Saturday Short – A Delicious Irony


It’s been awhile since I shared any of my fiction  writing here on the blog, so it’s time to do so again. As this story features a werewolf of sorts, it fits here in the waning weeks of October. So grab your beverage of choice, snuggle under your blanket, and be transported back to India in the 1830s, where the British colonizers ruled supreme and there were perhaps worse things to be feared than the murderous thuggees…


A Delicious Irony

        India, 1831

The palace loomed impressively over the landscape, studded with spires and towers, its windows flashing in the merciless sun. But if one walked down the long path that pointed like an arrow to the door and entered through it (the only door, take note), the interior would close around the unfortunate visitor, folding and shrinking in a shrieking, creaking cacophony.

What most did not know was that the palace was home to a raghosh, a magical shape-shifting being. And due to an enchantment the creature had placed upon it, the castle was smaller on the inside than it looked to be on the outside.

Harold MacCumber the Third, of Cumbria (not to be confused with his distant cousin, the famed Henry MacCumber, Esq., of Snowdonia) found out about this peculiar quality of the shape-shifter’s lair the hard way.

He went in.

His motive was pure: to rescue the missing daughter of a local prince, the beautiful Nishta, she of the liquid eyes and graceful form. Gossip about the missing princess abounded, whispers of the evil raghosh who had stolen her.

Harold thought the superstitious bit a load of bosh, typical of the natives and their primitive mindset. She had likely gone off with a lover, or perhaps the raghosh was in reality one of the thuggees who were infamous in that part of India.

The fact that the thuggees were devotees of the goddess Kali, serving her through murder, not kidnapping, bothered Harold not a bit. Harold never thought too deeply about anything.

When an anonymous note arrived at his rooms, directing him to where the princess was being held and asking for his assistance, Harold was both flattered and delighted. He was bored with doing the same things and seeing the same sites as the rest of his peers who were serving the Empire in India. This mysterious note gave him an excuse for a bit of a lark.

It also gave him an opportunity that had long eluded him, that of finally making a name for himself outside of the long shadow cast by his cousin. Henry had all the advantages of being the heir, of visiting exotic places and doing wondrous things. Because of the similarity of their names, all of his life Harold had been mistaken for Henry, and this frequent misidentification chafed at him. He longed to wrest the spotlight from his more illustrious relative. He wanted nothing more than to never again see that faint dismissive pity cross another’s face once they realized who he was–or rather, wasn’t.

As he stared at the note, his imagination took flight. At last! The vaunted Henry MacCumber, Esq., of Snowdonia, would have to explain that it was not he, but rather his cousin, Harold MacCumber the Third, of Cumbria, who rescued the beautiful Indian princess right out from under the slavering jaws of the evil beast (or from the kidnappers, as the case may be). Henry would finally get his comeuppance, and at the hands of the overlooked MacCumber, no less. A delicious irony Harold could not resist.

It was not to Harold’s credit that he didn’t think any further of this adventure than the glory to come once it was over.

He made no plan, and carried only his long sword. But he didn’t think he would need to use it. Its presence, along with his red uniform, would be enough to scare the kidnapper off, whomever or whatever he might be, indicating as they did that he was a representative of the British Empire. One glimpse and the vermin would go scuttling back into the hole from which he had come.

Such were the thoughts that occupied Harold’s mind as he strode down the path, and opened that singular door, and stepped inside. To say he was surprised when the whole place folded around him like an accordion would be an understatement.

Once the castle stopped its terrible re-arrangement, Harold lifted his head from his knees, for he had been crouching on the ground, arms up to protect himself. Although he was myopic and slightly stupid, Harold was, in fact, rather brave. Where a lesser man would have turned and bolted through that lone door which still stood open behind him, Harold paused for a moment as a soft sob reached his ears. Presuming it to be the Princess Nishta he stood up in the little space afforded him, straining to see in the darkness.

It really was imperative to see, for behind the sobbing he could hear a low throaty growl.

Carefully, Harold drew his sword and took a step forward.

The growl stopped, along with the sobs.

Harold gripped his sword, emboldened at this small success, oblivious to the dangerous silence that enveloped him. “Princess?”

But before he could say more he was knocked to the ground, his sword ripped from his hand. He barely had time to be surprised before he was trussed up and deposited in a bundled heap on top of another swaddled form, which emitted a startled squeak.

Sirdar, be careful! He almost crushed me!” The voice, presumably belonging to the princess, was indignant.

The creature’s hot stinking breath fouled the air as it breathed harshly in ragged gasps above him. Harold wriggled off the princess, her musky perfume making his head whirl. He could not make sense of what had happened.

He squinted at the unblinking yellow eyes fixed on him in the gloom, seeing a suggestion of a huge hulking shadow behind them, and gathered his dwindling courage. “Now see here,” he began, his voice wavering. “This is not on, old chap.”

The beast emitted a pained howl, which cut off as the eyes blinked out and the shape twisted and writhed in the gloom, coalescing into a hunched form, which stood gracefully and stepped towards him.

A lamp flared, illuminating the chiseled features of a young man with blonde hair and golden eyes. He was naked, the light casting a yellow glow on his muscular body. “Who are you? Speak, now!”

There was no question of disobeying that imperious command. Harold lifted his chin. “Harold MacCumber, the Third, of Cumbria.”

The raghosh drew back, and snarled. “Cumbria? Then you are not the MacCumber of Snowdonia?” He drew closer, and Harold recoiled from that lambent scrutiny. “This one is worthless to us!” The creature’s voice was harsh as he whirled around, fixing his gaze on the princess.

