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Maze of Sand, Part 3

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[Welcome to Part 3 of a new story serialized on this blog, with tongue somewhat in cheek and product links awkwardly jammed into the narrative. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. If you enjoy the story, tip your storyteller by following the Amazon link and purchasing something–I’ll get a small cut. Your purchase doesn’t have to be the featured product; just use the search box to find something else if you wish. Today’s installment brought to you by the all-new Amazon Fire HD 10 tablet]

3.

Chief York peered at the curious maze of deep channels dug into the beach and then nodded at the librarian. “Morning. So, someone started on next year’s sand sculpture contest already?”

Not the start I’d hoped for. Kaitlyn didn’t smile. “This is serious, Ed. Something is down there—and I’m worried someone has gotten hurt.”

“Something?”

She flushed. “An . . . animal. Or something else.”

She glanced at Officer Isabel Cruz, seeking reassurance. The tall, curly-haired woman offered Kaitlyn a quick smile. Isabel was a regular attendee at Kaitlyn and Catelyn’s speculative fiction book club; Kaitlyn hoped that meant her mind would remain more open than the chief’s.

“Well, let’s go check it out,” Chief York sighed, hitching up his belt and heading toward the sand labyrinth. Isabel followed close behind; Kaitlyn, somewhat less close.

“Hold up, Chief,” said Isabel as Ed York knelt by the edge of the maze. “You don’t know how stable that sand is. You’d be safer if—”

“Holy shit!” the chief exclaimed. Kaitlyn’s blood froze. He’s seen the creature, whatever it is . . .

Isabel hurried to join him, forgetting her own caution about the stability of the sand. “Oh my God. I know that kid. That’s Tim Woodard. Or . . . was. What the fuck happened to him?!”

Her stomach churning, Kaitlyn peered over their shoulders and saw the body of a young man. Well, “body” was a generous term in this case; Tim Woodard had been reduced to bloody, chewed pieces, floating in the shallow water at the bottom of the labyrinth.

“It got him,” Kaitlyn whispered.

“What did?” Chief York asked, turning to her sharply.

“The minotaur,” Isabel Cruz replied.

Kaitlyn shot her a look of gratitude.

Chief York heaved himself up and loomed over the two of them. “Ladies, forgive me if I’ve fallen behind in my word-of-the-day calendar. What did you just say?”

Isabel’s gaze swept along the width and breadth of the maze. “In every labyrinth lurks a monster,” she said softly. “A beast that’s half man, half bull. A minotaur. Goes back to the Greek legend of Theseus.”

“She’s in my book club,” Kaitlyn said proudly.

“Okay, so you want me to tell the parents of this poor bastard that a mythological creature ate him?” Chief York said. “Christ. What was I thinking letting a bookworm on the force? Officer Cruz, I don’t want to hear another word of this nonsense.”

“Yes, sir,” Isabel said.

“Get in touch with Animal Control and find out if there are any escaped hyenas on the loose, or anything like that. We’ll get to the bottom of this.”

The chief was right to be skeptical, Kaitlyn knew. It was a gigantic leap of faith to conclude that a minotaur had been responsible for digging this labyrinth and killing the young man. She was open to other interpretations and theories. But they couldn’t rule out a minotaur, could they? “Ed—” she said.

“That’s enough, Miss King,” he said. Ed York had known Kaitlyn since she was a teenager; the only reason for him to be formal with her right now was to shut her down. Well. Fine.

“Chief, there’s some stuff out there perched on top of the labyrinth,” Isabel said.

“Don’t call it that either,” the police chief grumbled. “Call it an irregular series of trenches.”

“Yes, sir.”

Chief York peered out at the backpack, blanket, and tablet, squinting in the morning sunlight. “Oh no. Please tell me that all-new Amazon Fire HD 10 tablet belongs to Tim and not a second vic.”

“Isn’t that the first Amazon tablet with an ‘always listening’ capability?” Isabel asked.

“Yes, and a full HD 1080p display,” Kaitlyn and the chief answered her simultaneously. They looked at each other, then looked away, discomfited.

