The New Look

… which is not to be confused with Eisenhower’s New Look, or FDR’s New Deal, or John Kennedy’s New Frontier, or Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom, or Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism. (One of the lessons of history is the enduring popularity of political slogans that begin “New.”)

The New Look I am referring to is, of course, the new look of this site. Some fine-tuning may remain, but the major renovation is finished. Despite some adjustment of the site’s pages and blog categories, the change is mostly cosmetic. If you’re reading this, you’re looking at it, and I have no need to describe what you’re seeing. I would like to note that the background image is original, designed by Meghan McDermott, and used on the cover of The Valley of Decision. Of course, there’s a knife and a nice burst of light there, too ...

Summer, Intellectuals, Imbeciles

Summer is here early, and I don’t say that because of the weather, which is, at this particular place and time, overcast, rainy, and certainly no warmer than 60. I say it because the school year is over and done, and I’m settling into summer routines. My job takes less time than the classes, with attendant tests and papers, I’ve been occupying myself with since January, so now I’m turning to other things. Writing queries, a short story or two, an epic hermit crab essay. This blog.

I also have a summer reading list, which consists solely of books that possess these two qualities: (1) I choose them; (2) I don’t have to write papers about them. The first of these books is Imbeciles, which is not what it sounds like.

The book title is taken from a declaration made by Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes regarding the case Buck v. Bell: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” With the ruling of Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court upheld the forced sterilization of the socially unfit – those deemed criminal, insane, or “feeble-minded”. This is eugenic sterilization, the elimination of undesirable genes through sterilizing undesirable people, and it is now largely forgotten. A hundred years ago, however, it was being mandated in American law.

I am about one third of the way through Imbeciles. I’ve just finished reading about an expert witness called in to support the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck, the young woman at the center of Buck v. Bell. This expert never met, let alone examined, Carrie, or her mother and daughter – the first and third of the supposed three generations of imbeciles. He did, however, request comprehensive data regarding her genealogy, blood relatives, and their literacy, social status, mental test records, and physical and mental development.

What strikes me is that, before testifying that a young woman should be sterilized by the government, he wanted to see her family records, but he never wanted to see her. He was interested only in data, facts and figures about people without faces. It occurs to me that it is through this divorce between data and people that intellectuals get themselves into trouble.

And their victims.

New Year’s Salutation

New Year's 2016

So now we’ve had the countdown to the New Year, the confetti, the ball dropping, the calendar change. It all adds up to one thing.

We’re doing this year thing again.

So Happy New Year. I hope this New Year’s finds you happy and well, and that you carry with you every blessing and joy of the old year. May troubles fade and happiness bloom, and may your opportunities to do good and to know good be rich and many. May you be kept in God’s grace, and go forward in His providence.

Happy New Year, to everyone. Good luck.

God bless.

 

New Year's

And … We’re Back

After various technical issues, this website is back. If you look at it, you will notice that it looks pretty much like it did before. But the admin site is shiny and new, like something you’d see on the Enterprise.

Regular posts should resume soon, probably later this week. Until then, welcome back.

Appendix of Names

During the earliest development of The Valley of Decision, I established this pattern of naming: of Gaelic origin, unusual enough that the names would not be common in our own world, but not too unusual. I avoided names like Ruairidh because it just looks too foreign. Who would care to guess how to pronounce it? So I ended with names like Torradan and Artek and Belenus – different, but easy enough.

I made various exceptions to this pattern – none without rhyme or reason, except perhaps naming the capital city of Alamir Ataroth. The rhyme and reason of the other exceptions will become clear.

This appendix is not a dramatis personae, listing the characters of the drama, but a compilation of the origins and meanings of many names in the book. Because of this, and how I began the naming process, there are some notable omissions. Neither Caél nor Keiran, the book’s heroes, appear in this appendix; absent with them are other lesser (but still important!) characters – among them all three lieutenants of the Hosts.

The reason for their absence is this: As part of my preliminary research, I made lists of Gaelic names that struck me as fitting the story. With the exception of the Fays (Fays are always an exception), the earliest-existing characters were named from this list without regard for the name’s meaning. Keiran, Caél, Torradan, Artek, Lachann: the cream of those lists.

