Sunday, July 27, 2014

Review of Wintersmith by Steeleye Span in collaboration with Terry Pratchett

Folk song, perhaps more than any other kind of music, is a storytelling medium. Many songs tell stories, but in folk it's almost universal, whether the tale is a ballad passed down from time immemorial or the song equivalent of a man walking into a bar. And, in among the gory murders, the lovers breaking a token in two and then inexplicably failing to recognise one another, or the young men and young girls cut down in their prime, a good many of the stories are fantasy.

Steeleye Span, a band rooted deeply in the folk tradition but playing in a contemporary idiom, have tackled fantasy many times in their interpretations of ballads like Thomas the Rhymer (the hero seduced away by the Queen of Faerie), King Orfeo (a Shetland version of the Orpheus legend, believe it or not) and Seven Hundred Elves (um, speaks for itself). In 1977, two members wrote and produced a wonderful folk-rock opera version of Lord Dunsany's classic novel The King of Elfland's Daughter (worth listening to, among many other reasons, to hear Christopher Lee singing).

This being so, it's no surprise to discover that Steeleye Span and Terry Pratchett have been long-term fans of each other, and last year Steeleye released an album, Wintersmith, created in collaboration with Pratchett and based on the Tiffany Aching strand of his Discworld series.  Each of the four books are referenced, but the main plot follows the novel Wintersmith, chronicling the "romance" between the teenage witch Tiffany and a destructive spirit of winter.

Each track focuses on a different aspect of the story or of other parts of Tiffany's life, such as the Wee Free Men and the training of a witch, and they weave together to create less a continuous narrative than an impression of the story. The album ends with a song called We Shall Wear Midnight, in which Tiffany directly addresses Terry Pratchett, asking him to continue her story and let her grow up. There are, apparently, rumours that he's intending to comply.

Pratchett is credited as co-writer on all tracks (presumably working on the lyrics more than the music) and he appears at the end of the song The Good Witch, with a spoken section relating the rules of how to be a good witch. I don't recognise the passage, but from the style I suspect he's quoting Granny Weatherwax.

The music is basically folk-rock, some of it extremely heavy, but quite diverse in its styles and influences, from a heavy rock version of morris dance to spacy, electronic sounds. It's been observed that the album would perfectly suit production as a stage show, and I can actually imagine it as a kind of folk-rock ballet. I'd definitely go to see that.

In these days of downloads and (allegedly) short attention spans*, concept albums often get short shrift. In good hands, though, the album is still a powerful art-form, and the concept album even more so. If you're interested in how songs can tell a long, complex story, I thoroughly recommend Wintersmith.

Besides, how many albums have you ever heard that describe a turtle swimming through space?


* Allegedly. It seems that, very often, the people who complain that "kids today can't concentrate" are the same people who, in the next breath, complain that "kids today spend hours playing stupid computer games." Which, it seems, are supposed to need no concentration at all.


Wintersmith by Steeleye Span in collaboration with Terry Pratchett, released by Park Records in 2013, is available on and, as well as many other outlets.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Interview with Erika Wilson

Today I welcome fantasy author and poet Erika Wilson to my blog, editor of the anthology Unburied Treasures.

Hello, Erika, and thanks for agreeing to appear on my blog. Could you tell us something about yourself, and what you do when you're not writing?

As you can see from my picture, I wrestle dinosaurs in my spare time...


Actually, of late I don't seem to have much in the way of spare time (to the great relief of the local dinosaurs). I spend a lot of time at my job, though I do try to escape outside most days for lunch, which is when I get a lot of my best writing done. There's a little park nearby with picnic tables where I can sit with my salad and laptop in the shade of a tree, listening to the birds and feeling the breeze on my skin. I find that very conducive to writing. 

When I'm not working or writing, I'm probably reading - books or online news. The news is almost uniformly depressing, but I'm fascinated by the sorts of problems we are faced with, and the vastly different opinions on how they should be addressed. I suspect I'm studying the nature of interpersonal conflict, since I'm so conflict-avoidant, I have trouble putting it into my stories.

I hope to do more traveling soon. Unfortunately I suffer from air-sickness, and airplane seats are fiendish torture devices, but I do love visiting friends and seeing new places. Last year I spent a wonderful week in Oxford - 'the city of dreaming spires' - and this past autumn I helped organize a family trip to Key West, where my nephew and I made friends with one of the descendants of Hemingway's six-toed cat.

