Cheeseburger Gothic

Atomic City, by Sally Breen

Posted June 2, 2013 into Book Extract by John Birmingham
Ms. Breen

I'll be launching this bad grrrl at Avid on 21 June. Sally is one of my favorite writer-writers. She has great craft, as you'll see below, but none of the breathless pretense of Big-L literistas.

Atomic City is a grifter novel of the Jim Thompson school. There are no good guys, only bad guys you sorta want to hang out with anyway.

Elmore Leonard is probably the most famous modern exponent of these sorts of characters, but although he's more famous than Thompson, he didn't have the same eye for darkness.



This is Jade. Her story begins the first time you remember being lied to. Jade is the colour of a lie. A silicate of lime and magnesia, a hard green, blue or white stone. Green. A green that is not leafy lush or verdant but unripe. A green that is sour and inedible. Betrayal. A caustic taste in the mouth. White bile in the guts. Green, white, blue. White lies, the green eyed monster, licentious blue. Jade, the colour of a lie. There are certain people who are prone to being lied to. There are certain people who aren’t. But there are certain cities where the colour of lies is so camouflaged inside the fabric of the streets that every word ends up being tinged with a shade of something untrue. The Dealer lives in such a city. He was born into this prevaricated space. He has made it his life. Jade was never from here and that is why she belongs.


Jade arrived on the Gold Coast in the cold season. I remember the time: 3.57 pm. It had been a long afternoon, the floor subdued. I was still a rookie then, what the other dealers call a lumpy, but I was working my way in. She came directly to my table. Blackjack. Round 701. A bunch of papers and keys in her left hand and a modest wad of cash in the other. She dragged back the vacant chair in front of me resting her stash on the rubber lip of the table. I checked out the papers under her hand. Usual hotel check-in paraphernalia and a bus ticket. Couldn’t see the details, but wherever she was from she wasn’t wasting any time.

Jade settled quickly. She put the papers between her legs, drew out a few hundred dollar bills, waited for the next round and asked me to hit her. She was serious. She was young. Not an average combination.

I remember her hands – quick, elegant hands with fast fingers – but I didn’t miss the way they shook. The shaking got me. It wasn’t nerves. The rest of her was clear, focused. It wasn’t

drink, because her eyes didn’t drift. It was something else. Jade had the sickness; something I knew about, something I hadn’t seen for a while. Everyone in the Casino had symptoms; not everyone had the sickness like her. I felt it as soon as she sat down; the mix of intensity and distance. Jade was on the take.

But she wasn’t like the others. She was sick but she wasn’t diseased. Jade could have left that table, that room, anytime. What drove her wasn’t addiction; I saw addiction every day. She knew about the game, she knew where her decisions were taking her. It wasn’t fear or excitement making her shake, but knowledge. Jade was here for something else, something bigger than a dice or card. And when she looked at me, straight into me, she knew I’d seen it.

We played.

Our hands conducted the game on that table. The game between us was happening in our heads. Her eyes, our subtle smiles were locked in a forcefield the table kept at bay. The faster I dealt the more she defied me. It wasn’t the cash she wanted then. In twenty minutes she had my number.

Like most practised gamblers, Jade didn’t attempt to speak to me. She hit the table with her index finger when she wanted something and sliced her hand through the air when she didn’t. And I liked talking in symbols, it was what I was trained to do but I found myself wanting more than anything to speak to her. The game on the table kept me quiet. Three other players on either side of Jade, one of them Asian, all good but typically last-minute and fussy. Jade, win or lose, just kept firing.

I remember she sat the last one out. No play, just sat there and watched my hands and every movement I made was cleaner, magnified, better because she was there. I forgot about the machines and their tidal noise, the sound of money falling into steel traps, the rattle of tokens flushed repetitively down holes. None of it was there. My eyes didn’t register the swirls of insistent light, flowing up the walls, rolling reflected over our bodies. I concentrated only on the fluid movement of my hands. The precision of my splays and folds was perfect; the

effortlessness in my features right; it was a ballet, a test, and when she pulled her papers out of her lap in preparation to leave I found myself, mid-deal, wanting to stop but I didn’t. I kept dealing and tried to let her know with my eyes there had to be more time. And in that moment I sealed my fate.

Jade smiled.

She took her room key, a flat acrylic card, white and shiny and angled it towards me so I could see the number ‘1109’ then she stacked her tokens and left. A look back wasn’t necessary; Jade knew she had me. And that’s when I got scared. As soon as she’d fallen out of my line of vision I remembered why I wasn’t on the take anymore. Why I’d spent so long trying to undo the fallout. Why I’d started dealing because I thought working on the other side of the table would keep me clean. I faced people all the time who acted like they knew but all they did was make gambling easier to refuse. Jade changed all that.

I was still vulnerable to the rush. Still curious.

Whatever she wanted me for, the possibilities, the idea of what might happen was charging in like rapid fire between me and an old friend – but I didn’t have any friends by then and I didn’t even know her name. All I knew was my past was irrelevant. A woman I’d never spoken to had superseded it and I was heading as fast as I could to that room.

6 Responses to ‘Atomic City, by Sally Breen’

Barnesm puts forth...

Posted June 2, 2013

Look that was all very well, the darkening gloom, the morally ambigous tones, the sparse pared back style all their well represented. As fan of this stuff I liked what I read.

My only complaint, a significant lack of Atomics for an atomic city? and don't tease me with the word Fallout unless it is nuclear.

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HAVOCK21 would have you know...

Posted June 2, 2013

And much much better fkn looking than you I might add!

Dino not to be confused with mumbles...

Posted June 2, 2013


Now that you mention it...

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Paul_Nicholas_Boylan swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 3, 2013

I thought that was John.

Sometimes a bloke just wants to feel pretty.

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Dan asserts...

Posted August 8, 2015
I'm just not 'buying it.' Just like The Casuals it is a thoroughly boring and predictable read. Made only worse by Ms Breen's insistence that she is interesting. Her delusion that she is an important author shines through in everything she writes. A bit sickening.

John Birmingham mumbles...

Posted August 9, 2015
Jeez, Dan. You're a little slow getting your review in, mate.

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Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport By Anna Krien

Posted May 19, 2013 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

‘Cops want to catch crooks, they don’t want to be social workers,’ he said. ‘I’m not saying they don’t care about the victims – it’s just that a lot of police aren’t equipped with the skills to deal with the complicated issues that sexual assaults offer up. A break-in rape – now that’s a good job, a “feather in your cap” job.’

‘Because there is an obvious villain?’ I asked.

‘Exactly. A crap job, however, is a fourteen-year-old goes to a party, says she was raped, the guys say she was with everyone. That’s too hard.’

Davies spent twenty-nine years with the Victorian police force, the top cop at the sex crimes squad in his final years. It was here that he felt he could do his best work.

Intent on changing police and public perceptions of rape – perceptions that in his mind often damaged victims because their experiences didn’t suit the stereotypical scenario – Davies wrote letters to newspapers to clarify stories, met with journalists and tried to raise the profile of the squad so that the public understood its work. A fellow detective, Ken Ashworth, said Davies brought about a cultural change. ‘When a prostitute would make a complaint, police used to say it was just a civil debt,’ Davies told me later. ‘They don’t anymore.’ But then, only two years into the job, Davies found himself suspended.

It was the rape allegations on the night of Collingwood’s premiership win that partly triggered it. During a separate police integrity investigation, Davies was recorded confirming to journalists that Dayne Beams and John McCarthy were the footballers being questioned about the allegations. When the charge of unauthorised disclosure of information was laid against him, Davies was forced to resign.

Although he would never be a policeman again, Davies’ desire to change police culture had not diminished. As he loaded me up with names of authors, papers and textbooks about police and media attitudes towards rape, I asked him about the process following an allegation of rape.

A neat explanation goes a little like this, explained Davies. If the complainant comes to the police immediately, hours or days after the incident, they undergo a medical examination. Then their statement is recorded and the ‘what, where, when and who’ are established. Once all or most of these boxes are ticked, police have a potential case to prosecute and the complainant will get their ‘options’ talk. ‘This will involve talking them through the prosecution and court process.’

The process of the investigation, however, is rarely neat. The complainant’s statement is invariably picked over for inconsistencies and credibility. ‘They know that any weakness in credibility of the complainant will be seized on by the defence.’ Davies added that this can often be done with a fair degree of scepticism. ‘There’s the, “C’mon, tell us what really happened” or “If I ring your boyfriend, what will he say? Do you have a boyfriend?”’

The complainant’s initial reaction to the alleged assault is almost always interrogated, the general belief being that there are only two options available to a victim: fight or flight.

‘But there’s a third reaction,’ he said, ‘and it’s the most common one. It’s “freeze.”’ Like a rabbit caught in headlights, the vulnerable person simply seizes up, unable to flee or to fight. ‘But that doesn’t suit police, the media or the courts – you’ll always have a defendant’s lawyer saying, “Why didn’t you scream?”’

Then there is the tricky scenario in which the complainant actually knows the offender. ‘You’ll have police asking, “If you were raped by this guy, then why did you go back and see him?”’

But again, Davies said, the complainant’s reactions are far from practised in such a situation, and in some instances they’re second-guessing themselves. ‘Especially when the guy they think may have raped them comes back to them the next day and says they “had a great night.” She’ll be like, “What? It was hell. Is this the same night we’re talking about?” Often men will “retell” the situation and dress it up as something it wasn’t.’

The options talk is a necessity, no matter how cold and pragmatic it may seem to the complainant. Carolyn Worth at the South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault told me about a situation in which a woman, after being told what she could expect during a trial, decided she would not be able to handle the crossexamination. The woman had Tourette’s syndrome, explained Worth, sighing. ‘She knew she wouldn’t be able to withstand the questioning. The thing is, what made her not testify is likely to be the same reason her neighbour raped her. She was vulnerable, a perfect target.’

A friend of mine who was raped at a wedding reception when she was in her late teens was told quite pragmatically by a police officer and a sexual assualt counsellor that she would have to accept that she’d no doubt be ruining the wedding couple’s memories of their special day if she decided to take the offender to trial.

‘I was told that most of the wedding party would have to testify,’ she said, adding that the options talk had been so discouraging that she had even started to question if the assault had happened, despite the physical evidence. ‘I should have been encouraged to go through with it. I had a toxicology result proving that I had Rohypnol in my system from that night. Who knows how many others the same guy has done it to since?’

The options talk is also about police explaining what the complainant’s chances are of getting a conviction – and if the prospects are low, then police will most likely be advising against pursuing the case, or will already have made the decision to suspend their investigations.

Davies believed police needed to be less focused on getting a win in court. ‘The law is very specific about what is rape and what is not, but it’s not being applied. We’re not brave enough in our own prosecuting,’ he said. ‘I’ve heard numerous sergeants say, “Oh, it will never get up” and “The Office of Public Prosecutions, they just want a win.” But we need to not focus so much on conviction, but keep putting these cases in front of juries and maybe one day they’ll be more sophisticated in their understanding of rape.’

I wondered if this was why Justin was charged and the others who came under investigation on the same evening were not (Sarah’s statement revealed she’d made multiple complaints against multiple protagonists) – because police assumed a jury would not be sophisticated enough to understand the nuances of the bedroom allegations, while the charges against Justin involved a classic rape stereotype. The setting was, after all, a dark alleyway.

‘I had a sergeant come up to me recently,’ Davies continued, ‘and he’s a good policeman, but even he said to me he was confused about what to do in a rape case he was investigating, that it just came down to “he said, she said.” And I said, “How can you be confused? You charge him. Why not? You do the same with a robbery. If a complainant was robbed in the street and identified the assailant, the police would not hesitate in charging the offender.”’

I was uneasy. ‘But a rape charge is different, surely? I mean, you can’t rub that off. It’s a permanent stain.’

I wanted to agree entirely with Davies, to share completely in his horror at the treatment of rape complainants, but something kept snagging in my thoughts and it was Justin. His quiet and gentle manner threw me. When I looked at him in the dock, snared in a stereotypical rape scenario from the alleyway to the aftermath, he didn’t seem to fit the stereotype that went with the story. A stereotype that seems to rely on a typology popularised in 1979 by Dr Nicholas Groth in his book Men Who Rape: the ‘sadistic,’ ‘anger’ or ‘power’ rapist, men varying in their motives but all premeditated in their hunt for vulnerable prey. Justin seemed like a boy in comparison.

