The Queen and the Goddess: Top 10 Reads of 2015

The Queen and the Goddess: Top 10 Reads of 2015

  1. The Privilege of the Sword – Ellen Kushner

  2. The White Queen – Philippa Gregory

  3. Musketeer Space – Tansy Rayner Roberts

  4. The First Man in Rome – Colleen McCullough

  5. Eleanor & Park – Rainbow Rowell

  6. Black Dove, White Raven – Elizabeth Wein

  7. Goddess – Kelly Gardiner

  8. Sourdough and Other Stories – Angela Slatter

  9. Revelation Space – Alastair Reynolds
  10. The Lady of the Rivers – Philippa Gregory

I did not review Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Musketeer Space because I didn’t read it in quite the conventional way, it being a serial story, but it is marvellous and available to read for free on her blog. If you are already familiar with Ellen Kushner’s Riverside series, a) congratulations on a good life choice, and b) there is an online prequel underway called Tremontaine that is being illustrated by Kathleen Jennings, and is available through subscription to Serial Box.

Happy New Year all! I hope you read fantastic things in 2016.

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A Splash of Silver in the Wild Wood

I’m not sure I really have a norm in my reading any more. I do prefer fantasy or science fiction but I’ve been reading more mainstream fiction and recently rediscovered my love of historical novels through Philippa Gregory’s The Cousins War series. While I might find it hard to articulate my comfort zone, however, I definitely have one and I know when I’m stepping outside it. That’s happened a few times this year, to mixed results.

In 2015, my third year signed up to the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I committed to reading and reviewing at least twelve books written by Australian women. I ended up reading fifteen, with a leaning towards historical fiction. Goddess, The First Man in Rome and Just a Girl are all based on the lives of real – and extraordinary – people, while Currawong Manor is a mystery set half in the 1940’s and half in the 1990s. Wild Wood has a similar mix (1300s and 1980s) with a fantasy element. Genre fantasy reads for this year were Splashdance Silver, Sourdough and Other Stories, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Dreamer’s Pool and its sequel Tower of Thorns. Representing science fiction were the first two books in the Starbound series, These Broken Stars and This Shattered World, though I also finished reading Tansy Rayner Roberts’ delightful blog serial Musketeer Space, which started last year and concluded in July. Under the name Livia Day, she also wrote the cosy mysteries A Trifle Dead and Drowned Vanilla, both set in contemporary Hobart. The one and only mainstream Australian fiction novel for this year is Kate Forsyth’s Dancing on Knives.

It’s actually interesting, looking back, to see only a third of these books were set in Australia. Six had Australian characters. From Tudor England to ancient Rome, to fantasy realms and other planets, the settings could hardly be more varied.

Though I can’t review them, thanks to a rather obvious bias, I’m honoured to be a part of several anthologies edited and published this year by Australian women. Tehani Wessely and Tansy Rayner Roberts produced Cranky Ladies of History, about female rebels and rulers. Tehani also edited Focus 2014: highlights of Australian short fiction. Liz Grzyb pulled together a collection of stories about powerful fictional women for Hear Me Roar and, together with Talie Helene, released Ticonderoga Publications’ 2014 edition of The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror. It is always a delight and a privilege to work with so many talented women and in such a vibrant corner of the Australian publishing scene!

Not all the books I’ve read for the Challenge this year worked for me. It’s also how I found three of my favourite books of 2015. The point of this project has never been to read only Australian women, and I certainly haven’t – the point, for me, has always been to be more mindful of what I’m reading. Since I started participating in the Challenge, I’ve noticed the works of Australian writers more and have made space for them on my reading list. That’s something I intend to continue. Australian women have fantastic stories to share. And I have so much reading to do.

A Door to Day’s End – Part 3

A Door to Day’s End

Part 3

This, I knew at once, was not a real place.

The air tasted strange underneath a heavy fragrance of fresh paper. Every sound I made was a bit off, a bit flat. The flats in our building must have been like this when they were first built, little pockets of otherness only attached to the structure around by a door. I had been in otherwheres before, but not – they had been hideous to me, and this was beautiful.

I walked slowly forward, reaching out to run cautious fingers across the nearest flowers. The little white messengers were nowhere to be seen; here sprawled lush crimson blooms scrawled over in a wild hand, cerise bells frilled at the tips and patterned in fine precise letters – a tangle of trumpets not unlike troubador’s gold were covered in rousing speeches calling for revolution. Dainty blue blossoms made me blush with their ardent and quite explicit love letters. The leaves, it seemed, were the replies.

Where did the words come from? Where, when they faded, did they go?

Regular glances over my shoulder ensured that the door I had come through – on this side painted green with a large brass knocker, floating in midair – remained still, so I ventured further. I could see why a gardener was needed. Some plants grew in such profusion that they were drowning those around them; others required trellises to display their finest work. The dead flowerheads needed trimming. A path, perhaps, could be laid to ensure no blooms were harmed by a passing visitor…Did they have visitors? Well. Just in case.

It was work I could do, if I chose. It felt like choice; a kindly illusion if it was not. I went again to the door like a skittish cat to be sure it would open, and that once open it would lead into the same alley from which I had departed. The flowers rustled, an unhappy sound, but there was the world outside – a world that I did not like but to which I had gradually become accustomed. I could manage out there. Perhaps I could manage in here as well. I turned back to the garden, walked further in.

