Shirley MacKenzie can see into my head

Here is one of the illustrations Shirley Mackenzie drew for River of Stones, which will be launched in the next few days. When I looked at her first draft, a host of objections swarmed into my mind. Where were the steps my characters ascended as they came up the companionway from the great stern cabin to stride across the smooth white deck of the command position? So I started to kvetch obsessively about details that couldn’t possibly appear in a drawing that fits into a ten centimetre square space in the text.

Next morning, I realized that she’d given life and action to a moment in the story when the three masted schooner Elusive charges past the headlands on her way toward the final scene in the story.

Shirley MacKenzie can see into my head. That’s what it feels like when she shows me one of her illustrations for my books. It’s as if she were looking over my shoulder into my dream-like imaginings where my stories come from. I find myself saying, “How did she know that?”

Believe me, this is rare. Writers get together to commiserate about illustrations to their novels. Book designers slap images onto the covers of books that are ludicrously at odds with the stories inside. Authors go apoplectic when the slim, intellectual, raven-haired beauty in their text is represented by a buxom blonde with a blank stare.

Shirley drew the dragons for The Laughing Princess, put the psychedelic VW camper-van on the cover of The Hippies Who Meant It, and now she’s captured the schooners in my imagination and realized them on the pages of The River of Stones.

River of Stones: A Sequel to The Astreya Trilogy

River of Stones Cover

My new book, River of Stones, is in the final stages of the production process. It will be a book and an ebook in February 2020, and an audiobook later in the year.
Meanwhile, you can read the first chapter here at, or hear the chapter read by me at SoundCloud
River of Stones begins 20 years after the end of The Astreya Trilogy. Mairi and Trogen, the twin daughter and son of Astreya and Lindey are 18, and have risen up the ranks to second mate.
Only three stones of power remain, and only the eight descendants of Zubin can wield them. Mairi, Trogen, and two of their cousins have the last four.
A ruthless and power-hungry man is intent on stealing the stones, murdering the three leaders of the fleet, and torturing the secrets of navigation from the next generation.
Grand master Astreya gives Mairi command of a ship with instructions to keep the younger members of his family far from danger.
Mairi must face political turmoil ashore, resolve conflicts with her twin brother Trogen, and lead her young crew through storms, dangerous passages, and battles at sea before she can discover the mysterious river of stones.

