Zero Sum and The Persistence Game

Fiction is hard. It’s not neurosurgery-hard or engineer-hard or even bricklayer-hard, but it is far more difficult than most aspiring writers are able to handle.

Some people have a natural gift for spinning yarns, and that is the limit of what ‘talent’ actually provides when you decide to write a book, and even yarn-spinning isn’t enough. Novels have a structure which must either be observed or subverted, plot decided by character arcs which must continually cycle outward in scope and complexity and then circle back into a single point of distillation, and a world (or worlds) which does the same thing.  It’s like a massive jigsaw made up of blank pieces that you have to draw on as you fit them together.

As I worked through Cold Cell, I realized that there was a lot of material missing. Once I’d gotten over the first third of the book and Alexi still wasn’t in prison, it became blindingly obvious that there needed to be a whole other book between the events of Stained Glass and the events of Cold Cell. This is how Zero Sum was born. Cold Cell now naturally slots into the position for Book 4. Phew.

Zero Sum is over half-way done now, through I don’t want to give too much away before the official release post in March. All I can says is… Angkor. Cool magic. Gift Horses. Lots of cat-vs-Morphorde action.

And a harbinger.

Rain began to pelt the windshield when we pulled out onto the road, blurring out the surrounding street as we crept through the bumper-to-bumper lower Manhattan traffic.

“Ayashe can tap the right shoulders and follow that up in the Bureau. I’ll set Talya on it, as well. Girl’s some kind of computer genius.” Jenner’s voice was glutinous. She sniffled loudly, and both I and Angkor twitched. I was about to offer her a tissue when I noticed the edge of a rotten-meat stench cycling into the cabin.

The ambient light outside dropped, sharply. An awful  ripple of energy washed over me in a crawling wave and the water being sluiced away by the windshield wipers turned pink… then crimson.

“What in the fuck?” Jenner eased on the brakes as our view of the road disappeared under a greasy layer of blood and shredded flesh. Screams of horror pealed from all directions. Binah was inconsolable. A  heavy thump struck the roof of the car, and she spat and struck at my hands when I tried to hold her to my chest. She struggled free to the floor of the car and slithered under the front passenger seat to hide.

Traffic froze as mobs of panicked, blood-soaked pedestrians surged between the cars, running into each other, slipping and falling on the suddenly treacherous ground. An older woman in a blue pantsuit was bowled over and fell to hands and knees, screaming as she was drenched in the same rich, gruesome scarlet that was now pounding down in sheets over everyone and everything.”

Next post will be a cover and blurb release, shortly followed by a pre-order!

If you want to jump the queue and see the Zero Sum cover now, join us here on The Book of Face.

 

The State of Affairs

Let’s face it: shit’s fucked. I foresee a future where the creation of art may be suspended while I’m spending more time away from my keyboard. Until then, I’m balls out on the third and fourth book in the Hound of Eden series.

Speaking of shit that fucked up, I realized as I was drafting Cold Cell, the proposed third book in the series, that there was another whole novel’s worth of information and story that it requires. I realized this after I’d written about 60,000 words and hadn’t yet reached the meaty part of the story in CC. Thus, Cold Cell has been bumped to Book 4 in the series, and the third novel, Zero Sum, is currently slated to be finished by March 2017 and published before April. I will, however, have to create a new cover.

Angkor and the Twin Tigers cat shapeshifters continue to feature heavily in Zero Sum, in which we learn more about the Templum Voctus Sol and the Vigiles Magicarum.


 

James’ 2017 Projects: Hound of Eden, Dark Fantasy and More

Hello, dear readers and fellow Illuminati!

Today, I got thinking about my accomplishments in 2016 and what I want to accomplish in 2017 in terms of books (and art). I’ve decided that I’m going to take on 5 and a half projects next year, which will exceed my 4.5-ish books of this year: Blood Hound, Stained Glass, Burn Artist, Fix Your Damn Book, a longish short story for a super-secret project in December, and probably about half of Cold Cell.

I’ve never been one of those authors who can just keep pumping out books, month after month, and make 8-10 releases a year. That kind of sweatshop method is becoming fairly common in Urban Fantasy, but the diagram below applies:

I really like the first two much more than the third.

I really like the first two much more than the third.

I’m not interested in the quick buck. 3-6 months between books is enough time for me to properly weave a good story, make cover art, edit (I do my own editing with the help of a very talented friend who spots the things I don’t) and package a quality book with minimal errors. That being said, I’m going to try and write five of the buggers next year – though they may not all be published in 2017.