She quivered under his regard. “But Sirdar, we could not know there were two of them!”

“Now see here,” Harold protested, stung. “I am here to rescue you, Madam, and I thank you for keeping my cousin out of it!”

The raghosh turned back to him, interest sparking in his eyes. “Your cousin?”

Beside Harold, the princess divested herself of her bonds, which, he now realized, were merely loosely tied around her. She stood beside the shape-shifter, both of them eyeing Harold with speculative interest.

“Hmmm….” The raghosh‘s voice was a low rumbly growl, his eyes narrowing to golden slits. He glanced at the princess. “Perhaps all is not lost, janu.”

Harold struggled against the ropes binding him, the terrible truth dawning upon him at last. “You mean to say this was all a trick? To lure my cousin here? You thought I was he?”

But the other two ignored him. The raghosh strode over to the corner of the room, the lamp he carried illuminating more details as he did so: a threadbare covering over a small bed, tattered tapestries hanging from the wall. As he put down the lamp on a rickety table a moth detached itself from a tapestry and fluttered over to the lamp, beating against the cover, causing the light to flicker.

The raghosh shrugged into a robe (which had a patch on the elbow), frowning. “News of this one’s disappearance will surely spread,” he said, slowly. His gaze sharpened on Harold. “Ah! We will put out word that you are held by the thuggees, and that they require payment to release you. The great MacCumber of Snowdonia will surely stoop at nothing to retrieve his cousin from certain death. He will come with his gold, and all will be as planned.” He peered more closely at Harold. “Unless you have gold to buy your life?”

“No,” Harold choked out, hating to admit his lack, especially in these dire circumstances. A familiar impotent fury seized him. Once again, his cousin Henry was the only MacCumber that mattered. And likely Henry would have as little care for Harold’s fate as he would for a grasshopper. They had never been close as children, and less so in adulthood. Henry would write off this ridiculous demand as a prank, or worse, ignore it. There would be no ransom coming from Snowdonia, of that Harold was sure.

What would become of him once these two grew tired of waiting? Harold quailed at the remembrance of the raghosh‘s other form, and thought rapidly for a moment.

The solution was obvious. There was a way to survive this predicament and supplant his cousin, once and for all. “Listen, old chap, I have a better idea,” he began, and with as much dignity as he could muster whilst being trussed up like a Christmas goose, he explained his plan.


Four months later the newspapers were full of the news of the terrible death of Henry MacCumber, Esq., of Snowdonia. They trumpeted the heroism of his cousin Harold, who tried to save Henry from the fearsome and mysterious creature they stumbled upon on the remote slopes of Yr Wyddfa, where they were training in preparation for an Everest expedition. Henry had been viciously mauled, it was reported. Harold stated that he could not see much of what happened in the blowing snow, although he was able to attempt a shot at the creature, who disappeared into the blizzard, leaving the dying Henry behind.

Stories followed detailing the generous provision which Harold received in Henry’s will (apparently they were very close, reporters speculated) and the reward given by the Queen herself in recognition of Harold’s bravery, thus allowing Harold to set up a modest but very comfortable estate in the Cumbrian hills. Two weeks later a feature story was published as a wrap-up to the whole affair. Harold had been given honorable discharge from the Army, for he had served his country well. During the summer months Harold would live in his Cumbrian estate with his exotic Indian manservant and the beautiful Indian princess he had taken to wife. In the winter he would retire to India, to the magnificent palace given to him in as dowry by his wife’s father.


On the whole Harold was pleased at how easily they had been able to pull off his plan. Once again he savored his triumph as he swept the courtyard of the raghosh’s palace, its fantastical spires shimmering in the heat behind him.

He paused for a moment, leaning on his broom, relishing the memory of Henry’s futile protests as he signed the newly revamped will, recalling the strident headlines which praised Harold’s bravery. He, Harold MacCumber of Cumbria (and India), was the one now spoken of in hushed terms of awe, his the name all men looked up to.

“Quickly now, you must finish! The sheik comes tonight, and all must be ready!” The raghosh‘s command broke through Harold’s reverie, and he bent his back to the work with a murmured “Yes, sahib“, ignoring the twinge of doubt that struck him, as it sometimes did in unguarded moments. His freedom was but a small price to pay, he reminded himself. The results had been worth it.

It wasn’t a bad life, after all. He lived in a marvelous palace, and on days like today he could even pretend, just for a short time, that he was the master of it. Once his work was done he would don the garb of a wealthy nobleman. Together with the princess Nashti he would greet their guest, who would take no notice of their golden-eyed servant.

No notice at all, until the palace folded itself around him and left him begging for mercy underneath the claws of the raghosh.

The beast would let the sheik live, for a small fee. If he refused, well, the raghosh would satisfy his baser nature in a most disagreeable way. If the man agreed to pay, he would be taken to the desert wastelands and released, with enough water to survive the trip back, although it was true there had been a few who had not.

Harold had no fear of discovery from those who survived. The threat of a return visit from the raghosh was enough to make them keep quiet about their ordeal.

All in all, a satisfactory arrangement. Slowly but surely the palace was being restored. Harold’s inheritance, plus the gold coin they were extorting, allowed the raghosh to make his lair as splendid in reality as it was in its magical enchantment.

As for Harold, he had achieved all he wanted, and so he was content. To ask for more would be greedy, and that would not suit Harold MacCumber, of Cumbria (and India), not at all.