There was no sun, or phantom thereof, present in the sky but warm honey-gold pools of light dappled the ground anyway. Well into the flower meadow, I came upon a tree. It was an extraordinary thing. The new leaves were bright white; the older ones almost black with ink. My heart lifted as I plucked a leaf and read a sonnet. And there were blossoms. In time, this tree would have fruit. Oh, I had to see that.

The stark colours of the tree were such that I did not immediately notice my observer. In fact, I did not realise I was not alone until the bird chose to reveal itself, turning a glossy head toward me and inclining its sharp beak down. A black bird, of no type I knew. Startled, I took a misjudged step back and tumbled onto my back; rolling quickly onto my side, I groped for the nail, desperate suddenly to ground myself against the fantasy and flee. My other hand reached under my coat and closed around the cool hilt of my sword.

The meadow remained a meadow. The bird remained a bird. It looked at me with a very distinct air of disdain. Black and white leaves tumbled slowly through the air around it but the bird’s steely eye remained fixed upon me.

Then, apparently satisfied, it looked away. I was, it seemed, dismissed.

I did not run away. I did not look behind me.

I did not once let go of the sword.

* * *

Once upon a time there was a man who had friends, and a place to live, and it was less than he had ever had in his life (save for that time when he was someone else, not a someone but a thing, the time he did not think about) but it was good and he was grateful. And it was not enough. He did not want to go home, because that had not been enough either. And it grew to be a consuming loneliness, as wide and deep as fear, because he did not know what it was to feel content. He did not think he ever would.

Perhaps that was why the Gentry took him. They did not know contentment either. Perhaps they saw something inside him that they liked.

* * *

I bumped into the phouka and his cigarette fell to the ground, scattering embers.

“I’m sorry – very sorry,” I breathed out, backing away with my hands spread, walking like I’d been given quite a hard blow to the back of the head and might keel over at any minute. The phouka uttered a fluid, musical profanity and lit a second cigarette, stamping his hoof upon the ashes of the other. He must have come to meet his lover, had it really grown so late? Did time pass swifter in the paper garden or was it simply that I had forgotten myself? I did not know which would be worse.

There was a fearsome restlessness beneath my skin. I could not stand to walk back into the flat, so I kept climbing the stairs, past the aerie flat with its shining walls, up further to landings I’d had no cause to see before. A bright blue door with no knob or lock, from behind which came the sound of running water. Crimson ivy twined around the upper bannisters and I winced at the crunch of dried leaves underfoot, so like the crackle of paper. A man with mottled green skin, heavily wrinkled and quite bald, dressed in a three piece suit, walked past on the stairs with his nose buried in a pamphlet. A baby was crying somewhere. I kept climbing until there were no doors left and I found the roof.

I had never gone so far before, there had never been a need. Or a desire. It was astonishing how close I felt to the sky; I had never been so high in Candlebridge and every horizon pulled at the eye. To the east rose the green haze of Tylwyth, where the ruins of an older part of the city merged with dryad lands and became forest; green lay also to the west, and the swaying colours of the giant’s flowers in Fortune Gardens. I would have liked to see them and never could, because that was where the Gaming Lawns were. My white armour was probably still lying at the bottom of the stream there, covered over by mud and algae.

The wind was unexpectedly strong up here. I closed my eyes, turned my face towards it. The sun was hot on my skin. I felt alive in a way I hadn’t for a long while, truly awake. I had felt like this when Agnes was cursed and Geraldine needed me. Was it only terror that brought me back to life? Or fury?

Over my head the cloud sailers drifted by, trailing ribbons of steam, surrounded by wheeling birds and bigger winged things. They were up very high but my hair was fair like Geraldine’s; it would shine brightly in the sunlight. That sort of thing drew their attention.

I went downstairs, the sword slapping gently against my leg.

* * *

“I went to find the Library.”

I could not look at Geraldine as I spoke and was worried at what I might see on Agnes’ face, so I studied the wooden tabletop under my hands. A trio of teacups sat slowly cooling as no one touched them. “I – there is already a guardian, I think, but the flowers want me there. Nothing bad happened. I might go back.”

Geraldine inhaled deeply, as if about to unleash a storm of words, but only released a shaky breath and pressed a hand over her mouth. Her eyes were wide with the kind of dread we reserved for each other. Agnes was quiet, waiting for more, so I kept talking, describing what I had seen. When I finished, I looked up. Geraldine was trying not to show how upset she was. Agnes was diplomatically trying not to show how excited she was. “They do seem very set on you,” she said at last.

Geraldine let her hand fall. “You can’t go back.”

“I want to.” Those were not words we used any more; it had been a long time since I made an actual decision. “I liked it there. I can help them.”

Help them,” Geraldine breathed. “Why should you help them?”

“Why,” I said slowly, not sure I meant it, not sure I didn’t, “should I not?”

Geraldine made a choked sound, her eyes flaring with shock and a trace of betrayal. I leaned forward, trying to explain myself to both of us. “I used to be kind. Didn’t I? I want to be kind. I want it to feel easy again.”

“You are kind,” Geraldine whispered. “Oh God, Robert. You are.”

“I would have helped. Then.”

“This is different, it was safe then, there was no risk – “

Geraldine’s eyes were bright and wet. For the third time that night her breath escaped in a helpless rush, words unable to keep pace with her emotions. Agnes watched on with a small frown, as if she had something she wanted to add but knew better than to say it just now. She squeezed my arm instead and left the table with a murmured excuse.

“I don’t know myself any more,” I said. “Maybe this will help.”

“You’re my brother,” Geraldine said fiercely. “I know who you are.”

My eyes were wet now too. “Geraldine. I don’t.”

