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Thursday, 29 September 2016

The exercise of their power

A while back I ran a few excerpts from The Mage of Dust and Bone, a fantasy novel set in the Fabled Lands world (well, sort of). I wrote the opening chapters for Jamie to continue with, the same process we used for The Wrong Side of the Galaxy, but in this case the thing refused to get up off the slab. Should've used AC instead of DC, I guess.

The lead character was Forge Burntholm, a young wizard, and the first part of the story had some flashbacks to his apprenticeship at Dweomer, which in the novel was not a university town but a crumbling fortress where a single Archmage taught a handful of students. The Fabled Lands literary agent wasn't happy that in those flashbacks I made Forge quite a bully. "He's too unlikeable," he complained. On that subject, I agree with this piece by Celia Walden:
“One of the tricks of the books,” says Anthony Horowitz, “is to make [James Bond] likeable.” I couldn’t agree less. As a philandering, cold-blooded killer, with – as Horowitz accepts – “unfortunate attitudes towards women, gays, Jews and foreigners” – Bond can and should never be made likeable.
My thinking with Mage ran something like this. Wizardry is all about power and force of will, so not addressing the abuse of power would have seemed like a cop-out. JK Rowling has already done the nice version of wizard school so I wanted to show Forge behaving badly in his mid-teens, more out of boredom and the urge to flex his magical muscle than out of malice. Then he is abruptly forced to face the consequences of his behaviour when some magic goes wrong in a very horrible way. The older Forge is already shaken by that experience. He's chastened. He's trying to be a better person - but people don't change overnight, so as the story unfolds he's still struggling with that change rather than suddenly turning into Ron Weasley.

When it comes to fiction, likeability is over-rated. I prefer the interesting characters myself, especially the outrageous ones. We all find Han more compelling than Luke, don't we? Check out this chapter from the novel and then have your say...


