Spark of Life: E.C. Ambrose on ELISHA DAEMON

Some of the best moments I’ve had while writing have come when a character who was supposed to be a minor spear carrier insists on developing depth and color and an interesting relationship with the protagonist. You can engineer that kind of thing deliberately, of course, but the best ones (in my experience) are the characters who do it organically, without me planning for it, because my subconscious sees an opportunity there. And apparently E.C. Ambrose’s subconscious saw something in Martin Draper . . .


E.C. Ambrose says:

cover art for ELISHA DAEMON by E.C. AmbroseOne of the most fun aspects of writing a book is when the characters take on a life of their own. It’s always surprising, and always delightful—though it often requires some re-jiggering later on to incorporate the character’s unexpected actions. When I was writing Elisha Barber, the first volume in the Dark Apostle series which ends with my new release, Elisha Daemon, meeting Elisha’s best friend was one of those moments.

Elisha, the protagonist of the series, is a barber-surgeon in 14th century London: cutting hair, pulling teeth, performing blood-letting, and other minor operations. In the first scene of the book, Elisha is shaving a man’s beard when Elisha’s brother barges in to call Elisha to a childbirth. The client, a wealthy cloth merchant, protests this departure, calling the brother’s pregnant wife a whore. Infuriated, Elisha insults his client, realizing he’ll have to apologize later. Their exchange made it clear that they knew each other well: in fact, that Elisha knew his client was gay. Apparently, this guy had hit on Elisha in the past, but they retained their working relationship in spite of Elisha’s rejection. Elisha had not denounced or blackmailed his client, which told me a lot about Elisha and his attitudes. Interesting.

Then, in chapter four, things got very interesting. Elisha’s sister-in-law has lost the baby, Elisha’s brother has lost his life. Elisha kneels in their bloody house, trying, literally, to pick up the pieces when Martin shows up, and Elisha immediately calls him by name—crossing several levels of the social hierarchy. It’s one thing for a lowly barber to maintain a polite relationship with a wealthy patron whom he knows to be gay, and another thing entirely for the man to show up at his house—to even know where he lives. In spite of his terrible day, Elisha apologizes to Martin. Martin’s warm, sympathetic reaction placed their relationship in a whole new light.

Martin gives him a gift, a scrap of cloth, that proves to be useful in more ways than one later on. I was writing this book by the seat of my pants—no outline, just a few notecards—so I often had to do a mental inventory to see what tools or clues I had left for myself to get through a given scene. Martin’s gift was one of these, a small, apparently worthless item that adds meaning throughout not only this book, but also the succeeding volumes. An unexpected character can be like that: a gift you don’t know you’ve been given until they make their power known.


From the cover copy:

In this fifth and final installment of The Dark Apostle, barber-surgeon-turned-sorcerer Elisha must save plague-stricken England from its path of destruction–or risk succumbing to the very dark magic he is trying to eradicate.

Elisha was once a lowly barber-surgeon from the poorest streets of 14th-century London; now, he may be the most powerful magus alive. He faces the necromancers, a shadowy cult of magi who draw their power from fear and murder–and who have just unleashed the greatest plague the world has ever known upon a continent already destabilized by wars, assassinations, and religious conflict.

Empires and armies are helpless with no clear enemy to fight. The Church loses its hold upon the faithful as prayers go unanswered. Europe has become a bottomless well of terror and death, from which the necromancers drink deep as the citizens sink into despair. Elisha knows that if there is to be any chance of survival, he must root out the truth of the pestilence at its unexpected source: the great medical school at Salerno. There, Elisha might uncover the knowledge to heal his world.

But as he does, his former mentor, the beautiful witch Brigit, lays her own plans. For there may be one thing upon the face of the planet deadlier than the plague: the unfiltered power of Death within Elisha himself.

E. C. Ambrose is a fantasy author, history buff, and accidental scholar.

In which I am quoted in . . . Forbes???

If you pick up the current issue of Forbes magazine (the one that will be pulled from shelves Wednesday, not the special issue), you will find me and my words on the last page.

How did this come about?

My best guess is that, in assembling their usual page of quotes on a particular topic, the staff at Forbes head over to Goodreads and search for lines tagged with a particular keyword. In this case, the theme of the quotes page is “value,” and some Goodreads user put that tag on a line from The Tropic of Serpents: “One does not cease to treasure a gem simply because one owns another that is larger.” That’s Lady Trent talking about memories, actually, and how she regrets not having seen a particular thing even though she’s had many other awesome experiences . . . but hey, it works.