* * *

In the end they came with me to the garden, Geraldine and Agnes both. This was the closest thing we had to safe now: the three of us, together. I wore the sword under my coat, enduring the sweat trickling down my back, and Geraldine carried an iron wrench in the reticule at her hip. Agnes kept making excited noises as the trail of flowers unfurled at each street corner, like a little girl on Christmas morning, and kept stopping to read them, which slowed us down. The quotes from Jane Eyre did not soften Geraldine’s tight mouth, but she was curious despite herself.

The sun was low on the horizon when we arrived in the lane behind the bakery, the summer evening drawing to a close. When the door opened under my hand and the garden’s scent of paper filled my lungs, Agnes was the first to step over the threshold and Geraldine followed, unable to leave either of us behind, however strong her suspicions. I shut the door in our wake.

“This…is the Library? No shelves. Hm. Smaller than I expected, too.” Agnes in a state of wonderment was still Agnes, hands on hips, looking around. “Lots of libraries, perhaps…I wonder what section this is? How do we find out? Perhaps there’s a sign.”

She looped one arm through mine, one through Geraldine’s, and pulled us off to look. As we passed under the tree, I saw the bird sitting on a branch. Now I looked closer, I saw close-written words turning the wings black and glossy. It rolled an irritable eye down at us, looked away as if we were too insignificant to watch.

It was not safe, in this garden. Nowhere in this world was safe for us. I would not always have the strength to come here – perhaps for days on end, perhaps for too long. But Geraldine was smiling reluctantly as Agnes read aloud from random petals, and there were flowers at my feet, a task I understood. I could learn to do this.

I didn’t really care what the bird thought.

A Door to Day’s End – Part 2

A Door to Day’s End

Part 2

There was no concealing what had happened from Geraldine, who dropped her coat the moment she saw me and cast a frantic look around the apartment as if expecting signs of a battle. Agnes insisted on examining my hands. I had already cleaned the grazed palms but recognised the request for what it was, a desire to do something useful while Geraldine and I pulled ourselves together. The terror of the afternoon had ebbed, leaving me exhausted and dull. I told them what I knew in the briefest possible terms.

“The Transcendental Library?” Agnes started, my hands lying forgotten between hers. “You saw it? Christ, Robert, tell me everything, what was it like?”

“He didn’t go inside,” Geraldine exclaimed. She crossed her arms, clutching her elbows. “Who owns this library, what would they want with Robert? Is it the Gentry, have they found him? What should we do?”

“No one owns it,” Agnes said, sounding a little scandalised. I had never heard her sound scandalised by anything before. “At least not that I’ve ever heard. It’s the sort of story you don’t know whether to believe or not, someone’s cousin’s neighbour who once set foot in the History section…And it invited you, Robert, that’s incredible, where was it again?”

She insisted on going to look. Which meant we had to look too, because we did not trust this Library with her and letting her out of our sight was out of the question. It was hard to remember the way without the flowers to guide me, but I recognised the alcove when we reached it and the door was not there any more. None of us had really expected it to be. I gave a small sigh of relief. Agnes gave one of disappointment.

“Oh!” she said a moment later, stooping to retrieve a paper petal. Holding it close to her eye, she read aloud, “Your face, my thane, is a book where men may read strange matters. Is that Shakespeare?”

“Macbeth,” I said distrustfully. “Why is the flower quoting Macbeth?”

“Are there more?” Agnes asked. Despite her hopeful searching, there were not. We walked home in the long dusk, Geraldine looping her arm through mine, less out of tiredness than silent worry. We could not speak our fears any more because if we did, I didn’t think we would ever stop. They would drown us, if we let them.

* * *

The Library did not take no for an answer.

I didn’t tell Agnes when I opened the balcony doors the next morning and paper petals blew across the floor, just gathered them quickly into my pockets before she came to breakfast. In the afternoon I looked out the window and saw them trailing down the street like beckoning fingers. Fortunately, it rained. They fell apart in the wet, melting to nothing on the pavement.

The day after that I did not venture so much as a look outside, occupying myself with cleaning every available surface in the flat and repainting all the kitchen cupboards a slightly alarming shade of orange. When a pattering came against the windows I assumed it was raining again and glanced that way, only to watch in horror as white petals blew against the glass.

Fortunately Agnes and Geraldine did not come home until late, when it was too dark to see, and I had the floral debris all swept away before they woke in the morning.

This attempt was followed by a lull that I didn’t take for defeat in the least. It broke after several days of waiting with a knock at the door that I didn’t answer; when I opened it hours later, a bouquet sat outside with a beautifully written note in such large letters I could not avoid seeing what it said.

Will you just give the bloody things a chance? They will give me no peace.

It was so close to what I was thinking that I picked up the flowers despite myself. I dared not bring them into the flat, in case whatever forces had sent them could take that for an invitation, so I climbed the foyer tree and read through them for clues as to the sender’s intent. The writing on the petals was so small and cramped I had to squint for some time to interpret it.

Why would a garden, or a library, or a mythical institution that was some improbable combination of two, hound me with obscure poetry?

More importantly, how long before Agnes realised what was happening? She would not make me act upon the invitation, but her enthusiasm seemed such that she would take it up herself. If anything hurt her I would feel responsible. Agnes had been so good to us.

“Are you being courted?”

The winged child was back, wearing an inquisitive look and a yellow smock embroidered with animals I didn’t know. She reached out to the bouquet on my knees and plucked a petal. “Mama says that’s what suitors do,” she informed me. “Give you flowers.”

