The Darkest North – NOW AVAILABLE!

My short e-novella “The Darkest North” is now live on Amazon!

Here’s a sample:

The paddleboat took me as far as it dared before the autumn rains made the river impassable. From there I found porters to carry my boxes overland, deep into the forest of ash and pines. The setting sun casts strange shadows through the trees; needle-patterns of light and dark play on the forest floor. Close to the river, it was easy enough to tell south-west, but once the trees surrounded me, everything seemed suffused with the same red glow.

My porters were natives to the area, yet even they almost missed the little clearing in the woods. I had expected a town, but the sad collection of sod huts barely warrants the title of village.

We came a few wakes too early. Once the sun set, Fyrtarn came alive. Bowls of peatmoss all along the clearing’s perimeter were set alight. The fire’s glow could be seen from miles away. And the heat was such that I soon cast off my heavier furs.

The village headsman held a sunset revel in the longhouse. All travellers were welcome, with the understanding that they would leave an offering at the village altar. As my lush furs marked me as a man of means, I took care to leave a silver mark alongside the heels of breads and iron trinkets.

I reunited with Bannik at the feast, and he introduced me to the other members of our expedition: a cook and his boy, twelve Thune porters, and eight Horned Men to serve as hunters.

That they are primitives is evident at first sight: they are tall and broad-shouldered to a man, with coarse features and the oddly protuberant gaze of a simpleton. Each man wears a voluminous headdress of dyed wool, ornamented with animal horns. The younger boys wear sheep’s horns, the elders, stag antlers. The leader of the group was unmistakable by both his size and the polished troll’s horns perched on his brow. His name is Maroth, and he is the only one of the savages to speak the One Tongue. I find myself quite hypnotized by the state of his teeth, badly worn yet quite straight and white. Bannik’s teeth, by contrast, are crooked and striped with tobacco stains.

I have no complaints with the state of the men: they all seem to be in robust health, and though the cook’s boy is a wiry thing, he is brimming with nervous energy. But I confess, I quarreled with Bannik when he insisted on bringing a seidwife on our expedition.

Seidwives: in Morn we have worked hard to be rid of their kind. I once watched one old witch being whipped through the streets for selling spells. The common women all wept, for seidwives are known to deliver children too – though I cannot see why women cannot rely on proper physicians. I will insist on such for my wife should I ever marry.

But in Thune, seidwives are still revered as priests and healers. There is a scarcity of properly trained heliophants outside the cities, and the common folk trust neither surgeons nor alchemists. Instead, they take their pains and fears to a bald witch.

To be sure, Goodwife Sohvi is much neater in her person than the old wretch I saw flogged. She is a mature woman, with a regrettably long face. But I daresay she would be still be comely, if she grew her hair out. Her dress is modest and well-kept, and she speaks the One Tongue almost without accent. With the proper cap, I almost could pass her off as the wife of a respectable farmer.

Her gaze is too bold, though. Her dark eyes invite and scorn at once. A good woman would look away more.

Bannik asked Sohvi to show me her healer’s kit. I could find no fault in her equipment: instead of charms and rune-sticks, she carries rubbing spirits and poppy-wine, along with all the usual alchemical remedies. Her knives and needles are kept sharp and clean. I continued to express misgivings, but Bannik warned me that the porters will not march without a seidwife to pray with them. And that, it seems, concluded the discussion.

“Do not pray for me,” I warned her. “I take my prayers to Súnna directly.”

She smiled enigmatically. “But can She hear you in the dark?”

Being no theologian, and no fool either, I refused to be baited.

There was no room among the little sod houses, so we bunked down in the longhouse for the winter season. So did the village livestock. For twelve long wakes, we shared the space with all manner of sounds and smells. I taught myself patience, and availed myself of every break in the poor weather to walk the torch-lit perimeter of the village.

Such noises came from the forest: the howl of the wind, the crackle of branches, the occasional cry of nocturnal beasts. But worse, oddly, was the stillness just before sunrise, when the world lay covered in fog, and all one could hear was the soft shush of the rain. In those moments, it was easy to believe there was nothing beyond our torches, but an endless expanse of icy mist.

I feared to look too long beyond the torches. Yet I feared to turn my back on the mist. One had the feeling that anything could come creeping out of it.

Coming VERY Soon!

Final revisions on my new novel East of the Sun are underway, but in the meantime, I will soon be offering a bit of a preview of the world of Bifrons in novella (novelette?) format. My 15,000 word story “The Darkest North” will be going live on Amazon in a few days.

As the title suggests, it’s a bit of a riff on the old “Into Darkest Africa” adventure stories. We follow the eager(and hopelessly naïve) explorer Farco Maldwyn on his quest for a safe route through the polar region of Trollmark. He hopes to make his fortune when he publishes the journal of his travels, but it soon becomes an apocalypse log as his fellow travelers are picked off one by one by disease, hunger, parasites and vengeful trolls.

Caught between the Dayline and the Shadowline, Farco Maldwyn and his expedition travel through the thin band on their planet where the sun rises and sets over the course of the 60-day solar year. While the sun is up, the explorers live in fear of deadly flares, and once it sets, they must seek shelter from the agonizing cold… and the many creatures who hunt in the darkness.

