Author Archives: Will Duquette

Recent Reading: Historicals, Monsters, and DNA

Been doing a lot of reading of late; here are some capsule reviews.

Black Chamber, by S. M. Stirling. This is a WWI-era spy novel set in an alternate America in which Teddy Roosevelt was elected instead of Taft and was able to implement his progressive policies with a free hand. It’s got airships, submarines, handsome evil Germans (but no Nazis), and a femme fatale, Luz O’Malley Aróstegui, who takes the battle to Germany. The background is amazingly and thoroughly detailed; Stirling did his research on this one. A little more sex than I like, but a gripping read from one end to the other.

Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past, by David Reich. It turns out that the history of the human species is far more complicated than anyone had guessed, and in surprising ways. Reich is a geneticist specializing in the study of ancient DNA; much of the research was done in his laboratory. Fair warning: some of the paragraphs regarding their experimental procedures are quite exceedingly dry; I confess I skimmed them to get on to the conclusions. With that caveat, though, I found this to be a fascinating book. Rule of thumb: things get more complicated when you look closely, not less.

Monster Hunter Memoirs: Saints, by Larry Correia and John Ringo. This is the last book in a delightful trilogy beginning with Monster Hunter Memoirs: Grunge, and the trilogy itself is part of Correia’s larger “Monster Hunter International” series. The Monster Hunter books are a lot of fun; and Ringo’s contributions are somehow more fun than par. But don’t start with this one; start with Grunge or with the first book in the series, Monster Hunter International.

Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, by Gerd Gigerenzer. A friend recommended this as a more rigorous take on the topic of Malcom Gladwell’s Blink. I enjoyed it but can’t completely recommend it, as I found myself arguing with the author on almost every page, and certainly in every chapter. The author habitually contrasts gut reactions and intuition with reason, to reason’s detriment; the trouble is, by “reason” he means modern propositional logic, a field that corresponds to only a small part of the human faculty of reason as it was understood by Aristotle or the Scholastics. Virtually everything he discusses is in fact perfectly reasonable and rational by the older definitions of “reason”. On the other hand, he isn’t wrong; it’s one of those cases where I find myself agreeing with the conclusions and disagreeing with the categories. It’s an interesting book if you’re interested in this sort of thing.

A Famine of Horses, by P.F. Chisolm. This delightful book is a mystery novel set on the Anglo-Scottish border in the days of Queen Elizabeth I, and concerns one Sir Robert Carey, newly appointed Deputy Warden of the English West March. The border in those days was a lawless place of horse and cattle thieves and protection rackets in which the Grahams, the Armstrongs, the Elliots, and other “surnames” fought, rustled, and feuded and moved from one side of the border to the other to escape the heat. It’s a milieu I’d encountered before, in George MacDonald Fraser’s excellent non-fiction work The Steel Bonnets, and Chisolm quite brings it to life. Recommended.

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Letters from Armorica- The Sky Wagon (3 Août 34AF)

First Letter

Dear Journal,

Yesterday and today Jacques and I continued our work on our first sky-wagon. We built it on the foredeck of Le Rubicon, not the most congenial spot for such activity: the deck of the sloop has a distinct curve to it, and is cramped besides. The curvature makes it tricky to get things square, and we had no proper workbench. Still, a sky-wagon is a necessity in order to continue to build up our encampment here on what the others are calling L’Isle de Grand-Blaireau, or simply Grand-Blaireau for short.

It is ironic, truly. Le Rubicon and its sister Le Blaireau have a cargo capacity far in excess of anything I am ever likely to build; and yet we dare not use them because without a skilled crew we dare not raise the sails. Without the sails, the sloops are slow and unmanageable, and far too noticeable at a distance. The sky-wagon will be smaller and much faster and more maneuverable, and provided we keep a good watch should be able to avoid notice. The current plan, as I understand it, is to descend in the shadow of the waterfall and then across the lake to a spot where we can meet normal wagons on the road from Bois-de-Bas. Ultimately we may be able to dispense with those, and take the sky-wagons the entire way, but that will require rather more of them than we will have for some time.

I had been pondering the design for some time, so Jacques and were able to set straight to work. The basis for the sky-wagon is a standard wagon bed: a box, not to put it too plainly, about two feet high by five feet wide by something over six feet in length, open at the top and back. Where a normal wagon would have axles and tall wagon wheels, putting the bed at waist height, our wagon is on runners—not sleigh runners, but simple beams—and to save lumber and to make it easier to load and unload the bed is only about a foot off of the ground. After all, there shall be no need to roll it anywhere.

