Invitation to a Book
Author: Christopher G. Nuttall
Publisher: Twilight Times Books
Sample Chapter HERE.
About the Book
Three years ago, Emily killed the Necromancer Shadye before he could sacrifice her and destroy the Allied Lands. Now, the shadows of the past hang over Whitehall as Emily and the Grandmaster travel into the Blighted Lands to recover anything Shadye might have left behind, before returning to Whitehall to start the fourth year. For Emily, it is a chance to stretch her mind and learn more about new and innovative forms of magic … and to prepare for the exams that will determine her future as a magician.
But as she starts her studies, it becomes clear that all is not well at Whitehall. Master Grey, a man who disliked Emily from the moment he met her, is one of her teachers – and he seems intent on breaking her, pushing her right to her limits. In the meantime, her friends Alassa and Imaiqah are acting oddly, Frieda seems to be having trouble talking to her and – worst of all – Caleb, her partner in a joint magical project, is intent on asking her to go out with him.
As she struggles to cope with new challenges and to overcome the demons in her past, she becomes aware of a deadly threat looming over Whitehall, a curse that threatens her very soul. And when she makes a tiny yet fatal mistake, she finds herself facing a fight she cannot win, but dares not lose…
Caleb stopped outside the stone door to his father’s study and paused, feeling his heart pound inside his chest. He had few good memories of his father’s study; he and the other children had never been allowed to enter, save for long lectures and punishments when they’d disappointed their parents. Caleb had never dared to try to break the complex network of spells on the lock, knowing it would displease his mother and father.
And both of his parents were formidable indeed.
“Caleb,” his mother called. “Come in.”
Caleb bit his lip and pushed at the door. The house was small – living space was at a premium in Beneficence – and his mother had had over twenty-five years to weave protective spells and wards into the stone building. She’d always known what her children were doing while they lived in her house. Her children had rapidly learned to keep their misdeeds well away from home if they didn’t want to get caught at once. He shivered when he felt another protective ward shimmering over him as he stepped through the door, then bowed formally to his father. His father looked at him for a long moment, and nodded. Beside him, Caleb’s mother kept her face impassive.
They made an odd couple, Caleb had often thought, once he’d grown old enough to meet other soldiers and magicians. General Pollock – his father – was short, stubby and muscular, tough enough to march with the younger men instead of riding a horse to battle, while Mediator Sienna was tall, willowy and one of the most experienced combat sorcerers in the Allied Lands. She might not have been classically beautiful, her stern face edged by long black hair, but she was striking, with a trim athletic build even after giving birth to five children. And there were few people who would dare insult her to her face.
“Caleb,” his father grunted. He’d never really seen Caleb as anything other than a disappointment, once it became clear that his second son was more interested in theoretical work than fighting. “You wished to speak with us?”
“Yes, father,” Caleb said. His parents weren’t stuck-up enough to insist that their children make appointments to speak with them, but certain things had to be done formally. The little rituals of politeness, as always, kept civilization going. “I do.”
His father waved a hand, impatiently. “Then speak,” he ordered.
Caleb took a long breath. Casper – handsome Casper, confident Casper – would have found it easy to speak to their parents, he was sure. But his elder brother had basked in the approval of their father, while even their stern mother could rarely remain angry at him for long. What Casper wanted, Casper got. Their parents hadn’t really spoiled Casper, Caleb had to admit, but he’d had advantages none of the younger children shared. He’d set out to walk in their footsteps, after all.
“I ask your permission to open a Courtship,” he said, allowing his voice to slip into cool formality. “I ask for your blessings and your wisdom.”
His parents exchanged glances. A simple relationship was one thing, but a Courtship was quite another. It implied that Caleb was willing to spend the rest of his life with the girl, if she proved receptive to his advances. And his parents…they might have to welcome the girl into their family, if the Courtship worked out. Caleb was the first of the family to discuss a Courtship. Even Casper had yet to bring a girl home to meet their parents.
His mother spoke first. “Who is this girl?”
Caleb held himself steady, refusing to be swayed by the bite in her tone. “Emily,” he said, simply. “Daughter of Void.”
“I see,” General Pollack said. His voice revealed nothing. “You overreach yourself, do you not? She is a Baroness of Zangaria.”
“I am a sorcerer,” Caleb countered. He’d known his father would object on those grounds, if nothing else. General Pollack came from aristocratic stock, but his father had been a mere Knight. Grandfather Karuk had been powerful enough to buy his son a commission, yet he’d never been as wealthy and powerful as a baron. “We are social equals.”
“And her father is a Lone Power,” Mediator Sienna said, slowly. “Do you not fear his thoughts on the matter?”
Caleb hesitated, but pressed on. “That is why I have decided on a formal Courtship,” he said. He’d always had the impression that Emily was largely flying free – he didn’t think that an experienced sorcerer would have allowed the crisis in Cockatrice to get so badly out of hand – but marriage was quite another issue. “It would allow him a chance to object before matters became serious.”
“She may reject you,” General Pollack warned. “You are not a wealthy man.”
“I know,” Caleb said. The family wealth, what little there was of it, would go to Casper, once his parents passed away. General Pollack was a poor man, by the standards of their social equals. But not using his position to enrich himself had made him popular with the troops under his command. “I do, however, have excellent prospects.”
His father’s face darkened. “But not as a defender of the Allied Lands.”
Caleb bit down the response that came to mind. His father had expected his children – his male children, at least – to go into the military, to fight for the Allied Lands. Casper, whatever his flaws, was a halfway decent combat sorcerer. But Caleb? He’d always been more interested in fundamental magic research than fighting. The transfer to Whitehall had been the best thing that had ever happened to him.
“His research may prove useful,” Mediator Sienna said.
General Pollack gave her a surprised look.
Caleb couldn’t help staring at her in astonishment. His mother might be formidable, but it was rare for her to disagree with her husband in public. Caleb knew they’d had some spectacular rows, yet they’d always been held in private. They’d always put forward a united front.
