US cover art for Ian McDonald's THE DERVISH HOUSE

Pyr recently unveiled the cover art for the forthcoming The Dervish House by Ian McDonald, and it's another beauty by Stephan Martiniere!=) For more info about this title: USA, Europe.

Here's a short blurb:

In the sleepy Istanbul district of Eskiköy stands the former whirling dervish house of Adem Dede.

Over the space of five days of an Istanbul heatwave, six lives weave a story of corporate wheeling and dealing, Islamic mysticism, political and economic intrigue, ancient Ottoman mysteries, a terrifying new terrorist threat, and a nanotechnology with the potential to transform every human on the planet.

Well, with this novel and the new Kay Kenyon and David Louis Edelman books coming out next year, they account for three of my most eagerly anticipated SFF titles for 2010! Lou Anders' diabolical plan to take over the genre has begun. . .

If you haven't read anything by Ian McDonald yet, don't sweat it and rejoice! Indeed, you have some terrific reading ahead of you! Check out his novels:

- River of Gods (Canada, USA, Europe)
- Brasyl (Canada, USA, Europe)
- Cyberabad Days (Canada, USA, Europe)
- Desolation Road (Canada, USA, Europe)

Desolation Road is still awaiting my attention, but the other three rank among the best science fiction books I've read since I created this blog in 2005. . . Special thanks to Stego for turning me on to River of Gods!

Interesting article by Guy Gavriel Kay

Thanks to James for posting this story on Speculative Horizons. I totally missed that last week. . . By the way, James, you're in the acknowledgements of the Speculative Horizons anthology for graciously allowing me to use the name of your blog for the title!=)

Canadian fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay offers his two cents regarding genre novels not being recognized for prestigious literary award in this article from the Globe and Mail.

Here's an extract:

And right now, perhaps even more heatedly, there's yet another spat in spate. This one is a battle over Britain's own top literary award, the Man Booker Prize. The fine science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson just wrote a piece blasting how that prize utterly ignores SF, always has, and seems lately to be only about historical fiction ... and, well, what's with that?

A historical fiction novel did, indeed, receive the award last week, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. But I have an academic, deeply knowledgeable about the, well, the history of historical fiction, who points out that until very recently it had no stature or esteem at all, that as a genre it was as ignored as SF and fantasy, dismissed as even more lowbrow.

In purely commercial terms, of course, Tudor-era novels these days about fetching heroines shown half-decapitated on the covers in elegant gowns have made the genre hot. (And how perfect is it to show beheaded women in a Tudor setting?)

One of this year's Booker judges, John Mullan, replied to Robinson's comments with an almost definitively asinine comment. It was Hall of Fame-quality idiocy. After first noting that he was “not aware of science fiction” (which might normally preclude going on to comment), he proceeded to declare, through the foot in his mouth, that it was “bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other.” I do admit to wondering what size shoe Professor Mullan wears, and how it fits between his teeth, and whether he teaches grammar.

Speaking of Kay, I simply can't wait to read Under Heaven this spring!

This week's New York Times Bestsellers (October 27th)

In hardcover:

Charlaine Harris' A Touch of Dead is down four positions, ending its second week on the charts at number 6. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

R. A. Salvatore's The Ghost King is down six spots, finishing its second week on the prestigious list at number 17. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

Charlaine Harris' Dead and Gone is down four positions, ending its 24th week on the bestseller list at number 19.

Eoin Colfer's And Another Thing. . . debuts at number 20. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

Terry Pratchett's Unseen Academicals is down nine spots, finishing its second week on the bestseller list at number 22. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt's Dracula the Un-Dead debuts at number 23.

Stephenie Meyer's The Host is down three positions, ending the week at number 33.

In paperback:

Stephen King's Just After Sunset is down up four spots, finishing its fourth week on the NYT list at number 5.

Sherrilyn Kenyon's Born of Night is down two positions, ending its second week on the charts at number 8.

Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is down one spot, finishing its 29th week on the bestseller list at number 15 (trade paperback).

Max Brooks' World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War debuts at number 17.

Lynn Viehl's Shadowlight is down sixteen positions, ending its second week on the prestigious list at number 33.

Seven of Charlaine Harris' eight Sookie Stackhouse novels are on the paperback bestseller list, ranking from number 11 to number 29.

Jasper Kent is coming to America!

Helen Edwards, Rights Director at Transworld UK, has sold US rights in two historical vampire novels by UK novelist Jasper Kent for a good five-figure sum in US dollars.

World rights in the novels, which open with Jasper’s debut TWELVE, published very successfully in the UK by Transworld in January 2009 (it is the second-highest-selling trade paperback debut novel right across UK publishing in 2009), were acquired by Simon Taylor from John Jarrold in 2008. The sequel, THIRTEEN YEARS LATER, will appear in the UK in March 2010.

‘I'm thrilled to be welcoming Jasper Kent into the Pyr fold,’ says editorial director Lou Anders. ‘TWELVE is a magnificent blend of a historical novel and a dark fantasy novel, that could appeal equally to readers both in and out of genre. Jasper is a skilled storyteller, whose compelling prose had me hooked from his opening chapter. The book is "un-put-downable," and I love that he has brought back a real sense of threat and danger to the classic monsters, something that has been lacking with too many vampires lately. I cannot wait to spring this on US readers.’

‘Jasper and I are delighted with this deal, and looking forward to working with Lou and his colleagues,’ said John Jarrold. ‘Pyr is a terrific company, who publish many of my favourite authors, and Lou’s enthusiasm has to be seen to be believed!

Well, about time! Jasper Kent's Twelve is hands down the speculative fiction debut of 2009, and I'm glad to see him join the Pyr family! For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

Win a full set of James Barclay's Chronicles of the Raven

I have a full set of James Barclay's Chronicles of the Raven up for grabs, courtesy of the cool folks at Pyr. The prize pack includes:

- Dawnthief (Canada, USA, Europe)

The Raven: six men and an elf, sword for hire in the wars that have torn apart Balaia.

For years their loyalty has been only to themselves and their code.

But, that time is over. The Wytch Lords have escaped and The Raven find themselves fighting for the Dark College of magic, searching for the location of Dawnthief. It is a spell created to end the world, and it must be cast if any of them are to survive.

- Noonshade (Canada, USA, Europe)

Now the land of Balaia, still riven by war, must live with the consequences. The Dawnthief spell—designed to destroy the world, but cast to save it—has torn a hole in the sky, a pathway into the dragon dimension, and, through it, unfriendly eyes are turning to Balaia.

With war already sweeping the land, there are no armies to send against the dragons. All that stands between Balaia and complete dominion by these tyrannous beasts is a tiny, but legendary band of mercenaries: The Raven. And if they fail, Balaia will fall beneath the wings of countless dragons...

- Nightchild (Canada, USA, Europe)

There Is A New Power Coming. It will sweep aside the four colleges of magic. It is the power of the land, and it has manifested itself in Lyanna, a five year old girl. Unknowingly, she could destroy Balaia.

Desperate to maintain their power, the colleges will do anything to control the child. If that fails, they will kill her.

Terrified, Lyanna's mother, Erienne the mage, takes her into hiding. But they can't hide forever. As the hunt goes on, Lyanna starts to test her powers and nature itself begins to turn on Balaia.

Her father, Denser of The Raven, is also desperate to find her. But can even The Raven find Erienne and her child when they do not want to be found? And if they do find them, what then should they do? Lyanna is ripping the world apart. Thousands are dying. Can The Raven afford to let her live?

The rules are the same as usual. You need to send an email at reviews@(no-spam) with the header "DAWNTHIEF." Remember to remove the "no spam" thingy.

Second, your email must contain your full mailing address (that's snail mail!), otherwise your message will be deleted.

Lastly, multiple entries will disqualify whoever sends them. And please include your screen name and the message boards that you frequent using it, if you do hang out on a particular MB.

Good luck to all the participants!

Why no love among the SFF fandom???

I've been giving this some thought, and I can't for the life of me understand why the SFF fandom seems to be fragmented beyond repair. So perhaps you guys can help me understand why there appears to be so much hate going around.

And since my readership is comprised of haters, wankers, aficionados and casual readers, I figure that the Hotlist reaches basically every kind of fans. Perhaps we can make sense of this sad state of affairs. . .

For some reason, it seems that speculative fiction readers consider themselves to be at the top of the SFF totem pole. Many look down at everything else, as if novels held the monopoly on quality as far as different media go. I've always known this to be the case, but it's gotten more and more obvious since I started to try to give various media some exposure on the Hotlist a few weeks back. There has been a lot of resistance from a panoply of fans, as if comic books, anime, animated films, and video games were beneath their notice. Why is that, I wonder? Doesn't it stand to reason that there are high quality works in every SFF medium?

Are SFF books and series the epitome of quality in the speculative fiction sphere? Why the superiority complex when readers cannot even agree as to what's good and what's not? You have the wankers peddling their titles to all and sundry like they're the gospels. And then, they're disappointed and can't seem to understand why casual SFF readers don't give a shit about the John Clute, M. John Harrison, and James Nicoll of this world?

There is certainly an "holier than thou" attitude coming from the elitist clique of the genre which drives me nuts. One only has to look at the fiasco surrounding Neil Gaiman's winning the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction for The Sandman issue #19 "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Why was it so bad for a comic book to win the award? And why are comics now only eligible in the Special Award Professional category?

What is so frightening about comic books receiving accolades such as a World Fantasy Award? Why is it so difficult to accept that quality works exist outside of the "literary" sphere and deserve the recognition? You tell me. . .

Why is it, in a genre that supposedly embraces all possibilities, that so many fans seem narrow-minded? Why is it that a vast majority of them can't stand to get away from their comfort zone? Why is it that inferior writers like R. A. Salvatore and Terry Brooks, who have been writing the same generic stories for over two decades, outsell original authors such as Hal Duncan, R. Scott Bakker, and Ian McDonald by a margin of more than 10 to 1?

Also, why are subgenres such as sword & sorcery, urban fantasy, and tie-in fiction considered dross unfit to be read by discerning fans? Why do we (myself included) generalize to such an extent and refuse to see the merits of some authors, titles, and series?

Why is it so bad that a "credible" SFF book reviewer like me (though how much credibility I do have is a bit ambiguous! Depends on who you ask!) decides to give Japanese animated features a shot? I've said it before and I'll say it again: Many of the films I've seen and reviewed thus far would appeal to most people hanging around here. And based on the number of emails I've been receiving since I gave Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke a try, it appears that quite a few of you did the same and are pleased to have done so. And yet, quite a few of my detractors opine that it's simply more clutter on this blog.