Other patterns emerged. A majority of the Fays share names with Celtic deities, and several place-names are just two words with the space between them deleted: the Coldlands, the Wildheath, the Northwood. A few names, such as My’ra, have neither a particular origin nor a particular meaning, but the longer I worked on the story the more I rejected these. Even minor characters like Emain and Labras have names of Gaelic origin, and so of a certain flavor.


Appendix of Names
to
The Valley of Decision


Achadh: A Gaelic place-name meaning ‘field’

Ailill: ‘Elf’; the name of several Irish High Kings

Alaunos: The Celtic god of healing

Ataroth: An obscure Canaanite city conquered by Joshua and Israel

Brandr: A Norse name, meaning sword; Brandr was, after all, an earl of the northern Coldlands

Belenus: ‘Bright, shining one;’ the Celtic god of the sun

Dochraitay: A slightly more phonetic rendering of dochraite, a Gaelic word meaning ‘friendless, oppressed’

Droheda:: A slight alteration of Drogheda, an Irish city cruelly subdued by the English under Oliver Cromwell

Glahs (Forest): Glahs is Gaelic for ‘green’

Hrolfr: Norse, meaning sword

Jarmith: An alteration of the Gaelic name Jarmin, which means German – a foreigner in Ireland, as Jarmith was among the Dochraitay

Kobuld: This elder blacksmith of the Trow was named after the Kobold, a race in German folklore who were said to live in mines and be expert metalworkers

Morrigan: The Celtic goddess of, among other things, war

Muireach: A diminutive form of the Gaelic name Muireadhach, meaning ‘lord, master’; this is the least majestic name owned by a Fay

The Northmen: An old name for the Vikings, on whom the Men of the Coldlands were loosely based

Nuadha: ‘Protector’; the Celtic god of the sea

Sgrios: Gaelic word meaning ‘ruin’

Tullach: A Gaelic place-name meaning ‘little hill’

Volund: Of Norse origin; in legend, the name of a great smith

Sundry

As usual when I have trouble alighting on a topic, I’m going to talk about myself today.

This past April I finished the raw draft of The Shameful Years, which I’ve (nearly) re-titled The Time Door. This manuscript has been different, and in some ways more difficult than what I’ve done before. I didn’t quite understand, when I began, what challenges I was setting myself with the premise. I was pleased with the manuscript when I finished it, but as every writer knows, that’s not the gold test.

The Time Door is sci-fi, and the first book of the Eternities series – of which my novella Cards is, to date, the only published work. I have planned Eternities as a series of free-standing novels, each book a complete story and each a significant episode in an imagined history beginning in the middle of the twenty-first century and continuing into the twenty-second.

Such a history holds innumerable stories in potential, and I hope to be mining them for years to come. But not any more this year. I decided, on completion of The Time Door, that I liked it and wanted to write something different, ideally with dragons. After exploring various ideas for a new project, I am now writing about …

A painting emperor. And his half-wild brother. And space pirates.

In this manuscript, I’m taking the characters of the Sons of Tryas series and giving them a much broader drama on a much larger stage. Since spring, I’ve been dividing my writing time between that and editing my raw draft to a polished draft.

Finally on the writing front, a young reader recently gave me this picture. He drew it after reading The Valley of Decision; I recognize the characters, the scene, the quotations. It is incredibly cool to see a moment of my book brought to life by another person. So, with appreciation for the gift that it is, I present the meeting of Keiran, Captain of the Hosts, with Kobuld the elder blacksmith of the Trow, as drawn by Christian.


Amazon Special: Summer Leaves

Free on Amazon
March 20 – March 24

Summer Leaves
A Story in Three Acts
(Sons of Tryas, II)



Ruark, Lord Heir fourth in line for the throne, and once first in line, came so close. Still, he missed it entirely. His brother reigned, and dreamed, and Ruark himself wandered, burning his restlessness on distant, wild planets.

Then the premier of the Assembly found him, with an offer to give him everything he ever wanted, at only a small cost to his soul.