“I don’t want to be courted.”

“Oh,” she said, with a perplexed frown. “I can ask Mama – “

“You needn’t,” I sighed. Her mother’s advice would not be meant for a human, let alone one in hiding from the Gentry. The child stole another petal and popped it in her mouth. “Should you eat that?”

“It smells nice,” she told me.

“It might disagree with you.”

She just wrinkled her nose and ate the other petal. I prudently moved the bouquet to my other hand before she could snatch any more. We sat in silence for some time after that, me staring at the doors and wondering what to do, her staring speculatively at my flowers. Flowers I did not want. Perhaps I should let her have them.

“They must like you,” she announced at last. “The paper tastes like promises.”

I looked at her. “Promises?”

“Sometimes Aunty catches paper birds for supper. As a treat,” the little girl whispered confidingly. “They taste like secrets.”

She seemed to know what she was talking about. I gave her the bouquet to take to her mother and aunt and whoever the third woman was, providing she did not eat it all herself first, and went home to prepare supper. Agnes was very tired that evening, going to bed early, which gave me the chance to explain about the bouquet to Geraldine.

Our door?” she hissed. “They know where you live!”

“Should I ask the upstairs neighbours what it means?”

“You know what it means, Agnes said, it’s this Library trying to catch you. You had better ignore it. Who knows what it wants? It knows too many things already. Where you live. It quoted your favourite playwright.”

“Everyone likes Shakespeare.”

I don’t.” Geraldine squeezed my hands. “Ask upstairs if you must, but be careful. Don’t accept anything unless you know what they want in return – “

I squeezed back. “I won’t.” It was as if we thought repeating the same strictures to each other would make them protect us better.

As it happened, I did not go upstairs. One of the winged women stopped me in the foyer the next day as I was carrying out a basket of sugared petals for Geraldine. I had not spoken to these neighbours before; that was why I liked them. The woman covered her hair with pretty patterned cloth and had swirling signs painted in blue on the backs of her hands. She paused at the sight of me, bowed her head briefly, unsmiling.

“Your gift was generous,” she said, “but we cannot accept it.”

I was stricken. “Were they really poisonous? The little girl said they weren’t – “

The woman regarded me skeptically. “They are not poisonous. Only more valuable than I am willing to take from someone I do not know. I apologise for the child, she does not understand these things yet. Whatever she took I shall repay.”

“I don’t want the flowers,” I assured her. “I don’t need repayment.”

Her gaze turned incredulous, almost angry. “You cannot mean that.”

Agnes would be angry with me, too. I had had an idea the flowers would be valuable in bartering, but to treat them like that was surely to accept them? And then I would owe a debt to this Library. Giving the flowers away felt a different thing.

“Burn them if you don’t want them,” I told her. “Please, don’t give them back. I only want to be left alone.”

“You want them to go away?” she asked, appalled.

“Yes,” I said fervently. “Do you know how to make that happen?”

She simply shook her head, as if too shocked to speak. I thanked her for her time and went outside with the basket. The Chamomile Heart was about half an hour’s walk away at a brisk pace, a well-known route, and I kept my eyes fixed ahead so as not to notice if paper flowers bloomed in the gutters or in other people’s window-boxes. When I reached the tea shop it was in the middle of the mid-morning flurry, Geraldine whirling between tables with a tray of cups and Agnes busy at the counter, so I slipped into the back room to deposit the basket. I did not like the shop when it was this busy but it was reassuringly familiar just the same, a grounding point. Even the strangeness of the customers seemed muted here, less alarming than on the street outside. Taking a deep breath, I unpacked the basket and slipped out the back door.

My feet crunched into a layer of paper.

“Dear God.” I leaped back onto the step. Staring down, I saw the flowers made recognisable shapes this time; coiling along the alley, they spelled the entirely unexpected word please. I stared for a while, not knowing what to make of that. I wondered if they would go away when I did and doubted it.

With a sigh, I sat on the step and tucked my feet carefully back from the edge. “What is it you want?”

The flowers rustled. I did not see them move but several blinks later a different word was written across the cobblestones. Gardener.

I stared some more. “A…really? I’m not a gardener.”

The rustling was louder this time, almost indignant. Are.

“Who are you?”

Library.

“What does that mean?”

Words.

“If I ask you to leave me alone, will you?”

A long pause. I considered going back inside, but it could not be easy trying to communicate through flowers, so I waited and at last received a reply.

Yes.

I was not at all sure whether to believe that, but I nodded and stood up. “Then I will think about it. How shall I let you know my answer?”

Write.

* * *

Once upon a time there was a horse and a rider and a rabbit hole, and the man thought he was safe but he wasn’t, he thought he knew where he was but he didn’t, he thought he knew fear – by all that’s holy, he thought he knew fear from those months in Crimea, waking up with the smell of blood and gunpowder even when he was sent home to his father’s estate – but fear was not a feeling, it was a vast strange land where he could be lost, and the man forgot there was anywhere else to go.

Until a stranger spoke my sister’s name and green eyes the colour of my own told me without a word, I know you. Fear was mapped into my bones, but I didn’t live there any more.

* * *

I thought about it.

My instinct was to say no to whatever the Library wanted, but instinct had not served me very well in Candlebridge to date and so I plodded each tangle of reasoning with care. If they thought I would not come willingly, they might send someone to change my mind, with a spell or potion or a threat. I could do very little to stop them if that happened. Just the thought made my skin crawl and my lungs tighten. If I said no and they accepted it, Agnes might continue seeking the Library on her own. Would it take her if it could not have me? Would it try Geraldine? I couldn’t be sure.