The same thing goes since I elected to give Neil Gaiman's The Sandman a second shot. I quit reading the comic book in the 90s, yet I've been a big fan of his novels. So I was aware that at some point I would have to give The Sandman another go. And you know what? I'm glad I did! I just finished The Sandman: Season of Mists and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But again, many SFF readers seem to feel that comic books, even something written by Neil Gaiman, are too low for them.

The same thing occurred when I teamed up with Sony Online Entertainment to bring more gamers into the fold, and hopefully get a few of them to discover great SFF books and more by doing so.

Yet every time I steered the ship away from books, some people have been complaining, as if the other media held nothing of interest. So why are so many SFF readers loath to give the body of work of the genius Hayao Miyazaki a shot? Why read and enjoy Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and American Gods, but scoff at the notion of doing the same with The Sandman? A lot of readers are gamers, so what is so bad about trying to attract more gamers to SFF book-reviewing blogs like the Hotlist?

To the outside world, like it or not, most of us, regardless of the medium we prefer, are considered geeks. So why war among ourselves instead of recognizing the fact that there are some great works in every SFF medium? It's all right to prefer one over another, but why do some many of us feel the need to belittle the other media? Moreover, why bitch like this when often those haters mudslinging another medium have never even given it a chance?

SFF books will probably remain my favorite medium, true. Yet by broadening my horizons I've discovered wonderful works that were as satisfying as any great science fiction and fantasy books I've ever read. So do yourself a favor and try stuff by Hayao Miyazaki, Makoto Shinkai, and chances are you'll enjoy them! With the panoply of styles out there, I'm sure there are comic books you'll like. For all I know, it might be the same with manga and anime series!

I just don't understand the hate and all that negative energy flying around. As C. S. Friedman told me when I sent her a link to that M. John Harrison rant on worldbuilding a few years ago, "Aren't we all just nerds anymore?"

Feel free to leave your two cents. . .=)

Musical Interlude

No song from my teenage years epitomizes the sense of loss and failure one can feel while growing up. Depending on my mood, hearing this tune can put the biggest smile on my face as nostalgia hits me. Or it can make my eyes water, reminiscing about all the bad times and missed opportunities that I had to face.

When we were in high school, my friends and I said that C. C. DeVille made his guitar cry during the solo.

For my money, this is probably the best power ballad ever made. So take a walk down memory lane for a few minutes. . .=)

US cover art for Robin Hobb's DRAGON HAVEN

Crap, just realized that I never did post this one. . . My bad, again. . .:/

I started Robin Hobb's The Dragon Keeper (Canada, USA, Europe), the first volume of The Rain Wild Chronicles, and it's good thus far. Too early to tell just how good the novel will be, but Hobb always manages to somehow win me over.

Dragon Haven (Canada, USA, Europe) will conclude the story in a few months' time.

Terry Pratchett contest winner!

This lucky lady will get her hands on a copy of Terry Pratchett's Unseen Academicals, compliments of me! For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

The winners is:

- Ann Miller, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

Thanks to all the participants!

Astro Boy

A big fan of the cartoon for years when I was a child (man, that statement makes me feel old!), I was quite curious to see if this movie could bring the inner kid out of me the way Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro did not too long ago.

Having seen the various trailers numerous times, I decided to check out the movie this afternoon. This being Tuesday, the ticket was only 5$. I figured it had to be better than Pandorum, for which I paid full price and wasted two hours of my life that I'll never get back. . .

And I was pleasantly surprised by the flick. Okay, so it won't blow you away. Yet it's good fun for the entire family, especially if you bring children with you. Visually, Astro Boy is superb. The picture quality reminded me of Up! But they did borrow a lot of ideas from movies such as Wall-E, Robots, and others.

It's meant for kids, so they sugarcoat a lot of stuff and it's not the most original of stories. But overall, everything works quite well. I had heard about the supposed political agenda which could be offputting, and yet it realy doesn't influence the story in a negative fashion. After all, it's not the first time that environmental issues and using science for military gains have been used in films.

All in all, a light, fun, and entertaining movie. As good as most Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks animated features. Don't expect much depth and substance, just an enjoyable and thrilling ride.

Here's the trailer:

Win a copy of David Anthony Durham's THE OTHER LANDS

I have three copies of David Anthony Durham's The Other Lands for you to win, compliments of the folks at Doubleday. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

The rules are the same as usual. You need to send an email at reviews@(no-spam) with the header "LANDS." Remember to remove the "no spam" thingy.

Second, your email must contain your full mailing address (that's snail mail!), otherwise your message will be deleted.

Lastly, multiple entries will disqualify whoever sends them. And please include your screen name and the message boards that you frequent using it, if you do hang out on a particular MB.

Good luck to all the participants!

The Gathering Storm

First of all, I would like to thank Brandon Sanderson, Team Jordan, and the folks at Tor Books for giving me the opportunity to get an early read of the most eagerly anticipated fantasy title of the year. After speaking out against A Memory of Light being split into three volumes, I didn't expect that. And as a big WoT fan, well I relished the chance to read it before most people out there, even though I couldn't post my review until the release date.

The first thing I wish to address is Brandon Sanderson's writing. Like many others, when it was announced that Sanderson had been selected by Harriet McDougal and Tom Doherty to complete The Wheel of Time, I doubted that he was a great fit for the role. Based on his novels, I felt that his and Jordan's styles were worlds apart. Sanderson said himself that he cannot replace Robert Jordan. Yet he intends to remain true to the author's vision. And reading The Gathering Storm, one can't help but see that it's nothing short of Brandon Sanderson's best effort. Which begs the question: Will that be enough? I'm afraid that you'll have to find out for yourself. There are legions of WoT crackpot fans out there who would love the book even if it had been written by the legless wonder Robert Stanek. Others, may not enjoy it as much. In any event, expectations are so high that there is no way Sanderson can possibly satisfy everyone.

Sanderson explains that he didn't try to imitate Jordan's style. Instead, he attempted to adapt his writing style to be appropriate to The Wheel of Time. In some instances, this works beautifully. In others, sadly, it doesn't quite work, and one gets the distinct impression that the character is being played by a new actor. The narrative voice is irrevocably changed, and there's no helping that. Whether we like it or not, no one could write these books the way Robert Jordan would have. Fortunately, he left extensive notes, scenes, and outlines. Hence, even though Jordan is not writing it, Sanderson's words recount the exact same tale Robert Jordan wanted to tell.

And although Sanderson's style doesn't always work well with certain scenes and characters, you can see that the author is doing everything he can to remain true to Jordan's vision. Though I doubted his ability to complete this gargantuan task, I now have faith in Brandon Sanderson. I bemoan the fact that some scenes will never be as good as Jordan would have written them, but at least we know that Sanderson's artistic integrity won't permit him to produce something akin to the latest Dune novels. Whereas Frank Herbert is undoubtedly turning in his grave when he sees the travesty that Dune has become, I have a feeling that Jordan would give Sanderson the thumbs-up.

Overall, The Gathering Storm reminded me of Winter's Heart the most. There are some cool and very important scenes similar to the cleansing of saidin. Yet in order to get to the good stuff, one is required to sift through a lot of extraneous plotlines that don't always have that much of an impact or influence on the principal story arcs of the series. Which, as was the case with The Path of Daggers, Winter's Heart, and Crossroads of Twilight, was what many readers found offputting.

Geographically speaking, the novel is all over the place. The action occurs in Bandar Eban, Ebou Dar, Tear, the Blight, and several other locations.

The pace of the book is decidedly uneven. Sluggish in certain portions of the novel, yet extremely rushed in other sequences. I was a bit dismayed by the fact that the narrative focus can remain on what I consider secondary plotlines for pages and even chapters, and then rush through scenes that we've been waiting for for well over a decade. More than one showdown with the Forsaken suffers from that sad state of affairs. And such face-offs, though long-awaited, leave you feeling as much satisfaction as Rand's battle with Sammael in Shadar Logoth in A Crown of Swords. Another consequential storyline which suffers from the same treatment would have to be the fate of the male a'dam. Known as a Domination Band, its importance has been hinted at since it was first glimpsed in Tanchico. The build-up surrounding this particular plotline has spanned several WoT volumes. And yet, as was the case with the Bowl of the Winds' resolution, the culmination is reached and over with before you know it.

There is a momentum shift in the final third of the book, when Sanderson finally kicks it into high gear. But the first two-thirds of The Gathering Storm suffer from broken rhythm. I felt that there were a number of missed opportunities and a few scenes were impaired by faulty execution.

The characterization is probably the aspect which leaves the most to be desired. I've always believed that Brandon Sanderson would manage to get many of the characters right, but that he would have a hard time with others. Before I elaborate on this, you should know that The Gathering Storm focuses on two characters in particular: Rand and Egwene. If, like me, you are not that fond of Egwene, this may cause a problem.

I felt that Sanderson had absolutely no problem with Rand al'Thor. Though the narrative voice has changed, Rand doesn't feel much different. The same thing goes for Nynaeve (even though at times she seems a bit more immature than before), Cadsuane (who is even more annoying, if that's possible), the assorted Wise Ones, and Min. Indeed, Sanderson steps in without missing a beat. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Aviendha, Rhuarc, Semirhage, and Moridin. The shift is palpable where those characters are concerned.

At the very beginning, it felt as though Egwene was being played by a new actress, but Sanderson quickly regains control of the character. The same cannot be said about Elaida, Siuan, and most Aes Sedai. For women who have been basically ruling the world from 3000 years, collectively they appear to have become rather dense in this novel. Just as it often appears that the three ta'veren don't even have one set of balls between them, it's does seem that brains are hard to come by in the White Tower and the rebels' camp these days. On the other hand, Sanderson did a great job with Tuon and the Seanchan. I doubt Jordan could have done it any better. Another character he seems to have gotten perfectly is Perrin. And another one whose POV worked rather well was Gawyn, whose storyline has been drifting since the battle of Dumai's Wells.

To my ever-lasting chagrin, however, Sanderson pretty much killed Mat, by far my favorite character in the series. He simply tries too hard to be funny, and it doesn't work at all. It doesn't help that Mat's appearances serve absolutely no purpose, for the most part. He appears only in a few chapters, and these bring close to nothing to the tale, other than demonstrating yet again that the Dark One's touch is unraveling the Pattern. We don't see much of Perrin, either, which is weird given that both are ta'veren. No sign of Lan and Elayne at all, which is odd given their respective importance. But I guess that splitting A Memory of Light into three installments will do that. . .