Chief York called in fire and rescue. They arrived a short time later with ladders that allowed the Knott’s Harbor PD to bridge the maze and secure the evidence—as well as discover the body of Monica Tedder, in just as bad a state as Tim had been. Her pieces were lying in a different area of the maze than Tim’s, suggesting that they’d been separated before meeting their awful end.

Kaitlyn hung around and watched the whole thing, not out of prurient interest but instead a newfound determination to unravel this mystery for herself. With a stoically unimaginative sort like Ed York in charge, there was no way the police would discover the truth if there were, in fact, a supernatural element involved in the kids’ deaths.

Eventually, during a break in the crime scene investigation, Officer Isabel Cruz wandered over and placed her hand on Kaitlyn’s shoulder. She loomed over Kaitlyn, but her expression was anything but intimidating.

“You should go home, Kait,” she said. “You’ve already seen too many awful things this morning.”

The librarian got up, but instead of walking away, she leaned in to murmur into Isabel’s ear.

“Emergency meeting of the Speculative Fiction Book Club tonight,” was what she said. “And I need you to bring that all-new Amazon Fire HD 10 tablet.”

***

Thanks for reading! Tune in soon for Part 4. Meanwhile, if you want to learn more about my books or my ghostwriting/editing services, you know where to look. Happy Halloween!

Maze of Sand, Part 2

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[Welcome to Part 2 of a new story serialized on this blog, with tongue somewhat in cheek and product links awkwardly jammed into the narrative. Part 1 is here. If you enjoy the story, tip your storyteller by following the Amazon link and purchasing something–I’ll get a small cut. Your purchase doesn’t have to be the featured product; just use the search box to find something else if you wish. Today’s installment brought to you by the all-new Amazon Fire HD 10 tablet]

2.

Kaitlyn King ran along the beach with good music pumping in her ears and joy in her heart.

It had been an amazing week so far. The biggest reason was because of her promotion at work (Senior Librarian!). But there’d also been another excellent meeting of the Knott’s Harbor Library Speculative Fiction Book Club, which Kaitlyn had formed a year ago with her fellow librarian, Catelyn.

Last night the club had met at their usual spot, Harry’s Eatery & Tavern, to discuss a groundbreaking Latina vampire novel, Gorging in Guadalajara. The club consisted of about a dozen voracious readers and Knott’s Harbor Library cardholders. Angus, an English teacher at the high school, groused about the novel, but then again Angus groused about every novel she and Catelyn had selected so far—everyone else loved the book and dove into a deep discussion about cultural connotations of vampires and how the author had played with those conventions in a new setting.

Their next book selection was Skip the Thirteenth Floor, about a repairman of elevators at haunted hotels, which actually Rev. Sonja had suggested. Just the first few pages had hooked Kaitlyn already, and she was excited to read on.

And now as Senior Librarian, she thought, I’ve got so many other great programming ideas—

Then she stopped in her tracks. It was still early morning, and maybe she wasn’t fully awake yet, but it certainly looked like someone had dug a deep labyrinth into the sand of Pristine Beach.

Kaitlyn pulled her earbuds out and walked carefully toward the labyrinth. She noticed now that a backpack and blanket were perched on top of one of the walls in the middle of the maze, along with some sort of electronic device. She’d have to get closer to confirm, but it certainly looked to her like an all-new Amazon Fire HD 10 tablet.

“They’ve got that ‘always listening’ capability for the first time,” she mumbled to herself without being conscious of speaking. “And a full HD 1080p display.”

She stopped a few yards from the edge of the maze, suddenly wary about the whole thing collapsing under her feet. It was, after all, just sand and mud.

“Hey,” she called out. “Anyone down there? I’m pretty impressed by your . . . labyrinth . . .”

At first there was no sound. Then someone answered her, but without words.

No, not someone, but something, because it was a low, feral growl. Followed by the splashing of something heavy moving through the bottom of the maze.

Oh, shit. Her thoughts were whirring on their own now. You know what historically comes with every labyrinth . . .

It was still splashing. Getting closer. And if there were stairs—or if it could climb—hey, just what had happened to the owner of the backpack and the all-new Amazon Fire HD 10 tablet?

Kaitlyn backpedaled. She ran. And she dialed 911, because she wasn’t going to wait around here by herself.