If I said yes, it would make Agnes happy. That was some repayment for what she had done, the kindness she had shown. If the flowers meant me no harm, then Geraldine would be happy too, because she would know I was in no danger. The Library, presumably, would have its desired gardener. And I…was curious. They were a wonder, those flowers, their fragrance and texture. I would like very much to understand how they grew. What varieties might there be? If bees gathered their pollen – if, for that matter, they had pollen – would the honey taste like promises?

What was I being promised?

“This is very irregular,” said the winged woman who opened the door at my tentative knock. Over her shoulder I saw an aerie open to the sky, rocky walls veined in shimmering quartz, sandy floor layered with beautiful rugs, not at all in keeping with the plain oblong door frame between us. I saw the little girl sitting on a low settee, playing with some sort of reptile. She looked up and beamed. The reptile hissed.

“Will you tell me what the flowers mean?” I should have asked Agnes how these transactions were done, but that would have required more explanations than I wanted to give. Offering a small, uncertain smile, I concentrated on being inoffensive. “Upon my honour, madam, I want nothing from you but advice, and that only if you have time. Consider the flowers I gave to be fair exchange, if it is owing me that troubles you.”

She considered me gravely. The little girl scrambled up and was sternly pushed back, hushed with a pointed look as her mother or aunt weighed my request.

“Very well,” she decided. “Wait a moment.”

She shut the door. Several minutes later she returned with a large stoppered jar and the little girl eager at her heels. “Stay here, Tamathil,” she said firmly, closing the door again and sitting at the top of the stairs, wings folding into a gossamer shawl across her back. I sat on the stair below hers, watching as she opened the jar and retrieved a petal. “We are agreed on the terms?” she asked, pausing. “I shall translate to the best of my ability, and you relinquish all rights to the flowers currently in my keeping?”

I nodded. She placed the petal in her mouth and closed her eyes. It was akin to watching a connoisseur of wine testing a new variety; my father had friends who savoured his cellar with such concentration. When she opened her eyes, she regarded me intently for a long moment.

“You are promised safe passage,” she said. “I have never tasted anything like it. You have been granted a very great privilege. What is your name?”

“Did I not introduce myself?” Embarrassed, I made an awkward bow from our position on the steps. There was a time I would never have made that kind of mistake; sometimes it felt I was hanging on to any graces at all by my fingernails. “I apologise. I am Robert Musgrave.”

She inclined her head. “My name is Nur al-Huda.”

“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“It has been interesting to make yours.” She rose, taking the jar with her. “Should you wish to do such business again, my family are at your service.”

* * *

So at least I had not made enemies of our upstairs neighbours. And Nur al-Huda had seemed very certain. I walked up and down the floor in Agnes’s flat until I grew sick of the walls and went instead to pace the street outside.

What had the flowers meant, write? What should I write? Dear sir or madam was hardly an appropriate salutation for greenery. Which was not green. How did they grow, it didn’t make sense – would different varieties be as nuanced in their scent  as the flowers I knew, did they like different sorts of soil, did they…

I did not know what to do. I had questions. I had doubts. I had a powerful desire to lock myself indoors for a week and not talk to anyone until this roil of uncertainty died away to something I could manage.

But I could not do that. I had been noticed, now, by something stronger than I was. If I did not pay close attention, it might very well devour me.

Something crumpled under my foot and I looked down, crouching to retrieve a broken white flower from between the paving stones. Only the one. I turned it between my fingers like the answers to all mysteries might be written upon its petals but closer inspection showed only a few stage directions from As You Like It. I took a pencil from my pocket and wrote over the beautiful script.

Show me.

Then I went upstairs to the flat, leaving the flower behind on the path. Agnes was a careful woman; the place where she lived had been well-warded with herbs and charms when we arrived and Geraldine had taken precautions of her own since, with a kitchen drawer of little iron talismans, muslin bags of rowan berries and salt, whatever she could think of to discourage the fey. Nothing we had would work on everyone, of course, or we would never have been able to afford it – the goblins at Fortune Bridge knew full well what any iron was worth in Candlebridge – but I took two of Geraldine’s bags and an iron nail in the hope that they would keep my vision true. Then I pried up the loose floorboard under the kitchen table and retrieved the one thing in this flat that was truly mine. The white armour I had worn as a knight was long gone, but the sword remained.

It was a great risk, to keep it. A greater risk to throw it away, for I had no other weapon. Buckling it onto my belt, I shrugged on an unseasonably heavy coat to hide the scabbard and went to a mirror to make sure it would go unseen.

This thing, this Library, had come for me. So I would face it with what I had.

By the time I came downstairs, paper flowers were blooming in a looping line down the street, like a ball of thread unrolling. They did not lead me to the same place as last time. Down Silver Street they went, where trees of living metal filled the air with chiming music every time the wind blew; sideways through downhill streets of cramped shops and past a pub called the Fool’s Head, where rust-coloured stains formed drips down the door; across two small streams, around a hill covered in gravestones and into a lane behind a bakery. There, the flowers ringed a plain wooden door, grew between the planks of it, carpeted the step before it.

I laid salt in the mouth of the alley, to prevent its shifting about. Holding the nail in my pocket, praying it would be enough to keep my sight clear of glamour, I turned the doorknob.

