’s gift. Elizabeth XXIV was less than enthusiastic about the pastime of inserting iron-barbed darts into fleeing deer at very high velocity through holes not previously there. Poor Gonzalo, blinded by the double visors of love and ambition, failed to realise this, and would attend the Gloriana at Windsor regularly, wearing the latest chequered hunting-breeches, the most fashionable stalking-doublets, tweedy sporting hats with ear flaps, and bandoliers packed full of lures, calls, whistles, castanets and a comprehensive trousse de chasse that contained so many specialised blades it could have armed an entire company of Landsknechts and still have some bits spare to hang over the fireplace.

Gonzalo would attempt to distract Her Majesty with discourses on the correct stringing of the composite bow, the training of the dog pack, the pros and cons of the frog-crotch barb, crossbows for pleasure and profit, detecting grot-worm in the stools of bow-hounds, and sundry other secrets of the huntsman’s art. Frequently, he would invite the Queen to join him for an afternoon in the Park. She always declined, having pressing business of national import to attend to in the Star Chamber. Elizabeth XXIV’s private diaries reveal that the “pressing business of national import” was almost always a game of tiddlywinks with members of the Privy Council. They also relate that she referred to Gonzalo as “that smelly maniac with the arrows”.

Eventually, Gonzalo became desperate for some sign of progress in his suit, and forced things by making a gift of the hunting lodge to the Queen. He had it designed by the celebrated architect Morillo of Barcelona, who devised it to be “churrigueresque”. Technically speaking, this was a style characterised by twisted columns, broken and arched pediments, and pilasters with more than one capital. In practice, it was an overly enthusiastic wealth of decoration beneath which the actual structure of the building was largely hidden. Morillo assured Gonzalo that this was “the latest thing”.

Elizabeth was certainly impressed by the gift. Within a week, she’d had Gonzalo beheaded on a charge of Conspiring To Mock The Royal Person. Elizabeth XXIV is reckoned to have been a mild and gentle queen, so the affair vividly demonstrates that there’s only so far you should push a monarch.

On that misty St Dunstan’s Day afternoon, the men who emerged from the Lodge had thoughts of the hapless Gonzalo and his ill-advised churrigueresque very far from their minds. (Apart, obviously, from passing thoughts such as “If this is a broken and arched pedimental ornamentation, where’s the bloody door?” And “How the bastard do you get out of this benighted shed?”)

Leading out the beaters, the pack and the hound-master was Sir John Hockrake, Duke of Salisbury, resplendent in his green stalking gaiters and leaf-pattern tabard. Salisbury, a rotund, gouty ox, was one of the richest men on the mainland, and one of the country’s largest landowners to boot. His Court influence, however, was scant, as he and the Queen had precious little time for one another. It had something to do with the Queen’s manners, and Salisbury’s complete lack of them.

The Duke of Salisbury hawked in a rasping noseful of air, coughed, and spat what appeared to be an entire bed of shucked oysters into the nearby scrub.

“Let’s be off!” he bellowed to all present, and flourished his cry with a fanfare of expelled wind that trained men with bugles would have been sore pressed to mimic. The bow-hounds set to yapping excitedly.

Roustam Allasandro de la Vega, Regent of Castile, Governor of Toledo and victor of Lille, scowled at the obese Duke as he followed him out of the Lodge. An athletic, handsome six-footer, reputed world-master with the rapier, de la Vega busied himself with checking the brace of pearl-inlaid matchlocks that his bearer carried for him. The noblest of Spanish blood ran in de la Vega’s veins, but the pressure of that blood was not as low and tranquil as one might expect in a high-born aristocrat. Steadily, through the preceding century, the power of the Unity had swung further and further towards Britain and the demi-goddess Glorianas. Resentful frustration underlay most of the Spanish politicking, and behind the pleasant smiles and the charming manners of their regal scions lay rancour and unrest. In Madrid, Zaragoza, Sevilla and Salamanca, the pamphleteers cranked out bitter diatribes about “the Virgin thief” and the “scales of partnership overbalanced”. A constitutional crisis loomed across the Unity, and even the most Anglophile of commentators foresaw a time, not far away, when the Queen would have to begin to make reparations that restored the potency of the Spanish political machine.

