Self-publishing – 2020 to 2022 in review
Table of Contents
- The Dramatic Origin Story
- Notes for next series
- Business Approach
- Final Feedback
So it’s important to reflect and ponder, at least for the first few days of the new year!
In 2022, I became a self-published author, with one book. I started back in 2020, so this is like a two year recap/reflection.
The Dramatic Origin Story
It was 2020. I was re-writing the Epic Fantasy Novel (about five years in development) and got frustrated when I’d finished it and the structure was pudding. It was a bunch of novellas bolted together. COVID was everywhere, and I was trapped in my house. So I joined a year long writing, online course. It was in the UK, I’m in Australia, so lots of getting up at 4am to talk to people or waiting for the replays of courses rather than joining in them.
Anyway, one thing the course guys said was to focus on the bestselling subgenre in your genre. For me, this was urban fantasy rather than epic fantasy. Also, because the genre draws a lot from detective stories, I could do a complete story in one book! And the main character could have another adventure in the next book!
I also attended WorldCon 2020 in my bedroom. At the urban fantasy panel, a cool idea for a setting struck me—what if it was a world similar to ours with cars and technology but not our Earth? And what if the past was an epic fantasy setting? And in the modern age, what if people thought that their past was folklore? But magic was still there, if you knew where to look.
In 2020, I wrote the first novel in the setting. And got it finished, thanks to the online writing course. I had a draft, but it wasn’t ready for release. Lots of getting stuck in the middle, and figuring out to make the main relationship ‘work’ between the two characters. It’s not a romance–it’s more of a thriller, but that relationship needed to click or the main character’s motivations wouldn’t make sense.
So, as a side project, I wrote a novella featuring a side character from the novel, which became ‘Final Night’. I also wrote a short story per month for my mailing list and wrote all of my world building for the setting as a tabletop roleplaying game.
- The novel took longer to develop than expected! In fact, I took it through two more writing courses (I think I got addicted to courses during COVID) and I still think it needs another draft.
- Because of the above, I launched the finished novella as an ongoing series, which meant dropping the novel and completing the new series based around Lukie, the undead teen detective from the novella. This was a bit of rework and rescheduling things.
- My best short stories (current reader magnet) don’t link into the current series I’m working on.
- I’m still working out what comparison authors to use for marketing the series.
Notes for next series
- Finish at least the second book in the series, and have an idea for the overall size of the series.
- Have the reader magnet that links into the main series ready when the first book is launched.
I realised I’d be a ‘slow’ author, and wouldn’t be able to keep up the book-a-month or rapid release schedule that the 20Books250k group focuses on. That’s all based around the KDP Select/Kindle Unlimited platform on Amazon. So I’d release wide instead. I went direct with Amazon, Apple, Kobo, Barnes & Noble and did the rest via Draft2Digital. I’ve only made about $10 from the release so far from vendors (more from hand selling to people at conventions and my book launch). I’m not too fussed, as my plan is to build a backlist and market that when I’ve got the box set ready.
Uploading to all sites was relatively painless. However, because I kept tweaking my backmatter, I’d have to login and reload my book multiple times. Next time, my final upload will be final.
I started a mailing list, and wrote a short story a month to entertain people while I worked through things. I decide to have a character host the newsletter, as it makes it more fun for me to write, so I’m still working out a balance between microfiction/and real-life author updates.
Final Night had a lot of work on it – lots of beta reading, developmental editing by the amazing Angela Slatter, more editing by Nef House Publishing…. And I thought it sparkled and gleamed like a fresh-cut gem!
I entered Final Night in the StoryGraph beta giveaway program. I got lots of reviews! Amazing! However, they were mixed. A few two stars, lots of threes and a few fours. After brooding for long hours on top of a skyscraper like Batman, I read the critical reviews. I thought people would have issues with the world building (It’s a modern world with an epic fantasy past!) but no one’s actually complained about that. Instead, the main takeaways were that readers thought the pace was too fast, and wanted more character development or digging into the side characters. I’ve made notes for Book 2—and I’m juggling the character development with the thriller pacing.
Long-term goal – build my author backlist. So write more books, and worry about ads and things later.
- For 2023 – Finish the next two books in the Revenant Records series.
