By Vadren Skycastle
So, you’ve learned that the supernatural world exists. And that you’re stuck. You can go back to your ordinary life, but it won’t be the same. Now you’ll glimpse doors in walls where they shouldn’t be, see masked changelings striding through the streets on mist-grey stallions, and notice towering, horned figures in crowds.
And you are the only one to see them.
Then, there are the predators. Perhaps, as you walk along the street, there’ll be a man in front. In the next heartbeat, he vanishes. And then there’s a glimpse of something big and hulking dragging him into a nearby alleyway, and if you rush forward to investigate, you’ll only see trash blowing in the breeze.
And no one will believe you when you tell them these things.
That’s why many leave the borders and go deeper into the world.
To stay safe, you’ll either need to join a faction, acquire a vestige, or both.
Factions are political blocs. Their goal is to keep the supernatural community stable, and the borders between the worlds intact. You may have heard of a few—the Undying Queen and her Court who maintain order in the city, the Amaranthine Lodge which investigates secrets and even the Lucky Twelves, a coalition of criminal and gangsters that are very good at policing themselves.
And a vestige? That word gets thrown around a lot—in fact the supernatural layer of reality is also called the ‘Vestige World’ as well as the Indigo World or the Twilight Realm.
A vestige is how you get magic. It’s a difficult process. So many things can go wrong.
You’ll need to make a pact with a being from another dimension. Someone who once roamed freely during the Age of Magic, and who’s now trapped. These beings want to conduct schemes and intrigues in the mortal world, and for that they need agents. Once you meet such a being, and you agree to a pact, you’ll receive a vestige—part of the other entity’s soul attached to yours, and through this, you can wield arcane power.
Patron and agent relationships are complex. You might be treated like an honorary employee, a knightly champion, or a son or daughter. Or worse, chattel or a meagre pet.
You get one shot at making a pact. Like at a job interview, you’ll need to as the right questions and make sure that you’ve met the right patron.
Unlike a regular job, there’s no resigning… Or not that I’ve heard.
Next, we’ll talk about the type of patrons you might meet. And what you can become.
by Vadren Skycastle
Welcome to the first article in this series, designed to introduce newcomers to the supernatural world. If you’re confused, or have questions, these entries should help you out.
Let’s start slow. You must have so many questions.
Last year, I lived in the ordinary world. I took all of it for granted: cars and skyscrapers, burger restaurants, airships, smartphones and watches. I grew up surrounded by stories of an age of magic, but it was all folklore and hearsay.
This is what I thought:
It was reasonable that there had been a tyrant called the ‘Dark Emperor’ who had reigned two thousand years ago, head of an advanced civilisation. I can see his castle from my studio window, and can make out the tour buses heading up the mountain for the top. There’s ruins and towers everywhere. You can’t dig up a piece of land in Storm City without uncovering some ancient brick or arrowhead or historical temple.
And it’s also reasonable to assume that there had been an epic war to stop the Emperor, and the famous General Hawkbow had killed him, or at least had the credit for it. This what history tells us.
But it was unreasonable to think that there had once been an age of magic. Where was the evidence for it? Where were the dragons and unicorns? Where was the crystal city of Reladon, and the wizards that had guided the world from the Crystalspire? What happened to the magic swords? Every archeological dig only returns bricks, quartz fragments and old coins. No weird skeletons. Lab tests don’t return artefacts that have strange or unique properties. Everything can be explained neatly and precisely.
No, it was very reasonable to believe that the ‘Age of Magic’ was a story, and the real history was a brutal struggle that people had embellished.
When I was a journalist, I thought that way. Until I went too far, chasing the story of a lifetime. There’s a thin barrier that separates the ‘Golden’ world of the mundanes, and the ‘Indigo’ world of the supernaturals. And once you cross that barrier you can’t cross back.
The Indigo World isn’t like a separate dimension. It’s a different layer. Like a filter on a camera, or having a superuser password that unlocks more features. For a start, you can see things. Monsters that weren’t there before. People using magic.
And it’s not a nice world. People are out for themselves, or are driven to serve extra-dimensional masters in exchange for magic powers. Magic is trapped in old crystals and relics, and these are fought and squabbled over by ‘occultists’, a crazy group of people who consider themselves the heirs to the wizards of the Crystalspire. There are factions, gangs, shifting alliances and deals.
As a person who’s crossed over with no powers—they call us ‘borderers’—you’re not protected any more. People in the Golden World have ancient enchantments keeping them (mostly) safe from the supernatural. We don’t. We’re the lowest rung on the supernatural ladder, ‘meat’ for the rest.
You only survive if you make contacts, or play your cards right.
Next post I’ll explain how you can do this as soon as possible.