 

1. Cold Cell & Wild Hunt

This is where the ‘half’ comes in. Due to family commitments and immigration procedures (I’m in the process of joining my lovely and extraordinary wife in the USA) and the complexity of the book itself, Cold Cell, the third Alexi Sokolsky book, is going to be partly finished this year for a hopeful February release. The Hound of Eden books take about 6 months to write – the plot is complex, with multiple antagonists, and there is a deceptively large cast of characters which expands with the third book.

I have about 30,000 words of draft material at this stage. What I can say about Cold Cell is that Alexi goes to prison, and that his life – and the lives of the other characters – are going to be drastically changed by the end of the novel. Book 3 deepens the mythos of the Dermal Highway vampires (Feeders) as well.

Wild Hunt is the tentative working title for Book 4. Not telling anyone anything about that until Book 3 is out.

 

Finish Your Damn Book! – How to plan, write and complete your novels

The accompaniment to Fix Your Damn Book, this is the second of the FYBD Series (Fix, Finish, Format and Flaunt). There’s not really much more to say on that, save that it will embody the sum total of my wisdom on the subject of writing and completing novels. As with FYDB, I will be looking at the psychological issues and viewpoints that often interfere with writing and finishing a novel: the main ones being that people give up before they even try, and assume that they don’t have to study craft to make it.

 

3, 4 & 5: The Warsinger Chronicles (Books 1-3)

This is the project I am super excited about. You may have seen these super-fancy covers floating about here and there:

all_warsinger

This is my dark fantasy series project. Set in the original world of Archemi, a setting originally conceived by me and an old D&D friend in Canada, Warsinger follows the interlinking stories of Suri, a traumatized skyknight who served in the world’s Great War and can no longer bear to fly, and Richter, a talented but brittle monastic ranger who struggles with the ghosts of his broken childhood. This unlikely pair team up with assorted others to head off the cataclysmic legacy of the Great War – the return of dragons, and the dragons’ desire to reclaim their old human slaves. To stop them, Suri and Richter are going to have to overcome their issues and recover the ancient technology that freed humankind from the dragons to begin with: The Warsingers. It’s a bit Escaflowne, a bit Azure Bonds, and a bit Dragonlance (but without the existential hopelessness).

The Warsinger Chronicles is a story and a world that’s been in development for quite a while now. I intend to write at least the first three books before publishing the first (to avoid the GRRM Effect), and then release them regularly every 2-3 months while working on Hound of Eden. This means they’re a while off yet, but the first book, Cruel Necessity, is already in production.

There are 6 full-length novels planned and one Suri-centric prequel novella, similar to Burn Artist. Most of the titles are Oliver Cromwell quotes, highlighting the English Civil War-ish feel of the series.

And that’s it for now. Secret short story project is in the works right now. You can preview the Advance Reading sample of Cold Cell here: Part One and Part Two.

Cold Cell: Chapter One (2 of 2)

Here’s the second half of the first chapter of Hound of Eden Book #3, Cold Cell. The first half is here.


I went back around to the suitcase, set it on the desk, and opened it up. I’d brought a roll of plastic bags, a grooming kit, a squirt bottle of bleach and one of water – the kind you use to hold ketchup – and a complete change of clothes. Black leather gloves, shoes, socks, an identical blue tie, trousers, shirt and jacket, all rolled. The suit was of a different material than the linen I’d worn in, a heavier wool suit in a similar, but not identical color. I wrapped up the messiest things, the hammer and my jacket and tie, and then stepped around to squirt Yegor’s exposed skin with the bleach. The odor of chlorine burned my nostrils, a clinging, lurid pink smell.

After that, I checked myself for blood, swabbing my face and gloves with dilute bleach, then with alcohol-soaked cotton to get rid of the smell. When I was sure I was clean, I changed everything, packed the dirty clothes into the suitcase along with everything else, and left the way I’d come. The P.A was nowhere to be seen, operating at a paygrade which encouraged her discretion. For Yegor, privacy came with a price.