When the police arrived a few minutes later, Kaitlyn was huddled on a bench back on the sidewalk some distance away from the beach labyrinth, shivering in spite of the warmth of the morning. She saw the familiar faces of Chief York and Officer Cruz approach, and she immediately felt better. They’d help restore reason to what had turned into an unsettling morning.

***

Thanks for reading! Tune in soon for Part 3. Meanwhile, if you want to learn more about my books or my ghostwriting/editing services, you know where to look. Ta for now.

Maze of Sand, Part 1

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[Welcome to Part 1 of a new story that will be told in installments on this blog, with tongue somewhat in cheek and product links awkwardly jammed into the narrative. If you enjoy the story, tip your storyteller by following the Amazon link and purchasing something–I’ll get a small cut. Your purchase doesn’t have to be the featured product; just use the search box to find something else if you wish. Today’s installment brought to you by the all-new Amazon Fire HD 10 tablet]

1.

Tim followed his laughing girlfriend out into the dark sands of Pristine Beach.

He carried a flashlight, but he still stumbled over the sudden dips and little hills as he walked. Monica moved with far more grace and sureness, but then again, she was a dancer and he was simply a … what? B student? He had no extracurriculars to define himself.

I’m just Tim, the regular guy with a funny joke or two, who lucked out with one of the hottest girls in school.

He could live with that definition. “Wait up,” he called, trying to go faster.

Monica stopped in the middle of the night-shrouded beach and clicked off her flashlight. “Ooo … ooo …” she called out. “Tiiiimmm …”

Not funny, he thought to himself, sweeping his flashlight beam until he found her, sitting cross-legged on the sand and blowing him a kiss. “I don’t find ghosts so amusing anymore,” he said, thumping down next to her, “ever since they killed poor Pete.”

“You really think a ghost killed Pete Miller?” Monica said. She pulled a big blanket out of her backpack and laid it on the sand. “When are you going to grow up?”

The remark stung him, probably more than she’d intended. “I’m not the only one who thinks so, Mon. There’s been a lot of weird stuff happening in this town lately–I don’t think ghosts are even the worst of it.”

Monica scoffed. “It’s a good thing you’re good-looking, because T.B.H. I’m not all that impressed with that brain o’ yours.”

“Jerk,” Tim said, shivering. It was cooler out here at night than he’d expected. “If you’re not nice to me, I can always withhold this gigantic dong o’ mine.”

“Um. I doubt it.” Monica removed a large object from her pack. It was an Amazon Fire HD 10 tablet. “Once I start playing some mood-setting tunes on this thing, you won’t be able to resist me, sucker.”

“Wow, isn’t that the first Fire tablet with an ‘always listening’ capability?”

“It is. Alexa, play my ‘Sexy Time Playlist.'”

The device responded with an R&B song that had a low, insistent beat. Monica snuggled up against Tim and stroked his chest.

“Hey, and that looks like a full HD 1080p display,” Tim marveled.

Monica nodded. “You bet your ass it is. Now kiss me already.”

Tim obeyed.

In the midst of their passionate embrace, at first he assumed that the shaking sensation he felt was his own body responding to Monica. But then it grew into a fierce rumbling, and he broke away from his girlfriend. Her eyes were wide with fear.

“Tim?” she cried. “What the hell is–”

Just before the ground fell away from them both, he swept his light around and saw strange patterns forming in the sand–a series of long, connected depressions growing rapidly deeper amid a fine sand spray. Then he was tumbling down into darkness, screaming.

Tim splash-landed in muddy water. Coughing, he pulled his face from the pool and fumbled for his flashlight. A glint of moonlight showed him it bobbing in the knee-deep water nearby. He grabbed the light, shaking it until it turned on, and hollered “Monica!

“Tim? Where are you?”

She sounded nearby–but on the other side of the high wall. It’s just sand, he thought to himself. He attacked the wall with both fists.

It was densely packed and wet, and a lot harder than he expected. He only succeeded in bloodying his fists. He called out to her again, and her reply was immediate and frantic. He took a quick breath, trying to calm himself, and then pounded on the wall again.

“Can’t get through,” he reported breathlessly. “I’ll go around. I’ll walk to my right. If you’re facing the wall now, walk to your left and meet me!”