But this was naïve. ‘There is no type,’ Dr Angela Williams, a forensic physician with much experience of rape cases, later said to me. ‘I meet a lot of offenders, and not one is a guy hiding behind a tree. You can’t pick them in a crowd, but they can pick out their victim – it is someone in a vulnerable position, be it a family member, an ex-partner or someone who is very drunk.’

Williams said in spite of commonly held beliefs about rape and rapists, only about one in a hundred offenders was the ‘tree’ man, the rape occurring in the alley, by the train tracks or in the bushes. Among her colleagues, these stereotypical scenarios were often referred to as ‘rape myths.’ ‘You never hear about the husband who rapes his wife and brings her flowers the next day. Or the guy who’s a top bloke, plays cricket at the local club and so on. And as a result, the victim looks at these myths and thinks no one is ever going to believe them.’

The same thing applied to the victims of rape: ‘I meet all sorts of girls and women, they can be covered head to toe, in work attire, dressed for a nightclub, in gym gear, there is no pattern.’

And then there was the question of how to define rape itself.

Anna Krien

10 Responses to ‘Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport By Anna Krien’

Barnesm ducks in to say...

Posted May 19, 2013

It certainly sounds like it will be a timely book, given recent and all to frequent cases. The Steubenville High School rape cases upper most in my mind at the moment. I think at least a culture that contributes to rape is being talk about. I hope that is only an intial step in trying to change things for the better.

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JG ducks in to say...

Posted May 19, 2013

Thanks for the extract, John. It seems a most useful book in that it challenges the myths and stereotypes about rape. I hope the police and judicial system learn from it, and that rape victims are comforted and feel heard by reading it.

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Barnesm is gonna tell you...

Posted May 19, 2013

Can you imagine the comments if this was a Bluntie? The Ban Hammer would be worn down to a nub by noon.

John Birmingham mumbles...

Posted May 19, 2013

Well, I doubt I'd get away with extracts at Blunty. But yeah.

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Toni Fish swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 20, 2013

Thanks for sharing the extract, JB. Seems like a long-overdue account of the problems regarding rape, policing and false assumptions in our culture.

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Jayanthi's Atomic Cat would have you know...

Posted May 20, 2013

Very interesting, JB. Thanks. Found the comment by Dr Williams interesting...I would have to say with the majority of my female friends, they are less worried about the stranger behind the tree and more worried about having their drinks spiked in a nightclub. I wonder if you looked at different age brackets, whether certain 'myths' would be more pervasive - that would be logical, wouldn't it?

I am curious to read this book and will go get a copy. In my previous life as a counsellor I counselled a few young women who were raped (none in an elite sports setting though) and almost inevitably part of them knew they were putting themselves in a risky position (even with boys/men they knew) and regretted not listening to their intuition later. There were a lot of reasons they didn't listen to their intuition, and it often involved being perceived negatively by their male and/or female peers if they 'backed out'. Would the same apply, perhaps even more strongly, in the elite sports setting? Does it make it harder to stand up for yourself and say 'no'? I strongly agree with Williams' comment about perpetrators being able to pick their victims. This does not just apply to rape but to other situations such as domenstic violence. OK, dismounting from counselling horse now.

Jayanthi's Atomic Cat has opinions thus...

Posted May 20, 2013
Not generalizing the above to all women or all situations btw, and certainly not suggesting that it's as simple as ' just say no'! Although aspects of culture can make it hard to pass on certain risky behaviours e.g. Binge drinking as another example.

Promise, i have stabled the counselling horse now.

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Matthew K is gonna tell you...

Posted May 20, 2013

Sounds like police culture is very similar between UK and Oz.

The drink spiking is the most terrifyingbecause of the possibility that it happens so much and it appears so ambiguous in that we are a fairly drunken society. It might well have happened to my sister when she was at uni, luckily her puzzled and exasperated friends took her home.

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Matthew K ducks in to say...

Posted May 21, 2013

Spiking someone, with anything, no matter what the motivation, is such scum behaviour. It's a sort of rape all by itself.

Jayanthi's Atomic Cat asserts...

Posted May 21, 2013
Well put, Matthew, and dead on target. Like rape, it's about power.

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The Bloodline Feud

Posted May 13, 2013 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

Now with fewer unicorns.

Miriam drove away slowly, distractedly, nodding in time to the beat of the windshield wipers. Traffic was as bad as usual, but nothing untoward penetrated her thoughts.

She parked, then hunched her shoulders against the weather and scurried to her front door. As usual, her keys got muddled up. Why does this always happen when I’m in a hurry? she wondered. Inside, she shook her way out of her raincoat and jacket like a newborn moth emerging from its sodden cocoon, hung them on the coat rail, then dumped her shoulder bag and the now-damp cardboard box on the old telephone table and bent to unzip her boots. Free of the constraints of leather, her feet flexed luxuriously as she slid them into a pair of battered pink slippers. Then she spotted the answering machine’s blinking light. ‘You have new messages,’ she sang to herself, slightly manic with relief at being home. ‘Fuck ’em.’ She headed for the kitchen to switch on the coffeepot, then poured a mug and carried it into her den.

The den had once been the dining room of this suburban home, a rectangular space linked to the living room by an archway and to the kitchen by a serving hatch. Now it was a cramped office, two walls jammed with bookcases and a third occupied by a huge battered desk. The remaining wall was occupied by a set of French windows opening onto the rear deck. Rain left twisting slug trails down the windows, kicking up splashes from the half-submerged ceramic pots outside. Miriam planted the coffee mug in the middle of the pile of stuff that accumulated on her desk and frowned at the effect.

‘It’s a mess,’ she said aloud, bemused. ‘How the hell did it get this untidy?’

‘This is bad,’ she said, standing in front of her desk. ‘You hear me?’ The stubborn paperwork and scattering of gadgets stubbornly refused to obey, so she attacked them, sorting the letters into piles, opening unopened mail and discarding the junk, hunting receipts and filing bills. The desk turned out to be almost nine months deep in trivia, and cleaning it up was a welcome distraction from having to think about her experience at work. When the desk actually showed a clear surface – and she’d applied the kitchen cleaner to the coffee rings – she started on the e-mail. That took longer, and by the time she’d checked off everything in her inbox, the rain battering on the windows was falling out of a darkening sky as night fell.

When everything was looking shipshape, another thought struck her. ‘Paperwork. Hmm.’ She went through into the hall and fetched the pink and green shoebox. Making a face, she upended it onto the desk. Papers mushroomed out, and something clattered and skittered onto the floor. ‘Huh?’ It was a paper bag. Something in it, a hard, cold nucleus, had spilled over the edge of the desk. She hunted around for a few seconds, then stooped and triumphantly deposited bag and contents next to the pile of yellowing clippings, rancid photocopies, and creamy documents. One of which, now that she examined it, looked like a birth certificate – no, one of those forms that gets filled in in place of a birth certificate when the full details are unknown. Baby Jane Doe, age approximately six weeks, weight blah, eye color green, sex female, parents unknown . . . for a moment Miriam felt as if she was staring at it down a dark tunnel from a long way away.

Ignoring the thing-that-rattled, Miriam went through the papers and sorted these, too, into two stacks. Press clippings and bureaucracy. The clippings were mostly photocopies: They told a simple – if mysterious – tale that had been familiar to her since the age of four. A stabbing in the park. A young woman – apparently a hippie or maybe a Gypsy, judging by her strange clothes – found dead on the edge of a wooded area. The cause of death was recorded as massive blood loss caused by a deep wound across her back and left shoulder, inflicted by some kind of edged weapon, maybe a machete. That was unusual enough. What made it even more unusual was the presence of the six-week-old baby shrieking her little heart out nearby. An elderly man walking his dog had called the police. It was a seven-day wonder.

Miriam knew the end to that story lay somewhere in Morris and Iris Beckstein’s comforting arms. She’d done her best to edit this other dangling bloody end to the story out of her life. She didn’t want to be someone else’s child: She had two perfectly good parents of her own, and the common assumption that blood ties must be thicker than upbringing rankled. Iris’s history taught better – the only child of Holocaust refugees settled in an unfriendly English town after the war, she’d emigrated at twenty and never looked back after meeting and marrying Morris.

Miriam shook out the contents of the paper bag over the not-quite birth certificate. It was a lens-shaped silver locket on a fine chain. Tarnished and dull with age, its surface was engraved with some sort of crest of arms: a shield and animals. It looked distinctly cheap. ‘Hmm.’ She picked it up and peered at it closely. This must be what Ma told me about, she thought. Valuable? There was some sort of catch under the chain’s loop. ‘I wonder…’

She opened it.

Instead of the lover’s photographs she’d half-expected, the back of the shell contained a knotwork design, enamel painted in rich colors. Curves of rich ocher looped and interpenetrated, weaving above and beneath a branch of turquoise. The design was picked out in silver – it was far brighter than the exposed outer case had suggested.
Miriam sighed and leaned back in her sprung office chair. ‘Well, there goes that possibility,’ she told the press clippings gloomily. No photographs of her mother or long-lost father. Just some kind of tacky cloissoné knotwork design. She looked at it closer. Knotwork. Vaguely Celtic knotwork. The left-hand cell appeared to be a duplicate of the right-hand one. If she traced that arc from the top left and followed it under the blue arc –

Why had her birth-mother carried this thing? What did it mean to her? (The blue arc connected through two interlinked green whorls.) What had she seen when she stared into it? Was it some kind of meditation aid? Or just a pretty picture? It certainly wasn’t any kind of coat of arms.

Miriam leaned back further. Lifting the locket, she dangled it in front of her eyes, letting the light from the bookcase behind her catch the silver highlights. Beads of dazzling blue-white heat seemed to trace their way around the knot’s heart. She squinted, feeling her scalp crawl. The sound of her heart beating in her ears became unbearably loud: There was a smell of burning toast, the sight of an impossible knot twisting in front of her eyes like some kind of stereoisogram forming in midair, trying to turn her head inside out –

Three things happened simultaneously. An abrupt sense of nausea washed over her, the lightbulb went out, and her chair fell over backward.

‘Ouch! Dammit!’ Something thumped into Miriam’s side, doubling her over as she hit the ground and rolled over, pulling her arms in to protect her face. A racking spasm caught her by the gut, leaving her feeling desperately sick, and the arm of the chair came around and whacked her in the small of her back. Her knees were wet, and the lights were out. ‘Hell!’ Her head was splitting, the heartbeat throb pounding like a jackhammer inside her skull, and her stomach was twisting. A sudden flash of fear: This can’t be a migraine. The onset is way too fast. Malignant hypertension? The urge to vomit was strong, but after a moment it began to ebb. Miriam lay still for a minute, waiting for her stomach to come under control and the lights to come back on. Am I having an aneurism? She gripped the locket so tightly that it threatened to dig a hole in her right fist. Carefully she tried to move her arms and legs: Everything seemed to be working and she managed a shallow sigh of relief. Finally, when she was sure her guts were going to be all right, she pushed herself up onto her knees and saw –


Trees everywhere.

Trees inside her den.

Where did the walls go?

Afterward, she could never remember that next terrible minute. It was dark, of course, but not totally dark: She was in twilight on a forested slope, with beech and elm and other familiar trees looming ominously out of the twilight. The ground was dry, and her chair lay incongruously in a thicket of shrubbery not far from the base of a big maple tree. When she looked around, she could see no sign of her house, or the neighboring apartments, or of the lights along the highway. Is there a total blackout? she wondered, confused. Did I sleepwalk or something?

She stumbled to her feet, her slippers treacherous on leaf mulch and dry grass stems. She shivered. It was cold – not quite winter-cold, but too chilly to be wandering around in pants, a turtleneck, and bedroom slippers. And –

‘Where the hell am I?’ she asked the empty sky. ‘What the hell?’

Then the irony of her situation kicked in and she began to giggle, frightened and edgy and afraid she wouldn’t be able to stop. She did a twirl, in place, trying to see whatever there was to see. Sylvan idyll at nightfall, still-life with deranged dot-com refugee and brown office furniture. A gust of wind rattled the branches overhead, dislodging a chilly shower of fat drops: A couple landed on Miriam’s arms and face, making her shudder.

