Fantasy, Imagination, and The Ordinary World

By Thaisa Frank

Where Do Stories Come from?

A portrait image of author Thaisa Frank.Readers often ask me where my stories come from and in truth the imagination is mysterious to me—I never know where it begins or ends because the seeds of my stories have a “given” quality and I can’t really will them to happen. It’s almost as though there’s a pneumatic tube of the imagination and I hang out there when other writers are occupied so I get weird and cryptic assignments: It could be a title, like The Loneliness of the Midwestern Vampire. Or the image of an enchanted man. If I play with the assignment long enough, characters appear and they make the image or title earthbound. My characters have to adhere to the laws of gravity and deal with an ordinary world. It interests me most when one fantastic thing enters the ordinary world. Everything gets a little tilted yet life has to go on according to ordinary laws. You might say that real time and space have been invaded by one alien thing–a Midwestern vampire, an enchanted man, the presence of an angel.

It sometimes takes a long time to find the link between the cryptic image or title and characters who are grounded in the mundane world. For example, the title story of Enchantment began when I had an image of a woman on her porch getting a UPS delivery of an enchanted man. She’d ordered him from an online site and he came with instructions to mist him twice a day. I started the story many times and couldn’t figure out how to move it forward. But when her sullen teen-aged kids appeared, I realized the heart of the story was about the woman hiding the enchanted man from her family.

And the title The Loneliness of the Midwestern Vampire appeared with such urgency that I knew I had to write the story. All I knew about this vampire is that he lived in the Midwest and was terribly lonely. But when a judge in the small Midwestern town bothers him about getting citizenship, I knew that he had to bend to life in the heartlands.

In these stories, a girl has feet that can see, a man is indirectly introduced to an angel who has lived his life, and two circus-performers turn themselves into piece of two-ply thread to go through the eye of a needle.

Not all of my stories are triggered by surreal images. I’m fascinated by people, relationships and obsessions. Enchantment has a story about a character who wants to get a piercing (I did all my research online!), a woman who visits an old boyfriend, a cat that acts as a comforter, and two people who think they are soul mates. It also has two semi-autobiographical novellas with roots in my own life. These were hard stories to write because I had to invent and surprise myself to discover a universal element (Once more the use of the imagination!). After I finished, I felt as if I’d dived into a shipwreck and come up having lived a slightly different life.

Whether I write about what’s apparently “real,” or something more surrealistic, I have to feel captivated and enchanted myself or I don’t feel motivated to write the story. As a kid I had a viewer that held discs so you could look inside and see three-dimensional scenes. I remember looking at Little Red Riding Hood, poised in the dark forest with her basket. I could feel the quiet of the woods and she seemed real, alive in another realm. I wanted to find a way to reach her. So when I talk about feeling enchanted, I’m talking about a feeling that started when I was very young. Perhaps all resonance to fantasy and what seems impossible happens when we’re young. If this is the case, part of fantasy fiction isn’t an escape at all, but a return to a time when we dreamt and imagined more freely.

Enchantment: New and Selected Stories by Thaisa Frank cover image.This guest post by Thaisa coincides with the publication of Enchantment: New and Selected Stories. Her short fiction has captivated readers for two decades, and now many of those pieces are collected in one volume, along with several new stories. In the title story, a lonely mother and housewife orders an enchanted man from a website called The Wondrous Traveler, who arrives with instructions for use and a list of frequently asked questions about enchantment. In "Thread," two circus performers who pass through the eye of a needle become undone by a complicated love triangle. In "Henna," a young writing teacher must contend with an exotic student who will not write, her hands covered in dye and her fingers "sprouting innumerable gardens." And in "The Loneliness of the Midwestern Vampire," the undead descend upon the heartland of the country and become accustomed to its friendlier way of life, attending barn raisings and feasting on cattle in an attempt to normalize their darker passions.

These are vibrant, compelling stories that examine the distance between imagination and reality, and how characters bridge that gap in their attempt to reach one another.

Enchantment is available in both paperback and Kindle format.

Read our review of Heidegger’s Glasses by Thaisa Frank

New Shannara Map of the Four Lands

Cartographer Russ Charpentier first drew a map for Terry Brooks’ ‘The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara: Ilse Witch’ back in 2000, and has been dutifully creating maps for the world of Shannara ever since, including artwork on the Castaway’s Map that began the narrative in Voyage, as well as maps of Parkasia, the Forbidding and Landover. In celebration of the 35th publication anniversary of ‘The Sword of Shannara’ Charpentier has released a new map that will be on sale in three different versions and will be used in the upcoming book, ‘Wards of Faerie’.

Shannara Map of the Four Lands.

Head on over to Terry Brooks’ website for more info, including your chance to own your own map of the Four Lands.

The Four Lands is the fictional world where Terry Brooks’ Shannara series is set. Each land, named after the compass point it faces, is home to a certain race of people.


The Northland is the home of the Troll race and many Gnome tribes. The Northland features much rocky terrain and mountains, along with swamplands and deserts. At one time, the most important area in the Northland was the Skull Kingdom, at the heart of which was Skull Mountain; the base of operations for the Warlock Lord. After his defeat at the hands of Shea Ohmsford, the Skull Kingdom fell into ruin and decay.