“Okay,” Monica called back. Tim waded through the water–and soon came to a dead end. Fuck.

“Hold up!” he said. “I’m blocked. Let’s try walking in the other–”

She shrieked before he could finish. His blood ran cold. “Mon?” he cried.

“It’s coming,” she screamed. “I have to run!

“What’s coming?!” He broke into an awkward run rather than waiting for her to answer, sloshing down the passage. He had to find a way to her. If there was ever a time for Average Tim to become something more, this was it.

The passage turned a corner. He looked to the right, hoping for an opening, but there was none. Maybe farther down. Tim kept hurrying through the water as fast as he could.

There! An entrance on the right. Tim surged through–and found two branching passages in front of him. Depending on the angles they followed, either one could lead him to Monica.

Then she screamed again, and this time the sound was full of agony and despair–followed by a wet tearing and crunching. After that, Monica made no more sound. But the other noises continued.

Oh fuck. Oh no. What’s in here with us? He opened his mouth to call her name again . . . and then, like a coward, found himself staying silent.

It’s going to come for me next.

Tim hesitated at the two passages, and then chose neither, turning back around and wading to the right, hoping desperately to find some way back to the surface of the beach. The light of his flashlight beam flickered. Suddenly he pictured someone–or something–watching carefully for his light to play off the tops of the maze walls.

He kept it trained low, on the water, with one trembling arm, and kept wandering. Down one passage to another passage, left and right and left again, and not a staircase, ladder, or even a rough incline in sight.

Just when he was wondering whether he’d already seen the two passage choices ahead of him, a large, dark bulk appeared from the right. Tim jerked his flashlight in a different direction, but not before the beam had briefly illuminated a gore-stained horn, a patch of wet brown fur, and two staring, smooth red eyes . . .

He hurled himself at the nearest wall, forming his fingers into stiff claws, willing them to catch in the hardpack. His nails bent from the effort, but he found that he could lever himself slightly upward if he strained with all his might.

A snort sounded behind him. Followed by the smacking of vile, rubbery lips.

Tim reached his mangled hands up. One of them found a hard little cubby in the sand wall, and he lifted himself higher, tears streaming down his face from the exertion.

I have to tell them . . . what happened to her–

You left her. She could still be alive, and you left her . . .

He paused, limbs shaking, and then the abominable figure below him grabbed his ankles with leathery and unforgiving hands, pulled Tim down, and tucked into its second meal of the evening.

***

Thanks for reading! Tune in soon for Part 2. Meanwhile, if you want to learn more about my books or my ghostwriting/editing services, you know where to look. Ta for now.

Interview: Fantasy author Amelia Smith

amelia smith fantasy author

Amelia Smith is a New England fantasy author whom I first crossed paths with at Boskone last year. She has made a name for herself writing both fiction and nonfiction. In this interview I ask Smith about her fantasy series, Dragonsfalland its prequels. But first, here’s a quick bio:

amelia smith fantasy author
Amelia Smith

Amelia Smith lives on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, where she’s currently beach-combing and beating the tick-infested bushes in search of her next big idea. Meanwhile, she’s working on a variety of small projects, including articles for a local magazine and a historical romance.

Deck: How long have you been writing fantasy, and what kind of training or study did you have?

Smith:
I co-wrote a fantasy story with a friend of mine in our Freshman year of high school, back in the mid-1980s, and have written on and off since then. We wrote that story in longhand and passed the pile of paper back and forth each day, writing on alternate nights. I think it was pretty awful. I probably still have it somewhere but I’m afraid to dig it out. We tried it again the next year, using primitive word processors, but fizzled out before reaching the end.
I went on to Pomona College where I cobbled together a self-designed major in Ethnomusicology. I told people that it was an excuse to travel around the world and go to parties. After graduating, I moved back to Martha’s Vineyard, did some landscaping, worked retail, traveled some more, then decided to go to divinity school. After that I tried architecture school. If I’d done the architecture school one round earlier I might have stuck with it, but as it was I was thoroughly burned out on school by that point.

Deck: What led you to transition from poetry to fantasy?