From the southerly lands of Morn, Farco is used to a night that lasts for days.  Armed with his musket and specimen bottles, he dreams of making history in the savage northern lands. But he soon learns that there is a reason men have yet to conquer the wilds of Trollmark, as his expedition falls prey to the dangers of the Darkest North.

How It Started vs How It’s Going

So everyone’s has their own particular *favorite style* of map. Browse r/mapmaking and you can see it breaks down into all sort of categories. Some people adore the real simple hand-drawn linework, or the iconic LOTR ink style. Others are all about the distressed parchment look, other still, the modern atlas.

Me? Deep down I’m all about the satellite look.

Nice top-down Google Earth style.

The problem as I may my “worldbook” -style info sheets, is that you can’t expect in-universe cartographers to be inking up satellite-style maps, surely. They’d be making 18th C style atlas maps, heavy on ink and low on color/accuracy. And I always love me some Tolkien-style mountains (I mean, who among us didn’t get into mapmaking from pouring over that LOTR map?)

So I compromised, and started making maps like these – sort of atlas-y, sort of parchment-y. Still some color to them.

But deep down, I knew it wasn’t enough for me.

And then I bought some new Photoshop brushes. Behold the Evolution of Sarkland.

So yeah, big mapping overhaul underway.

 

Tools of the Trade – Portraits using PortraitAI.app and Artbreeder

I recently found a great app for making 18-19th Century style portraits: PortraitAI.app

Just upload a picture, be it a selfie, a stock photo, your favorite celebrity or art model, and you can generate an oil painting in the style of the old masters.
The program is still very restrictive in terms of race (it will literally whitewash any POC), and aesthetics (the AI doesn’t quite know what to do with more modern or offbeat hairstyles), the website promises more diverse possibilities as the app continues to evolve. In the meantime, if you’re not a portrait artist but you’d love to “see” your European-equivalent characters, it’s a great place to play.

 

Here are some of my rulers from the Kingdom of Night:

But suppose you need to create a portrait from scratch? Or your character is less than lily-white? Then I highly recommend Artbreeder!

 

Here’s a screencap from one of the portraits I made. You can start with a randomly generated face, or choose multiple starting images from the catalog, then play around with all the sliders to customize gender, age, race, width and height, facial expression, colors of eyes and hair, and just how “artsy” vs. “photorealistic” you want to go.  Go a little too far in any category and the results are… abstract to say the least. But a little practice and you can make just about any face. I quite like turning up the “Art” slider to get that “DnD sourcebook painting” look:

Worldbuilding – Pick your Scale

The age-old fantasy writer’s dilemma: how much of the world exists – both in your own head and more importantly, in the heads of your characters. If your setting is only medieval-level, it would strain credulity for all but the most exceptional navigator to have an accurate map of the entire globe (or flat sheet, or dome on the turtle’s back, etc.).  Some writers only sketch out the immediate surroundings of their characters, then expand as need be. Many only reveal what is within the limits of their setting’s “known world.”  (We’re still waiting to hear just how big Essos is, George!)

Personally, I work best as zoomed-out as I can manage. In fact, sometimes I zoom out WAY too much and have to reel myself back in. But with my tidally locked world Bifrons, I had a good excuse. It has has such varied landscape depending on longitude and light levels that you need to see the bigger picture. And the more I worked out the logistics of having late 18th century level tech on such a world, the more I realized the characters needed to know as much of the world as possible. With some small exceptions in the Gloaming, this is NOT a friendly planet. Resources must be carefully rationed and traded, often over huge distances.  It stands to reason that the maps the inhabitants have are rather more accurate than anything we were able to have on Earth in 1800.

I debated making “in-universe” maps that show the globe with those nice “Here be Dragons” blank spots like our own explorers had. But having put so much work into making my coastlines, I didn’t want to consign them to the eraser tool. So I hereby decree the inhabitants of Bifrons hate blank spaces as much as I do. So they’ve filled in their globes to near-satellite precision. Whether it’s all accurate or not is another matter. No one will able to hike all the way to the middle of the Nightside and check for many generations.

Updates – When is it “good enough”?

All creators know the feeling: sitting on your work instead of releasing it into the aether. “What if it isn’t ready yet? What if I think of something else to add? What if there’s a mistake somewhere? What if I’m not strong enough to handle the feedback right now? Maybe I’ll just let it percolate a little longer. Just a little longer. One more proofread. One more beta reader/viewer.”

Eventually you have to take the plunge and hit post.

And then it happens. The work just isn’t good enough.

Oh, it might be just fine for the world at last. You might be getting some sweet feedback. You might even feel the warm glow of pride. But deep down you know, you can do better. You can do more. You can do it differently.

This is all a roundabout way to announce I’ve remade the fact files for my world Bifrons. Click to embiggen.

   

 

Updates – Welcome to Bifrons

After lots of false starts and experimenting, I finally have a “look” I like for my “atlas” pages about Bifrons, the setting for my my upcoming novel East of the Sun.

The secret ingredient is love… and Photoshop to make the original map layout. Then G.Projector to turn it into a Robinson projection, and some more time in Photoshop to set up the page layouts.

Want to see more? Head over here.