His mother ignored their surprise. “Do you believe she likes you?”
Caleb swallowed. That was the question, wasn’t it? He had never been able to read a girl, to tell if she was interested in him or if she was just being polite. The lads in the barracks had bragged endlessly about how many girls they’d slept with – Caleb was privately sure most of them were lying – but he had never had a serious relationship with anyone. Stronghold had enrolled only a handful of female students, while he’d been too busy at Whitehall to consider the possibilities. He’d never had the nerve to go into a brothel when he’d been on leave.
“I think so,” he said, finally. He went on before his mother could start demanding details. “That’s why I decided on a formal Courtship. If she thinks otherwise…”
“You can back off without shame,” his mother finished. It would be embarrassing to be rejected, Caleb was sure, but better that than getting into a muddle. Courtship, if nothing else, was a ritual intended to ensure that everything was open, without even the merest hint of impropriety. “I would advise you to be careful, though. It is rare for a Lone Power to have a child.”
“And one so grossly irresponsible, at that,” General Pollack growled. “Inviting both the Ashworths and Ashfalls to the Faire. What was she thinking?”
“She shut them both down,” Caleb reminded him.
His mother met his eyes. “Yes, she did,” she agreed. “But it was still irresponsible.”
“I like her,” Caleb said, refusing to look away. “I request your blessing for the Courtship.”
General Pollack exchanged a long look with his wife. “We shall discuss it in private,” he said, finally. “Wait.”
Caleb scowled inwardly as his mother cast a privacy ward, ensuring he couldn’t hear a word of what passed between them. It galled him to have to go to his parents, but he knew they would have been furious if he’d approached someone with serious intentions without consulting them first. There were times when he wouldn’t have minded being disowned, yet – in truth – he loved his family. Even Casper…
Father has no magic, he reminded himself. And yet he rules the family with a rod of iron.
He looked down at the stone floor, then up as the privacy ward dispelled. His father looked irked, while his mother was smiling coldly to herself. Caleb schooled his face into a dispassionate expression, waiting patiently for their answer. There were strong advantages to the match, he was sure, but there were also dangers. His mother was powerful, yet she was no match for a Lone Power.
“We have considered the matter,” General Pollack said. “You may proceed with your Courtship.”
Caleb let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you, father-”
“Now we will discuss the practicalities,” his mother added, cutting him off. “And precisely how you intend to proceed. You will have to present her with flowers within the month. Choosing the right ones will be important.”
“Yes, mother,” Caleb said.
He cursed under his breath. It wasn’t something he wanted to talk about, not to his blunt, plainspoken mother, but it was clear he wasn’t being offered a choice. His father’s brief lecture on matters sexual had been bad enough, back when he’d started to realize there was something different about girls, yet this was likely to be worse. He cringed mentally, then steadied himself. At least they hadn’t said no.
And now all you have to do is go through with the Courtship, he told himself. And that won’t be easy.
…Shadye looms above her, his skull-like face crumbling as the power within him threatens to spill out. Emily stumbles backwards, clutching desperately for something – anything – she can use as a weapon, but there is nothing. The necromancer grabs her shirt, hauls her to her feet and draws a stone knife from his belt. Emily feels her entire body go limp as he holds the knife in front of her eyes, then stabs it into her chest…
Emily snapped awake, feeling sweat pouring down her back and onto the blanket. For a long moment, she was unsure where and when she was; the nightmare had been so strong that part of her half-wondered if Shadye had killed her and everything she’d experienced had been nothing more than the final flickers of life before she died. And then she forced herself to remember, somehow, that she was in a tent, in the Blighted Lands. She’d had nightmares every night since they’d crossed the Craggy Mountains and started their long walk towards the Dark Fortress.
Just a dream, she told herself, as she wiped her forehead. The prospect of returning to Shadye’s fortress, where she’d barely escaped with her life, was terrifying. If there hadn’t been a very real possibility she’d inherited Shadye’s possessions, she wouldn’t have chosen to come within a thousand miles of the place. It was just a nightmare. It wasn’t real.
She started as something slithered towards her, but smiled as Aurelius butted his head into her thigh. The Death Viper looked up at her beseechingly, his golden eyes somehow managing to convey a sense of hunger even though she’d fed him only the previous night and he should still be digesting his meal. Emily had been told, when she’d brought the snake back to Whitehall, that Death Vipers could live for weeks without eating, while their last meal was digesting in their bellies, but Aurelius seemed to disagree. Perhaps the familiar bond that tied them together demanded more energy…
Or perhaps he’s picking up on my hunger, she thought, as she sat upright and picked up the snake. I could do with something to eat too.
Aurelius slithered forward. She giggled helplessly as the snake crawled up her arm and settled around her neck. She reached into her pack, pulled out a piece of dried meat and offered it to Aurelius, then pulled her trousers on, followed by her shirt. Sleeping without her clothes hadn’t been easy, but it had just been too hot inside the tent. She knew several spells to chill the air, but the Grandmaster had forbidden her to use magic unless it was urgent. Thankfully, he’d insisted on keeping watch half the night rather than sharing a tent with her.
She crawled forward and opened the flap, then poked her head out of the tent. The Grandmaster was sitting in front of a fire, his back to her, cooking something that smelled faintly like bacon, although she had no idea if it was. It smelled good, but the stench of the Blighted Lands – a faint hint of burning that seemed to grow stronger with every breath she took – threatened to overpower it.
“Good morning, Emily,” the Grandmaster said. “I trust you slept well.”
“Well enough,” Emily lied. There was no point in complaining about the nightmares. “And yourself?”
“You know I don’t sleep,” the Grandmaster said.
I assumed it was a metaphor, Emily thought, ruefully. But it was true; the Grandmaster hadn’t slept since the day they’d walked through the mountains and into the Blighted Lands. It can’t be good for his mental health.
