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Friday, 26 August 2016

So you want to be a game designer?

I spent more than ten years working as a designer in the games industry and, although I've also been an author, comic book creator, scriptwriter and TV producer, it's game design that I get asked about most often. In particular people want advice about courses and ways into the business. Well, everybody's story is different, so anything I say probably won't be usable as a route map. Even so, if it's a career that appeals, maybe some of the following will be of interest.

I think of game designers as being "interested in everything" and in particular in straddling the arts/science boundary that tends to divide the majority of people. My college degree was in Physics but I'd always been interested in English too. After college I started writing role-playing game articles, and then choose-your-own style gamebooks, and that got me into writing novels and comics. And then I got a job as a game designer at Eidos (working on Warrior Kings, pictured below) and that seemed like the job I'd been training for without knowing it.

But there are other experiences. My senior assistant designer at Elixir Studios, Sandy Spangler, came into it from a quite different direction. She studied Fine Arts, went from there into character design and animation for TV, and then into art direction at a game developer, and from there into design.

As the game designer is really the "show runner", you need to be able to communicate your creative vision to the artists, coders, writers, voice and mo-cap actors and so on. Design is almost by definition the thing that unifies those disciplines into a new coherent opus. Of course, you have to be able to nudge people to do their best work without coming across as a supercilious know-it-all. Charm, humour, passion and a collegiate manner - what I used to describe as a "bridge of the Enterprise" attitude - will all help.

I'd always been a movie and comics buff right from earliest childhood, so over the years inevitably I picked up some visual skills by osmosis. Two weeks into my time at Eidos, I was showing one of the artists how giving his Tyrannosaurus rex a low, forward-leaning stance with its body parallel with the ground made it look a lot more threatening than an upright Godzilla-style posture. A decade on, working on Dreams (pictured above) at Elixir, I was drawing on rules from cinema to create a game with the focus on character interaction. If I could rewind now, I'd probably add a cinematography or photography course somewhere in my school years.

A designer doesn't need to be able to code but it won't hurt. Coders can be pretty superior types until you earn their respect by proving that you at least understand the architecture of the system. My degree-level maths, rusty as it is, counts as mad skilz in the games industry. Likewise, while you'll probably be hiring writers rather than doing most of the game dialogue in person, you should know enough about storytelling and drama to manage that part of the process. If you like acting or role-playing, that'll help both with narrative structure and performance.

So the skills needed are:
Creative writing
Visual sense (cinematography/narrative art)
Some maths
Some code
Some drama and storytelling
Communication and leadership skills

- and I guess the angle you come at that from (whether science/maths first like me, or art first like Sandy) really depends on what you find most inspiring. Then fill in the other skills as and when you get the opportunity.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Lord Tenebron has risen from the grave

My first ever gamebook was Crypt of the Vampire, illustrated by Leo Hartas, and recently Leo was asked to do five new illustrations for a special colour edition of the book published by Megara Entertainment. It's not just window dressing. Megara also commissioned Way of the Tiger scribe David Walters to write a bunch of new sections for the book, expanding the adventure by about 30%.

David has done a fang-tastic job of matching the style and mood of the original book, while also making it more cohesive by building up the sense of the vampire as a threat throughout. So it's no longer just a dungeon bash. Now it really feels like you might find Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing around the next corner. (Possibly with Jack MacGowran and Alfie Bass not all that far away.)

You can get the new edition exclusively from Megara, while the original version is available from Fabled Lands Publishing on Amazon. Take your pick.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

The Way of the Tiger - video review

Marco Arnaudo did a great review of the Critical IF books a while back, so it was a nice surprise to come across this review of The Way of the Tiger series. If you've only recently thawed out of a glacier since the early '80s, the series is based on Mark Smith's Dungeons and Dragons campaign and its unique blend of high fantasy, ninjutsu and Cthulhu mythos makes for a memorable setting coupled with a clever tactical combat system and richly immersive descriptive text.

Ooh, while you're here, in other news I've been working on a fully responsive rebuild of the Mirabilis website. This is a precursor to me and Leo Hartas launching a Patreon page, and quite probably a Kickstarter for an all-new gamebook.