To the front of the box is affixed the body of a sky-chair, cut down so as to seat only one. And above the whole, at a height of about five feet from the bed, is a canopy: the lifting elements, from which the whole will depend in flight. We have covered the canopy with canvas and netting, so as to disguise it from above, and to shade the load.

We completed our first wagon to this design today. It is roughly finished at best, as we are in haste, but it is functional, and in addition to the lifting and control elements I have hardened all of the structural members and many of the exposed surfaces. It is ugly, but at least those who use it shall have no need to beware of splinters!

Étienne, Onc’ Herbert’s wagoneer, will have the honor of flying the wagon. He presented to me that it would be better to leave the wagon completely open at the top, for ease of stowage and to increase the cargo capacity. I presented to him that it would better not to load the wagon above the lifting elements, so as it keep it stable and unlikely to capsize in mid-flight, and to maximize the number of lifting elements, so as to carry the needed loads with ease. When I put it to him that way he quite saw the point. Jacques and I did, however, increase the height of the canopy by a foot, so that one need not stoop quite so much while loading. It requires more materials, but increases stability as well as comfort.

The wagon bed itself is of fairly typical construction, a sturdy base with solid side panels two feet high in front and on the left and right. We added a gate of sorts in back, to prevent the cargo from slipping out mid-flight; and at Amelie’s comment that she should be quite frightened to ride in such a thing with nothing between her and the air, we ran laths along the uprights at intervals of about every two inches from just above the sides all the way up to the canopy. This provides light, air, and sense of safety to those who shall occasionally be riding in the wagon bed, and ensures that we shall not lose any small boys. At least, it makes it less likely.

It is an ugly beast, not nearly as comely as the sky-chair we built together, and poor Jacques hates to look at it, but thanks to his skill and my hardening it is both solid and durable; and as it is controlled in the same way as the sky-chairs it should be easy to operate. Étienne has pronounced himself content, and in the morning will descend to the lake shore to pick up his first load.

At the same time, Jacques and I shall descend to the river bank, as the men have put together the beginnings of a better workshop for us. It is a simple affair: just a wooden floor with a canvas awning to keep off the sun and disguise our activities, but the floor is perfectly flat. We have saw horses, and are promised proper work benches as soon as they can be transported from the village—which shall be all the sooner the quicker we work.

It is good to be a part of a community like this: each of us has our tasks to do, and the work progresses with amazing swiftness. I credit Onc’ Herbert, for he is a man of considerable prudence and foresight. Still, I wish Marc could have remained with us here on Grand-Blaireau, he being my closest friend in Bois-de-Bas; but he and Elise are occupied with running our shop, and on top of that he has become Onc’ Herbert’s chief lieutenant and aide, running hither and thither with prudent and deliberate abandon. I shan’t see him here for more than brief visits unless we find we need to abandon Bois-de-Bas altogether. That is, of course, why we are building the settlement here on my island, yet I hope it will not come to that.

At least I have no fear of wasting my time. The sky-wagons shall prove to be of great use—and, ultimately, profit!—even should the Provençese never come in greater force.

Next Letter

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Letters from Armorica- The Rubicon (1 Août 34AF)

First Letter

Dear Journal,

Yesterday everything changed. We are at war. I don’t say that Armorica is at war with Provençe—though would that it were! But Bois-de-Bas is certainly and openly at war with the forces of Le Maréchal. And more than that, I am no longer alone. The forest round about Le Blaireau is ringing with the sound of hammers and axes, there are voices and shouts everywhere, and best of all my darling Amelie is here by me as I write.

The first I knew of it was yesterday evening. I had retired below, and was reading by the light of a lantern when I heard the sound of splintering branches. The entire sloop shook with a massive blow. My first thought was, “Le Maréchal! He has come!”

I crept up to the deck to see the silhouettes of men jumping onto it from another sloop, which had been brought along side. I could see its bare masts and the loom of its bowsprit in the dim light. “A boarding party!” I gasped from my spot in the darkness of the hatchway. How had the Provençese found me! What ought I to do? The moment I left the security of my hole I would be seen. Could I reach my sky-chair on the foredeck before I was taken? Not likely, it seemed, for the men had spread out until they lined the rail at intervals all of the way to the bow.

The men on deck were passed the ends of ropes from the other sloop, which they used to make all fast, binding the two vessels together, rail to rail. Then another form was passed across from the other sloop, gently as it seemed, and I heard a familiar voice calling, “Armand!”

It was Marc, and the one passed so carefully over from the other sloop was my Amelie, heavy with our child! I stumbled out onto the deck, still quivering in every bone but more relieved than I can say.