She pushed the thought aside as she stood and looked around. The Blighted Lands were strange, perhaps the strangest place she’d ever seen. Lands that had once been green and verdant were now covered in a thin layer of ash. There wasn’t a single living thing in sight, apart from the pair of them. A faint haze shimmered in the air, making it hard to see beyond a few dozen meters. The sky was a dull grey, the sun barely bright enough to burn through the clouds hanging in the sky; the air was unnaturally still, tinted with the faint scent of burning, and wisps of raw magic that danced across her awareness for long seconds before fading away. She could barely force herself to remain calm, even though she knew there was no real threat. The landscape spoke to her on a very primal level.
It looked very much like hell.
“I’m pleased to see your monster is taking things calmly,” the Grandmaster said, as she paced around the campsite before looking at him. He was a short, wizened man, with a dirty cloth wrapped around his eyes, but he was surrounded by an aura of power she knew to take seriously. “I was worried, but I would have preferred not to deprive you of your familiar.”
Emily nodded. If anyone else had tried to wear a Death Viper as a necklace, she knew all too well, they would have died before they could wrap it around their necks. It was hard to remember, sometimes, that Aurelius was one of the deadliest creatures known to exist, with a venom so poisonous that even a mere touch could prove fatal. Only the familiar bond protected her from the snake, allowing her to keep Aurelius as a secret weapon. He’d already saved her life twice.
“He seems to be happier here than I am,” Emily admitted. She squatted down and took the mug he offered her with a nod of thanks. The Kava tasted strong, but she knew from experience that it would jolt her awake. “Is that normal?”
“The Blighted Lands may be where the Death Vipers were spawned,” the Grandmaster said, as he ladled food onto two plates. “He may feel like he’s home.”
Emily looked up, staring at the mountains in the distance. “I hope not,” she muttered. “I wouldn’t want to live here.”
The Grandmaster laughed, and passed her a plate of food. “Eat quickly,” he urged, as Emily took it. “I want to get to the Dark Fortress before it gets dark.”
Emily swallowed. Years ago – so long ago it seemed almost like another life – Shadye had accidentally brought her to the Nameless World, seeking a Child of Destiny. It had never occurred to him that someone would be named Destiny, or that her child would be a literal Child of Destiny. Shadye had meant to kill her, to sacrifice her to something called the Harrowing, yet in some ways she was almost grateful to the mad necromancer. If she’d stayed on Earth, trapped between her stepfather and her suicidal urges, she was sure she would be dead by now.
“Yes, sir,” she said, as she ate her meal. It tasted better than anything she’d cooked back on Earth, although the ever-present scent of burning had worked its way into the food. “How long will it take us to get there?”
“About an hour,” the Grandmaster said. “Unless we run into trouble, that is.”
They finished their breakfast. Emily wiped the plates and cooking equipment while the Grandmaster answered a call of nature, and started to pack away the tent. He hadn’t wanted a tent for himself, something that made her feel vaguely guilty, but he’d dismissed the matter when she’d offered to sleep in the open too. She couldn’t help feeling relieved; quite apart from her concerns about sleeping near a man, she wouldn’t have cared to sleep in the open, not in the Blighted Lands. The raw magic seemed to grow stronger at night.
That must be why so few people risk entering the Blighted Lands, she thought, as she packed up the rucksack. You could go to sleep in the wrong place and wake up in a very different form.
She shuddered at the thought, then pulled the rucksack on and braced herself against the weight. The Grandmaster nodded to her, checked the campsite for anything they might have left behind, then led the way into the distance. Emily gritted her teeth and forced herself to follow him. The flickers of wild magic in the air were growing stronger the further they moved from the Craggy Mountains that blocked the way to Whitehall. If she’d been alone, she had a feeling she would have turned back a long time before reaching the Dark Fortress.
“There’s no need to push yourself too hard,” the Grandmaster said, slowing. “If worst comes to worst, we’ll set up our tents near the Dark Fortress and wait until sunrise.”
Emily glanced up. It was early morning, by her watch, but the sun was already high in the sky. And yet, the light seemed dim, the clouds growing darker as they walked deeper into the Blighted Lands. She’d thought it was night when Shadye had snatched her, but had his lands been buried in permanent darkness? Or was she merely imagining things?
“I thought you said it wasn’t safe to lurk too close to the fortress,” she said instead.
“It isn’t,” the Grandmaster confirmed. “But I would prefer not to have to enter the Dark Fortress in darkness.”
He said nothing else until they stumbled across the ruins of a village, so hidden within the haze that they practically walked into the ruins before realizing they were there. It was hard to imagine that it had once been a living village, with farmers tending their crops and raising their children; now, it was nothing more than grey stone, all life and light leeched away by the Blighted Lands. The eerie sameness sent chills down her spine.
“Be careful,” the Grandmaster warned as she peered into one of the buildings. “You never know what might be lurking here.”
Emily nodded, pausing as she caught sight of a child’s doll lying on the ground. It looked…normal, surprisingly intact despite the Blighted Lands. But when she reached for the doll and picked it up, it crumbled to dust in her hands. She swallowed hard, trying not to cry for the girl who’d owned the doll, untold centuries ago. Had she died quickly, at the hands of a necromancer, or fled with her family to the untouched lands to the north? There was no way Emily would ever know.
“There has to be something we can do for the Blighted Lands,” she said, as she wiped the dust off her fingers. “Can’t we…cleanse the lands, or something?”
“The necromancers unleashed wild magic,” the Grandmaster said. “Every year, some people try to set up settlements within the edge of the Blighted Lands, in hopes of reclaiming the territory for themselves. And they always come to grief. If the necromancers don’t get them, the wild magic does.”
He took a long look around the village – Emily was sure he had some way to see, despite having lost his eyes years ago – and then led the way out of it, back to the south. She followed him, feeling an odd urge to stay within the village even though she knew it was suicide. It worried her for a long moment – it could be a sign of subtle magic – and then she realized the village had felt safe, despite being within the Blighted Lands. The urge to turn back and flee grew stronger with every step they took.