Yes, I know my comments about the viability of using Kickstarter to create a book are on record. It would work a lot better if it was a gamebook app rather than a printed book, as that way all the funds raised could go towards the actual content rather than being eaten up by print and shipping costs. But I have a feeling that most gamebook fans prefer to own a physical copy, so that's something Leo and I will have to think hard about. More about that project and the Patreon page in due course.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Things within the shape of things

To round off our excerpt from The Mage of Dust and Bone, here's where Forge first sets off to study at Dweomer. I liked the idea of magic being about power, and power of course corrupts, which is where I was going with it. But the Fabled Lands agent (probably correctly) deemed that young readers want likeable characters. I find likeability is over-rated - and in any case Fabled Lands LLP hasn't got the resources to pay for this to get written - but just in case it should ever get completed and published, I've stuck to this flashback because it contains no real spoilers.


In the kitchen, after a silent breakfast, it had suddenly hit him. Going away! Not to sleep in his own bed or ever again have porridge the way his mother made it. He saw all his future as a stone rolling to crush his happiness, blotting out the timeless days of playing in the sunshine outside their little cottage. He ran to his mother.
‘I don’t want to go,’ he cried. ‘I’ll never see you again.’
‘It’s a week’s journey at most,’ said his mother. ‘You’ll see us so often you’ll be sick of it.’
She stroked his hair, but he knew the calm manner was just her way of dealing with distress.
Through his tears he saw the Arch Mage looking at him. ‘I don’t blame the lad. But, Forge, you’re a magician born. That’s not a hook you can ever get out.’
His sobs became quieter. He was old enough to feel both the terrible wrenching heartache and also the humiliation of being thought a overwrought child. The older Forge, revisiting this sweetly painful memory, was glad he’d had that tantrum. He often felt guilty that he’d been too eager to leave his parents, but that scene in the kitchen must have made it clear he did love them. Now, in the present, with Lord Grazen’s threat hanging over them, that was more important than anything else.
‘It is the last time you will see him as the child he is now,’ the Arch Mage had told his parents. He was never one to coat the truth, however much it hurt. ‘The next time you may see him is in a year and a day, and by then he will have begun his journey on a new path.’
The way to the crossroads lay across Hetch Greyson’s fallow field. ‘There’s no coach due,’ his mother told the Arch Mage. Not for days, Forge knew. But he also knew it wouldn’t matter. They set off right after breakfast, through the gate (ninety-two swings now) and across the stile that was still darkly wet and slippery from a rainfall in the night. Forge was over and running, letting the long wet grass slap his legs, the Arch Mage following with Forge’s father carrying his pack. After his outburst at breakfast he felt free. He was ready.
He drank it in, not knowing when he’d be back. The way the sun’s rays awoke a million pinpricks of light in the dew. The thick shadows, liquid black under the hedgerows, and the dazzling blaze of coming day that haloed the trees. The rich reek of dung in the fields, the fragrance of honeysuckle, the drifting scent of wood smoke and cooking from surrounding farmsteads. He watched the Arch Mage’s robes swish through the long grass, the dampness on his silver-buckled boots.
‘The shimmer,’ said the Arch Mage, answering his unspoken thoughts. ‘Things within the shape of things, that’s what you’ll learn to see.’
His manner was more aloof now. He swept on across the field, not looking at Forge as he spoke. In the years to come, Forge was often to seek his approval, and sometimes earned it. But they would never again have that near-fellowship they had briefly shared in the early hour before the dawn.
The older Forge, watching it all in memory, was conscious of this as the last morning of his childhood. All the things he took for granted, that swept out behind him as he ran. Sensations that tumbled past, disorderly as dreamtime, never noticed but always there. These things were coming to an end. He was on the brink of a world where all phenomena were recorded, catalogued, studied and manipulated. The age of his innocence ended now, and the age of power began.