Featured image by Himanshu Singh Gurjar, on unsplash

Book Bingo: Westlake Soul, by Rio Youers


Quite awhile back I announced I would try to do a Book Bingo this year. I have failed miserably at it so far. And seeing as there are only four months left in the year, I’m under the gun, so to speak (or is that, under the B?).

Just as a quick reminder, I have set myself the challenge of filling in the middle row of the following Bingo card:



It’s not like I haven’t done anything. I have read a short story collection by Canadian Tom Simon.  I will put up my review of that book sometime in the next month or so. Then I got distracted and well, forgot.

But I recently got renewed in my search for books to fill my card, because I read an absolutely spectacular book about by a Canadian author, and I realized it would fit as part of my Book Bingo! The book is Westlake Soul, by Rio Youers, and it was published by ChiZine Publishing in 2012. So, I now have two books that will fit on this card.And they are in the same line, under the “G”.  I’m on a roll!

It’s funny how some books come into your life. Most of the books I have read have been books I have chosen. Some of the rest are gifts, some are recommendations by friends, some are books read for my Book Club. But a few arrive in your life by magical means, maybe as a BookCrossing book, a book left behind on a bus, or won in a door prize.

This is one of these magical books. While I was the When Words Collide festival in Calgary last summer, I visited the book store, of course. I didn’t buy anything, I had too much to read on my plate already, and I just couldn’t bear the thought of adding one more book to that pile. But as I was going through the room I saw, off to the side, a bunch of books on a table with a sign, “Take one free for an honest review.” I glanced at them but kept on going. No time, and all that.

But I passed that table again and my conscience got the best of me. After all, soon (I hope) I will be entering the Published Authors Club and it will be me looking for reviews on my book on Amazon and other book sites. I am beginning to understand the importance of reviews and so I decided I should do my duty to my fellow authors and so I scanned the books on the table. There were a few books offered, but this one caught my eye. First of all, because it was small, and not too long (240 pages). And I liked the cover. And once I picked it up to read the back cover and reviews, I began to get more interested.


So, I popped it in my bag and took it home. It sat beside my bed for a few months until last month, when I (sigh) picked it up to read it in order to get it over with and stop my conscience from bothering me.

Well. I devoured this book. Not exactly devoured, I suppose, this book is too thought-provoking and emotional to use that word, but wow. Every ringing review on this book’s cover is true, and then some. I hurried over to Amazon and gladly gave it five stars.

Westlake Soul is the name of the main character of the book, a young man who has been horribly injured in a surfing accident, and is now in a vegetative state. At least that is what it looks like from the outside. He is unresponsive and unable to react to the world at large. But inside his mind, he is absolutely all there, and in fact the accident has given him some “superpowers” in the form of a greatly increased intelligence and the ability to project himself out of his body to anywhere he likes, like a form of astral projection.

Oh, and he can talk with his dog, Hub, which makes this already-marvellous book even that much better. Just for fun, here is the link to the youtube trailer for the book. I don’t like the surfer-dude voice, Westlake is Canadian, after all, but still, you get a small feel for the book. The music definitely fits the melancholy nature of the book and Westlake’s cool vibe, though.

Like all superheroes, Westlake has an arch-nemesis, Dr. Quietus, the embodiment of Death. Westlake has beaten him into a corner for now, but he’s lurking in the background, ready to do his mischief. And soon Westlake realizes that something bad is coming, and he had better be prepared…

This book is a wonderful reflection on big themes of life, death, friendship, family and humanity. Pretty big subjects, but Youers handles them deftly with sparse but lyrical prose. The book is told from Westlake’s point of view which helps to really immerse us into his world.

I couldn’t’ help but wonder if Youers wasn’t inspired to write this book by the story of the “Ghost Boy” – the young Australian man who contracted a mysterious disorder which caused him to retreat into a vegetative state, but whose mind slowly returned, and due to his physical limitations could not communicate that to his family. There are similarities here to that heart-wrenching story, and the news of the “ghost boy” was being reported  in the couple of years before Westlake Soul was published.

But no matter how he got the idea, Youers has taken it and given us a beautiful book. It was nominated for a Sunburst Award in 2012 as one of Canada’s best speculative fiction books. I am amazed it didn’t win (if it did, it would have qualified for another square on my bingo card, heh). I’m really surprised I haven’t heard of this author, but like all Canadian authors, I’m sure he struggles to be heard over the  noise from our fellow writers to the south. The good news is he has a new book coming out in June 2017 with a major publisher (St. Thomas Press/Thomas Dunne Books) which I am looking forward to reading. It’s a supernatural thriller called The Forgotten Girl, and it looks really good! Hopefully he will start to get some recognition.

In the meantime, grab a copy of Westlake Soul and a box of kleenex (trust me, you will need it). As Hub would say, Dude, you have to read this book.


Giving Thanks


Here in Canada we are celebrating Thanksgiving this weekend. We don’t have the stories of the Pilgrims and the Mayflower, but we do have a wonderful tradition of giving thanks in this country as well. I didn’t know much about the history of our Thanksgiving, but in a quick search on the web I found these fascinating details:

  • Some historians say that the first North American Thanksgiving was held in 1578 as explorer Martin Frobisher, who with a fleet of ships was searching for the Northwest Passage, gave thanks and celebrated Communion after a particularly harrowing voyage from Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island and back again.
  • French settlers who crossed the ocean with Samuel de Champlain and arrived safely in Canada with him in 1604, celebrated with a feast of Thanksgiving. They formed the Order of Good Cheer (don’t you love that name?) and held weekly feasts, during which they shared food with their First Nations neighbours.
  • Thanksgiving Days were celebrated to commemorate important events, such as the end of the Seven Years War (1763), the end of the War of 1812, the end of the Lower Canada Rebellion (1838), and even the recovery of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) from a serious illness in 1872.
  • It wasn’t until 1957 that the second Monday in October was officially designated Thanksgiving Day by Parliament.