The air was fresh – too fresh. And there was none of the subliminal background hum of a big city, the noise that never completely died. It didn’t get this quiet even out in the country – and indeed, when she paused to listen, it wasn’t quiet; she could hear distant bird-song in the deepening twilight.

She took a deep breath, then another. Forced herself to thrust the hand with the locket into her hip pocket and let go of the thing. She patted it obsessively for a minute, whimpering slightly at the pain in her head. No holes, she thought vaguely. She’d once worn pants like this where her spare change had worn a hole in the pocket lining and eventually spilled on the ground, causing no end of a mess.

For some reason, the idea of losing possession of the locket filled her with stomach-churning dread. She looked up. The first stars of evening were coming out, and the sky was almost clear of cloud. It was going to be a cold night.

‘Item,’ she muttered. ‘You are not at home. Ouch. You have a splitting headache and you don’t think you fell asleep in the chair, even though you were in it when you arrived here.’ She looked around in wild surmise. She’d never been one for the novels Ben occasionally read, but she’d seen enough trashy TV series to pick up the idea. Twilight Zone, Time Squad, programs like that. ‘Item: I don’t know where or when I am, but this ain’t home. Do I stay put and hope I automagically snap back into my own kitchen or . . . what? It was the locket, no two ways about it. Do I look at it again to go back?”

She fumbled into her pocket nervously. Her fingers wrapped around warm metal. She breathed more easily. ‘Right. Right.’ Just nerves, she thought. Alone in a forest at night – what lived here? Bears? Cougars? There could be anything here, anything at all. Be a fine joke if she went exploring and stepped on a rattler, wouldn’t it? Although in this weather . . . ‘I’d better go home,’ she murmured to herself and was about to pull the locket out when she saw a flicker of light in the distance.

She was disoriented, tired, had just had a really bad day, and some cosmic trickster-god had dumped a magic amulet on her to see what she’d do with it. That was the only explanation, she reasoned afterward. A sane Miriam would have sat down and analyzed her options, then assembled a plan of action. But it wasn’t a sane Miriam who saw those flickers of orange light and went crashing through the trees downhill toward them.


A jingle, as of chains. Thudding and hollow clonking noises – and low voices. She stumbled out into the sudden expanse of a trail – not a wide one, more of a hiking trail, the surface torn up and muddy. Lights! She stared at them, at the men on horseback coming down the trail toward her, the lantern held on a pole by the one in the lead. Dim light glinted off reflecting metal, helmet, and breastplate like something out of a museum. Someone called out something that sounded like: ‘Curl!’ Look. He’s riding toward me, she thought dazedly. What’s that he’s –

Her guts liquid with absolute fright, she turned and ran. The flat crack of rifle fire sounded behind her, repeated short bursts firing into the night. Invisible fingers ripped at the branches overhead as Miriam heard voices raised in hue and cry behind her. Low branches scratched at her face as she ran, gasping and crying, uphill away from the path. More bangs, more gunshots – astonishingly few of them, but any at all was too many. She ran straight into a tree, fell back winded, brains rattling around inside her head like dried peas in a pod, then she pushed herself to her feet again faster than she’d have believed possible and stumbled on into the night, gasping for breath, praying for rescue.

Eventually she stopped. Somewhere along the way she’d lost her slippers. Her face and ribs felt bruised, her head was pounding, and she could barely breathe. But she couldn’t hear any sounds of pursuit. Her skin felt oddly tight, and everything was far too cold. As soon as she was no longer running, she doubled over and succumbed to a fit of racking coughs, prolonged by her desperate attempts to muffle them. Her chest was on fire. Oh god, any god. Whoever put me here. I just want you to know that I hate you!

She stood up. Somewhere high overhead the wind sighed. Her skin itched with the fear of pursuit. I’ve got to get home, she realized. Now her skin crawled with another fear – fear that she might be wrong, that it wasn’t the locket at all, that it was something else she didn’t understand that had brought her here, that there was no way back and she’d be stranded –

When she flicked it open, the right-hand half of the locket crawled with light. Tiny specks of brilliance, not the phosphorescence of a watch dial or the bioluminescence of those plastic disposable flashlights that had become popular for a year or two, but an intense, bleached blue-white glare like a miniature star. Miriam panted, trying to let her mind drift into it, but after a minute she realized all she was achieving was giving herself a headache. ‘What did I do to make it work?’ she mumbled, puzzled and frustrated and increasingly afraid. ‘If she could make it – ’

Ah. That was what she’d been doing. Just relaxing, meditating. Wondering what her birth-mother had seen in it. Miriam gritted her teeth. How was she going to re-create that sense of detached curiosity? Here in a wild forest at night, with strangers shooting at her in the dark? How – she narrowed her eyes. The headache. If I can see my way past it, I could –

The dots of light blazed up for a moment in glorious conflagration. Miriam jackknifed forward, saw the orange washout of streetlights shining down on a well-mowed lawn. Then her stomach rebelled and this time she couldn’t keep it down. It was all she could do to catch her breath between heaves. Somehow her guts had been replaced by a writhing snake, and the racking spasms kept pulsing through her until she began to worry about tearing her esophagus.

She heard the sound of a car slowing – then speeding up again as the driver saw her vomiting. A yell from the window, inarticulate, something like ‘Drunk fucking bums!’ Something clattered into the road. Miriam didn’t care. Dampness and cold clenched their icy fingers around her, but she didn’t care: She was back in civilization, away from the threatening trees and her pursuers. She stumbled off the front lawn of somebody’s house and sensed harsh asphalt beneath her bare feet, stones digging into her soles. A street sign said it was somewhere she knew. One of the other side roads off Grafton Street. She was less than two miles from home.

Drip. She looked up. Drip. The rain began to fall again, sluicing down her aching face. Her clothes were stained and filthy with mud and vomit. Her legs were scratched and felt bruised. Home. It was a primal imperative. Put one foot in front of another, she told herself through the deafening hammering in her skull. Her head hurt, and the world was spinning around her.

An indefinite time – perhaps thirty minutes, perhaps an hour – later, she saw a familiar sight through the downpour. Soaked to the skin and shivering, she nevertheless felt like a furnace. Her house seemed to shimmer like a mirage in the desert when she looked at it. And now she discovered another problem – she’d come out without her keys! Silly me, what was I thinking? she wondered vaguely. Nothing but this locket, she thought, weaving its chain around her right index finger.

The shed, whispered a vestige of cool control in the back of her head. Oh, yes, the shed, she answered herself.

She stumbled around the side of her house, past the cramped green rug that passed for a yard, to the shed in back. It was padlocked, but the small side window wasn’t actually fastened and if you pulled just so it would open outward. It took her three tries and half a fingernail – the rain had warped the wood somewhat – but once open she could thrust an arm inside and fumble around for the hook with the key dangling from it on a loop. She fetched the key, opened the padlock – dropping it casually on the lawn – and found, taped to the underside of the workbench, the spare key to the French doors. She was home.

20 Responses to ‘The Bloodline Feud’

Barnesm has opinions thus...

Posted May 13, 2013

Great stuff, I wasn't are of this series, no doubt in part due to the god-awful unicornesque covers that they bore I looked right over them. My favourite Charles Stross work at the moment is his Laundry Files a chulthlu /spy genre mash up which blends the best of both. For those in the know beware CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN.

Dilph mumbles...

Posted May 13, 2013

Laundry Files? A mate of mine was trying to get me involved in a pen-and-paper RPG that sounds like it's set in the same universe, a little while back. I thought it was a stand-alone - didn't realise there were novels attached, or that Stross was involved. Colour me a lot more intrigued about Stross in general after that little revelation, and I like the exerpt. Much better than the only Stross I've read so far - Accelerando - which was... dry, to my taste.

I think I need to give him a second chance...

Geoffrey Brent puts forth...

Posted May 13, 2013

Yeah, Stross writes in a couple of different styles. Accelerando is towards the hard-sci-fi-tech-oriented end; lots of interesting ideas but it got a bit confused towards the end and I didn't really warm to the characters.

The Laundry Files series is a lot easier to get into, IMHO. It still requires thought, but more engaging characters and more coherently plotted.

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Bunyip mumbles...

Posted May 13, 2013

They may be parallel genre-wise, but I dont think it(if you're talking about the system I'm thinking about) are specifically linked to Stross's IP.

Dilph would have you know...

Posted May 13, 2013

I think I need to do some research to find out - it might have been a homebrew deal or something, because the DM is a pretty hardcore SF/cthulhu nut. Either way, British X-files Cthulhu sounds like fun...

Bunyip ducks in to say...

Posted May 13, 2013

"...think it(...) are..." FFS.

Boss, I need that edit function.

John Birmingham has opinions thus...

Posted May 13, 2013

Imma get you edit real soon now.

Blarkon would have you know...

Posted May 13, 2013

The Laundry RPG I have is definitely the Strossian one.

Anthony mutters...

Posted May 14, 2013

The first laundry novel is more like the Ipcress file than the X-files. Although I'm a sucker for an alternate history series (References to invading space lizards and Harry Turteltaub indeed Mr Birmingham!) I'm also very fond of a ood spy nvel. The only disappoinment with the Laundry series was that the Fuller Memorandum didn't draw on the Quiller novels (apart from the title).

Still, speaking as a former denizen of the scary devil monastery, any novelist who puts in throwaway lines to ASR, Lusers and LARTS (to say nothing of combining USB ports andd sympathetic magic) just has to get my vote.

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Darth Greybeard ducks in to say...

Posted May 13, 2013

There must be some parallel to a person who gives you a little free taste that gets you hooked and leaves you, wallet open, looking for more. But what could it be?

w from brisbane puts forth...

Posted May 13, 2013

Greybeard. Shame on you!
That's no way to talk about Bait Birmingham.

Darth Greybeard puts forth...

Posted May 13, 2013

(grumble) More like Candy Man J.

Matthew F. reckons...

Posted May 13, 2013

Candyman? So if I say his name five times into a mirror he'll appear behind me and blurb my book?

damian asserts...

Posted May 13, 2013

So if I bury a portugese custard tart in the crossroads at midnight, my first book will have Volvo smell?

Bunyip swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 13, 2013

Just let us know if it starts raining smartphones...

Matthew F. puts forth...

Posted May 14, 2013

If you bury a Portuguese custard tart at the crossroads at midnight, you'll look down to see JB lying quietly in the hole with his mouth open, hoping you haven't noticed him.

Respond to this thread

Bunyip reckons...

Posted May 13, 2013

Might have to buy this to *cough* check it's suitablity for the bibliophile minion *cough*.

Barnesm mumbles...

Posted May 13, 2013

The_weapon is 13 years old and really liked the second book in the series 'The Jennifer Morgue'.

Bunyip puts forth...

Posted May 13, 2013

Ta. Will discuss it with She that wields the Kindle.

Respond to this thread

Matthew K asserts...

Posted May 15, 2013

Oh is THAT why that promising series went oddly tits up at the end?

Personally I thought it was Stross suddenly going on a rant to push his unsubtle left of centre Scots views down paying customers throats. Bush and Cheney were the ultimate bad guys mmkay?

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Respond to 'The Bloodline Feud'

Red Country, Joe Abercrombie

Posted May 6, 2013 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

I met Joe at Supa Nova earlier this year and found him to be a first rate cove, not at all stuck up, a bloke whose urine would probably be worth a long sip on a hot afternoon. I put off reading his books for a while, because somebody told me they were very sad. In that they were brilliant, but the reading of them would leave you feeling melancholy. And who needs that?

What fucking tosh.

I ripped through the audiobook of Red Country last week and enjoyed it as much as I did the Rothfuss novels, which stood out as books of the year for me. Both of them are working the sword-n-sandal scam, but in very different ways. There is a meaty, gristly nasty fucking realism about Abercrombie's prose which is leavened by some of the funniest characterisation and ink black humour I've long encountered.

I enjoyed it so much I'm going to set it as the Bookclub title after Chasm City. Joe might even drop into the chat at some point over the weekend.

We have an very long extract this week, and one worth your undivided attention if you want to come back at lunch. It's the second chapter in the book, which introduces one of the principle narrators, and some of my favorite villains. It was also where I realised Red Country was going to be a funny book, even if a dark one:

Red Country. Chapter Two. The Easy Way

‘I have suffered many disappointments.’ Nicomo Cosca, captain general of the Company of the Gracious Hand, leaned back stiffly upon one elbow as he spoke. ‘I suppose every great man faces them. Abandons dreams wrecked by betrayal and finds new ones to pursue.’ He frowned towards Mulkova, columns of smoke drifting from the burning city and up into the blue heavens. ‘I have abandoned very many dreams.’

