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Thursday, 28 July 2016

The Mage of Dust and Bone - a Fabled Lands novel

A while ago the literary agent for Fabled Lands LLP, the company that owns Dirk Lloyd and our FL gamebooks, came up with the notion that it might be a wizard wheeze to write a fantasy novel with an MG-to-YA spin. Game of Thrones for young teens, sort of thing.

My usual way of working with Jamie on book projects for Fabled Lands LLP is that we come up with a story outline together, but Jamie does most of the actual writing because the company can only afford to employ one person full-time. Sometimes, if I have a week or two to spare, I'll write the first few chapters to help Jamie get started. That's how The Wrong Side of the Galaxy began.

In the case of this kids' fantasy book, which we gave the working title Mage of Dust and Bone, I wrote the first twelve thousand words, but by then Jamie was assigned to write a Frozen-style novel for Fabled Lands LLP called A Shadow on the Heart, which we decided was a better commercial bet than this tale of yet another wizard-in-training. (Earthsea, anybody?) In any case, as usual I was taking the story much too dark for the tender sensibilities of the tween and early teen readers - or of literary agents, come to that. And so it got shelved. The ironic twist in this tale is that A Shadow on the Heart didn't actually get written after all and then Fabled Lands LLP ran out of money, so in fact it was an entirely wasted opportunity. Oh well, it's not like the world doesn't already have a tsunami of fantasy adventure novels to keep it going. Small loss.

The Mage of Dust and Bone may be of some interest to Fabled Lands readers because the nominal setting is Sokara during the civil war - though not quite the same as the world of the gamebooks. Dweomer, for example, in the novel is not a wizardly university but simply a Tintagel-like castle where an old Arch Mage teaches three apprentices, one of whom is our antihero, Forge Burntholm. At the start Forge is about fifteen years old, and has been studying magic for some time, but then the book flashes back to when he first meets the Arch Mage. This is the beginning of chapter four, and I'll run chapter five over the next few days.