Sir Martin Frobisher, the first to celebrate Thanksgiving on North American soil. Apparently after returning to Frobisher Bay after the harrowing voyage in which one ship was lost and another returned to Europe, the chaplain, Robert Wolfall, “made unto them a godly sermon, exhorting them especially to be thankefull to God for theyr strange and miraculous deliverance in those so dangerous places.” Photo : Portrait of Sir Martin Frobisher, by Cornelis Ketel, on Wikicommons

In doing the research on my books, I discovered that the Celtic Christian monks of the early Middle Ages excelled at thanksgiving. Their lives were founded upon praise, celebration and giving thanks. Every day they would recite Psalms 148-150, the praise psalms, which all begin and end with “Praise the Lord”. These words etched their way into their hearts and minds. They would find it very odd indeed to be “thankful” without that thankfulness spilling over into specific thanks to God, the Creator and Sustainer of all.

I don’t want to distract you for too long from your turkey feasts and family celebrations, so I will leave you with this ancient Celtic Christian prayer, recorded in the Carmina Gadelica. Whether you are in Canada or not, why not take some time this weekend to say this prayer slowly, with gratitude for all God has given you? We are truly blessed to live where we do and in the time in which we live.

Thanks to thee, 0 God, that I have risen to-day,
To the rising of this life itself;
May it be to Thine own glory, 0 God of every gift,
And to the glory of my soul likewise.

0 great God, aid Thou my soul
With the aiding of Thine own mercy ;
Even as I clothe my body with wool,
Cover Thou my soul with the shadow of Thy wing.

Help me to avoid every sin,
And the source of every sin to forsake ;
And as the mist scatters on the crest of the hills,
May each ill haze clear from my soul, 0 God.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!





Year of Important Books: If Only They Could Talk, by James Herriot

old book clipart


You may have noticed by now that animals feature large in this series of blog posts in which I am returning to books that were important to me in childhood. The Wind in the Willows, The Yearling, Winnie the Pooh, and Watership Down all are about animals in one form or another. It is true that many children books are about animals, so it is no wonder that many of my favourites contain four-legged characters. But it is also true that although I read a lot of books as a child, the ones with animals were invariably my favourites. Yes, I loved Peter Pan, and The Swiss Family Robinson, Huckleberry Finn, and other non-animal classics. But the animal stories have always risen to the top of my faves.

So as I thought about what to include in my reading list this year, I just couldn’t go without including a James Herriot book. I discovered these charming tales about a 1930s Yorkshire vet when I was somewhere around ten or eleven, I think, as books I brought home from the school library. And luckily Herriot was still writing new books during those years, and so I got the joy of reading his new releases as I got older.


My slightly battered James Herriot collection, bought in 1984. But it’s not complete – I’m missing The Lord God Made Them All (1981) and Every Living Thing (1992). Methinks a new collection is in order!


James Herriot is the pseudonym of James Alfred “Alf” Wight (1916-1995), a Scottish veterinarian who practiced in and around the Yorkshire Dales during the 1940s to the 1970s. The books were semi-autobiographical in nature, and he began writing them in 1966 when he was 50 years old, at the urging of his wife. He had always wanted to write books, but in the early years his busy practice did not allow any time for writing, but thankfully he listened to his wife and began to put pen to paper.

His first few stories on other subjects such as football were rejected, but then he turned to what he knew best: being a vet in a rural country practice, and his first book, If Only They Could Talk, was published in 1970, followed by It  Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet  in 1972. But the books were not runaway successes. It wasn’t until American publisher Thomas McCormack (St. Thomas Press, New York) read the books and decided to bundle them together into one volume and publish them under the title All Creatures Great and Small in 1972, that Wight became a bestselling author.


James “Alf” Wight, aka James Herriot. Doesn’t he have a kind face? Photo from

There is more to these stories than a collection of tales about a rural country vet. But If Only They Could Talk is certainly that, told with a dry humour that is one of the appealing characteristics of the books. In this opening volume of the series we get introduced to the main characters – James Herriot, a newly minted vet looking for this first position, his employer Sigfried Farnon, owner of a practice in the fictional town of Darrowby in Yorkshire, and Sigfried’s younger brother Tristan, a ne’er-do-well, charming young man who is bent on doing the least work he can do and yet still graduate from veterinary school.

But underlying the well-drawn and likeable characters in this book and in the ones that followed is the obvious love and respect Wight had for the people whose animals he looked after, and for the place itself – the wide, wild upswept moors of the Yorkshire Dales, and the picturesque valleys between them.

I love the interactions between James, Sigfried and Tristan, and suffered along with James as he was presented with one baffling case or strong-willed farmer after another, but a lot of my love for these books is tied up with passages like these:

We took a steep, winding road, climbing higher and still higher with the hillside falling away sheer to a dark ravine where a rocky stream rushed headlong to the gentler country below. On the top, we got out of the car. In the summer dusk, a wild panorama of tumbling fells and peaks rolled away and lost itself in the crimson and gold ribbons of the Western sky. To the East, a black mountain overhung us, menacing in its naked bulk. Huge, square-cut boulders littered the lower slopes. 

yorkshire dales

Rolling hills in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, scenery that would have been very familiar to Alf Wight. Photo from

This wild country is populated with tough, hardy farmers.  Not an easy bunch to impress but Herriot manages to gain their respect as he shows his willingness to come out to their isolated farms at any time of the day or night, summer or winter, roll up his sleeves, and get to work. His respect for these people and their way of life is evident, giving us a glimpse of the last days of farming in England before the horse disappeared all together and was replaced by machines.