As everyone knows, the best way to manage your anxiety is to launch a book. I usually rely on lists and CBT to keep things in check, but this is madness! If this was a serial killer investigation, there would be corkboards and string connecting pictures to
bloodcoffee, stains and incomprehensible scribbles! Wide publishing! Paperbacks! Do I use an aggregator or go direct to all the different vendors? Do I need affiliate accounts? How much should I do?
I’ve also changed my email service provider at the same time—it was like moving e-house. Anyway, it’s done now even if I want to hit the block editor in the head with a rusted crowbar.
Final Night was the book I didn’t intend to write. As my ‘survive COVID project’ I wrote a novel first, and then a short novel featuring one of the side characters. Well, a year later, the novel is still cooking, but Final Night is ready to face the world. And I’ve changed my publishing plans—to write a few more novels in the Revenant Records sequence before continuing with the novel sequence. That’s the good thing about self-publishing—you can change your tactics as you go.
(You can tell I’ve had too much coffee this week.)
Pre-Orders are Go!
So the book! The first thing I’m launching commercially! It’s going live in less than a week! Currently on pre-order most sites and should be available for everyone on September 14th. (I’ll tell you about hardcopies later…)
What’s it about? A teenager comes back from the dead to investigate her murder. A homage to the 80s, and a twist on the usual slasher film tropes. Set in the unique ‘Vestige World’ urban fantasy setting: a modern world with a magical past.
Recently risen from the grave, Lukie has until dawn to avenge her death. If only she could remember who murdered her. And only if someone else doesn’t kill her again.
High school’s out for the class of 1983. Forever.
The last thing Lukie remembers is the farewell party in her hometown of Breakwater Bay. A final blowout before she leaves for university.
But when she wakes up as a living corpse, confused, and weirdly hungry, she finds the sleepy coastal village is now full of strange cars and loud tourists. Her family home is a block of flats, and she can’t find her father. Her best friend has aged twenty years in a single night.
Her memories are in tatters. She knows that someone hurt her. Someone betrayed her. Someone killed her. And that in some dark lonely place, she made a pact with something, and now she’s only got until dawn to find her murderer, or when the sun rises, she’ll be dead again. Forever.
Also the audiobook, narrated by professional actor and performance poet Kyla Lee Ward, is available from my store now, or will eventually be on your favourite audiobook provider once it trickles through the Findaway Voices ecosystem.
Let me know if you want an advance copy in exchange for an honest review! Unfortunately, the book isn’t set up on Goodreads yet–there’s a huge queue! Anyone know a friendly librarian?
I have things set up on Storygraph, although it requires a login.
In pre-COVID times, we used to have role-playing game conventions. A time of meat pies, and pizza (before I was diagnosed as gluten intolerant, alas) and crowded halls. Of buying too many dice sets and books from the stores. Of playing weird boardgames found in the library library and trying to figure out the rules late at night. But they were a long time ago.
But Melbourne announced a convention—the first in what seemed like centuries. So I dug up my in-progress Vestige World roleplaying system and ran four convention games. The idea I had when developing this world for my fiction was that I could use roleplaying games as a creative test lab. Develop cool stuff, and see what people responded to the in the game, and what didn’t.
So what did I learn? I thought it would be hard to pitch the setting to people, but it’s been fine. (So far, I’ve pitched it as:
- Lord of the Rings meets World of Darkness.
- Onward Meets Final Fantasy VII.
- …urban fantasy, in another world that’s not earth, but still has telephones and skyscrapers.
And if I use tropes and twist the,m it’s okay! Like–the world was ruled by the Dark Emperor ruled the world two thousand years ago… but now he’s been defeated and his castle is the city’s most popular tourist attraction.
But if I wander too far away from a trope, people will point it out. Like vampires. I had vampires in initially as one of the critters, but people who played the first incarnation of the game (and those who read the first draft of Final Night) commented that the vampires weren’t anything like what they thought of as ‘vampires’ so I changed them to ‘revenants’. (They drank blood in the first version, but the sticking point was that they had to make a pact with a ghost lord to return from the dead, which was not a thing that the platonic idea of vampires in people’s minds did.)
Anyway, so it’s good to get out there using one of my favorite hobbies to share my ideas that might work its way back into my stories. I think the direct transcription of roleplaying games into written stories doesn’t work (at least for me) but it’s a great idea furnace to model and design how the world works.
Have you found that one creative pursuit helps another? Let me know.
I’m gearing up for publishing, which means I’d love to know about what formats you like to read your books in. Take the quiz and let me know.