But Roustam de la Vega wasn’t going to wait for some unspecific time. He had always been a man of action, and his action always got him what he wanted.

He took one of the primed matchlocks, and trial-aimed it at a distant tree-bole. Salisbury looked at the firearm in disgust.

“Good hunting today, you think, señors?” de la Vega asked, by way of making things more convivial.

“Poor as I reckon for you, if you persist with that black powder nonsense,” growled Salisbury. “A stout bow of English yew is good enough for me.”

“My dear Regent,” said Lord Slee diplomatically as he joined them from the Lodge, pulling on his leather bow-string protectors, “I for one am keen to see your new devices in operation. I trust they will not alarm the pack?”

Salisbury stooped with a wheeze to knuckle-rub the scalp of a panting bow-hound that worried at his heels.

“These dogs don’t scare for nothing,” he observed, rising again and shaking the ropes of dog-drool from his hand. “Don’t you fret, Slee. My men trained ’em well.”

“Good, good!” smiled Slee, thinly. He and de la Vega exchanged knowing grins that Salisbury was too busy to see. They were grins of tolerance. Slee clicked his fingers and called for his bow and quiver. He tested the tension, and exchanged a little technical wisdom with the bow-master.

Robert Slee was a short, mobile man of forty-three, his patrician’s profile set off by a receding head of silver hair. He owned ancestral lands in Hertfordshire and Essex, but his power stemmed entirely from a hard-won career in law, through the Inns of Court and Whitehall. He had won himself a seat in the Privy Council, and was tipped to take the post of Lord Privy Seal from Thomas Arbuthnot before the year was out. Slee’s scholarship and learning was admired across the Unity. His many books and treatises were required reading for all young men with political aspirations. It was said he spoke and wrote nine languages. He had travelled extensively, and participated in some of the most formidably important legislation of the last six Parliaments. His only fault, it seemed, was his lack of charm, which was often remarked upon. Dignitaries from across Europe queued up eagerly to meet the author of such articulate writings, and they were all disappointed. In the flesh, Slee was a cold, dry, plaster-of-Paris man. No one actively disliked him, but he’d have had trouble forming a cricket side if he only called on his friends.

The Divine Aleister Jaspers, fourth and final member of the illustrious party, joined his three waiting companions from the Lodge, and took a pair of polished Swiss crossbows from a waiting bearer. An austere young man with fleshy lips and cropped hair, Jaspers wore the knee-length robes of the Magickians’ Union. When the Arte of Magick had been rediscovered, the Church had been forced to accept and accommodate it, or be ousted from the structures of power. The Protestants had simply enlarged their doctrines. The Catholic Church had “fortuitously” discovered six more books of the New Testament in a cave in Sinai, all of which thoroughly expanded the motif of “moving in mysterious ways” to include Magick. This additional doctrine was included in the very first edition of the Steve Gutenberg Bible, and its textual authority was embraced rapidly by the Church of England, which was, at that time, an uneasy blend of Catholic pomp and Protestant simplicity, and formed one of the fundamental tenets of belief. The Church of England became, in time, the United Church, and absorbed almost all the other Christian religions of the Unity (except for various underground movements and secret societies, and, of course, the Bollards of Ghent, the Stevenage Prurients, and the Vatican, who were allowed to continue as usual if they didn’t bother anyone). The Church closely regulated all official usage of Magick through the Magickians’ Union, which was part Trade Guild and part Holy Order. All members of the Union were skilled and potent users of the Arte, answering only to the Queen, the Privy Council and the Church cardinals. Through them, the Cantrips and the Jinx were operated for domestic use.