Doors in Candlebridge – was anything less trustworthy? They appeared where they would, went where they willed. You could never quite tell where a door would really go. But when I saw what lay over the threshold, I did not think of those things. Just for a moment I was the little boy in the wildflower meadow, the one who believed in wonderful things. Long enough to step through. Long enough for the door to swing shut behind me.

A Door to Day’s End – Part 1

I should include a note of explanation for new readers: the Chandler and Musgrave stories are something I’ve been writing and posting each December over the past couple of years. To make any sense of Candlebridge, I advise you start with ‘A City of Leaves‘. Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it, a peaceful December to those who don’t, and happy reading to all!

A Door to Day’s End

Part 1

“What happened out here?”

As it was in fact obvious what had happened out there, I hesitated before answering, trying to gauge whether or not Agnes was displeased. Mostly she seemed bewildered. Likely she was wondering why she had allowed me use of her balcony at all. It had started out as no more than creative re-use of the chipped crockery she kept under the sink and cuttings from plants found on the street, but there was a lot of crockery and I had so little to do. In the months since ‘why not, do what you like with it’ the balcony had been transformed from an unlovely but also uncomplicated outcrop of concrete into a patch of what could only be called wilderness. Standing cautiously at the edge, barefoot in her dressing gown, Agnes surveyed the frenzy of green.

“What,” she added, after a few moments, “is…that, exactly?”

“Troubador’s gold,” I supplied. “It’s entirely harmless, I promise.”

Also invasive, as anyone could see: the vine looped thickly through the rickety wooden railings, tangled across a dozen of the other pots and had stretched a few experimental tendrils under the door. I nudged a curtain to conceal them. Truthfully, I should have not brought such a thing home, but I had seen it spilling over a stairway one day, had seen the look on Geraldine’s face. She did not say what she wanted any more; what was the point, when already we lived on luck and charity? She wanted to go home, to England. She wanted clothes of her own, not a wardrobe of ill-fitting oddments. She wanted a place to live that was not borrowed from a friend. I could not give her any of the things she needed. All I could manage was a surprise.

And it was worth it, for at the first glimpse she’d abandoned her toast on the floor and knelt to gather armfuls of the butter-golden flowers. They were the same colour as her hair and the size of her hands, with a scent like nothing I’d ever known: something of sunshine and honey and apple. “Oh, Robert,” she sighed, burying her face in the bouquet. “I love them.”

Agnes smiled helplessly. Seeing Geraldine happy affected her the same way it did me, which was probably why we liked each other, despite having so little in common. “I didn’t know it was your birthday,” she said. “You should have told me.”

“It’s not.” Geraldine handed me her flowers so she could stand, sending a shower of petals across the floor. “I don’t know when my birthday is anymore, the seasons are a mess in this city and it didn’t seem important, given everything…” She made a vague gesture to encompass what ‘everything’ meant: a stolen brother, a cursed friend, dealings with goblins and Gentry and trows. Sliding between worlds, from the reign of Queen Victoria to the Duchess of Candlebridge. Everything, indeed.

“I said the other day it felt like midsummer,” Geraldine continued. “On my birthday, when we were small, we’d go for picnics in the meadow behind the manor. I’d make wildflower crowns and insist Robert wear them.”

“I tried for buttercups,” I admitted. “None to be had.”

Her eyes shone wet, which alarmed me. This was unsafe territory, a hazy space of memory and loss for which I was very poorly prepared. To distract her, I rescued the plate from the floor and she laughed a little tearfully, finishing her cold toast in a few hasty mouthfuls as the morning resumed its natural course. Agnes fetched her hat, Geraldine buttoned up her boots and they went away to serve teas at the Chamomile Heart.

I remained in the flat to sweep up scattered petals, wash the breakfast things and watch the world from a window, which was as much as I could manage at present. It had been one of those days I did not want to lift my head off the pillow; today, I knew, every small trouble would bruise.

The long shadows of early morning could do nothing to soften the strangeness of the street far below, so I turned my eyes upwards. The sky was clear blue and full of cloud sailers. These were floating palaces of the Gentry, a wild architecture of cloud and stone, trailing streamers of steam as they drifted with the wind. During the winter, they sailed away over the sea to warmer climes, but the midsummer warmth had drawn them back like migrating birds.

With a quick tug I had the curtain shut. I lost the rest of the morning on the bathroom floor, my back against a wall, reminding myself how to breathe until the room stopped spinning.

I was brave once, I swear I was. The boy who wore his sister’s wildflower crowns and ate cake in the meadow did not have death on his hands or the ache of fear buried so deep in his bones that he couldn’t drive it out. He believed in fairies – in the flittering fancies he believed fairies to be – and he was brave because he did not yet know how badly he could be hurt.

I was never going to be whole again.

* * *

Once upon a time I wore white armour and my world was no wider than the squares of the Gaming Lawn. All I heard were the orders ringing out from the encircling stands. My hands were slick with blood, my silver blade dripping with it, and I felt nothing at all. Time was meaningless. It was a long dream of days and blood and death.

These things, Geraldine and Agnes knew. What I had never told them was, I gave myself willingly to the board. When I woke in the night, drenched in sweat with a scream behind my teeth, it was not always to the Gaming Lawn my dreams had dragged me. In my head was a whirl of giddy piping, my lungs filled with acrid sweetness, and the phantom links of a delicate golden chain slid tight around my throat.

I chose to join the butchery, you see, to leave the revel.

* * *

Later that day, I climbed the foyer tree.

It had taken a long time to resign myself to the tree. My father had resisted the German notion of bringing in a tree at Christmas; I could not imagine what he would make of the maple that rose calmly through the polished floor of the foyer, raining red and gold leaves, for it was always autumn inside the building. Our caretaker was fiercely devoted to his favourite season.