All in all, Sanderson's characterization is brilliant in some instances and somewhat clumsy in others. In a way, this could be construed as nitpicking. The author is following Jordan's blueprint, so the overall plot is as Jordan intended. It just feels weird when long-time characters talk or act so differently. Some fans will find that offputting, while others will just move forward without regard for these things, the way they did through the uneventful Crossroads of Twilight.

Although The Gathering Storm doesn't move the plot forward as much as I expected, there is plenty of things that should satisfy WoT fans. Rand's confrontations with the Forsaken, his attempt to sue for peace with the Seanchan, the hunt for the Black Ajah, the Aes Sedai schism, revelations concerning Verin's secret plans, and more! And yet, as I mentioned earlier, in order to get to the juicy stuff, one is forced to wade through a lot of extraneous plotlines which break the rhythm of the novel.

Sanderson needs to create a better momentum, for too often the culmination and resolution of storylines fail to live up to the build-up. Essentially, this robs those important scenes of the impact they so deserve. He must also be careful with the more emotional scenes. There is one incredibly important scene in which Rand is reunited with someone he hasn't seen in a long time. But that scene turns out to be a monumental failure to launch, with absolutely no emotional impact. And at times, I felt that Sanderson has a tendency to take the easy route, especially with Egwene and Cadsuane's plotlines. Too often does everything falls right into place too easily, which seems contrived and stretches the limits of realism and credibility.

My biggest complaint would have to be that when one reaches the end of The Gathering Storm, you simply don't get the feeling that you are any closer to Tarmon Gai'don than we were at the end of Knife of Dreams. Splitting A Memory of Light into three installment would affect the plot, that goes without saying, but I was expecting more in terms of moving the story forward toward the Last Battle. The pace picks up late in the book, true, but I felt that the first 500 pages or so contained more filler than killer material. Eleven previous WoT volumes were enough of a build-up, methinks, and I thought that The Gathering Storm would at least allow us to witness the beginning of Tarmon Gai'don. Splitting A Memory of Light into two volumes would likely have allowed Team Jordan to do that. . .

Though it suffers from a few shortcomings, I enjoyed The Gathering Storm. It was more or less what I expected, to be honest. And Sanderson surprised me a number of times. He surpassed himself and exceeded expectations in certain aspects of the novel, yet his writing style proved to be inadequate in other areas. But overall, the positive outweighs the negative. And in the end, The Gathering Storm should satisfy the majority of WoT fans out there. It may not be The Shadow Rising or Lord of Chaos, but it marks the beginning of the end of the biggest fantasy epic of our time. So let the Dragon ride again on the winds of time!

Roll on Towers of Midnight!

The final verdict: 7.75/10

For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe

NFL SHOWDOWN: GRRM vs Pat (Week 7)

Atlanta Falcons: 21
Dallas Cowboys: 37

Arizona Cardinals: 24
New York Giants: 17

Well, the Giants have lost two games in a row and are now 5-2, while the Cowboys moved up to 4-2, just a game behind the G-Men at the top of the NFC East. Nothing to write home about, but things are looking up!

What to read next???

With about 2 months left in 2009, this will likely be the last such survey. My reading schedule is quite full, but I guess we can give this another go!=)

Here are the nominees:

- The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (Canada, USA, Europe)

Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen's Calorie Man in Thailand. Under cover as a factory manager, Anderson combs Bangkok's street markets in search of foodstuffs thought to be extinct, hoping to reap the bounty of history's lost calories. There, he encounters Emiko...

Emiko is the Windup Girl, a strange and beautiful creature. One of the New People, Emiko is not human; instead, she is an engineered being, creche-grown and programmed to satisfy the decadent whims of a Kyoto businessman, but now abandoned to the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as soulless beings by some, devils by others, New People are slaves, soldiers, and toys of the rich in a chilling near future in which calorie companies rule the world, the oil age has passed, and the side effects of bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe.

What happens when calories become currency? What happens when bio-terrorism becomes a tool for corporate profits, when said bio-terrorism's genetic drift forces mankind to the cusp of post-human evolution? In The Windup Girl, award-winning author Paolo Bacigalupi returns to the world of "The Calorie Man" ( Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award-winner, Hugo Award nominee, 2006) and "Yellow Card Man" (Hugo Award nominee, 2007) in order to address these poignant questions.

- Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett (Canada, USA, Europe)

Football has come to the ancient city of Ankh-Morpork - not the old fashioned, grubby pushing and shoving, but the new, fast football with pointy hats for goalposts and balls that go going when you drop them. And now, the wizards of Unseen University must win a football match, without using magic, so they're in the mood for trying everything else. The prospect of the Big Match draws in a street urchin with a wonderful talent for kicking a tin can, a maker of jolly good pies, a dim but beautiful young woman, who might just turn out to be the greatest fashion model there has ever been, and the mysterious Mr Nutt (and no one knows anything much about Mr Nutt, not even Mr Nutt, which worries him, too). As the match approaches, four lives are entangled and changed for ever. Because the thing about football - the important thing about football - is that it is not just about football. Here we go! Here we go! Here we go!

- Canticle by Ken Scholes (Canada, USA, Europe)

Come back to the Named Lands in this compelling sequel to Ken Scholes amazing novel Lamentation.

It is nine months after the end of the previous book. Many noble allies have come to the Ninefold Forest for a Feast in honor of General Rudolfo’s first-born child. Jin Li Tam, his wife and mother of his heir, lies in childbed.

As the feast begins, the doors of the hall fly open and invisible assassins begin attacking. All of Rudolfo’s noble guests are slain, including Hanric, the Marsh Queen’s Shadow. And on the Keeper’s Gate, which guards the Named Lands from the Churning Waste, a strange figure appears, with a message for Petronus, the Hidden Pope.

Thus begins the second movement of The Psalms of Isaak, Canticle.

- Galileo's Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson (Canada, USA, Europe)

The winner of every major science fiction award, Kim Stanley Robinson is a novelist who looks ahead with optimism even while acknowledging the steep challenges facing our planet and species: a clear-eyed realist who has not forgotten how to dream. His new novel offers his most audacious dream yet. At the heart of a brilliant narrative that stretches from Renaissance Italy to the moons of Jupiter is one man, the father of modern science: Galileo Galilei.

To the inhabitants of the Jovian moons, Galileo is a revered figure whose actions will influence the subsequent history of the human race. From the summit of their distant future, a charismatic renegade named Ganymede travels to the past to bring Galileo forward in an attempt to alter history and ensure the ascendancy of science over religion. And if that means Galileo must be burned at the stake, so be it.

Yet between his brief and jarring visitations to this future, Galileo must struggle against the ignorance and superstition of his own time. And it is here that Robinson is at his most brilliant, showing Galileo in all his contradictions and complexity. Robinson's Galileo is a tour de force of imaginative and historical empathy: the shining center around which the novel revolves.

From Galileo's heresy trial to the politics of far-future Jupiter, from the canals of Venice to frozen, mysterious Europa, Robinson illuminates the parallels between a distant past and an even more remote future—in the process celebrating the human spirit and calling into question the convenient truths of our own moment in time.

- The Other Lands by David Anthony Durham (Canada, USA, Europe)

A few years have passed since the conquering of the Mein, and Queen Corinn is firmly in control of the Known World-perhaps too firmly. With plans to expand her empire, she sends her brother, Daniel, on an exploratory mission to the Other Lands. There Daniel discovers a lush, exotic mainland ruled by an alliance of tribes that poses a grave danger to the stability of the Known World. Is Queen Corinn strong enough to face this new challenge? Readers of this bold, imaginative sequel will not be disappointed in the answer.

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children

We have all, at one point or another, played one of the popular Final Fantasy video games. Heck, I remember playing the first one, way back when I spent sleepless nights with my Nintendo. Those were the good old days. . .

I wasn't aware of this, but Final Fantasy VII sold more than 10 million units worldwide, making it the most popular title of the franchise and one of the bestelling video games ever released. I've seen Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children on the shelves of basically every video store I've visited since I started looking for Japanese animated features. But it looked too much like a video game for my taste, so I never really wanted to rent it.

When the daughter of a co-worker who was pretty excited to learn that I had rediscovered the pleasure of animated films decided to lend me her copy, I told myself "What the heck?" Unfortunately, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children turned out to be exactly what I feared it would be.

Visually, the movie is spectacular. Indeed, with a production budget of 100 million dollars, one can expect no less. Written by Kazushige Nojima, this CGI film was directed by Tetsuya Nomura and Takeshi Nozue. And as is often the case with CGI movies, though the visual effects are stunning, it never truly loses the computer game feel.

As a matter of course, big-budget productions mean that depth of storytelling is not very high on the list of priorities. Which is too bad, because the seeds for a multilayered tale were there, but Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children rapidly turns into a high-octane and action-packed affair, with battles and high speed chases following one another. Another problem, is that the film is not necessarily "user's friendly" for those people who haven't played the video game.

The movie provides a little background information about the plotlines from the video game at the beginning, but not enough for newbies to fully get into it and appreciate the flick. In any event, I get the feeling that Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children was for fans, and not much thought was given to bring in newcomers. With legions of Final Fantasy aficionados worldwide, I reckon they didn't feel the need to accomodate newcomers. And considering that the DVD has sold more than 10.5 million copies around the globe, I guess they knew what they were doing!

The story takes place two years following the events of Final Fantasy VII. A strange disease known as Geostigma has arisen. And the former mercenary Cloud Strife must unravel the cause of this new plague. Soon, Cloud is attacked by three strange men; Kadaj, Loz, and Yazoo. They are searching for Mother, so they can perform a Reunion which would culminate with an assault on the planet. It's up to Cloud and his former allies to prevent that.

Great picture quality and sound, great special effects, but a very poor plot. Fight scenes that are out of this world, but the movie has little else to offer. And yet, if you like action, this one's for you! In a way, this is exactly the sort of thing I thought (wrongly) that anime movies had to offer. All glitter and no substance. I'm glad I gave several quality works a shot prior to this. Had I begun with Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, I might have stopped right then and there. I can understand the immense appeal of this movie, but that kind of stuff is clearly not what I'm looking for. . . Don't get me wrong. I love action as much as the next guy. It's just that a flick needs more than just incredible fight scenes to keep me entertained.