And how did I find out about this? Well, a bit over a month ago I got an email that I nearly binned as spam, asking for a photograph of myself to be used in Forbes. Let’s be real: as a general rule, the odds of me being quoted in a major business magazine are roughly nil. And I’d been getting a larger than usual volume of spam through the contact form on my site anyway. Fortunately I gave the email a second look, because this turned out to be a legitimate request, and the proof of it is now on my desk.

Had you asked me at the beginning of this year, I would have told you the member of my family most likely to appear in Forbes was my brother (involved with data security at Apple) or my father (international patent licensing). But no . . . it’s the fantasy author, with a quote from an imaginary Victoriain’t dragon naturalist.

The world is a weird place.

New Worlds: Divorce

There’s still so much I could say on the topic of marriage, but since I try not to sit on any one subject for too long, we’re wrapping up this month of the New Worlds Patreon with divorce.

And that concludes the first year of this project! It’s going strong, with enough topics on my hit list that I’m sure I’ll be able to fill a second year — and probably a third — and at the rate I keep coming up with new things to discuss, probably a fourth. Now is a splendid time to become a patron (because it’s always a splendid time to become a patron!). If you are one already, thank you so much for your support.

A question for the poets: line breaks

I’m very hit or miss when it comes to liking poetry, and I most frequently miss with free verse, because part of what draws me to poetry is the rhythmic effect of meter. But I’ve taken to copying out poems I like in a small notebook, and a couple of the recent ones have been free verse — and in writing them down (which forces me to pay finer-grained attention to the arrangement of the words), I found myself reflecting on one of the things I find most puzzling about the style:

How do the poets decide where to break their lines?

In a poem with meter, the answer to that question is set for you, and the challenge is to figure out how much of your idea you’re going to put into a given line and how you’ll make it fit. But with that element gone, you can end your line anywhere you choose. Sometimes I can see why the choice was made in a certain way; for example, two lines might be structured so that they echo one another, and the positioning of the break draws your attention to the similarity. But other times, it seems to be completely arbitrary.

And yet I’m sure there’s an aesthetic principle, or more than one, guiding the decision. So my question for the poets among you is: what are those principles? If you were critiquing a poem, what would make you say “it would be better if you moved this word down to the next line/joined these two lines together/broke this one apart”? What are you looking at, or for, when you give someone feedback like that, or choose the placement of the breaks in your own work?

I feel like, if I understood this, I might enjoy free verse more. Because things that register on me as arbitrary are rarely impressive, so seeing through to the underlying reason might increase my appreciation.

Spark of Life: Harry Connolly on THE TWISTED PATH

Sometimes your story turns out not to need an Evil Villain or Menacing Threat with capital letters. Sometimes all it needs is the everyday arrogance and callousness of ordinary people — as Harry Connolly is here to describe.


Harry says:

cover art for THE TWISTED PATH by Harry ConnollyThe Twisted Path, the new novella in my Twenty Palaces series, has been simmering on the back burner for a long time. I wrote my first notes on the story in early 2011, months before Circle of Enemies, the third entry in the series, was released.

But from almost the beginning, it was going nowhere. I knew what I wanted the predator to be (in the Twenty Palaces stories, the supernatural entities aren’t good or evil; they’re just links in the food chain). And I knew, vaguely, where it would take place (Lisbon) and what shape the plot would take. And I knew, in a general way, that I needed a human villain that was linked to the predator.

But it was dead on the page.

It wasn’t until I actually went to Lisbon that the story really began to take shape.

First of all, engagement with the culture (which Google Maps could never have provided) gave me a thematic foundation. But the real spark for this story happened on our first full day in the country.

My sister-in-law arranged for us to take a tour of Lisbon via tuk-tuk, and our driver was the first Portuguese person I met. His English was excellent (having lived for several years in Colorado) and he was exceedingly outgoing, cheerful, knowledgeable, and welcoming.

But he was weird, too. He kept pointing out expensive cars on the street and never tired of saying “Look! A Porsche!” And while we wanted to see things that were old and beautiful—historic Lisbon, basically—he kept driving past shopping centers to show us where we could buy nice jackets or shoes or whatever.

He only dropped his affable outgoing manner once, when he parked in a spot beside the castle that was clearly marked as a no-parking zone, and a cop told him he had move. His smile vanished, and as he drove away, he complained bitterly in Portuguese and English for several blocks. How dare that cop tell him not to park in a no-parking zone! Who did he think he was? And so on. The guy was furious.

Later, he drove down to the waterfront and made us all climb out of the vehicle to watch a cruise ship pull out of the dock. That was it. A cruise ship. We stood in the parking lot of some random restaurant while he stared up at that great lumbering thing for about ten minutes. Honestly, I had no idea what he was thinking, or even if he was thinking at all.