I wonder if it had any family anecdotes passed down about Hemingway. How long have you been writing for and what kind of things have you written and had published?

Hmm, it's a bit hard to say when I 'started' writing, it seems like it's been more of a step-wise progression to the point where I can actually say that I write well enough to call myself a writer. I've always been a huge reader - I was one of those kids who would visit the library every week and leave with a stack of books under my chin. In the years before I discovered the Fantasy genre, I wore out my book of Grimm's fairy tales and read through Edith Hamilton's 'Mythology' dozens of times. I thought books were absolutely magical in the way they could create beautiful pictures in my head, and make me laugh and cry, just with words.

I think I've always wanted to try my hand at creating that sort of magic myself. As a college freshman, I submitted a story to F&SF magazine, which was rejected, since it was mostly a series of pretty images with no real plot or characterization. Four years later, I had a story published in our school magazine which had actual character and plot development, so I was learning. After graduating, I spent several years writing fan fiction, which helped me practice constructing stories around existing characters. Nine years ago I signed onto and started creating original works.

About five years later I squelched my fear of submitting, and in 2010, I had a few poems and short stories accepted. That felt like a real achievement - to be paid for my work and published where anyone could read it. Since then I haven't submitted much - my story in the Unburied Treasures anthology is the first to be published in quite a while. There is something about having my work 'out there' that made me want to really love the stories I submitted and be proud of them - not just of having written them - but to publish the kinds of stories that instilled my love for reading all those years ago.  

What gave you the idea to edit the anthology Unburied Treasures?

The lovely Lydia deserves all the credit. She e-mailed out of the blue and asked if I wanted to help get the band back together for another anthology - this time fully illustrated by her and Isaia. It sounded like a brilliant idea, but I wasn't at all sure that I was the right person for the job. But really, when Lydia asks you to do something, it's pretty impossible to say no. She makes it sound like a wonderful project and convinces you that you'll have great fun doing it with her - all of which is absolutely true.

Did you find it easier or harder than you expected?

Much easier. Everyone was so pleasant and professional, and submitted such marvelous stories, I hardly felt I had earned my editorial title. I tried to get Lydia to take additional credit, since she did so much more than the beautiful illustrations, but I think she likes to be the secret elf who sneaks in at night to do her magic when everyone is asleep. Which is often the case, since her time-zone is so different than us Northern Hemispherians. 

Your story in Unburied Treasures comes over, to me at least, with a distinctly Buddhist feeling. Was this deliberate, and what were you aiming to convey?

It all started with a snow leopard, so once I had that, I had to have the Himalayas and a Yeti, didn't I? It is tricky, I think, to set a story in a country and culture with which you have no direct experience. It can come off as stereotyped and cliched since we tend to draw on simplistic images that come primarily from pop culture references, rather than taking the time to dig into the deep complexity of original sources. I did worry about that, but I tried to do at least some research into the symbolism of mandalas. Personally, I've always found them beautiful and fascinating - how can you not? My hope is that I may intrigue someone with my light-hearted story, and they will be inspired to look further into the images that I present in order to understand them better.

When you came to London a few years back, your instant target was the British Museum. How important is history to you?

What an amazing trip that was! Thank you for touring the museum with me and showing me so much of the City, Nyki. And reciting poetry while sitting on a bench overlooking the Thames! Wonderful memories. I only wish I hadn't been so tired - I'd been traveling around Europe for three weeks by then, so I was fair exhausted. And you're such a great walker - hard for this soft American to keep up with!

It was great for me, too, to have someone to remind me I hadn't taken advantage of being near all those things for too long. Thanks.

History, yes, I do have something of a passion for it. I don't know if you remember, but I said something about it when we were browsing the Egyptian exhibit - I thought it was like being surrounded by thousands of story fragments, that each little relic or carved hieroglyph was a piece of an unknown story. So much of who we were and how we got here has been lost to time, but museums are full of ghostly whispers hinting at how people once lived and what was vitally important to them. I homed in on the British Museum because there were two things I wanted to see most of all - the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta stone. I'd been deeply affected by what had been written about them, and had an intense desire to see them for myself. And I wasn't disappointed. They're like time machines revealing the pinnacle of ancient art and language, showing us how easily such things can be lost, and how much else of irretrievable value disappears when that happens.  