Here are two trailers:

For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe

Quote of the Day

"I'll help. I have nothing else." She smiled at me, and I found I didn't like her smiling. "Maybe I will get lucky and be killed in the process."

I smiled back. "Sure. Most people who work for me do."

- AVERY CATES, in Jeff Somers' The Eternal Prison (Canada, USA, Europe).

If you are looking for noirish actione-packed thrillers with attitude, be sure to check out Somers' The Electric Church ( Canada, USA, Europe) and The Digital Plague (Canada, USA, Europe)!

Spotlight on Vincent Chong + Giveaway

As you know, to me cover art is an important facet of any SFF novel. Which is why I go out of my way to post the covers of forthcoming books. Unfortunately, I'm aware that artists don't always have a lot of opportunities to showcase their talent and get widespread exposure for their work.

So in an attempt to change that, at least as much as I possibly can, I contacted a number of artists a while back to see if they would be interested in collaborating with me on a new series of posts meant to help them get some exposure and increase traffic to their respective websites.

The first person to test these waters is Vincent Chong, who won the British Fantasy Award for Best Artists in 2007, 2008, and 2009. He has also been shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Artist in 2008. On this side of the Atlantic, more and more of his work can be seen on various SFF covers for a number of limited editions from Subterranean Press.

To learn more about this talented artist and to see more of his work, head on out to Let's hope that we'll see more and more of his art gracing SFF covers for years to come!

Vincent will also be a guest blogger in a short while. He wrote a piece in which he'll take us through the entire process behind the creation of a cover. Using sketches, he'll take us through the evolution of a wide range of ideas when the artist gets a commission, to the various incarnations of the art print, all the way to the final cover. So stay tuned for that!

Even better, Vincent is offering one lucky winner the opportunity to pick any print from the Image Archive found on his site. The print will be a size of 8.3x11.7 inches and be printed on 280gsm Smooth Pearl paper. He'll even sign it if you want!=) So check out his website to see if there's anything you like there!

The rules are the same as usual. You need to send an email at reviews@(no-spam) with the header "VINCENT CHONG." Remember to remove the "no spam" thingy.

Second, your email must contain your full mailing address (that's snail mail!), otherwise your message will be deleted.

Lastly, multiple entries will disqualify whoever sends them. And please include your screen name and the message boards that you frequent using it, if you do hang out on a particular MB.

Good luck to all the participants!

This week's New York Times Bestsellers (October 20th)

In hardcover:

Charlaine Harris' A Touch of Dead debuts at number 2. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

R. A. Salvatore's The Ghost King debuts at number 11. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

Terry Pratchett's Unseen Academicals debuts at number 13. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

Charlaine Harris' Dead and Gone is down two positions, ending its 23rd week on the charts at number 15.

Kelley Armstrong's Frostbitten is down thirteen spots, finishing its second week on the NYT list at number 25.

Stephenie Meyer's The Host is up two spots, finishing the week at number 30.

In paperback:

Sherrilyn Kenyon's Born of Night debuts at number 6.

Stephen King's Just After Sunset is down two positions, ending its third week on the prestigious list at number 9.

Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is down three spots, finishing its 28th week on the bestseller list at number 14 (trade paperback).

Lynn Viehl's Shadowlight debuts at number 17.

Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters' Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is down twelve positions, ending its fourth week on the charts at number 31 (trade paperback).

Six of Charlaine Harris' eight Sookie Stackhouse novels are on the paperback bestseller list, ranking from number 7 to number 31.

Win a copy of Naomi Novik's IN HIS MAJESTY'S SERVICE

Thanks to the generosity of the folks at Del Rey, I have a copy of Naomi Novik's Temeraire omnibus, In His Majesty's Service, for you to win! For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

Along with the short story "In Autumn, a White Dragon Looks Over the Wide River," the omnibus is comprised of the first three volumes of the Temeraire sequence:

This is one of the most fun and entertaining fantasy series of the last couple of years! I encourage you to give these books a shot if you haven't read them yet!

The rules are the same as usual. You need to send an email at reviews@(no-spam) with the header "MAJESTY." Remember to remove the "no spam" thingy.

Second, your email must contain your full mailing address (that's snail mail!), otherwise your message will be deleted.

Lastly, multiple entries will disqualify whoever sends them. And please include your screen name and the message boards that you frequent using it, if you do hang out on a particular MB.

Good luck to all the participants!

The Hotlist's Scoring System

Many people have complained about the scoring system over the years, yet the majority of people seems to feel that it's the only way to really differentiate which works I enjoyed the most out of all the books I've read. Having said that, no scoring system is perfect, and the same goes for mine. But I think (and I may be wrong) that overall it works reasonably well.

Unless you're new around here, or unless you don't pay attention, you should know that since the David Bilsborough review I vowed to never again read a book which I felt would get less than 7/10. The amount of time I can devote to reading is limited, and thus precious to me. So I'll never waste time on a bad book anymore. The only exception since then has been Jack Vance's Dying Earth omnibus, and that's because I lost that bet with GRRM.

As most of you should be aware, 7.5/10 is my threshold for a "good" novel. Anything over that mark means that it's a high quality work. Yet some bemoan the fact that few books get better marks. I'm not calling anyone a chump here, but during my years in Law School few papers and exams get a mark higher than 75%. The GPA in Law is less than 70% in most classes. You need to come up with something good indeed to warrant 80% or more. So this is more or less the approach I have here when I review a work. Unless it's an exceptional year for SFF, I feel it's normal that only a handful of titles merit a mark of 8/10 or more. Then again, I'm a dumbass and could be full of shit. . . For instance, I remember people bitching on message boards when they felt that my mark for Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold seemed too low. They felt that it deserved a perfect 10/10 or close to it. And yet, giving it a 10/10 would have meant that I put it on par with GRRM's A Storm of Swords. I mean, I love Joe and thoroughly enjoyed his latest, but it's not in the same league as A Storm of Swords. But I digress. . .

The whole point of this post has to do with the fact that I've received a shitload of emails complaining about the fact that I don't mark the Japanese animated features that I've been reviewing these last couple of weeks. And these people are trying to judge which ones I've enjoyed the most so they can give them a shot. Since I've mentioned that I've basically liked them all, they can't figure out which one comes out on top of the list.

Here's the list of those I've seen thus far:

- Princess Mononoke (Canada, USA, Europe)
- Spirited Away (Canada, USA, Europe)
- Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Canada, USA, Europe)
- My Neighbor Totoro (Canada, USA, Europe)
- The Cat Returns (Canada, USA, Europe)
- Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (Canada, USA, Europe)
- Sword of the Stranger (Canada, USA, Europe)
- The Place Promised in our Early Days (Canada, USA, Europe)
- 5 cm per Second (Canada, USA, Europe)

So if my scoring system is inherently flawed and obsolete, it should be a piece of cake to find out which one I enjoyed the most, right!?! If anyone can put these titles in the right order, from the best to the one I least enjoyed before I leave for work this afternoon, I'll throw in a couple of books as a prize.=)

Sounds easy, right? But you'll see it's a lot more difficult than it appears. . .

Excerpt from Joel Shepherd's SASHA

Speaking of Joel Shepherd, I just realized that I never did get around posting the extract from his latest, Sasha (Canada, USA, Europe). If it's only half as good as the Cassandra Kresnov series, then we're in for a treat!


Sasha circled, a light shift and slide of soft boots on compacted earth. The point of her wooden stanch marked the circle’s centre, effortlessly extended from her two-fisted grip. Opposite, Teriyan the leather worker matched her motion, stanch likewise unwavering, bare arms knotted with hard muscle. Sasha’s eyes beheld his form without true focus. She watched his centre, not the face, nor the feet, nor especially the wooden training blade in his strong, calloused hands.

An intricate tattoo of flowing black lines rippled upon Teriyan’s bicep as his arm flexed. Thick red hair stirred in a gust of wind, tangled where it fell long and partly braided down his back. High above, an eagle called, launched to flight from the row of pines on the northern ridge overlooking the Baerlyn valley of central Valhanan province. The westerly sun was fading above the ridge, settling among the pines, casting long, looming shadows. The valley’s entire length was alive with golden light, gleaming off the wood-shingled roofs of the houses that lined the central road, and brightening the green pastures to either side. Nearby, several young horses frolicked, an exuberance of hooves and gleaming manes and tails. From a nearby circle, there came an eruption of yells above the repeated clash of wooden blades. Then a striking thud, and a pause for breath.

Of all of this, Sasha was aware. And when Teriyan’s lunging attack came, she deflected and countered with two fast, slashing strokes, and smacked her old friend hard across the belly.

Teriyan cursed, good-naturedly, and readjusted the protective banda that laced firmly about his torso. “What’d I do?” he asked, with the air of a man long since resigned to his fate.

Sasha shrugged, backing away with a light, balanced poise. “You attacked,” she said simply.

“Girl’s gettin’ cute,” Geldon remarked from amidst the circle of onlookers. Sasha flashed Geldon a grin, twirling her stanch through a series of rapid circles, moving little more than her wrists.

“Always been cute, baker-man,” she said playfully. Guffaws from the crowd, numbering perhaps twenty on this late afternoon session. Strong men all, with braided hair and calloused hands. Many ears bore the rings of Goerenyai manhood, and many faces the dark ink patterns of the wakening and the spirit world. Lenay warriors all, as fierce and proud as all the lowlands tales, a sight to strike terror into the hearts of any who had cause to fear. And yet they stood, and watched with great curiosity, as a lithe, cocky, short-haired girl in weave pants and a sheepskin jacket dismantled the formidable swordwork of one of their best, with little more to show for the effort than sweat.

Teriyan exhaled hard, and repeated his previous move, frowning with consideration. “Bugger it,” he said finally. “That’s as good an opening stroke as anyone’s got. If someone has a better suggestion, I’m all ears.”

“Improve,” Tyal remarked.

“Kessligh says the low forehand is a more effective opener than the high,” Sasha interrupted as Teriyan gave Tyal a warning stare. “For a man your size, anyhow.”

“Ah,” Teriyan made a mock dismissive gesture, “that Kessligh, what would he know about honest swordwork? You and him can stick to your sneaky svaalverd. Leave the real fighting to us, girlie.”