- Complete twelve issues of the monthly newsletter.
- When I finish my current series/short fiction backlog for the newsletter, submit at least three stories to magazines.
- Write a proper Lukie-focused short as a reader magnet for the current series, and a second short for readers who’ve gone through Book 1.
- Streamline my automation sequence for the newsletter.
- Social media – Write a blog post at least once a month, besides the newsletter. Crosspost to Dreamwidth and Tumblr for audience reach. Try to find a social media that I can engage with that is fun and not tedious. (Currently enjoying Mastodon.) Write a blog post reviewing social media later on.
- Read and review books and log them on Goodreads and/or Storygraph. Do one book review per month.
- Engage an artist for some character/concept sketches, starting with the Librarian host of my newsletter.
- Learn to draw so I can do my own character/concept sketches. Try to do one sketch every two days.
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.
The Labyrinthine Library – November 2022
Being the Ongoing Adventures of a Librarian Attempting to Tame a Feral Magical Library
The Word Mines
Have you ever wondered where stories come from?
No, writers don’t make them up. That would be silly.
Instead, ideas are mined.
Underneath the strange multi-dimensional space through which the Labyrinthine Library runs, are the Caverns of Possibility.
I was trying to find books on dragon slaying to get rid of that pesky beast in the Smoking Room, took a wrong turn, and found myself here.
Around me stretches the glittering gray stone, studded with glinting shards of crystal. Lit by the glow of my pipe, tiny scenes dance and burn within the visible veins of glowing ore. I glimpse castles and clouded skies, angry forests writhing in the wind, angular ruins piercing the air and rain stabbing down over cities, whose towers writhe like spider legs.
I wander through a maze of tunnels and switchbacks, watching princesses lean across castle parapets looking out to sea, and frenetic machines with a thousand parts whirling between the stars. My stomach rumbles.
I don’t know how to return to the Library, and my pot of lemongrass tea.
My librarian powers aren’t working. Is the Library being temperamental? Or am I in a space beyond its influence?
Ahead, something rings and clinks. Rushing forward, I stop at the edge of a cavern.
Miners work the glittering stone, teasing out the crystals and carefully placing them in floating ore carts. The workers aren’t human, elf or ogre—not even a dwarrow, as you might expect. Instead, they’re beings shaped from rock and metal itself—roughly formed figures of granite, basalt, marble and pyrite. Also, they’re wearing yellow hardhats, hi-vis vests and bulging leather shoes; the gear at odds with their rocky exteriors.
While humanoid, they lack discernable faces, so it’s likely they haven’t seen me as they drill and tap at the crystals—
“There!” A rough, gray figure points at me. “An intruder! You! Stop at once!”
I gather my librarian robes and tear off into the tunnel.
Perhaps this is the way out here!
I recognize this t-junction.
Maybe I can—
A roughly hewn sandstone shape squeezes out of the wall in front of me. “Halt!” they intone in a rumbling voice. A stomping sound rings behind me, and a granite form with a head that’s river-stone smooth cuts me off. Their yellow hardhat offsets their blank, menacing expression.
“Wait,” I raise my hands, apologetic. “I didn’t mean to stumble upon your mines, good, uh, person. I’m a librarian for the Labyrinthine Library and I got lost and—“
“It is not a criminal act to watch us mine,” the figure rumbles in a gravelly voice. “However, you are incorrectly attired for the area. You are not wearing correct PPE for conceptual space. You could be sucked into a idea void, or be infected by dangerous memes.”
“Oh. Well, if you could escort me away from the mines—”
“No, we must follow the operating procedures. You are to remain on site until you read, and comply with all safety protocols for the Caverns of Possibility.”
“Certainly!” After all, I’m a librarian and I love books. It won’t take long for me to get through a few technical manuals.
They march me to the cavern where the rest of the miners work.
“I’m Ivarlis. What’s your name?”
“We do not have individual names,” the sandstone humanoid behind me says as we walk through the narrow tunnels. A nearby crystal depicts a desert griffin descending on a silver-horned antelope.
“What do you call yourselves then?”
The shape sighs. “We are… gnomes. Stone elementals. I am not fond of our depictions in the modern world. We do not have beards, red caps and jolly expressions. Such things are inefficient for mining operations.”
