Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas

I'd like to wish all my readers a very Merry Christmas, or whatever holiday you celebrate at this time of year. Thanks for following me, and I look forward to coming back raring to go in the New Year (well, coming back, certainly) for more about The Lone and Level Sands, as well as the usual random thoughts and reviews.

Have a great time.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Lone and Level Sands - the lost scene that began it all

For some years now, I've belonged to a group of online authors who get together once a week and all write for exactly an hour on whatever topic one of us sets. The object is to get us writing fast and with as little internal editor as possible, but the results are sometimes (though not always) gratifying. Many stories that started that way have been published, including no less than eighteen of mine. Some have been flash fiction that I completed in the hour and polished later. Others have have fragmentary beginnings that I've expanded into longer stories. My previous Musa book, The Treason of Memory, was among those which started that way.

Back in 2008, in response to the prompt "write a story about an object being dug up from the ground which radically alters your character's conceptions of the origins of something", I wrote what would eventually turn into The Lone and Level Sands. However, this wasn't the beginning of the story that Musa has just published, but a scene that takes place months earlier and in a different country.

For anyone who's curious, I give that original scene below. I've changed nothing, even keeping the different spelling of the main character's name. I've no idea whether the decision to change Zaddith to Zadith was deliberate or a typo, but he's unmistakably Zadith now.


“And these were dug up where, exactly?”  Professor Thalidri sipped his drink with the prim delicacy Zaddith had always found absurd in such a big man, peering over his glasses at the two graduate students before him.

“In the desert,” said Museve eagerly, evidently not noticing the corroding scepticism in their teacher’s tone.  “Twenty miles from the coast, near Lahlem.  There’s a theory...”

“Thank you, Ms Amwa,” the Professor interrupted, and for once the young woman fell silent immediately, her shoulders drooping a little.  “I assume you’re referring to the theory of the temple of Shetti.  I can assure you, it was a theory popular among the more... enthusiastic of students when I was your age.  I see that little has changed.”

“But, Professor.”  Zaddith usually let his friend do the talking, but he couldn’t contain himself.  “Surely this is evidence.  The fact that tablets like these have been excavated just where the temple’s supposed to be... Well, it’s evidence, isn’t it?”

“Thanks for your usual incisive analysis, Mr Zaddith,” said the Professor dismissively.

Zaddith squirmed in embarrassment and annoyance.  Though his papers always received top marks, he somehow couldn’t reproduce the same fluency in speech, and he’d learnt to keep his mouth shut in class, for fear of ridicule.

The annoyance was because he knew that Professor Thalidri was perfectly aware that his surname came last, not first as it did here in Qymssa.  He didn’t make the same mistake with Museve; but Zaddith had long since realised that the Professor disliked Northlanders and took that dislike out on him.

“Professor,” said Museve, her tone more conciliatory, “you must agree that it’s a significant find, whether the temple exists or not.”

Three pairs of eyes returned to the baked clay tablets strewn on the desk between them.  Zaddith and Museve had taken a risk smuggling them out of Hranti, one of the more unstable of the petty dictatorships that clung to existance in the Sruq Desert.  Officially, they risked prison for removing antiquities without a licence, but Zaddith suspected that they could very easily have been shot in secret, to become just two of the many people who’d vanished in Hranti over the past decade.

In the end, though, neither could bear the thought of spending months, even years, applying for a licence, maybe to be refused in the end.  Zaddith was still having nightmares at the thought of what might have happened, but they were clear.

“The script is clearly similar to Early Dembin,” commented Thalidri at last, less scornful as he immersed himself in the ancient texts.  “The language, though...”  He paused a moment, sounding out some of the symbols.  “It has certain structural similarities to proto-Sriwali, and... yes, some vocabulary in common too, I’d say.  Perhaps an extinct language from, oh, let’s say, four thousand years ago.”

The two students glanced at one another, and Zaddith wondered whether Museve would have the nerve to bring up their theory.

“We thought so too, at first,” she said, a little uncertainly.  “But there are elements that don’t appear to be Sriwali at all.  I... we think it may be an older language.  We think it’s the language of Kebash.”

There was a long silence, while Zaddith waited for the Professor’s sardonic laughter; but it didn’t come.  When he looked up, he saw that the older man was staring at them.

“Kebash.”  There was no inflection as he spoke the name.  “Are you trying to claim you’ve found the lost city of Kebash?”

Museve took Zaddith’s hand under the desk, clearly for support, and gulped.  “Not... not actually,” she said at last.  “The stories all talk about Kebash being overwhelmed by the sea as punishment for its sins, not buried in the desert.  But... the tradition is that Kebash was somewhere between Xeinnur and the mainland.  Couldn’t this have been an outpost?”