In Summer Leaves, Shannon McDermott continues the story of the sons of Tryas, begun in Beauty of the Lilies.



Summer Leaves on Amazon
Summer Leaves on Goodreads

An Excerpt of

Summer Leaves


‘Behold the summer leaves are green!’ – G. K. Chesterton

Prologue

There were five of us there that day. It was like so many days we had all lived, except for one moment. In that moment death nearly became the sixth to ride the plains. Till then I had never really believed in death. And it’s strange to recount, but it wasn’t until I first believed in death that I began earnestly to believe in life.

We were riding stallions, the fastest bred. It was a strange amusement to many, but our spirits soared with it. The stallions were fierce and eager, and there was a similarity between masters and beasts—both young and strong, given the finest and raised to be the finest. The wildness in the beasts was intended; the wildness in the masters was not.

We rode the high plains of Yavah, where the grassy meadows are split open by cliffs a mile tall. We found a large fissure, more than large enough to swallow a horse and rider. Three of my friends galloped headlong toward it and swerved at the last moment. My fourth friend and I watched.

I watched them, but I kept looking at him. His face was against the blue sky, his brown hair lit by the sun. His lips were drawn into a cheerless line, as if he did not like the vista the plains offered him.

I thought I knew what weighed on him. The burden we all carried was what had drawn us together. Most of us were brothers of great men, all of us were sons. We lived with an obscure anger.

Except him. His anger was sharp and vital, feeding off the loss of something he had never had. He was the son of an emperor, and what he had lost was a kingdom. Ruark, Lord Heir of the Empire, and close enough to be tantalized. There was much speculation once that the eccentricities and distraction of his brother would hand the throne to him. The talk damaged both brothers in the end. Any astute observer could tell what it did to Jediah; perhaps only a friend could tell what it did to Ruark.

Ruark leaned in abruptly, scattering my thoughts. He gestured to the others, saying, “They’re flirting with death.”

It was our favorite pastime, and tension swept through me at the idea that he was suddenly having qualms.

Ruark straightened, gathering the reins into a tight hold. “They aren’t serious. But I—I will court death.”

I opened my mouth, but he shot away from me. The others saw him tearing over the grass, and they reined in their horses to watch. He was always our chief.

Ruark flew across the plain, at the chasm opening its rocky mouth. He didn’t swerve, he passed the point of swerving, driving the horse toward the edge at all its speed.

My heart jolted so hard it stung my chest. Then I understood what he was doing, and my panic ebbed and surged again like the tide.

The stallion thundered to the precipice and then into a mighty leap. And though I had seen all the wealth and power of the Empire in glittering display, I never saw anything as glorious as that. For one moment horse and rider hung between the sky and the abyss, intensely alive, recklessly strong.

They made the jump. As soon as its hooves touched the ground, the horse raced on. My friends cheered, but I didn’t utter a sound. I couldn’t. Fear clenched my throat.

Ruark turned the horse and came galloping back. I watched with a detached horror, like hearing the inevitable end of a tragic story. Ruark reached the cliff’s edge, his horse leaped, and my fear nearly choked me.

The stallion came down barely on our side. At its impact rocks crumbled into the canyon, and its right hind leg plunged into air. The other hind leg slid after the first, and the whole horse slid with it. And I was as sure that Ruark was dead as I was sure that I was alive. A picture sliced across my vision; I saw myself explaining Ruark’s death to his brother.

The stallion scrabbled wildly, gripping solid ground. It pulled back onto the plain, and Ruark cantered to us.

We made a game of coming into death’s reach, but that was the first time he had ever grabbed at us. It rattled us, but no one would say a word. The rest of the day I pretended; that night I didn’t sleep. I thought of Ruark coming within a hair of falling to his death; I thought of myself standing before Jediah. What would I have said? Your brother died a fool, and I live as one? Did Ruark nearly die to prove he was better than the nine feet of empty air that told him to turn back?

It started new thoughts in my mind. I wondered why we were more interested in risking our gilded lives than living them. What did we lack, and what did we find in death’s proximity?