“The White Council was quite impressed with you,” the Grandmaster said. He spoke in a conversational tone of voice, as if he were trying to keep her mind off the growing urge to just turn and run. “They were not too pleased with the management of the Cockatrice Faire, but…they were relieved at the outcome.”
Emily nodded. Everyone from Lady Barb to the Grandmaster himself had pointed out that she’d been careless, at the very least, and that her carelessness could easily have resulted in disaster. If the Ashworths and the Ashfalls had gone to war, it would not only have led to the deaths of the leaders of both families, but also to the slaughter of hundreds of other magicians and the devastation of her lands. She knew she’d been lucky, very lucky. If she hadn’t managed to get a battery to work…
She touched the ring, hidden within her pocket, and smiled. Lady Barb had urged her to create and charge a second battery while preparing for the trip to the Blighted Lands, and Emily had done as her mentor suggested. Now she had a battery she could use, although without a valve it was useless. And they had a tendency to work once and then burn out. Putting a spare valve together with the help of an enchanter in Dragon’s Den had been harder than charging up the battery.
“You showed a staggering amount of power,” the Grandmaster added. “They were very impressed.”
Thank you, Emily thought, sardonically. Is that actually a good thing?
She eyed the Grandmaster’s back, wondering if he knew just what she’d actually done. He hadn’t treated her any differently when Lady Barb had returned her to Whitehall after the Faire, but he wouldn’t have. Others…had stared at her in awe. In some ways, she was even dreading the day when the rest of the students returned to Whitehall. If they’d stared at her after beating Shadye – and they had – they would be paying far more attention to her now.
“Some of them even considered…insisting…that you take the oaths now,” the Grandmaster told her. “Others thought you should be apprenticed at once to someone who could control your power, if necessary.”
But I cheated, Emily thought.
It wasn’t a reassuring thought. If she’d tried to channel so much power through her mind, it would have killed her or driven her insane. It had been bad enough, years ago, to have people watching her, suspicious of necromancy. Now…they probably thought she was a staggeringly powerful magician instead, a young girl fully on the same level as Void or another Lone Power. The idea that she could match the Grandmaster for raw power was absurd…
…But, to anyone who didn’t know about the batteries, it might not seemabsurd.
She swallowed. “What are they going to do?”
“Nothing,” the Grandmaster said, simply.
Emily blinked. “Nothing?”
“I am Grandmaster of Whitehall School,” the Grandmaster said. “I have never had a student forced to take the oaths ahead of time, and I’m not about to start now. If you want an apprenticeship with someone…well, that could be arranged, but you have no obligation to find a master. Or mistress. Still…”
He shrugged. “Have you thought about your career?”
“I don’t know,” Emily admitted. “I’d like to stay at Whitehall for the rest of my life.”
“You’d need much more experience before you could teach,” the Grandmaster said. “I like my tutors to have at least ten years of practical experience before they start touching young and impressionable minds. But you could get a slot as a teaching assistant, I suppose, or a research student. We do have a few of them at Whitehall.”
He paused, then turned to look at her. “You do need to decide on a major before you enter Fifth Year,” he added. “Going by your marks, I’d recommend majoring in charms and perhaps healing, but it depends on what you actually want to do with your life. If you want to be a healer, you’ll need alchemy; if you want to be a combat sorceress, you’ll need martial magic and history…”
Emily sighed, feeling a little overwhelmed. “Randor expects me to go back to Cockatrice and be the baroness,” she said. “I…”
“King Randor,” the Grandmaster corrected, quietly.
“But I don’t know what I want to do,” Emily continued. “There are so manyinteresting subjects.”
“You could probably study them all, if you spread out your years,” the Grandmaster mused. “It isn’t unknown for students to repeat their last two years at Whitehall. However, most students tend to discover the subject they want to major in while they’re in their Fourth Year and stick with it. Your marks in Healing are not bad.”
Emily winced. Healing was an interesting class, but she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life working with ill people. She’d seen enough of that life during the walk through the Cairngorms to know she didn’t want to do it permanently. There had been too many horrors there, hidden in small shacks or behind high stone walls. She had no idea how Lady Barb did it without cursing everyone in sight.
“I think I just want to study,” she said. It was a shame there were no universities in the Nameless World. She could have stepped into one quite happily and never come out. “And go into magical research, perhaps.”
“That would suit you,” the Grandmaster agreed.
He shrugged, then turned back to resume walking. “You need to remember that you’re not just any magician,” he added, as he walked. “Too many people are already showing an interest in you, not least our friends to the south.”
The necromancers, Emily thought.
She’d killed Shadye – and the Allied Lands had declared her the Necromancer’s Bane. The other necromancers seemed to believe she could kill them at will, if only because none of them had tried to claim Shadye’s lands or attack Whitehall. But that wouldn’t last, she was sure. Sooner or later, the necromancers would resume their offensive against the Allied Lands. Their endless need for new victims to sacrifice would ensure it.
And what will happen, she asked herself, when they do?
She kept her thoughts to herself as she followed the Grandmaster, feeling the air grow steadily colder as they made their way to the south. Slowly, the twisted shape of the Dark Fortress – and, beside it, the Inverse Shadow – came into view. They didn’t look anything like the half-remembered shapes in her nightmares, but there hadn’t really been time to take much note of the scenery the last time she’d visited. She’d been half out of her mind with fear when Shadye’s animated skeletons had dragged her into the Inverse Shadow, preparing her for death. If Void hadn’t been there, she would have died that day.
The Grandmaster stopped, sharply. “Listen,” he said. “Can you hear that?”
Emily paused, listening hard. There was a faint sound in the distance, a howling that seemed to come from many throats. It was growing louder, although she didn’t think the source of the sound was actually comingcloser. Whatever it was – and there was something about it that touched a memory – it chilled her to the bone.
“I think we’d better go see what that is,” the Grandmaster said, after a quick glance at his watch. “Follow me.”