Smith: Many people write poetry. A much smaller number of people read it. With fantasy, I think that there are at least as many readers as writers, and hence a better chance of finding an audience. I was tired of writing into the void and maybe I also wanted to work on something that had more substance and story to it.


fantasy author amelia smithDeck: Who are your biggest influences?

Smith:
Growing up, my idea of fantasy was shaped by C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series, and other mid-20th century children’s/YA fantasy. I moved on to read a pretty decent range of fantasy for grownups, but I don’t think I’ve escaped those formative influences. Before I started writing my fantasy series, I read a lot of Guy Gavriel Kay, Charles De Lint, and some Marion Zimmer Bradley, among others. Connie Willis is another favorite. These days, though, I’m much more excited about newer authors like V.E. Schwab, Naomi Novik, and N. K. Jemisin … and a bit peeved by the phenomenon of so many female authors using their initials rather than their names.

Deck: Has living on Martha’s Vineyard had any effect on your fantasy fiction?

Smith: Living on an island has been great in that it’s a small community where you get to know people complete with their overlapping webs of friends, family, and jobs. The connections holding the community together are much more apparent than they would be in a bigger place, and more typical of how humans have lived for most of our history. In cities, where there’s more anonymity, I think it’s harder to see the influence of individual personalities on the community as a whole.

We also have a lot of writers here, which makes what I do seem more normal… not that anyone here on the island aspires to normalcy.

Deck: What is the relationship between your Dragonsfall trilogy and the Anamat books?

fantasy author amelia smith

Smith: Initially, this was going to make it one long, 5-book series, but the trilogy really can be read on its own and I think those books are stronger than the two Anamat books, which feature the same core characters in their youth.

Deck: What was the inspiration for the dragon-gods and the world they inhabit?

Smith: It was really a mash-up of things inspired by aspects of Asian- and European-style dragons thrown in with some thoughts about Indian, Greek, and ancient Near Eastern mythologies, all of which stewed together and came out as these dragon-god figures intrinsic to the land but who also have bodily forms that can appear separate from the land itself.

Deck: What do you think is the strongest selling point for readers to check out your Dragonsfall series?

fantasy author amelia smithSmith: This is one of those questions that I didn’t think about going in. I wanted to see what sacred prostitution would look like in a fantasy world, and I wasn’t sold on the way Jacqueline Carey did it – her religion was too much like Christianity, and it just didn’t ring true to me. I thought that it made a lot more sense with primordial, cthonic gods.

The story grew out of that. I’m told that the worldbuilding is a strong point, but it’s a slower story built around characters and relationships (none of them classically romantic) rather than an action-adventure story. That said, I do try to get my fight scenes right.

Deck: Why do you think we enjoy stories that include magic, monsters, and other elements that would be impossible in real life?

Smith: I read because I want to go places that I can’t go in real life. I like to travel to other cultures, other times in history, and even to places that never were and probably never will be. I mean, if I want to go to America I can just get on the boat and go there myself. Beyond that, magic lets us explore ways of being that we can’t get to in the world of 20th-century style realist literary fiction.

Deck: Do you face any challenges or misconceptions from the general reading audience when writing in the fantasy genre? Do you try to target readers who already “get” the genre?

Smith: So many people who don’t read fantasy think that it’s just for kids. That’s the main misconception I run into. One bookstore employee here said that she couldn’t read fantasy because it was all about men having manly adventures – obviously she wasn’t reading the same books I am.

For this series I’ve mostly tried to reach readers who already like the genre and are somewhat aware of its diversity. If I veer off into magical realism, though, I’ll also try to reach readers of literary fiction.

Deck: What led you to move away from fantasy for your next projects? Could you tell us about your progress on the romance and cookbook?

Smith: Fantasy is hard! I’m looking for a change of pace and I want to experiment with different types of writing. That said, I’ve made very little progress on any one project since wrapping up Chronicles at the beginning of the year. Now I’m exploring a concept for a semi-historical story with magical realist elements, alongside the historical romance which I may put out under a pen name because it really does fill a different emotional need.

The cookbook is a very different kind of project and is proceeding at a snail’s pace. It will probably take me at least a year to test all the recipes.

Deck: We all know the big names in fantasy — do you have any recommendations of books by current writers in the genre who may not (yet) be well known?