I went back to Telnaria, to the home that had functioned as a stop between destinations for so many years. I went for quietness and solitude, because I needed urgently to think about life, to understand what strange deprivation was shaping—misshaping—mine. Ruark followed not long after, but his reasons were different. It was the storm brewing in Telnaria that summoned him.

– Memories, by Jaden Amitai

To finish, purchase free from Amazon.

The Northmen

I am bringing down hobgoblins from the mountains, Men from the Coldlands. The Valley of Decision


The Men of the Coldlands were barbarians. That is the first thing to understand. They wore animal skins, sang of their war gods, and knew nothing of letters or runes. They forged bronze rather than iron into weapons, and decorated their chiefs’ tents with colored cloth and animal skulls.

And they were light-haired and light-eyed and fair-skinned, true children of the cold North.

The Men of the Coldlands are loosely based on the pre-Christian Scandinavians. The Roman Empire had conquered the British Isles, bringing civilization by the edge of the sword; many centuries later, long after the Roman Empire had turned to ashes, Winston Churchill declared, “We owe London to Rome.” In time, Christianity followed Rome, and it, too, taught and civilized.

But not in Scandinavia – at least not for centuries yet. The Viking Age began when the Vikings attacked the Holy Island, off the coast of England, from which missionaries had gone into Europe. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded that “the ravaging of wretched heathen people destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.” At Charlemagne’s court, the scholar Alcuin lamented, “The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God.”

Heathen and wretched are minor insults compared to the judgment given by the Muslim scholar Masudi in the tenth century. After describing “the people of the northern quadrant”, with their “excessively white” coloring, he wrote: “The farther they are to the north the more stupid, gross and brutish they are.” Those in the “sixth climate .. are reckoned among the beasts.” (source: Bernard Lewis, The Muslim Discovery of Europe)

In L.P. Hartley’s immortally wise words: “The past is a foreign country.”

When I wrote The Valley of Decision, this notion of the pale barbarians from the north guided my characterization of the Men from the Coldlands. I called them the Northmen, an old name for the Vikings, and gave the three chiefs Norse names: Volund (in legend, the name of a great smith), Brandr (meaning sword), and Hrolfr (meaning wolf).

Volund was the leader, and he called Brandr and Hrolfr his earls – a detail inspired, I admit, by the Viking earls of Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse. These names were also a kind of inside joke: Hrolfr was the earl who draped himself in the pelt and fangs of a wolf, and when Volund passes the iron sword to Brandr … yes, that was a deliberate pun.

The Northmen had little presence in The Valley of Decision, being the coming stormclouds of the story: growing nearer, darkening the landscape, but not yet here. When I finally made their acquaintance at the end of the book, I wished they had arrived sooner. There was no space left in the story to do justice to the pale barbarians and their collision with the more sophisticated – but still so fallibly human – southern people.

But such unexplored side-paths are what sequels are for.

Amazon Special: Inspection

Free on Amazon
February 24 – February 28

Inspection
An Adventure of Christian Holmes



An interloper arrives at the CBI, claiming to be a data-collector from headquarters. Christian Holmes, together with Greg Belden, is assigned to help him.

As they work with the outsider, their doubts grow. Who is he, and what did he really come for?

More than one man will be tested, when inspection comes.



Inspection on Amazon
Inspection on Goodreads

An Excerpt of

Inspection



The stack of files was about a foot high, and I slid the folders back into the cabinet with grim speed. One and then another, one and then another. The last three days of my life had been eaten up by files – taking them out, bringing them to Lars, carrying them up the stairs, running them through the computer scanner, carrying them back down the stairs, filing them away. I had begun to feel a vague resentment of the basement, the scanner, and the awful printed papers.

I slipped in the last file, closed the drawer, and turned around. Belden stood nearby, pulling documents out of another cabinet.

I watched him, my feelings not wholly untinged by dread. He shut the metal drawer with an echoing clang and glanced at me. We shared an understanding look and headed out.

It took a minute or two to wind our way out of the cabinets to Belden’s desk. It was empty.