The Southland is inhabited mostly by the Race of Man. It was largely divided with the largest country being the Borderland of Callahorn until the Federation took over the Southland after the passing of the Druids. The largest city of Callahorn is the Border City of Tyrsis. Other cities include Varfleet, Leah and Kern. But these cities pale in comparison to the cities of the deep Southland, that formed the core of the Federation, cities such as Arishaig (the Federation capital) Wayford, Sterne, Dechtera, Pia, and Zolomach, all of which are sprawling industrialized cities. It also contains the village of Shady Vale, where Shea and Flick Ohmsford were raised. The Southland is separated from the Northland by the mountain range known as the Dragon’s Teeth. It reaches as far as Lower Anar and Wolfsktaag Mountains in the east and Irrybis Mountains in the West. The southern border is unknown.


The Eastland is the home of the Dwarven and Gnome races. Dwarves and Gnomes are bitter enemies, constantly fighting over territory. The Eastland was also home to Heaven’s Well, the tower where the Ildatch was contained.


The Westland is home to the Elven race. The Elves are mostly concentrated in the northern regions of the Westland, where their capital of Arborlon is situated. The town of Grimpen Ward, a haven for those who wish to flee their old lives with no questions asked, lies in the south of the Westland, in the Wilderun region that was also home to the Witch Sisters, Morag and Mallenroh.

Source: The Shannara Chronicles Wikia

Fantastic Fantasy Artwork: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

The third instalment in our ongoing special feature entitled Fantastic Fantasy Artwork finds us talking to illustrator Portia Rosenberg about the delightful illustrations that she did for Susanna Clarke’s 2005 Hugo and World Fantasy Award winning Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

How did you come to be chosen to illustrate Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell?

Susanna Clarke and her partner visited my Open Studio – in 1996, I think (when I took part in Cambridge Open Studios – where artists exhibit their work in their own homes or studios during weekends in July) – and she liked my drawings, particularly some I had done at college to illustrate ‘Oliver Twist’. That was how we came to meet. But it wasn’t until much later – around 2002/3, when she had finished writing ‘Jonathan Strange’, that she asked me to do a few drawings to accompany the manuscript when it was being submitted to publishers.

At that time, we didn’t know whether the book would get a publisher offer, and if it did, I was convinced it was so unlikely for any publisher to have an adult fiction title illustrated, and if they did, then I didn’t know whether I would be chosen to illustrate it – so it all seemed very doubtful – which definitely heightened how great it felt when it did happen that way.”

A portrait of Mr Gilbert Norrell.

How much of a free hand were you allowed in the creation of the illustrations and how much of an active involvement did Susanna Clarke take?

I did the raven for the cover first – with some specifications about it being a silhouetted shape – although the bird was initially going to be rising out of a book.  I was glad that I went for emphasising to some extent the sinister feel of it, through its stretched neck and especially the clawed feet – I like using that kind of exaggeration in the drawing to stress the point you want to communicate.

“I met with Susanna many times throughout the period that I was doing the drawings – which was do-able as we both live in Cambridge. I appreciated her feedback – I think the whole project really challenged me to try to tune into what needed to be represented. Sometimes I adjusted things and often re-did drawings which weren’t working. Also, Susanna supplied me with many useful reference materials and helped me to locate references, too.”

How was it decided what the 28 illustrations would specifically be?

“Early on, Susanna and I thought separately about which scenes in the text should be illustrated and then met to discuss that. The choice was based on several factors – scenes I was keen to draw, scenes which Susanna wanted to be illustrated, and scenes that made sense to illustrate – taking into account the consideration of not giving too much away, and the basic factor of spacing the illustrations out evenly throughout the text.”

Was it necessary to read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (including extensive footnotes) from beginning to end or was it only necessary to dip in and out of the books for the passages that were to be illustrated?

“I would always want to read the whole text for a book illustration commission (and in any case, I needed to, in order to take part in choosing which scenes to illustrate). I want to make sure I have all the information that may be critical to what is represented, to try to be true to the facts of the story, but also I think it makes sense to go into the world of the story in order to have a chance at grasping and conveying it fully.

One thought about the footnotes is that I enjoyed the ones containing powerfully evocative stories and characters themselves – for instance, the one describing Simon Bloodworth’s fairy-servant and the magical cupboard into which 17 people disappeared, in Chapter 5 – which conjures up imagery as equally inspiring as the main text itself.

Which characters really fired your own imagination? Alongside Strange and Norrell there is to be found a truly wonderful supporting cast: Childermass, Drawlight and Vinculus to name but a few.

“Yes – I love the characters, and the clarity with which Susanna communicates their particular qualities – including the gentleman with thistle-down hair too.

“Actually, as well as those character descriptions, the descriptions of magic are enormously inspiring, too – one that has stayed ingrained in my mind was of the ladies who Stephen dances with at the ball in Lost-hope House (at the end of Chapter 16) – one of whom wore ‘a wig of shining beetles that swarmed and seethed upon her head’ and one whose gown ‘was covered with tiny mouths which opened and sang a little tune in a series of high, eerie notes’ – I think those are fantastic ideas – as are the ideas of the stone statues moving in the way she describes, the ships made of rain and the horses formed out of sand – these are just a few of the many, many ideas in the book that definitely inspired me. Even if I didn’t represent those particular details at the time (though I might just have a go at them, now! – considering them again is inspiring, again) – I really got a sense of a complete and believable fantasy world which gives a solid context to the other scenes I had a go at.

Do you have any particular favourites amongst the 28 illustrations?

There are three that seem more successful to me than the others – the horse rearing whilst gripped by the mud-hand, Jonathan Strange stepping out of the mirror, and Childermass at his desk.