Smith: There is so much good stuff out there and I have a huge stack of it waiting to be read. That said, one of my favorite recent reads was The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French. The plotting is great and there’s a lot of lowbrow humor. In a completely different vein I’d like to recommend one of my critique partner’s books, Till Human Voices Wake Us, by Victoria Goddard, which is full of historical and literary references.

Most of the other recent books I’ve read that I would recommend are in other genres or were trad-published and have good legs under them already.

Deck: What do you love to do in your spare time that has nothing to do with writing fantasy?

Smith: I have two young children so that takes up most of my time. Nearly everything I do feeds into writing fantasy in one way or another, but I do try to get away from the desk. I practice take long walks, cook, and practice aikido very casually (I used to be serious about it when my spine was bouncier). I’m also learning to play guitar, just for the heck of it.

You can connect with Amelia Smith through Facebook or her website, http://www.ameliasmith.net.

Five science fiction books about aliens coming out in May

science fiction books about aliensTo commemorate Alien: Covenant coming out in theaters (though note that the reviews are mixed thus far), here are five science fiction books about aliens that are also releasing this month. At this late date in May, all are available except for Injection Burn, which will be coming out next week.

1. Netherspace by Andrew Lane & Nigel Foster – Available now

science fiction books about aliensAuthors Lane and Foster became tired of the recurring sci-fi trope that humans can always quickly find a way to communicate with aliens. “In our polite, English way we said bullshit to that,” said the authors in a recent interview. So in Netherspace, humans still don’t understand the Gliese alien race, even after trading with them for forty years. Now, with the aliens kidnapping humans, artist Marc and assassin Kara must team up to solve the mystery.

2. Pawn by Timothy Zahn – Available now

science fiction books about aliensZahn kicks off a new series, The Sybil’s War, with Pawn, in which petty criminal Nicole and gangster Bungie are abducted by aliens and taken to a ship called the Fyrantha. When Nicole learns that she and her fellow laborers are pawns in a bizarre game pitting different alien species against each other, she vows to rebel. Timothy Zahn’s biggest claim to fame is his collection of Star Wars tie-in novels, including the Thrawn trilogy.

 

3. Substrate Phantoms by Jessica Reisman – Available now

science fiction books about aliens

Weird accidents and power surges are occurring on the space station Termagenti. Is the station haunted–or is there an alien on board? Jhinsei must figure out how the members of his operations team died before their ghosts drive him insane. If you’re in Austin tomorrow, be sure to check out the launch party for Substrate Phantoms at Malvern Books. It’ll feature original music for the book performed by a local band; how cool is that?

 

4. The Gauntlet by Megan Shepherd – Available now

science fiction books about aliens

The Gauntlet is the finale of The Cage, a YA series about teenagers from Earth who have been abducted by aliens and must struggle to survive. Trapped in an oppressive lunar colony, Cora and her friends must endeavor to set humanity free by winning a competition called the Gauntlet. This is Shepherd’s second YA trilogy; the first was The Madman’s Daughtera series described as “gothic suspense.”

 

5. Injection Burn by Jason M. Hough – May 30

science fiction books about aliens

Skyler Luiken and his comrades must rescue a friendly alien race from a faraway planet. But a fearsome fleet of ships called the Swarm Blockade stands in their way. Injection Burn is book 4 of 5 in The Dire Earth Cycle but is also intended to be another entry point for newcomers to the series, acting as a “duology” with another book coming out next month, Escape Velocity.  Hough is also a game designer who co-wrote a tie-in novel for the video game Mass Effect Andromeda, which Jeff still needs to get around to playing.

 

So, what will you be reading over Memorial Day weekend?

News from Jeff Deck: On Tuesday, June 6, at the Chesley Memorial Library in Northwood NH, I’ll be reading an excerpt from my story, “Making the Transition,” in the new anthology Murder Ink 2: Sixteen More Tales of New England Newsroom Crime. It’s a peek into the world of my upcoming urban fantasy series, The Shadow Over Portsmouth; I’ll be releasing the first book in the series this summer, City of Ports. Also that week: I’ll be reading during “Wyrd: A Horror Reading Event” on Thursday, June 8 in Salem, Mass. Busy times!