These days Geraldine bestowed the tree barely a glance on her way out, but my initial bewilderment had given way to something rather close to adoration. I’d often come down here and climb to the highest branch that would take my weight, watching other residents of the building go back and forth about their business without noticing me at all.

We were, I knew, the only humans who lived here. A phouka minstrel dwelt on the ground floor; he disliked the sun but would linger by the door late in the afternoon, smoking nervously on chokingly sweet cigarettes while waiting for his lover (who was usually late, and never apologised, and had delicate, lethally sharp horns jutting through his dishevelled black hair.) In the flat below ours lived a couple I’d rarely seen but whose quarrels were loud enough that we were all far more intimately acquainted than we wished to be with their financial woes and ill-concealed infidelities. Bright feathers often scattered the stairs outside their door. In the flat above, blessedly quiet, were a trio I took to be sisters. They had the faces of human women, Arabic in appearance, but from their backs flared long iridescent wings like those of a dragonfly.

With them lived a small girl, winged likewise, who could often be seen playing around the building. I had never seen her in the tree before, but not long after I settled on my chosen branch I heard a discordant whirring and she landed clumsily at the other end. It creaked ominously. I scrambled hastily to another bough.

“Don’t run away!” the girl cried repentantly. “I won’t knock you off, promise.”

I looked up incredulously. The child wore a blue smock and trousers, feet bare and grubby. She looked about six or seven years old. Of course, she could be an ancient wearing the shape of a child – the Gentry were entirely capable of that unholy artifice – but she moved like a child too, restless and a bit clumsy.

“What do you want?” I asked warily. Child or no, she was not human and not to be trusted. If she thought she could hurt me, she was probably right.

“You’re from the other side,” she said eagerly. “Aren’t you? From the lands of salt and iron, same as Agnes. She won’t tell me what it’s like. Is it true they catch lightning so everyone can play with it? And sail on the sea?”

“I…yes? I’ve been to sea.”

“But how were you not eaten?” she wanted to know. “Are the sea serpents very small there? Are the kraken all asleep?”

I blinked. “There are no sea serpents.” I wasn’t sure what a kraken was.

The girl nearly fell off the branch. Her wings flailed as she righted herself. “That can’t be true! Are you lying? Mama says humans lie all the time.”

“Probably,” I said, sharper than she deserved, swinging my feet to a lower branch. “You shouldn’t talk to me.”

“But I want to!” she wailed. “I’m bored. I want a story.”

I slid the rest of the way to the ground, scraping my hands on the rough bark. Likely it would do no harm to tell the stories she wanted, but I was not a toy any more. I was not obliged to be anyone’s entertainment.

* * *

Geraldine had a good day. Agnes baked bite-size apple cakes for the teashop, in honour of the pretend birthday, bringing home a basketful to share. That night the gramophone played a foxtrot, and Agnes tried to show Geraldine what a foxtrot was, and we ate every cake in the basket while the golden flowers filled the air with their honey-summer-sunshine scent. Later, when I dreamed, I managed not to scream.

* * *

Troubador’s gold, as it turned out, desired dominion over all things and only constant attention prevented it from achieving that goal. Geraldine took bundles of cuttings to decorate the teashop, then took more when customers remarked on the pretty blooms.

“Flower arranging,” she laughed to me as we piled her basket with fresh cuttings. “A useful skill wherever I go.”

“Did you really do that sort of thing?” Agnes asked, curiously.

“Oh yes. Papa had very strict ideas about what was suitable, and I could get up to very little harm filling vases. He also approved of my practicing the piano, and paying calls on every elderly lady in the neighbourhood.” Geraldine toyed absently with a leaf. “Young ladies, he said, could not be trusted. He believed I would spring into the arms of the first gentleman to offer me a compliment, I think.”

Agnes snorted. Geraldine smiled slightly, though it had not been a joke.

She tried sugaring the golden petals and Agnes used them as sweetmeats, decorating cakes or floating in teacups. There was more time for such experimentation now that two women managed the shop rather than one; in the evenings, while Agnes read over the account books and Geraldine darned industriously at her limited wardrobe, they would tell me about their customers, their plans – their shop, though Geraldine never called it that and likely did not see it so. For once, in this small way, I could help them.

I did not always shut myself away within the flat’s familiar walls. Some days I woke and the dread was quieter, bearable enough to walk past the autumn tree to the street outside. Turning left, I would come to the busy thoroughfares and grand buildings of fashionable Candlebridge – the Gentry’s grandeur. So I went right, deeper into the Viridian district, seeking out the Flower Market.

It took place every half-moon between the Festival of Keys and the Festival of a Hundred Nights, and though it manifested in a different place each time, there were always clues for those who knew to look. A path of flowers blooming in gutters and cracked pavement, a trail of unseasonable leaves. The trouble it took to find was always more than rewarded by the market itself, for the stalls sold all manner of useful things – from harmless tinctures and sweets to charmed garlands and lover’s tokens, to…things that were not harmless at all. I had standing orders from Agnes and Geraldine for the soaps and lotions they preferred, and for myself, liked to look at the living plants, utterly foreign as so many were to me. Some of the stallholders were kind, would explain their wares to me in exchange for enthusiasm.