“Look, do you want to know how I do it, or not?” Sasha asked in exasperation. There weren’t many men in Lenayin who would dare call her “girlie.” Teriyan was one. Kessligh Cronenverdt, the greatest swordsman in Lenayin and her tutor in far more than just swordwork for the past twelve years, was another.

Teriyan just looked at her, a reluctant smile creeping across a rugged face.

A bell clanged from the centre of town, midway up the valley. Stanches lowered, and all commotion about the training yard ceased as men turned to look, and listen. Again the bell, echoing off the steep valley sides, and then again, as someone got a good rhythm on the pulley rope.

“Rack your weapons!” yelled Byorn, the training hall proprietor, above the sudden commotion as men ran, boots thundering up the steps from the outside yard to the open, broad floorboards of the inner hall. “No haste in this hall, respect the circles!”

Despite the haste, men did keep to the dirt paths between tachadar circles, careful not to disturb the carefully laid stones, nor the sanctity of the space within. Sasha moved with less haste than some, seeing little point in elbowing through the crush of young men taking the lead. She walked instead with Teriyan and Geldon, up the dividing steps and into the highceilinged interior, unlacing her banda, and taking time to select her real weapons from the wooden rack where she’d hung them earlier. With weapons, Kessligh had instructed her often, one never rushed.

Most men did not own horses and began running up the trail toward the main road. Sasha fetched Peg from his field beside the training hall, used a stone paddock wall to mount, and galloped him in their wake . . . but before she could go racing to the lead, she spotted a familiar bay mare coming up the road to the training hall, a slim, red-haired girl upon her back, waving one-handed for Sasha’s attention.

Sasha brought Peg to a halt, and waited. Lynette arrived with a thunder of swirling dust and flying hair, eyes wide within a freckled, pale face. She was panting and the mare—Chersey—was sweating profusely. Maybe enough for a seven-fold ride at speed, Sasha reckoned with a measuring eye, knowing Chersey’s abilities every bit as well as Peg’s.

“Sasha,” Lynette gasped, “it’s Damon. Damon’s here.”

Sasha frowned. “Damon came to Baerlyn? With what?”

“I thi . . . think it’s the Falcon Guard.” She brushed a ragged handful of curling red hair from her face as a gust of valley wind caught it. Her long dress was pulled well above her knees, with most unladylike decorum, exposing a pair of coarse-weave riding pants beneath. And leather boots in the stirrups. “I’m not sure . . . I was taking Chersey for a ride out past Spearman’s Ridge when I saw them coming, so I turned around and came back as fast as I could . . . They had the banners out, Sasha, it was full armour and full colours! They looked magnificent!”

Sasha’s frown grew deeper. The Falcon Guard had been lately posted in Baen-Tar. “You didn’t speak to them? You don’t know why they’re here?”

Lynette shook her head. “No, I came straight back and told Jaegar, and he sent someone to ring the bell, and then I came looking for you . . .”

“Damn it. Lynie, I want you to go and get Kessligh—he went to buy some chickens.”

“He’ll hear the bell ringing, surely?” Lynette asked in confusion, as more men mounted nearby, and went galloping up the road.

“Kessligh takes his chickens very seriously,” Sasha said wryly. “Just try and hurry him along a bit.”

“I’ll try,” said Lynette doubtfully. Sasha kicked Peg with her heels, and went racing up the road as Lynette pulled Chersey about in a circle and followed as best she could. A short way along, Sasha came across Teriyan, Geldon and several others, running at a steady pace. She pulled Peg to a trot alongside and extended an inviting hand to Teriyan.

“Come on,” she said, “council heads should get there first.”

“Leave it, girl,” Teriyan answered without breaking stride. “I still got some pride left, you know.” Sasha scowled. Lynette went racing past on Chersey. “Hey, where’d you send my girl off to?”

“Ask her yourself, if you ever catch her,” Sasha snorted, and galloped once more up the road.

The road wove between paddock fences and low stone walls, catching the full face of the sun before it vanished behind the ridge.

She was gaining fast on two men ahead as she reached the main Baerlyn road. Upon the wooden verandahs flanking the road, Baerlyn folk had gathered— mothers with their children, elderly folk in light cloaks or knitted shawls, and the men now walking or running along the road’s broad edge, the middle clear for horses. Peg loved a target, and passed the leading horses in a thunder of hooves.

The road wound past Geldon’s bakery, then past the trading houses and side alleys leading to warehouses, and the workshops of jewellers, potters, furniture makers and Teriyan’s own leather shop.

Up ahead she saw a gathering of horses and dismounted men in armour blocking the road, milling before the stone facade of the Steltsyn Star, Baerlyn’s only inn. Heraldsmen held banners, gusting now in the light valley wind, indicating that Damon was still in the vicinity.

Sasha pulled up beside several men from the training hall and surveyed the scene. There appeared to be an effort underway to lead the regiment’s horses down the Star’s side lane, to the stables and paddocks that stretched to the southeastern valley wall at the rear. Her searching eyes found Jaegar, Baerlyn’s headman, upon the Star’s verandah gesticulating in earnest discussion, then waving a thick, tattooed arm across the semi-organised mass of waiting men and horses. He spoke with Damon—tall, darkly handsome and notable by his purple and green riding cloak, the gold clasp at his neck, and the gleaming silver pommel of his sword at one hip. Now twenty-three summers, by her reckoning, and seeming tired and dishevelled from his ride. All the men held a respectful distance, except the Falcon guard captain and a young man in lordly clothes, eagerly surveying the conversation, whom Sasha did not recognise.

Then the guard captain turned upon the step and shouted above the snort and stamp of hooves, the jangle of armour and the busy discussions of men, “In units down the lane! The stables are already half full, fill them as you can, then fill the barn—it should take another ten! The rest, there’s three more properties behind the inn toward the valley side, there should be enough room in those barns, if not, move down and knock on the next door. Be polite, I want not a hay bale disturbed without permission, nor a chicken’s feather plucked, nor a sow’s tail pulled. I’ll not have the good folk of Valhanan saying the Falcon Guard make poor guests! Tend to your mounts, then gather back here for a good hot meal on the king’s own coin!”

That got a rousing cheer from all present.

“Men of Baerlyn!” bellowed Jaegar, with a barrel-chested volume that surpassed even the captain. He was a stocky man of middling height but with massively broad shoulders. The angling light appeared to catch only one side of his face, leaving the other darkly ominous . . . except that the darker side was facing the light. Upon closer inspection, the spirit-mask of Goeren-yai manhood revealed its finer intricacies of weaving curls, waves and flourishes. Sunlight glinted on the many rings in his ears, and upon the silver chain about his broad, sculpted neck. His long hair, parted cleanly down the middle, bound down the centre of his back in a single, leather-tied braid.

“Those with space available indoors, please find a sergeant or corporal and say so!” Jaegar continued. “There’s no need for any more than the horse tenders to spend a night in the cold! Illys, we’d welcome some music inside tonight!” There was a cheer from the Baerlyn townfolk who had encircled the Falcon Guard, in all curiosity and eagerness to help.

“And Upwyld with the ale!” yelled someone from the periphery. “Don’t forget the ale!” And that got an enormous cheer from everyone, soldiers and locals alike.

Jaegar held both calloused hands skyward to quieten the racket, and then bellowed, “It is the honour of Baerlyn to receive this most welcome visitation! Three cheers for the Falcon Guard!”

“Hoorah!” yelled the Baerlyners. “Hoorah! Hoorah!”

“Three cheers for Master Jaryd!” with an indication to the young man beside them on the verandah. Again the cheers. The young man held up a hand with a cheerful grin. Something about the glamorous cut of his clothes, and the self-assured smile on his lips, made Sasha’s breath catch in her throat. The Falcon Guard were all from neighbouring Tyree province of central Lenayin. He must be one of Great Lord Aystin Nyvar of Tyree’s sons. Not Jaryd Nyvar? Surely the spirits would not be so cruel to her? “And three cheers for Prince Damon!” And those three cheers, to Sasha’s mild surprise, were loudest of all. Damon, she noted, glanced down at his riding boots and looked uncomfortable. She repressed an exasperated smile. Same old Damon.

“Three cheers for Baerlyn!” yelled the captain, and the soldiers answered back in kind. “Let’s move!”

With little more fuss, the soldiers began filing down the Star’s cobbled side lane. Sasha finally completed her rough headcount, and arrived at perhaps eighty men and horses, their numbers clustering a good way up the road past the inn. The strength of standing companies varied from province to province—in the north, the great armoured cavalry companies numbered closer to a thousand each. The Falcon Guard company, by her reckoning, should have about five hundred at full strength. Perhaps this contingent had left in a hurry and the others were following.

She left Peg in the care of a farmer she knew well. Damon and the young Tyree lordling stood in continued conversation with Jaegar, now joined by another two Baerlyn councilmen, similarly tattooed and ringed as Jaegar. Sasha eyed that contrast as she approached unseen, slipping between soldier-led horses—the Baerlyn men rough and hardy Goeren-yai warriors. And Damon tall, clipped and elegantly attired, a Verenthane medallion—the eight-pointed star—prominently suspended on a chain about his neck.

Rural Goeren-yai and city Verenthanes. The old Lenayin, and the new. The Goeren-yai believed in the ancient spirits of Lenay hills, the Verenthane in the foreign, lowlands gods. Sasha was born Verenthane, but lived amongst Goeren-yai . . . and was raised by Kessligh as Nasi-Keth, the followers of the teachings of far-off Saalshen. She sometimes wondered if she’d done something to offend some gods or spirits in a previous life to have deserved such a complicated fate. She often thought things would be so much simpler if she could just choose one or the other . . . or the third. But no matter which she chose, her choice would offend countless powerful people.

Sasha thrust the doubts aside, cleared the gathering about the steps, and trotted briskly up. Damon saw her at the last moment and straightened stiffly. Nearby commotion abruptly slowed, and conversation paused, as people turned to look.

“Damon,” said Sasha, managing a half-genuine smile as Jaegar quickly made way for her atop the steps.

“Sashandra,” Damon replied, similarly ill-at-ease. And then, with meaningful emphasis, “Sister.” And spread his arms to embrace her. Sasha returned the hug, the first time she had embraced her brother in nearly a year, by her immediate reckoning. From about the verandah, and upon the road, there was applause and some cheering. Beneath Damon’s riding clothes, Sasha felt the hard weight of chainmail, which was sometimes decorative custom for a travelling prince, and sometimes not. This, she guessed from the size of the company, was not. They released each other, and Damon put both gloved hands upon her shoulders and looked at her.