The Arch Mage had left his other cases to find their own way home. ‘They’re too impatient for a leisurely trip,’ he’d said. He carried only one small wooden box. As they reached the crossroads, he slid back the lid and took out a black-lacquered toy coach.
‘Travel a long road, you might as well travel in style, eh?’ He set the toy coach carefully down in the middle of the road, where the finger-post pointed to the coast. Crouched over it, he whispered some strange lilting words to it, the disquieting lullaby you might sing to a changeling. Straightening, he took Forge’s arm and turned him round. ‘Look over there a while. A thing like this is like pots boiling. It never happens if you watch.’
Forge’s mother hadn’t come. His father’s stolid calm was better suited to goodbyes. He put Forge’s pack down by the roadside and scratched his head. ‘A year goes faster than you’d think,’ he said. ‘And we can write.’
‘I could stay,’ said Forge, a little daunted as he felt a tingle of magic in the air. ‘I could be a blacksmith like you, Poppa.’
His father laughed. ‘Reminds me.’ He pulled a book out of his pocket. ‘Left this in the forge, you did, while “helping” me.’ He pretended to clout Forge on the head with it, then stuffed it into the pack.
‘Poppa – ’
‘It’s right for you, son. Some people are too big for the village. Not me, though you wouldn’t think it to look at me. But your mother nearly is, all five foot three of her. She just about squeezed herself into this way of life, but you couldn’t. Right from when you were a toddler I knew that, even before the Arch Mage came to tell us.’
The scrape of a hoof on the stones. Turning, they saw an elegant coach. The team of four horses stood silent but with an air of pent-up ferocity, as if ready for a race. The driver, hooded and unspeaking, gestured impatiently for them to get aboard.
The Arch Mage already had Forge’s arm and was leading him towards the coach. The pack was in his other hand. Forge cast a look back at his father. Suddenly there wasn’t enough time. The future was happening like plunging over a cliff.
The older Forge seemed to see this all from a view already inside the coach. His younger self could have broken away. The Arch Mage wasn’t holding him tightly, just hurrying him along. He could have run back and given his father a last hug. But, overwhelmed by the moment, he didn’t.
If only he could rewind time now. Yet that is what he was doing, only to watch it again as a helpless observer. His father stood, big and awkward, and the younger Forge was already eagerly climbing up onto the black leather seats, entranced by the drapes that had been thimble sized a moment earlier. The Arch Mage closed the door to shut them in.
A jolt. Forge wasn’t braced, and was thrown back in his seat as a glimpse of meadows and woodland went flying by. From outside came a shout of alarm, but by the time he’d dragged himself to the window there was just a tiny figure far behind.
He thrust his head right out. It was a hurricane! The countryside swept past like green and golden clouds. The road was a blur beneath the sparks struck from the horses’ hooves. An inn loomed and then fell away behind. He glimpsed a gawping group of pilgrims, forced to scatter as the coach came through.
The fields and trees gave way to scrubby heath. Salt tang and seagulls’ shrieks. No cottages here. No more inns or wayfarers. And then, his first glimpse of the grey immensity of the sea.
Dweomer came in sight then, with its crashing waves and ramparts of rock. He knew it as home at that first glimpse. He waited tense in the seat, teeth bared in the rush of wind as the carriage hurtled on, eager to jump down and rush in under the great rune-carved lintel.
It was only the older Forge, watching the scene in his memory, who realized he’d never waved his father goodbye.

Monday, 1 August 2016

A breakfast of magic

Here's another installment of the aborted sort-of Fabled Lands teen novel The Mage of Dust and Bone. It's a lot to digest in one go, so I'll post the last half of this chapter on Friday. If you are in the mood for a rather lighter FL novel, try Jamie's The Lost Prince, which is a lot of fun. The illustration here is by Russ, of course, and I apologize for the poor scanning.