‘Well? Can you see?’
Forge balanced on the thick slab of ice over the top of the rainwater barrel and peered through the tavern’s bottle-paned window. The glass was steamed up, but he could see a mop of carroty hair among the youths pressed shoulder-to-shoulder by the fireside.
He grinned down at Bartholomew. ‘He’s there.’
Kim was standing a little way off, half pretending she wasn’t with them. ‘Let’s go back. It’s cold out here.’
‘Go back, go back,’ mocked Bartholomew in a sing-song voice. ‘Try wearing thicker drawers next time.’
Forge jumped down with a muffled crump. The snow was deep-piled, powdery dry and greenish-white in the light from the window. He blew out a big cloud of steam. ‘What’s it going to be this time?’
‘Hanging around here is stupid,’ complained Kim. ‘I’ve got three chapters and a rune diagram to get through for tomorrow.’
‘That’s theory. Nothing beats practice,’ sneered Bartholomew.
There was a drunken bellow from inside, a half-hearted attempt to get a song going that soon petered out. They heard jeers of laughter.
‘Was that Ruggins’s tuneless warbling?’ said Bartholomew, cocking a hand to his ear. ‘Or was it the howl of a weasel giving birth to a warthog? Either way, I think it calls for…’
‘For punishment,’ said Forge.
‘My very thought. Corrective punishment. Severe and memorable punishment.’
‘A lesson never to be forgotten.’
Kim shuffled her feet. ‘Just leave him alone. Why have you got to torment him?’
‘For the same reason that you are standing here with us, Monksilver,’ said Bartholomew, ‘and not scribbling away at your prep. Boredom. The need for amusement amid the scholastic tedium. And the natural desire to administer justice to a red-headed yokel with a face like a fishwife’s backside.’
After first arriving at Dweomer, the apprentices had not taken long to learn what the local youths thought of them. The ringleader, Galt Ruggins, a farmer’s lad a little older than they were, had forced Forge and Bartholomew into the ditch as he brought his pigs to market one day. ‘Bookworms,’ he said with a guffaw, kicking mud at them. The smirk on his face, milky pale under thick red shock of hair, was full of spite.
For a while they put up with his bullying, and found ways to avoid going into the village. Forge had been the first to grasp the practical applications of the magic they were learning. They bent over their books and workbench with even keener interest. After a while they tried out a spell that caused seagulls to gather over Galt Ruggins’s head whenever he went out, swooping and shrieking. It went on for a week. Forge and Bartholomew found him sitting on a bench outside the village, his clothes fouled with the birds’ droppings. The gulls had settled all around to stare at him with their wide blank eyes.
‘It must be your ridiculous hair, Ruggins,’ said Bartholomew. ‘If I were a bird, I’m sure I’d want to void my bowels on you.’
‘Go,’ Forge had added, and the gulls took off at once.
Galt had sat stunned, the way an animal kept in a cage won’t always bolt as soon as the door is opened. Until that moment when he saw the birds fly away he had no notion that the apprentices were the cause of his misery.
Forge leaned in close. ‘I said go.’
Galt jumped up and hurried away up the high street, and Forge and Bartholomew looked at each other in mutual delight of their power.
After that, Galt Ruggins became a convenient test subject for any new magic they learned. A diabolic voice spoke from the tavern hearth one night and described his secret wishes and fantasies, to the great amusement of the other drinkers. There was a period when milk would spoil in any house where he slept, forcing his parents to put his bed out in the barn. He suffered two weeks of uncontrollable flatulence, a curse that was only lifted when he agreed to run through the village naked on market day.
The apprentices revelled in the exercise of their power and would swagger through the village, smiling like young wolves at the sight of older boys scurrying out of their way. As for Galt, he grew morose and bitter. He took out his feelings of impotence on his friends, acquiring a reputation for sullen and unpredictable violence.
Once he snapped. Insulted by Forge as he came into the village on his family’s best mare, he tried to ride him down. By now the apprentices didn’t need to cook up curses in a laboratory. They had spells ready at their fingertips. Forge stepped contemptuously aside and ensorcelled the horse with a gesture and a word. Eyes rolling, spraying spittle, with Galt clinging terrified to its back, it thundered up to the cliffs and galloped along the very edge as if pursued by hounds from hell. On it went until Galt lost sight of the village. On one side was the wind-flattened grass, on the other a sheer drop to the pounding foam of the waves hundreds of feet below.
After screams for help, Galt tried threats. He felt sure the apprentices were watching him from affair. He grew angry, then pleading, then too frightened to make any sound at all. Finally he could take it no longer. He threw himself clear, breaking his wrist in the process, and the horse went straight over the cliff.
‘You didn’t need to kill it.’ Forge remembered Kim’s accusing glare. What had his answer been? He remembered it now with terrible clarity, with a stab of shock that physically hurt. He’d laughed.
‘I think,’ Bartholomew was saying, ‘boils this time.’
‘Interesting choice,’ said Forge, as if picking a dish from a menu. Kim tut-tutted.
‘I’ve noticed Ruggins has had his doltish bovine eye on that blonde milkmaid at Undertree Farm,’ Bartholomew went on. ‘No doubt his intentions are squalid. Once his face comes out in a great mass of angry red boils, his hopes of a stolen kiss decrease dramatically.’
‘I like it. Preserving the girl’s honour and giving Ruggins a suitable rebuke for his gross animal lusts at the same time.’
‘Quite. Anything we can do to prevent the Ruggins bloodline from propagating itself is a worthy exercise of our talents.’
‘You’re both disgusting,’ said Kim. ‘Do you think this is what the Arch Mage teaches us magic for? To persecute ordinary folk for our amusement?’
Bartholomew was suddenly serious. ‘You’ve learned nothing, Monksilver, if you think he cares a jot what we do to the common herd. He’d raise his finger and wipe out a kingdom, and then get a sound night’s sleep.’
‘That’s not true. Magic is about having a feeling for everything around you. You can only become a true wizard when you know you’re part of everything.’
‘So?’ spat back Bartholomew, relishing an argument, ‘My toenails are part of me, and I don’t mind cutting them.’
There was a scuffing noise from the roof. Bartholomew and Kim, who had been circling each other as they argued, stepped out further into the street. That saved them. Forge stayed where he was under the eaves and looked up in time to see a heavy ledge of snow come crashing down on his head.
He was on his back. He couldn’t breathe and he felt a stinging, suffocating lump in his throat. He coughed out snow and struggled up, shaking off Kim’s hand.
In the door of the tavern stood half a dozen of the local youths. They hung back nervously but their eyes bright with excitement. One of them was carrying a jacket stuffed with straw and topped off with a bundle of red hair.
‘That’s what you do with bookworms,’ came a laugh from above. ‘Bury ‘em in the snow.’
‘Ruggins.’ Forge narrowed his eyes. ‘What a costly prank this is going to be.’
He raised his arm, already swirling with a web of shadows that he intended to implant forever inside Galt’s eyes. But Kim surprised him by stepping in the way. Galt gave a sudden bark of nervous laughter, apparently surprised not to have been blasted off the roof already, and dropped out of sight on the other side.
The youth with the straw dummy flung it away as it burst into flames. ‘Back inside, you!’ snarled Bartholomew, slamming the tavern door on them with another spell.
‘Leave it,’ said Kim.
‘Get out of the way,’ said Forge, walking past her and swiftly down the alleyway to the other side of the tavern. Just visible in the bar of lamplight from an outlying cottage, Galt was already fifty yards away and running for home.
‘You could just let him go.’ But she said it wearily, more to herself than to Forge, seeing from the light in his eyes that it was futile.
Bartholomew also wanted nothing to do with it now, but for different reasons. ‘We can catch up with him another time. Let him stew for a bit, Forge. Then, in a week or two, he’ll wake up with a face full of boils.’
‘Boils?’ Forge looked at him with a feral grin. ‘We’re way beyond that. I’m going to do something permanent. Something that’ll remind him of this evening for the rest of his life.’
He brushed the remaining snow off his sleeves. Ruggins was out of sight in the darkness but Forge wasn’t in any particular hurry now. He set off at a measured tread across the white-blanketed field and Kim and Bartholomew watched him go in uneasy silence.