Later, over lunch, he tried to make a case for Portuguese colonialism, insisting it was actually not that bad because his people were only interested in trade and fucking the natives. Except he used a different n-word in place of “natives”.

If I had realized my sister-in-law had found and hired him over Facebook, at this point I would have stepped in to say something like “Dude. Enough.” But I didn’t. I honestly couldn’t figure out his relationship to our hosts. They couldn’t be strangers, could they? Not if he’s going to be this friendly. And if they knew each other, and I said something to him (something that would have been more harsh than “Don’t park there”) how would that blow back on them?

Instead, I shrugged it off, and had a talk with my son about it later.

Maybe I should have realized right away that he was the perfect for the human villain in The Twisted Path, but it took an embarrassingly long time to make the connection. I almost never “cast” real people as the characters in my fiction, but in this case I had to. This friendly, toxic, weird and shallow guy made a perfect foil for blunt, self-conscious Ray Lilly. And once I had him in place, I realized I didn’t need that original predator at all. My oddball tour guide pushed it right out of the story.

And with any luck, he’ll never find out. I have no idea if he’d respond like the friendly, smiling tour guide or the furious, bitter, ranting guy who couldn’t believe that someone had actually told him no, and I’d rather not find out.


From the cover copy:

Ray Lilly has been summoned to the headquarters of the Twenty Palace Society to answer one question: How has he managed to survive mission after mission fighting alongside his boss, Annalise? He doesn’t have the power of a full peer of the society. He’s a wooden man. An assistant. A diversion. The other peers want to know what’s going on, so it’s off to Europe for a trip to the First Palace. And no place in the world is safer than inside the headquarters of the Twenty Palace Society, right?


Child of Fire, Harry Connolly’s debut novel and the first in The Twenty Palaces series, was named to Publishers Weekly’s Best 100 Novels of 2009. Both sequels, Game of Cages and Circle of Enemies, received starred reviews. He has also self-published a Twenty Palaces prequel titled, cleverly, Twenty Palaces.

In 2013, his Kickstarter for his Great Way trilogy was, at the time, the ninth-most funded campaign in the fiction category. The first book in that trilogy has gone on to sell over 13,000 copies.

Harry lives in Seattle with his beloved wife, his beloved son, and his beloved library system. You can find out more about him and his other books at

Spark of Life: Jaine Fenn on THE MARTIAN JOB

Writers joke about how there’s inspiration in shower water, but it’s true — backed-up-by-neuroscience true — that you’re often most primed to solve creative problems when you aren’t thinking about them. Washing dishes, driving somewhere, anything where you’re operating half by reflex, leaving the rest of your mind free to wander. So let’s let Jaine Fenn tell us about how going to a music festival solved her heist problem for her!


Jaine says:

cover art for THE MARTIAN JOB by Jaine FennIt started with a misquote…

Writers can be lazy creatures. It’s not that we don’t work hard when we have to but if we can find a way to make our difficult jobs a little easier, we’ll probably take it. So, when Newcon Press approached me to commission a novella, with the only stricture being that it had to be set on Mars, I had an idea which — I thought — would be an easy ride, as well as indulging my love of heist movies. I would take a classic heist story, and retell it on Mars, with added SF elements.

The movie in question was the British 60s classic, The Italian Job (not the remake; we don’t talk about the remake). My memory of the film was a bit hazy so I started out by re-watching it. Turns out, the plot would appal any Hollywood screenwriter today. The protagonist and his crew have it all their own way until the very end, when they don’t; everything’s going swimmingly then someone screws up for no good reason — worse, the film ends before this unexpected and un-foreshadowed twist is resolved. Hmm. So much for ripping the plot off wholesale.

So, what could I use? Obviously there had to be a car chase, for some value of ‘car’. And I needed to riff off the film’s most famous line. For anyone not familiar with it, this occurs when Michael Caine’s character is overseeing a practice run by his explosives expert. Said expert uses a bit too much bang-bang, and the car they were practising on gets blown to pieces, at which point Caine’s character pipes up, ‘You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!’ I decided that the SF version of this would be, ‘You’re only supposed to blow the outer airlock!’

And that, for some weeks, was all I had: a concept and a misquote. My protagonist, Lizzie, was taking up residence in my subconscious, but structure-wise I could not see how to make the story work. After I realised I wasn’t getting anywhere I decided to focus on the end, because I reckoned that’s where the original falls down.

The break came at a music festival, while I was having fun with friends and not consciously considering the problem. That’s another thing about writers — about most creatives in fact: sometimes the best way to solve a problem with your current project is to do something completely different. I came up with a final line which was a nod to what happened at the end of the film but, I felt, did actually resolve the situation. It ended up as the semi-penultimate line, and as it’s kind of a spoiler you’ll have to read the book to find out what it is.