And that's where the hour finished, just when the scene was getting interesting. Kebash was a name that had come up here and there in other stories I'd written set in the same world, as an ancient, lost city that was the source of the most dubious magic. A kind of equivalent of Atlantis with a darker reputation.

I knew I wanted to write a full story based on this scene, but how? When I started thinking about the plot, it was very obvious that the story proper had to take place during the dig itself, and the later in the dig the better. This could serve as some kind of prologue, but that would feel awkward.

In the end, I made a fresh start, with the dig in full swing and Zadith and Musu (who had now acquired a diminutive of her name) watching the army trucks approaching across the desert. There was no place for this scene, although it is referred to in the story, and several of the points of discussion appear in a different context.

The Lone and Level Sands is, as it should be, a far more centred story, both in time and place, than would have been possible if I'd used this scene. But this is where it started, in terms both of the main characters and of the search for the Temple of Shetti and evidence of Kebash.

The Lone and Level Sands and The Treason of Memory are both available in all ebook formats from Musa Publishing.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Lone and Level Sands out today from Musa Publishing

The Lone and Level Sands
by Nyki Blatchley
Cover by Kelly Shorten
Published by Musa Publishing (Urania imprint)
$1.99 in all ebook formats from Musa Publishing

The ancient ruins in the desert hide more than just scientific interest—evil lurks there from the dawn of history.
Archaeology students Zadith and Musu thought it would give them valuable experience to spend their summer break on an important dig in the desert with their professor. They didn't expect to be menaced by the local military, a rival expedition with unorthodox methods, or an ancient evil from the dawn of history. But this is no ordinary site. An outpost of the city of Kebash, lost for ten thousand years, it holds terrors worse than death for Zadith and Musu.
Set two hundred years after The Treason of Memory, The Lone and Level Sands is a thrilling fantasy tale of adventure and the supernatural.


It was large, at least thirty yards across and nearly as high, and certainly no primitive cave. The stone walls were straight and smooth, and the paintings that covered every inch only damaged in two or three places that Zadith could see. The colours were faded but still vivid enough to show geometric patterns surrounding panels of the ancient script. Zadith tried to make out what the nearest panel said, but he was too scared to concentrate.

The wall to his left portrayed a scene with stylised figures like the reliefs on the stone: a huge man wearing a tall bejewelled head-dress stood over cringing naked suppliants. Some were trodden under his feet, and one was transfixed by a spear he held. All around, jewel-covered men and women held their arms aloft, as if cheering the scene.

Zadith had seen similar images in pictures from some of the oldest tombs in this part of the world, but none was more than six thousand years old. If this place really was an outpost of Kebash, it must go back at least ten thousand years.

“Kebrai,” breathed Nivehl. “We’ve found it—the Temple of Shetti. This is where offerings were made to the god-king.”

“And that would be where they were given.” NeSholis pointed.

From the farthest wall, beyond the group in the centre of the chamber, a stone head protruded. At least fifteen feet high, it was a hideous demonic form like the one carved at the entrance to the passage, its huge open mouth forming a cavity big enough to take a human between the stone teeth. Zadith tried and failed to convince himself that was coincidental. The mouth was at just the right height to lift a victim inside, and he was glad the cavity was too dark to make out what might have been left inside.

“You can feel his power.” Nivehl turned to Thalidri, a sneer twisting her striking face. “Are you going to try to deny it now, sweetheart?”

He shrugged. “There seems little point.”

He was reacting more calmly than Zadith would have expected. He himself was shivering, and Musu was too. Nivehl was right about feeling the power: for the first time in his life, Zadith knew without question that he was surrounded by evil.

“Kebrai’s rituals demand blood.” NeSholis kept his eyes fixed on the demon face for a moment and then turned to Thalidri, boots snapping on the stone floor. “Have you not wondered why we brought you in?”

The Professor’s eyebrows drew together. “You’re proposing to sacrifice me? I think you might find difficulty fitting me in there.” He pointed at the mouth-cavity, certainly not designed for his bulk.

“Of course we are not,” said neSholis with a crooked smile. “That would be a waste. Any blood will do to summon the power of Kebrai, if the Codex is to believed, but a final gift is needed too. A special gift—a person who means something to the giver. A former lover, perhaps. Or a mentor.”

“Ah.” Thalidri clearly understood, but still seemed unruffled. “You’re speaking of the bargain-seal. Oh, yes, I’ve read that passage too. The bargain-seal must be given living to Kebrai, for him to keep alive in torment. So that’s to be me.”