Jaspers also displayed the collar pin of Infernal Affairs, the Union’s disciplinary department, charged with investigating and punishing any individuals conducting unauthorised dabbling in the Arte. Jaspers was reckoned to be Infernal Affairs’ finest. His twinned powers of Magick and Prosecution gave him a status at Court far, far above his actual social rank.

“Are we ready?” he asked, smoothly, examining with hooded eyes the oiled, machined perfection of his weapons. To the other three, his soft voice sounded like Turkish Delight: sweet, rich, intense, and the sort of thing you can quickly have enough of.

“I ’ope you won’t be using any Goety to improve yorn aim,” commented Salisbury to the Divine. There was a pause. Even the agitation of the hunting dogs skirled to a halt. A shadow passed over the sun. Salisbury, unaccountably cold for a moment, looked into Jaspers’s piercing eyes. What he saw there, he patently didn’t like.

Slee stepped forward quickly, and executed what was, on balance, probably the most graceful diplomatic manoeuvre of his career. He said, “Ha ha! As if!”

“As if!” joined Roustam de la Vega, catching on quickly, and adding his deep laugh to Slee’s thin, piping chuckle. Only Salisbury, who seemed incapable of getting anything out of his voicebox, didn’t laugh. In ten seconds, his tomato-red face had become cabbage-white. He managed a pale, valiant smile.

Jaspers smiled too, though it was not a reassuring smile.

“As if,” he echoed. Then he turned, and sauntered away towards the dog-pack and the hunt-team.

Salisbury sagged, and then, as his colour flushed back, he busied himself volubly with unnecessary checks of the hounds and their handlers.

“Close,” whispered Slee to de la Vega, as they stood, side by side, buttoning up their coat collars. “Your assistance was appreciated. Salisbury is profoundly clumsy in almost every respect, politics included. No wonder the Queen can’t abide him.”

De la Vega smiled dryly, and said, “I’m not about to marry him myself, my good Lord Slee. If it weren’t for his considerable financial reserves I’d be more than happy to be part of a tragic hunting accident this very afternoon.”

Slee allowed himself a thin smile at the delicious thought. To their left, the runners were blowing shrill whistles and calling guttural encouragements to the pack, which surged away through the sunlit mist of the forest space. As the volume of the hounds dipped away, they could hear birdsong, dripping water and the crackle of undergrowth all around them. Slee and de la Vega set off after the others.

“Shall we,” asked Slee, “discuss your disengano, my dear cousin? The woods are close and deaf.”

“Good,” replied the Spaniard crisply, “for my words would seem calumny to most English ears, but not yours, or those of our other two… friends. We all share a certain hunger. My family, my faction… they ache for the taste of power, but we are famished of the influence that is our due. Magick, my lord, that is what we need. Without access to the Cantrips, we have no leverage. With them…”

Slee caught at his sleeve and pointed at their companions ahead through the trees.

“Do you see, Lord Regent, the way that no hound will go voluntarily within a lance-length of the Divine?” he asked.

“They are wiser than us, perhaps,” said de la Vega. “I often doubt it is entirely safe to have Jaspers around, even if he is of our cause.”

Slee nodded, and breathed deeply. The two men hefted up their weapons and moved on through the ferny chiaroscuro of the forest.

“So,” said Slee, “you were saying?”

Friday, November 27, 2009

FREE FICTION: Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero by Dan Abnett, Day One

To my readers: The holidays are, as always, a very busy time. I have a neat project that I am working on for an author, which is taking up a chunk of time that I normally would use for reading books to be reviewed on here, so to both take the immediate pressures of getting a review up here off, as well as to offer you all a nice holiday treat, I offer five days of Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero by Dan Abnett. I hope you enjoy each day’s preview, and look forward to the return of reviews in about a week!