Here’s Chapter One
In which Cygnus suffers an unprovoked attack
The three-masted schooner Cygnus slipped her hawser from the buoy, her mainsail creaked aloft to catch a light wind, and the steersman spun the wheel to port. Helped by an ebbing tide, the vessel headed down the long narrow bay. Sailors hauled on the throat and peak halyards at the mizzen and foremasts, the two sails filling with a soft flap. The staysail and jib caught the evening breeze and the great ship gathered way, her soft-filled canvass providing just enough steerage way to avoid the clutter of small boats anchored in the harbour. Gathering speed on the port tack, she slid majestically past lighters, barges, coasters and fishing boats, her mast-heads higher than the crests of the steep-sided granite shoreline.
Mairi, first mate and daughter of Grand Master Astreya, stood beside the binnacle, watching the sails belly out as the wind freshened. Strands of her neck-length blonde hair escaped its tight braiding and blew across her face.
“Breezing up,” she said to the old sailing master who stood beside her.
“Enough to flutter the tell-tales,” said Betel, cocking his head to one side so that he could use his good eye.
Mairi knew that Betel was no longer able to see the threads of wool that waved from the shrouds to help the steersman, but the old man could tell the set of the sails from the wind on his cheek. After a long lifetime aboard, Betel was almost a part of Cygnus. Mairi understood the relationship between ship and man better than most, since she, too, was sea-born aboard the great ship.
Betel was one of the last of the Men of the Sea who had kept the great ships sailing for more than a century. She was part of a new generation, most of whom were land-born, but in that she and her twin brother, Trogen, had started their lives afloat, she shared a bond with the old man. Betel’s birth had been at least eighty years ago, whereas her nineteenth birthday was less than a week away, but all three were sea-born, and that made the ship their home and the sea their country.
Mairi took six steps to the port rail and looked along the length of the ship. Astern of the mainmast, the other second mate was tugging a tarpaulin over the main cargo hatch. Cam was a small, agile man in his late thirties. Mouse-coloured hair topped a clean- shaven face that wore an almost perpetual grin. As Mairi watched, a tall sailor came up the aft companionway, stopped beside Cam and knuckled his forehead. Ropes of hair that framed his stern black face were swept back and tied behind his neck. His impassive expression was that of a man who had been disciplined by disappointment.
“Seaman Marley, sir. Lookin’ for the mate of the starboard watch.”
Cam glanced up from his work, his hands still busy, then looked again. His eyes skimmed over a new shirt and breeks, standard Cygnus issue for all aboard, and then scanned a second time, noticing how well the man filled out what for most people was a comfortably loose uniform. He looked up into the man’s face, and raised his eyebrows a fraction: the new sailor was the first black man to serve aboard the big schooner.
“That’s me. Secure the other corner of this tarp. We’ll stretch it over and wedge it down. What ‘cha doin’ wi’ your hand?”
“I was saluting t’show respect, an’ that I’m followin’ your order, sir.”
“Well, stop it. I don’t care what you did on your last ship, but aboard Cygnus, I just want to hear you say, ‘aye’ or ‘right’ and get on with it. ‘Streya told me to expect a new man an’ that’s you, I’m thinkin’. I’m to show you the ropes. But since you’ve served on a schooner before, you know them all already, right?”
“No two ships belay their halliards the same place, sir.”
“The name’s Cam. Save the formalities for the mucky-mucks. That was a good answer, by the way. Now let’s get this cargo hatch covered. ‘Streya wants all secure afore we get to open sea. He’s standing lookout at the foremast shrouds, and any moment now he’ll be on his way to the quarterdeck. He’ll be walkin’ where you’re standin’ doing nothing, if you catch my drift.”
“The master’s standin’ lookout?”
“We’re light on crew, there’s small craft milling about, and he likes to see for himself. He’s on the port side, Navigator’s got the lee. First mate’s astern with the steersman. T’ other mate is on the quarterdeck, doin’ somethin’ important. You’ll know the navigator when you see her. Lindey looks a bit like her daughter Mairi, the mate what’s watchin’ us not workin’. Here, pull that strop over the coaming, and I’ll drive in a wedge to keep it there.”
The schooner gathered speed as she approached the buoy that marked a shoal at the harbour mouth. She heeled to starboard a few degrees as her sails caught a northwest sea wind. Astreya glanced at Lindey, mother of their twins Mairi and Trogen, who was crouched to look under the foresail boom. The wind off the sail blew her earlobe-length blonde hair back from her face. She raised an arm to point toward a little skipjack, idling under only one sail just beyond Cygnus wind shadow. Astreya nodded, and they both started for the quarterdeck. They were dressed alike in blue officers ’shirts and breeks, but in all else, they were a contrast. Astreya’s hair and beard were black, his skin dark tanned, and his green eyes were set amid lines drawn by staring into wind and weather. Lindey matched his stride beside him, though the crown of her head barely topped his shoulder. Different as they appeared, when they glanced at each other, understanding flowed between them.
At the aft cargo hatch, Cam drove in the last wedge. He cocked his head sideways to look up into the tall man’s eyes.
“Good job, Marley. But yer looking puzzled. What’s wrong?” “I’m not used to working alongside a mate.”
“The job takes two. The rest of the watch is securing the other hatches.
“Me last ship’s mate would’ve been tellin’ me what to do and watchin’ t’ make sure I did it the way he wanted. The ship before that, the bugger would have given me a clip over the ear to get me started.”
“That ain’t my style. Or the way this ship works. But don’t expect me to take your turn cleaning the heads or hold your hand when we’re thrashing around in a nor’easter. Look alive, ‘Streya’s coming aft, an’ we’ll have sails to trim in a jiffy. Me an’ you have the main.”
Since a course change was imminent, Mairi headed for the companionway to the navigation space, traditionally called the Forbidden Room. She saw a seaman nod to Lindey as he passed her on his way towards the bow.
Nobody saw the skipjack hoist her jib and change course to cut across the big schooner’s bows, because the little boat was concealed by the big schooner’s foresail and jib. The lookout’s shout came as the boat’s mast fouled Cygnus’ bowsprit. The schooner barely slowed as she first dismasted and then crushed the skipjack, which disappeared under the port bow. Astreya leaned over the rail to see what had happened.
The skipjack exploded.
Cygnus’ bowsprit shattered into shards of wood. Jibs and foresails bellied out of shape, no longer sustained by the mainstay. Debris rained into the sea and onto the deck where Astreya lay sprawled on his back. The ship’s side gaped, the bow festooned with the remains of the bowsprit and dolphin striker. Above, the severed end of the mainstay flailed as all three masts sagged sternward, robbed of support.
Mairi barely paused when she heard the first thud of impact with the little boat, thinking it perhaps caused by a random piece of flotsam that had escaped the lookout’s notice. She put her hand on the metal door and focused her mind to use the power of her clasp. Then came the explosion. Her hands flew up to her ears as the big vessel reverberated like a beaten drum. When the deafening moment passed, she heard shouts, the sound of running feet overhead, and a deep groaning like a huge animal in pain. Mairi turned and ran up the companionway. Betel, the most experienced man aboard, stood with his head thrown back, peering up at the masthead.
“What’s happening?” Mairi demanded.
Betel pointed to the three masts sagging sternwards. The mainstay hung slack from the head of the foremast, swinging uselessly. Again, Mairi heard groaning above the noise of wind and water. She felt vibration under her feet and realized that the masts were swaying, rubbing against the decks, and grinding in their steps on the keel. She ran to the port rail. Ahead, the bowsprit was a splintered stump. She struggled with a dilemma. The obvious response to trouble aloft was to turn head-to-wind. But if they luffed up under full sail with a broken mainstay, even a light wind could collapse all three masts.
“Turn downwind. Relieve the masts,” said the steersman quietly. She swung around, recognizing Marley, the new man.
“You’re right,” she murmured, and then raised her voice in command.
“Stand by to jibe! Brail up and strike sail! Haul them down!”
Sailors ran to obey her order.
“Jibe!” she shouted.
Marley nodded and spun the wheel. Betel’s mouth hung open in disbelief. To his mind, Mairi’s maneuver was the exact opposite of the tried-and-true response, which was to head upwind and then locate, confine, and deal with whatever had gone wrong. Ignoring his distress, Mairi encouraged men and women who were struggling to strike wind-filled, flapping canvass that resisted their efforts and threatened to toss them into the sea.
“Good call, Mairi.” Cam’s voice at her elbow calmed her.
“Cam! What’s going on? What’s happened?”
“Damn great ‘splosion. Holed the bow. ‘Streya’s down. Lindey lookin’ after him. Gotta go help her.”
During their exchange, confusion began to resolve into order. Men and women at the halyards, brails, and sheets collaborated to collapse and lower the sails until they could be manhandled into folds around the booms. Sailors loosed halyards and topping lifts and brought spars and booms amidships, tugged the foresails inboard and bundled them. With the sails no longer blocking her view, Mairi saw that the mainstay was looping from mast to mast to mast to the free-swinging length of heavy, tarred rope, that was no longer connected to the missing bowsprit.
What she saw still threatened disaster, but the masts no longer groaned. Cygnus was stable under bare poles, wind-driven south-east, out to sea.
“Steersman, hold her on this course.”
It was her mother’s voice, uncharacteristically shrill. Mairi looked along the deck and saw Astreya being carried astern, his head supported by Lindey, his body cradled in the linked arms of two sailors. Something wooden stuck out of a bloody smear on his right hip. Mairi stood, torn between love and duty. As the human stretcher carried her father towards the companionway, Lindey bent over Astreya, her face invisible behind her hair. She spoke without raising her head.
“Mairi, you’re in command.”