“Uh, I see.” I smooth my wispy hair and regard the bright fluorescent pink vest of the gnome in front of me. “Do elementals working in a mine, even one such as this, need PPE?”
“It is a question of correct process,” the granite gnome says. “We strive to comply with standards of excellence.”
They lead me through a breakroom—where a sign on the wall says ‘1,000 years since the last OH&S incident’ and where off-duty gnomes sit at metal tables, consuming plates of gravel and talking about regulation tool sizes—to an enormous cavern crammed with stone tablets. There must be thousands here! I pick up heavy tablet and read: “Section 20034B. Ensure that safety shoes are worn at all times. These ensure that idea crystals are not damaged upon your approach. Allow for a gap of five centimeters at the end of the shoe—”
“Look,” I tell my guides. “There’s an awful to get through here. Could I return to my Library and have some tea?”
“No,” the sandstone gnome says. “You will stay until you have read all the documentation, and you agree to comply with the standards.” He blocks the entrance with a menacing air.
Bother. I’m trapped! At least I’ll be very safe…
Hopefully, I’ll escape in time for next month’s update. Until then, be careful around the safety gnomes…
Reflections on the Anniversary of My Descent: Part Five
Oh yes, while reading about the best way to polish and care for one’s mining pick, I’ve taken a break to read the latest chapter of our ongoing serial!
Vex made a pact with a demon to avenge her boyfriend! Only to find that her supposed true love may have lied to her about everything. To find out the truth, Vex returns home to the Diamond Ward to dig up uncomfortable secrets…
Episode #5 [requires newsletter membership; may not work at some point when Vex decides to re-write the manuscript for publication]
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Previously on….[requires newsletter membership; may not work at some point when Vex decides to re-write the manuscript for publication]
How to Survive in the Vestige World
And what’s this? Mr Skycastle has written another blog article about surviving in the supernatural world. You can join a faction, or make a pact. (He doesn’t mention staying in bed, that’s always worked for me…)
October 2022 Newsletter
The Labyrinthine Library – October 2022
Being the Ongoing Adventures of a Librarian Attempting to Tame a Feral Magical Library
Greetings, Ethereal Entities! ‘Tis I, Ivarlis the Librarian, with another missive.
Of late, the Library has been eating technology. (I wish it would devour that dratted dragon, but alas, the brute is still there on its hoard of purloined books.) I haven’t seen my phone for some time after I mistakenly left it at the front desk. The coffee machine is gone, replaced by an ashen scar in the kitchen. And a miniature goldfish in a bowl replaced the advanced microfiche machine (at least the Library has a sense of humor).
I have tried to remonstrate with it. “Listen, please stop eating devices. Perhaps you’re upset that people embraced technology after the Age of Magic ended, but they really had no choice! If we are to get new members, they will want to use their advanced PDAs and radios!”
At that, the Library sent a tremor through the Main Hall, and I’ve spent the entire morning re-shelving toppled books.
Curious at what has been causing the Library’s ill-humor, I explore, as new rooms have a habit of appearing. Sure enough, I locate a new room near the Aspen Corridor, with a sign that says ‘Computer Room’.
How did it get here? Strange things always happen in these multi-dimensional spaces. I open the door. Inside, is a dark, dusty room crammed with junk. A male dwarrow in a flannel shirt sits at a computer, tapping a keyboard. Cups of cold coffee rest within his reach.
“Excuse me?” I asked, one hand on the door. Another tremor rocks my feet. “Who are you, and how did you attach your room to my Library? It’s not thrilled.”
“Vadren Skycastle.” The dwarrow wears cutting edge, mirrored sunglasses. “I’m a reality hacker.”
I sniff the air. He smells of rigid lines, and straight angles, like a cataloguing system. Ah, he’s a nephilim. He’s made a pact with the angels to put the world in order. Unfortunately, what a bunch of abstract entities consider ‘order’ is rather different within the meat and grit of the physical world.
“For what purpose?”
Mr. Skycastle drinks his coffee. “I’m also a reporter. Writing a series of articles on how to survive your first encounters with the supernatural world. Your Library offers unique distribution and promotional opportunities for my internet journal.”
“You hacked into my magical Library to promote your blog?” I’ve heard of how desperate writers can get, but this is really something.