I took one of the chairs, accepting the break. “He’s gone.”

“Good.” Belden thumped down the files by the monitor. “I tell you, Holmes, that guy is a trial. I have been practicing superhuman restraint for three days, but I don’t know how much longer I can take it.”

He had shown more restraint than I would have expected, but sometimes he got a look in his eyes that made me fear all his restraint would break in an explosion of classic proportions. “I wonder where he went,” I remarked idly.

Belden sat in his chair; I realized, watching him settle in front of the computer, that I had begun to think of it as Lars’. Wherever he went, he had left his briefcase on the desk, his notebook laying open on top of it. His glasses, too, laid on the desk.

As I entertained the idea that Lars was farsighted rather than shortsighted, Belden began tapping on the briefcase. He tapped with both hands, first on the sides, then on the top. The hollow noise carried easily.

Abruptly he pulled his hands back, and then slowly rotated the briefcase. And he stared intensely at the open pages of the notebook.

The writing was, from his viewpoint, upside down, and it took me a moment to ask the question. “Are you reading that?”

“Trying.” He craned his neck, leaning forward.

“Belden, that’s …” Eavesdropping popped into my mind, but that couldn’t be right. “That’s snooping.”

“If you read it upside down, it’s detective work.”

“You know better than that.”

Apparently he did. Belden slowly straightened up and flipped the notebook shut. Then he picked up Lars’ glasses.

“Belden …”

“I’m not hurting anything.” He turned the glasses over in his hand, peered through the lenses, and finally put them on.

I coughed back a laugh. “Not your style.”

Belden removed the glasses and set them down. Then he leaned back in the chair, hands folded together, and gave me a self-satisfied look. “Are you ready for my hypothesis?”

“Shoot.”

“I’ve been observing Daniel Lars. Here’s what I’ve noticed: One, he’s nosy. He gets introduced to someone, and next thing you know he has the person’s background and work history. Two, he carries around a briefcase”—Belden rapped it—“that he never opens. Three, his glasses are fake. Four …” He hesitated, shame crossing his face, but finished. “Four, he’s making notes about us.”

I glanced at the notebook, then back at Belden. “And?”

“And …” He paused, seeming to relish the suspense. “And so, he’s a reporter.”

“A reporter?” I let my skepticism bleed freely into my voice.

“An undercover reporter, doing a story on the CBI.”

“Ah. Well, then, I guess you shouldn’t have gotten into that food fight with Thompson in the lunch room yesterday.”

“We didn’t throw food.”

“I was speaking metaphorically. Anyway, Belden, the supervisor told us to work with him. He’s convinced that Lars is a CBI agent.”

Belden shook his head, adamant. “Mark my words, he’s faking us out.”

My gaze drifted, settled on Lars’ glasses. I had begun to wonder if they really were fake when Lars returned. He stopped in front of Belden, an air of expectation in his posture.

Belden, moving slowly, gave up the chair.

Lars settled in. “Agent Holmes, you and I will go over these numbers. Agent Belden, get me some coffee.”

I stared at him, but he casually put his glasses on and opened a folder. Then I looked at Belden. He stared down at Lars, rigid from his toes to his eyebrows. His expression was, in all the years we had worked together, new to me; I couldn’t read it. Yet I thought it was the expression of a man in a supreme act of self-control—or plotting retaliation.

Belden motioned vaguely upward. “You were just upstairs.”

Lars looked at him. “And?”

Belden grasped the edge of the desk and leaned in. “You know, Lars, ever since you first showed up with your glasses and your briefcase and your attitude, there’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you.”

Lars closed the folder, granting Belden his full attention. “What is it?”

Belden opened his mouth, but it took a moment for the words to come out. “Cream or sugar?”

“Both.”

Belden nodded—a jerky sort of nod, as if he wasn’t used to the motion—and took himself away.

I looked at Lars, who had quietly resumed his work. “You’re doing a good job of testing him.” So good I had started to think that some of it was just his personality coming through.

He didn’t answer. Lars paged through the file, and I watched. And for no good reason, it suddenly came into my mind that maybe Belden had a point after all. If Lars wasn’t a reporter, maybe he was something else we didn’t know about.