Madison’s Song is the latest addition to the Cassie Scot
Paranormal Detective fantasy/mystery series. Though not the latest instalment, it is a stand-alone, companion book to the series and, though there are mystery elements in it, it is primarily a romantic fantasy.
So far I’ve read and enjoyed all of the books and this one didn’t disappoint. As usual, Amsden delivers a fast-pace, highly entertaining read with fully sympathetic and compelling characters. This time I was especially swept away by the romance between Madison and Scott.
Madison Carter is a sweet, shy music teacher from a small town. When her brother Clinton’s life is put in danger, she must unwillingly join forces with Scott Lee, a very alluring and dangerous alpha werewolf, to find Clinton and help him. Scott is slave to the moon, a vicious killer and man-eating monster, but he has a soft spot for Madison, whom he was forced to “mark”, make love to, two years ago in order to save her life. Since then, they’ve been bonded in more ways than both are willing to admit. Needless to say, sparks fly from the very beginning. As they follow the trail to Clinton, they find themselves thrown in a secret lab, prisoners of a psychopathic doctor with a very dark agenda. Romance, suspense, mystery, action and thrills abound, and then some.
Fans of the Cassie Scot series and romantic fantasy will gobble this one up. Amsden hooks us from page one and doesn’t let us go until the end. With minimalist descriptions, non-stop action, and skillful characterization, this author delivers a tale that both engages and captivates. I was also impressed by the world building and all the fascinating dynamics about werewolves and their packs. I was able to forget reality and immersed myself into the world of the impossible. Highly recommended!
My review was originally published in Blogcritics.
“Writing has taught me the importance of self-confidence in becoming good at anything,” says Christine Amsden, who, in spite of having been diagnosed with Stargardt’s Disease, a condition that effects the retina and causes a loss of central vision, has gone on to become the award-winning, bestselling author of the Cassie Scot: ParaNormal Detective fantasy/mystery series published by Twilight Times Books.
“My parents encouraged reading a LOT,” says this speculative fiction writer, who grew up gobbling up The Chronicles of Narnia, The Baby Sitter’s Club, andFlowers in the Attic. “I know they read to me too, but I was an advanced reader at an early age and preferred to read on my own when I could. I have memories of staring at picture books, making up stories about the pictures though I couldn’t understand the words.” At the tender age of 8, she wrote her first short story, about Cabbage Patch Dolls going to Mars. From then on, she wrote fairly consistently until 2003, which marked the beginning of her professional career when she attended a workshop with Orson Scott Card.
Amsden may be legally blind, but she hasn’t allowed that part of her life to stop her from becoming a prolific author, and nowadays she splits her time between writing, freelance editing, and coaching — with a keen focus on writing. She loves to write about real people defining themselves through extraordinary situations, giving special attention to people and relationships, her way of making science fiction and fantasy meaningful for everyone. “I will continue to marry romance with speculative fiction because I simply love both genres,” states the author. “I love a good character story. I think character is more important than just about anything else, and a great character will have me reading any genre at all and loving it. I get a lot of people telling me that they like my books even though they ‘don’t normally read stuff like that.’ I think it’s because of the characters.”
In what she describes as her messy, cluttered desk, and with a special arm attached to her monitor to help her eyes and back, Amsden creates her stories rich in characterization and world building. Her latest book, Madison’s Song, a companion to her Cassie Scot series, is about a shy young woman who has suffered more than her fair share of betrayal in the past. A friend of Cassie (the only ungifted daughter of powerful sorcerers), Madison now gets a chance to prove that she can be more than a plump, shy sidekick. When her brother’s life is in danger, she faces her greatest fear with head held high to save him. The story is equally about Scott, a werewolf who has fallen in love with a woman he doesn’t believe he deserves.
Amsden’s writing style is straightforward and conversational, which is probably why most readers and reviewers describe her work as highly entertaining and fast paced. “I’m not the sort to hide the story behind flowery prose,” she says. “I like the words to get out of the way of the story.” She’s a fast writer as well, finishing the rough draft of the book in only two months, though she then put it aside for a year before revising it, a process that took her five additional months. Her writing process, though fluid, is different with each book. “My best story ideas are the ones that come to me while I’m doing something else, although this doesn’t excuse me from putting in my hours of conscious effort. No two projects that I’ve worked on have developed in exactly the same way, either. I like to try new strategies, mix things up, so life doesn’t get boring.”
Like the Cassie Scot series, Madison’s Song will also be available in audiobook format, which is how Amsden “reads” most books these days. “It was important to me, when I became an author, to make my books available to listen to as well as read, and not just for others with disabilities. Audiobooks are a terrific way to enjoy books for busy people whose reading time can be combined with a daily commute, or with housework.”
Like most authors, Amsden loves sharing her creative ideas with the world, something which can be understandably challenging. “Nothing is universally liked,” states the author. “I try not to read negative comments or reviews, but it’s almost impossible to avoid all of it. When someone ‘gets me’ I feel an almost euphoric connectedness to the world; when someone doesn’t, (in a really big way), it almost makes me feel isolated.”
The definition of success varies from writer to writer. For Amsden, it has changed since she started writing. “At one time (not too long ago), I had an unrealistic expectation of success that involved becoming a bestseller and making an upper-class living off of my books,” she confesses. “When the Cassie Scot series came out, I sold thousands of books but still didn’t make the kind of money that would let me ‘earn a living’ off of it. It made me rethink my definition of success, becauseby all measurable standards my books are doing well – I’ve got great reviews, I’ve won several awards, I’ve sold many thousands of books, and I’m making money. I feel most successful when I connect with readers who love my books. So maybe that’s what success is. I’d love to connect with more readers, sell more books, and make more money, but I’m becoming satisfied with who and what I am now. (Like Cassie.)”
At the moment, the author is waiting for her next book, Kaitlin’s Tale, to be released by Twilight Times Books. She’s also hard at work on a new series set in a completely different world and with a new cast of characters. Though it’s way too early to say much about it, readers can count on it being filled with romance and the paranormal.