“Entirely personal, my dear,” commented Nivehl. “I can assure you.”

NeSholis turned to the two students. “Bring the girl.”

Friday, December 5, 2014

Review of Doctor Who Series 8 (or 34)

It's a few weeks since series eight of Doctor Who finished. Or, to be more accurate, series thirty-four — the actual series eight aired in 1971 and first introduced us to the Master.

It was an important series, whatever its number, not only coming after all the hoo-ha of last year's anniversary, but also introducing us to a new Doctor, always a crucial time. So how did the series — and the Doctor — shape up?

As far as the series is concerned, I'd say it was variable, with both successes and failures, although there were no episodes I couldn't at least moderately enjoy rewatching. As for Peter Capaldi's Doctor, I think he's fantastic. Although I enjoyed Tennant and particularly Smith, I'm not sorry to say goodbye to the young, chummy Doctors we've had lately and go back to an older and utterly alien character.

In contrast to the Eleventh Doctor's extremely selective habit of occasionally forgetting all the human social customs he knows perfectly well the rest of the time, the Twelfth Doctor comes over as genuinely baffled by humans, and particularly by Clara. Superficially, their relationship is a little reminiscent of the Sixth Doctor's with Peri, or even the Fourth Doctor's with Sarah Jane (all three having first got to know a gentler, more considerate Doctor) but this character's arrogance seems to come less from over-confidence than from insecurity.

At the same time, he develops further the Eleventh Doctor's ambivalent moral stance. A couple of series back, in response to the comment that good men have too many rules, the Doctor pointed out, "Good men don't need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many."

Capaldi's Doctor goes further into trying to answer the question Am I a good man? In the second episode, trying to explain his relationship with Clara, he comes up with my carer, adding, "She cares so I don't have to." And that seems important to the Doctor, yet one of the overarching threads of the series is that he's gradually destroying what he values in her, making her more like him.

Clara has had perhaps the strangest arc of any Doctor Who companion. It isn't entirely clear how much of her fragmented existence she actually remembers now, but she appears to settle into the same precarious juggling act as Amy and Rory did, trying to balance her normal life and her Doctor life. It isn't made easier by her now having a boyfriend (Danny) who she first has to lie to because he knows nothing of the Doctor; then, when he finds out, she has to lie to both him and the Doctor because they disapprove of one another.

"Rule One: the Doctor lies," River once said, and lying seems to be at the heart of this series, as the Doctor, Clara and Danny skirt around one another, withholding information, right to the final scene where the Doctor and Clara are each lying to make the other feel better. Clara, in fact, grows more and more like the Doctor as the series goes on, up to the point where, in the final episode, she's claiming to be the Doctor. Lying, of course.

Danny has an interesting back-story and is a good character, but much of the time he seems to be consigned to the "useless boyfriend" role pioneered by Mickey Smith. It isn't really until the two-part finale (in which he dies) that he becomes a seriously interesting character. Pity they left it so long.

The ongoing "tease" through the series is the enigmatic character Missy, who seems to live in some kind of afterlife and is gathering people who've died close to the Doctor. I admit I never saw the reveal about her coming. My original theory was that she was the TARDIS, for some reason uploading the consciousnesses of the dead to her matrix. Well, the second part was more or less right, but it was revealed as the cliff-hanger in the two-part finale that she's actually the Master, regenerated into a female form. Considering the rumours that have been floating around for thirty-five years or so about the Doctor becoming female, I loved that twist.

So what of the individual episodes?

Deep Breath — A long, somewhat sprawling introduction to the new Doctor, featuring the Paternoster gang (Vastra, Jenny and Strax) who seem to have replaced River as the standard occasional extra companions. As with most "new Doctor" stories, we see him acting bizarrely and out of character, but gradually finding his new identity. At least he doesn't try to strangle his companion. For the plot, there were some good things, but other elements (like the dinosaur in the Thames) that just seemed to have been slung in because they seemed like a good idea. An interesting episode, but I wouldn't put it with Spearhead From Space or The Eleventh Hour as a great new Doctor story.

Into the Dalek — A little reminiscent of the 2005 story Dalek, this delved into Dalek psychology, asking if Daleks are fundamentally evil, as well as giving us a Fantastic Voyage style journey inside a Dalek (a trope used before by Doctor Who in 1977, though not with a Dalek). I thought it was well done. It also introduced us to Danny, and returned to Clara's briefly-glimpsed new life as a teacher at Coal Hill School, the place where Doctor Who started back in 1963.