*  *  *

Chapter Four

The first time Forge remembered meeting the Arch Mage, he was nine years old and running home through the woods near his home. He had jumped the brook, ducked under a branch still heavy with last night’s rain, and there in front of him stood a stranger who seemed to be made of sky and sunlight.
Forge took a step back and looked again. The stranger was a normal man, no phantom of the woods, but he was not like any woodsman that Forge had ever seen. He must have been old, very old, but the only impression he gave Forge at the time was of boundless and ageless vigour, as if he’d grown there among the ferns and belonged to the wild as much as any bear or deer. Greying hair curled down to his shoulders, and there was a silver circlet on his brow, but it was his gaze that dazzled Forge. His eyes were bright - brighter than the raindrops on the leaves, that caught and danced the sunlight in a thousand fractured colours - and yet as dark and secret-laden as the cool shade under a stone.
His cloak, swept back from wide angular shoulders, hung like a black waterfall. His blue robes, as fine as any king’s, were tucked up into his belt, revealing strong leather boots with silver buckles. And beside him on the ground were half a dozen big wooden travelling chests, as if he’d just that minute got off a carriage or a boat. Which made no sense, of course, because the forest track they were on was no wider than a fox, and even in winter the brook was so small that a grown man could stand astride it.
‘Where did you come from?’ demanded Forge, who always acted bold if he felt nervous.
There was a long silence as the stranger studied him. ‘Many places,’ he said at last, and though he spoke very softly, his voice rang out clearly against the rushing water of the brook.
‘You must have come from one place last,’ insisted Forge.
‘From the sea. A place called Dweomer.’
‘That sounds a long way off,’ said Forge, for whom the next village over was an unimaginable distance.
‘Long enough to be thinking of lunch. I’m hoping your mother will have her fine herb salad ready. Maybe even some fresh-baked bread, eh?’
Forge bristled defensively at the reference to his home life. ‘How did you get here?’
‘You meet a traveller on the river bank. You’re a smart boy. How would you say he got there?’
‘This isn’t a river. It’s just the brook.’ Forge jumped over to the other side and back with a snort of contempt.
‘Just the brook, you say? Well it goes up and up into the hills, further than you’ve ever been, and miles down there to the sea, which you’ve never seen.’
‘You couldn’t get a boat on it, though.’
The stranger frowned and bent forward a little towards him. ‘Where did you get that idea? You used to know better when you were this high.’
Forge looked at his hand, held just so far off the ground. A yearling lamb might fit under it. Forge had less experience with young children, but he thought the Greysons’ toddler was about that tall, and he was two or three summers now.
‘We’ve never met,’ he told the Arch Mage.
‘Hmm. What a lot you’ve got to remember. Come on, let’s find your parents. Then we can make a start.’
He swept off through the undergrowth, straight in the direction that the Burntholm cottage lay. Forge followed, more to keep an eye on him than because he wanted to look like he was doing as he was told.
‘What about your boxes?’
The Arch Mage kept on walking. ‘You know the thing about travelling chests, Forge Burntholm?’
‘They travel. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they get there before we do.’
Forge looked back at the spot where the Arch Mage’s boxes had been just a moment before. The ferns were still pressed flat, the oblong outlines clearly visible, but of the boxes themselves there was no sign.
He ran ahead to the cottage, intending to warn his mother about the stranger, but as he banged in through the gate he found the boxes piled up in the middle of the lawn. His mother, who had been bending over the weeds, looked up as she heard him. He saw her face as she caught sight of the boxes – first a puzzled frown, then a smile as she saw him, and then all expression and colour drained out of her face and he guessed the Arch Mage must have appeared at the gate behind him.
Forge’s mother looked back at the thick clump of weed she was grasping, and she braced to uproot it, but it seemed that all her strength had gone. After tugging weakly at it for a moment, she straightened up, turned and went into the kitchen. By the time Forge and the Arch Mage came in, she was already filling the teapot.
‘Mistress Burntholm, I hope I find you well,’ said the Arch Mage.
’I found him in the woods, Ma,’ said Forge, going over to stand beside her.
She barely looked at the Arch Mage, just gazed sadly down at Forge. ‘I never thought… I didn’t think the years would turn so quick.’
The Arch Mage stooped under the wooden beams with their hanging bunches of onions and drying herbs. ‘Nothing’s written yet. No decision taken that can’t be undone. I can turn around and go, and the current of your lives won’t show a ripple.’
He sat at the table and waited while Forge’s mother poured steaming cups of tea. The sun blazed out on the lawn, but here in the kitchen with its clay-brick floor the day was still cool. They drank without saying anything, which made Forge think that the Arch Mage must either be an old friend of his mother’s or else somebody she didn’t like.
The Arch Mage looked out of the window at his pile of boxes. ‘Late again. Where’s it got to now?’