The first paper flower caught my eye, blooming on an alley wall among theatre bills and employment notices, and I quickly picked up the trail. A second flower was about a foot along the wall, the third just visible at the corner. When, curiously, I plucked one, it had the slight resistance of shallow roots. Holding it to my nose, I inhaled the heady scent of new paper and fresh ink. It made me think of a bookseller I’d loved in London, the volumes of Jane Eyre I had bought there. My father held novels in unyielding contempt, so I had sent them to Geraldine in secret and she hid them beneath her coat to read among the hedgerows, where he could not see.

Of what was left behind in England, I missed books every day. Agnes had only a few and we could not afford many indulgences – for an indulgence the printed word was, though there were times I would have given almost anything to climb out of my own head for an hour or two. I followed the flowers with a small smile on my face.

Now that evenings were longer, Agnes had taken to dragging us on the occasional walk so that she could point out local landmarks and make sure we knew our way around. “How can you recognise safe ground if you don’t go anywhere?” she had said, rather severely, when I protested. “Don’t worry, the roads don’t shift about so much here, too much water.” She had a tendency to offer statements like that as if they were reassuring instead of inexplicable.

She was right, though; it was good to know where I was going. The enormous tenements gave way to a warren of little winding streets that twined across and around each other, sometimes plunging into long tunnels or arching into meandering stairways. Houses jostled together, just as they did in the towns I used to know – only here it was not uncommon for a roof to be thatched in feathers or tiled in large gleaming scales, for walls of clay to nudge against stone or brick; for a modest moat to encircle the house and leafy boughs to jut through the windows. There was no uniformity to be seen. It was like walking among the follies of a fanciful opera, playacting at a normal street. But this was normality. It was I who did not fit.

Small streams flowed here and there, offshoots of the great river that gave the city its name, crossed by lesser bridges. Paper flowers bloomed between the planks, poked ivory petals between the cracks of a stairway, beckoning me onward. They were growing together more thickly now, which surely meant I was nearing the Market.

The door brought me to an abrupt halt.

I never used to think about doors, particularly. This one was quite large, good solid wood, set in a deep alcove like the entrance to a shop – and I might have believed it was the entrance to a shop, if not for the fact I did not trust doors at all any more, and this one had an indefinable oddness that sent prickles of unease stinging down my spine. The paper flowers grew in dense clusters across the walls, framing the door, fallen petals a pale carpet underfoot. It felt like a trick. For me? For anyone seeking the Flower Market? I took a swift step back.

Then my eye caught the sign above the door. A small brass plaque was affixed there, floral script forming the name of The Transcendental Library. Beneath that, smaller lettering read:

Those who come with flame shall burn,

Bring the flood and be devoured by the wave,

From such mistakes each conqueror shall learn

Blade shall blunt upon the page

Set thieving foot within

And set the other in your grave.

I ran so fast I slipped and rolled to the ground, the shock jolting through bruised kneecaps. That didn’t matter. Propelled by raw panic, I struggled to my feet and didn’t stop until I stood beneath the foyer tree. There, my legs abruptly gave out. I collapsed among the dead leaves, my breath sobbing between gritted teeth, lungs aching and airless.

Review – The Privilege of the Sword

The Privilege of the Sword (Riverside No.2) – Ellen Kushner

Bantam Books, 2006

For as long as she can remember, Katherine’s uncle Alec Campion – better known in the city as the dissolute and debauched Mad Duke Tremontaine – has been waging a legal battle against her family, reducing them into tighter and tighter financial straits. Then abruptly he changes his mind. The family fortune’s will be restored…if Katherine agrees to sever all contact with them for six months, dress as a boy and be taught how to fight with a sword. Swept into a glamorous, untrustworthy world, Katherine will have to learn quickly to keep her feet. It’s not just a matter of whether she’ll make it through the next six months unscathed. The question is, who will she end up becoming?

I hate starting mid-series and always avoid it if I can, but my library did not have Swordspoint so I had to start with book two. It became very clear early on that The Privilege of the Sword will mean much more if you understand the older characters’ backstories. That said – this is a brilliant book. On the surface it’s an irreverent, richly written romp but there are darker notes woven through that give it a memorable depth. Katherine is a delightful protagonist, but the people around her are all fascinating, their characters and circumstances beautifully nuanced. It’s also fantastic to see so many LGBT characters, and so accepted in their world. I intend to read Swordspoint as soon as I can, as well as book three in the Riverside series, The Fall of the Kings.

Review – Wild Wood

Wild Wood – Posie Graeme-Evans

Simon & Schuster, 2015

Of late life has become a series of unwelcome revelations for Jesse Marley. Discovering in her mid-twenties that she was adopted, she travels to Britain hoping for answers, only to get knocked down in a traffic accident and stumble into the lives of two complete strangers – but strangers who are linked to her in ways none of them quite understand. Jesse, right-handed and without an artistic bone in her body, is suddenly drawing detailed images of the keep at Hundredfield, ancestral home of the Donne family on the border between England and Scotland, where bloody battles were once fought and many secrets buried in a vicious cycle. And it’s not over yet.

This historical fantasy is split into two interconnected stories, one in the eighties with Jesse and the other in the 14th century with Bayard Dieudonné. Bayard’s sections was uncompromisingly brutal; as a co-protagonist, I could not warm to him in any way or in fact to most of the characters in his chapters, with the exception of Margaretta. This is a period of history I’m not particularly familiar with so that was interesting, if disquieting. Jesse’s parts of the book had a very different mood but an ominous undercurrent. While the conclusion was thematically consistent with that tone, there were serious issues that I felt needed a bit more exploration. Still, if you like Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth and Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper this one is definitely worth a look.