‘That must have taken tremendous courage,’ said Sworbreck, eyeglasses briefly twinkling as he looked up from his notes.

‘Indeed! I lose count of the number of times my death has been prematurely declared by one optimistic enemy or another. Forty years of trials, struggles, challenges, betrayals. Live long enough . . . you see everything ruined.’ Cosca shook himself from his reverie. ‘But it hasn’t been boring, at least! What adventures along the way, eh, Temple?’

Temple winced. He had borne personal witness to five years of occasional fear, frequent tedium, intermittent diarrhoea, failure to avoid the plague, and avoiding fighting as if it was the plague. But he was not paid for the truth. Far from it.

‘Heroic,’ he said.

‘Temple is my notary. He prepares the contracts and sees them honoured. One of the cleverest bastards I ever met. How many languages do you speak, Temple?’

‘Fluently, no more than six.’

‘Most important man in the whole damn Company! Apart from me, of course.’ A breeze washed across the hillside and stirred the wispy white hairs about Cosca’s liver-spotted pate. ‘I so look forward to telling you my stories, Sworbreck!’ Temple restrained another grimace of distaste. ‘The Siege of Dagoska!’ Which ended in utter disaster. ‘The Battle of Afieri!’ Shameful debacle. ‘The Years of Blood!’ Sides changed like shirts. ‘The Kadiri Campaign!’ Drunken fiasco. ‘I even kept a goat for several years. A stubborn beast, but loyal, you’d have to give her that . . .’

Sworbreck achieved the not-inconsiderable feat of performing an obsequious bow while sitting cross-legged against a slab of fallen masonry. ‘I have no doubt my readers will thrill to your exploits.’

‘Enough to fill twenty volumes!’

‘Three will be more than adequate—’

‘I was once Grand Duke of Visserine, you know.’ Cosca waved down attempts at abasement which had, in fact, not happened. ‘Don’t worry, you need not call me Excellency – we are all informal here in the Company of the Gracious Hand, are we not, Temple?’

Temple took a long breath. ‘We are all informal.’ Most of them were liars, all of them were thieves, some of them were killers. Informality was not surprising.

‘Sergeant Friendly has been with me even longer than Temple, ever since we deposed Grand Duke Orso and placed Monzcarro Murcatto on the throne of Talins.’

Sworbreck looked up. ‘You know the Grand Duchess?’

‘Intimately. I consider it no exaggeration to say I was her close friend and mentor. I saved her life at the siege of Muris, and she mine! The story of her rise to power is one I must relate to you at some stage, a noble business. There are precious few persons of quality I have not fought for or against at one time or another. Sergeant Friendly?’

The neckless sergeant looked up, face a blank slab.

‘What have you made of your time with me?’

‘I preferred prison.’ And he returned to rolling his dice, an activity which could fully occupy him for hours at a time.

‘He is such a wag, that one!’ Cosca waved a bony finger at him, though there was no evidence of a joke. In five years Temple had never heard Sergeant Friendly make a joke. ‘Sworbreck, you will find the Company alive with joshing good fun!’

Not to mention simmering feuds, punishing laziness, violence, disease, looting, treachery, drunkenness and debauchery fit to make a devil blush.

‘These five years,’ said Temple, ‘I’ve hardly stopped laughing.’

There was a time he had found the Old Man’s stories hilarious, enchanting, stirring. A magical glimpse of what it was to be without fear. Now they made him feel sick. Whether Temple had learned the truth or Cosca had forgotten it, it was hard to say. Perhaps a little of both.

‘Yes, it’s been quite a career. Many proud moments. Many triumphs. But defeats, too. Every great man has them. Regrets are the cost of the business, Sazine always used to say. People have often accused me of inconsistency but I feel that I have always, at any given junction, done the same thing. Exactly what I pleased.’ The aged mercenary’s fickle attention having wandered back to his imagined glorious past, Temple began to ease away, slipping around a broken column. ‘I had a happy childhood but a wild youth, filled with ugly incidents, and at seventeen I left my birthplace to seek my fortune with only my wits, my courage, and my trusty blade . . .’

The sounds of boasting mercifully faded as Temple retreated down the hillside, stepping from the shadow of the ancient ruin and into the sun. Whatever Cosca might say, there was little joshing good fun going on down here.

Temple had seen wretchedness. He had lived through more than his share. But he had rarely seen people so miserable as the Company’s latest batch of prisoners: a dozen of the fearsome rebels of Starikland chained naked, bloody, filthy and dead-eyed to a stake in the ground. It was hard to imagine them a threat to the greatest nation in the Circle of the World. It was hard to imagine them as humans. Only the tattoos on their forearms showed some last futile defiance.

Fuck the Union. Fuck the King. Read the nearest, a line of bold script from elbow to wrist. A sentiment with which Temple had increasing sympathy. He was developing a sneaking feeling he had found his way onto the wrong side. Again. But it’s not always easy to tell when you’re picking. Perhaps, as Kahdia once told him, you are on the wrong side as soon as you pick one. But it had been Temple’s observation that it was those caught in the middle that always get the worst of it. And he was done with getting the worst.

Sufeen stood by the prisoners, an empty canteen in one hand.

‘What are you about?’ asked Temple.

‘He is wasting water,’ said Bermi, lounging in the sun nearby and scratching at his blond beard.

‘On the contrary,’ said Sufeen. ‘I am trying to administer God’s mercy to our prisoners.’

One had a terrible wound in his side, undressed. His eyes flickered, his lips mouthed meaningless orders or meaningless prayers. Once you could smell a wound there was little hope. But the outlook for the others was no better. ‘If there is a God, He is a smarmy swindler and never to be trusted with anything of importance,’ muttered Temple. ‘Mercy would be to kill them.’

Bermi concurred. ‘I’ve been saying so.’

‘But that would take courage.’ Sufeen lifted his scabbard, offering up the hilt of his sword. ‘Have you courage, Temple?’

Temple snorted.

Sufeen let the weapon drop. ‘Nor I. And so I give them water, and have not enough even of that. What is happening at the top of the hill?’

‘We await our employers. And the Old Man is feeding his vanity.’

‘That’s a hell of an appetite to satisfy,’ said Bermi, picking daisies and flicking them away.

‘Bigger every day. It rivals Sufeen’s guilt.’

‘This is not guilt,’ said Sufeen, frowning towards the prisoners. ‘This is righteousness. Did the priests not teach you that?’

‘Nothing like a religious education to cure a man of righteousness,’ muttered Temple. He thought of Haddish Kahdia speaking the lessons in the plain white room, and his younger self scoffing at them. Charity, mercy, selflessness. How conscience is that piece of Himself that God puts in every man. A splinter of the divine. One that Temple had spent long years struggling to prise out. He caught the eye of one of the rebels. A woman, hair tangled across her face. She reached out as far as the chains would allow. For the water or the sword, he could not say. Grasp your future! called the words inked into her skin. He pulled out his own canteen, frowned as he weighed it in his hand.

‘Some guilt of your own?’ asked Sufeen.

It might have been a while since he wore them, but Temple had not forgotten what chains felt like. ‘How long have you been a scout?’ he snapped.

‘Eighteen years.’

‘You should know by now that conscience is a shitty navigator.’

‘It certainly doesn’t know the country out here,’ added Bermi.

Sufeen spread wide his hands. ‘Who then shall show us the way?’

‘Temple!’ Cosca’s cracked howl, floating from above.

‘Your guide calls,’ said Sufeen. ‘You will have to give them water later.’

Temple tossed him the canteen as he headed back up the hillside. ‘You do it. Later, the Inquisition will have them.’

‘Always the easy way, eh, Temple?’ called Sufeen after him.

‘Always,’ muttered Temple. He made no apology for it.

‘Welcome, gentlemen, welcome!’ Cosca swept off his outrageous hat as their illustrious employers approached, riding in tight formation around a great fortified wagon. Even though the Old Man had, thank God, quit spirits yet again a few months before, he still seemed always slightly drunk. There was a floppy flourish to his knobbly hands, a lazy drooping of his withered eyelids, a rambling music to his speech. That and you could never be entirely sure what he would do or say next. There had been a time Temple had found that constant uncertainty thrilling, like watching the lucky wheel spin and wondering if his number would come up. Now it felt more like cowering beneath a storm-cloud and waiting for the lightning.

‘General Cosca.’ Superior Pike, head of his August Majesty’s Inquisition in Starikland and the most powerful man within five hundred miles, was the first to dismount. His face was burned beyond recognition, eyes darkly shadowed in a mask of mottled pink, the corner of his mouth curled up in what was either a smile or a trick of the ravages of fire. A dozen of his hulking Practicals, dressed and masked in black and bristling with weaponry, arranged themselves watchfully about the ruin.

Cosca grinned across the valley towards the smouldering city, unintimidated. ‘Mulkova burns, I see.’

‘Better that it burn in Union hands than prosper under the rebels,’ said Inquisitor Lorsen as he got down: tall and gaunt, his eyes bright with zeal. Temple envied him that. To feel certain in the right no matter what wrongs you took part in.

‘Quite so,’ said Cosca. ‘A sentiment with which her citizens no doubt all agree! Sergeant Friendly you know, and this is Master Temple, notary to my company.’

General Brint dismounted last, the operation rendered considerably more difficult since he had lost most of an arm at the Battle of Osrung along with his entire sense of humour, and wore the left sleeve of his crimson uniform folded and pinned to his shoulder. ‘You are prepared for legal disagreements, then,’ he said, adjusting his sword-belt and eyeing Temple as if he was the morning plague cart.

‘The second thing a mercenary needs is a good weapon.’ Cosca clapped a fatherly hand on Temple’s shoulder. ‘The first is good legal advice.’

‘And where does an utter lack of moral scruple feature?’

‘Number five,’ said Temple. ‘Just behind a short memory and a ready wit.’

Superior Pike was considering Sworbreck, still scribbling notes. ‘And on what does this man advise you?’

‘That is Spillion Sworbreck, my biographer.’

‘No more than a humble teller of tales!’ Sworbreck gave the Superior a flamboyant bow. ‘Though I freely confess that my prose has caused grown men to weep.’

‘In a good way?’ asked Temple.

If he heard, the author was too busy praising himself to respond. ‘I compose stories of heroism and adventure to inspire the Union’s citizens! Widely distributed now, via the wonders of the new Rimaldi printing press. You have heard, perhaps, of my Tales of Harod the Great in five volumes?’ Silence. ‘In which I mine the mythic splendour of the origin of the Union itself?’ Silence. ‘Or the eight-volume sequel, The Life of Casamir, Hero of Angland?’ Silence. ‘In which I hold up the mirror of past glories to expose the moral collapse of the present day?’

‘No.’ Pike’s melted face betrayed no emotion.

‘I will have copies sent to you, Superior!’

‘You could use readings from them to force confessions from your prisoners,’ murmured Temple, under his breath.

‘Do not trouble yourself,’ said Pike.

‘No trouble! General Cosca has permitted me to accompany him on his latest campaign while he relates the details of his fascinating career as a soldier of fortune! I mean to make him the subject of my most celebrated work to date!’

The echoes of Sworbreck’s words faded into a crushing silence.

‘Remove this man from my presence,’ said Pike. ‘His manner of expression offends me.’

Sworbreck backed down the hillside with an almost reckless speed, shepherded by two Practicals. Cosca continued without the slightest hint of embarrassment.

‘General Brint!’ and he seized the general’s remaining hand in both of his. ‘I understand you have some concerns about our participation in the assault—’

‘It was the lack of it that bothered me!’ snapped Brint, twisting his fingers free.

Cosca pushed out his lips with an air of injured innocence. ‘You feel we fell short of our contractual obligations?’

‘You’ve fallen short of honour, decency, professionalism—’

‘I recall no reference to them in the contract,’ said Temple.

‘You were ordered to attack! Your failure to do so cost the lives of several of my men, one a personal friend!’

Cosca waved a lazy hand, as though personal friends were ephemera that could hardly be expected to bear on an adult discussion. ‘We were engaged here, General Brint, quite hotly.’