He muttered this under his breath, just talking to himself. They lapsed back into silence. Forge took the opportunity to hang around out of the Arch Mage’s line of sight and study him. The impression of wildness and nature was less obvious but still there. He sat at the kitchen table as if he belonged there just as much as the stove or the woodpile, or the basket where the cat normally lay – except that it had bolted up the stairs the moment it saw him.
Wrapped around his left hand was a gold ring that fascinated Forge. He tried not to stare, but from the moment he noticed it he found his eyes being pulled back, finding more details each time he looked. The ring was in the shape of a golden serpent, the band winding down from the wrist and around the hand so that the serpent’s head lay flat above the first knuckle of the Arch Mage’s middle finger. The metal was stamped with a pattern of scales, intricate and lifelike, and it had tiny black eyes that gleamed liquidly against the glinting sheen of the head. It looked so real. If Forge had found something like that under his heel when he was out in the woods, he’d have jumped ten feet.
As the Arch Mage raised his cup, his sleeve fell back and Forge was able to see that the golden coils wound all the way up his forearm, thickening as they went. The bright band against the hard-hewn brown flesh of the Arch Mage’s arm put him in mind of ivy wrapped around an oak. Strange too that it didn’t hold his arm stiff, as you’d expect a metal band like that to do. It must have moved with him.
The snake’s eyes blinked. Forge bolted for the door and ran straight into a leather apron that felt like it had a brick wall behind it. His father. He held Forge’s shoulders, laughing, but he fell silent when he caught sight of their guest.
‘Those’d be your cases, then. I remember now.’
‘All but one,’ said the Arch Mage, ‘but I expect it’ll be along in its own good time. How have you been, Gar Burntholm?’
‘Hale as horseshoes, Magister, if you’d asked me yesterday. Now, seeing you here at my table, and knowing what that means – ’
‘As I told your wife, there’s no step taken yet that it’s too late to turn around and go back. We’ll sit here and talk awhile, if you like. Smoke a pipe or two and mull it over.’
‘Burntholm,’ said his mother with sudden hope. ‘We could – ’
Forge’s father shook his head, always stubborn. ‘No, we spoke about all this before and the years haven’t changed anything.’
Forge was full to bursting with questions. ‘Who is he, Poppa?’
He got a slap across the back of the head for that, as he expected, but an answer too. ‘Don’t be rude, Forge. This is the Arch Mage of Dweomer. I’ve a mind to have you scrape the Magister’s boots.’
‘They’re not muddy, Poppa. He got here by magic – ’ Ducking another half-hearted cuff, and bowing to the Arch Mage. ‘Begging your pardon, Magister, but I reckon you did, didn’t you? And your travelling chests too.’
The Arch Mage reached out to him. It was his left hand, the one with the gold serpent ring, and Forge detached himself from his father’s grip and stepped nearer, half-hypnotized by fascination and the tug of fear.
Their fingers touched. Forge jumped. ‘What do you feel?’
‘Something stung me,’ said Forge. ‘Just for a moment. It’s gone now.’
‘Like calls to like. That sting is the stroke of a current you’ll learn to use. Did you know that rain can carve a mountainside? Wind shapes rocks. Rivers scoop out the landscape. A current just like that is flowing inside you.’
Forge squinted at him, unsure if he was being teased. ‘Do you mean blood?’
‘Blood? A surface thing. You used to know to look below the surface, Forge. A broken pot is not the anger that broke it. And so too life. It’s what runs inside the current, is life, while blood and sap are only what flow on top.’
‘I don’t understand.’
Forge went to draw his hand away, but the Arch Mage caught his wrist and with the other hand plucked a sprig of dried lavender from the potpourri bowl on the table. He placed it in Forge’s palm and curled the fingers round it.
‘Say what you feel.’
Forge shrugged. ‘Tickles a bit, I suppose. It’s scratchy.’
‘Not like a fresh flower. That would be soft, wouldn’t it?’
‘It’s just to make the kitchen smell nice,’ said Forge patiently, as if the Arch Mage were the child.
‘Imagine it now. You’re holding it in your hand, now hold it in your mind.’
Though he gave a small scowl of defiance, Forge closed his eyes. He pictured the desiccated blossom clutched in the pink darkness of his hand, its purple hue half rusted away, its scent pungent but powdery now that the life was gone.
‘You can see it?’ He nodded. ‘Now remember this flower as it was when your mother cut it. Picture it bathed in sunshine. It’s sturdily watered. Can you see it rippling there in the breeze? A growing, living thing. A bee settles on it, attracted by the colour and the scent. Feel it against your skin. Do you feel it?’
Forge opened his eyes, startled. Slowly and disbelievingly he unfolded his fingers. The lavender lay there bright and fragrant, as alive as if it had been cut just that moment.
There was a long silence as they all bent to look at the tiny miracle. Finally Forge’s father spoke. ‘Now see if you can do the same for my wrinkles.’
It was his usual plodding humour, brought out as clumsily as a bit of scrap iron. Forge had always enjoyed his father’s quips, groaning delightedly at them along with his mother. This time, with the Arch Mage there, he winced. It was the first time he was conscious of being embarrassed by his parents.