A native of St. Louis, Christine Amsden now lives in Olathe, Kansas with her husband, Austin, who has been her biggest fan and the key to her success, and their two beautiful children.
Touch of Fate (Twilight Times Books, 2006)
The Immortality Virus(Twilight Times Books, 2011)
Cassie Scot: ParaNormal Detective (Twilight Times Books, 2013)
Secrets and Lies (Twilight Times Books, 2013)
Mind Games (Twilight Times Books, 2014)
Stolen Dreams (Twilight Times Books, 2014)
Madison’s Song (Twilight Times Books, 2015)
Connect with Christine Amsden on the web:
Gabriel Valjan is the author of the Roma Series from Winter Goose Publishing. His fourth book,Turning To Stone, came out 15 June 2015. Gabriel writes short stories, which are available online and in print. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts. In this interview, he talks about the secrets of writing compelling suspense.
Connect with Gabriel Valjan on the web:
Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Turning To Stone. To begin with, can you give us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?
A: Bianca is in Naples this time. Loki, her mysterious contact, is now giving her baffling anagrams. They seem to lead to a charismatic entrepreneur who has a plan to partner with organized crime to manipulate the euro and American dollar. Against a backdrop of gritty streets, financial speculation, and a group of female assassins on motorcycles, Bianca and her friends discover that Naples might just be the most dangerous city in Italy.
Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah, his journalistic exposé on the Neapolitan Camorra, which sent him into exile with a price on his head, inspired Turning To Stone. The Fiscal Crisis of 2008 provides an undercurrent to the novel. I followed the fallout in the media as it related to Italy. Italy, in my opinion, became the first scapegoat, followed by Spain. Italy and Spain are the third and fourth biggest Eurozone economies, respectively. The American media pundits had insisted that the European welfare state is what caused the debt crisis in Europe; that it was European public debt that caused the fiasco, when in reality it was Wall Street’s speculation of American private debt on the international market that had been the true culprit. Italians are very prudent when it comes to their money; they have one of the highest savings rates among European nations and the household net wealth is more than five times their GDP, the highest rate among western European countries. Not once anywhere in the media here in the U.S. had those facts been discussed. Traditionally, Italians invest in government bonds and real estate, very rarely in stocks. Turning To Stone ventures the what-if scenario: what if someone tried to destabilize the world’s reference currency, the U.S. dollar. The thing to fear is fear itself and a stable Euro.
Italy may have its problems, but its welfare state is not one of them. Some glaring facts contradict the pundits’ portrait of a ‘weak Italy’, but I’ll mention only two of them, for the sake of space and time: 1) Italy is the least indebted of the EU economies (‘aggregate debt’ is public and private debt combined) and 2) Italian citizens own that public debt: the U.S. can’t say that about its debt, which the Chinese own. If there is a ‘message’, I would say that all my novels deal with relationships and trust, how friends navigate and negotiate a morally compromised world, uncertain of what is the truth or the lie and whether either of those two could get them killed.
Q: What do you think makes a good mystery-suspense novel? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?
A: Item 1: Present a reason WHY a reader should care about your main character. This is the personal connection. My Bianca is intelligent but flawed. She is something of an adrenaline addict who can’t resist a challenge. She ran away from her employer, Rendition, yet she remains intrigued when they seem to present challenges to her through Loki. As in life when you know your WHY, you acquire an attractive energy. The rest of the story is a matter of HOW. Bianca has specific talents, but she learns time and again that teamwork is how one overcomes obstacles.
Item 2: Present a WHAT: a situation in which the main character has to resolve some conflict, or there are consequences. This is the mystery part of your story. I summarized the plot in an earlier question. Throughout the Roma Series I want readers to wonder why Rendition, which is powerful, apparently international, and lethal has not silenced Bianca.
Item 3: Present a ticking TIME BOMB. This is the suspense part. Every decision has to have a consequence. Arriving at the wrong conclusion is misdirection. In Turning, I invite the reader to solve the anagrams. People, in my experience, can learn to deal with the consequences of their actions, but they think twice, reconsider the situation, when they know that their actions will affect someone close to them. The Time Bomb is also a metaphor to go beyond your own ego. Bianca has dear friends who have put themselves at risk for her; she can’t let them down.
Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?
A: Turning To Stone is unique in the Roma Series in that it is my most complex plot. Economics is an abstract subject and about as interesting to most people as clipping their toenails. It is 2015, yet the consequences of the Fiscal Crises of 2007 and 2008 are still playing themselves out here and abroad. I noticed a curious phenomenon within the news media: American news packaged the crises into neat sound bytes with very little analysis. The finger pointing was such that the pundits pointed at the moon, but had us staring at the finger. When Wall Street received some of the blame, the knee-jerk reaction was to blame it all on greed rather than explain how the bankers did it.
In plotting Turning I wanted to show that the criminal’s plan would affect national economies. We are all connected. Think about the farmer or trucker when you buy produce at the store? You are dependent on him for sustenance and his farm is dependent on your consumer loyalty. Turning is about considering those connections. The currency in your pocket means something because we all assign a value to it, so what if someone came along and redefined that value for you? That is exactly what happened in 2007 and 2008. In stark terms, one casualty of the Crises was home ownership, the symbol of the American Dream. Someone came along and said that your home is relatively worthless, but you still have to pay the mortgage and property taxes based on the original appraisal that no longer exists. In terms of consequences today, the news will talk about austerity measures, but won’t tell you about the suicides as a result of unemployment in Greece. Just this morning I was reading about a doctor in Greece who had worked a 12-hour shift, dealing with such suicides, only to end his shift seeing a body bag that contained the body of his son who had killed himself.
Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?