Mr. Skycastle adjusts his mirrorshades. “It’s a necessary service. The Vestige World is mad and broken. People fall into it by mistake. Look at what happened to Lukie and Vex. I’m going to make it easier for people to cross over by giving them information.”
I notice my phone on a nearby desk. Perhaps it’s not that the Library has been eating devices, only that Mr. Skycastle’s illicit reality hacks have caused everything to congeal in the Computer Room (still, no sign of the coffee machine or microfiche device in here). Feeling peevish, I call Lukie’s number on my phone.
The sound of rock music nearly drowns out my voice.
“It’s me, Ivarlis! The Librarian!”
“Hi!” She must be at a night club.
“Apologies if you’re in the middle of solving a mystery! Listen, do you think reading an introductory blog article about the supernatural would have helped during your adventures?”
“Where would I have had time in Final Night to read a blog? I didn’t even know about the internet!”
I make my farewells and hang up. “See? Our fine protagonist did not need your help. Peddle your articles elsewhere.”
“I’m sure someone will find them useful.” Mr. Skycastle taps frantically at his keyboard at hacker speed.
Sigh. Mr. Skycastle’s entry is on the Blog. Invoke it by clicking on this link. I fear he may write more…
Reflections on the Anniversary of My Descent: Part Four
A stack of scribbled papers arrived in the mail. It is the next chapter of Miss Vex’s ongoing serial. Time to brew a pot of lemongrass tea and see how Miss Vex continues on her quest for vengeance! (I penned a missive to see if she would like to visit us in the Library, but as at the time of writing, have not had a response.)
Vex, trainee vengeance (half) demon, must pass her final exam or die.
Her assignment? Hunt her boyfriend’s surviving murderers.
The problem? Finding them first.
Her quest takes her from the glamor of the Diamond Ward to the city’s dark underbelly. But the truth she uncovers may be more than she can handle…
Download this exciting story today!
Episode #4 [requires newsletter membership; may not work at some point when Vex decides to re-write the manuscript for publication]
Grab your back issues here:
Previously on…. [requires newsletter membership; may not work at some point when Vex decides to re-write the manuscript for publication]
How to Survive in the Vestige World
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.
September 2022 Newsletter
The Labyrinthine Library
I’m Ivarlis the Librarian. Perhaps we’ve met before. I hope your visit to the Reading Room is going well. Sorry, I can’t stay and chat about new releases. I’m in a spot of bother at the moment.
There’s a dragon in the Smoking Room.
My dream is to return the Labyrinthine Library from a feral place that occasionally devours readers and rooms, to something civilised. And what could be finer than a Smoking Room, where you visitors in your dinner jackets and fine gowns may puff away on your cigars, cigarettes and pipes of choice?
Only after having entered the Smoking Room to clean it, I’ve been distracted. Right over there is a giant, red-scaled beast filling this interdimensional space only the way a magical creature can. And it’s coiled up on a pile of books, scrolls and illuminated manuscripts. Aside from this purloined ‘hoard’ of literature, the room is full of trash. Old television sets, a gramophone and a newish coffee machine.
The dragon cracks a yellow eye open. A puff of smoke trickles from one nostril.
If it breathes fire in here, all of those books are in danger.
Being the Librarian, I have access to certain powers. And what I need is a dragon slayer: a knight to rid me of the dread beast so I can return the books to the shelves. I reach for pen and ink, and fill out a card to call forth for my champion.
There’s a thump. A new figure appears next to me, holding a phonographic record. It’s a young, blonde woman in a red leather jacket, with dark sunglasses covering her eyes. She’s half-elven, like myself (although human on her other side rather than ogre). The smell of ice and darkness drifts off her–a sign that she’s empowered by Tenebra, the dour Underworld. She’s a revenant: those who return from the grave to fulfil their unfinished business.
The last revenant I met stole a book; I hope this young woman is more refined. She looks around, curiously, holding the record to her chest. My problem is she doesn’t look like a dragon slayer, although one must never judge by appearances in the Indigo World.
“Sorry!” I raise my hands to show I mean no harm. “I’m the librarian here. I summoned you. Are you a dragon slayer, by chance?”