Robot of Sherwood — Nonsensical fun. We're presented with a thoroughly Hollywood image of Robin Hood, except that the Sheriff's "men" happen to be robots. It's strongly suggested all the way through that this scenario has been created by the robots, based on the legend, but then at the end we're left with the idea that this really is how it was — raising the question of why the "original" legend is nothing like the earlier retellings and entirely like the later ones. If you can get past that, though, it's huge fun, especially the alpha-male sparring between the Doctor and Robin.

Listen — An intriguing and chilling episode, in which the Doctor becomes obsessed that there are unseen beings shadowing us all the time. On the trail through time of attempting to prove it, he and Clara encounter both Danny as a child and what appears to be Danny's grandson, and, in a first, the Doctor himself as a child. The plot leaves a lot of events unexplained, but maybe it has to be that way.

Time Heist — A story which should have been great, but turned out only as quite good. For reasons that aren't explained till the end, the Doctor, Clara and two random companions have to break into the most secure vault in the universe, facing a terrible fate if they fail. The explanation at the end is a typically tortuous "timey-wimey" solution, and the whole thing just didn't excite me as much as I'd have expected from the synopsis.

The Caretaker — To counter an alien threat, the Doctor takes the position of caretaker at Coal Hill School, where Clara and Danny both teach — a position he declined to apply for in 1988's Remembrance of the Daleks. Like The Power of Three from last series, this is really a character/relationship story with a perfunctory adventure plot bolted on. The interactions between the three characters are well done, but I could have hoped for a better, more integrated alien threat.

Kill the Moon — As in last series, we have a story where the Doctor gives a trip in the TARDIS to a random child in Clara's care, the rather annoying fifteen-year-old Courtney, who also plays a substantial part in the previous story. The story, focusing on a future threat from the moon, is bizarre and suffers from a degree of scientific absurdity far beyond the odd pass we usually give Doctor Who. The weakest episode in the series, in my opinion.

Mummy on the Orient Express — A surprisingly effective episode, set on a replica of the Orient Express* travelling through space (shades of the spaceship Titanic) whose passengers start dying in mysterious circumstances. The whole thing turns out to be a gruesome experiment by an unknown enemy, with the Doctor finally finding the solution in a way that's a little unconvincing, but doesn't really spoil the fun. I was a little disappointed, in retrospect, that this wasn't tied in with the Missy arc. Perhaps we still have to discover someone else trying to manipulate the Doctor.

Flatline — Another great story, with Clara investigating an invasion of Earth by two-dimensional beings, while the Doctor is trapped inside a shrunken TARDIS (as in the 1981 story Logopolis). We still actually see a lot of the Doctor, but Clara takes the lead, gradually adopting his modus operandi to defeat the menace. The only real negative here is that the 2-D monsters become a lot less scary when they turn 3-D, but it's still a fine story.

In the Forest of the Night — Now, this seems to be a real Marmite episode, with some fans seriously detesting it. I loved it. A party of schoolchildren, supervised by Clara and Danny, get caught up in trying to find out why a forest has covered the entire earth overnight. The answer suggests a sentient-earth ecological message, though without ramming the message home too hard. The only real negative for me was that the children (who all acted decently, though not outstandingly) were ridiculously too young for their supposed age — the lead girl looked as if she should still be at primary school.

Dark Water/Death in Heaven — The finale, and I was glad to finally get another two-parter, where the story could stretch a little, since one of my objections to a lot of the more recent stories is that they tend to be rushing to fit into 45 minutes. The successive reveals at the end of part one (the Cybermen, and that the mysterious "Missy" is the Master) make it one of the best cliff-hangers in the revived show, and the return of UNIT in part two was very welcome, as was the classic image of the Cybermen in front of St Pauls Cathedral. Michelle Gomez is wonderful as Missy — charming and psychopathic at the same time, just as the Master should be, not to mention coming up with a characteristic mind-bogglingly complicated trap for the Doctor — though one or two aspects of the story were unexplained, such as how people can physically move between the material world and a virtual reality. A great finale.

So where now? The final scene of Death in Heaven suggests that Clara wouldn't be returning, but she appeared in the Children in Need clip from the Christmas special. Although I've enjoyed her stint as companion, I think it's about time we moved on. I've been saying for some time that I'd like to see a companion who isn't a twenty-something contemporary woman — someone from history, or from the future, or even an alien, all three of which we had a number of times in the classic show — but with Capaldi's Doctor being so alien, perhaps this isn't the best time for it.

Whoever the new companion might be, the important thing is that she (or he?) provides a foil for this intriguing new Doctor to develop his character further. I look forward to the next few years of Doctor Who.

* Definitely the classic Orient Express that Poirot travelled on. I made a three-day journey on the Orient Express in the 1970s, when it was just an ordinary train. Now that was murder.