A lot of the humour in the book comes from Herriot’s ability to laugh at himself and the sometimes absurd situations he finds himself in. For example, in this particular book my favourite scene is where James is assisting another vet, Angus Grier, whom Sigfried warns James, can be vindictive if you cross him. James innocently says the wrong thing on the way out to the farm, and Grier gets his revenge by getting  James to don a calving outfit he is carrying around in his trunk.

The outfit turns out to be a heavy rubber suit which obviously had been designed by someone who had never been calving and is more like a scuba diving suit that almost immobilizes James once Grier zips James into it.

When he had finished he stood back admiringly. I must have been a grotesque sight, sheathed  from head to foot in gleaming black, my arms, bare to the shoulders, sticking out almost at right angles. Grier appeared well satisfied. “Well, come on, it’s time we got on wi’ the job.”He turned and hurried towards the byre; I plodded ponderously after him like an automaton. 

Our arrival in the byre caused a sensation. There were present the farmer, two cowmen and a little girl. The men’s cheerful greeting froze on their lips as the menacing figure paced slowly, deliberately in. The little girl burst into tears and ran outside. 

…Grier was working away inside the cow and mumbling away about the weather, but the men weren’t listening, they never took their eyes away from me as I stood rigid, like a suit of armour against the wall. They studied each part of the outfit in turn, wonderingly. I know what they were thinking. Just what was going to happen when this formidable unknown finally went into action. Anybody dressed like that must have some tremendous task ahead of him. 

The intense pressure of the collar against my larynx kept me entirely out of any conversation and this must have added to my air of mystery. I began to sweat inside the suit.

As it turns out the only task James has is to hand Grier a tin of ointment.  I will admit to laughing out loud at this scene, the picture he paints is so excruciatingly embarrassing and ridiculous you can’t help it.

I should perhaps start another series of blog posts, entitled,  “Places I Have Visited Because of Books, ” because, just like the Reichenbach Falls was basically the reason we went to Switzerland, when my hubby and I went to England the first time together I insisted on going to Yorkshire to see the Dales and the places so vividly described in these books.

We went to the small town of Thirsk, which is one of the places Wight lived and was one of the towns upon which he based his imaginary town of Darrowby. But best of all, we took a drive up the fells above the town, up to the high country, and spent a marvellous afternoon exploring this beautiful and remote landscape.

And even though I was there in the mid-eighties, some fifty years after the books were set, I would think that mostly it is the same. Beautiful and rugged, with a sense when you are up there that you are on top of the world.

I can see why Wight loved it so much. And I’m so glad he finally took some time to put his pen to paper and share with us these wonderful tales of the people and animals he served there.

A (Small) Fantasy Primer


Back in the day, there used to be a pretty basic definition of fantasy. Basically, think Lord of the Rings, and you pretty much get the idea. A hero on a quest in a medieval-type landscape, aided or opposed by all sorts of human and other-worldly creatures such as elves, dwarves, Wizards, and the like. And often the story took place on some Earth-like setting, but not necessarily Earth itself.

Those elements made up the standard fantasy story for many years after Tolkien’s masterpiece, which pretty much defined the genre for many years.   As time went on, however, the whole genre of fantasy began to broaden to encompass many new sub-genres, and that broadening is still continuing today. In fact, in order to move readers away from viewing fantasy with LOTR-influenced glasses, a new term, “speculative fiction”, is now used to encompass both science fiction and fantasy.

To which I say, yay! That means more books, which can’t be a bad thing. There are a lot of these new sub-genres of fantasy, and while I have growing pretty familiar with them in the course of my reading and writing life, I realize that perhaps some of my readers might not be aware of all the categories. As a writer, it’s good to know what genre your book falls under, so as to make it clear to agents, editors, and publishers exactly upon what shelf to file your book, so to speak. And as readers, it’s fun to see the incredible diversity that is going on in publishing today, when it comes to speculative fiction.

So, in no particular order, here’s a little primer of the fantasy side of speculative fiction, which covers a fair bit, but is not exhaustive, there’s just too many! If you are interested in finding out more, have a look at this website. Maybe you will discover something that tweaks your fancy!

Word of warning – these categories are not set in stone. And many books fit in more than one category!

1) HIgh Fantasy – a sweeping epic, lots of characters, well-drawn magic systems, detailed world-building…these are all characteristics of high fantasy. Often includes a quest, or a coming of age theme.  So this is where LOTR will fit, but also lots of books by Brandon Sanderson (eg the Mistborn books), Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, and even books like The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen R. Donaldson. This is a pretty broad category, and some books in other categories could also be placed in this one.

2) Low Fantasy – similar to the above, but often the magic system or elements of the story are downplayed, and the story is often grittier, with an anti-hero protagonist, and plenty of moral ambiguity. Martin’s The Game of Thrones is a perfect example of this genre, and it’s popularity has spawned a number of books in this genre. Again, a broad category which could encompass other sub-genres as well.