Nine days in England, November 2017

My nine days in England were time-warped.  First of all, there’s the time shift, which made me more acutely conscious of non-essential detail, and exhausted by dealing with a host of tiny, unimportant factors such as are involved in remembering that English light switches are upside down.  Not a life-threatening situation, such as is involved in stepping off the curb into traffic travelling too fast, too close, and on the wrong side of the road, but enough to ensure that it’s necessary to take breaks in between doing the things you planned to do.  Fortunately, there are pubs with “Real Ale” in them.

I lived in London for a year in 1958, when I was 16.  It was a grey city inhabited by grey people who had just escaped food rationing that had lasted for nearly a decade after the end of the war.  There were still great gaping holes where houses had stood for decades, sometimes centuries.  Across the street from where I lived on the fifth floor of 33 Baker Street was a gap about six Georgian houses wide and as many deep.  I could see wallpaper peeling from an inside wall exposed when what was left of the houses had been turned into rubble.  The zig zag outline of where stair treads met the wall led down to remnants of burned panelling and on into the broken brick and stone that filled where the basement had been.

I could climb out of a hatch at the top of the stairs onto the roof and look at a London in which only churches and cathedrals and monuments were taller than the five stories on which I stood beside chimney pots that dribbled soft-coal smoke into the sooty air.  It was the set from the Mary Poppins film, minus Dick Van Dyke’s misguided attempt at Cockney.

I googled it before I left Canada, or rather, I googled what had taken over the splendid line of stone-faced houses, each with its perfectly proportioned windows looking over the iron railings to the street where Homes and Watson had their famous abode.  In place of this intersection between  reality and fiction, a faceless edifice sprawls in anonymous 1980s red brick.

This time, thanks to Katherine’s accumulated points, we stayed at a Hilton on Trafalgar Square, across Cockspur Street from Canada House, with an unobstructed view of Nelson on his column from the upscale rooftop bar, and on to the red circle of the London Eye. Below in the square U2 were setting up for a concert, so I wasn’t able to introduce Katherine to the pigeons that sit on Landseer’s Lions or hear the splash of the fountains.

London is so full of people!  If all of them left, there would be beds and houses enough for every Canadian to move in.  Oddly, to me as we walked to the National Portrait Gallery, it felt like Toronto, perhaps around Spedina — except for the architecture.  The grey English people I remember have been replaced by every shape, shade and physiognamy of folk from around the world — and that’s not just the tourists.  In five days of breakfasts, lunches, teas, dinners and (frequent) drinks we were served by young people who, guessing by their accurate but accented words, had started their lives in Spain, Scotland, Poland, Ireland, Lithuania, Ukraine and points east.  The accents of London were still audible around us, but the voices often came from non-white people, Londoners born and bred.

We time-travelled to the court of Henry VIII, which occupies two  rooms of the National Portrait Gallery, putting faces to the descriptions Hilary Mantel puts into Thomas Cromwell’s mouth in his role as the narrator of “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies.” A room full of eminent people, few of whom died naturally.

We re-set our temporal clocks and walked down into Churchill’s War Rooms, frozen in time right down to the (documented) sugar lumps on the desk of the officer at the east end of the table with four colours of telephone, Army, Navy, Air Force and Home Guard.  Eerie, particularly when the audio guide at my ear mentioned 1941 — the year I was born.

We visited the Wallace Collection, which like the Frick in New York, is the legacy of a man with a great deal of money and unusually good taste.  Franz Hals’ The Laughing Cavalier lives there.

So does Jean Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing.  This charming little painting  is of a coquettishly smiling much-crinolined girl in a be-ribboned swing being admired by a delighted young well-dressed man who, whisper it softly, is exactly positioned for an up-skirt view.  More Boucher/Fragonard pink-and-plushy near nudes surround the room, all tastefully fig-leafed with gossamer and sanctioned because they represent nymphs, shepherds, gods and goddesses.

We travelled down the river to the famous observatory where I just had to stand astride zero degrees longitude.  Greenwhich is green, with lawns running  from the observatory, on down to the museum, although not the last few pub-and-shop standard London hundred yards to where  the famous Cutty Sark rests in her dry dock, surrounded by glass seas to her waterline.  If you walk under the glass, her copper-plated, oak on iron frame hull shows how and why she was so fast.

