Story Behind The Astreya Trilogy

Published in Upcoming4.me, 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 Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Barnes and Noble.com and Chapters.ca. 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 Podiobooks.com.  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:

Andrew

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 Açedrex.com) 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.

Wizard
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
http://www.bartleby.com/101/549.html 

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?  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Ransome  Fan Site :  http://www.allthingsransome.net/

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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Marryat

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  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Louis_Stevenson

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
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rudyard_Kipling

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” www.poemhunter.com/poem/sea-fever,  “A Ballad of John Silver”. www.poemhunter.com/poem/a-ballad-of-john-silver/    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Masefield

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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joshua_Slocum

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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JRR_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:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_Bradbury

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. ursulaleguin.com  http://www.ursulakleguin.com/BiographicalSketch.html

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  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marion_Zimmer_Bradley

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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L._Sprague_de_Camp

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  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Stasheff

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  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_A._Heinlein

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  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_Niven

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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Herbert

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   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_Adams

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.

http://www.bartleby.com/101/624.html

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