Chapter Five

Forge rose early the next day, tiptoeing down from his shut-bed in the upstairs passage. A pale early-morning light floated in the upper branches of the beech trees that ran along the back of the garden, but the lawn was still sunk in charcoal darkness.
He padded in bare feet across the chilly kitchen floor. The familiar earthy smell came from the parlour. It crept up from under the floorboards in the night. That was where the Arch Mage had slept, the most comfortable room in the house. The door was open now and a bar of silver light lay across the grey gloom in the kitchen.
Forge went to the doorway and peeked inside. The hearth was cold, full of heavy ashes. The light came from a single lamp.
No, not a lamp. A jar. Inside it, imprisoned by blotchy glass, a tiny, fragile figure with gossamer wings struck a forlorn pose. By the light the fairy gave off, the Arch Mage sat surrounded by his travelling cases, all open now like puzzle boxes. One formed a writing desk beside him with inkwells, rows of quills, and rolls of crisp white paper. Another contained a dish of small pastel-coloured cakes along with bottles of wine or cordial. His couch had been one of the largest of the cases, unfolded to reveal sumptuous pillows and silk blankets of the kind Forge pictured in bedtime stories. Inside another case, a smouldering taper released a curl of jasmine smoke that hid the smells of last night’s cooking and the dank crawlspace soil.
But none of the travelling cases held anything as marvellous as the Book which floated in the air in front of the Arch Mage. It was so big that at first Forge took it for a painter’s easel, and the rich roughness of the binding put him in mind of freshly peeled bark. The Arch Mage was writing in it as he entered. Forge saw that he’d noticed him standing in the doorway, but for a moment the old man’s concentration was absolute. Then, removing his quill from the page, he beckoned Forge over.
‘Look there.’
He was dazzled by his first glimpse of the open Book. It was like having your head thrust into the middle of a rainbow. Colour and movement vibrated at the edges of his vision. At first he could see no pattern, only symbols that glided away as he tried to focus on them. If you have ever tried to read a book in a dream, you’ll know the feeling.
‘Here.’ The Arch Mage wiped the quill and pointed with it.
It was a word that hovered, floating above the rest of the text, not quite attached to the paper underneath.
‘What does it say?’
‘It’s your name.’
He was dubious. He knew how to read and write. The letters here looked more like pressed insects. Normal writing didn’t twitch, after all. Letters chalked on the slate in the village schoolroom didn’t waver with an obvious reluctance to be read.
‘Forge? Or Burntholm?’
‘Neither.’ The Arch Mage gestured, and the Book closed like a dungeon door. ‘It is your true name, the word that forms part of the entire work that is the world. Now you are written large, because you have a destiny.’
‘What is my destiny?’ said Forge, thinking of dragons and kingdoms to save.
‘All who study magic have a destiny,’ said the Arch Mage. ‘I will teach you to change the work of the world, perhaps only in minor ways, but still that is a thing worth writing in the book.’
‘How long will I be an apprentice?’ asked Forge. He’d been thinking about it all night.
‘Seven years, to begin with. Some leave then. If that’s your course, you’ll become what is called a journeyman. Perhaps you’ll set up a practice in a town, filling a space between the doctor and the priest and the fortune-teller. Other journeymen travel up and down, selling spells to make a person fall in or out of love, or a talisman to bring luck or guarantee a safe voyage.’
Forge picked up the tone of slight scorn. ‘What about those that stay?’
‘Another seven years and you’ll be a true mage. Lords will seek you out. They’re not interested in love, only in war. You’ll be paid to work spells to fortify their castles, protect them from treachery, ensure their sons grow up strong. They rarely ask for daughters or wisdom, you see.’ He laughed.
‘I’ll stay on. I want to be a mage.’
‘More knowledge makes for a more difficult life. The rich and powerful have never learned what it is to have their wishes denied. Some will ask for everlasting youth or for the dead to be brought back to life.’
‘But that can’t be done.’