On my own next day, I went to the Kensington Museum of Natural History, where the Brachiosaurus altithorax I knew from days of yore has been replaced by a great blue whale.  Irony, perhaps?  Up the stairs I went to pay my respects to Charles Darwin.

I then took an escalator into the heart of the planet to deepen my understanding of tectonic plates, volcanoes, minerals and precious stones.   I found myself a head, shoulders and down to my elbows taller than just about everyone there: several classes-full of uniformed, unnaturally well behaved little English-of-all-shapes-and-colours children on a school trip.  I had not known much about the world’s three or four super-volcanoes, one of which will happen some day soon when several square miles of Yellowstone Park ascend skyward in a big bang like that of Krakatoa, which gave the world three years of really cold winters. Yellowstone will be much, much bigger.  So, if the rising seas don’t drown us, and we haven’t poisoned ourselves with plastics and heavy metals, and the greenhouse gasses haven’t choked us as the planet cooks up beyond the insanely optimistic two degrees of our un-met temperature-reduction goals, then wham, bang, thank you Gaia, ma’am, we’ll be cooled off by up to a decade of nuclear winters.  I doubt I’ll see it.  Lucky me.

And then we travelled to the gold-stone colleges of Oxford, happily not particularly heavily inhabited by tourists and thus up-beat with students on  bicycles and on foot hurrying into their privileged lives studded with lectures, essays, moments of elation and subsequent heartbreak before final exams, graduation and one of the more assured transitions into cushy careers.  In a small, truly ancient pub next to the Bodlian we downed  Real Ale and ate mushroom stroganoff, flanked by a pair of grad students plotting their way to professorial favour. For the first time in our trip, the publican was indigenous to the point (pint?) of type casting.  On the wall were photos of Morse, that is, the actor who played him during interminable television seasons of murder and mayhem.

By afternoon we found our way along ever-diminishing roads through  countryside in which we would not have been surprised to see Frodo Baggins emerging between hedges below  the finger-post of one of the many footpaths that lead to places such as Shipton under Wychwood or the Four Shire Stone.  The satnav in our rented Golf took us to Aston Subedge, not far from Chipping Camden.  A lane between fields led to our B&B.

Welcomed by our host at the door of what was to be our living room for two days, we drank tea before a fire of oak-wood.  Up the creaking stairs, held up by great beams of oak recycled from ships of the line, war surplus after the Battle of Trafalgar, was our bedroom and palatial en-suite with shower, claw-foot tub, double sink, handsome throne and  even bidet.  In the quiet evening — and by Ottawa standards more than an hour early — we heard owls, presumably carrying messages to and from Hogwarts.

For two days we visited a kaleidoscope of gold-stone villages and towns with fictional-sounding names.  We took coffee in Bourton on the Water, which has a high street and fast-running stream that is beyond picturesque.

Along the narrow road to Kingham, charmingly lifted out of a story-book we found a church, accessible through a lych  gate into its churchyard, overlooking a village green with a cricket pitch and soccer field.  A huge tree along the path to the 600-year-old church sported a Narnia-style lantern, anachronistically equipped with an ecologically correct bulb.

In the adjoining village hall, a friendly soul gave us directions to The Wild Rabbit, a “really posh” restaurant where for a goodly sum of money we were served excellent food and drink.

The name Burford stuck in both our minds for reasons we could not fathom, so we went there.  The high street runs down a steep hill, the buildings getting older and older and more and more picturesque until they surround a truly fascinating church built in 1175, and re-modelled four times until  1475, when they decided that was enough.  Approached through its cottages for clergy and the like, the spire rises above the unchanged centre of the town, tended by the people who  worshipped, buried their dead, bequeathed almshouses, and did the occasional murder.  The church is still discharging its functions in this more secular age.

Here in 1649, Oliver Cromwell’s army corralled around 350 mutineers from  his New Model Army in the church, and shot three of them. This was unusually lenient for the time, during which England was experimenting with what might be called a republic.  Had the mutiny of those known as Levellers not been quashed, others might have joined their quite legitimate protest and, had their status been acknowledged, it’s conceivable (though not likely) that the English constitution might have more resembled the American with respect to the “of the people” idea that took England another few hundred years to approximate.

Woodstock (the original one) is the village next which Blenheim Palace stands in all its opulence within the expansive grounds sculpted from  nature by Capability Brown, showing what he could do granted virtually unlimited funds.

The palace is the size of a shopping mall, and just as commercial, processing the day we were there at least three coaches and 1,500 private cars full to a total of more than 5,000 people at an average of £40 pounds each, which not counting what they ate at several cafes or bought at the gift shop, adds up to a total of at least £20,000. Even after paying the army of gardeners, ticket-takers, cleaners, guides, and so forth, there has been enough to do some serious modifications (the gift shop), upgrades (washrooms), restorations (just about everywhere) and still have enough to mount light shows, (dubious) art exhibits, craft fairs and the maintenance of several rooms containing Churchill memorabilia.  In the end, this over-the-top celebration of the victor of Blenheim seems wretchedly excessive, even if a great number of English people cheerfully part with their cash to see its grandeur.  But then, the English like admiring the history of those who have been and still are the ruling classes.