Can you tell us something about what you're writing at the moment and any future writing (or editing) plans?

At the moment, I'm working mostly on collaborations. I'm 15,000 words into a story set in a world created by a friend, using some of his characters. I've done a few others, one of which he may include in a future collection of his stories, so perhaps this could end up going the same way. Though at this point I'm writing it for the sheer fun of playing in his wonderful sandbox. It's like writing fan fiction, but with the original creator willing to comment and make helpful suggestions.

Editorially, I've been helping another friend with his online comic book. We actually started writing it together more than twenty years ago, but as neither of us could draw well enough, it fell by the wayside. He has since discovered the magic of 3-D computer graphics programs, and has done an outstanding job teaching himself how to put together some truly stunning illustrations. The scope of the project has expanded greatly as well - from the original six-issue series, to a thirty-issue monster. He's got it all planned out, though - I have the color-coded outline. It looks like a schematic for the New York Subway system. It's called The Great Game and the first issue was recently accepted by Comixology. 

For myself, I'd like to start submitting again. My favorite stories end up around novella-length, so I need to investigate some of the on-line markets that have been opening up for less-than-novel-length stories.

The recent one I've been reading certainly needs to be got out there.

Thanks so much for inviting me to be on your blog, Nyki, and getting the word out about our anthology. Your dragon story was wonderful, as well as providing an eye-catching focal point for the cover illustration. 

And thank you for entertaining and informing us, and for editing the anthology.

You can follow Erika's blog, and the links to buy the anthology can be found on this page.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Lottery of History?

In a couple of months, the Scottish people hold a referendum to decide whether they want to continue being a part of the United Kingdom or revert to being an independent country. I'm not going to discuss the pros and cons of the arguments here. That's for the people of Scotland to decide, which doesn't include me.

It strikes me, though, that an event like this throws up a whole slew of opinions about what history really says. Does it show that Scotland is a discrete nation and should never be anything else, invoking national heroes like Robert Bruce (left)? Or does it show that the absorption of Scotland (and Wales) into a united Britain was part of an inevitable process that began with the unification of small kingdoms like Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria? Both are plausible interpretations.

It's essentially the same dispute (though I trust a lot less violent) as the war that broke up Yugoslavia (and the current conflict in Ukraine, for that matter). There, some believed in the ideal of a single nation for all southern Slavs. Others considered that the constituent parts had a historical right to self-determination. Both sides were convinced that history was on their side.

History isn't what happened, it's what we believe happened — or, as Sellar and Yeatman put it, it's what you remember. On the whole, what we remember is what fits with the world as it is now, or even with the world as we'd like it to be, but the reality is that many events that seem inevitable now happened largely by chance.

Take Portugal, for instance. We're used to the map of Europe that shows Spain taking up most of the Iberian Peninsula, with Portugal along the coast. That's just how it is — they have different languages, after all.

At the beginning of the 15th century, Iberia was divided into a number of kingdoms, principally Aragon in the east, Castile in the middle and Portugal in the west. To the north lay the small kingdom of Navarre, while the remains of Moorish Al-Andalus hung on in the south. The marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon to Isabella of Castile (right) effectively united their kingdoms, although they continued to rule separately in name till both were dead. The new kingdom of Spain absorbed both Navarre and Al-Andalus, and in 1580 Phillip II of Spain also acquired Portugal by marriage. The peninsula was united.

In some ways, there was no more reason why Portugal should remain independent of Spain (effectively Castile) than that Aragon should. Portugal had been a separate kingdom for centuries — so had Aragon. Portugal had its own language — so did Aragon (Catalan). On the other hand, in the last 150 years of its independence, Portugal had become a unique world power. It led the voyages of discovery to Africa, India and the unknown islands of the Atlantic, and established new trade routes which Spain, England and the Netherlands largely followed. Maybe that was what made Portugal reassert its identity and seize its independence again in 1640.

Spain and Portugal have a great deal in common in terms of history, culture and heritage, but you'd think two very different countries like France and Germany were always going to be separate. Maybe they were, but it wasn't as simple as you might think, and it's never been entirely settled where the border lies.