“But what is this?” I cried at him, clinging to my bride. “What has happened?”

“The men of L’Asticot returned to Bois-de-Bas with manners of the most rude!” said Amelie, clinging to me in turn. “Please, I must be sitting down.”

“This way,” I said, and led them down to the captain’s cabin. It was cramped, and if Amelie could be comfortable Marc and I could not, but no matter. I sat her down on my cot, and wrapped blankets around her to make a nest.

L’Asticot?” I asked. “Who is that?”

“That pig Le Maréchal, she means,” said Marc, and Amelie nodded solemnly. “L’asticot is a, how you would say, a grub, a maggot.”

“And he is eating the motherland from the inside,” said Amelie firmly.

“So, his men returned,” I said. “I wondered what was taking them so long. They only just now missed Le Blaireau?”

“Oh, no, no,” said Marc. “They have visited several times since then. The first time they were looking for Le Blaireau, and we said it had come and gone. They tried to recruit some of our men, but of course no one agreed, and as they were in a hurry they did not argue.”

“But what about the shop?”

“Marc and Elise have been most helpful,” said Amelie.

It took me some little while to get the full story. It seems that by then Amelie had switched places with Marc and Elise, living with Onc’ Herbert while Marc and Elise ran the shop. The sign was repainted to say Frontenac instead of Tuppeny, and Elise had reconfigured my former’s workshop as a place for a seamstress while my benches and tools were hidden in a shed on Onc’ Herbert’s farm. There was no sign of my presence for the soldiers to find.

That was over a week ago. Two more parties had come since then. The first asked for the whereabouts of “le maître de la thaumaturgie Armand Tuppenny,” and were told that I had left town. Marc had obligingly pointed them in the direction of the false trail he had laid.

Maître de la thaumaturgie!” I exclaimed. “It would seem that either my father or my aunt came through for me, more’s the pity. I should never have written home.”

“It is only what you deserve,” said Amelie with great fondness.

“It is,” said Marc, “though the timing is tres difficile. But we amused them for some days, until today they came again. And today they insisted on knowing the location of Madame Tuppenny.”

“They thought to use me as a hostage, les cochon!

“And so we have this fine sloop,” said Marc, “which is loaded with many good things. The rest of your tools, for one, and Jacques and his tools, and materials.”

“And women and children,” said Amelie. “And goats.” She grinned wickedly.

“And such other men as we can spare,” said Marc. “There is much to do here, and much yet to bring if we are to be safe and well supplied.”

And so Le Blaireau is no longer empty, but is filled with the sound of children. The two sloops have been lowered nearer the water, just slightly above the level of the top of the banks, and rude bridges have been run from the banks on either side to the sloops, turning them into the basis for a small settlement. The men have spent all day felling trees and building animal enclosures and work shops. Jacques and I are under orders to build a larger version of the sky-chair, so as to be able to carry more goods and people from town to my island, and so we have been working on the foredeck of the second sloop, Le Rubicon. Indeed there is much to do.

And now it is night once again, and Amelie is waiting.

Next Letter
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Letters from Armorica- Exploring (3 Juillet 34AF)

First Letter

Dear Journal,

I have completed two more sky-chairs and am now out of materials; and so I have spent the last several days exploring my island, which Marc tells me my fellow villagers have taken to calling L’Isle du Grand-Blaireaux, or, alternatively, L’Isle d’Armand. We shall see which one wins out.

My first goal in exploring my island was simply to see what is beyond the tract that is visible from the deck of Le Blaireau. And the answer is, the island is all much of a muchness until it rises into rocky hills at its northern edge. The river flows from a spring in these hills, through the widest part of the island, until it falls off of the edge and down to the lake far below. In between it winds a bit, and there are some pools and a small waterfall or two. The water is good to drink, as I well know by now, and there are fish in the ponds.

For the rest, the island is wooded, and neither particularly flat nor particularly hilly. There are many flattish spots in which one could build a house or barn or shop (if the trees were taken down, and many rocky outcroppings, some of them appearing to contain grottos like those of our hot springs. Though, alas, I am seeing no signs of hot springs themselves, which is a great pity. I should like to explore these grottos, but that will have to wait until I have help. The openings are small; and also, I do not want to die alone, in the dark, with a broken leg or worse—or to fall in a hole, right through the base of the island, and down into the lake below.