‘In a bloodless exchange of arrows!’

‘You speak as though a bloody exchange would be preferable.’ Temple held out his hand to Friendly. The sergeant produced the contract from an inside pocket. ‘Clause eight, I believe.’ He swiftly found the place and presented it for inspection. ‘Technically, any exchange of projectiles constitutes engagement. Each member of the Company is, in fact, due a bonus as a result.’

Brint looked pale. ‘A bonus, too? Despite the fact that not one man was wounded.’

Cosca cleared his throat. ‘We do have a case of dysentery.’

‘Is that a joke?’

‘Not to anyone who has suffered the ravages of dysentery, I assure you!’

‘Clause nineteen . . .’ Paper crackled as Temple thumbed through the densely written document. ‘“Any man rendered inactive by illness during the discharge of his contractual obligations is to be considered a loss to the Company.” A further payment is therefore due for the replacement of losses. Not to mention those for prisoners taken and delivered­—’

‘It all comes down to money, doesn’t it?’

Cosca shrugged so high his gilt epaulettes tickled his earlobes. ‘What else would it come down to? We are mercenaries. Better motives we leave to better men.’

Brint gazed at Temple, positively livid. ‘You must be delighted with your wriggling, you Gurkish worm.’

‘You were happy to put your name to the terms, General.’ Temple flipped over the back page to display Brint’s overwrought signature. ‘My delight or otherwise does not enter the case. Nor does my wriggling. And I am generally agreed to be half-Dagoskan, half-Styrian, since you bring my parentage into—’

‘You’re a brown bastard son of a whore.’

Temple only smiled. ‘My mother was never ashamed of her profession – why should I be?’

The general stared at Superior Pike, who had taken a seat on a lichen-splattered block of masonry, produced a haunch of bread and was trying to entice birds down from the crumbling ruin with faint kissing sounds. ‘Am I to understand that you approve of this licensed banditry, Superior? This contractual cowardice, this outrageous—’

‘General Brint.’ Pike’s voice was gentle, but somewhere in it had a screeching edge which, like the movement of rusty hinges, enforced wincing silence. ‘We all appreciate the diligence you and your men have displayed. But the war is over. We won.’ He tossed some crumbs into the grass and watched a tiny bird flit down and begin to peck. ‘It is not fitting that we quibble over who did what. You signed the contract. We will honour it. We are not barbarians.’

‘We are not.’ Brint gave Temple, then Cosca, then Friendly a furious glare. They were all, each in his way, unmoved. ‘I must get some air. There is a sickening stench here!’ And with some effort the general hauled himself back into his saddle, turned his horse and thundered away, pursued by several aides-de-camp.

‘I find the air quite pleasant,’ said Temple brightly, somewhat relieved that confrontation at least was over.

‘Pray forgive the general,’ said Pike ‘He is very much committed to his work.’

‘I try always to be forgiving of other men’s foibles,’ said Cosca. ‘I have enough of my own, after all.’

Pike did not attempt to deny it. ‘I have further work for you even so. Inquisitor Lorsen, could you explain?’ And he turned back to his birds, as though his meeting was with them and the rest a troublesome distraction.

Lorsen stepped forward, evidently relishing his moment. ‘The rebellion is at an end. The Inquisition is weeding out all those disloyal to the crown. Some few rebels have escaped, however, scattering through the passes and into the uncivilised west where, no doubt, they will foment new discord.’

‘Cowardly bastards!’ Cosca slapped at his thigh. ‘Could they not stand and be slaughtered like decent men? I’m all for fermentation but fomentation is a damned imposition!’

Lorsen narrowed his eyes as though at a contrary wind, and ploughed on. ‘For political reasons, his Majesty’s armies are unable to pursue them.’

‘Political reasons . . .’ offered Temple, ‘such as a border?’

‘Precisely,’ said Lorsen.

Cosca examined his ridged and yellowed fingernails. ‘Oh, I’ve never taken those very seriously.’

‘Precisely,’ said Pike.

‘We want the Company of the Gracious Hand to cross the mountains and pacify the Near Country as far west as the Sokwaya River. This rot of rebellion must be excised once and for all.’ Lorsen cut at imaginary filth with the edge of his hand, voice rising as he warmed to his subject. ‘We must clean out this sink of depravity which has too long been allowed to fester on our border! This . . . overflowing latrine! This backed-up sewer, endlessly disgorging its ordure of chaos into the Union!’

Temple reflected that, for a man who professed himself opposed to ordure, Inquisitor Lorsen certainly relished a shit-based metaphor.

‘Well, no one enjoys a backed-up sewer,’ conceded Cosca. ‘Except the sewer-men themselves, I suppose, who scratch out their wretched livings in the sludge. Unblocking the drains is a speciality of ours, isn’t it, Sergeant Friendly?’

The big man looked up from his dice long enough to shrug.

‘Temple is the linguist but perhaps I might in this case interpret?’ The Old Man twisted the waxed tips of his grey moustaches between finger and thumb. ‘You wish us to visit a plague upon the settlers of the Near Country. You wish us to make stern examples of every rebel sheltered and every person who gives them shelter. You wish us to make them understand that their only future is with the grace and favour of his August Majesty. You wish us to force them into the welcoming arms of the Union. Do I come close to the mark?’

‘Close enough,’ murmured Superior Pike.

Temple found that he was sweating. When he wiped his forehead his hand trembled. But what could he do?

‘The Paper of Engagement is already prepared.’ Lorsen produced his own sheaf of crackling documents, a heavy seal of red wax upon its bottom corner.

Cosca waved it away. ‘My notary will look it over. All the legal fiddle-faddle quite swims before my eyes. I am a simple soldier.’

‘Admirable,’ said Pike, his hairless brows raised by the slightest fraction.

Temple’s ink-spotted forefinger traced through the blocks of calligraphy, eyes flickering from one point of interest to another. He realised he was picking nervously at the corners of the pages and made himself stop.

‘I will accompany you on the expedition,’ said Lorsen. ‘I have a list of settlements suspected of harbouring rebels. Or rebellious sentiment.’

Cosca grinned. ‘Nothing more dangerous than sentiment!’

‘In particular, his Eminence the Arch Lector offers a bonus of fifty thousand marks for the capture, alive, of the chief instigator of the insurrection, the one the rebels call Conthus. He goes also under the name of Symok. The Ghosts call him Black Grass. At the massacre in Rostod he used the alias—’

‘No further aliases, I beg you!’ Cosca massaged the sides of his skull as if they pained him. ‘Since suffering a head-wound at the Battle of Afieri I have been cursed with an appalling memory for names. It is a source of constant embarrassment. But Sergeant Friendly has all the details. If your man Conshus—’


‘What did I say?’


‘There you go! If he’s in the Near Country, he’ll be yours.’

‘Alive,’ snapped Lorsen. ‘He must answer for his crimes. He must be made a lesson of. He must be put on display!’

‘And he’ll make a most educational show, I’m sure!’

Pike flicked another pinch of crumbs to his gathering flock. ‘The methods we leave to you, captain general. We would only ask that there be something left in the ashes to annexe.’

‘As long as you realise a Company of mercenaries is more club than scalpel.’

‘His Eminence has chosen the method and understands its limitations.’

‘An inspirational man, the Arch Lector. We are close friends, you know.’

‘His one firm stipulation, clear in the contract, as you see, is that you avoid any Imperial entanglements. Any and all, am I understood?’ That grating note entered Pike’s voice again. ‘Legate Sarmis still haunts the border like an angry phantom. I do not suppose he will cross it but even so he is a man decidedly not to be trifled with, a most bloody-minded and bloody-handed adversary. His Eminence desires no further wars at present.’

‘Do not concern yourself, I avoid fighting wherever possible.’ Cosca slapped happily at the hilt of his blade. ‘A sword is for rattling, not for drawing, eh?’

‘We have a gift for you, also.’ Superior Pike indicated the fortified wagon, an oaken monster bound in riveted iron and hauled by a team of eight muscular horses. It was halfway between conveyance and castle, with slitted windows and a crenelated parapet about the top, from which defenders might presumably shoot at circling enemies. Far from the most practical of gifts, but then Cosca had never been interested in practicalities.

‘For me?’ The Old Man pressed his withered hands to his gilded breastplate. ‘It shall be my home from home out in the wilderness!’

‘There is a . . . secret within,’ said Lorsen. ‘Something his Eminence would very much like to see tested.’

‘I love surprises! Ones that don’t involve armed men behind me, anyway. You may tell his Eminence it will be my honour.’ Cosca stood, wincing as his aged knees audibly clicked. ‘How does the Paper of Engagement appear?’

Temple looked up from the penultimate page. ‘Er . . .’ The contract was closely based on the one he had drawn up for their previous engagement, was watertight in every particular, was even more generous in several. ‘Some issues with supply,’ he stammered, fumbling for objections. ‘Food and weaponry are covered but the clause really should include—’

‘Details. No cause for delay. Let’s get the papers signed and the men ready to move. The longer they sit idle, the harder to get them off their arses. No force of nature so dangerous to life and commerce as mercenaries without employment.’ Except, perhaps, mercenaries with employment.

‘It would be prudent to allow me a little longer to—’

Cosca came close, setting his hand on Temple’s shoulder again. ‘Have you a legal objection?’

Temple paused, clutching for some words which might carry weight with a man with whom nothing carried any weight. ‘Not a legal objection, no.’

‘A financial objection?’ offered Cosca.

‘No, General.’

‘Then . . . ?’

‘Do you remember when we first met?’

Cosca suddenly flashed that luminous smile of which only he was capable, good humour and good intentions radiating from his deep-lined face. ‘Of course. I wore that blue uniform, you the brown rags.’

‘You said . . .’ It hardly felt possible, now. ‘You said we would do good together.’

‘And haven’t we, in the main? Legally and financially?’ As though the entire spectrum of goodness ranged between those twin poles.

‘And . . . morally?’

The Old Man’s forehead furrowed as though it was a word in a foreign tongue. ‘Morally?’

‘General, please.’ Temple fixed Cosca with his most earnest expression. And Temple knew he could be earnest, when he truly believed. Or had a great deal to lose. ‘I beg you. Do not sign this paper. This will not be war, it will be murder.’

Cosca’s brows went up. ‘A fine distinction, to the buried.’

‘We are not judges! What happens to the people of these towns once the men get among them, hungry for plunder? Women and children, General, who had no part in any rebellion. We are better than this.’

‘We are? You did not say so in Kadir. You persuaded me to sign that contract, if I recall.’


‘And in Styria, was it not you who encouraged me to take back what was mine?’

‘You had a valid claim—’

‘Before we took ship to the North, you helped me persuade the men. You can be damned persuasive when you have a mind.’

‘Then let me persuade you now. Please, General Cosca. Do not sign.’

There was a long pause. Cosca heaved in a breath, his forehead creasing yet more deeply. ‘A conscientious objection, then.’

‘Conscience is,’ muttered Temple hopefully, ‘a splinter of the divine?’ Not to mention a shitty navigator, and it had led him into some dangerous waters now. He realised he was picking nervously at the hem of his shirt as Cosca gazed upon him. ‘I simply have a feeling this job . . .’ He struggled for words that might turn the tide of inevitability. ‘Will go bad,’ he finished, lamely.

‘Good jobs rarely require the services of mercenaries.’ Cosca’s hand squeezed a little tighter at his shoulder and Temple felt Friendly’s looming presence behind him. Still, and silent, and yet very much there. ‘Men of conscience and conviction might find themselves better suited to other lines of work. His Majesty’s Inquisition offers a righteous cause, I understand?’

Temple swallowed as he looked across at Superior Pike, who had now attracted a twittering avian crowd. ‘I’m not sure I care for their brand of righteousness.’

‘Well, that’s the thing about righteousness,’ murmured Cosca, ‘everyone has their own brand. Gold, on the other hand, is universal. In my considerable experience, a man is better off worrying about what is good for his purse than what is simply . . . good.’

‘I just—’

Cosca squeezed still more firmly. ‘Without wishing to be harsh, Temple, it isn’t all about you. I have the welfare of the whole company to think of. Five hundred men.’

‘Five hundred and twelve,’ said Friendly.