“No.” She studies me, then the beast and the room. Luckily, she’s taking this all in her stride. “A musician. I was at the record store, and now I’m here.”
A musician? Is that what I need? The dragon watches me, like a cat studying a mouse. The tip of its tail twitches.
“Ah, do you know songs that would make a dragon sleep?” (I’m rather dubious at this; her voice is a little husky for someone I need to have the tones of a nightingale.)
“Lots of 70s and 80s rock. If you think music will work, I’ll need a guitar, or—” She looks down at what she’s holding. “A record player.”
“Quickly! There’s a modern gramophone over there!” I say. “I’m sure the LIbrary summoned you for a reason.”
As we talk, the dragon rumbles a warning. The room shakes.
Hurrying, the young woman places the record on the turntable. A terrible blare of wailing guitar, synthesiser, and modern drums emerge from the speaker.
“No!” I reach to stop the cacophony.
“Wait!” the revenant says. “I think he likes Outside Sky.”
Sure enough, the dragon is tapping one claw in time to the horrendous beat. Definitely distracted.
“I have to rescue those books.” I reach forward to rescue the tomes the dragon is sitting on, but the beast rumbles and puffs smoke again. A lick of fire kisses the air.
“How about we leave?” the revenant whispers.
“This isn’t over,” I tell the dragon as we escape to the Foxglove Reading Room.
The young woman introduces herself. “I’m Lukie.”
We shake hands. “A pleasure to meet you.”
“How do I get out of here?” Lukie asked. “I was going through the old records at Final Vinyl, and there were a few boxes to go through before closing time.”
I clear my throat. “I’m afraid the Library is temperamental. It enjoys collecting stories from people. I’m sure if you tell it something interesting, it will grant you membership, and you can leave.”
Lukie leans back in her chair. “A story, hey? How about this one? It’s about death, love, murder, high school and revenge. I’m sure the Library will dig it.”
“That looks exciting. I hope the ethereal spirits enjoy it.”
Sure enough, after Lukie finishes her tale, the Library grants her membership. She puts the card in a pocket. “I’ll be seeing you, Ivarlis. You owe me a record.”
Final Night now available in hard, ethereal and phonographic, er, audio versions! Review it on your favourite store, Goodreads or Storygraph if you enjoy it (or in your electrical journal of interest).
Review copies available upon request. Just don’t disturb the dragon..
The Feral Library
There are few magical librarians left in our modern world. Not because there’s a shortage of individuals who’d like to care for secret collections and forbidden tomes, but because most of the enchanted libraries that survived the end of the Age of Magic have gone feral.
Mine was like that before I tamed it. Little more than a snarling beast, devouring all who wandered through. It’s calmer now, although it took a good deal of work to set right. And it gets riled easily. Visitors have to remain calm, speak in a soft voice and keep their powers under control, or else the place hungers.
That evening, I was at the Raven Pie Tavern near Greenwater Square when I sensed something was wrong with the Library through our psychic bond. I swilled my craft beer and stepped onto the street. It was around 6pm and the streets were full of fast-moving cars, motorcycles and mopeds. Bicycles and skaters whizzed past in the green lanes to the side. Everything was a blur of neon and streetlights. I stuck my thumb out and hailed a cab, as the Metro had delays for track work. A few vehicles sped by when they saw me—I’m not the most accepted person in society as I’m half-ogre, half-elf, or ‘blended’ as the young folk say these days. Finally, a compact car pulled in.
“The Cull.” I slipped inside, hunching uncomfortably in the front passenger seat. “Tempest Ward.”
My driver was a youthful dwarrow, barely licence age. The vehicle was the right size—for her. She had thick sideburns, braided with worked copper nuggets. “What’s the exact address, ma’am?” She reached to tap the location into her navigation unit.
I hunched over, my legs cramping. “I’ll have to tell you. Straight ahead, and left onto Royal Drive—”
Following my directions, the cab slipped through the central city districts until we were within the Tempest Ward. A melting pot for immigrants, outcasts and other undesirables, the Ward has escaped Storm City’s various gentrification programs. We drove through thin lanes, over ancient, cobbled roads, and weathered terrace houses.
“We’re here.” We were outside an old factory from the 1900s: a shell of tumbled red bricks and broken chimneys reaching into the sky.