The Arch Mage looked amused. ‘Oh, it can. Better not, though. Everything stays in the Book, you understand? You might take it from here and insert it some other place, but it can’t be erased altogether. In short, what is pushed down will press back up.’
Forge struggled to catch the thread of meaning that he felt was almost within reach. ‘I don’t understand,’ he said at last,
‘That’s what the fourteen years are for.’
‘How do you get to be an Arch Mage?’
‘Seven times seven years, and even then only one in seven makes it. There’s only ever the one Arch Mage.’
‘You must be very old.’
The Arch Mage smiled ruefully and worked the muscles of his neck. ‘And in the mornings I feel it more and more. Remember what I told you. Magic will only alter reality for a while.’
He nodded towards the windowsill and Forge turned to see a withered tendril lying there. It was the sprig of lavender he’d held the day before, now dead and grey. Forge touched it and it was as light as ash, even the residue of vitality burnt away. Now it was a husk, a thing that had never lived.
‘It could have lasted longer,’ said the Arch Mage. ‘We could find a flower in the garden and weave an enchantment into it so that it is still in bloom when this house is an abandoned ruin.’
‘So why didn’t this last?’ Forge crumbled the dead lavender with just the brush of his fingertips.
‘Because that was magic you worked.’ The Arch Mage laughed as Forge spun to look at him. ‘You knew. I only guided your wish. But, as you have no skill in these things as yet, the moment your attention was elsewhere the life drained out of it again.’
‘Will I be able to conjure marvels like this?’
‘This?’ The Arch Mage clapped his hands and, with a twang of springs and clasps, the boxes all snapped shut. ‘You will make true miracles happen. Much more than this.’
‘And will I write in the Book?’
It still floated in the air between them. Forge could feel the throb of secrets.
‘Very few find that is their destiny. It is the Book of All Things, Forge Burntholm. Don’t be in any hurry to add to those pages.’
‘Maybe.’ He was still young enough to be a little brazen. Later he’d learn to be in awe of the Arch Mage. But after all, so far he’d only seen tricks.
‘Come here, then. Come, I’ll show you.’ He took Forge’s hand, very lightly as one would move an injured bird, and placed it on the scale-patterned leather of the Book’s cover.
Forge was conscious of the Arch Mage’s gnarled fingers on his own soft hand. He shifted uncomfortably.
‘Be still,’ said the Arch Mage. ‘Without my help, you could not so much as touch the book. Now let your mind empty. Become a conduit – ’
‘What’s that?’
‘A channel. A drainpipe, say, along which that current I told you about can flow. It’s coming from the Book. You sense it, can’t you, flowing through you?’
Forge started to look around, then it hit him.
He felt things growing in the soil, and earthworms turning it. Insects scratching their way through the thatched roof. The mice in the walls, a-tremble with constant cat-shaped nightmares. He felt a bird in a nest under the gutter, where it had three blue eggs. The cat there by the banisters, keenly watchful in case the mice should venture out across the kitchen floor. The cockerel outside in the garden, absurdly pleased with himself, and the hens rustling in the coop as the approach of day astonished them.
And he could feel grass and trees and how the dawn filled them up, and the brook remembering and forgetting, forgetting and remembering, just like the fish it carried along. And the wind deciding when to blow, and shadows fitting themselves into their right places under the bushes, and the hinge on the gate that would need fixing after another ninety-three swings. The firm clay hill stretching in its sleep like an old sheepdog. Crops pushing impatiently to the sky. Livestock stirring, abiding the arrival of a new day’s warmth. Clouds being born, growing with majestic grace and then fading, some as light as a passing thought, others thick and bruised, harbouring in their heart the seed of storms.
And there was something else, even deeper than the world – a babbling of voices and feelings. People’s lives. Their thoughts. His father and mother, awake in a quiet room, looking at the paling window and hoping for some things to happen and some things never to. He heard a call of desire and intention and happiness and regret, that swept across the land from every household.
‘I can hear them! Everyone’s thoughts. I can – ’
He pulled his hand away as if it had been burned.
‘Oh yes.’ The Arch Mage smiled secretly. ‘You’re not just a journeyman, that’s for sure.’