“You’re looking well,” he remarked.

Liar, Sasha thought. Little though she’d seen him of late, she knew well his true opinion of her appearance these days. In Baen-Tar, the seat of Lenay kings, the ladies all wore dresses, and hair so long you could trip on it. Some of her wry amusement must have shown on her face, for Damon barely repressed a smile of his own.

“You too,” Sasha replied, and meant it. “What brings you to my humble town?”

“Well,” said the young prince with a hard sigh. “Therein lies the tale.”
* * *

“We’re still not clear exactly what happened,” Damon said to the table, his voice raised to carry above the mealtime clamour. Changed into a clean shirt beneath a patterned leather vest, covered again by the riding cloak in regal purple and green, he looked to Sasha’s eyes far more comfortable now than in the armour. His fingers toyed absently with the wine cup. “We only received word that Great Lord Rashyd Telgar is dead, and that Great Lord Krayliss is responsible.”

Sasha stared sullenly at the open fire upon the centre of the Star’s main floor. Flames blazed within the stone-lined pit as several kitchen hands hurried about and rotated the three sizzling spits. Men clustered at long tables between ceiling supports as Baerlyn youngsters served as waiters, hurrying back and forth with laden plates and mugs of ale.

Voices roared in conversation, and heat radiated from the fire, as music and the smell of good food filled the confined air beneath the Star’s low ceiling.

“You’re sure it was Krayliss that killed Rashyd?” Jaegar pressed from his seat alongside Captain Tyrun, commander of the Falcon Guard. Tyrun and Sasha were sitting on either side of Damon at the head of the table. On Sasha’s left sat Teriyan, widely regarded as Jaegar’s right-hand man in Baerlyn, due mostly to his swordsmanship and exploits in battle. The young Master Jaryd completed the group, ignoring the breathless stares that the serving girls sent his way. At the end of the table, a chair for Kessligh sat empty. If Damon were offended at his absence, he didn’t show it. Probably he knew that Kessligh was Kessligh, and did as he pleased.

“I’m not sure of anything,” Damon replied to Jaegar, somewhat testily, but recovered from his outburst no sooner than it had begun. Same old Damon indeed, Sasha noted sourly. Damon took a breath. “I only know what word reached us in Baen-Tar. The messenger said his lord was dead and that revenge must follow. Against Krayliss.”

Damon took another bite of his roast, then cleaned up the remains of his vegetable raal with a piece of bread. The table exchanged sombre glances, an oasis of silence amongst the raucous din. Sasha met no one’s gaze and simply stared at the central fire. Lord Rashyd was dead, and Hadryn province, the greatest of Lenayin’s three northern provinces, was now without its leader. And now the Falcon Guard were riding from Baen-Tar to take revenge on Lord Krayliss of neighbouring Taneryn province. It seemed that the age-old conflict between Hadryn and Taneryn had flared once more, with all the ancient, treacherous history that entailed. Sasha did not trust herself to speak, lest some slip of caution unleash the seething in her gut.

Lenayin had ten provinces—eleven, if one counted the city lands of royal Baen-Tar. A century earlier the Liberation had permanently established longdisputed borders and created a class of nobility to rule over them. In all of the provinces save one, the nobility were Verenthane. The one exception, of course, was Taneryn. Lord Krayliss was the only Goeren-yai great lord in Lenayin. No surprise then that the Hadryn–Taneryn border remained the most troubled in Lenayin. To all the many causes for countless centuries of war between the Hadryn and Taneryn, the Liberation had added religion.

As grand as the Liberation had been, not all the Lenay peoples had shared in its benefits. For the Udalyn peoples, the Liberation had proven a disaster. Today, they lived trapped in their valley within the boundaries of Hadryn, holding fiercely to the old ways, despite the Hadryn’s attempts to convert them or kill them. The Taneryn considered them heroes. The Hadryn, heretics. It remained perhaps the most emotive of unresolved conflicts in Lenayin. For Goeren-yai across Lenayin, the Udalyn represented antiquity, the old ways from before the Liberation, too strong to die, too proud to give up the fight. If the Udalyn were somehow involved in this latest calamity, Sasha reckoned, then matters could become very grim indeed.

“Rashyd’s men were on manoeuvre, we heard,” said Captain Tyrun, downing his mouthful with a gulp of wine. Tyrun had a lean, angular face, like the falcon from which his unit took its name. His nose was large, his moustache broad and drooping. Less well clipped, Sasha noted with reluctant curiosity, than most Verenthane officers, although his face bore no sign of the ink quill, nor his ears of rings or other, pagan decoration. Most likely he was no Goeren-yai, although if he wore a Verenthane medallion, it lay hidden beneath his tunic. “It seems he was killed within Taneryn borders. What he was doing there, if he was there, we don’t know.”

“Making nuisance, most likely,” Teriyan remarked around a mouthful.

“Hadryn’s claimed the western parts of Taneryn for centuries, damn Rashyd’s been angling for a war since his father died.”

“Words were exchanged,” Tyrun continued, ignoring the dark look that Damon fixed on Teriyan. “A fight ensued between Rashyd’s men and Krayliss’s. Some were killed on both sides. And Krayliss killed Rashyd personally, with clear intent. So the messenger said.”

“He might not have seen it all,” Jaegar cautioned.

Or might be lying through his teeth to protect the honour of his ass of a lord, Sasha thought to herself. Still, she forced herself to remain silent. It would not befit anyone to be speaking ill of Lord Rashyd so soon after his death.

The calamity was beyond her immediate comprehension. No one in these parts liked Lord Rashyd Telgar, with his arrogant, northern ways and strict Verenthane codes. But for Krayliss to kill him . . . There were some who’d said that Lord Rashyd sat at the king’s right hand. And others who’d said that the king, at Lord Rashyd’s . . .

Tyrun heard Jaegar’s caution and shrugged. “As you say,” he said. “We have yet to discover what happened. But Krayliss has taxed the king’s tolerance for a long time now, and there comes a time when even our tolerant king must put his foot down. In this, we are the heel of his boot.”

“Our king,” said Master Jaryd, somewhat tersely, “is vastly long on tolerance. He is a merciful man, a man of the gods, for surely they favour him. My father says that Lord Krayliss has preyed upon this mercy as a spoilt child preys upon the tolerance of a doting parent. Like the spoilt child, Krayliss deserves a spanking. With His Highness the Prince’s blessing, I intend to administer it personally.”

Jaryd downed a mouthful of ale with a flourish, lounging in his chair as an athletic man might, who wished others to observe the fact. Sasha observed him with a dark curiosity, having never seen this particular young noble face-to-face before. Jaryd Nyvar was a name known the length and breadth of Lenayin, and even those like Sasha who tried to avoid the endless gossip of Verenthane nobility knew something of his exploits. At no more than twenty-one summers, Jaryd Nyvar was the heir of Tyree. His mother was a cousin to Sasha’s father—King Torvaal Lenayin—which made her and Jaryd related, she supposed. It was hardly uncommon amongst Lenay nobility—she was probably related to far more arrogant young puss-heads than Jaryd Nyvar. But it made her uneasy, all the same.

Every year at one of the great tournaments, Jaryd Nyvar would win personal honours of swordwork or horsemanship. His flamboyance was famous, his dancing reputedly excellent, and it was said he made grand gestures to the ladies before every bout. Sasha had heard it said jokingly that Jaryd’s swordwork was so excellent because he’d spent most of his days beating off hordes of girls, and their mothers, with a stick.

Looking at him now, she grudgingly conceded the stories of his appearance were not too far-fetched. He was very pretty, with light brown hair worn somewhat longer than most Verenthanes, just above the collar at the back, and large, dark brown eyes that promised fire and mischief in equal measure. She had not heard of his command posting to the Falcon Guards. Perhaps his father grew tired of his pointless gallivanting and thought to put his skills to some decent, disciplined use. And his father, they said, was dying. Perhaps that added to the urgency.

“The Falcon Guard was posted to Baen-Tar for the summer?” Teriyan asked Jaryd.

“The latter half of the summer, aye,” Jaryd agreed. He took a grape from the table and tossed it easily into his mouth. “We trained with the Royal Guard and others . . . gave them a right spanking too, I might add. Right, Captain?”

“Aye, M’Lord,” Captain Tyrun agreed easily. “That we did.”

“I’ve served in both Hadryn and Taneryn,” Teriyan said, chewing on a slice of roast meat. “That entire border’s full of armed men waiting for an incident. I wonder if the Falcon Guard will be enough. You’re damn good, sure, but eighty men can’t be everywhere at once. If this gets serious, there’ll be hundreds runnin’ around like headless chickens. Thousands, maybe.”

“Three more companies are several days behind us,” Damon said. “Each of those is promised at closer to their full strength—five hundred men in total. Most of the Falcon Guard were on manoeuvre about Baen-Tar. That’s another hundred. We left in too much haste for anything more.”

“We’d have gathered a Valhanan company on the way through,” Captain Tyrun added, “but there’s none standing ready at present. We did think it common sense to gather Yuan Kessligh on the way through, however. If he’s willing.”

He glanced toward the empty chair. Sasha shrugged. “I can’t speak for him,” she said. “But I’d be surprised if he weren’t.”

Jaryd slapped the table with one hand, delighted. “Wonderful!” he exclaimed. “To ride with Yuan Kessligh! I’ve dreamed of that since I was a lad—smiting evil-doers at Kessligh’s side! That fool Krayliss won’t know what hit him.”

“Krayliss is the evil-doer?” Sasha asked, implacably cool. “We have yet to establish what occurred surrounding Lord Rashyd’s death. Until such a time as we know for sure, Lord Krayliss deserves the benefit of any doubt, surely? Or has my father’s law changed so drastically when I wasn’t watching?”

Jaryd smiled broadly, in the manner of a masterful warrior challenged to a duel by a raggedy little farmer’s girl with a stick. “M’Lady,” he said, with a respectful, mirthful nod, “surely you know what Lord Krayliss is like? The man is a bigot, a . . . a rogue, a thief—a vain, strutting, pompous fool who is a blight upon the good nobility of Lenayin! And now, apparently, a murderer, though this will surely surprise no one who knows his type.”

“I’ve met Lord Krayliss, Master Jaryd. Have you?” Jaryd gazed at her, his smile slowly slipping. “I’ve met Lord Rashyd too. And strangely, I find your description could just as readily describe him as the other.”