Looking back on all of them now (9 years after I drew them), I think that some anxiousness about the project shows – for example, with more confidence, I might have focussed in on details in those scenes, rather than trying to depict the whole context. I like to draw faces in particular and think those got a bit lost in the scenes. Also, I would have liked to capture a more lively and linear feeling. I think I was going for something else at the time – tone, atmosphere, light, solid dark shapes, more finished images as opposed to lively sketchiness – which may have deadened what my other less anxious work can achieve. Having said that, I do like the glow of light in many of the images.

Did you get much feedback on how they were received? 

At the time (just after publication) I received lots of positive email messages via both the book’s and my own websites – it was amazing to get so many comments from people from all over the world – and I do still get occasional messages nowadays, too. 

I will mention also the negative feedback (which I am interested to think about now, as it is useful to be able to look at my own work critically) – a comment online saying the illustrations were ‘astonishingly inappropriate’, ‘wooden’ and ‘sentimental’, and that illustrations more in the style of George Cruikshank would have fitted better. I think that I did overwork the drawings – and it is interesting to me that I could have approached the text in a different way which may have been closer to the livelier way I draw normally.

Since 2008 Portia Rosenberg has been working towards being a full-time illustrator and her work can be seen at The full and wonderful gallery of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell drawings can be seen here –

Senescence by David Rudden (winner of the FBRSSC*)

And so dear friends we come to the day that marks the end of the 2011 *Fantasy Book Review Short Story Competition. After 8 months and hundreds of great little stories we can now proudly publish the winning entry, the simply wonderful Senescence by David Rudden.

Frank P Ryan, who made the final judgements on the submissions, said of David’s story:

“An outstanding piece of short fiction for such a relatively young author.  Rudden creates an entirely believable word, edgy and threatened, yet leavened by a sense of community and compassion. The raw power of the characterisation and the subtlety and poetic earthiness of the language is as good as I’ve seen in short stories in any genre.  It reads as if Seamus Heaney had written a fantasy short story.”

An illustration, by Mark Salwowski, from the PDF of Senescence by David Rudden.

You can read this winning entry now, for which the author received an Apple iPad, by clicking on this link – Senescence by David Rudden – or by clicking on the images above and below. The magnificent artwork in the PDF template is the work of Mark Salwowski (, the illustrator who worked with Frank P Ryan on his fantasy novel, The Snowmelt River. Read and enjoy.

We also caught up with David and asked him about her entry and writing in general:

FBR: Was this your first short story competition?

DR: I’d entered a couple of competitions in school but the Fantasy Book Review competition is my first as an adult writer.

FBR: What was the inspiration for your short story? Where did the idea come from?

DL: This, like most stories I write, came from a half-formed idea and a couple of lines I knew the story would revolve around. I’ve always had a fascination with the old trades, the notion of master and apprentice and the idea of… not exactly secret knowledge, but specialised knowledge, the person in the community who knew things that others didn’t and so was given that little bit more importance.

This is one of the few stories where I’ve drawn heavily on my own experiences for material. I’m from a miniscule village myself (albeit without an arcane wasteland a few miles north) and after finding out that my own father (a woodwork and construction studies teacher) served his apprenticeship making coffins, the opening line popped into my head and proceeded to bounce around for a couple of years before taking shape. Carpentry is all about knowing the strength of materials, their breaking points, how much they will yield and how much they’ll resist. For a village right on the cusp of where things start to fray and break apart, knowing those things is important.

Text taken from the PDF of Senescence by David Rudden.

FBR: How long did your short story take to write? Was the writing experience a pleasant one or did you experience difficulties?

DL: Surprisingly it actually rattled along quite easily! Sometimes I have to walk away from a story for a few weeks and then attack it from another angle, but Senescence came together fairly rapidly. I started with a loose plan that organised what would happen and when, and then wrote it over the course of about a week. I’m lucky that I have a informal writing group that are very good for telling me when I’m writing nonsense or if I should keep going.

The ending completely changed in the writing though. I had a strange moment of ‘am I allowed do that?’ and then decided that if it made sense in the writing I’d keep it, and if not things would go a very different way. I like to think it worked out, though.

FBR: Were you happy with the finished story? Or would you have liked a little bit more time?

DL: I try my best not to fidget with a story when I’ve finished it. I usually put it aside for a few days and occupy my mind with something else as much as possible, then go back with a fresh set of eyes. There was a little bit of polishing to be done, especially towards the end of the story, but nothing that required more than a slight rework.

All here at Fantasy Book Review would like to congratulate David, thank him for his truly exceptional entry and wish him all the best with his future writing. Our short story competition, which ran from April until November of this year and was kindly sponsored by Swift Publishers.

Coin-Operated Boys by Kirsty Logan (2nd place in the FBRSSC)

Following on from the publication yesterday of To Ashes by Kat Zantow, the short story that placed third in our short story competition, today sees the publication of the story that placed second, Coin-Operated Boys by Kirsty Logan.

The three winning entries were chosen by bestselling author Frank P Ryan, who said of Coin-Operated Boys, “Elodie Selkirk, with her hooked nose and missing pinkie finger, is not interested in a regular suitor. What she fancies is a coin-operated boy. Ingenious, stylish, witty – I loved the basic idea, which plays on the whim of an excessively fashion conscious lady to have the perfect escort. Excellent play on sexual jealousy and a highly amusing twist in the tail.”

An illustration by Mark Salwowski from Kirsty Logan's Coin-Operated Boys.

You can read this winning entry now, for which the author received an Amazon Kindle, by clicking on this link – Coin-Operated Boy by Kirsty Logan – or by clicking on the images above and below. The magnificent artwork in the PDF template is the work of Mark Salwowski (, the illustrator who worked with Frank P Ryan on his fantasy novel, The Snowmelt River. Read and enjoy.