“That was fast.” The dwarrow frowned and tapped on the screen of her device.
“Shortcut.” I shoved a generous handful of coinage at her, minted with the heads of monarchs from different eras, then ran down a darkened alley between the old factory and an abandoned lot full of wild grass, stopping at a blue door.
I unlocked the entrance with the oak-and-iron key around my neck. Rather than emerging on the side of the ruined workshop, I entered a wide hall with a high-vaulted ceiling lost in the darkness. Books lined nearby shelves, light glinting on polished leather and silken bindings. I trusted the cab driver hadn’t remained to watch me walk through. If she had, she would have seen nothing untoward. Despite our magical past, today’s world of humans, elves, ogres and dwarrow is focused on ordinary, big city life guided by technology. Ancient pacts and secrets protect them from the strange and secret magic.
I closed the Library door, and with a flicker I was somewhere else in the complex, near the stacks containing eldritch bestiaries. Books littered the ground. Portraits of past librarians hung awry. The Library’s rage echoed in the shivering of pages, the rattling of the shelves and in the strained binding. If I didn’t calm the place soon, terrible things could happen. Entire rooms might disappear, portals could open to dark and unpleasant dimensions, and paintings could trap innocent visitors within their landscapes.
Footsteps echoed in the distance, and I could smell magic in the air. Not the Library’s own power, but the alien scent of energy siphoned from other dimensions. Through some quirk of my relationship with the Library, I could scent these as easily as my camelia perfume. Quietly, I moved towards the fracas and hid behind a shelf, where I peered at two intruders.
They circled each other like angry panthers seeking weakness. One was a pale-skinned elf with glowing red eyes, wearing an 18th century frock coat and cravat. His magic reeked of bitter loneliness and regret: darkness and cold. That was the stench of the Underworld, which meant he was an undead revenant.
The other was a human woman with crimson-scaled skin and horns. Her power carried the scent of blood and iron. I sniffed again. Definitely infernal energy, which meant she was a cambion.
I moved to speak to them, when the revenant picked up the cambion and threw her at a nearby shelf. It toppled backwards, spilling books everywhere.
“Stop it!” I shouted.
Ignoring me, the crimson-skinned intruder leaped to her feet and lunged at her opponent. She crunched into him horns first.
He took the blow and swung at her with black-gloved fists.
The cambion ducked, flipped the revenant over her shoulder and sent him crashing into a reading chair.
I stepped in front of him, drew my umbrella from the nearby stand, and pointed it at the undead creature’s throat. I whispered as loudly as I dared: “Please sir, do not make a mess of the Library any longer!”
I glanced at the cambion. She waited, arms folded. Not an immediate threat.
The revenant sneered. His blank red eyes glowed in the dim light. “Away from me, you misbegotten half-breed!”
“I am the librarian, if you please, sir, and I must ask you to refrain from loud sounds or violence as you will startle the Library—”
“No one commands me!” The undead elf struggled to push the umbrella from his throat. “I am Arianthus Bloodcrow…”
I summoned the tome Beasts of the Indigo World to my hand and flicked it open to a blank page. “Thank you for your name, sir.” A heartbeat later, the revenant was in the book. An illustration showed him pacing around a cage. The caption read:
Revenant. One of the most powerful types of undead being. A deceased sapient who has made a pact with a ghost lord of Tenebra, the Underworld. In exchange for service, the revenant bears a vestige of its patron’s soul, which enables it to return to the physical world as a living corpse. Revenants possess great strength—
“—and not much good sense.” I flicked through the pages, displaying the entry for Cambion.
A sapient who holds a demon’s vestige, having made a pact with one of the powerful entities imprisoned in Thargul, the Netherworld. Cambions act as agents of vengeance and—
“I’m sure you will be more civilized.” I gave the woman a mild stare.
She smiled. “Absolutely.”
I closed the bestiary and returned it to the shelf. The Library would decide how long the revenant remained imprisoned. “Would you explain what you are doing here?”
“By accident. Bloodcrow stole a book from my client. I retrieved it. We were grappling over it when we found ourselves in this place.” She pointed to a leather-bound tome on the floor—The Codex of Occult Crystals and Their Properties.