  1. The whole likeability thing reminds me of an old TV on FOX called "Profit" featuring Adrian Pasdar as a manipulative corporate shark in the title role as Jim Profit. Now I just bought that thing on Amazon.

  2. It was originally broadcast in 1996 but quickly cancelled due to viewer hostility since the main character was very "unlikable." It probably paved the way for other shows featuring less-than-pristine protagonists like "Breaking Bad."

    1. I do quite like Walt, I have to say. But that's probably just me.

  3. I suspect that Elementary's lower ratings than the BBC's Sherlock are attributable to Jonny Lee Miller's willingness to play the character pretty unlikeable much of the time. That's one of the reasons I like the show. His performance is far more interesting and unusual than the traditional flamboyant genius act that Cumberbatch reels out.

    1. That night be one factor. Figure the fact that Sherlock came first let it build its fan base faster and made Elementary look like a "copy." Also Cumberbatch and Freeman having had a lot of exposure as huge movie stars tends to create a "fame feedback loop" that helps push Sherlock higher. It's far from the first time a high quality production with lesser known leads got less viewers than a lower quality one with big stars.

      On an unrelated note, I really wish this posting section had an "edit" function because sometimes me no write words so good.

    2. I don't know how it affects you in Great Britain, but Elementary premieres at 9 PM Central (3 AM your local time) on CBS this coming Sunday.

      It then gets temporarily replaced next Sunday so the older woman in pantsuits and the orange-skinned little boy can argue about which of them should lead our country.

    3. I'm a full season behind - just watched the first s4 episode introducing John Noble. I should really get online with my viewing.

  4. Returning to topic of unlikable characters, honorable mention should go to Jack Bauer of the show, 24. This character tortured people, uttered credible death threats and bargained with terrorists in most episodes and even moved Republicans to set government policy allowing real-life torture, er, "enhanced" interrogation. The conceit of the show was that every episode was one hour in a 24 hour day.

    During the first (and, honestly, best) season of the show there was a bit of confusion about how subsequent season of the show would work. Was there going to be an entire week of these "days" in a row? In that spirit I came up with the follow possible opening voiceover narration for an eventual Season 7. It's best read in some version of Keifer Sutherland's trademark constipated whisper.

    Right now,

    Aliens have invaded Los Angeles.

    My wife and daughter have been replaced by robot clones.

    And there's a giant spider, with the face of Richard Nixon, grinning at me from across the room...

    I'm federal agent Jack Bauer. And I've done too much speed this week.

    1. I saw the first two seasons of 24. Or was it three seasons? They blur into each other after a while. The first season was the best, I agree - and the first few episodes the best of those, when the concept was fresh and the writers were pulling out all the stops in order to get a full season's order from the network.

      When the early issues of Mirabilis were being serialized in 5-page chunks in the British weekly comic The DFC, I mentioned to the publisher that, inspired by 24, I had initially toyed with doing the story in real time. He was very enthusiastic about the idea, but I soon saw it wouldn't work. Each page of the comic would have to cover more than a day in the characters' lives. My current plan (1000 pages) is more realistic creatively, even if proving hard to achieve financially!

  5. Actually likeability is important to me, at least in characters that I'm intended to empathise with. James Bond is such a characture that I'd never expect to like him; he's about as far from a real person as Homer Simpson.

    I've not seen 24 yet (though it is on my list for one day) but I did always enjoy Spooks, and many of the characters in that show did quite extreme acts. But they were rarely deliberately unlikeable; circumstances sometimes provoked them into extreme acts.

    I often find in fiction that writers try too hard to make someone unlikeable, without any reason for it. Just seems lazy, like a sullen teenager trying to be 'dark'.

    1. If the character is boring and unlikeable, the writer didn't do their job properly. For a really good spy show, try The Americans. Likeability is not what springs to mind with those characters. They are sometimes likeable, sometimes not -- complex and multilayered, but you always empathise with them.

  6. I remember Warren Ellis had good things to say about a British show called "The Sandbaggers." I need to see if I cazn find it on DVD somewhere.

    1. I've never heard of it, but let me know if it's any good.

  7. The only reasonably priced version I could find of the full series was for Region 2 DVD players and I'm not moving to Europe anytime soon. Maybe you could check it out and tell me if it's good. As it understand it, the show is sort an "anti-James Bond" and the characters tend to mock Bond-stuff mercilessly.

    1. Aren't most DVD players over there multi-region. My understanding is that a lot of players are sold as single-region but there's generally a simple hack to fix that.

    2. Maybe most are now, but mine's pretty old. It's combined with a VCR (which I still use).

  8. When are you goong to release the next large format books? Been waiting on 3+ for ages now

    1. If I could find the time, Yolo, I would. Maybe in the new year - I'm not promising, mind.