I read the newspapers each day, and asked myself how it was and is that the older generations and working people of England are leaving Europe and taking with them the declared hopes of younger people plus Scotland, Wales and Ireland, whether they want it or not. The lying cynicism of both sides in the campaign is exceeded only by the dismal incompetence that has followed.  There seems to have been no respect for thoughtful debate and due process.  It’a 21st Century populism as in “the people have spoken” — sure they have, in a referendum coopered together by Cameron who then scarpered leaving it up to May to blunder ahead with what amongst other things will change the constitution by stealth and undermine the primacy of parliament that took centuries to evolve. Everyone is ignoring an inescapable future in some pious hope that a new renaissance and an economic boom rivalling the industrial revolution are just around the corner when the shackles of the free market fall from the hands of true Britons everywhere.

Right. Just how is that going to happen? Finance?  Not likely.  Nothing is more mobile than money, and it’s already leaking out of London. In AI and digital?  Certainly not the way the UK dominated the world in the era of steam power (the dark satanic mills, remember?) or before that in wool (let’s hear it for the Highland Clearances!).  How about  the happy days of sugar, coffee, tea and the slave trade?  Someone always pays, and it’s going to be the folks at the bottom who were sadly instrumental in pulling the heap down on their own heads.

If you live in a 300 year old house that you’ve bought and refurbished with every modern convenience using the money you made trading in the City of London’s financially overheated market, then when you look out your  leaded window beyond the iron gate at the end of your walkway at the inexpressibly beautiful countryside where your daughter’s horse is cropping the lush green grass, on over the soft hills into the blue distance where perfect little villages nestle in the valleys, and you sip your Earl Grey and eat marmalade and toast made from artisanal bread served beside free-range eggs and bacon from heritage pigs, then surely it’s easy for you to do the mental equivalent of pulling the duvet over your head and going back to an English sleep in which nothing can possibly go wrong.

As a happy visitor, I enjoyed every minute of that privileged lifestyle.

Story Behind The Astreya Trilogy

Published in, Monday, 10 February 2014.  Updated April 2015. Updated again, September 2016.

In the 1970s, when I lived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, I sailed as mate on a traditional 50-foot wooden schooner, leaving early one summer day from the Bras d’Or lakes, near where Alexander Graham Bell tested his airplane, the Silver Dart. By evening, the ragged northern end of Cape Breton had disappeared over my starboard shoulder. Alone at the wheel, listening to the creaking, splashing, sighing sounds of sailing, I heard dolphins whistle, and when dawn came, I saw the sun rise on southern Newfoundland’s wall of cliffs that fall hundreds of feet into the sea. My skipper’s navigation was excellent: dead ahead was the flashing light of the navigation buoy we needed to guide us to a gap in the cliffs, less than a quarter mile wide.

Once through the turbulent passage, the water was calm as a lake. There were several miles of what the Scots call a sea-loch that widened into high-sided bays and inlets, on the least steep of which was the tiny community that shares the fjord’s name, Grey River. (You can visit on Google Earth.)

When we went ashore, we met children who had been picking cloudberries, which look like big blueberries, except that they are white. We were the first visitors from “away” — other than the crew of the semi-annual supply ship — that the youngsters had ever met.

I wondered what might happen to the people of Grey River if the ship stopped coming. Would their community forget, and be forgotten by the rest of the world? What if a cataclysm turned back history to the days when schooners sailed the East coast of North America? Suppose that steel ships, airplanes, electricity, radio, TV, the internet, computers and all but a few libraries were all lost. After a century or so of isolation, what would a bold adventurer find if he voyaged south?

When I got home, I wrote my first sentence:
Ancient, round-shouldered mountains met the sea only a little south of where winter held the ocean ice-clad the whole year long. Along thecoastline, where harbors were few and hard to find, jagged rocks combed the breakers, grinding at shards of wood that might once have been ships.

A few pages later, I met my adventurer, Astreya. When he is 17, his widowed mother gives him his father’s knife, a riddling notebook and a mysterious bracelet. He makes his way south, through storms, shipwreck, betrayal, enslavement, night escapes, knife fights, sea battles, secret passages, treacherous relatives; along the way meeting with unexpected allies and a girl named Lindey who believes in the power of logical persuasion, supplemented by the occasional preemptive blow from her quarterstaff.

The Astreya Trilogy is science fiction, I guess, although it’s pretty damn real to me. More specifically, it’s a nautical fantasy, a post-apocalypse adventure, and a love story. There are mysteries, but no magic; animals, but no werewolves or zombies; the laws of nature are bent but not broken; and the technology is either known to, or extrapolated from science. What’s 17th century technology in a post apocalypse world doing in a science fiction story? Damned if I know, but it was where I could find different small ways of life, including a traditional fishing village, several boats and ships, and a community led by women. Over the years, I learned more and more about them, only some of which ever got into the trilogy, long as it is.

For nearly 40 years after my trip to Grey River, I kept writing about Astreya’s long and dangerous journey towards his destiny, sometimes only to discard almost as much as I wrote. When I retired, I finally found time to devote exclusively to the story. Astreya unfolded from a novella into a novel into a sequel and eventually into a trilogy of more than 1,000 pages. I’m a slow writer, and there were times I thought it would never be done. In 2010, I finally finished. I asked myself, what’s the point of writing a great big thick book if nobody publishes it? I had read somewhere that Christopher Little, J.K. Rowling’s agent, was a keen sailor and yachtsman, so I crafted what I hoped was an appropriately persuasive email, attached the first chapter of The Astreya Trilogy, and sent it off into the trackless electronic cloud. I feared that all I would get would be a curt note from a flunky who was helping manage more money from the Harry Potter series than the Gross Domestic Product of a medium sized country. Then I discovered that Little was no longer Rowling’s agent. However, in a matter of days I received a polite reply, referring me to David Hayes’ website, Historic Naval Fiction, which is an encyclopedic guide to fiction and non-fiction about the great days of sail. I edited my letter and sent it again.