To finish, purchase free from Amazon.

Release Announcement: Cards

Cards

An Eternities Novella

Released February 13, 2015

A boy with strange luck, a man with rare knowledge …

The card-dens of the Redzone are desperate places. Men with no money to spare gamble their money in endless games, in squalid rooms thick with smoke and alcohol and lawless recklessness. Cards tempt and betray their players, leaving them with nothing.

Except for Tav. Only Tav never loses, because the cards obey him. But the secret of his strange luck cannot be hidden forever. He plays for diamonds. What will he draw when the truth is revealed?



An Excerpt of
Cards

From the moment Tav walked in, the cards were his. They answered to him, answered the reach of his mind. He sat at the battered little table, not looking at the men hunched over their cards and winnings around him, and he stretched his thoughts toward the deck and willed.

And they came to him. The dealer scattered the cards with precise rapidity, and when he picked his own up from the table, they presented themselves to him: a flush, a straight, four of a kind, king’s draw, pirate’s hand …

Some he threw back, some he folded at first bet, the rest he played to win. And surely, but by no means abruptly, he tripled the money in front of him.

The smoke grew thick in the air, the table splotched and sticky with spilled alcohol, the other players restless—only he ever had a good game, with all the cards struggling toward him. The man to his right shifted most, and began to mutter. When Tav took the pot with a straight flush, the man slapped his cards down so violently the table quivered.

Tav took warning. He always took warning from the bad temper of his fellow players, ever since he’d had to crawl away from a brawl that erupted from too much alcohol and too many losing hands. As the dealer shuffled the deck, Tav aimed a look at the dinged metal door. It invited him, but he would lose this last hand before he left. Losers were rarely followed out into the street.

The dealer flicked the cards to each player. Tav waited until all were dealt, and then scooped up his cards. Two aces and three tens marshaled themselves in his hand, neatly divided into their own kinds.

With a sweep of mutters, the first round of betting emptily passed. Tav, in his turn, flashed the dealer one of his aces, and tossed down the other four cards. The dealer tucked the rejects under the deck, slid four new cards off its top, and moved on.

Tav drew the cards up: an eight, the deck’s last two aces, and a wild jack, joining his held-over ace to create a beautiful four of a kind.

He blinked. The cards often tried to repair the hands he deliberately ruined—somehow he could not withdraw the command as easily as he gave it—but this time they had outdone themselves.

“Five hundred.”

Tav looked up, almost startled, at the slump-shouldered man opposite him. All game he had played with the nervous caginess of a beginner, and this strong bet was unlike him. But for Tav, at least, it worked. Under cover of that bet, he folded.

The man on his left did the same, and the man two down on the right matched the bet. The last player, the man whose darkening mood had inspired Tav’s decision to depart, stared at his cards, rubbing at them with his thumb and forefinger. Then he threw in his creds, and they clattered on the table with a warning ring.

The slump-shouldered man laid down his hand, three kings. The player down the table cursed, but he was dwarfed into tameness when the man right by Tav hurled his cards across the table and surged to his feet. “Skifters!”

The dealer—his eyes, as always, expressionless to the point of bleakness—began to pick up the strewn cards without looking at the angry man looming over him. “I run a fair game, Fallon,” he said.

Fallon narrowed his eyes. “I never lose like this.”

That Tav believed to be true. He slid his chair back a foot or two, and it scraped the scarred floor loudly. But no one looked at him, because the others were also preparing to spring up from the table. The cagey beginner hastily shoveled up his winnings, as if afraid someone was going to take them away.

The dealer glanced at them, and then up at Fallon. “Every player has his unlucky nights. This is one of yours. So go home.”

As if the directive had been aimed at him, Tav began to quietly stuff his money into his pockets.

A hand closed over his wrist like a pincer, and then he was being dragged up from his chair.

To finish this story, buy Cards on Amazon – 99 cents through Valentine’s Day.

To shelve Cards on Goodreads, visit its page.

To request a review copy, e-mail me at info[at]shannonmcdermott.com.