3) Historical fantasy – set (usually) in a real historical period on Earth, but mixes in some fantasy elements. A good example of this would be the stories of King Arthur which include the magic of Merlin and a dragon or two. It also would include an up-and-coming title, Wilding, Book One of the Traveller’s Path trilogy, by (cough), me. Books by Guy Gavriel Kay (a great Canadian writer) such as The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy are a good example of historical fantasy books that aren’t set on Earth, although the setting does mirror a real historical time period (such as Renaissance Italy). If these fantastical elements bring about a change in history as we know it, this morphs into the related category of Alternative History. The popular Steampunk genre (Victorian age setting, steam-powered technology) falls under historical fantasy.


This marvellous series is a wonderful example of Alternate History. The Napoleonic Wars with dragons!! What could be better?

4) Dark Fantasy – books that combine fantasy elements with horror. The granddaddy of these would probably be Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and many contemporary vampire books would be filed here, such as Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles series. Books with other creatures such as werewolves or mummies (could stray into the historical fantasy genre, though) or ghosts (could stray into strictly horror) could fall under dark fantasy except sometimes those fall under the related category of…

5) Paranormal Fantasy – (usually) modern-day adventure tales, sometimes including elements of detective fiction and/or romance which include fantastical creatures and the presence of magic of some form. Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer,  Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, or one of my personal favourites, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files ( the books, not the TV series). This is a hugely popular category right now, especially in the Paranormal Romance sub-genre.



Ah, Harry Dresden, how I love you. If ever you are in Chicago and an ancient soul-sucking demon interrupts a perfectly good dinner party, give this bad-boy wizard a call. He’s in the book.

6) Urban Fantasy – I love this category, both to write and to read. It includes stories that are set in our modern-day environments, but with fantastical elements added in, often as a secret or undetected-to-most-people way. Charles de Lint (another great Canadian writer!) writes a lot of urban fantasy ( eg, Moonheart). The Harry Potter books could fit here, too. As could the afore-mentioned Dresden Files. See, I told you lots of books can fit in more than one place!

7) Magical Realism – this is a relatively new but growing sub-genre.  These stories assume that magic is a part of everyday life, presented in a realistic and often contemporary setting.  Often literary in nature, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Erin Morgenstern’s marvellous The Night Circus are good examples of this genre.



Duelling wizards and star-crossed lovers, in a circus that only ever comes at night. Marvellous! Fun fact – this bestselling novel was originally written for the NaNoWriMo competition, so just in case you have a dusty manuscript sitting in a drawer from that annual competition that you think will never go anywhere….

Now for a taste of some of the more obscure sub-genres:

9) Science Fantasy – science fiction and fantasy? Is that a thing? Well, yes, and the most iconic example of this would be Star Wars. Space ships and the Force. Although can we all agree that the insertion of the midi-chloria in the prequels was a TERRIBLE idea?

10) New Weird/Slipstream – genre-bending and literary in nature, these books can be a puzzle to read, and fans of this genre like it that way. Sometimes these books can be difficult to understand but other times the more mainstream of these give you some really great stories that will linger with you. I haven’t read a lot of this genre but one author who writes a lot in New Weird is China Mieville, and I truly loved his short story collection, Looking for Jake. Although some of those stores were a bit too creepy for me, others were simply mind-stretching and utterly unique.

11) Weird West – Westerns and fantasy? Yesssss……! These are fun. I mean, who wouldn’t want to read about a gunslinger encountering a vampire? I’m a Louis L’Amour fan from a long ways back, and this mash-up of genres is right up my alley. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is probably the best-known example of this genre, but there are a whole lot more out there that I need to get on my “To be read” list….

12) Bangsian Fantasy – this is one I have never heard of before! These are stories featuring the afterlife, often, but not always, with a genial tone. Because death is such a riot, I suppose. These are stories where ghosts could be stuck in the real world, living people stuck in a ghost world, or people who have died in a literal Heaven or Hell. So, although neither of these fit the “genial” definition, both Dante’s Inferno and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones would fit in this category. It’s called “Bangsian” after John Frederick Bangs, who wrote about the afterlife in a humourous way at the beginning of the twentieth-century in books such as A House-boat on the River Styx. 

I could go on and on, but I’d better stop here. At least you have a bit of a taste for all the many and varied types of fantasy books out there, and maybe this will inspire you to check out some new authors you may not have read. Or, if you are a writer, try your hand at a short story in one of these genres!

(And I know my featured image doesn’t really have anything to do with this list, but….hey. It’s funny.)

Oswald, King of Bernicia


There are so many fascinating people who lived in the 7th century. I have highlighted a couple of them on the blog. And it’s well past time to introduce you to one of the most important figures of the time: Oswald, King of Bernicia. He is relatively unknown now, but for centuries after his death in 642 AD he was famous throughout Europe, venerated as a Saint for his role in establishing the Christian church in England.

Oswald was the oldest son of the Anglian king Æthelfrith, who had a fierce reputation among the native Britons he fought against in his occupation of their ancient lands. They gave him the nick-name Flesaur, which means “twister”, which gives us sense of the perhaps begrudging respect his enemies gave to this most canny of warriors.

Æthelfrith is the first Bernician king of Britain that we really know much about with any accuracy, and that is probably because of his prowess as a warrior and a king.  He defeated Ælla of Deira, sending Ælla’s son Edwin into exile, and became the first king of both Bernicia and Deira (the area we know now as Northumbria). He eventually married Ælla’s daughter Acha, probably to legitimize his hold on the Deiran throne by marrying the former king’s daughter. Æthelfrith was a pagan, like the other Angles and Saxons of the time.