David wrote back a day or so later, referring me to Fireship Press, located in Tucson, Arizona, on whose website I read a straight-talking statement ending: “Fireship Press does almost everything electronically so, if you need to reach us, first try: [email protected]. If all else fails, try: 520-360-6228.” I took hope, even though Tucson is a long, dry way from the sea, because in the meanwhile I had been reading the websites of fantasy and science fiction publishers whose names escape me, which demand hard copy submissions via snail mail, expect that any material be sent to them exclusively, and advise that their turnaround time is at least six months.

In only a couple of weeks, Fireship Press’ founder and editor, Tom Grundner, made me an offer. I hesitated for two amazed nanoseconds before emailing “Yes!” and dancing around the house, yelling incoherently. Not long after, my old friend Spider Robinson, who never doubted I could write even when I wasn’t too sure, wrote some very nice things in his review of Astreya. Praise from a Hugo and Nebula winner is sweet indeed. And then, a year after Astreya was published, along came a little book of twelve stories involving dragons called The Laughing Princess.

So, what’s next?

I can tell you for sure that you’re not going to see another trilogy that takes almost 40 years to finish. However, there’s a character in The Astreya Trilogy who wandered into the third book without my permission, took over half a chapter, and has since been demanding that I tell his story. He’s no angel, so he wants me to gloss over his more nefarious exploits. We’re debating how much is too much, and I think I’m winning.The Astreya Trilogy is available in paperback or electronic format from,, Barnes and and So is The Laughing Princess, which is also available in Spanish as La Princesa Valiente.

It’s now April, 2015, so I’d like to update;

The Laughing Princess is now available illustrated by Shirley MacKenzie.  You can browse the pictures on my site, and if you can’t find a copy at your local bookstore, and/or you don’t like Amazon, drop me a line and I’ll send you one (for a modest fee).

The first two volumes of Astreya are available on  Just follow the links from my website.  I’m working on volume three, and should have it done in a month or so.  As with The Laughing Princess if you can’t find a copy of Astreya I, II or III at your local bookstore, and/or you don’t like Amazon, drop me a line and I’ll send you one (for a modest fee).

I’ve started in on another book set in Astreya’s world, provisionally titled River of Stones.  It’s 22 years since Astreya and Lindey thwarted Mufrid, and their son Trogen is searching for a way to move out of his father’s shadow.  Even though I’m finding my way through the story faster than the 40 years it took to finish Astreya, it’s slow but enjoyable work.  Perhaps when chapter one is a little more solid, I’ll put it up where you can take a sneak peek.

It’s more than a year later, (September, 2016) and I just received an encouraging email from Andrew, to whom I replied with the following:


Thank you for your kind email about Astreya.

I’m working on a second book set in Astreya’s world, but I’m a slow writer.  It’s about half done, at a guess. I might be able to finish next year.

It’s 20 years later. Astreya and Lindey have two children, twins, Trogen (that’s Norwegian for true), Mairi (the Scottish pronunciation of Mary rhimes with “marry”).  Trogen has a problem with being the son of a famous and highly respected father; Mairi is more focussed, which means that when she gets promoted over him to command a new, two-masted schooner, Trogen’s resentment escalates.  All this is background to a menace from the past — Mirak, embittered by the years, seeking revenge and filled with a desire to possess the stones, and with them, Elusive, Cygnus and the little schooner Cygnet, which under Lindey and Astreya’s leadership have created a  trading enterprise up and down the coast, with a shipyard near Matris, headed up by Andrew (‘Drew) who you will remember was the head of the young men who were caught up in The Snatch.

It’s easy to write the foregoing to you, because you’ve just read the trilogy.  It’s not so simple to create a stand-alone story that involves characters from the  previous work.  Who to include?  Who to leave out?  Who stays the same?  Who develops?  Well, let me introduce the foremost characters of River of Stones — the pro tem title.

In addition to Trogen and Mairi, there are the six children of Dabih and Becky, of whom Nancy and Eliana are important to the new story; Max and Ellen’s son Neil (Max ran off, leaving Neil to have daddy-issues of his own); and there’s red-haired Peter from Charton who isn’t part of “the family” but who blew everyone’s mind by being able to control the stones.  All of them are aboard Cygnet, with Mairi as skipper, Trogen as navigator.  Also aboard Cygnet is Marley, who’s black and comes from the Sunny Isles, which is where I am right now, with Mairi talking to Lady Orinda, wife of the big man of those southern islands (which seem to be a lot like Mauritius, in which I lived from 1945 to 49). In addition to Mirak and his crew of heavies, there’s Fred, who works with and for Mirak, and who likes blowing things up.  If I can ever get to the next chapter, Fred and company will attack the crew of Cygnet and kidnap Eliana (Ellie).

And now I must leave you and get on with it.

Dragons and a Princess with New Artwork

I (Jessica Knauss of Aç asked Seymour Hamilton, author of The Laughing Princess, how it came about that he met Shirley MacKenzie, who did the lovely new cover and many other drawings for that book. This is how he explains it:

I met Shirley MacKenzie at a reading soiree at a now defunct indie bookseller which had our books on consignment. Shirley had written and illustrated a moving account of her search for her birth mother and father. The emotional impact of Shirley’s story was in her drawings, which are at the intersection between personal and universal. She does not tell her reader what to think or feel: she presents evocative images of loss, longing and fulfillment that haunt me still.