Her Majesty’s Hero


Being the true and authentick account of the expl’ts and

incid’nts following the re-turn to London


Sir Rupert Triumff, adventurer,

from his celebrated Voyage of Discovery to the Meridional Climes.

Never before made publick.


Given in this, my hand, this XXIIIrd day of Aprile,

XX hundred and X Anno Domini,

in the splendid reign of the thirtieth Gloriana.

Vivat Regina!

Wllm Beaver, esq.

Editor’s Notice to the Great Variety of Readers

For those readers unfamiliar with the affairs and nature of the Anglo-Hispanic Unity, care has been taken to furnish Master Beaver’s manuscript with footnotes and commentary to make all such matters comprehensible.

However, this editor has been charged with making the following basic facts known from the outset. The Anglo-Hispanic Unity, the longest-lasting and most powerful Empire ever to arise upon this terrestrial stage, was founded in the year Fifteen Hundred and Seventy-Five, following the marriage of Queen Elizabeth the First of England to King Philip the Second of Spain. Said union of power and lands, including as it did the virginal tracts of the New World, soon eclipsed all other nations of the globe, and has persisted since, through a worthy line of potent female monarchs, all styled “Elizabeth Gloriana”.

The other matter that helped to preserve the pre-eminence of the Unity was, of course, the Renaissance, which thoroughly reawakened the Sublime Lore of Magick, dormant since Antiquity. The schools and employment of the Esoteric Arte of Magick were monopolised by the Church and Church-Guilds of England, and ensured the Unity’s absolute command and superiority over all the World, especially the British bits of the Unity.

This didn’t please the Spanish bits very much at all. But that’s another story.

Part of this one, in fact.

The Persons of the Story

SIR RUPERT TRIUMFF, gentleman adventurer and lately come discoverer of The Vast Southerly Continent

AGNEW, his man

LORD CALLUM GULL, Laird of Ben Phie, Captain of the Royal Guard

CARDINAL THOMAS WOOLLY, first minister of Her Majesty’s United Church

SIR JOHN HOCKRAKE, Duke of Salisbury, a scoundrel

ROUSTAM ALLASANDRO DE LA VEGA, Regent of Castile, Governor of Toledo, and victor of Lille

ROBERT SLEE, of the Queen’s Privy Council

THE DIVINE ALEISTER JASPERS, a junior officer of the United Church

UPTIL, a noble autochthon from foreign climes

DOLL TARESHEET, a notable actress of the Wooden Oh and these parts

NEVILLE DE QUINCEY, a police surgeon and examiner

MOTHER GRUNDY, of the countryside

GIUSEPPE GIUSEPPO, an Italian gentleman of ingenuity



& in addition, divers servants, ladies and lords, as well as some personages I might have forgotten in this compilation, along with copious hautboys and tapers, and fanfares on all entrances and exits

the setting is the present day

staged in the modern style

Vivat Regina!

The First Chapter

Which is set upon St Dunstan’s Day

It had rained, furiously, for all of the six days leading up to St Dunstan’s Day.

Water rattled off slopes of broken slates, streamed like horse-piss from split gutters, cascaded from the points of eaves, boiled like oxtail soup in leaf-choked drains, coursed in foamy breakers across flagged walks, and thumped down drainpipes in biblical quantities. For the same measure of time that it had taken the Good Lord God to manufacture Everything In Creation, the entire city was comprehensively rinsed. There was water, as the Poet had it (the Poet, admittedly, was wont to have it mixed with brandy), everywhere, and every drop of it was obeying Newton’s First Law of Apples.

In the rents of Beehive Lane, near Boddy’s Bridge, un-potted chimneys guzzled in the rain and doused more than a score of ailing grates. The steep cobbled rise of Garlick Hill became a new tributary to the Thames, and the run-off that washed down it from the foundations of the spice importers’ hilltop barns had loose cloves floating in it and tasted like consomme. At Leadenhalle, the rapping of the rain upon the metal roof drove several market traders temporarily psychotic, and deprived many more of their usual cheery dispositions, and so the cheap was suspended until the inclement weather subsided (“if sodden London don’t subside first” remarked more than one tired and emotional stall-holder). Many worried that, if the fantastically grim weather persisted, the Great Masque that coming Saturday might itself have to be abandoned. And that didn’t bear thinking about.