When I was back outside, I dropped the telescoping handle of the carry-on and pulled it behind me on my way up Wall Street, merging into a thick crowd of suits, teased hair, blue jeans and pork pie hats. The sky was heavily overcast, almost like hurricane clouds by the time I reached the Charging Bull statue on Broadway. As I was walking by, I heard a thick wet splat to my left, and turned to see a dark stain, the size of a bird’s droppings, had spattered across the bull’s head. By the time I reached my ride, it was nearly dark. The streetlights had turned on. I was leery of the sky as I loaded up and got behind the wheel, but as soon as I was in the relative privacy of the car, I relaxed with pleasure so profound that it was practically erotic. I had done magic of the kind I’d only dreamed back in there. I’d pulled energy from somewhere other and channeled it with nothing but a word and my will. There was no ward to rely on, no other magus flinging energy at me that I could turn on its head. I’d called to the Art, and the Art had responded.

“My GOD,” I said aloud. “That felt good.”

There was no one else in the car, but someone replied all the same. The voice was in my own head, hissing in my ears like a chorus of hissing leaves sliding down dry pavement. If I hadn’t been a mage, I’d have checked myself in to the asylum.

“Yegor Gavrilyuk is dead.” Kutkha, my Neshamah, projected an image of himself preening under one shadowy wing. Head cocked, he fixed me with one solid white eye. It burned and spat like the core of a star. “A sore blow to the Organizatsiya. Are you satisfied?”

“I won’t be satisfied until they’re dead.” I pulled my wig off and stuffed it into the suitcase, took out my blue contacts, and pulled my shoes. I’d worn two-inch insoles in them, boosting my height to the princely total of five foot seven. “We’ll get rid of all of this and go to K&S. I’ll take what money we can transport, and burn the rest.”

“Indeed. Though you must beware the corruption that so much money brings. The desire for revenge is eating you alive, my Ruach.You have never been a creature of the light, and the Void will tempt you,”

Like I didn’t already know that. It had been just on four weeks since my brush with death, and I had been feeling… strange. Not terrible, despite the usual trials and tribulations of healing a life-threatening injury, but definitely different. Something had shifted in my mind and body like an iceberg sliding into a slowly moving flow of water. When I looked out across a crowd of people, I felt lean and hungry, wolfish, calculating. I’d been eating a lot. I’d been thinking about money and the ins and outs of power. I’d picked up a copy of The Prince and had left it next to my bed at Strange Kitty, reading Machiavelli in an attempt to understand Sergei better. Kutkha had said not a word about it, until now.

“I’m doing my best.” I got out a packet of wet wipes, and cleaned off the remainder of the subtle makeup I’d used to conceal the true shape of my face. Nothing extravagant: just enough to flesh out my cheeks, add crows feet, and give my skin a rosy look that it typically lacked. It made all the difference on camera. “Are you worried about the Yen?”

“Perhaps. Yen infection is subtle in HuMans.” Kutkha shivered, ruffling his feathers. “I worry because you keep yourself in a state of perpetual, voluntary poverty. After a lifetime spent telling yourself that you do not need anything and anyone, you face desire. Desire needles you to make choices. It is not something that you have trained for.”

“Nonsense. I decide on things every day.”

Kutkha laughed, the soft chortling laughter of crows. “Not decisions, Alexi. Choices. Decisions are passive things made in response to a stimulus, a need. Choices create the stimuli that forces others to decide. You have had very little room for choice in your life.”

I frowned, turning the engine, and paused as a thick spang of liquid bounced off the roof. Then another… and then a scattering of blows on the windshield, multiple dark, clotted red masses oozing down the glass. “What the Hell…?”

Screams of confusion and disgust pealed up from the street around me. I was about to open the door and go outside to look when Kutkha seized control of my body and pulled me back into my seat, an awkward exertion of his will on mine that caused me to lift up and then flop back down on an awkward angle. “No! Don’t go out there!”

Dumbstruck, I watched on in stupefied awe as the rain thundered down and my view of people running and ducking for cover disappeared under a greasy layer of shredded flesh. The air was suddenly bone-chillingly cold, saturated with the smell of raw meat.

Satisfaction faded to shock. I slumped back, rubbing my hand over mouth and jaw. “I… I’ve heard of this sort of thing happening as signs or auguries, but, I mean. this seems even beyond the capability of the TVS. Kutkha, do you…”

I trailed off. Kutkha’s response was the tense silence of an ellipsis.

“It is a harbinger,” Kutkha finally said. His voice was firmer, clearer, less ethereal.