Thursday, 28 July 2016

The Mage of Dust and Bone - a Fabled Lands novel

A while ago the literary agent for Fabled Lands LLP, the company that owns Dirk Lloyd and our FL gamebooks, came up with the notion that it might be a wizard wheeze to write a fantasy novel with an MG-to-YA spin. Game of Thrones for young teens, sort of thing.

My usual way of working with Jamie on book projects for Fabled Lands LLP is that we come up with a story outline together, but Jamie does most of the actual writing because the company can only afford to employ one person full-time. Sometimes, if I have a week or two to spare, I'll write the first few chapters to help Jamie get started. That's how The Wrong Side of the Galaxy began.

In the case of this kids' fantasy book, which we gave the working title Mage of Dust and Bone, I wrote the first twelve thousand words, but by then Jamie was assigned to write a Frozen-style novel for Fabled Lands LLP called A Shadow on the Heart, which we decided was a better commercial bet than this tale of yet another wizard-in-training. (Earthsea, anybody?) In any case, as usual I was taking the story much too dark for the tender sensibilities of the tween and early teen readers - or of literary agents, come to that. And so it got shelved. The ironic twist in this tale is that A Shadow on the Heart didn't actually get written after all and then Fabled Lands LLP ran out of money, so in fact it was an entirely wasted opportunity. Oh well, it's not like the world doesn't already have a tsunami of fantasy adventure novels to keep it going. Small loss.

The Mage of Dust and Bone may be of some interest to Fabled Lands readers because the nominal setting is Sokara during the civil war - though not quite the same as the world of the gamebooks. Dweomer, for example, in the novel is not a wizardly university but simply a Tintagel-like castle where an old Arch Mage teaches three apprentices, one of whom is our antihero, Forge Burntholm. At the start Forge is about fifteen years old, and has been studying magic for some time, but then the book flashes back to when he first meets the Arch Mage. This is the beginning of chapter four, and I'll run chapter five over the next few days.