Having finally pinned down my almost-final line unlocked the story for me. Lizzie Choi stopped being a fuzzy concept with a potentially interesting background and interesting foible (has a criminal family she’s trying to forget; fond of meaningless sex) and started to become a real person, the kind of person who would speak that penultimate line. I could even hear her, and when you start hearing your characters, it’s time to get down to work.

It would be an overstatement to say ‘The Martian Job’ wrote itself from there. But it was one of the easiest-to-write stories I’ve ever worked on. Hung on the scaffolding of a first line I’ve always wanted to use (‘If you’re listening to this, I’m dead’) with that misquote around halfway through and knowing what my closing lines were I could then build my story. It was almost as though I let Lizzie Choi do her stuff, then just sat back and watched.

I’m pretty happy with the result, and I’m not the only one: since coming out in December from Newcon, ‘The Martian Job’ has sold, as a reprint, to two other markets, and has appeared in Locus’s Recommended Reading List. Well done, Lizzie.


From the cover copy:

When Lizzie Choi receives a message from her brother telling her that he’s dead, she assumes it’s a joke. Lizzie, an employee of the powerful Everlight Corporation, already has to live under the cloud of her mother’s misdemeanours and could do without her brother, Shiv, adding further complications.

By the time she realises that this is no joke and comes to understand what is being demanded of her, she knows she’s in trouble. The last thing she wants to do is travel to Mars and take Shiv’s place in a criminal undertaking, especially one of such magnitude and danger, but…

Jaine Fenn is the author of the Hidden Empire space opera series, published in the UK by Gollancz, as well as numerous short stories, one of which won the 2016 British Science Fiction Association Shorter Fiction Award. She also writes for the video-games industry, working on games including Halo and Total War. Whilst she likes the idea of going to Mars, when it came to it she would probably chicken out.

You can find her on twitter as @JaineFenn, or support her on Patreon for unique access to audio recordings of her fiction at

The storm is coming . . .

For centuries the Warders’ Circle on the neutral islands of Twaa-Fei has given the countries of the sky a way to avoid war, settling their disputes through formal, magical duels. But the Circle’s ability to maintain peace is fading: the Mertikan Empire is preparing for conquest and the trade nation of Quloo is sinking, stripped of the aerstone that keeps both ships and island a-sky. When upstart Kris Denn tries to win their island a seat in the Warder’s Circle and colonial subject Oda no Michiko discovers that her conquered nation’s past is not what she’s been told, they upset the balance of power. The storm they bring will bind all the peoples of the sky together…or tear them apart.


For nearly a year now, I’ve been signed on to work on one of Serial Box’s collaborative, episodic stories, a new epic fantasy called Born to the Blade. It’s the brainchild of Michael R. Underwood, whom I’ve known since my days in Indiana*, and I’ve been cheering him on in pursuing various forms of this idea for quite some time, until it finally came into being as a Serial Box project. It’s got a bit of Avatar: The Last Airbender (magic via martial arts!), a bit of Babylon 5 (our last, best hope for peace), and a little bit of The West Wing (politics ahoy) — all set in a sky world with a lurking, monster-filled mist beneath. It’s given me a chance to indulge in my love of fight scenes (oh man, I want to tell you about the duels in my final episode, but I caaaaaaaaan’t), and an opportunity to dip my toes into the waters of collaborative writing, even more than with Legend of the Five Rings. Its mission statement, laid out at our story-building summit, is “post-cynical optimism,” because this is a tale where just because bad things happen and people make unfortunate decisions and sometimes the best intentions don’t work out doesn’t mean that ideas like honor, friendship, alliance, and trust are a mug’s game. Things may fall apart, but the center can hold . . . once we’re done putting our characters through the wringer, of course.

My fellow writers for this are Mike, Malka Older (of Infomocracy fame, and also a friend via college SF circles), and Cassandra Khaw (Hammers on Bone). The serial will launch in April, but you can pre-order it now, and get installments delivered in ebook and audio format.

You’ll hear more about this in coming days, but at least now I can finally say that it is a thing! That I have been working on! In sekrit! For months!


*Dear god. I met him . . . fifteen years ago.

Tomorrow at Borderlands!

I don’t have a novel coming out this spring, but I’ll be at Borderlands Books tomorrow anyway, at 3 p.m., as part of a group reading with Nancy Jane Moore, Dave Smeds, and Deborah J. Ross. We’ll be reading from the Book View Cafe anthology Nevertheless, She Persisted, with a Q&A and signing. I hope to see some of you there!