Cover art for Shirley's book, Orphan Sage

Cover art for Shirley’s book, Orphan Sage

Shirley’s search for her birth parents took her to England and Scotland, where she travelled with sketchbook in hand. In London, her paintings feature views of and through the peculiarly English iron railings that most people see but do not notice. In Scotland, she captured the muted colours of a Scottish autumn with a vividness that refreshes the memories of those who have been there. The Trossachs, Scotland by Shirley MacKenzie

The Trossachs, Scotland by Shirley MacKenzie

Shirley bought a copy of my book, The Laughing Princess, and was moved to draw a scene from one of the stories, “The Wizard and the Fire Dragon,” and later another, “Ryll’s Fortune.” I was amazed to see how close her vision came to the one in my mind when I was writing.

The Wizard and the Fire Dragon

Her charming rendition of The Littlest Dragon, the character that ties the twelve stories together, is now the cover art for both The Laughing Princess and the Spanish edition, La Princesa valiente.

Book cover image: The Laughing PrincessBook cover image: The Laughing Princess

Illustration is Shirley’s latest enthusiasm. She started with well-known children’s classics such as The Little Prince, Charlotte’s Web and Treasure Island. Her drawing of a pivotal emotional moment when Jim Hawkins makes an important step towards manhood illuminates the text, making us aware that Robert Louis Stevenson was not just writing adventure: his story has emotional depth that we often lose in the many films, cartoons and re-interpretations of the famous tale.

Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson – chapter 7. “It was on seeing that boy that I understood, for the first time, my situation. I had thought up to that moment of the adventures before me, not at all of the home I was leaving; and now, at the sight of this clumsy stranger, who was to stay here in my place beside my mother, I had my first attack of tears.”  Graphite and prismacolour on rag paper, Shirley MacKenzie. Part of collection of children’s classic book illustrations.

The most poignant example of Shirley’s ability to read into the deeper dimensions of a story came when she drew a couple of incidents in stories by Spider Robinson. I was impressed by the appropriateness of her treatment of these emotion-laden scenes, and sent copies of them to Spider, who I have known since we both lived in Halifax, Nova Scotia.   Callahan's Key 2

Here is a part of his response: “I am seriously mind-boggled. I just sat and looked at that sentence for ten minutes, trying to figure out what to follow it with. I failed, but have decided to keep on typing, anyway. But mind-boggled pretty much sums it up. The surely accidental resemblance of Erin to my granddaughter Marisa is uncanny. (For which reason I have forwarded it to her mom in Connecticut.) And that happens to be the way I was wearing my hair and beard when I wrote that book. And I lived in converted school buses on Stephen’s Farm long enough to recognize the interior of one when I see it. Right down to the inevitable tape-patches on the seats. What a beautiful piece! If we ever succeed in getting the e-book rights to that book back from Bantam, that’s the cover I’ll recommend for it to my agent. Please tell Shirley I am highly pleased and deeply moved. And thank her from me, big time. It never fails to awe me when some words I stuck together end up inspiring a work of art. Especially one that good.”

Books that opened Magic Casements for me

Books (and poems) I have inhabited, in the order in which I read them.   As I compiled this list, I realised that the common element is that most of these stories are set in richly imagined alternate realities that are as substantial as our own.  They are some of the books I remember best.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Read to me by my father when I was 5.  The magic grows stronger as the years go 

Arthur Ransome: Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, Peter Duck, Winter Holiday, Coot Club, Pigeon Post, We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea, Secret Water, The Big Six, Missie Lee, Great Northern?  Fan Site :

I read and re-read these books obsessively between ages 6 and 10. I wrote two fan letters, and Ransom wrote back.  Set in the between wars 20s and 30s, the dialogue and some of the cultural assumptions are dated and very British, but the descriptions of sailing — and drawings by Ransome — are still accurate today, particularly if you are sailing traditional wooden boats.

Captain Marryat: Masterman Ready,  Midshipman Easy

Perhaps because they were my father’s favourites, perhaps because I was reading them in the pre-television world of post war Mauritius, I had no problem with the 19th century literary language, characters and assumptions.  I loved the realism of the nautical setting and Marryat’s conviction that naval discipline can produce effective teamwork, character, and when circumstances demand it, heroism.

Robert Louis Stevenson: Treasure Island

Jim in the apple barrel, Blind Pew in the dark street, Jim up the mast with a pistol that may or may not fire — just three of the most menacing moments you’ll read anywhere — and there are more of them.  Long John Silver lives because he’s a  dubious friend, an implacable enemy, a man both generous and selfish, open and secretive, always believable; immortal in the minds of countless readers for more than a century.

Rudyard Kipling: Captains Courageous

Kipling, an Englishman, captured life aboard a ‘salt-banker’ American schooner, where command is based on experience, rather than rank or social position.  He realised all the details of the perfect setting for a spoilt boy to earn his manhood.

John MasefieldThe Midnight Folk;  Poems:  “Sea Fever”,  “A Ballad of John Silver”.

The Midnight Folk anticipates a half century of magical fiction, in which Masefield seamlessly merged reality into fantasy.  “Sea Fever” must be the most quoted poem among sailors and yachtsmen.  “A Ballad of John Silver” is Masefield’s homage to Stevenson.