The Fleet, the Tyburn and the Westbourne all spilled beyond their courses, and enjoyed wild excursions through the streets of the ditch-quarters and the wharfs. More refuse was then moved by force of flood than is in a month by the municipal collectors, though, to be fair, the Noble Guild of Refuse and Shite Handlers had been on a go-slow since 1734, following a dispute over the scale of Yuletide gratuities.

The city’s watergates were all choked to drowning point, each gagging like an over-eager sot on an upturned bottle of musket. Conduits thundered with the passing pressure, their stonework trembling, and voided themselves with huge tumult into the Thames, casting up mists of rainbow spray from their cataracts. Men from the Guild of Cisterns and Ducts visited each city conduit daily in turn and stood, dour and drenched by the spray, shaking their heads and tutting.

The Cockpit on Birdcage Walk became so full that the stewards had to open all the public doors to vent the water before gladiation could begin that night. Small boys had been found sailing rival armadas of paper man-o-wars from the pit rails. Even after the stewards’ action, some said the only birds worth betting on that night were ducks. When it did eventually occur, the cockfight proved to be a notable and famous bout, featuring a title fight for the Bantam Weight Champion of All London. The contenders were Cocky Joe, a six-pound, experienced fighter trained by John Lyon of Poplar, and Bigge Ben, a twelve-pound newcomer presented by one Thomas Arnes of Peckham. The eventual victor, Bigge Ben, was later disqualified when it was discovered he was a cunningly disguised buzzard, and Cocky Joe reinstated, though by this time he was full of onion and three-quarters roasted.

The rain fell on all. It made no distinctions for rank, and offered no exceptions for situation. It hammered on the unprotected heads of the impoverished and loose of bowel in the jakes of Shite-berne. It drizzled off the leaded glass of the Palace Mews. It fell with a continuance and persistence that was nothing short of impertinent.

From Cornhill to Ludgate, not one thing in the whole Vale of the Thames prospered, except perhaps the osiers and watercress in the marshes.

When one of the wags in the Rouncey Mare off Allhallows Walk remarked upon the fact that there was no superstition associated with so many days of rain before St Dunstan’s Eve, it was volubly decided that there bloody well ought to be, and bloody well would be before the tavern closed, so long as liquor sufficiently inspired the collective imagination. Indeed, sometime after ten that night, a handsome and appropriate saying was devised by a drover of advanced years named Boy Simon, but sadly it had been forgotten by the time daylight crept in and announced the dawn of St Dunstan’s Day.

The towers and steeples of a hundred and nine churches shivered at the dismal morning and driving rain, and bells slapped out the hour of daybreak as if the water had softened their clappers. Most of the City’s population grimaced in their states of sleep and rolled over. Those up and active through the necessity of their various offices shuddered grimly and went about their business in hats and hoods and long, soggy capes. A carter, late delivering for a fish-monger in Billingsgate, overturned on the corner of Windmill Street, and his entire cargo swam off through the neighbouring byways. Shortly afterwards, a magistrate in Rudlin Circus was painfully thrown when his horse was bitten by a passing turbot. The fishmonger was sanguine, however, as sales of fish had fallen dramatically in the course of the week.

One of the hundred and nine churches tolling out that lubricated morning was St Dunstan’s Undershaft, near the New Gate, where the aforementioned saint’s day was about to be celebrated. Dunstan, a ninth century Norfolk lacemaker, died piously during the notorious Woolcarder’s Revolt of 814, and was canonised in 1853 during the Diet of Cannes. He is the Patron Saint of boundaries and hedges, lacemakers, undergarments and impalement, though not necessarily in that order.