‘Plus one with dysentery. I cannot inconvenience them for the sake of your feelings. That would be . . . immoral. I need you, Temple. But if you wish to leave . . .’ Cosca issued a weighty sigh. ‘In spite of all your promises, in spite of my generosity, in spite of everything we have been through together, well . . .’ He held out an arm towards burning Mulkova and raised his brows. ‘I suppose the door is always open.’

Temple swallowed. He could have left. He could have said he wanted no part of this. Enough is enough, damn it! But that would have taken courage. That would have left him with no armed men at his back. Alone, and weak, and a victim once again. That would have been hard to do. And Temple always took the easy way. Even when he knew it was the wrong way. Especially then, in fact, since easy and wrong make such good company. Even when he had a damn good notion it would end up being the hard way, even then. Why think about tomorrow when today is such a thorny business?

Perhaps Kahdia would have found some way to stop this. Something involving supreme self-sacrifice, most likely. Temple, it hardly needed to be said, was not Kahdia. He wiped away a fresh sheen of sweat, forced a queasy smile onto his face and bowed. ‘I remain always honoured to serve.’

‘Excellent!’ And Cosca plucked the contract from Temple’s limp hand and spread it out to sign upon a sheered-off column.

Superior Pike stood, brushing crumbs from his shapeless black coat and sending birds scattering. ‘Do you know what’s out there, in the west?’

He let the question hang a moment. Below them the faint jingling, groaning, snapping could be heard of his Practicals dragging the prisoners away. Then he answered himself.

‘The future. And the future does not belong to the Old Empire – their time is a thousand years past. Nor does it belong to the Ghosts, savages that they are. Nor does it belong to the fugitives, adventurers and opportunist scum who have put the first grasping roots into its virgin soil. No. The future belongs to the Union. We must seize it.’

‘We must not be afraid to do what is necessary to seize it,’ added Lorsen.

‘Never fear, gentlemen.’ Cosca grinned as he scratched out the parting swirl of his signature. ‘We will seize the future together.’

21 Responses to ‘Red Country, Joe Abercrombie’

Lobes ducks in to say...

Posted May 6, 2013

Hold on is this a blog entry you just wrote or one that has been extracted from the archives and scanned for burger consumption?

I'm a bit temporally confused. The page looks different too

John Birmingham has opinions thus...

Posted May 6, 2013

This is an extract from Abercrombie's latest book, Red Country. It looks different because the book extracts, er, look different. They're coded to display as if on sheets of manuscript. I'm trying to run one extract a week, usually on Monday mornings. Originally I was going to just grab a thousand words or so, but I've found the last two times that whole chapters were better. And the navigation options allow you to skip over them pretty smartly.

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w from brisbane would have you know...

Posted May 6, 2013

Oh. Chasm City by Alistair Reynolds, Book Club, June.
I don't think I got that memo.

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Surtac puts forth...

Posted May 6, 2013

Good. An excuse to re-read Chasm City. And @LordGrimDark's latest after that? Most excellent.

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Spanner asserts...

Posted May 6, 2013

Not going to read the excerpt. I don't want to interfere with my listening to the audio book. My head will assign the wrong voices to the characters.

I'll get this as an audio book soon because I'm nearly finished listening to Wise Man's Fear and I've been searching for the next thing to listen to on my commute.

John Birmingham would have you know...

Posted May 6, 2013

I can dig that. The audio book is insanely great. If I could have extracted it, I would have.

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Vir Montis swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 6, 2013

Now you've gotta go and read the rest of his books for more of the history of the characters, especially Lamb.

I think that the melancholy comes from the feeling of sheer hopelessness that pervades the tone of his work, the feeling that stuggle as hard and long as you like, corruption and the worst parts of human nature are going win out, and any wins that the side of 'good' has are going to be minor. When people read (especially fantasy) to escape for a while from an often corrupt and depressing reality, as excellent as his writing is (I'm a huge fan and keep going back) it can be a little depressing as a commentary on human nature as it seems so often too spot on.

John Birmingham swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 6, 2013

It was only after reading this and deciding to extract it that I came to relaise there's a whole narrative world I can now go and explore. As an example of how to write a 'discontinuos' story arc, it's brilliant. You don't have to have read the previous titles to pick up the latest. But I'm totally going back to do just that.

And as for the melancholy, I've read a lot of ancient and medieval history. I'm pretty sure i'll cope.

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Therbs mumbles...

Posted May 6, 2013

‘Nothing like a religious education to cure a man of righteousness,’ Like it.

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Barnesm ducks in to say...

Posted May 6, 2013

I think I devoured Joes Abercrombie's First Law Series one after other, and fortunately Red Country came out shortly after I finished The Heroes. I was put onto him by Flintheart and he has become my must read fantasy author. I confess it wasn't solely on Flinthart's recommnedation. David barnett at the Independent wrote "The Heroes was essentially epic fantasy recast as a war story. If that was Abercrombie's The Naked and the Dead, then Red Country is his Blood Meridian, and there's certainly a touch of Cormac McCarthy about his spare prose and tight, economical dialogue. It's testament to his skill that Red Country reads like neither a Western nor a fantasy novel, but something new, fresh and exciting – exactly what a genre still worshipping at the altar of J R R Tolkien needs.

Though I recall Leo Grin whining about how he had ruined the fantasy calling it Bankrupt Nihilism "he mere trappings of the genre do nothing for me … when placed into the hands of writers clearly bored with the classic mythic undertones of the genre, and who try to shake things up with what can best be described as postmodern blasphemies against our mythic heritage.” and later in the article

Think of a Lord of the Rings where, after stringing you along for thousands of pages, all of the hobbits end up dying of cancer contracted by their proximity to the Ring, Aragorn is revealed to be a buffoonish puppet-king of no honor and false might, and Gandalf no sooner celebrates the defeat of Sauron than he executes a long-held plot to become the new Dark Lord of Middle-earth, and you have some idea of what to expect should you descend into Abercrombie’s jaded literary sewer.” I think sewer is a bit harsh.

more hilarity from the Bankrupt Nihilism article click here.

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John Birmingham puts forth...

Posted May 6, 2013
Leo Grin sounds like a bawling fuckwit with a hard on for unicorn stories.
I really loved the genre mash up feel of RC. Sort of like what'd happen if Black Adder and Deadwood fell into that machine that morphed Jeff Goldblum into The Fly.

Barnesm asserts...

Posted May 6, 2013

I would so watch a Black Adder/Deadwood mash up.

w from brisbane reckons...

Posted May 6, 2013

JB, I don't like to say this, but you have really gone PoMo.

As for your suggestion, who didn't like F Troop?

Guru Bob mutters...

Posted May 8, 2013

Barnes - local historians Clare Wright and Alex McDermot are currently working on a book called Ned Wood which sounds pretty interesting...

damian mutters...

Posted May 9, 2013

I admit that when I do come across people who express exasperated preciousness about their genre and its conventions, it is a flag that says I never need to read anything that person says ever again.

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downisthenewup would have you know...

Posted May 7, 2013

I am so fucking glad you gave Abercrombie a go.

Just make sure you go back and read the First Law trilogy now!

I actually cant imagine what you would have made of Lamb without knowing his back story though. thats interesting.

John Birmingham asserts...

Posted May 7, 2013

That's the odd thing, I had no trouble following Lamb's character at all. I'm going back to the start of the cycle though, and reading from there.

downisthenewup mumbles...

Posted May 7, 2013

I'm sure you had no trouble, i guess what i mean is that while I had an inkling of who it was, The moment he started cracking skulls and I knew it was the bloody nine I think i started laughing manically and my heart started racing. Had been waiting a long time for one of the best charaters I have ever encountered to return.

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Dino not to be confused with is gonna tell you...

Posted May 31, 2013

Yeah i looked for it at the local library.

Couldn't find it!

Probably in the 'thriller' section or geophysics section.

I'll get there don't worry.

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Guru Bob swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 8, 2013

Missed the memo aboiut Chasm City, I thought our next book was Gone Girl?

I will have to get to it after I finish Abercrombie's First Law trilogy which I have been churning through on the Ipad, thanks to Barnes' repeated recommendations. That series is extremely good, Cosca is a small player in it as well, but the one of the best characters is the 'Bloody Nine'...

I also need to get through Ready Player One which comes very highly recommended and should be on the book club list by all accounts.

I also need to fit in about 1200 pages of Les Miserables which is a huge brick of a book taking up space on my work desk, but that is another story...

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Respond to 'Red Country, Joe Abercrombie'

L.A. Larkin, Thirst

Posted April 29, 2013 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

Today's freebie comes courtesy of Louisa Larkin, whose antarctic thriller, Thirst, I've been meaning to run here for a while. It's a longer than usual freebie, about 3000 words, so you might want to save it for a bus trip or a lunchtime read. It proves conclusively, I think, that girls can do splodey. The chilly feel of the descriptive passages comes from the trip she took to Antarctica to research this bad boy. That's right. To the south fucking pole.

Makes my Google Earth efforts like a bit shoddy.

Anyway, long story short, somebody is killing off the members of Australia's research station down there. I suspect villainy.

Like the laptop in front of him, Luke Searle was finally in sleep mode, slumped forward over the desk. His head of disheveled hair rested on his crossed arms. Outside, it was minus forty one degrees Celsius. Antarctica’s howling katabatic winds swept icy spindrift across the glacier and battered the exterior walls of Hope Station. Luke had tried everything he could think of to get the phone, radio and internet to work, but with no success. He was a glaciologist, not a comms officer. But after Mac’s and Dave’s sudden deaths, Luke was their only hope of contacting the outside world. He knew there had to be a way of rebooting the whole system and reloading the IOS images program, but he couldn’t find it anywhere on the server. And he couldn’t find the back-up discs either. Eventually, exhaustion had claimed him.

But his sleep was sporadic. He’d woken twice from the same nightmare: Mac was calling his name, over and over from inside the crevasse. Mac’s arms were raised towards Luke, begging for help, as Luke stretched over the lip of the fissure, desperately trying to reach him. But Luke was too far away. He thrashed about but couldn’t get any closer.

Luke woke up with a start to find he had knocked over his empty coffee mug. Luke squinted at the bright lights overhead, rubbed his eyes and checked the time: 2:43 am. The station was silent except for the low thrum of the generators and the rhythmic snoring of its occupants. Craig’s was the loudest. Even with his bedroom door shut his guttural gruntings resounded through the living quarters like a sow at feeding time.

Normally this would have made Luke smile, but not tonight. He yawned and resumed his search for IOS images on Mac’s laptop, until his eyelids gradually closed and he fell asleep again. Something hit the outside of the sleeping quarters but the sixty-centimetre-thick aluminium walls, filled with polystyrene insulation, absorbed the sound. No-one inside heard it.

Minutes later, Luke coughed in his sleep. He coughed again, this time more violently, and awoke. Where was he? His eyes stung and he was surrounded by a haze. He breathed in and it made him choke. He shot his hand out and hit the laptop which lit up like a Christmas tree. Yes, the communications room. But why no power except for the equipment still running on batteries?

A scream that sounded like an animal being torn apart pierced his eardrums. He stood so fast the chair toppled backwards. Fire. The station was on fire. Their worst nightmare. Luke had no idea who that scream came from but it was excruciating. A man’s voice. He realised it had to be Tubs, Craig or Blue.

Luke opened the door and was met by dense, acrid smoke. The emergency floor lighting provided a dull glow. At the end of the corridor the door to Craig’s room was a hole surrounded by a circle of flames. Luke ran to the bathroom, seized a towel and turned on the shower tap. The nozzle only dribbled. Why wasn’t there water? The towel was damp, but not enough. He threw it into a shower cubicle to mop up whatever moisture was left.

With a wet towel over his head and arms, he approached the archway of fire that was the entrance to Craig’s room. Above the doorway the roof was alight with golden waves that appeared to flow into the smoke filled room. Backdraft, Luke realised. When Craig had opened his door to escape, the flames had been sucked into the vacuum. Luke ducked low and charged in.

Craig was rolling on the floor, his hair and clothes alight. Despite the thick smoke Luke saw that Craig’s face was red-raw with burns, waxy and ghoulish. Luke threw the towel over him to starve the flames of oxygen. Craig stopped moving. Luke coughed as the smoke burned his lungs.