We also caught up with Kirsty and asked her about her entry and writing in general:

FBR: Was this your first short story competition?

KL: Not the first, but the first time I’ve won a Kindle! I won third place in the Bridport Prize last year for a story called Underskirts. That one was great fun because, oddly enough, PJ Harvey was at the prize ceremony. It was lovely to meet her but I was so nervous that all I could do was talk about the weather.

FBR: What was the inspiration for your story?

KL: The Dresden Dolls song, ‘Coin-Operated Boy’. I love the band’s aesthetic of Victoriana and dark cabaret, and I wanted to get that feel in the story. I also seem to have an obsession with clockwork body-parts and love substitutes – I’ve written about hearts that can be hired and returned, and a woman who makes a man out of paper.

An extract of text from Kirsty Logan's Coin-Operated Boys.

FBR: How long did your short story take to write? Was the writing experience a pleasant one or did you encounter difficulties?

KL: The first draft took a few weeks. I ran it by both of my workshop groups, and then it was perhaps another week to edit and rewrite it. I didn’t have any difficulties because the story had been bumping around my brain for a while before I wrote it down. I wrote it in the break between finishing my first novel, Little Dead Boys, and starting on my second, Rust and Stardust. I’m also working on a short story collection, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales, and as I’m used to writing short fiction I find it difficult to be stuck in one narrative with one set of characters for the many months it takes to write a novel. By the time I’d finished the first novel, I was buzzing with ideas for fresh stories. I recently finished the first draft of the second novel, so I’m excited to write short stories again.

FBR: Were you happy with the finished story? Or would you have liked a little more time?

KL: I’m very happy with it. I wanted it to be sexy and creepy and a bit sad, and I hope I managed that. I didn’t ask permission from Amanda Palmer or Brian Viglione of the Dresden Dolls before writing the story, but I like to think they’d be flattered!

To see The Dresden Dolls perform Coin-Operated Boys, follow this YouTube link

All here at Fantasy Book Review would like to congratulate Kirsty, thank her for her excellent entry and wish her all the best with her future writing. Our short story competition, which ran from April until November of this year and was kindly sponsored by Swift Publishers.

To Ashes by Kat Zantow (3rd place in the FBRSSC)

Over the following three days we will be publishing the three winning entries from our short story competition, which ran from April until November of this year and was kindly sponsored by Swift Publishers.

The winning entries were chosen by bestselling author Frank P Ryan, who said that Kat Zantow’s To Ashes, which placed third, was “a sparkling fantasy thriller, with unremitting tension, and many twists and turns. The writing is devious, pacey and clever. Ashes is actually an eponymous city that has been reduced to rubble. But a deadly menace still lurks there, in an elastic confabulation of time and place. There’s the feeling we are actually somewhere within a much longer story. Indeed To Ashes naturally lends itself to being extended to a full novel.”

An illustration from To Ashes by Zantow, drawn by Mark Salwowski.

You can read this winning entry now, for which the author received an Amazon Kindle, by clicking on this link – To Ashes by Kat Zantow – or by clicking on the images above and below. The magnificent artwork in the PDF template is the work of Mark Salwowski (, the illustrator who worked with Frank P Ryan on his fantasy novel, The Snowmelt River. Read and enjoy.

We also caught up with Kat and asked her about her entry and writing in general:

FBR: Was this your first short story competition?

KZ: Yes. Well, sort of… This is the first short story competition I have intentionally entered. In college, I tied for first in the prose category of a literary magazine – it was all very confusing since they had never mentioned a contest. But I was excited to enter this one. It gave me a reason to write a short story, and a fantasy story, which is always a good thing.

FBR: What was the inspiration for your story?

KZ: A few months ago, I spent three hours driving between cities to visit some friends. As I drove into the fog-white mountains, the rain started. In the softened landscape, where the mist looked like an army of ghosts, the rain made me think of ashes falling slowly. It occurred to me that it would be hard to walk through a ghostly burnt out city. A place where scraps of memories stay lodged in the ashes. What if each time the ashes touch your skin, you find a different impression – a crime, a kiss, a color, a feeling?

Someone would quarantine the area, if they could. But there would be others who would seek to find new ways of interacting with the ashes. Perhaps some would hold dust in the palm of their hand, others might taste it, and the truly dedicated would have it tattooed under their skin. I liked the image. Getting the characters to cooperate was the hard part.

An image of the text of the To Ashes story.

FBR: How long did your short story take to write? Was the writing experience a pleasant one or did you encounter difficulties?

KZ: My first draft mostly consisted of a much longer café dialogue, a brief tattoo scene, and an abrupt end. Due to frustration, this story sat in an unfinished state for something like a month and a half. I spent a couple days working on it at a time, but the story ideas kept branching out into novel-arcs. I realized pretty early on that I could not cram the plot of a novel into 5000 words, but that didn’t stop me from trying.

Fact: I cannot think in short stories. I was bogged down working out the mechanisms of the dust and the histories of the characters. In an effort to get the novel-length idea out of my system, I wrote two outlines for the events of novels that could fit both before and after the story. Shockingly, that did not help me keep the short story short. Only after I vented about the story at my dad, the great sounding board, did I manage to cut down the character histories and limit the story to a contained episode.

FBR: Were you happy with the finished story? Or would you have liked a little more time?

KZ: I am happy with some parts of the story, which is really all I can ever say. I changed things up until the deadline and the editing was not as high gloss as I would have liked. However, I don’t think it would have improved much over a couple extra days. Now, with a month or so to put the story away again, and another week to mull over it, I could probably have made it better. If I tried to work on the story again today, some aspects would fill me with hate, and the red pen might do some good.