*  *  *

Chapter Four

The first time Forge remembered meeting the Arch Mage, he was nine years old and running home through the woods near his home. He had jumped the brook, ducked under a branch still heavy with last night’s rain, and there in front of him stood a stranger who seemed to be made of sky and sunlight.
Forge took a step back and looked again. The stranger was a normal man, no phantom of the woods, but he was not like any woodsman that Forge had ever seen. He must have been old, very old, but the only impression he gave Forge at the time was of boundless and ageless vigour, as if he’d grown there among the ferns and belonged to the wild as much as any bear or deer. Greying hair curled down to his shoulders, and there was a silver circlet on his brow, but it was his gaze that dazzled Forge. His eyes were bright - brighter than the raindrops on the leaves, that caught and danced the sunlight in a thousand fractured colours - and yet as dark and secret-laden as the cool shade under a stone.
His cloak, swept back from wide angular shoulders, hung like a black waterfall. His blue robes, as fine as any king’s, were tucked up into his belt, revealing strong leather boots with silver buckles. And beside him on the ground were half a dozen big wooden travelling chests, as if he’d just that minute got off a carriage or a boat. Which made no sense, of course, because the forest track they were on was no wider than a fox, and even in winter the brook was so small that a grown man could stand astride it.
‘Where did you come from?’ demanded Forge, who always acted bold if he felt nervous.
There was a long silence as the stranger studied him. ‘Many places,’ he said at last, and though he spoke very softly, his voice rang out clearly against the rushing water of the brook.
‘You must have come from one place last,’ insisted Forge.
‘From the sea. A place called Dweomer.’
‘That sounds a long way off,’ said Forge, for whom the next village over was an unimaginable distance.
‘Long enough to be thinking of lunch. I’m hoping your mother will have her fine herb salad ready. Maybe even some fresh-baked bread, eh?’
Forge bristled defensively at the reference to his home life. ‘How did you get here?’
‘You meet a traveller on the river bank. You’re a smart boy. How would you say he got there?’
‘This isn’t a river. It’s just the brook.’ Forge jumped over to the other side and back with a snort of contempt.
‘Just the brook, you say? Well it goes up and up into the hills, further than you’ve ever been, and miles down there to the sea, which you’ve never seen.’
‘You couldn’t get a boat on it, though.’
The stranger frowned and bent forward a little towards him. ‘Where did you get that idea? You used to know better when you were this high.’
Forge looked at his hand, held just so far off the ground. A yearling lamb might fit under it. Forge had less experience with young children, but he thought the Greysons’ toddler was about that tall, and he was two or three summers now.
‘We’ve never met,’ he told the Arch Mage.
‘Hmm. What a lot you’ve got to remember. Come on, let’s find your parents. Then we can make a start.’
He swept off through the undergrowth, straight in the direction that the Burntholm cottage lay. Forge followed, more to keep an eye on him than because he wanted to look like he was doing as he was told.
‘What about your boxes?’
The Arch Mage kept on walking. ‘You know the thing about travelling chests, Forge Burntholm?’
‘They travel. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they get there before we do.’
Forge looked back at the spot where the Arch Mage’s boxes had been just a moment before. The ferns were still pressed flat, the oblong outlines clearly visible, but of the boxes themselves there was no sign.
He ran ahead to the cottage, intending to warn his mother about the stranger, but as he banged in through the gate he found the boxes piled up in the middle of the lawn. His mother, who had been bending over the weeds, looked up as she heard him. He saw her face as she caught sight of the boxes – first a puzzled frown, then a smile as she saw him, and then all expression and colour drained out of her face and he guessed the Arch Mage must have appeared at the gate behind him.
Forge’s mother looked back at the thick clump of weed she was grasping, and she braced to uproot it, but it seemed that all her strength had gone. After tugging weakly at it for a moment, she straightened up, turned and went into the kitchen. By the time Forge and the Arch Mage came in, she was already filling the teapot.
‘Mistress Burntholm, I hope I find you well,’ said the Arch Mage.
’I found him in the woods, Ma,’ said Forge, going over to stand beside her.
She barely looked at the Arch Mage, just gazed sadly down at Forge. ‘I never thought… I didn’t think the years would turn so quick.’
The Arch Mage stooped under the wooden beams with their hanging bunches of onions and drying herbs. ‘Nothing’s written yet. No decision taken that can’t be undone. I can turn around and go, and the current of your lives won’t show a ripple.’
He sat at the table and waited while Forge’s mother poured steaming cups of tea. The sun blazed out on the lawn, but here in the kitchen with its clay-brick floor the day was still cool. They drank without saying anything, which made Forge think that the Arch Mage must either be an old friend of his mother’s or else somebody she didn’t like.
The Arch Mage looked out of the window at his pile of boxes. ‘Late again. Where’s it got to now?’
He muttered this under his breath, just talking to himself. They lapsed back into silence. Forge took the opportunity to hang around out of the Arch Mage’s line of sight and study him. The impression of wildness and nature was less obvious but still there. He sat at the kitchen table as if he belonged there just as much as the stove or the woodpile, or the basket where the cat normally lay – except that it had bolted up the stairs the moment it saw him.