He pulled the towel away. Craig’s face had melted and not a hair on his head, beard or eyebrows remained. His hands were like gnarled claws, twisted in agony, the skin bubbling. The poor man moaned and then was still. Luke touched the raw flesh of his neck to check for a pulse but there wasn’t one. Luke stepped back, then, horrified, he noticed his hands were covered with bits of Craig’s skin.

‘Luke!’ A voice called, hoarse and unrecognisable.

Luke felt light-headed and confused. A flaming piece of timber from the ceiling collapsed, landing an arm’s length from him. Adrenalin and panic fought for supremacy of his body. The heat felt as though it was singeing his skin through his clothing. The towel was now useless, so he picked up Craig’s desk chair and held it over his head as he ran through the doorway.

In the corridor, Luke dropped the smouldering chair. Tubs – the station chef - had the fire extinguisher and was spraying dry powder onto the flaming walls. He only had on his candy-striped thermals – he’d been sleeping in them – and, incongruously, his expedition boots. It had been drilled into them that in an emergency they had to put on their boots. They couldn’t walk outside without them.

‘The others?’ Luke shouted.

‘Exit 1,’ Tubs spluttered. ‘Craig?’


Luke’s eyes were streaming caustic tears and he could barely see. Tubs stopped his useless attempts to quell the fire and the two stumbled down the corridor towards the exit. As they passed the kitchen another part of the ceiling collapsed behind them. The cold night air was sucked in, further fuelling the flames. They turned a corner to see Blue – the doctor - in shorts and an open parka hurl himself at the door. It didn’t budge. Sue, dressed in pink brushed cotton pyjamas and hiking boots, was kicking at it. ‘It won’t budge,’ yelled Blue above the roar of the flames.

‘Maddie?’ coughed Luke.

‘Went to check Exit 2,’ shouted Blue.

‘Shit!’ said Luke glancing back down the burning corridor. His station leader had guts.

‘The door, Luke!’ screamed Sue, her round face creased with fear. Luke shook his head. How could it be jammed? Tubs had shoveled away the snow yesterday. Luke threw the full force of his weight into the door. Fit and strong, his broad shoulders had no impact. And again. The door creaked but didn’t budge. Tubs tried to ram it open with the fire extinguisher but it held tight.

‘Exit 2?’ gasped Blue.

Luke nodded and they ran, crouching low to avoid the suffocating smoke and flames. Why wasn’t the ventilation working? They stepped around burning debris. The heat was unbearable but Luke knew the smoke would kill them first. They reached the first internal fire door and shut it behind them. This would give them ninety minutes, as long as the fire was only at one end of the station.

Sue fell to her knees. She couldn’t breathe. The smoke was everywhere. Luke pulled her to her feet and held her up. He had never realised how short she was till then, having always thought of her as one of the lads. He now realised how her personality had made her seem larger than life.

‘Get to Exit 2 and look out for Maddie,’ said Luke, wheezing. He dragged Sue past the mess and the kitchen, towards the laboratories. ‘Maddie,’ he tried to shout, but his voice was strangled and weak.

The further they stumbled towards Exit 2, the thicker the smoke became. Not good, thought Luke. Like an apparition, Maddie stumbled through the smoky darkness towards them.

She fell to her knees, gasping for breath. ‘Both exits are blocked,’ Maddie said, her freckled face smudged with grime. ‘Fire’s coming from both directions.’ She was wearing the same clothes as last night. She must have fallen asleep fully dressed. ‘I was about to … try the lift.’

‘Power’s out,’ Sue croaked .

‘Break a window?’ Luke said.

‘Triple glazed. Take… too long,’ Maddie coughed.

Luke’s mind worked with hang-over like slowness and his lungs felt as if they were being torn to shreds. He peered into an inferno of flames coming at them in a pincer movement.

‘Lift shaft!’ he said. ‘Follow me.’

They moved deeper into the stinging smoke like drunks, tripping and falling. Luke shut another fire door but the conflagration seemed to be all around them. At the lift, Maddie leaned against the wall, unable to stand.

‘The ladder,’ Luke said as he tried to open the maintenance door to the lift shaft. It was locked and the key was in Maddie’s office on the other side of the corridor fire door. ‘It’s locked - I’ll get a knife. The kitchen.’

Blue grabbed his arm. ‘I’ll go. You’ll need to carry Sue - I can’t,’ he said, nodding at Sue who lay semi-conscious on the floor. Blue lurched back down the corridor in the direction of the kitchen.

‘Lie low,’ Maddie directed them, ‘Avoid the smoke.’

Before anyone could respond an explosion shook the whole station, throwing them to the floor. It tore at their eardrums. Debris hurtled through the air. Luke felt something hit him in the back and bounce off. Ting, thwack, crack, as metal, wood and glass fell around them. The heat felt like a blowtorch. Maddie shrieked. Luke looked up and could see she was hugging her left calf.

Disoriented, Luke’s balance was shot to pieces. Tiny shards of glass were embedded in his hands. What had exploded? What in God’s name was going on? The fireball had come from the direction of the kitchen but Luke didn’t want to believe Blue must be dead. Tubs had been thrown against the wall and lay winded.

Maddie sat up, hands trembling as she stared in shock at the triangular piece of metal protruding from the side of her leg. Sue stared blankly at Luke, her mouth opening and closing like a ventriloquist’s doll. She was impaled on a length of steel pipe.

‘God, no,’ said Luke crawling on all fours.

Sue tried to say something, then her mouth stopped moving. He couldn’t find any pulse and for a moment he felt completely overwhelmed. His head dropped forward onto his chest. Tubs was now sitting up, stunned. He touched his face and stared at his bloody hands like a child fascinated by a strange new toy.

‘Luke,’ pleaded Maddie. He stared at her, his face blank, uncomprehending. ‘Luke!’ she said, louder this time. ‘Help me!’ He moved at last and knelt at her side.

‘Get it out!’ she screamed, holding her leg and rocking backwards and forwards in excruciating pain.

‘Not now,’ he gasped. ‘You have to stand. Come on! There could be another explosion.’

‘You fucking bastard.’ she screamed. ‘Get it out!’

The encroaching smoke was getting thicker, as though moving in on cornered prey. Luke smelt diesel and petrol and his alarm increased. On his knees, barely able to see through tears thick with soot and grime, he searched for another piece of metal, feeling his way through the detritus. His hand landed on one and he stood weakly, almost collapsing into the lift maintenance door. He forced the piece of metal into the gap between the door and the wall and using brute force, broke the lock. The door swung open.

Unsteadily, Luke peered down the lift shaft. The air inside was pretty clear and the ladder was still there. Their first bit of luck. ‘Tubs, snap out of it. Help me lift Maddie.’

Coming out of his stupor, Tubs helped Luke. They placed their hands underneath her armpits and pulled her up. She leaned against the wall.

‘Can you climb down the ladder?’ Luke asked her.

‘I’ll have to,’ Maddie managed to say. ‘We can’t leave Sue.’

‘She’s dead, Maddie.’ He coughed. ‘So is Blue.’

She looked back at the source of the explosion and nodded.

‘I’ll go first,’ Luke said, ‘so if you slip, I’ll catch you. Tubs, you go last, and shut the door behind you, for God’s sake. Keep the smoke out.’

Tubs choked out a ‘Got it.’

Luke started his descent, relishing the clearer air in the lift shaft. Maddie took her first step down the ladder, using her stronger leg first. One way or another, her wounded leg had to bear her weight, but it was clearly agony as the metal dug into her muscle. She groaned with each step.

‘You’re doing well. Just a little bit further,’ Luke called up to her. The thought flashed though his mind that Craig had built the ladder, but wasn’t with them. He pushed it away: they weren’t safe yet and they’d need to break through the maintenance door at the bottom of the lift shaft. Luke looked down at the bare steel roof of the lift, stationary at the garage level. The gap between the cage and the shaft walls was just wide enough for one person. Luke reached the bottom rung.

‘Hang on while I get this door open,’ he called up.

Maddie’s trouser leg was soaked with blood. She clung to the ladder, gulping air as she rested her weight on her good leg.

Luke leaned his back against the lift cage and kicked at the shaft door. It opened easily as it was designed to open outwards. What greeted Luke took his breath away. He’d hoped the garage was free of fire, but the wooden storage containers in the corner were burning, as was the snow tractor. The flames were dangerously near the snowmobiles.

‘Hurry!’ he yelled. ‘Get down here!’ Fearing more explosions, the panic in his voice brought the limping Maddie and then Tubs quickly to his side.

Luke knew the sound of gunfire, but it was so totally unexpected that he was slow to react. No Antarctic station had weapons and military action was banned. As a bullet fizzed past his right ear he grabbed Maddie and they plunged to the ground.

Tubs hit the floor with a thud. ‘Jesus! I’m shot. I’m bloody well shot,’ he screamed, clutching his chest.

The gunfire started again. It was coming from somewhere near the main garage doors.

‘The snowmobiles,’ whispered Maddie.

The keys were still in them. The quad bikes were further away and even if they had been able to cope with soft snow – which they couldn’t - their tyres were on fire. It had to be the snowmobiles. Through the thick, foul smoke, Luke tried to locate the shelf under the workbench where he stashed his tools. He couldn’t help but glance momentarily at the two white body bags containing Mac and Dave, raised above the flames as if on a funeral pyre.

‘Can you drive?’ he asked Maddie.

She nodded, clutching her leg.

‘Gotta get into the work overalls, otherwise we’ll die of cold,’ he said, nodding to where the bright yellow, all-in-one waterproof freezer suits hung on hooks. They were used by all maintenance staff for outdoors work and were fleece lined for warmth. Tubs, in particular, who was only in his thermals, had no hope of survival without them.

For a moment Luke was wryly thankful for the smoke that was their only protection from the gunman. ‘Wait here,’ he said and crawled on his belly across the floor to the freezer suits. Above the crackle of the flames, Luke heard radio chatter - it wasn’t in English. He reached the legs of the first overall and, still prone, he tugged at the material. But the all-in-one suit stayed on the hook. He yanked harder and the loop of material at the collar tore free. Luke did the same with two more, then bundled them under his arms and crawled back to Tubs and Maddie.

Bullets zinged over Luke, the shooter unable to see his target. Tubs was lying on his side, his grey thermal top soaked with dark blood seeping through his fingers.

Luke paused, horrified, then pulled himself together. ‘This’ll hurt, I’m sorry’ he said, pushing Tub’s legs into the overalls and then rolling him from side to side as he pulled it up. Tubs gagged with the pain.

Maddie tore at the waterproof material with her teeth, yanking apart the stitching on the left leg so she could get both the shrapnel and her leg inside. She struggled into her suit, using her hands to force her wounded leg inside.

‘Follow me,’ Luke said to Maddie. He looked at Tubs. ‘Mate, when I bring the snowmobile near you, you gotta get on, okay? Can you get up?’ Tubs nodded, the bloody stain now hidden by his yellow suit.

Luke crawled along the floor, followed by Maddie. He grabbed a hammer and threw it at one of the metal storage containers at the other end of the garage. The gunman opened fire at the container and Luke scuttled towards the snowmobiles hoping to reach the furthest one with the full tank, but the gunfire turned in their direction. He jumped on Mac’s snowmobile and Maddie took Dave’s.

Luke sped off and, leaning over, pulled Tubs onto the seat behind him. Tubs yelped in agony. Then briefly checking Maddie was okay, he charged for the open garage doors and the source of the gunfire. It was suicidal but he had no choice. He heard shouting outside, angry, sharp. Luke burst out of the garage, followed by Maddie, and began driving in a zigzag, which Maddie mimicked. Without goggles, the raw polar air tore at his eyes. They needed headlights but Luke knew that would make them an easy target. As they careened into the darkness, the shooting began again, this time from several directions. Luke glanced back and saw the silhouette of a man firing at them. Behind him, the station was burning in startling oranges and reds.

‘Stop,’ panted Tubs, slouching forward.

‘We can’t stop,’ called Luke over his shoulder. He could just make out Maddie, accelerating ahead. He called out, but she didn’t hear so he gunned the engine to catch up. He waved at her to get her attention and she slowed.

‘Go to the fire hut - emergency supplies,’ she shouted.

Luke made a cutting motion at his throat and they stopped. ‘Too close,’ he said. ‘They’ll find us.’

‘Where?’ she asked in desperation.

‘The Zodiac,’ he replied. They had no other options. With their station destroyed and the emergency hut out of bounds, their only hope was to escape in their inflatable boat. How they would stay alive after that, Luke had no idea.