A: I didn’t do interviews, but Bianca is inside my head, figuratively speaking. As with all my characters in the Roma Series, they live and breathe, have their own personalities and quirks. Bianca began as a challenge from a work colleague. She jokingly teased me that a man couldn’t write a female character. She wanted to see what I could do. She was tired of reading about detectives, male or female, who cursed all the time, had a drinking problem and dysfunctional relationships with their family and peers. I think she was reading a lot of British and Icelandic noir at the time. I’m old enough to remember the primitive days of computing so that helped in bringing Bianca into existence. As a kid, I knew one of the world’s premiere hackers. Bianca is an amalgam of personalities I have met and known. She is no Lisabeth Salander but she has her own issues. The short story I had written for a friend morphed into the first book in the Roma Series: Roma, Underground.
Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?
A: Each Roma Series book has its own villain. Each novel has organized crime and Rendition as monolithic bad guys. I tried to avoid stereotypes. In my experience, the people who are very experienced at the not-so-nice things in this world are very quiet and unassuming; they don’t draw attention to themselves. Men who have seen and participated in combat, for example, don’t talk about it. Likewise, the individuals who are powerful in organized crime are not flashy, don’t have their names on a chart, or drive fancy cars and act like Tony Soprano; they are often milquetoast. John le Carré demonstrated countless times in his fiction that spy-work is hardly James Bond adventures; it is mind-numbing routine, analysis, and endless waiting until the opportunity presents itself. My bad guys are intelligent and well educated. What makes them deadly is they don’t make mistakes, which is why Bianca and her friends are heroic – they have to stop the baddies. In Turning, it so happens that the bad guy has allies, the Neapolitan mafia, the Camorra, along with the Calabrian and Sicilian mafias, the ’Ndrangheta and La Cosa Nostra.
Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?
A: Writing a mystery-suspense novel is like camera-work in filmmaking. A writer has to know when to cut the scene and guide the reader’s eyes to another scene. In shoptalk, I’m referring to pacing and subplot. The story arcs are zoom-in and tracking shots. If we were to dissect Turning, we’d start with an assassination and learn about a criminal conspiracy to commit forgery; our characters, particularly Bianca, struggle to put a stop to the violence while they field interference: bureaucratic and criminal. The subplots are always about the relationships in my books. Farrugia is undercover and at risk. He also has a love interest, Noelle. I introduce a new character who has a question mark over his head. Good or bad guy? In Turning, the ticking bomb is solving the anagrams that Loki gives Bianca.
Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?
A: Research and personal experience. I’ve been to Naples; it isn’t my favorite Italian city. Naples is very gritty and reminds me of New York’s Little Italy on the hottest, most humid day in the summer. Saviano’s Gomorrah, which I mentioned earlier, provided me with a sociological and psychological profile of Naples and the region, Campania. I read through blog posts done by ordinary citizens who are trying to fight the Camorra. What I found fascinating and disturbing is that organized crime is like a biological creature in that it has organ systems and a nervous system. The Sicilian mafia is hierarchical, patriarchal, and closed off. The Calabrian mafia is impenetrable to law enforcement, with an almost non-existent rate of penitents, those who ‘flip.’ The Camorra is the most flexible organization in that it will work with any ethnic group and it can ‘set up shop’ anywhere in the world. Readers will quickly discover in Turning To Stone that, like real life, women play a vital role in the Camorra. After reading Saviano, I concluded that Camorra would make the perfect corporation.
Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?
A: The recurrent theme to all the Roma novels is the evolving relationships between the main characters. These characters are team players with unique flaws and strengths. True friendship is worth fighting for in a troubled world. I hope that readers see an emotional arc in character development in each of my characters throughout the Series. The world is a scary place and governments are entities that will do what they have to do in order to survive. People are ultimately expendable. The only thing that any government needs from its citizens is their consent. I tend to know my plot before I start writing. Revision is for fine-tuning scenes and checking the logic of the plot.
Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?
A: That is a challenging question. Craft to me is technique, those things that you learn by example from reading other authors, or from study in the classroom. What can’t be taught is the idea for a story. Take Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” as an example. The idea is simple yet profound: How do you explain a cathedral to a blind man? Nobody can teach the idea for a story. Stories from writers with an MFA come to my mind: technique is there, evident, and I feel the nudge and the wink, but often the story has no life; it does not ‘speak’ and feels clinical. Art — I make no claims to define it, but for me artistry exists in taking the mundane and making it extraordinary. I appreciate it when someone shows me a new way at looking at something, whether it is a flower or a garbage can.
Editing is complicated and the hardest part of writing. It amounts to murder – the ‘kill your darlings.’ I would say that editing dialog is tricky. In real life, people do not speak full sentences or display coherent thoughts, which the reader knows and for which he or she suspends belief, but if the writer holds steadfast to every grammar rule then the dialog wouldn’t sound realistic. People, for example, don’t subordinate in real life: ‘I think it’s unrealistic’ versus ‘I think that it is unrealistic.’ A writer needs an honest, caring editor who knows language and psychology.
Speaking for myself, I can’t proofread my own work because my eyes don’t see the missing words. I know the story too well, so I rely on others for structural editing. Ego has to be left outside the door. The writer is not there to say, “This is what I meant when I wrote this.” What is there on the page has to speak for itself without commentary. A structural edit should find gaps in logic and continuity. Bianca came into the room with red heels; she shouldn’t exit wearing sandals. As to whether editing can kill the creative – I don’t think so, but no amount of judicious editing will save bad writing or an ill-conceived story.
Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?
A: Humility. Curiosity. Discipline.
Humility: The story is what matters. A reader cares about what is on the page, and not about who you are or what you look like, or if you are traditionally or self-published.
Curiosity: Remain open and as curious as a child. Lessons come from unexpected sources. It is all material..
Discipline: Time spent talking about it is time you could be doing it.
Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?
A: Homework sounds like a bad thing, as if it’s an unpleasant chore. Musicians appreciate good music regardless of their personal preference because they understand rhythm and melody. A cineaste will watch a film, know how it will end yet will find pleasure on the screen from start to finish. Writers are no different in that they appreciate a well-turned phrase, a clever image or a well-told story. Instead of homework I would say that when you enjoy what you do you don’t think of it as homework. You have to breathe and that isn’t homework. Writing is like breathing for some people.
Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?