Then again, if I had more time to work on it, I would keep working on it. Since I spent the short story writing process trying to fight the urge to write a longer story, I am better off working on the sequel to Shadowing.

I’m very glad that the contest ended and took the story out of my hands.

We would like to congratulate Kat and thank her for her excellent entry and wish her all the best with her future writing. A review of her novella, Shadowing: A Henchman’s Tale, can be read here.

Fantasy Book Review Short Story Competition winner and runner-ups

UPDATE: We are currently working on publishing the three winning entries, the work which includes the design of three individual, specially-designed PDF templates and comment on the winning entries from Frank P Ryan and the winning authors themselves. Thank you for your patience.

I am delighted to announce the winner and two runner-ups of our inaugural short story competition. After very careful deliberation Frank P Ryan selected three stories from our shortlist of nine:

In third place is Kat Zantow for the well-written classical fantasy / science fiction tale To Ashes.

“I was twenty miles from the city of ashes when my eyes started sliding shut of their own volition. My body demanded coffee, and I obligingly cut off a honking sedan to make the exit. I followed the ramp to a small string of shops sandwiched between a church and a motel. The café looked familiar, so I parked out front. I hadn’t been to this place since I had escaped the City on the Hill with—

Leigh. My stomach twisted, and I wondered if I could make it to my car before she realized I had arrived. I hadn’t recognized her pull. She was always so good at sliding her intentions naturally into my thoughts.

I spotted her through the window. Her back was to the glass and there was nothing familiar in the sheet of purple hair, but I knew her at once, as I always know her. My hand throbbed with the tempo of her heartbeat, and I could feel, in sharp detail, every point in the pattern she had tattooed into my knuckles those years ago.”
An excerpt from To Ashes

In second place is Kirsty Logan for the very stylish and witty Coin-operated Boys.

“That August, Elodie Selkirk became the latest lady in Paris to order a coin-operated boy. Despite her hooked nose and missing pinkie finger, Elodie was suffering from a rash of suitors; unfortunately for them, she was in no need of a gentleman. Elodie glanced down the hall to make sure that the maid was still safely in her room, as instructed – it was best to keep the boy a secret until she could check him over. She straightened the silk bow at her throat and opened the door.

Her apartment was close to the busiest shopping street in Paris, and all of the city’s ephemera were passing by, their feet at eye-level. A parade of life, from the glittering right down to the groaning: whispering petticoats dirtied at the hem, leather shoes shinier than pennies, wheels ticking on cobblestones, snatches of scandal… Usually, Elodie could not stand the racket, but it all slipped out of focus the moment she saw the boy. From the calm angles of his cheeks to the ruled lines of his cravat, the boy was a mathematical sum. He added up perfectly.

‘Mademoiselle Selkirk? I am pleased to meet you.’ His voice was as clean as dew, but Elodie would not forget her manners.

‘Do come in, sir. There is tea in the parlour.’ She swept her arm to clarify, fingers carefully curled to hide the missing pinkie. The boy bowed as he passed her. His pinstriped boater seemed to tilt; Elodie looked away from the imperfection as she closed the door, and by the time she walked to the parlour he was sitting at a perfect right angle to the chaise longue.”
An excerpt from Coin-operated Boys

And the winner is David Rudden for the poetic and simply outstanding Senescence.

“My father built coffins for our village’s dead.

He was a small man, his eyes two nail marks in an umber mass of beard and sun-darkened skin, his hands gnarled masses of knuckle and nail. When he worked, old scars shone white under sweat, a nonsense-scribble of forgotten wounds. As a child, my world was made up of things that he built; the walls of our cottage, the wide, low bed that we shared, the simple toys he had carved.

My mornings would be broken by the sound of saws, the hacking cough of mallet on chisel. Sunlight would pool on the earthen floor as I swept sweet-scented pine shavings into neat piles, brought tools to the whetstone to be sharpened, or brought jugs of water to him when the sun turned the air to ripples of choking heat. He would split green wood and leave it to season, weighted by stone so that the wood would not warp. When the moisture dried creaking from under grain he would stack it and wrap it with canvas in the corner of his workshop, the ends painted with acrid-smelling sealer he made from the berries that grew above the graves on the hill.

At night he inked the symbols on his arms for the thousandth time, and waited for a body to build around.

Our village lay in that curve of forest that spread from Winter’s Edge to Farcal Rise, one of the few settlements this far north. Just a few hundred farmers and hunters, a village so small it did not have a name or a reason to exist beyond people desiring people, cottages huddling together out of necessity, a bulwark against lonely night. A few hundred metres from our cottage door, the world devolved to the cracked clay and wiregrass of the true north, the wasteland scoured by wind and roofed by storms.”
An excerpt from Senescence

I would just like to offer my congratulations to David, Kirsty and Kat, whose submissions were wonderful examples of high-quality short-fiction. The winning stories will be published in their entirety on Fantasy Book Review and Swift Publishers in seven days time (November 8, 2011).

The winner, David Rudden, will receive an Apple iPad, while Kat Zantow and Kirsty Logan will receive an Amazon Kindle each.

Thank you to all who entered the competition.

Shortlist of 9 for Fantasy Book Review Short Story Competition

10 days ago I published a longlist of 22 entries for our short-story competition. After careful deliberation we have now shortened the list to 9 and I would just like to offer my commiserations to the 13 authors that have been lost from the longlist and sincerely hope that they were happy to know just how highly we rated their stories.