In the damp shade of St Dunstan’s porch, valiant observers of the martyr’s festival (the eleventh day of May) made garlands of flowers and ribbons, and glumly offered small lace keepsakes showing the saint “being martyred on the sharpened fence” for sale to empty streets. The deluge had kept almost everyone away. Large sections of the regular congregation had found drier things to do, and a promised coach party of pilgrims from the provinces, composed in the main of folk from the popular Christian sects the Orford Doxies and the Exeter Terrestrials, had not materialised.

Even the priestesses in the Temple of the Justified Madonna across the road from St Dunstan’s had decided for once to wear clothes. They stood, red-nosed and corset-clad, in the windows of the seminary, and occasionally waved encouragement to the St Dunstan’s band across the street. Needless to say, the folk of St Dunstan’s didn’t wave back.

Two streets behind St Dunstan’s, an alley too insignificant to have a name of its own led through the rents to Chitty Yard. It was raining there, too.

The yard was a paved square, forty feet across, flanked on one side by the dingy rears of the rents. To the other three it was enclosed by the back of the once-imposing Chitty House. A small fountain, in the shape of a dismayed griffon, stood at the centre and had been dry for seventy-three years. It was full now, of leaves and rainwater.

The Chittys had come into money late in the previous century, thanks to a small miniver business that had flourished at a time when cuffs and collars were worn hirsute. They had built Chitty House as a headquarters and town residence, and occupied it continuously until the last Chitty had died of fur on the lung twenty years previously. Since then, the building had been a tannery, a hostel for drovers, a bordello (twice), a store for timber, an eating house, and a singularly unsuccessful farrier’s (one Joseph Pattersedge, who suffered from chronic hippophobia). Now it was empty, with its rafters open to the weather, and its environs were of interest only to vermin, weary beggars or those in need of privacy.

At dawn on St Dunstan’s day, four of the latter were assembled in the hidden yard. One was a diminutive, portly Spaniard from Valladolid, who huddled from the rain under the stoop of the storehouse wing, his ruff and waxed moustache as limp as his expression. He clutched a velvet cape and a plumed hat that did not belong to him. Opposite him, across the yard, stood a rake-thin man of Suffolk descent, an imposing figure over six feet tall, dressed in a simple suit as grim as his countenance. He too held clothes that were not his. Every few seconds, he winced slightly.

The other two individuals in the yard were trying to kill each other.

Lord Callum Gull, Laird of Ben Phie, Captain of the Royal Guard, Scottish to the marrow (“and loyal to the courgette” as the old saying goes), edged around the yard with four feet of basket-hilted steel swinging from his hand. His red hair was plastered to his skull, his linen shirt was sticking to his rangy form, and his breath was rasping through defiantly clenched teeth. He knew well his Livy, his Caesar, his De Studio Militari and his Vegetius. He knew extremely well the finer points of The Art of War, particularly the one on the end of his rapier.

Sir Rupert Triumff, seafarer, Constable of the Gravesend Basin and celebrated discoverer of Australia, was commanding over a yard of sharpened metal of his own. His black locks hung in ringlets around his brow, his shirt had acquired two extra slits since he had put it on that morning, and he was humming a song about the Guinea Coast for no real reason at all. Triumff had once read the title page of Vegetius, owned a risible translation of Livy, and often quoted Caesar, even though he had never been within ten feet of a copy. He was not, at that stage, entirely sure what day it was.

Triumff danced and stumbled around Gull in a way that looked almost, but not quite, deliberate. He tossed his rapier from hand to hand. The gesture suggested he was a nimble, gifted swordsman, but in truth had more to do with the fact that he couldn’t remember which hand he was supposed to be using. Each exchange of grip caused the slender witness in black to wince again.

With a snarl, Gull lunged for the umpteenth time, and added another vent to Triumff’s left sleeve. Backing up rapidly, Triumff looked down at the gash, tucked his blade under his arm like a cane, and fingered the damaged cloth.