Wrapped around his left hand was a gold ring that fascinated Forge. He tried not to stare, but from the moment he noticed it he found his eyes being pulled back, finding more details each time he looked. The ring was in the shape of a golden serpent, the band winding down from the wrist and around the hand so that the serpent’s head lay flat above the first knuckle of the Arch Mage’s middle finger. The metal was stamped with a pattern of scales, intricate and lifelike, and it had tiny black eyes that gleamed liquidly against the glinting sheen of the head. It looked so real. If Forge had found something like that under his heel when he was out in the woods, he’d have jumped ten feet.
As the Arch Mage raised his cup, his sleeve fell back and Forge was able to see that the golden coils wound all the way up his forearm, thickening as they went. The bright band against the hard-hewn brown flesh of the Arch Mage’s arm put him in mind of ivy wrapped around an oak. Strange too that it didn’t hold his arm stiff, as you’d expect a metal band like that to do. It must have moved with him.
The snake’s eyes blinked. Forge bolted for the door and ran straight into a leather apron that felt like it had a brick wall behind it. His father. He held Forge’s shoulders, laughing, but he fell silent when he caught sight of their guest.
‘Those’d be your cases, then. I remember now.’
‘All but one,’ said the Arch Mage, ‘but I expect it’ll be along in its own good time. How have you been, Gar Burntholm?’
‘Hale as horseshoes, Magister, if you’d asked me yesterday. Now, seeing you here at my table, and knowing what that means – ’
‘As I told your wife, there’s no step taken yet that it’s too late to turn around and go back. We’ll sit here and talk awhile, if you like. Smoke a pipe or two and mull it over.’
‘Burntholm,’ said his mother with sudden hope. ‘We could – ’
Forge’s father shook his head, always stubborn. ‘No, we spoke about all this before and the years haven’t changed anything.’
Forge was full to bursting with questions. ‘Who is he, Poppa?’
He got a slap across the back of the head for that, as he expected, but an answer too. ‘Don’t be rude, Forge. This is the Arch Mage of Dweomer. I’ve a mind to have you scrape the Magister’s boots.’
‘They’re not muddy, Poppa. He got here by magic – ’ Ducking another half-hearted cuff, and bowing to the Arch Mage. ‘Begging your pardon, Magister, but I reckon you did, didn’t you? And your travelling chests too.’
The Arch Mage reached out to him. It was his left hand, the one with the gold serpent ring, and Forge detached himself from his father’s grip and stepped nearer, half-hypnotized by fascination and the tug of fear.
Their fingers touched. Forge jumped. ‘What do you feel?’
‘Something stung me,’ said Forge. ‘Just for a moment. It’s gone now.’
‘Like calls to like. That sting is the stroke of a current you’ll learn to use. Did you know that rain can carve a mountainside? Wind shapes rocks. Rivers scoop out the landscape. A current just like that is flowing inside you.’
Forge squinted at him, unsure if he was being teased. ‘Do you mean blood?’
‘Blood? A surface thing. You used to know to look below the surface, Forge. A broken pot is not the anger that broke it. And so too life. It’s what runs inside the current, is life, while blood and sap are only what flow on top.’
‘I don’t understand.’
Forge went to draw his hand away, but the Arch Mage caught his wrist and with the other hand plucked a sprig of dried lavender from the potpourri bowl on the table. He placed it in Forge’s palm and curled the fingers round it.
‘Say what you feel.’
Forge shrugged. ‘Tickles a bit, I suppose. It’s scratchy.’
‘Not like a fresh flower. That would be soft, wouldn’t it?’
‘It’s just to make the kitchen smell nice,’ said Forge patiently, as if the Arch Mage were the child.
‘Imagine it now. You’re holding it in your hand, now hold it in your mind.’
Though he gave a small scowl of defiance, Forge closed his eyes. He pictured the desiccated blossom clutched in the pink darkness of his hand, its purple hue half rusted away, its scent pungent but powdery now that the life was gone.
‘You can see it?’ He nodded. ‘Now remember this flower as it was when your mother cut it. Picture it bathed in sunshine. It’s sturdily watered. Can you see it rippling there in the breeze? A growing, living thing. A bee settles on it, attracted by the colour and the scent. Feel it against your skin. Do you feel it?’
Forge opened his eyes, startled. Slowly and disbelievingly he unfolded his fingers. The lavender lay there bright and fragrant, as alive as if it had been cut just that moment.
There was a long silence as they all bent to look at the tiny miracle. Finally Forge’s father spoke. ‘Now see if you can do the same for my wrinkles.’
It was his usual plodding humour, brought out as clumsily as a bit of scrap iron. Forge had always enjoyed his father’s quips, groaning delightedly at them along with his mother. This time, with the Arch Mage there, he winced. It was the first time he was conscious of being embarrassed by his parents.

Friday, 22 July 2016

All four Critical IF books reviewed

I came across this video by Marco Arnaudo in which he reviews the Critical IF books and, not being entirely indifferent to praise, I figured I'd post it here. My only quibble is that in the books you create your character by choosing four out of a list of twelve skills, not ten as stated in the video. You know me; there had to be one quibble.

Normally Mr Arnaudo reviews boardgames on his YouTube channel, but judging from the shelves there I'd say he appreciates a good book, so maybe he'll look at more gamebooks in future. And I see he's got Douglas Wolk's Reading Comics there. Good choice, sir.

And in case you haven't yet read Heart of Ice and you're swayed by the review (from 19m 45s in), don't let me stop you:

Meanwhile the rest of the Critical IF series can be found here.