So here are the 9 stories that have made the shortlist, in alphabetical order, with the first paragraph of their story.

  • Coin-Operated Boys by Kirsty Logan
    That August, Elodie Selkirk became the latest lady in Paris to order a coin-operated boy. Despite her hooked nose and missing pinkie finger, Elodie was suffering from a rash of suitors; unfortunately for them, she was in no need of a gentleman. Elodie glanced down the hall to make sure that the maid was still safely in her room, as instructed – it was best to keep the boy a secret until she could check him over. She straightened the silk bow at her throat and opened the door.
  • For All Time by Jean Marino
    Sage watched the Heron skim the trees before its slow descent to the nearby marsh. When it dipped out of site, a shadowy mass in a maple tree caught her eye. Her dog growled, his silver scruff rising. Her initial trepidation waned, and she drew nearer, urged by her curiosity. A soft gasp escaped at the sight of a man dangling from the branches. Was he dead? As if in answer, his body twitched, sending her dog into a barking frenzy.
  • Howl by Rheanna-Marie Hall
    The fast moving mass of cloak and steel converged upon the hillside, a black spot against the dirty green of marshland scrub. Progress became slow as the riders snaked left to right in search of sturdier ground, their steeds’ hooves sinking into bog. Heavy armour only added to the difficulty.
  • Scholar’s Reprisal by Thomas Dipple
    “Scholar! If you stop that horse one more time I’ll let them kill you! Now ride!” Pursa felt the horse bolt as Carden slapped its rear with the flat of his sword blade. The beast charged on through the forest and Pursa cried out as his face was whipped by low hanging leaves and twigs.
  • Senescence by David Rudden
    My father built coffins for our village’s dead. He was a small man, his eyes two nail marks in an umber mass of beard and sun-darkened skin, his hands gnarled masses of knuckle and nail. When he worked, old scars shone white under sweat, a nonsense-scribble of forgotten wounds. As a child, my world was made up of things that he built; the walls of our cottage, the wide, low bed that we shared, the simple toys he had carved.
  • The Dwarf by George Poles
    Now it was the fashion in that state for beauty to seat itself by ugliness. How could the splendour of the graceful palaces of the rich truly be appreciated without placing them within sight of the poorest slums?  How could the elegant lines and delicate colouring of the finest artists be understood without the contrast of the rude sketches that were placed next to them?  Most of all how could the shining faces, slim bodies and gorgeous dresses of the young ladies of fashion truly be seen without the darkness of the malformed and misshapen beside them to reveal their light?
  • The Hearing by Mark Torrender
    The courtroom smelled of cedar and wood polish. Exactly what Jack Deacon expected. I bet all courtrooms smell this way, he thought as he straightened his Sean John gold paisley tie which he hoped would make an impression on the judge, daft as he knew that sounded. Jack had never been to court before – hadn’t even done jury duty – but here he was now fighting for justice. No one had ever done what he was attempting to do, and if it meant emoting blood, he’d emote blood.
  • The Price of Envy by Stephie Hall
    I distinctly remember that as a child the forest was a welcoming place. In my mind, it held a Narnian lamp-post, shining brightly with a welcoming yellow glow through the wintry storms. It was a place to play, where crisp new snow lay undisturbed by the rowdiness of my playmates. My secret place, where I could withdraw and dream up stories that were, in my mind, equal to those of the venerable Mr Lewis. I would hold out in hope, praying earnestly, in the way that small children do – how God must smile to hear the sweet, sincere prayers of those still untouched by the cynicism of Life – that a faun, brown coated and cloven hoofed, would come and invite me for tea. And my faun would be far superior to Lucy’s because in the forest of my mind there was no great evil, no Lilleth to bring her icy coach and tear us away to an evil place.
  • To Ashes by Kat Zantow
    I was twenty miles from the city of ashes when my eyes started sliding shut of their own volition. My body demanded coffee, and I obligingly cut off a honking sedan to make the exit. I followed the ramp to a small string of shops sandwiched between a church and a motel. The café looked familiar, so I parked out front. I hadn’t been to this place since I had escaped the City on the Hill with—

The above 9 stories are all now with Frank P Ryan, who will be selecting a winner and 2 runner-ups which we will announce on Tuesday (November 1, 2011) and published exactly a week later.

Congratulations to all who made the shortlist.

Please note: Although all short-stories have now been read not all may have, as of yet, received their free ebook. Over the coming days and weeks I will be cross-checking all submissions to ensure that all have had their details sent through to Swift Publishers. (Please feel free to leave a comment on this page if you have not received your free book.)

Longlist for the Fantasy Book Review Short Story Competition

Back in April 2011 we launched the Fantasy Book Review Fantasy Short Story Competition. As with any competition in its first year we were unsure as to how it would be received and how popular it would be. Thankfully it was a success and the excellent entries have given – and are still giving – us hours and hours of reading pleasure.

I know that many entrants have been waiting patiently for the release of the shortlist of 9, which I have had to keep pushing back while we read are way through almost 100 stories that came in during the last 2 days of the competition. And we still haven’t finished but we are almost down to single figures now!

Although I hadn’t planned to do so I cannot think of any reason why I shouldn’t publish the longlist as it currently stands. The list below will grow larger should any of the remaining stories score highly enough.

Before you look at the the list I just want to quickly explain the rating system we have used. We marked every story out of 40, awarding up to 10 marks each for originality of fantasy theme, characterisation, plot and overall quality. Any story that received 32/40 was very, very good. However, the stories listed below all received 33/40 or more and as such were just that little bit special.