Both had essentially been part of the Frankish kingdom. The Franks were a Germanic people (the modern descendent of their language is Dutch) who conquered large swathes of western Europe. When their greatest king Charlemagne (left) died, his empire stretched from the Atlantic to the Elbe, and the North Sea to Rome. He left the lot to his son Louis, but Louis was unfortunate enough to have three surviving sons. It was a continuing curse of the Franks that every surviving king's son expected an inheritance. Sometimes this was settled by the venerable institution of fratricide, but at times the kingdom had to be divided.

At the Treaty of Verdun in 843, three of Louis's sons carved the empire up between them. Charles had the western portion, which formed the basis of France, although it didn't include the whole modern nation. Louis* got the east, which included a good deal of present-day Germany and Austria. The eldest son, Lothair, however, received a kingdom that included northern Italy, Switzerland, the Rhineland, Alsace-Lorraine and the Low Countries. An insanely impractical realm, even though it contained the empire's two capitals (Aachen and Rome) and the most important trade artery in western Europe (the Rhine).

During these struggles, Charles and Louis had made an alliance against Lothair, binding themselves by oaths at Strasbourg. They made the oaths in the traditional way to each other's armies, which meant they were in that army's vernacular, and some unknown scribe of blessed memory copied them down verbatim. As a consequence, Louis's oath to Charles's army is the earliest surviving text in Old French (a development of Gaulish Latin) while Charles's oath to Louis's army is likewise the earliest surviving text in Old High German.

OK, that seems to be arguing against what I'm saying. Although it took centuries for France to coalesce into a nation and longer for Germany, the Partition of Verdun essentially created to two countries we know today, and it seems a natural division, given the linguistic difference. To some extent that's true, but it could easily have happened otherwise. What if they'd chosen to divide on a north-south basis, instead of east-west? What if Louis only had one surviving son? What if the Franks had a sane law of succession? France and Germany might never have existed separately.

There's another twist in this tale, though. Remember Lothair, with his bizarre Middle Kingdom? He too divided his lands between his three surviving sons** and much of it fell apart into small provinces whose fealty was batted between French and German kings***. This included the Rhineland, Alsace and Lorraine, which remained the leading bones of contention between France and Germany right down to Hitler's territorial claims in the 1930s. That was all Lothair's fault.

The existence of many present-day nations is by no means inevitable. It was far from certain, for instance, that the American colonies would stick together once the euphoria of winning their freedom had settled down. Several alternative suggestions had considerable backing, including a loose federation (perhaps a little like the modern European Union) and an arrangement with several smaller unions. It seems unthinkable now, but the Federalists like Washington (right) won because they were better organised, not because they had wider support.

The situation is perhaps seen at its most extreme in Africa, where most modern nations (with a few notable exceptions) are purely the result of the Berlin Conference in 1885, where European politicians drew random lines over the map of Africa. Most of the larger nations and a good many of the smaller ones have no internal reason to exist and are struggling, with varying degrees of success, to maintain an identity as modern nations against the forces of history, not with it.

So what does any of this prove? Well, perhaps that the weight of history does play an important role in determining national identities, but it's not always obvious which way history is pushing. Perhaps no nation has a destiny to exist or to have the borders it does, and it should depend entirely which solution suits most people best at the time. Or perhaps a sense of national identity should come into it.

One thing is certain, though. Whatever you might think history determines as inevitable, someone is going to believe the exact opposite just as fervently. Until we learn to respect that fact, the same wars and conflicts are going to carry on.

* The Carolingian dynasty apparently only knew four or five male names. It can get very confusing.

** Louis, Lothair and Charles. Of course.

*** For most of the following thousand years, the King of the Germans went under the guise of Holy Roman Emperor, but the title did exist.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Interview with Lydia Kurnia

Today, I welcome author, poet and artist Lydia Kurnia, who not only provided a great story for the anthology Unburied Treasures, but also created the stunning cover and the beautiful internal artwork. Here, she tells us about her many creative outlets.


Hello, Lydia, and thanks for agreeing to appear on my blog.

Thanks for inviting me to your blog, nice and cosy here. I love the decor, Nyki.

Thank you. Could you tell us something about yourself, and what you do when you're not writing or creating art?

In the real world, you mean? I'm a girl who loves to read any kind of fiction and appreciate any forms of art. I love the versatility of digital art particularly how it is used in movies. On the job front, I studied Psychology and spent fifteen years in Human Resources before deciding to ditch the Corporate world and... starve in the bliss of creative arts. Ha! I ventured into video editing for a bit but soon discovered I'm just a girl who loves to write and draw whimsical stuff.