“I too have met Lord Rashyd, several times,” Jaryd said coolly. Sasha wondered if he’d ever conversed with a young woman on amatter that did not involve her giggling shyly with starry eyes. “He is . . . or rather was . . . a hard man, at times confrontingly so. But at least he was not a . . . a shaggy-headed, mindless, chest-thumping . . .” he waved a hand, searching for a new, derogatory adjective.

“Pagan?” Sasha suggested.

Jaryd just looked at her for a moment, realisation dawning in his eyes. Sasha shifted her gaze to Jaegar, beneath meaningful, raised eyebrows. Jaegar coughed, and sipped at his drink. From this angle, the spirit-mask on the left side of his face was not fully visible, but gold glinted from his ear, and upon his fingers. The long braid, also, was like nothing a respectable Verenthane would ever stoop to wear.

Anger flared in the future Great Lord of Tyree’s eyes. “You put words in my mouth, M’Lady,” he said accusingly. “I meant no such thing!”

“You young Verenthane lords put words in your own mouths,” Sasha retorted, “and scarcely a thought before putting them there. Remember whose guest you are. They’re far too polite to say so. I’m not.”

“Shut up, both of you!” Damon snapped before Jaryd could reply. The young man fumed at her, all trace of cool demeanour vanished. Sasha stared back, dark eyes smouldering. “Please excuse my sister, Master Jaryd,” said Damon, with forced calm. “Her tempers are famous.”

“And her allegiances,” Jaryd muttered.

“Oh pray do tell us all what that means?” Sasha exclaimed, as Damon rolled his eyes in frustration.

“I have many Goeren-yai friends, M’Lady,” Jaryd said, levelling a finger at her for emphasis. “None of them admire Lord Krayliss even a jot. You, on the other hand, seem all too pleased to rush to his defence.”

“I’ve heard those stories too,” said Sasha. “The Hadryn and their cronies have never been friends to either me or Kessligh. They accuse me of sedition, of plotting against my father.” She put both hands upon the table with firm purpose. “Are you accusing me of sedition, Master Jaryd?”

Jaryd blinked. Sedition, of course, was punished by death, with no exceptions. A person so accused, without reasonable proof, had obvious grounds for an honour duel. Those, also, ended in death. With very few exceptions. Jaryd started to smile once more, disbelievingly. No man about the table seemed to share his humour. Jaryd Nyvar, tournament champion of Lenayin, seemed barely to notice.

“No,” he said, offhandedly, with an exasperated raise of his eyes to the ceiling, as though he felt his dignity severely pained to have to tolerate such dreadfully silly people. Fool, Sasha thought darkly. “Of course not. Your tempers delude you, M’Lady. I have nothing but admiration for so great a Verenthane beauty as your own.”

“Tell me, young Master Jaryd,” said Teriyan, leaning forward with evident amusement, chewing on some bread. “Have you ever sparred against a warrior trained in the svaalverd?”

“As a matter of fact, no,” Jaryd said mildly. “The only two people so trained in Lenayin, I believe, are Kessligh Cronenverdt and his uma. And the visiting serrin, of course, but they never enter a swordwork contest, even though I have often seen them at tournaments.”

“And have you ever wondered why the serrin don’t enter swordwork contests?” Teriyan pressed.

Jaryd smirked. “Perhaps they are afraid.”

“Not afraid, young Master,” said Teriyan. “Just polite.”
* * *

Damon strode angrily along the upper corridor, the Star’s old floorboards creaking underfoot, as the sounds of merriment continued from below. Sasha followed, conscious that her own footstepsmade far less noise than her brother’s, and that their respective weights were only half the reason why. When they reached his room, Damon ushered Sasha inside, closed the door and threw on the latch.

It was a good room, as Lenay accommodation went. Four times larger than most of the Star’s rooms, its floorboards covered with a deer-hide rug, and small windows inlaid across the stone walls. Against the inner wall, two large beds, with tall posts and soft mattresses beneath piles of furs and fine, lowlands linen. Between the two beds, a fireplace, crackling merrily, and a small pile of firewood in the wicker basket alongside.

“Why do you have to go and do that?” Damon demanded at her back. Sasha walked to the space between the two beds, where heat from the fire provided some comfort.

“Go and do what?” she retorted.

“And this!” Damon exclaimed, striding over, reaching with one hand toward the tri-braid upon the side of her head . . . Sasha ducked away, scowling at him. “What in the nine hells is that?”

“It’s a tri-braid, Damon. One braid for each of the three spirit levels. Don’t they even teach basic Goeren-yai lore in Baen-Tar any more?”

“Why, Sasha?” Damon demanded, angrily. “Why wear it?”

“Because I’m Lenay!” Sasha shot back. “What are you?”

“Cut it off. Right now.”

Sasha folded her arms in disbelief. “Make me!” she exclaimed. Arisen from the dinner table, there was a sword at her back now, and more weapons besides. Damon, unlike Master Jaryd, knew better.

“Good gods, Sasha,” he exclaimed, with a sharp inhaling of breath. He put both hands to his head, fingers laced within his thick dark hair, looking as he would never wittingly appear before his men—utterly at a loss. “A year since I’ve seen you. A full year. I was almost looking forward to seeing you again . . . almost! Can you believe that? And this is the welcome I get!”

Sasha just stared at him, sullenly. Her temper slowly cooling as she gazed up at her brother. Not all the Lenayin line were blessed with height—she was proof enough of that. But Damon was. A moderately tall young man, with a build that spoke more of speed and balance than brute strength. He would be very handsome indeed, she thought, if not for the occasionally petulant curl of his lip and the faintly childish whine in his tone whenever he felt events going against him.

He was the middle child of ten royal siblings, of whom nine now survived. With Krystoff dead, Koenyg was heir. Wylfred would be next, had he not found religion and committed to the Verenthane order instead, with their father’s blessing. Then came Damon. Second-in-line now and struggling so very hard beneath the burden of expectation that came of one martyred brother who was already legend, and an overbearing stone-head of a surviving elder brother.

“I’m not a Verenthane, Damon,” Sasha told him, firmly. “I’ll never be a Verenthane. You could cut my braid, stick me in a dress and feed me holy fables until my mind dissolves from the sheer boredom, and I’ll still not be a Verenthane.”

“Well that’s all fine, Sasha,” Damon said, exasperated. “You’re not a Verenthane. Good for you. But you have a commitment to our father, and that commitment includes not making overt statements of loyalty toward the Goeren-yai.”

“Why the hells not?” Sasha fumed. “Goeren-yai are more than half of Lenayin last I looked! It’s only you lordly types that converted, and the cities and bigger towns . . . most of Lenayin is just like this, Damon! Small villages and towns filled with decent, hard-working folk who ask nothing more than good rulers and the right to continue being who they are without some shavenheaded, black-robed idiot strolling into their lives and demanding their fealty.”

“Sasha, your last name is Lenayin!” Damon paused, to let the impact of that sink in. Wiser than to rise to her provocations. That was new. “The family of Lenayin is Verenthane! It has been for a century, since the Liberation! Now, whether your arrangement with Kessligh means that your title is officially “Princess” or not, your family name remains Lenayin! And while that continues to be so, you shall not, under any circumstances, break with the continuity of the line of Lenayin!”

Sasha waved both hands in disgust and strode across the floor to lean against a window rim. Looking northeast up the valley, small lights burned from the windows of the houses that lined the road, then the dark, ragged edge of the upper treeline, separating the land from the vast expanse of stars. Hyathon theWarrior sat low on the horizon, and Sasha’s eye traced the bright stars of shoulder, elbow and sword pommel raised in mid-stroke.

“Sasha.” Damon strolled to her previous spot, blocking the fire’s warmth. “Master Jaryd speaks the truth. There have been rumours, since the call to Rathynal, of Krayliss courting your approval . . .”

“The nobility talks, Damon,” Sasha retorted, breath frosting upon the cold, dark glass. “Rumour is the obsession of the ruling class, everyone always talks of this or that development, who is in favour with whom, and never a care for the concerns of the people. That’s all it is—talk.”

“Just who do you think you are, Sasha?” Damon said in exasperation. “A champion of the common people? Because I will tell you this, little sister—it’s precisely that kind of talk that breeds rumours. Krayliss and his kind cannot be dismissed so easily, they do have a strong following amongst some of the people . . .”

“Vastly overstated,” Sasha countered, rounding on him. She folded her arms and leaned her backside against the stone windowsill. “The ruling Verenthanes simply don’t understand their own people, Damon. And do you know why that is? It’s because there are so few Goeren-yai among the ruling classes. Krayliss is the only provincial lord, and he’s a maniac!”

“A maniac who claims ancestry with the line of Udalyn,” Damon said sharply. “You of all people should know what the Udalyn mean to Goerenyai all across Lenayin. Such appeals cannot be taken lightly.”

“I of all people do know,” Sasha said darkly. “You’re only quoting what Koenyg told you. And he knows nothing.”

Damon broke off his reply as the door rattled, held fast against the latch. Then an impatient hammering. Damon looked at first indignant, wondering who would dare such impetuosity against Lenay royalty. Then realisation, and he strode rapidly to the door, flung off the latch and stepped back for it to open. Kessligh entered, holding a wicker cage occupied by three flapping, clucking chickens.

“Ah good,” said the greatest swordsman in Lenayin, noticing the fire. He carried the cage across the creaking floor with barely a glance to Damon or Sasha, and placed the cage between the two beds. The chickens flapped, then settled. “These lowland reds don’t like the cold so much. Makes for bad eggs.”

And he appeared to notice Damon for the first time, as the young prince relatched the door and came across with an extended hand. Kessligh shook it, forearm to forearm in the Lenay fashion. Damon had half a head on Kessligh and nearly thirty years of youth. Yet somehow, in Kessligh’s presence, he seemed to shrink in stature.

“Yuan Kessligh,” Damon said, with great deference. “Yuan,” Sasha reflected, watching themfromher windowsill. The only formal title Kessligh still retained, and that merely denoting a great warrior. An old Lenay tradition it was, now reserved for those distinguished by long service in battle, be they Verenthane or Goeren-yai. It remained one of those traditions that bound the dual faiths of Lenayin together, rather than pulled themapart. But Kessligh, of course, was neither Goeren-yai nor Verenthane. “An honour to see you once more.”