The list below will be whittled down to 9, and then to 3. If you were on the longlist but do not make the shortlist then I hope you are not too upset – I reckoned (hopefully accurately) that you would like to know just how good we thought your submission was.

So, without any further ado, here is the current longlist, ordered by the date they were read and rated. I have included small snippets from the judging notes to help explain what exactly it was we liked about each story:

  • Adlers by Elaine Peake
    A thoroughly delightful story, well-written and featuring great characters and a great plot. Both engaging and charming;
  • The Price of Envy by Stephie Hall
    A great story that gets right to the root of what fantasy literature is all about and why it can have such a significant and everlasting effect on a developing mind. It also shows clearly how the loss of imagination and the loss of innocence are unfortunate side-effects of maturity. Powerful with bitterness and realism;
  • Night Swimming by Judy Upton
    A near-faultless short story written with great confidence and skill;
  • The Ladder by Pete Clark
    A chilling tale, containing elements of horror. A disturbing and excellently written short story that will make any parent confront their worst fears;
  • Of Demons by Tomos Lloyd-Jones
    A fantastic little story with a nice touch of dark humour at the end. Laugh out loud at some points, it is well written, amusing, and highly entertaining. Overall a great short story;
  • Horrific Accident by Alice Whitfield
    Top-notch characterisation as the author shows a keen observational eye. It was a brutal, depressing story of real life in a tough and often uncaring world;
  • The Dwarf by George Poles
    In a Brothers Grimm-style tale, the beautiful people of a kingdom buy deformed dwarves, the uglier the better, which they place beside them in order to set off their own good looks even more. A short fairy-tale that contains a lesson to us all;
  • Spellbound Dreams by Dawn McKinley
    A short story from a very talented author – everything was to a high standard;
  • Coin-Operated Boys by Kirsty Logan
    In an unusual short story, women can buy coin-operated boys who are perfect mannequins that act like humans, to be hired and used by ladies who need some company. An inventive plot, with a sinister undertone;
  • The Hearing by Mark Torrender
    A superb short story of a man who sues his Guardian Angel, for not saving him from a life changing injury, only to find out some home truths;
  • Legacy of the High King by Robert Kelley
    An excellent and interesting story about a man who is dragged into a story he doesn’t understand, where no one tells him the rules;
  • Night-whisperer by Ian Smethurst
    A tale of revenge against a Necromancer of intense power who is beaten by a victim of one of the Necromancer’s spells. Interesting to read and intelligent;
  • The Tower of Truth by Oliver Eade
    A fantastic story about a man who, at a fair, enters a ride and is shown the past/present and future, but unfortunately doesn’t heed the warnings given;
  • Scholar’s Reprisal by Thomas Dipple
    A story of betrayal from a king who wants more power but is served instead revenge by the people he tried to betray. It would make a good longer story as well;
  • Senescence by David Rudden
    Original, great characterisation and plot and all held together by an excellent narrative. A real gem of a short-story, powerful, thought-provoking and memorable;
  • The Ogre’s Elevator by Noel Williams
    A lovely, magical little story featuring paper aeroplanes and ogres;
  • Can you keep a secret? by Fabienne Maria
    Well, this one was a bit of a surprise! It took me three days just to open the attachment, and when I did the story itself did not have a title. Not the best of starts… But the story itself turned out top be a little gem, very original, good plot and characters and a great plot. A really unexpected success;
  • To Ashes by Kat Zantow
    I really liked this story of two people who have escaped from a firestorm that has destroyed their city, but who go back to finally lay to rest the ‘Patron’ who ruled and eventually cursed it to ruin. Moving amongst significant points, the ashes are mixed and tattooed onto the girl’s back, in a prison for the Patron. It’s very well written, with an urban fantasy feel but more fantastical, with magical tattoos and hellhounds roaming the charred city streets;
  • Howl by Rheanna-Marie Hall
    A wonderful little story about a Halfling whose son is taken from her and the revenge she seeks on the humans that stole him;
  • For All Time by Jean Marino
    An intriguing story of time travelling. When a man from the past falls into our future, sparks erupt between him and the woman who rescues him;
  • River Song by Cheryl Hartsell
    A beautiful story of two people who are no longer living, finding each other with the help of their dead relatives;
  • Arran of the Blood Red Army by Martin Leyland
    A great story about a boy on a trip with his aunt and uncle who discovers that he is able to see into a magical realm and discover his destiny, by helping protect very powerful magical artefacts.
  • The things we don’t say by Sonya Selbach
    An intruiging story of love lost and conspiracy. The story twists from memories to the present so we never know the full details, it leaves you wanting more.

Fantastic fantasy artwork: Night Watch (Discworld) by Paul Kidby

Chosen by Joshua S Hill

Last month we kicked off our series of special features, entitled Fantastic Fantasy Artwork, with Martin Springett’s The Fionavar Tapestry. This month it is Joshua S Hill’s turn to choose his favourite fantasy artwork and he unhesitatingly opted for Paul Kidby’s work on book 29 of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, Night Watch.

Paul Kidby's illustration that adorns the front cover of Terry Pratchett's Night Watch.

Paul very graciously agreed to talk about the creative process behind the Night Watch illustrations and so I began by asking him if Night Watch was the very first Discworld work that he had undertaken and what was it like to take over the reins from an artist as respected as Josh Kirby, to which he replied:

“The late great Josh Kirby was a kind and generous man who I had the good fortune to meet at various Discworld Conventions before his untimely death in 2001. He encouraged me in my work and we both felt that because our interpretations of the Discworld were so different that there was room enough for us both to explore and visually ‘mine’ its rich seams with our sketchbooks. I had already been working exclusively with Terry since 1995 and had established my own ‘look’ for Discworld and its characters, many of whom had made public appearances in ‘The Pratchett Portfolio’, ‘Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook’ the fully illustrated ‘The Last Hero’, various diaries, maps and the 2000 Discworld calendar.