Fair enough. Your story in the anthology,
Secrets, is set in Australia and Bali, and involves Indonesian folklore. Can you tell us something about these aspects of the story?

Well, the true mythology of Leyaks isn't really like the way I described them in 'Secrets'. This tale was born from one of those FWO writing prompts: to write a story about an existing myth with a twist. Traditional Leyaks actually drink the blood of pregnant women. I gathered sucking people's souls seems much cooler, so that's what my Leyaks ended up doing.

I chose a creature from an Indonesian folklore because I grew up immersed in these tales... and also because at the time, I'd just been to Bali for a holiday. Leyaks are celebrated everywhere in Bali; there are masks and statues, not to mention dances and songs featuring these creatures. There are other cool mythological creatures, of course. Indonesia — and the many islands that make it — is rich with so many cultures and dialects, it's quite fascinating.

It certainly sounds fascinating. How long have you been writing for and what kind of things have you written?

Hmm, I don't quite remember when I started writing, but I've had stories, worlds and characters running (camping?) in my head since I could remember.

My stories tend to explore various types of relationships - with others or oneself. It's the thing that speaks to me and I enjoy most dissecting. My short story
Gheeyant:the Giant Fairy explores the many issues of an extrovert trapped in an introvert mind. My poem Inertia reflects the challenges of connecting with people in a world of cut-out expectations. My flash AnArcheanologist's Confession is about a man's sexual obsession with a spider. 

Huh? OK.
And my novel Stealing A Dream touches on complex relationships between characters, countries and powers... which is probably the reason I have so much trouble fixing the ending!

You're also an artist, and you produced the artwork for the anthology. Can you tell us about this, and how it ties in with your writing?

I didn't actually start drawing until I acquired an Ipad and I got one after I finished my novel for which I desperately wanted to illustrate. I mean I had doodled in the past, but I had never dared to pursue this hobby further than for passing boredom. I love drawing scenes, images that tell a story. I think at the end of the day I'm always a story-teller. I love telling stories with my writing, my art, my songs and videos.

You're also producing a trailer for the anthology. I've enjoyed your video art before, and you even created one for me a few years back. Can you tell us more about your video art?

Yes! The Real World was my Christmas present for you back in 2009. I turned your poem into a song and made a music video for it. That was so much fun!


I've just rewatched it, and I still love it.

I got into video art since I married my lovely husband who's a music video producer. I learned a lot from him, and lucky me because I get to 'steal' his resources and even his skills (all the footage for your video was his) to teach myself about the craft. I was into visual poetry for a bit, started a channel in Vimeo for this art form, which got pretty active but sadly I've abandoned now due to time constraints. Now, I like to experiment with flash animation - which is basically compositing frame-by-frame sketches into a story of a sort. It takes a lot of work but I enjoy the process very much. You can view some of the videos that I (and also in collaboration with other artists) have done at my website.
The idea of a book trailer for the anthology is actually Erika's. She figured we have all these images already, why not turn them into moving pictures of a sort. Watch this space for the trailer. I'll be sure to share with you when it is ready!

With so many different strings to your bow, I'm sure you're working on various projects. Can you tell us about them?

On the art front, I'm currently working with my art partner in crime Isaia on illustrations for Melody-Ann Jones Kauffman's serial fiction: ToLive a Dragon's Age and the cover for Ciara Ballintyne's sequel to her debut novella Confronting The Demon for which we did a book trailer. We're also in the middle of creating a show-reel for our website Worlds Beyond for speculative fiction art to show people some services we can offer in this space. Isaia and I don't know yet where we're going with this, but drawing for stories is certainly what we are passionate about, so we figured let's take a shot at it.

On the writing front, I'm in the middle of editing my novella
The ManWho Swallowed The Sun which is a science-fantasy drama featuring a boy who's been genetically engineered into a curative plant in order to demolish a fatal outbreak. And of course, I'm still illustrating and fixing up my novel Stealing A Dream which has been an ongoing project since 2005. Yes, I just want real life to cease getting in the way. 
Or maybe I'm just slow and easily distracted.

Thanks for sharing all about your projects with us.

Thank you again, Nyki for this chance to guest in your blog.

Don’t forget to visit Lydia's blog, where you can find out about her various creative works.

Unburied Treasure is available on, (and all Amazons) and Smashwords.