“Likewise, young Damon,” Kessligh replied, his tone strong with that familiar Kessligh-edge. Sharp and cutting, in a way that long years in the service of refined Lenay lords had never entirely dulled. Hard brown eyes bore into Damon’s own, beneath a fringe of untidy, greying hair. “And are you the hunter, this time? Or merely the shepherd, tending to errant sheep?” With a cryptic glance across at Sasha.

Sasha made a face, far less impressed by the gravitas of the former Lenay Commander of Armies than most.

“Oh, well . . .” Damon cleared his throat. “You have heard, then? About Lord Rashyd?”

“I was just talking downstairs,” Kessligh said calmly. “Catching up with old friends, learning the news, such as it is. So Master Jaryd will live to see past dawn, I take it?”

Damon blinked, looking most uncertain. Which was often the way, for those confronted with Kessligh’s sharp irreverence on matters that most considered important.

“It appears that way,” Damon said, with a further uncertain glance at Sasha. Sasha watched, mercilessly curious. “Please, won’t you sit? I’ll have someone bring up some tea.”

“Already done,” said Kessligh, “but thank you.” And he sat, with no further ado, crosslegged on the further bed, with the chickens murmuring and clucking to themselves on the floor below.

Sasha considered the study in profiles as Damon undid his swordbelt and made to sit on the bed opposite. Damon’s face, evidently anxious, his features soft and not entirely pronounced. And Kessligh’s, rugged and lined with years, with a beakish nose, a sharp chin and hard, searching eyes. Like a work of carving, expertly done yet never entirely completed. He sat straightbacked on the bed, legs tucked tightly beneath, with the poise of a man half his years. It was a posture that wasted not a muscle or sinew, an efficiency born of lifelong discipline and devotion to detail. And his sword was worn not at the hip, as with most fighting men of Lenayin, but clipped to the bandolier on his back, as with all fighters of the svaalverd style.

Damon sat with less poise than Sasha’s teacher—or uman, in the Saalsi tongue of the serrin—placing a foot on the bedframe and pulling up one knee. At his feet, the chickens clucked and fluttered at the further disturbance. Damon looked at the chickens. And at Kessligh. Struggling to think of something to say. Sasha tried to keep an uncharitable smile in check.

“These are good chickens?” he managed finally. Sasha coughed, a barely restrained splutter. Damon shot her a dark look.

“Well I’m trying to broaden the breeding range,” Kessligh replied serenely. “These are kersan ross, from the lowlands. The eggs have an interesting flavour, much better for making light pastries.”

“You traded for these?” Damon asked, attempting interest, to his credit. It was Lenay custom that no serious talk could begin before the tea arrived. Poor Damon was horrible at small talk.

“A local farmer placed an order through his connections,” Kessligh replied. “A wonderful trading system we now have with the Torovans. Place an order with the right people and a Torovan convoy will deliver in two or three months. They’re becoming quite popular.”

“As with all things Torovan,” Sasha remarked. Damon frowned at her. Kessligh simply smiled.

“Ah,” he said. “Thus speaks she of the Nasi-Keth. She who fights with Saalshen style, loves Vonnersen spices in all her foods, washes regularly with the imported oils of coastal Maras, lives off the wealth from the Torovan love of Lenay-bred horses, speaks two foreign tongues, and has been known to down entire tankards of ale with visiting serrin travellers while playing Ameryn games of chance. But no lover of foreigners she.”

Kessligh’s sharp eyes fixed upon her, sardonically. Sasha held her tongue, eyebrows raised in a manner that invited praise for doing so. There had been times in the past when she had not been so disciplined. He grunted, in mild amusement. Then came a knocking on the door, which Sasha answered and found the tea delivered on a tray.

She set the tray on a footstool for Kessligh to prepare, then settled into a reclining chair with a sigh of aching muscles.

Damon accepted his tea with evident discomfort. Prince or not, few Lenays felt comfortable having Kessligh serve them tea. But that had not stopped Kessligh from cooking for entire tables of Baerlyn folk when suitable occasions arose. Sasha had always found it curious, this yawning gulf between the popular Lenay notion of Kessligh the vanquishing war hero, and her familiar, homespun reality. Kessligh the son of poor dock workers in lowlands Petrodor, trading capital of Torovan, for whom Lenay was a second (or third) language, still spoken with a tinge of broad, lowlander vowels that others remarked upon, but Sasha had long since ceased to notice. Kessligh the Nasi-Keth—a serrin cult (or movement, Kessligh insisted) whose presence had long been prominent amongst the impoverished peoples of Petrodor. Kessligh, serrin-friend, with old ties and allegiances that even three decades of life and fame in Lenayin had not managed to erase.

Kessligh considered Sasha’s evident weariness with amusement, sipping at his tea. “Did Teriyan wear you out?” he asked.

“More demonstrations,” Sasha replied wryly, stretching out legs and a free arm, arching her back like a cat. Her left shoulder ached from a recent strain. It seemed to have altered the balance of her grip, for the tendon of her left thumb now throbbed in sympathy where her grip upon the stanch had somehow tightened, unconsciously. The knuckles on her right hand were bruised where a stanch had caught her, and several more impacts ached about her ribs, causing a wince if one were pressed unexpectedly. The front of her right ankle remained tender from where she’d turned it several days ago, during one of Kessligh’s footwork exercises. And those were just the pains she was most aware of. All in all, just another day for the uma of Kessligh Cronenverdt. “They all want to see svaalverd, so I show them svaalverd. And rather than learning, they then spend the whole time complaining that it’s impossible.”

Kessligh shook his head. “Svaalverd is taught from the cradle or not at all,” he said. “Best they learn little. It makes an ill fit with traditional Lenay techniques. Men who try both get their footing confused and trip themselves up.”

“We could try teaching the kids,” said Sasha, sipping her own tea. “Before Jaegar and others get their hooks into them.”

“The culture here is set,” Kessligh replied. “I’m loath to tamper with it. Tradition has its own strength, and its own life. And I fear I’ve caused enough damage to Lenay custom already.” Meaningfully.

Sasha snorted. “Well I would be a good little farm wench, but it’s difficult to fight in dresses, and impossible to ride . . .”

“You could have kept your hair long,” Kessligh suggested.

“And worn a man’s braid?” With a glance at Damon, who listened and watched with great intrigue. The former Lenay Princess and the former Lenay Commander of Armies. To many in Lenayin, it still seemed an outrageously unlikely pairing. Many rumoured as to its true nature. “I couldn’t wear it loose like the women because then it would get in the way, but I can’t wear a braid like a man because then I’m not allowed to be a woman at all. The only option left was to cut it short as some of the serrin girls wear it. I don’t do everything just to be difficult, you know, I did actually put some thought into it.”

“The evidence of that doesn’t equal your conclusion,” Kessligh remarked with amusement.

Sasha gave Damon an exasperated look. “This is what passes for entertainment in the great mind of Kessligh Cronenverdt,” she told him. “Belittling me in front of others.”

“What’s not entertaining about it?” Damon said warily. Sasha made a face at him.

“I assume you’ve made comment on Sasha’s new appendage?” Kessligh continued wryly, with a nod at her tri-braid. “She insists it’s all the fashion. Myself, I wonder why she can’t hold to Torovan jewellery and knee-high boots like good, proper Lenay children.”

Sasha grinned. Damon blinked, and sipped his tea to cover the silence as
he tried to figure out what to say. “You approve?” he said finally.

Kessligh made an expansive shrug. “Approve, disapprove . . .” He held a hand in Sasha’s direction. “Behold, young Damon, a twenty-year-old female. In the face of such as this, of what consequence is it for me to approve or disapprove?”

Damon shrugged, faintly. “Most Lenay families are less accommodating. Tradition, as you say.” Sasha raised an eyebrow. It was more confrontational than she’d expected from Damon.

“This is my uma,” Kessligh replied calmly. “I am her uman. In the ways of the serrin, and thus the ways of the Nasi-Keth, it is not for uman to dictate paths to their uma. She will go her own way, and find her own path. Should she have chosen study and herbal lore instead of swordwork and soldiery, that would also have been her choice . . . although a somewhat poorer teacher I would have made, no doubt.

“So she feels a common cause with the Goeren-yai of Lenayin.” He shrugged. “Hardly surprising, having lived amongst them for twelve of her twenty years. The mistake you all make, be you Verenthanes or romantics like Krayliss, is to think of her as anything other than my uma. What she does, and what she chooses to wear in her hair, she does as uma to me. This is a separate thing from politics. Quite frankly, it does not concern you. Nor should it concern our king.”

“Our king concerns himself with many things,” Damon said mildly.

“Not this,” said Kessligh. “He owes me too much. And King Torvaal always repays his debts.” Damon gazed down at his tea cup. “Baerlyn is not the most direct line from Baen-Tar to Taneryn. What purpose does this detour serve?”

Damon glanced up. “Your assistance,” he said plainly. “You are as greatly respected in Taneryn as here. My father feels, and I agree, that your presence in Taneryn would calm the mood of the people.”

“The king’s justice must be the king’s,” Kessligh replied, a hard stare unfixing upon the young prince’s face. “I cannot take his place. Such a role is more yours than mine.”

“We have concern about the people of Hadryn taking matters into their own hands,” said Damon. “Lenayin has been mercifully free of civil strife over the last century. The king would not see such old history repeated. Your presence would be valued.”

“I claim no special powers over the hard men of Hadryn,” said Kessligh, with a shake of his head. “The north has never loved me. During the Great War, my successes stole much thunder from the northern lords, and now Lenay history records that forces under my command saved them from certain defeat. That could have been acceptable, were I Verenthane, or a northerner. But I’m afraid the north views Goeren-yai and Nasi-Keth as cut from the same cloth—irredeemably pagan and godless. I do not see what comfort my presence there could bring.”

“But you will come?” Damon persisted.

Kessligh sipped his tea, his eyes not leaving Damon’s. “Should my Lord King command it,” he said, in measured tones. “Of course, you understand that Sasha must therefore accompany me?”

Damon blinked at him. And glanced across at Sasha. “These events make for great uncertainty. I had thought for her to remain in Baerlyn, with a complement of Falcon Guard for protection.”

“You’d what?” Sasha asked, with no diplomacy at all.

Kessligh held up a hand, and she held her tongue, fuming. He unfolded his legs, in one lithe move, and leaned forward to pour some more tea from the earthen-glaze teapot. “She’s safer at my side,” he said. And gazed closely at Damon. “And her continued presence here, away from me, would only create an inviting target, wouldn’t you say? In these uncertain times, it’s best to be sure.”