I have mixed feelings about this book. I love TJ Klune’s writing and amazing characterization, but this one didn’t work well with me. Being a story about about a man who died and the afterlife, I was expecting something along the lines of ‘The Good Place’ and ‘On a Pale Horse’. Instead, it’s about, well, redemption through connecting through others and hanging around a tea shop.
I think my main problem is that the book hinges on the character journey of Wallace Price, lawyer turned ghost, changing from a selfish to a compassionate and self-sacrificing person. And I couldn’t buy his transformation. He starts off a caricature–a terrible lawyer who spends his opening scene sacking his secretary. He appears as a ghost at his funeral, a miserable affair where everyone who show up discusses how they hate him. Then he’s escorted by perky Mei, a ‘reaper’, to Hugo, the ‘ferryman’. Hugo’s a nice guy who runs a teashop, but his main job is counseling ghosts until they’re ready to pass through ‘the door’ that takes them to the afterlife. During Wallace’s stay at the teashop, he bonds with the supporting cast (including a ghost dog and Hugo’s ghostly grandfather), develops a deep connection with Hugo, and assists several other tormented people through the course of the story.
But Wallace’s shift–from his initial introduction as a caricature with slowly deepening layers–didn’t work for me. Also, the core problems that Hugo resolves in the story started ‘off camera’ and are narrated to Wallace in conversations, making them feel one step removed. The initial thrust of the book–hanging around a teashop–feels devoid of action and narrative drive. And the wacky comedy bits feel out of place.
But there are some awesome subplots, especially the Cameron story. And the book has some powerful things to discuss about death and grief.
It’s good, and will appeal to readers in a contemplative frame of mind.
A year ago, I signed up to a year-long writing course at the Bestseller Academy, determined to get out of my rut of endlessly writing unfinished multi-volume fantasy epics and to complete something I could independently publish.
How did the course go?
Well, it kept me sane and focused during COVID lockdown. I wrote a novel, a novella and a chunky world bible that would also become the basis for a future tabletop roleplaying game in the setting. I also soaked up everything I could about book marketing and independent publishing.
So the important thing was to learn how to write a good book. I learned a lot from professional editors and workshopping my stuff at writing courses and groups. I also finished the RPG, and ran a few games of it, and found it was great having this open feedback loop between the stories, setting and game.
In terms of addressing my original problem—having stuff out there—well—I’ll release the novel next year after another draft, and the game some time after that as I keep on polishing the system.
But the novella, Final Night, is available right now to my mailing list subscribers. It’s a love letter to 80s horror films, and journeys into the Underworld to rescue the people you love. It’s about monsters and forgiveness. As one reader put it: “You have an alternate earth, parallel but different cultural stuff, supernatural monsters, metaphysical rules, alternate realities, reality-bending magic, selective amnesia and weird memory stuff… ” And it all works to tell a story about a woman’s last night in the world. I hope you enjoy it.
Time to read and review some urban fantasy! As this is the blog’s first review, I think I should put down some reviewing standards. I’ll only review books I like, or if I don’t like them, it’ll still review them if they’re cool and interesting in other ways.1
War of the Oaks by Emma Bull is credited with being one of the earliest ‘modern’ urban fantasies. 2
Fae and their Seelie and Unseelie courts are a popular trope in urban fantasy. The Sidhe royalty ruling over a variety of different fae—inhuman, glamorous and beautiful; lower castes of fae like brownies, cheerful and hardworking; dashing balls and dangerous intrigues. It all started with this book, back in 1987. War for the Oaks didn’t invent the fae courts, but rather codified them into their modern form. (Also, it was a strong influence on the Changeling: the Dreaming roleplaying game, back in the 1990s, along with a bunch of Neil Gaiman comics, but I digress.)
Eddi is a musician in the Minneapolis music scene. After a disastrous booking, she breaks up with her boyfriend (the band’s manager) and then breaks up with the band. And inadvertently becomes the Seelie court’s champion in a staged war with the Unseelie Court. She’s got to be their ‘chosen one’ for six months, until the war ends after an agreed three rounds. Eddi’s presence is required to bring an aspect of mortality to the war, so that “all wounds would be true ones, and some would be fatal.” A phouka, fae who can turn into a dog, is assigned to be her bodyguard for the next six months until the war ends. And in the interim, Eddi starts a new band.
The book is well written. The plot is straightforward; even languid in some places. It’s more about Eddi, her band, and her attraction to the phouka and some new mysterious band members. Minneapolis is well-depicted; the descriptions are feel authentic and lived in. And the fae and their courts are nicely detailed, regal and inhuman; a nice contrast to the city about them. And the chapter titles are all song titles!
Stuart, the loser ex-boyfriend, isn’t a great villain – he’s easily treated as a punching bag by Eddi’s fae boyfriends, and doesn’t really do a lot as the Unseelie champion to oppose Eddi. Speaking of fae boyfriends, the phouka strongly intrudes on Eddi’s life, but she’s okay with it by the end of the book.