“Fuck,” he remarked.

“En garde!” barked Gull, and crossed.

Triumff spun hastily, ducked, and came up again holding his sword by the blade, with the basket grip bobbling threateningly at his adversary. There was a pause. Slowly, Triumff adjusted his depth of field from his opponent to the nearer hilt, noticed the blood dribbling from his fingers, and dropped the rapier smartly.

“Poxy thing!” he said, sucking at his sliced fingertips. Blood collected in his beard, and spattered his doublet, making it look as if he had been punched in the mouth. He continued to complain through his stinging fingers.

Gull tapped Triumff on the breast-bone with the point of his sword. The Scot’s black eyes always looked angry, even when he was not. It was said in the Royal Guard House that if Gull’s lids were ever peeled back during slumber, he’d still glare with the liquid black eyes of an enraged bullock. Now, his demeanour perfectly matched his natural expression.

“Pick up,” he said softly, his words gnawing into the air like acid, “your bloody sword, you cussed knave. Though I’ll delight in filleting you, I’d rather do it while there’s a blade in your hand.”

Triumff looked down at the urging sword tip, and then up at Gull, and nodded.

“Right… right… of course…” he replied, turning to look for his fallen blade. To the side of the yard, the man in black covered his eyes, and started in on the Lord’s Prayer, sotto voce. The man in black’s expression increasingly resembled that on the face of the fountain’s stone griffon, which in turn suggested that the mythical creature had been intimately violated against its will, and without much in the way of warning.

The rapier had rolled to rest in the lea of the fountain bowl. Triumff steadied himself on the griffon’s beak as he stooped to recover it. He grasped the weapon in his uninjured hand and straightened up.

Even during his more sober periods, the weapon had been a bother to him. It had been a gift, a reward for his exploits, bestowed upon him by the president of the Royal Cartographical Society. It was a Cantripwork Couteau Suisse, or Schweizer Offiziersmesser, an elegant instrument manufactured to the exacting specifications of the Victorinox Cutlers of Ibach. According to the owner’s handbill, which had been packed into the presentation box underneath the velvet padding, the device was capable of auto-selecting any number of tools or blades, which it deployed from its ornate brass basket hilt at the flick of a trigger built into the knurled alox handle. One deft touch made it a sword, or a bottle opener, or a device for removing stones from horses’ hooves.

Triumff looked down at his weapon. He noted the Helvetic cross-and-shield emblazoned on the tool’s grip, denoting the weapon’s fine engineering provenance. He also noted, belatedly, that at some point during the whole dropping-it-and-picking-it-back-up-again process, the trigger had been depressed. The Couteau Suisse was currently less well suited for duelling with an incensed Hibernian swordsman, and more for removing cross-head screws. Triumff swore again. He pressed the trigger. The intricate, jinx-powered mechanism inside the decorative basket hilt whirred, withdrew the screwdriver, and meticulously replaced it with a nail buffer.

Triumff began pressing the trigger repeatedly, and, in quick succession, readied himself to open a can, pluck an eyebrow, and do a little fretwork.

He shook his head and held up his other hand.

“Hang on, hang on,” he said. “Arsing thing.”

Gull stood his ground, glaring.

“Ever had a go with one of these doo-dabs, Gull?” Triumff asked, depressing the trigger with an increased degree of impatience, and consequently selecting long-nose pliers, a fishing rod, a metric rule, and then an auger. “All very clever and fancy, I’m sure, but it’s more trouble than it’s worth.”

“I’m not one for gadgets,” growled Gull.

“Me neither! Me bloody neither!” Triumff agreed vehemently. He clicked the trigger one last time and let out a bright, “Aha!” as the rapier blade snapped back into place.

“Right! There you go!” he declared, flourishing the blade. “That’s what I was looking for! As you were!”