‘No,’ she said, ‘We need shelter - Mac’s hut.’

Of course. Built a few months ago, it wasn’t on the plans or any map. It was on a pebbly beach they’d christened ‘the Nest’ because of all the Adelie penguin nesting sites in the area. It wasn’t far from where they’d left the Zodiac.

‘Perfect,’ he said, nodding.

‘Got to lie down’ said Tubs, whose grip around Luke’s waist was weakening.

‘Not long, mate. Keep your head down out of the wind,’ said Luke. He pulled Tubs’ arms tighter around him. Tubs groaned but hung on. Maddie had moved off.

Before he followed, Luke took one last look at Hope Station. Their home had been turned into hell on earth.

4 Responses to ‘L.A. Larkin, Thirst’

Dino not to be confused with ducks in to say...

Posted April 29, 2013



Are you certain she is not 'ghost writing' for a Bounder?

Say it isn't so.

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Barnesm has opinions thus...

Posted April 29, 2013

Thats brilliant, will post more once I have thought over.

Fits nicely with my recent media which included Tobias Buckwell's 'Artic Rising', and having just watched the not picked up pilot 'Borealis' (really enjoyed, sorry it wasn't given a series) and with SyFy's Ronald D Moore's commissioned series 'Helix' set in the cold we may be seeing a boom in this sub-genre.

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Dick swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted April 29, 2013

I reckon they're fucked, so it would be interesting to see where she takes it from there.

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Tony McFadden has opinions thus...

Posted May 4, 2013

Great. Took a Thriller writing course from her at the Australian Writers' Centre. She certainly knows her stuff.

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Mr Phelan, givin' it away

Posted April 19, 2013 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

Hey kids, do you like zombies? Do you like free stuff? Well Mr James Phelan is givin' away the zombie goodness on Amazon and all the other platforms too this weekend, with the first of his Chasers series going out the door for exactly zero dollars.

I'f you'd like another free taste, I got an extract from book two below:

Automatic gunfire rang out. Bullets pinged and zapped off metal and concrete. The soldiers were shooting. Falling glass and dust sent me sprawling. They were shooting at me. I stayed behind the taxi and knelt closer to the pavement in a tight huddle, my hands over my ears. I got as close to the ground as I could. I shook. My knees and forehead on the cold wet ground. My breath fogging before my face. I tried to move lower, to crawl my way into the earth.

The shooting stopped. I took my hands off my ears, but I could still hardly hear. I closed my eyes. I’d already seen enough death and if it was coming for me now, I did not want to know in

advance. Sound began to return, a ringing in my ears soon replaced by the thrumming engines of the trucks passing close. I heard walking, the crunching of snow. Someone was coming, closing. I opened my eyes. I was pushed over, flat to the ground. I looked up and a man with a rifle was standing over me. Not at all the boy I’d imagined from afar. He had a short ragged beard, like he’d last shaved without a mirror, with a thick moustache covering his top lip. A gas mask hung under his chin, loose as if ready to pull on at a moment’s notice. He wore a bulletproof vest over a plastic camouflage jumpsuit, a white parka over his shoulders.

Black boots. Big black boots.

His rifle had a timber stock and a black steel scope, like a hunting rifle. It was steady in his hands, and pointed directly at me. I looked beyond this appendage to the man, and I realised his issue with me: He thinks I’m a Chaser. Or worse, the enemy.

I said, ‘Don’t kill me.’

His expression didn’t change. The man’s eyes, framed behind glasses, told what could have been a lie: that he didn’t have it in him to kill me. Or that was what I chose to see. Every second of hesitation gave me hope. Here was a man standing over me, a man with his own choices to make, his own unpredictable nature to contend with.

‘Please. Don’t. Don’t do it.’ I tried a smile, a friendly gesture. ‘Look, see? I’m not sick . . .’

My throat gave out with ‘sick’; a croaking, hoarse, feeble cry, all I had after so many days of soliloquy.

I showed him my empty hands, how I was unarmed, on the ground, at his mercy. Yesterday, maybe I would not have been so willing to submit, but today, now, I wanted to live, to hear what he had to say, to learn what was out there, to somehow get home.

I pleaded softly, ‘I’m not the enemy . . .’

He reached down and I inched away, shuffling back in the wet snow from both the threat of his grasp and his pointed rifle, but he took a long stride after me and dragged me to my feet. He held me up by my collar, at arm’s length, shaking me to see how I’d react. I didn’t fight him. His three colleagues stood beside the pair of all-terrain trucks with their monster-sized tyres and stared.

This man who held me turned around and shouted:

‘He’s not sick.’

‘So?’ one of his colleagues replied as he climbed back into the truck. Visible through the open back flap of the canvas-topped truck was a container the size of a small car with USAMRIID stencilled on the side of it.

‘They said they were all sick . . .’ the soldier holding me said quietly to himself, dangling me in mid-air, his gaze locked on mine.

‘Forget him!’ The shout rattled around the empty street. ‘We gotta hustle.’

‘Shoot him!’ yelled another. ‘Do the kid a favour.’ He slammed the cab door of the second truck and it motored off in the cleared wake of the first. The last soldier remained, watching closely from the other side of the street, cradling his rifle. If this one here doesn’t kill me, that one will, won’t he? I swallowed hard.

Should I run? Twist away and run? Zigzag my way around debris and hope they miss?

‘Please . . .’ I said to the one who held me. He had a name tag on his vest: STARKEY. ‘Please, Starkey, I’m not sick. You can’t kill me.’

‘Kill him!’ The order echoed across the street. Guns entitled men to do anything. They were clearly Americans, so why shoot me? Out of anger for what’s happened here?

Out of fear? No, these were outsiders. They probably knew what was going on here, they had information. I was more afraid than he could ever be. I pleaded with my eyes. I didn’t want to die, and now, more than that, I wanted to know. I wanted to talk, to ask questions, to listen and learn.

He let me go. ‘How old are you?’

‘Sixteen,’ I replied.

‘We’re moving!’

‘I’ll catch up!’ Starkey yelled across to his buddy, who shook his head and remained standing there, rifle slung in his arms like a child. ‘Where were you when this attack happened?’

‘Here.’ I was too frightened to lie.

‘Here in this street?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘A subway; I was in a subway.’

He nodded. ‘How many like you?’

‘Like me?’

‘Not sick.’

‘I don’t know.’

‘How many are you staying with?’

‘Just me.’


‘I’m alone,’ I replied.

I could see what he was thinking. That I was crazy. That I’d probably just crawled out of some blackened, deserted building, completely out of step with what was going on, a raving lunatic. No matter what stirrings of sympathy he may have felt, he couldn’t get away from the fact that I might just be mad and so, in my own way, just as dangerous as the infected people. Maybe I would have thought that too.

I tried to explain. ‘There’s this girl – Felicity. She might be in Central Park still. That’s where I’m heading. There might be others. I just haven’t seen anyone in person—’

‘Well, kid, I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen good people do things that don’t make no sense,’ he said, not looking at me. ‘No sense. You understand?’

I nodded. He’d done stuff, too, probably.

‘Soon there’ll be— there’ll be people coming through here, and it’ll get out of hand – it’ll be something you don’t want to see . . .’

‘Why wouldn’t I want to see people?’

I’d dreamed of seeing people for twelve days . . .

He looked over at his comrades. Soldiers, on the road to nowhere. One of them turned, leaning from his truck window, and made a gesture to Starkey to hurry up. The vehicle had rounded the intersection up ahead.

‘We’re getting left behind!’ the other guy yelled, and finally moved on, jogging after his friend and then climbing into the second truck.

Starkey turned to leave.

‘Who are you?’ I asked him.

‘I’m nobody,’ he said as he held his rifle with both hands. ‘Just— Just keep your head down, kid. Won’t be long.’

Won’t be long? ‘What won’t be long?’

He walked away. Square shoulders filling out his plastic parka. Hope departing. Just like that. No answer. I ran after him. Fell into step beside him. His eyes scanned the street. The guy’s expression was stone. He looked down at me like I was nothing. Like I, and all this around us, was too big a problem for one man and his buddies to deal with.

‘Don’t make me stay here,’ I pleaded, falling into step beside him, heading for the departing trucks. ‘There’s thousands of those infected—’

‘They won’t last much longer,’ he said. ‘They’ll become ill and worse due to injury and exposure, lack of nutrition, all that. They can’t last long on just water . . .’

‘No, you don’t understand, there’s another kind of infected—’

‘I’ve seen, kid,’ he said, zipping his collar up tight against a horizontal snow drift. ‘There are two clear groups of the infected. Yeah? I’ve seen that. Those who are literally bloodthirsty killers, and those who are content with any liquid to survive. Either way, both groups need fluid constantly; got themselves some kind of psychogenic polydipsia, they need to drink. It’s the why that bothers me – why the two different conditions . . .’

He seemed lost in the thought, a thousand-mile stare.

‘That’s why you’re here?’

He eventually shrugged in reply.

‘Maybe the ones who chase after people were already screwed up?’ I said. ‘Murderers and criminals, stuff like that.’

‘Maybe, kid,’ he said, looking at his trucks. ‘But I doubt it.’

‘They’re driven to kill for blood,’ I said urgently. ‘I’ve seen them. They prey on others, take advantage of them. They’re getting stronger while the rest – the general population of infected – are getting weaker. The gap is growing bigger. The weak congregate, for safety maybe. They flock to where there’s easy water, they make do. The strong are in smaller packs, plenty are doing it alone, and they’re as strong as they were on day one, maybe even more so.’

‘The ones just drinking water will die out if they don’t start getting some nutrients in them,’ Starkey said. ‘Hell, we’ve already seen plenty who hyper-hydrated to the point of fatal disturbance in brain functions.’

‘The others?’

‘The others . . .’ he shrugged. ‘Well, they might just be around forever.’

17 Responses to ‘Mr Phelan, givin' it away’

Blarkon has opinions thus...

Posted April 19, 2013

I got these for Mini-Blarkon when they came out. He was 9 and devoured them.

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Bangar puts forth...

Posted April 19, 2013

An excellant series, be aware it is cleverly written.

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Naut would have you know...

Posted April 19, 2013

Some of his best work .

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JP puts forth...

Posted April 19, 2013

Nice one.

And FYI it's free on all digital platforms until Monday.

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Barnesm is gonna tell you...

Posted April 19, 2013

I too enjoyed these three books in the Chaser series, a welcome addition to the burgeoning sub-genre of the teen zombie apocalypse and I would recommend these as an excellent introduction for any young’ns that require schooling on the handling of the modern, 28 days later type, rage zombies.

I will go download the e-book, not because I need it but I assume it raises Mr Phelan's profile within amazon which is a worthwhile thing for me to do when it costs me nothing but a little time and bandwidth.

Unless John or Orin explain by some mechanism that I wasn’t aware that some how by doing this provides no boost the Mr Phelans profile in which case at worst I have spent a few minutes I would have otherwise wasted, at this time of night, probably downloading tentacle porn.

Barnesm has opinions thus...

Posted April 20, 2013


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Barnesm mumbles...

Posted April 19, 2013

and I thought Monday free reading stuff day?

oh and this is my new favourite thing

John Birmingham is gonna tell you...

Posted April 20, 2013

Monday normally, yeah. But the free stuff runs out on Monday.

Barnesm asserts...

Posted April 21, 2013

Good point

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Therbs is gonna tell you...

Posted April 20, 2013

Yeah, a fine zed series for young 'uns, especially given the Potter froth and emo vampire twattism of recent times.

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WarDog mumbles...

Posted April 20, 2013

Mmm still $13.99 on Google Play

Barnesm asserts...

Posted April 20, 2013

yeah, need to go to Amazon for this one

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TC is gonna tell you...

Posted April 20, 2013

Sold. ...or not sold, as the case may be. Glad you posted that bit, JB, I was planning to give it a miss regardless of being free but from that quick read I'm keen to see more.

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Bunyip ducks in to say...

Posted April 21, 2013

Just purchased it for the minion. She is dubious, but I'm hopefull on a peer recommendation. I mean sheesh, what would I know about genre fiction?

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pi has opinions thus...

Posted April 21, 2013

Gawd I love my kindle

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Trashman would have you know...

Posted April 23, 2013

Not free on Amazon in the UK or US...

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