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:
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.