The energetic flourish had made his vision spin a little. He shook his head in an effort to clear it, blinked dizzily, and took a step forward. A loose flagstone dipped under his foot, and several pints of brown rainwater gouted up his leg, soaking his breeches. He stumbled, and steadied himself, looked down at the stone, and dabbed dispiritedly at his ruined trousers.

“Watch that, Gull,” he said, indicating the flagstone. “Loose flag. You could take a nasty tumble on that.”

Tried beyond a threshold of patience he had been sporting to observe even that far, Gull screeched something Caledonian and pejorative, and flew at Triumff. Only fickle fortune positioned Triumff’s sword correctly to block the thrust. Gull riposted, and the blades clattered again. He hammered three times more until his sword rebounded from the knurled quillon of Triumff’s fluttering weapon.

“Steady on,” said Triumff, as if surprised.

Gull threw himself bodily at Triumff, their swords locking like the antlers of rutting stags. He drove Triumff back four or five yards, until the discoverer of Australia slammed hard into the kitchen wall of Chitty House. There, Triumff lurched forward, sweeping his sword around at Gull. It would have been a quite magnificent touché, had it not been for the fact that the Couteau Suisse had become, by then, a letter opener. With a strangled and vituperative curse, Triumff selected the rapier blade, again, and swung it wildly, but the distraction had been enough. The Captain of the Royal Guard parried easily, and then cut low, slicing a new pocket hole in Triumff’s breeches and a flap of skin out of the thigh beneath. Triumff sucked in his breath as blood, diluted by rain, soaked his leggings. Looking down, he found that one breeches leg was stained red and the other brown with mud.

“Motley!” he exclaimed breezily, and then looked in danger of fainting. He slumped back against the kitchen wall and dropped his guard wearily. Gull’s sword was immediately at his throat.

“You’re beaten, you bastard,” hissed Gull, “and what’s more you’re pissed. You might at least have done me the honour of duelling me sober.”

“Is this all because of those things I said about your sister?” asked Triumff, absently. “And if it is, can you remind me what I actually said?”

“You challenged me, you drunken fool!” Gull growled.

“Oh… really? Then let’s just forget it.”

Gull stared into Triumff’s eyes.

“Not this time,” he said. “This time you bleed. This time, I’ll give you something to remember me by.” Slowly, surgically, Gull drew his rapier-point across Triumff’s left cheek. Dark red blood welled up and ran.

“Learn from this, you wastrel. Don’t cross me, and if you do, keep up your guard,” said Gull. “Though I hear it’s not the only thing you can’t keep up,” he added.

Triumff frowned as the jibe percolated slowly through his drink-crippled comprehension. Then his eyes snapped open, frighteningly sober for the first time.

“You can stuff that opprobrious tattle up your scabby hawsehole!” he exploded. His blade lashed out in a vicious blur that wrong-footed Gull entirely. The blow was instinctive, angry, and undirected by any conscious thought, and if it had been struck with the rapier blade rather than a vegetable peeler, Gull would have been on his way to his family mausoleum on the shores of Loch Larn. As it was, severed air fell away on either side of the small but razor-sharp implement. There was a brief impact, a sound like cabbage splitting, a yowl, and a spray of blood.

Gull left the yard in a bounding, frantic stride, his portly Spanish second fluttering in his wake and squeaking, “Señor! Señor capitan!”

Triumff slid to the flagstones, his back against the wall. He looked down at something that was cupped in his outstretched hand.

“Gull? Gull, don’t go,” he called out, weakly. “You’ve left an ear behind.”

The man in black stalked across to the sprawled drunk.

“Agnew,” said Triumff, looking up blearily, “Gull forgot an ear.”

“Really, sir.”

Triumff nodded, and then put a hand to his bloody cheek.

“You’d better call me a surgeon, Agnew,” he said.

“I’d rather,” muttered the older man on reflection, “call you a silly arse, sir.”