I did find one grotto with a larger entry that appears to be the entrance to Old Man Blaireau’s lair. That one I was not tempted to look inside though the going would be easier. I have seen signs of small animals here and there, though nothing that remotely compares with my late friend in size; and it is quite possible that something new has taken up residence. I should not like to find out. And then, of course, there is the stench.

I should like to go fly under the island. From my brief visit there some weeks ago, before all of the unpleasantness with the Provençese recruiters, I remember seeing what seemed to be hollows and the mouths of rocky caves, some of them quite large. But the light is dim at best directly under the island, and we had no lantern with us; and what seems to be a deep pit of blackness can easily be a shallow pocket in the stone. I have a lantern or two here in the sloop, or I could form a hand-light; but of course I am supposed to be remaining out of sight. My days here would be quite wasted if another sloop saw me nosing around under the island, brightly lit.

All in all, my island looks like it could support a small population indefinitely, or a larger one at need for a shorter time; there is room aplenty, and one could plant a few small fields and keep a small herd of goats (ugh). But I am at a loss as to how one would do that without it being immediately visible to a direct overflight.

You see, Dear Journal, that I am still consumed with worry about the Provençese. Whether or not they are still looking for me, whether or not they are still looking for their lost sloop (and I must assume that they are) I fear that war will be coming to Bois-de-Bois. Le Maréchal cannot overlook defiance by those he considers his subjects. We must either give in, or oppose him; and if we are to oppose him, we shall need a base, a hidden base where our families can be safe. I had thought that we might build such a base here on my island…but how to hide it from the air if we cannot build underground, I cannot say.

At night I have dreams of exploring vast networks of caverns deep in the rock of island, small tunnels and vast echoing spaces. Sometimes they are as dark as pitch, and sometimes they warm and lit with many lanterns, and my friends are coming and going. And then I wake, and I ask myself…if the island’s base is so riddled with holes, how is it that the river gets from one end to the other without draining through and out the bottom? And then, in the grey of morning, I am filled with despair.

I suppose there may yet be an answer; I have learned to respect the resource and contrivance of my friends here.

Tonight I am feeling low, lonely, and discouraged. If only Amelie could be here with me, I should know how to go on. But she is not.

Next Letter
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Letters from Armorica: Old Man Blaireau (26 Juillet 34AF)

First Letter

Dear Journal,

It has been quite a busy week, Dear Journal, as you well know, and Dear Lord, when did I start talking to my journal as though it were another person? I am so tired of living alone. This sloop is not large, though far more than ample for one, and I have walked every inch of it over and over again, yes, and banged my head on the low beams over and over again as well, just trying to move. I once saw a lion in a cage in Yorke; I have been feeling like that lion, pacing back and forth, up and down, trying to find some part of the sloop I’ve never seen before, and of course failing.

But in between all of that it has been a busy week, filled with the building of skychairs and diagrams of congeries and much thinking, and it has borne much fruit. During the days I was able to construct three more of my two-man sky-chairs, ugly but effective, for a total of five! Leaving one here for me, that means that eight men can quickly come and go from Le Blaireau at a time; and that means that we were at last able to organize a hunting party for Old Man Blaireau. Though the phrase “hunting party” is misleading, for there was very little hunting involved. It was by no means necessary to seek out Old Man Blaireau, for he has been my daily companion through the week, my sole visitor in my loneliness, and so he came to us. And given the means used, it might be more descriptive to call it an execution party.

I did not participate, though I watched from above. I did not even need to take to the air, but could see everything from the railing of the sloop.

Old Man Blaireau is—or, I should say, was—enormous even by the standards of grand-blaireau, and so my friends took great thought of how to dispose of him with minimal risk. In the end, guided largely by Marc, I think, they adopted radically new tactics. They brought with them an enormous net, and they spread it out on the flats at the top of the bank, in the nearest suitable spot to the sloop. In the middle of the net they staked out a kid goat. From the corners of the net ran four pairs of lines, one pair to each of four sky-chairs, where they were attached in some way. The sky chairs took station over the corners of the net, high enough to be out of the beast’s reach; and then we waited, listening to the kid goat bawling for its mama.

I felt only mildly sorry for the kid goat, being acquainted with its mama, for she, I believe I may say without fear of contradiction, is no lady.

We did not have to wait long. Old Man Blaireau, looking more famished than ever, rushed through the trees, his broad nose low to the ground, and bit the kid goat in two. He was not left to enjoy his meal, for no sooner was he on the net than the four sky-chairs burst upward at speed.

The net had been designed to tighten and bind and ensnare its contents when the corner lines were pulled; and as Old Man Blaireau’s nose was at the center of the net he shortly found himself head down and tightly meshed.