The rain of blood was turning to pinkish water, sweeping blasts of it that streaked through the dark red mess from my windshield. I turned the wipers on and started the car, idling until I could see outside again. The street looked like a slaughterhouse. “A harbinger of… what?”

“Events like this occur when a Cell is under attack,” Kutkha replied. “Your world, and all the worlds in this region are protected by a Parama, the ‘skin’ that surrounds your local neighborhood. Paramae separate layers of reality from one another, like cell walls. They are permeable, allowing Phi to sweep in and out of a galactic region. This spiraling wave of GOD’s plasma gives your Cell dynamism. For reality to bend in such a fashion as this, the Parama must be under stress.”

“Or a tornado swept up a warehouse full of chickens and deposited the remains over New York,” I said. “Things like this aren’t necessarily supernatural.”

“When was the last time you heard of such a thing happening?”

I thought for a moment. “The Black Plague was supposedly presaged by a rain of blood over Germany. So was World War One, in rural England. Arguably, the blood rain actually foretold the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, which killed even more people than the war did. A hundred million, if I remember correctly.”

“One fifth of all HuManity in the world perished in that year alone, killed by a virus which brewed in the trenches of the Great War,” Kutkha said. “So, for all the good it will do us, shall we go and fetch our money, my Ruach?”

I tried to push it down, but the disquieting wrongness that pressed in on me could not be ignored. Power rippled in a wave that passed over me from the moaning sky, discordant and unnatural. It was followed by a boom of thunder so strong that the car vibrated.

“Yes,” I said, quietly. “I suppose that’s all we can do. But we need to get to the bottom of it.”

“We?” My Neshamah chortled. “Do you think yourself so great?”

“What I think is that I can’t kill Sergei if I’m dead.” I slowly pulled out onto the street, and watched another glob of indeterminable meat slide down my windshield. “The only thing I am is pissed off. There’s a wooden stake with Sergei’s name on it, and damned if I’m going to let some virus stop me.”


This is a draft chapter and may not actually make the cut. Tell me what you think in the comments! I’m interested in feedback on the suspense and interest this scenario offers people.

 

Sneak Peek: Cold Cell

Today’s post is Part 1 of 2 posts offering the first chapter draft of Cold Cell. Read part 2 here.

It rained blood the day that I enacted the first stage of my revenge, and not in the romantic, metaphorical sense.

Three weeks had passed since Sergei robbed Vassily’s grave: Three weeks to heal, to regain my fitness, to test the limits of my magic, and to get my very first tattoo. I had it done at a small, no-name shop just off Times Square, the same place where Vassily had gotten most of his ink. As I’d hoped, they still had his designs on file. I learned that his python tattoo, which began on his right shoulder and looped its way down around his arm to weave through the sockets and mouth of an empty skull on the back of his hand, was called a ‘sleeve’. So that was what I got, a sleeve that was the mirror image of Vassily’s, winding down the full length of my left arm in coils of shaded navy-blue ink. The only change I made to the design was to the color of the snake’s eyes. Vassily’s had been red. I had mine done in blue.

Getting the tattoo finished was a part time job. In between gym and learning to ride a motorcycle, I spent a good five hours a week in the parlor with my artist, Jose, straddling the seat with my shirt off and my eyes closed. There, I could lose myself in the purr of the tattoo machine and the aura of focused energy that played along my magical senses, listening to the soft background of rock music and thinking of very little. In that emptiness I found under the needle, dark inspiration germinated and blossomed into plans.

The 22nd of October found me in the Financial District, on my way to visit one Yegor Gavrilyuk, CPA, who worked out of an office in 44 Wall Street. It was an old and stately building, standing solidly under a low, gunmetal-gray sky. In a good suit and tie and a good-quality wig of fashionably blond, slicked-back hair, I looked like any other yuppie bustling between his office and the New York Stock Exchange, one of many pushing through the canopy of black umbrellas that were out in expectation of rain. No one gave me or my carry-on bag so much as a second glance as I entered the atrium of Yegor’s building, stepped into the elevator, and pressed the button for the 28th floor. Surrounded by a forest of suits, I read the front page of the Wall Street Journal and listened to the awkward throat clearing, clicking rustle of too many people crammed into a too-small metal box.