A: Rennie Browne and Dave King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and Carolyn Wheat’s How to Write Killer Fiction are two excellent books that provide numerous examples to substantiate their teaching points. Kristen Lamb’s blog We Are Not Alone offers both writing advice and social media strategies. Writer Unboxed is another blog that has daily articles of encouragement and advice for writers. Other than that, the greatest resource that any writer has is their library card.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?
A: Respect your reader, for their time is precious, and be grateful should they spend it with you. Respect yourself and write the best story that you can write today. Listen to the world around with all your senses, for it is all material. Learn from your mistakes and from others, and strive to be 1% better each day. You will not only be a better writer, but a better human being.
Title: Turning To Stone
Genre: Mystery, Suspense
Author: Gabriel Valjan
Publisher: Winter Goose Publishing
Purchase link: http://amzn.to/1N73WGy
Bianca is in Naples for Turning To Stone, the fourth book in the Roma Series from author Gabriel Valjan. Loki, her mysterious contact, is now giving Bianca baffling anagrams. They seem to lead to a charismatic entrepreneur who has a plan to partner with organized crime to manipulate the euro and American dollar. Against a backdrop of gritty streets, financial speculation, and a group of female assassins on motorcycles, Bianca and her friends discover that Naples might just be the most dangerous city in Italy.
Pinterest boards for the Roma Series books
Book 4: Turning To Stone | https://www.pinterest.com/gvaljan/turning-to-stone/
Book 3: Threading the Needle | https://www.pinterest.com/gvaljan/threading-the-needle/
Books 2: Wasp’s Nest | https://www.pinterest.com/gvaljan/wasp-s-nest/
Book 1: Roma, Underground | https://www.pinterest.com/gvaljan/roma
Were you on line at Studio 54? Did you ever swap drugs for gold in Tangiers? Or try on a dog collar at the Botany Club? Ever marry a countess or a Playboy playmate? Meet Barry. He did all of that and a lot more. He’s had many ups and downs and has probably forgotten more than you’ve fantasized, but this book is what he can recall…
Thus goes the pitch of Barry Hornig’s candid, compelling, revealing, and ultimately inspiring memoir, Without a Net: a True Tales of Prison, Penthouses, and Playmates (Köehler Books, 2015), which, from idea to polished manuscript, took him eight years to complete.
“Without a Net is the story of a young man from a middle class background who shoots for the stars and goes after things that aren’t attainable, and when he thinks he has them, they get taken away,” states Hornig. “In the process, he winds up incarcerated, threatened with guns, and succumbs to addictions, but through a powerful series of visualizations he manages to manifest somebody who helps him change his whole life around through love and compassion. And through that, he is able to help other people.” Hornig’s over-the-top life is told with honesty, self-mockery, hope, and more than a little Jewish humor.
The decision to write this memoir came about from Hornig’s anger about his great ups and downs in life and the question, “Why do they continue to happen to me?” He needed to get it out of his system. Through writing, he hoped to see life more clearly and get rid of some of the anger and pain. He decided he wouldn’t misdirect his energy by looking back, but instead concentrate on looking forward and benefit from lessons learned, and it worked. “I hope I left a roadmap and some signposts to show other people that when they get lost, there is a way out,” says Hornig. “I believe that with determination, visualization, and the right partner, you can emerge from any darkness, live an interesting and fruitful life, and recover your sanity and your spiritual balance.”
In addition to his personal journey, the book offers a kaleidoscope of America from its triumphant and proud years in the 50s to a more recent time when – from Hornig’s perspective – “A great power has been shamefully falling apart. We’ve killed all our heroes, and there’s nobody to look up to. Violence never wins. And Gordon Gekko was wrong; greed is not good. (Sorry, Oliver.)”
Writing Without a Net had its challenges. From telling the truth, to stirring the hot coals, to old temptations re-awakening, to unsupportive peers telling him he was wasting his time and would never finish the book, Hornig admirably stuck to his vision through it all and came through the other side with a completed manuscript and a renewed sense of reality.
Besides the obvious painful, emotional journey of having to access his troubled past, Hornig’s challenge included the fact that he’s dyslexic. Because of this, he decided to work with Michael Claibourne, who helped him organize his thoughts and pen his words. Claibourne loved his life story and had been urging him for quite a while to write it all down. It seemed just as exciting as any of the screenplays they were working on. “My creative process was a form of channeling with Michael, who acted as interviewer, scribe and psychiatrist,” adds Hornig. “We wrote this memoir from Topanga Canyon to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, Montana, and New York City. Sometimes lying down and sometimes sitting up. In person, over the phone, and over the net. It was complex but clear. I tried to be truthful and honest with all the subjects.”
In spite of help from his writing partner, as well as support from his spouse and family, becoming an author has been overwhelming for Hornig, to say the least. “I can’t quite wrap my head around it,” he says. “All I did was tell a story. We’ll see what happens from there, and I’ll leave it up to my audience.” He’s looking forward to sharing some of his experiences in this journey with younger people, and hopes that this book puts him in a venue where he can talk to them. “I want to spread the news: it’s never too late.” He hopes readers will learn from his story and even find themselves in it, and realize that even the most destructive impulses can be overcome. “I have been able to forgive the people who wronged me, and forgive myself for wronging the people that I wronged – both the ones who are dead and the ones who are still alive. And looking back now through the other end of the telescope, it’s all very clear.”
Barry Hornig currently divides his time between Santa Monica, California, and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where he owns a gallery of fine art rugs. He is a professional sports fisherman, an expert on the paranormal, has talked with beings from space, had visions in Masar-i-Sharif, has been blessed by Muktananda, and hugged by Ammachi. “I have so many more stories to tell… and they’re not all autobiographical” states the author on what lurks on the horizon. “Screenplays, movies, all with messages. I am hoping that with this book my other story work will be taken seriously. And that in turn the other work will get out and more lessons will be learned.”
Connect with Barry Hornig on the web:
My article originally appeared in Blogcritics.