I had had reservations about the plan when it was first broached to me: would not the giant beast’s thrashings tear open the net? Might he not pull one sky-chair or another into a tree?

“We have practiced,” Marc said. “And your chairs are of the most stable because of your design: they may tilt, but they can never capsize.”

“But might they not tilt so far that you fall out?”

Mais non!” he said. “For we have fitted them with straps. You are not to worry, mon ami. We are quite safe.” He assured me that so long as the chairs ascended with sufficient rapidity, Old Man Blaireau would be wrapped too tightly to move before he could do anything untoward. And so, indeed, it proved.

And then, each sky-chair no more than an arms length from the other three, the four chairs moved with care through the trees. They carried their burden beyond the stern of the sloop and lowered it head first into the river. This was the part of the plan I hated most.

“We must kill it in some way,” said Marc, shrugging, “for it is a menace.” And then, winking at me, “And it would be a shame to spoil the biggest blaireau fur anyone has ever seen by piercing it with holes. However, if you wish to cut its throat you may be my guest. Take care not to damage the net.”

“No, no,” I said. “Please, proceed.”

When the beast was safely dead, they transported it some distance from the sloop, cleaned it, and skinned it; and the skin is now drying on the foredeck. The carcass they wrapped again in the net, and two of the sky-chairs carried it off to be dropped somewhere in the woods below, far from town, for blaireau meat is no good to eat unless you are starving.

I find I miss Old-Man Blaireau somewhat, for all that he would gladly have devoured me as quickly as he did the kid goat. But Marc’s final words to me before leaving were that he would bring Amelie to see me on the morrow; and of course now I am free to explore!

Next Letter
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Letters from Armorica: A Brief Visit (20 Juillet 34AF)

First Letter

Dear Journal,

I had a lovely break from my solitude today, for Marc came to visit, and he brought Amelie with him! It was but the briefest of visits—should the Provençese return to Bois-de-Bas they must find Amelie present there, or they will never believe I have run. I quite scolded Marc for his recklessness, smiling all the while. He merely laughed at me. But Amelie and our child-to-be are quite well, and it did my heart good to see them.

They came immediately after divine worship, bringing with them some fresh food (eggs, a jug of milk, and a small cake, for Sonnedi), assured me that I was not forgotten, and then vanished again, having helped me eat the cake.

Marc cast a few longing looks at my sole completed sky-chair, and I could tell that he wished to take it back to Bois-de-Bas with him; it must weigh hard on him being the only means of communication with me on Le Blaireau. But first he must train another to operate the chair he has—and I am of no mind to rid myself of my only way of returning home at need. Still, it is clear that I must finish yet another sky-chair post-haste.

I have been entirely lazy today, at least in the matter of manual labor, for of course it is Sonnedi; and I am still consumed with pondering the design of Le Blaireau. I had to do a few arithmetical exercises to be sure, but now I think I understand.

The reason the great sky-ships do not use formed elements for propulsion in more than the most modest way is simply a matter of scale. The relevant elements in Le Blaireau—the keel, the rudder, the lifting element in the railings, and the small element for moving about the harbor—are all formed as single hardened pieces. This adds greatly to their durability, as the women of Bois-de-Bas can attest of their cookware, but it is difficult to form elements of such size. One former working by himself can only do so much. A team of formers working together can do more—must do more, for the enormous sky-freighters and warships—but working in teams is also difficult, and formers are rare and expensive.

At the same time, the simpler the task, the easier it is; and the lifting element and keel have been designed to be as simple as possible and still perform their functions. Simply put, a single propulsive element capable of moving a sky-freighter at speed would be enormous and enormously expensive. One could do rather better on a sloop such as Le Blaireau, for it is quite small as ships go, but the effort might well still be inordinate.

And then there is the design of the ship to consider. The force of any such propulsive element must be carefully placed, and the structure of the ship designed to transmit that force properly to the ship as a whole. It would be quite useless if the propulsive element was so strong that it ripped itself clear of the ship! A standard sky-ship, on the other hand, makes use of the tried-and-true designs of water-going ships, with their keels and masts and rigging and so forth. The forces are well understood.

And yet…need the propulsive element be formed as a single piece? It seems to me that many small elements working together, perhaps distributed about the vessel, might do very well, and achieve the same force as a single much larger element. Control would be more difficult, and the…collection? Congerie? Yes, the congerie would be more susceptible to damage than a single element. But if the propulsive elements were hardened, and part of the structure of the conveyance, as they are in my sky-chairs…. Truly, I think something might be done.