By the time I reached my floor, my healing tattoo was itching and I felt hot under the collar, queasy from the press of bodies around me. Pulling my carry-on behind me, I gratefully emerged into a marble foyer and clacked my way down the echoing hallway to the glass-fronted reception of Weiss & Co Financial Services. The lady at the desk – financial executive receptionists were always female, weren’t they? – was a pencil-thin redhead with dark eyebrows and brown eyes. She wore an artfully fitted gray dress that was probably worth more than my entire suit. Both of them.

“Good morning, sir,” she chirped. “How can I help you?”

I didn’t bother smiling, and I let my usual Trans-Atlantic accent drop so that she could hear the Russian accent I typically worked to conceal. “I am here for an appointment with Mr. Gavrilyuk.”

The woman’s pale brow creased slightly. “I’m sorry, but Mr. Gavrilyuk doesn’t have any appointments until eleven.”

“I know. He forwards his calendar to my boss in case we need to speak with him urgently,” I replied. “Please call his extension, and tell him that Nicolai Chiernenko would like to discuss one of our accounts.”

The receptionist blinked at me, deer-like and mildly indignant, but she slowly picked up the receiver and began to dial. I was a better liar than I thought.

While she hung on the line, I nosed around the office, marking the fire escape, the location of cameras, and the patterns of energy in the room. Practically every building in the Financial District had wards – good wards, wards that I, a single spook working alone, could not hope to overcome in an emergency. These were enchantments laid down by the Adepts of the Inner School and other Masonic orders. They were beautiful, though, and playing my senses out along the elegantly formed strings of magic woven through the stone and metal was a satisfying distraction from the meeting I was sure to have.

“Hello, Mr. Gavrilyuk? Yes, this is Lisa… I have a Mr. Chiernenko here who would like to see you regarding one of his accounts, if you have time? He says it’s urgent. No, he’s alone. Alright, thank you. I’ll let him know.”

I turned as she hung up, and she smiled with double rows of laser-white teeth. “Someone will be out to see you in in just a moment, Mr. Chiernenko. Take a seat.”

“Thank you, but I would rather stand.”

She smiled again, a little woodenly this time, and then turned back to her monitor and keyboard.

Perhaps five minutes later, another woman strode around the corner from the same direction I’d first arrived, and pushed through the glass door separating the reception from the lobby outside. She was also well-dressed, her blond hair pulled into a tight bun. When she saw me, her eyes narrowed slightly.

“Mister Chiernenko?” She asked.

“Yes?” I cocked my head.

“Oh… I’m sorry. Excuse me for saying so, but I remember someone who was taller and… less well-built.” There was an uncertain lilt in her voice, green-yellow.

“That would be Nicolai. I am Roman Chiernenko. Nic is taller and I am wider,” I said, forcing a small, stiff smile and trying to make the most of my temporarily blue eyes.

Her face suffused with hidden laughter for a moment, and then she gestured with hand and head towards the door. “Yes, well, please come this way, Mister Chiernenko.”

The P.A – I assumed she was the P.A – led me back to the elevators. Yegor Gavrilyuk was a wealthy man and the Accounts Director of AEROMOR Shipping and Freight, and he didn’t work in the boiler room with lesser accountants and analysts; he had his own private suite. A well-insulated suite, in a building as old and solid as this one.

I was led to a solid oaken door in a gold-and-cream corridor. The P.A swiped her card, knocked, and then opened it a crack, but before she got too far, I gently touched her wrist with one gloved hand.

“Excuse us, please,” I said, meeting her eyes. “This is a sensitive matter.”

“Oh… of course.” The lady blinked and withdrew from the momentary contact.

After she was a good ways down the hall, I opened the door myself and then closed it behind me with a sharp click as Yegor stood up in alarm. The blood drained out of his face. His eyes widened.

“YOU! What are YOU doing here?” He pushed back from the edge of the desk, putting distance between himself and his chair. “I’ll call security, I’ll-”

“Tzain.” I spoke the word calmly, forcefully.

Energy thrummed through my gut and hands with a thrill of pleasure. The lights flickered; the door behind me made a grinding sound as the lock failed, short-circuiting, and every other electronic device in the room simply died. We were left in the confines of a strange, humming silence.

Yegor stared at me in desperate shock. He was a soft, paunchy man with a fleshy face, small eyes, and a fluff of brown hair. He had turned the same color as his yellow linen shirt.

“Please, Yegor Vladimiovich. Take a seat.” I motioned to his chair. “And put your hands on the desk where I can see them, or I will speak another word of power and boil your brains in your skull.”

Read part 2 of this chapter >>

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