Bamburgh, the seat of the Bernician kings, was known as Bebbanburg in ancient times. It was called by the Irish, Dún Guaire, but re-named Bebbanburg in honour of Bebba, Æthelfrith’s wife. And yes, he was also married to Acha. Perhaps he married Bebba later in his reign, after Acha died, or it is also possible he was polygamous, which was not unknown at the time among the pagan Anglo-Saxon kings. Photo by Michael Hanselmann, on WikiCommons

Oswald was born in 604 AD, at the height of his father’s power. He was not the first son and heir, that honour went to his older brother Eanfrith. But when Oswald was twelve, his life as a privileged atheling (prince) of the ruling family came to an abrupt end. In 616 AD, Æthelfrith’s past came back to haunt him in the form of Edwin, who joined forces with Rædwald of Wessex to oust Æthelfrith from the throne, killing him in battle.

For their safety, Oswald and his siblings (there were actually eight of them altogether) fled  north, to the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata, out of Edwin’s reach. And from all accounts, Oswald thrived there during the long years of exile. He quickly adapted to the Irish culture and became fluent in the language, and even fought on the side of his hosts. And, importantly, he was taught by the monks at the school at Hii (Iona), and through their influence converted to Christianity.

In 633 AD Edwin was killed by the combined forces of Cadwallon of Wales and Penda of Mercia, and Northumbria was divided into Bernicia and Deira once again. Perhaps because of a previous alliance of some sort with Cadwallon, Eanfrith returned from exile and was crowned king of Bernicia. He was, after all, the heir to the Bernician throne. But if there was an alliance, it quickly fell apart. Cadwallon slew Eanfrith the next year when Eanfrith went to him seeking peace, and Cadwallon took his place as king of Bernicia (Game of Thrones, anyone?).


Although George R.R. Martin purportedly got his inspiration from The War of the Roses, he could have just as easily looked a few centuries back to Dark Ages Britain! There was a whole lot of throne-swapping, alliances, and treachery going on then, too. Photo credit: Flickr

Enter our hero, Oswald, the next in line to the throne. From the historian Bede’s account, Cadwallon was a vicious, tyrannical ruler – killing, raping, and pillaging the Angles and Saxons in his new kingdom with impunity. We can take this account with a grain of salt, perhaps, but safe to say something dire reached Oswald’s ears about the upheaval in Bernicia, and we can only imagine how he felt about it.

Regardless of how he felt, we do know what he did, which was to gather an army, most likely made of some of the retainers that had accompanied the royal children while in exile, some of his brothers, and  a contingent of Irish warriors, and return to Bernicia to attempt to wrest the throne from Cadwallon and restore his father’s legacy.

And what happens next is remarkable, and has implications that reverberate down to us, today. Bede tells us that,

After the murder of his brother Eanfrith, Oswald arrived with an army small in numbers but protected by their faith in Christ, and he slew the accursed leader of the Britons and all that vast army that he boasted none could resist…

That is the summarized version, but Bede goes on to tell us the details. He writes,

On approaching this battle Oswald set up the sign of the holy cross…it is said when the cross had been quickly made and a hole made ready for it to stand in, Oswald himself, fired by his faith, seized it and placed it in its hole and held it upright with both hands, until the soldiers heaped up the soil and made it fast in the ground. Thereupon he raised his voice and cried aloud to the whole army: “Let us all kneel, and together pray the almighty, everliving and true God to defend us by His mercy from a proud and cruel enemy; for He knows that the war we have engaged in for the deliverance of our people is a just war.” They all did as he had ordered and, advancing thus against the enemy as dawn appeared, won the victory as the reward for their faith. 

Perhaps Oswald was inspired by the story of Constantine, who conquered his enemies under the standard of the Cross. But be that as it may, the prayer and Oswald’s example certainly inspired his army, resulting in the route of Cadwallon’s larger army, the death of the usurper, and the restoration of a son of Æthelfrith to the throne of Bernicia.


The cross at Heavenfield, commemorating Oswald’s victory over Cadwallon. Photo: David Dixon

But not just any son. A Christian, who had been educated in the Irish north, and who came to faith under the influence of the Celtic Irish monks of Iona. And a man who wanted to bring that faith to his people. One of his first acts as king was to send a message back to Iona, asking them to send someone to begin spreading the Gospel among the Bernicians. Which eventually resulted in the mission of Aidan, who resided at Lindisfarne in the monastery established at that rocky outcrop close to Bamburgh on land granted by Oswald.

Oswald and Aidan began the  work together, Bede tells us, with Oswald travelling along with Aidan in the early days, acting as his translator between the Irish bishop and the Anglian people. This mission was responsible for the conversion of the pagan Bernicians to Christianity, and was the first church-state alliance in England’s history.

Oswald himself became a king to be reckoned with. With perhaps a touch of his father’s wily intelligence, he negotiated and fought his way to becoming king of a once-more united Northumbria, and one of the most powerful kings of England. He is one of the  kings given the honorific, bretwalda, meaning a king holding more than one territory.

Oswald ruled over Northumbria for less than ten years, which although is a short period by our standards, by the standards of the day is actually quite a long reign, given the penchant of the early medieval kings to make war upon another. He brought relative peace and stability to Northumbria, and the beginnings of a Christian society.

Alas, all good things must eventually come to an end, and in August of 642 AD, Penda of Mercia killed Oswald at the Battle of Maserfield, subjecting poor Oswald to the fate of having his body chopped up into parts and displayed in pagan fashion upon spikes as a way of celebrating the victory. Which eventually leads to the daring recovery of his brother’s arm by his younger brother Oswy and the later cult of Oswald’s arm, which is a whole ‘nother story…..