The classic design’s advantages of strength and durability are undeniably, especially on a long voyage through the Abyss, especially with no former to fix storm damage. But of course I am a former; and for local use—and local defense—it might be possible to build a number of smaller vessels along entirely new lines. Vessels that do not require masts, vessels that are easily hidden, vessels that might give us a fighting chance if Le Maréchel comes calling. Yes, and it might be possible to harden the rest of their members, too.

I must have materials, and I must have help. More, I must have room, and that means a permanent camp, which means that we must dispose of Old Man Blaireau.

I shall certainly complete another sky-chair tomorrow.

Next Letter
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A Bloody Habit, by Eleanor Bourg Nicholson

The cover of Eleanor Bourg Nicholson’s vampire novel led me to expect some kind of late-Victorian Harry-Dresden-meets-Father-Brown mash-up. The truth is considerably less goofy, and far more interesting.

The cover depicts a cheerfully rotund Dominican friar, be-spectacled and be-hatted, carrying a bloody stake and wearing the bloody habit of the cover. This is one Fr. Thomas Edmund Gilroy, O.P., D.C.L. It seems that in response to an alarming rise in preternatural events, Pope Benedict XIV commissioned his various religious orders to attend to the disposal of the forces of evil. The Order of Preachers was particularly tasked with dealing with the vampiric undead. Why he chose the Dominicans for this particular task, I can’t say; but I’ll note that the Franciscans were given responsibility for werewolves. (I foresee a sequel: The Werewolf of Gubbio.) (Apologies to Ms. Nicholson if I gave the game away.)

However, Fr. Gilroy isn’t the main character. That honor goes to a young man named John Kemp: respectable, agnostic, a plain English solicitor of the old school. As the book begins, early in 1900, Kemp is returning home from handling a piece of legal business in Romania; to pass the time on the train he is reading that recently published novel, Dracula, by one Bram Stoker. Traveling in same compartment with him is Fr. Gilroy, who seems to know far more than he should.

Mr. Kemp is a skeptical man who has mostly rejected his father’s Calvinism and found nothing much with which to replace it. He has a young lady in London with whom he almost has an understanding, and whom he no longer really wishes to wed, but is resigned to the inevitable. (It is the young lady, Adele, who pressed Stoker’s novel upon him.) In proper English fashion he regards Papistry as foolish, superstitious, and genuinely weird, and he has no desire to continue his acquaintance with Fr. Gilroy.

And then things start happening. His sleeping compartment on the train is invaded that night, and his beloved’s favor, a handkerchief, is stolen. And were those fangs he saw? And was the creature truly driven off by Fr. Gilroy’s business card?

He returns to London and things do not improve. His no-longer-so beloved develops anemia. He begins to have a nightmares. His clientele grows increasingly creepy. Violently mauled bodies are found in Hyde Park. And he keeps running into Fr. Thomas Edmund Gilroy.

This is not a Harry Dresden novel; nor is it a Fr. Brown pastiche, though Fathers Gilroy and Brown would certainly get on well. Rather, it’s an understated and slyly comic tale of late Victorian horror that nicely replicates the feel of Stoker’s Dracula while subverting as many of our expectations (and John Kemp’s!) as possible. The late Victorian prose and dialog is spot on. The horror is in the tale itself; the comedy is mostly in the reader’s head as one responds to things that do not work out as one had expected (or, again, when they do), but it’s there all the same.

A Bloody Habit is a deeply Catholic book; its theory of vampires pays decent lip service to Catholic theology and metaphysics, and its Dominican friars are as cheerfully Dominican as Dominican can be. (I suppose there exist morose Dominican friars, but I’ve not yet met one.) But it isn’t in any way preachy, and though there are many interesting tidbits said in passing, there are no lurking treatises on the theological implications of vampirism. Catholics will get a few chuckles, but I don’t see anything here to put off non-Catholic readers.

In short, I enjoyed reading it; and this despite not having much taste for vampire novels in general. I’d love to see a book in which Fr. Gilroy has to collaborate with his Franciscan opposite numbers. And I confess that I’m extremely curious to know what kinds of supernatural bogeymen the Jesuits and the Carmelites got assigned to deal with. Or the Carthusians. (Yetis, perhaps?) Recommended.

Fair disclosure: I received a pre-release copy of this book from Ignatius Press. That said, I asked for a review copy because I thought I’d like it…and I did. It will be available for sale next month.