“To then be asked to produce the cover artwork in 2002 for ‘Night Watch’ was indeed an honour and a challenge for me because I knew I was stepping into some very big shoes.  The fans knew and loved Josh’s distinctive style, which had become synonymous with Discworld book jackets all over the world.”

I was also interested in whether Paul had been asked to keep closely to Josh Kirby’s previous work.

“I think Terry and the publishers knew that it would be best to accept a new approach with a new artist rather than to attempt to re-create the work of Josh for the cover art.  Every artist develops their own unique style which is as individual as a fingerprint and the differences between my work and Josh’s are marked; I work most often in a muted earth colour palette and try to capture a historical feel whilst Josh used a bright palette and filled his page with a myriad of fantastical figures in his own unique and distinctive fantasy genre. My Discworld illustrations were already known by the readership and although my interpretation was very different to Josh’s, it remained true to the spirit of Discworld.”

I then asked whose decision it had been to use Rembrandt’s Night Watch on the front cover and if permission had needed to be obtained before work could begin.

“The idea to paint a Discworld parody of Rembrandt’s own group portrait of the civic guard, ‘The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq’  c. 1642, otherwise known as ‘The Night Watch’ had been in the back of my mind since reading ‘Guards Guards!’ and it was something I had been hoping for an opportunity to create.  The ‘Night Watch’ book jacket seemed to me to be the ideal occasion and Terry was happy for me to proceed with it.  My depiction is not a direct copy and the characters and costumes are all of my own design therefore permission was not needed to produce the painting, however the original version is also printed on the back cover with full credit given to the main man, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, himself and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam where it hangs.”

An image of ‘The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq’ c. 1642, otherwise known as ‘The Night Watch’

Fans of the Discworld series will be aware that Paul drew Josh Kirby into the Night Watch cover as a tribute to the late illustrator, in exactly the same place as Rembrandt had drawn himself in the original.

Here Paul describes exactly where the two men appear: “The position of both Josh and Rembrandt is at the very back of the crowd just left of centre.  In my version he appears just visible behind the shoulders of Reg Shoe and Waddy; in Rembrandt’s original he is peering from behind the nattily dressed flag bearer and the soldier in armour.”

And so we come to the creative process itself and the moments that Paul remembers best.

“I rendered my parody in oils and the original is not large at approx. 51×51 cm (not as big as Rembrandt’s which is a huge 363×437 cm and was originally even larger before sections were cut from the sides to fit it onto the wall of the Town Hall on Dam Square where it ended up for a while).

“There had been a charity auction at a Discworld event whilst the book was being written and three fans had paid to be written into the ‘Night Watch’ story.  I was aware that the key characters in Rembrandt’s painting were local well to do society members who had all paid to be included in his painting.  It therefore seemed creatively fitting that the Discworld auction winners should also have their portraits painted into the cover. The original artwork is now owned by one of those featured on the cover.

“I also enjoyed including a young Nobby (in an over-large coat and battered top hat) who stands behind the young and old Vimes.

“I remember I was criticised at the time for producing a cover that was ‘too brown’ and not bright or eye catching enough – it is interesting therefore to note that it has become one of the most popular Discworld covers that I have produced.

“This painting was produced at a time when I was working in close partnership with Terry.  I initially put forward the idea, and we enjoyed discussing it and deciding which characters to include.  I produced a rough for him to see which showed a member of the city watch in the foreground. Terry suggested that figure should be changed to Lu-Tze, which was perfect.

“When I had finished the painting I took it back to him to approve and I was pleased that he liked it.

“I worked on this piece for four weeks.  Following the rough sketch I made a detailed tonal drawing which I then under-painted with Raw Umber to give form and strengthen the tonal contrasts, finally I added highlights and colour which I built up in thin layers of oil paint. As a commercial artist looming deadlines are an unavoidable part of the job and I do my best not to blot my copybook with the publishers by missing them, it would have been easy for me to spend another four weeks on this painting but that would have fallen into the realms of self-indulgence rather than professionalism!”

So when Paul looks back at his work on Night Watch does he see anything that he might want to change?

“I don’t generally enjoy returning to work on my paintings, my aim is to do the very best I can with the time available to me because otherwise I will be haunted by it from the bookshop shelves in years to come.  However in this case, with the luxury of time, I would finish this painting off by giving the soldier behind the dragon (who is in the position of Rembrandt’s dog) a body as at the moment he appears to be just a floating head!”

And then it was time for the final question – did Paul need to read the Discworld books he was asked to illustrate from cover to cover, or was it unnecessary?

“In an ideal world I do like to read the books because an in-depth knowledge helps me to gain valuable insight into the characters and enables me to avoid errors and include details, which I would otherwise miss.  More often than not however, the publishers need the cover art to start promoting the book before the transcript itself is complete.  In those cases I receive a detailed brief from Terry via the publishers, and perhaps a section of the text.  When I worked on the ‘Night Watch’ I was in the fortunate position of being able to read almost the whole novel, minus the final section, which is another reason why the job was such a pleasure for me to work on.”

I hope you have enjoyed reading about the creative process behind this fantastic fantasy artwork and I cannot thank Paul Kidby enough for his time and effort in producing such insightful answers.