But although an obscure king today, you can still find Oswald hinted at in one of the most famous works of literature in our day. As I explained here, J.R.R. Tolkien was himself a scholar of Anglo-Saxon history, and included in The Lord of the Rings many nods to Anglo-Saxon culture and history. In reading Max Adams’ fascinating book, King of the North: Oswald of Northumbria (recommended reading if you want to know more about Oswald and the times in which he lived), Adams hints that perhaps Tolkien’s character, Aragorn heir of Elisdur, could perhaps have been based on the story of Oswald.


Aragorn = Oswald?

I think Adams has a solid idea here. Think of it. Aragorn is the exiled son of a king, waiting to take his place on the throne. And when his people are threatened by an evil ruler, he reappears, ready to fight and reclaim the throne. And what about the Battle of Helms Deep, when Aragorn and Gandalf appear at dawn to help route the much larger orc army? Oswald won his great victory at dawn, too!*

Anyhow that’s just a fun example of how the legacy of Oswald still echoes today. I suspect, however, that he would be more gratified that his legacy of faith begun so many years ago with his friend Aidan still continues in the wild northlands of Britain, the ancient home of the Bernician kings.

*For more on the link between Oswald and Aragorn, see this article. And for a fictional take on Oswald, check out Oswald: Return of the King, by Edoardo Albert, the second book in his Northumbrian Thrones series. I reviewed the first book, Edwin: High King of Britain, here on the blog and have Book 2 on my must-read list!

Featured image from The Diocese of Lancaster




Decisions, Decisions, Decisions…


Fall is upon us. I don’t know how that happened – just yesterday was the first day of spring, wasn’t it?

I’ve had a busy but refreshing summer, and I’m looking forward to getting back at the desk and back to work on my novel revisions.

I’ve sent out my MS to a couple more agents and publishers, but no one is knocking at the door yet. I’m sure I’m going about this all wrong. I should be sending out dozens of queries at a time, not just a couple. But seeing as it is probably non-productive to send out queries to agents that don’t want to represent a historical fantasy trilogy set in Dark Ages Britain I’ve tried to limit my queries to agents that I think just might be interested. And there aren’t that many of those, it seems. Of course if you are one of those agents and are reading this, let’s talk.😉

In my research I’ve found that lots of agents don’t want fantasies set in medieval times (and even though mine is not technically medieval, it would still get tarred with that brush). Especially those set in Europe/Britain. If my book was set in  medieval Japan or Africa, well, maybe I might get in the door. They are looking for the next “thing”, not the old “thing”. There seems to be a feeling that fantasies with a European setting are yesterday’s news.

Historical fantasy is also a narrow field. Unless you are looking at steampunk, which is a genre all its own, it’s hard to find a niche of books including fantastical elements set in a real-world historical setting. It’s not impossible, mind you, but difficult. Which means that not a lot of agents are looking for these books, either.

Elves are also “yesterday”. Even though my take on the Fey is different from most of the stories out there, the agents/publishers have to actually read the book to understand that. Right now they just see “Fey” in my proposals/query letters and their eyes glaze over. I think.

And the fact that my main character is a person of faith whose struggles to reconcile a faith in a good God with all the bad that is happening in his life (including demons chasing him to 643 AD) probably knocks it off quite a few more agent’s acquistion lists. Unless you are making fun of Christianity or making it responsible for all the bad in the world in your novel, agents and publishers aren’t interested. Ok, I might be exaggerating that a bit but it sure feels like that some days.

So….okay. I suppose I could spend another year sending out the MS, but time is a-wasting. I’ve already spent many years of my life on this project, and I’m getting impatient to get to the next step. Which is to actually get it in front of some readers. Release the kraken, so to speak.


I spent a weekend in Calgary at the When Words Collide Festival again, and I sat in on quite a few presentations on self-publishing. There are pros and cons, of course, but at the moment the pros (especially the fact that by doing this I could actually get the books published!) are outweighing the cons.

So I’m getting ready to go down that path. I’ve been in contact with an editor, who will do a professional edit (both developmental and copy-edit) of my MS. Which is somewhat terrifying but I’m looking forward to it, too. I want to put the best book out there for my readers, and this will help me do that.

I’m building in time this fall to do some intensive research on the whole process of self-publishing. I could upload my book to Amazon tomorrow and start selling it right away, but realistically if I want to give myself the best chance of success I need to do some preparation. Self-publishing means that not only do I wear the “author” hat, I will also be donning the “marketing and promotion” hat, the “business plan” hat, the “book cover design” hat, and the “book distribution” hat. I have been listening to some podcasts about all these things, and I have some ideas of what I need to do, but I’m going to need a little more flesh on the bones of my plans before I can launch. I’ll be reading some books on self-publications, talking to other authors who have gone this route, getting a plan in place for both the launch and beyond. And plus, I have to keep going on Book 2 revisions.


My tentative plan is to have the book published by Christmas, but….I’m not entirely sure how realistic that will be. There’s quite a lot I need to have in place before I can jump into the fray. So, watch this space! I’ll keep you all appraised of my progress. A more realistic statement is that by this time next year, my book should be out and I’ll be well on the way to the release of Book 2.

Thanks for being with me on this journey! I’m looking forward to sharing with you a firm publication date, once I have it all figured out. In the meantime…stay tuned…..