Letters from Armorica- Ship Design (19 Juillet 34AF)

First Letter

Dear Journal,

Old Man Blaireau has paid me several visits today, peering up at me where I sit on the deck. It is an absurdity of my current position that I have found his presence to be a comfort. It is as though I have a large and extremely dangerous pet. I look down at him and smile and call his name; and eventually he slinks off looking for easier prey.

Once I threw him a biscuit but missed my mark, for it fell short and was swept away by the river. Old Man Blaireau did not even deign to look at it but just kept staring at me with his enormous beady little eyes. He is not fond of ship's biscuit, is Old Man Blaireau, which I can well understand. I am not fond of it either, not now that I have made its acquaintance, or I should not have thrown the biscuit over the side.

I completed the first sky-chair this morning—completed it, I say, only insofar as it's possible to use it as a conveyance, for it is no thing of beauty. I fear I shall have take lessons in woodworking from Jacques. Of course I dare not take it anywhere: I cannot return to Bois-de-Bas, and though I am longing to explore the island it is unsafe so long as Old Man Blaireau is on the prowl.

I have the materials to make at least two more chairs, and shall, but this afternoon I have found myself pondering the construction of Le Blaireau, this sloop upon which I find myself, for it is a very different kind of craft than my sky-chairs.

A sky-chair has formed elements that allow it to move in most any direction, as fast or as slowly as the rider wishes. It needs no external motive force. Yet Le Blaireau admits of no such control. It has but four formed elements relating to its motion, only one of which is directly related to propulsion. And in addition to these it has perfectly mundane masts and sails for catching the wind, with all of the cordage and other paraphernalia that such a rig requires. Why so?

The first of the formed elements is a member that rings the deck and provides lift—it might be said to form a portion of the vessel's gunwales or railing. It may be tuned to raise and lower the vessel—but slowly, slowly. It is larger and more sturdy than might seem necessary, but one must consider that the safety of the entire craft hangs upon it in a quite literal sense.

The second is near the stern of the vessel, and provides forward propulsion of a very slow sort—adequate for moving the sloop around a crowded harbor or to a new berthing, but completely unsuitable for practicable travel (as we showed when we used it to pilot Le Blaireau here to my island).

The third is the keel of the vessel, a single piece of hardened wood running from stem to stern. I do not recognize the kind of wood, but I think it must have been something like our Armorican bronzewood: exceptionally strong and sturdy even before being hardened. It isn't tunable, but projects a constant force equally to the right and left. Like the keel of a fishing boat on a lake, it allows the vessel to cut across the wind without being blown off course.

The fourth and last is the rudder, an element very like the keel in construction but mounted by pintles to the stern of the craft. It too projects a constant force to the right and left; and so works with the keel to allow the vessel to be steered.

The basic design was clear to me shortly after I first came on-board—indeed, was necessary for me to understand before ever we could bring her away from Bois-de-Bas. What I have not understood is why? Why not build a sky-sloop—or a sky-ship—as fast and as maneuverable as my sky-chairs? Such a vessel would no longer be at the mercy of the winds; and lacking the complexity of the standing rigging would require a much smaller crew. This would seem a thing of the most desirable, as Amelie would say, whether the vessel was intended for military or mercantile purposes.

It is plain that the creators of this design were mimicking the design and appearance of water craft. Is that all there is to it? This initial design was adequate to the purpose and familiar to the sailors, and so has never been modified?

And yet, our military leaders are not idiots; or even if they are, our mercantile leaders are not—as I have come to know, stupid men do not thrive in trade. If they build the ships as they do, there is a reason for it. Might it be the cost? A more capable vessel would surely be more expensive, and perhaps vastly more so; my father and his fellow masters are surely an exalted and greedy lot. Or perhaps it is not greed, but laziness: forming a more capable vessel would be more work. The shipowners are happy with what they have, and the formers are happy with what they are getting for it, and see no reason to hint of possible improvements or to allow destabilizing innovations to rock the boat, as it were.

And yet greed works both ways. If it is possible to build faster freighters at anything like a reasonable cost, surely some ambitious trader would have prevailed upon the Former's Guild to provide it.

I am missing an essential piece of the puzzle, I can feel it.

The sun is beginning to descend, so I must close. I have found a tangle of netting in the hold, netting tied with ragged pieces of green and brown cloth. I believe it to be intended to be draped over the top of the craft so as it to disguise its appearance from the air. Now that my first chair is complete, I intend to see if I can so drape it; and then, perhaps, I shall sleep more soundly and feel safer on the morrow.

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Public Domain. WikiMedia Commons.

A Little High Tension: The End is in Sight!

A Little High Tension is the follow-on to Vikings at Dino’s and Very Truly Run After that I’ve been working on for some time now: and I’m glad to say, the end is in sight!