Friday, 22 July 2016

All four Critical IF books reviewed

I came across this video by Marco Arnaudo in which he reviews the Critical IF books and, not being entirely indifferent to praise, I figured I'd post it here. My only quibble is that in the books you create your character by choosing four out of a list of twelve skills, not ten as stated in the video. You know me; there had to be one quibble.

Normally Mr Arnaudo reviews boardgames on his YouTube channel, but judging from the shelves there I'd say he appreciates a good book, so maybe he'll look at more gamebooks in future. And I see he's got Douglas Wolk's Reading Comics there. Good choice, sir.

And in case you haven't yet read Heart of Ice and you're swayed by the review (from 19m 45s in), don't let me stop you:

Meanwhile the rest of the Critical IF series can be found here.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Ankon-Konu no longer inconnu

I wasn't going to post full images of the new artwork Russ Nicholson has been doing for The Serpent King's Domain on the grounds that the backers of the Kickstarter campaign ought to see it first. But now that it's gone up on the project's Kickstarter page, the cat is out of the bag so here are a couple of illustrations. For the rest, just hit that KS link.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Gamebook design: finding workarounds for missing codewords

A guest post today from Paul Gresty, who is currently hard at work on both The Serpent King's Domain (Fabled Lands book 7) and The Frankenstein Wars. We'd pile on more projects, but he's only got two hands.


The TV Tropes website is fascinating. It bills itself as 'The All-Devouring Pop Culture Wiki,' and that's a pretty accurate description. It highlights recurring narrative devices or production approaches across a wide spectrum of media, ceaselessly noting, never judging. Really, take a look at the page for any long-running series, and see how easy it is to lose an hour there.

TV Tropes has long since outgrown its initial TV-only remit. It was on the TV Tropes Fabled Lands page that I first realised how insanely hard it is to achieve the title of Saviour of Vervayens Isle in Over the Blood-Dark Sea. Spoilers for that book from here on in.

To get that title you have to start in Over the Blood-Dark Sea, and roll 10–12 in the opening paragraph when you roll two dice to determine your starting position. And even then, it's not guaranteed. That'll be why none of my Fabled Lands characters, who tend to start out in The War-Torn Kingdom, have ever had that title, then.

Early on in my planning for The Serpent King's Domain, I decided I wanted to incorporate another avenue to Vervayens Isle (it was suggested in the Fabled Lands Facebook group, too). It's a nice little area that, if my own experience is common, almost never gets played through. Surely, any continuity problems would be simple enough to iron out. Something like:
Do you have the title Saviour of Vervayens Isle? If you do, turn to 632. If not, turn to Over the Blood-Dark Sea 151.
Easy, right?

Um… no.

Y'see, a problem occurs because it's possible to visit Vervayens Isle without picking up that title. There's an encounter there (spoiler: the gorgons) that should surprise the player, if he or she comes across it. Loop through that more than once, and you lose any sense of continuity. And, the Saviour of Vervayens Isle title aside, there are no codewords, nor even any tick boxes, to check whether you've been to that island before.

Here it helps that the only route to that island comes in paragraph 1 of one of the books. Because this creates a work-around to check that the player hasn't started in Over the Blood-Dark Sea – that is, to check which book the player has started in. If you've played the demo version of The Serpent King's Domain, you may have acquired the codeword Gloom in paragraph 1. So it's a sure bet that, if you have that codeword, you've never visited Vervayens Isle.

Similarly, if you own the more recent republication of The War-Torn Kingdom, you'll have noticed that you obtain the codeword Auric in paragraph 1 of that book. Again, if you have that codeword, it's certain you didn't start out in Over the Blood-Dark Sea. (I'm hesitant to speak for Dave and Jamie, but if you only own the large-format edition of The War-Torn Kingdom, I'd say it's fine to award yourself the codeword Auric for starting out in that book anyway.)

So if during your travels through The Serpent King's Domain you come across a paragraph that says something like this:
If you have the codeword Auric or Gloom, turn to 582. If not, turn to 147.
… then it's really checking if you've been to Vervayens Isle. And if you don't have those codewords, but you've never been to Vervayens Isle, feel free to go there with my blessing anyway, even if you're not strictly playing 'by the book'. That's precisely why that paragraph's in there – to permit access to a location that's impossible to reach otherwise.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Deadman Diaries

I'm a big fan of film noir. An ordinary Joe in a fix that tips him over the edge of the safe little bubble we normally live in and into a crazy whirlpool of existential nightmare: from Sunset Boulevard to Max Payne, all it takes is the slick of rain, ominous bars of shadow, a heavy-lidded femme fatale and a patina of luminous monochrome, and I'm hooked.

So it's a particular delight to discover the latest gamebook adventure from Cubus Games (developers of The Frankenstein Wars and Necklace of Skulls) is a noir thriller called Deadman Diaries. It takes the form of a diary written by a guy who's deep in gambling debts and now needs to do whatever he has to, legal or otherwise, to stay alive. So you can help him find a way to pay off the mob, or you can lead him further astray with a view to getting him killed in a variety of different ways.

The text is by Ricard Fuster and the artwork is by Gerard Freixes. As it says in the logline, life's a bitch and then you die. Grab your ticket to the long goodbye for iOS here and for Android here.