I collected the book, clicking my tongue over the loose pages. “This volume doesn’t belong to your client—it belongs here.” I turned to the endpapers, where the card displayed the book was last checked out in 1923. “It’s extremelyoverdue. And they have defaced it!” On the front cover, an erroneous bookplate read: Property of the Luminous Night Society. “Bloody magicians!” The book’s whimpering pained me, and I soothed it with promises of repair and rebinding once I’d dealt with the intruder.
“I’ll let my client know.” The cambion studied the surrounding shelves. “What is this place?”
“The Labyrinthine Library, although it has many names—”
“How do I leave?”
“Only members can come and go freely.” I apologized. “There are two ways to depart. First, you may wander off, alone.” I gestured at the cavernous vault of the ceiling above us, and the corridors that stretched off into infinity. “You might find a door to odd places and times. Or you could spend centuries lost. It depends on the Library’s whims.”
“I don’t have time for games.” The cambion woman folded her arms. “I’ve got work to do. What’s the alternative?”
“First, you must tell me your name.”
Her mouth twisted in a cynical smile. “I saw how you bound Bloodcrow, and I’m sure that’s not his real name…”
“Ah, that’s because all words have power here, even street names. No, the safe way is to become a member. And that means building a relationship. Think of this place as a wild beast. It will show you the trail you seek only if it trusts you.”
She paced, then turned to face me, smiling. “Call me Thaena. Thaena Ashmore.”
“I’m Ivarlis. Let’s adjourn for tea, and I’ll explain.”
We moved to the Dahlia Room, where paintings of flowers hung in golden frames on the wood-paneled walls. “The next part of gaining the Library’s trust is to give what it wants most. Stories. It has a particular interest in biographies, you see.” I served jasmine tea and raspberry coconut biscuits and returned to my chair. “Tell me about yourself. What do you do?”
Thaena leaned forward on her armchair, clawed fingers twisted around her teacup. I glimpsed a shoulder holster partially concealed under her leather jacket. “I’m a cambion. My clients call to the Netherworld for vengeance, and I ensure it happens.”
I nibbled on a biscuit. Though these were unusual circumstances, it was pleasant to chat with a potential new member. And Thaena’s pragmatic approach was refreshing. She wasn’t displaying any overt signs of prejudice about my mixed heritage. She simply wanted to solve the problem she faced. A cambion would start with diplomacy, but violence was always a possibility.
“I’ve spoken with cambions before,” I went on. “Let’s be blunt. You’re required by your pact to send souls to your demonic patron. How do you cope with that? Do you see yourself as an assassin? A champion of the infernal realms?”
“It’s very simple.” Thaena steepled her hands together. “Demons don’t care for the souls of the innocent. They need those who’ve committed crimes worthy of the Netherworld. I’m called on by those who seek vengeance and can’t get it by normal means. Doing that work, I fulfill my pact and give my clients the justice they require.”
“Are you sure it’s always that simple?” I finished my biscuit and wiped my face with a napkin. “The Library enjoys stories where matters aren’t as straightforward as they appear.”
Thaena sighed. “And if I tell you this tale, I can go?”
I shrugged. “The Library will judge, not me. However, something truthful, yet twisted and exciting, would ensure your membership.”
Thaena drummed her fingers on the edges of her leather armchair. “Challenge accepted. How about this—a story about one of my clients…”
The Vengeance Business
When you want vengeance, who do you summon?
Thaena Ashmore, half-demon assassin.
She’s been in the business for centuries.
In this devilish collection, Thaena Ashmore seeks to balance her duty to the ancient laws of the Netherworld with the concerns of living in the modern age.
In “The Vengeance Business”, a battered housewife makes a diabolical pact to flee her husband, but is that what she really wants?
In “No Way Out”, one of Thaena’s targets is back from the dead as a living corpse. The only way to stop him is to make a dangerous bargain with a monster slayer–an individual with the power to kill Thaena as easily as the revenant she seeks to destroy.
If you have a taste for villains receiving their just desserts, or want to explore what lurks in the infernal corners of the Vestige World, then this is the collection for you.
You’ll get this collection, regular short stories, and news when you join the Labyrinthine Library.
Final Night release and reflections
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.
Urban Fantasy Tango
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…