Joseph Conrad: especially Youth, The Secret Sharer

Conrad said that his first ambition in writing was “to make you see.”  The opening sentence of The Secret Sharer is a description that could also be precise directions to a film cameraman.  These two novellas take the sailor’s yarn into mystery, character study, and profound insight into human nature.  Conrad was a sailor himself.  He wrote in English which was his second language, but a person who had read his stories translated into Conrad’s native Polish said that he wrote better in English!

C.S. Forester: The Hornblower Saga, particularly The Happy Return, A Ship of the Line, Flying Colours, republished as the trilogy Captain Horatio Hornblower, R.N. and The Commodore.

Around the time I was busy being born, my father was involved in one of the first successful raids against the Nazis, who had occupied the Lofoten Islands.  At the  planning meeting, two possible approaches were presented, one obvious and by-the-book, the other cunning and devious.  As the commanding officer made his decision for the latter, my father overheard him mutter, “Dammit, it’s what Hornblower would do.”

Joshua Slocum: Sailing Alone Around the World

Slocum’s prose reads like early science fiction, except that it’s all true.  Here is the mystery of the sea observed by an indomitable, self-sufficient person who on occasion wonders, but is never over-awed.  I have stood near where he was born on Nova Scotia’s Fundy Shore, a place where everywhere else is beyond the sea.

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings

Just before the year 2000, a British newspaper with a reputation for reviews and criticism conducted a survey to discover the greatest book of the century.  The Lord of the Rings won.  Academics and literati fulminated, muttering, “Nonsense.  It’s James Joyce’s Ulysses.”  So an even more prestigious newspaper with massive literary qualifications going back centuries undertook to repeat the survey with scrupulous attention to methodology.  The Lord of the Rings won again, proving that the literati like books they can explain, whereas the reading public value books they can love.

Ray Bradbury: The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man  Biography:

Bradbury brought fantasy to science fiction, provoking a debate among fans that still continues.  Many writers of both sf and fantasy are known only to readers of the two closely related genres, Bradbury is one of the few whose work reaches a larger audience.

Ursula K LeGuin:  especially, Rocannon’s World, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness

Her web site: www.

All of LeGuin’s work offers insights into human nature, awareness of sexual politics and mores, and convincing other worlds and universes.  Ged the Mage voyages on an ocean that humbles him with the mysteries of love and death.  In the relationship between Genli Ai and Estraven LeGuin reveals the tensions among love, desire, friendship and loyalty on a world called Winter.

Marion Zimmer Bradley:  Darkover Landfall

Though not the first written, Darkover Landfall introduces both the planet and the tension between Terrans and Darkovans that is a main theme of the Darkover series.  Love and sex among and within genders and species, violence, psychoactive drugs, religion, feminism, telekenisis, telepathy … Darkover has it all.  Marion Zimmer Bradley gave The Society for Creative Anachronism its name.

L Sprague de Camp: The Incomplete Enchanter

Get lost in the Norse Eddas and The Faery Queen and enjoy the ultimate swords and sorcery, tongue-in-cheek literary pastiche.  I met de Camp at a SF Con and thanked him for the way his writing had brought me many hours of enjoyment.  He said, “Thank you.  It’s been so much better than working.”

Christopher Stasheff: The Warlock in Spite of Himself

Normally, I join Tolkein in avoiding allegory, particularly religious, Christian, Roman Catholic allegory whenever I detect it.  Stasheff gets away with it, because his humour and story-telling skills outpace his moral intent and political opinions.  An example of which is the Warlock’s empirical robot horse, Fess, who keeps having to be re-booted when faced with magic, as he and his rider learn to cope with a world in which magic works, and is populated by people who were once members of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

Robert Heinlein: Glory Road

The old master’s one excursion into sheerest fantasy.  As a character observes on encountering yet another species, “Don’t make a Hobbit of it.”  Some of Heinlein’s novels seem preachy to me: this one deals lightheartedly with integrity, courage, self-reliance, morality (sexual and otherwise), liberty and his own abiding wish for eternal youth, all in a classic tale that successfully blends real and fantasy worlds.

Larry Niven:  Ringworld, The Magic Goes Away

Ringworld is world-building on a cosmic scale.  Niven’s engineering almost but not quite overcomes the plot and characters, who include the fearsomely intelligent, ultimately cowardly, three-legged Puppeteer, a Kzin (picture a nine foot tall ginger tomcat), the two hundred year old Louis Wu, and a young woman who does not know that she has been successfully bred for luck. The Magic Goes Away looks nostalgically at a time when magic worked, and how the world ran out of it.  Niven serves both his science and humour straight up.  Like Adams’ gargleblaster, it is like being hit by a gold wrapped brick.

Frank Herbert: Dune

You can read Herbert because of his views on philosophy, religion, psychology, politics and ecology, or you can simple immerse yourself in a fully realized alternate desert world that is scientifically self-consistent and mercifully clean of the shortcuts and borrowings that characterize lesser works of SF.  It’s a coming of age story peppered with exotic drugs, unusual fight scenes, and technology as convincing as if it were real.

Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I can hear the theme to the BBC radio production as I write these words.  I have memorized the opening sentence, “The alien spacecraft hovered over the little town exactly the way that bricks don’t.”  I groove with Marvin the paranoid android because I knew him when I was seven and he was Eeyore, long before he was voiced by Alan Rickman, later Professor Snape.  I unravel with glee the connections with Pink Floyd, Procul Harum and Monte Python’s Flying Circus.  I share his fear of / delight in technology.  42.

“Magic Casements” is stolen from John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale.  

Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Tales of Rebels and of the Sea. Also, stories about Dragons.