From a diversity perspective, it could be more progressive. The upper class fae are pale, and the darker-hued fae (as far as I could tell) are the lower class ones. The phouka (who doesn’t get a name?) gets described as in exotic terms—”His brown skin was a shocking contrast to the rumpled white sheets”. But he does have a lot of agency; he’s the main love interest, and he’s directly acting against the classist structure of the fae world. By selecting Eddi as the ‘‘chosen one’, the phouka is hoping to break up the two courts by starting a third faction. “I needed someone who might command the respect and admiration of the high and low ranks.” At the end, there’s no bright anarchic revolution, but seeds are planted for future change. Something that interested me; I’d like to see more ‘class revolution’ aspects in fae stories by other writers.
Overall, despite the gentle pacing, I enjoyed this; the battles are a nice contrast with Eddi’s regular life, and I liked her determination to live her own life despite being drawn into the supernatural world.
For me, urban fantasy is defined by the late 1990s and early 2000s – not through novels, but through tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs). It was after second edition D&D had gotten dull and stale (and TSR’s long, entropic demise didn’t help) but before third edition D&D (which made our group want to pick up swords and leap into dungeons again).
So in this window, we started to play other things that weren’t D&D. Vampire: the Masquerade, Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, Cyberpunk, the Everlasting…
It was different feeling to run around a modern city than a fantasy realm, especially a local one that you were familiar with. Still, we brought over from D&D an expectation of violence, and a lot of our earlier games ended up like mafia games with fangs, leather jackets and Desert Eagles (which was the best weapon in the game!) Gradually we drifted into more character-based, thematic gaming based on those books, especially when World of Darkness started to focus on different monster types for you to explore and play – vampires, mages changelings and so on. Then we went on to explore our own ideas such as a short-lived Highlander game1 and our own visions of urban fantasy.
So when I started the urban fantasy novel project, I started to figure out what I wanted from it, how you could build a modern-day setting with lots of supernatural critters, how they interacted with each other, and how would I make this an interesting place to explore. After buckets of text later, I realised I was structuring my notes like an RPG book. Who would the characters be in the setting? What would they be? And as I work on both side by side, the novel and the RPG are complimenting each other. I hope to release them both, and will see if the RPG captures (and improves upon) the experience of those early games2 in the time of swords of Desert Eagles…
As I sit here, a glass of rum over ice close to hand, I am forced to ponder my impending mortality, and writing career. Or rather, lack of it.1 You know, I always thought that by 40-mumble, I’d have it made. Books published. Name in neon lights. Time to kiss that day job good-bye, and retreat to my writing garret where I would have completed every book I ever wanted to, with glowing fame, reviews, movie contracts, roleplaying game spin offs and video games.2
So, for the past twenty years, cripes, I’ve been working on a bunch of epic fantasy novels set in the same universe. They’ve been piling up, and they’re recursive, where I’d write one draft, then realise I wanted to write about the backstory of an other character, and would write a draft, realising that I needed another set-up book… And look. There’s a whole cloud drive full of prequels to prequels that aren’t going anywhere, any time soon. My current project is another stab at the epic fantasy epic, but it’s going take a while to sort out. I started it without knowing where it was going, and now I’m nearing the ending without knowing where it’s going either. 3
Part of the reason for this pile of stuff is that I don’t really plan stuff. Got a vague idea in my head, a strong idea for a character, and then I let it rip. So this leads to lots of dead ends, re-writes, re-builds and angry words. And then, as I realise that this book will take far longer than I have anticipated, I look over at other writing colleagues with actual finished books. Jealousy burns! How dare they, while my beautiful, epic fantasy still lumbers along, half-baked…
And then it occurred to me. What if I write… something else? What if I sign up for one of those commercial writing courses, and write something that follows an outline? (I’ve heard about them, but I’m not quite sure what they do yet.) Well, turning out a short book isn’t really something that someone who has spent spent 20 years writing EPIC FANTASY has a great deal of experience with, but, well, you need to start somewhere.
And then I thought, I’d change genres (mildly). I would write… urban fantasy. Noir, detectives, vampires, slick city streets, curses and people struggling just to get by. So, I know a bit about the genre, having played hundreds of hours of urban fantasy tabletop RPGs in the’90s and early ’00s (the Golden Age of Gaming). 4 And I can do a course, write a book, and have something structured and able to be self-published as something on Amazon in a year’s time. It’ll be amazing, and I can blog about it!
So, is it possible to plan, write and finish a book within one year of this post? Especially for a serial non-finisher? Let’s find out…