The end of the first draft, that is: and it will be a glorious thing. I write by the seat of my pants, which is to say I pick a starting point and then run with it. At first, I know almost nothing, but I figure things out as I go, and I usually have some notion of the climax long before I get there. With A Little High Tension, though, things have been different. It’s shaping up to be a four-act story; I finished up the third act yesterday, and commented to one of my first readers that now all I needed to do was figure out what happened in the fourth act.

And then I got up this morning, and wrote the next Letter from Armorica and posted it; and then I went to take a shower; and while I was in the shower, the entire fourth act popped into my head.

That’s not quite right. What really happened is a specific idea popped into my head, and then it grew, and linked with other ideas I’d had and not known what to do with, and it all made sense, and it all hangs together, and I’ve written the sequence of events and a few choice lines down; and all I need to do now is write it out. It’s gonna be brilliant!

You notice I haven’t said anything about what the ideas are—that would be fatal.

Looks like maybe it’s time to get started on the next cover illustration.

Letters from Armorica- Worries (18 Juillet 34AF)

First Letter

Dear Journal,

I'm glad I've got you to write in, because otherwise I'd go mad sitting here with no one to talk to. Marc should be here in a few days, but first he needs to finish helping laying a false trail to amuse the Provençese when they come looking for me. I hope he returns safely!

I spent the day on deck, brooding and working on another sky-chair. Brooding, because it rankles to have run, leaving my wife and child-to-be behind. I should be defending them, not they me. I tell myself that I haven't run, precisely, that this is a strategic retreat, and that it ultimately is the best way to keep Amelie and my new home safe. But I hate it, and I am glad I have work to keep me busy.

The new chair will be elegant in its design—I learn more with each chair I build—but crude in its construction, what with Jacques not being here to help. Perhaps he can do some finish work on the mundane portions of the chair sometime later: he could install more comfortable seating, for example. It will still be ugly, for the formed portions of the craft cannot be modified.

Perhaps on my next effort I shall work on just the portions of the chair that requiring proper forming. I could form a kind of skeleton with all the necessaries, complete and able to fly, but otherwise unfinished and then Jacques or another skilled craftsman could complete the body work. Each to his own work! It would require changing my design yet again, in order that the skeleton be complete and self-supporting, but I think it can be done. I shall sleep on it.

So I have not been wasting my time out here in the woods on my sky-island; but I have not been comfortable either. The air is chill and damp, here over the river; and then there is Old Man Blaireau tromping about out there in the woods. He knows I am here, though he can't reach me, and I have seen him on the banks several times. He is every bit as large as I remembered, but gaunt. Whatever he is finding to eat, it isn't enough for him.

I hope he doesn't try to knock down the trees to which the sloop is moored. I don't know how smart grand-blaireaux are, or whether he is likely to notice the mooring lines, but I should hate to be set adrift.

There is a cot of sorts in the captain's cabin, a tiny cubbyhole in no way deserving of such a grand name. I attempted to sleep there last night, but tonight I think I shall bed down here in the galley, where I am currently sitting and writing. There is a wood stove here, for cooking the men's meals, and it is the only source of heat on the entire vessel. Perhaps tonight I shall not shiver all night long.

I worry about using the stove, though, because of the smoke. We moored the sloop here on the sky-island because it had to be hidden: our entire defense is based on leading the Provençese to think that the sloop came and went and is still out there, somewhere, carrying on its mission. (It had to be hidden or destroyed, and it is far too valuable to destroy: it could be a significant asset to Bois-de-Bas in the years to come, once the war is over, and possibly even in the coming months, if we can learn how to fly it well.) It seems unlikely that the Provençese will look for it here, or even pay this island any attention at all.

And yet, any Provençese soldiers who come searching are likely to have a sky-vessel of their own, and if so they can fly at any altitude and on any route they please. If they choose to investigate this island, they must necessarily find me; and if they see a plume of smoke, well. I think I must bank the fire before morning, and let it burn freely only when it is quite dark. And when Marc comes, I shall ask for more blankets and a small whirtle-oil stove. That will be enough for cooking and making coffee, and there will be no tell-tale smoke.

If only I could get off this sloop and search the island! It is made of the same limestone as the land below, and as Marc and I saw on our first visit, the underside is riddled with caves and grottos. Perhaps there is something that, with a little help, might be big enough for the entire sloop, to preserve it from prying eyes. Damn Old Man Blaireau anyway.

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photo credit: Ken_Mayer Jotul wood stove via photopin (license)