A young cartographer working in a wild frontier land discovers that someone has been interfering with history. More worryingly, the more she investigates, the more it looks like that ‘someone’ might be her…
In her quest to uncover the truth about a life she didn’t know she’d led, Myrah and her not-so-intrepid friends are beset by crazed wizards, venomous demons and, most challengingly of all, some enormously embarrassing relatives. When priests, thieves and reality itself are out to get you, life can get pretty tough – and having a war to stop certainly doesn’t make things any easier.
‘Unreliable Histories’ is a comic fantasy, guaranteed free from lovelorn vampires, arcane prophesies and ancient-but-recently-awoken evils. Some of the important but seldom-posed questions it sets out to answer include:
Who keeps the torches burning in all those long-deserted subterranean lairs?
Why does women’s armour always look so suspiciously like fetish-wear?
And why the sudden obsession with avocados?
Targeted Age Group:: 17+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
A great many of the swords and sorcery worlds I encountered as a kid seemed to be populated by characters who I felt were due a bit of comic scrutiny. There were always hordes of improbably competent adventurers, droves of inscrutable wizards and, behind the scenes somewhere, enormous great bags full of whoever it is who designs all those unnecessarily elaborate underground lairs. I wanted to take a look at a world like that and explore how it might work.
‘Unreliable Histories’ was the result. It’s the first book in a two-part series that takes a look at all sorts of conventions of the fantasy genre. ‘Tongue in cheek’ is a phrase that reviewers tend to use quite a lot.
At this point, I should add that it’s all done very fondly. I always enjoyed fantasy; from Lord of the Rings to Buffy, I’ve been a loyal, card-carrying fan. It’s just that when it actually came to the business of writing it, I couldn’t bring myself to include what now seems to be the expected quota of strangely impenetrable prophesies, werewolves and romantically inclined undead.
That said, whatever it is that I’ve written, it is definitely a fantasy: there are wizards and assassins and there’s even an underground temple for those who enjoy that sort of thing. There are swords and magical artefacts and a few mythical beasts, too. Orcs and goblins are out but (for reasons probably best explored in the privacy of a professional counseling session) dentists, cartographers and avocado farmers are in. There’s a quest, there’s an Ultimate Truth to be found and in the second book there’s even an apocalypse of sorts. Soothsayers and ‘chosen one’ set-ups get a mention, and there’s also the odd aside about the difficulties of town planning in a realm of magic and monsters.
I suppose what I’m saying is that it’s probably not an ideal choice for those who take their swashbuckling very seriously, but I hope it appeals to a small niche of readers who enjoy strangely digressive sagas about cartography, magic and unreality.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I needed a detached observer figure – Myrah – to question some of the assumptions that usually go unchallenged in a fantasy world, and making her a cartographer was a useful way of giving her that detached perspective.
I also needed someone more innocent and accepting of the world – her friend Al – to sustain the various arguments and discussions, and also to help keep everyone alive when things get sharp and pointy.
There’s also a deranged augur who throws in some clues about the mutability of the past but is mainly there for comic purposes. (He has a very distinctive philosophy.)
Hurrying back, they pressed through the bustling alleyways and, taking a shortcut, broke out at last into the relative spaciousness of the Imperial Square. It was bounded on three sides by imposing guild offices, but ahead of them stood the many columned and more than amply gargoyled front elevation of the Wizard’s College.
“Oh no; it’s the Charm School,” groaned Al, who always found it difficult to resist anyone with a collection box and a hopeful smile.
“Just keep to the right and ignore them,” said Myrah.
“I bloody hate hoodies.”
Neither here in the West nor back in the eastern heartlands did wizards enjoy any measure of popularity or respect. It was true that some of them could be powerful and dangerous in the extreme, but they represented only a tiny minority. However, since they all wore exactly the same charcoal grey cloaks, which they invariably wore with the hoods pulled high over their heads, they were impossible to tell apart. If you were to bump into one in the street, the odds were greatly in favour of your having just collided with someone whose thaumaturgical powers would be unequal even to the task of boiling an egg but, on the other hand, it was just possible that the same individual might be capable of levelling the entire neighbourhood with the merest twitch of a finger. You just never knew and, as a result, wizards were shunned by almost everyone. Moreover, it was common knowledge that competent wizards could temporarily transmute tin into silver, or lead into gold, or tamper with time and memory in ways that rendered even the most watertight contracts useless. Conducting any form of transaction with them was therefore seen as an exercise in absurdity and in a city so driven by commerce as Tebit, that put wizards at a distinct financial disadvantage. On numberless streets and doorways could be seen notices that read ‘no wizards, hawkers or pedlars’ or words to much the same effect.
For the most part, the small number of genuinely capable mages within the College were able to provide essentials such as fuel and raw materials but that was not always enough. Sometimes, they would attempt to extract money from wealthy but gullible parents by engaging their sons and daughters as apprentices, and sometimes – most notably with respect to the procurement of fresh food and alcohol – the wizards were forced to engage in the common and demeaning business of barter.
This was the reason why, as Al and Myrah crossed the square, avoiding the glances of the freelance collectors who stalked these bustling public spaces, several hooded figures could be seen playing their reluctant parts in a series of minor spectacles performed for the benefit of local children and traders. Here, a wizard sat beside a sign promising to bring a lasting sharpness to any blade; there, another was burnishing brassware with a small wand and a palpable sense of resentment. In the very centre of the square was a particularly tall, cloaked individual who stood facing a small and disorderly queue of youngsters. With his cowled head turned dolefully in the direction of the clouds beyond the rooftops, he went through the motions of levitating each of the children in turn and conveying them in small circles above the heads of their baying companions before landing them back upon the wooden stage from which they had arisen. Just to one side, a scruffy assistant shambled along the length of the short queue, collecting coins in a leather bucket.
“I heard about this,” said Al with a look of distaste. “They’re calling it the Charm Offensive.”
“Well, at least the kids are enjoying it.”
“For now, maybe. Let’s see how they like it tonight when they wake up to find they’ve sprouted another pair of ears.”
Myrah grinned. “I don’t think it works like that, Al.”
They made their way as far as the right hand corner of the College, where the square gave way to a fairly narrow, stone-flagged street leading down to the harbour. The sheer weight of people bottlenecking into it from the square had caused quite a crowd to gather and it was here, amongst them, that a smartly uniformed College official – a collector rather than a practising wizard – was accosting people and attempting vainly to extort money from them. Behind him stood – or rather ran – the Liquid Wall, said to be the result of an unfortunate and unsuccessful evocation demonstration performed fifteen or twenty years ago by one of the College professors during one of the institution’s more memorable student lectures. Ever since, a section of masonry perhaps twelve strides long and of a similar height had taken on a glassy texture and flowed in a slow, ceaseless swirl like the waters of a particularly turgid, dark-grey pond. It made for an interesting talking point but, beyond that, it never did anything new and it had quickly lost its mystique in the eyes of the local residents and the countless merchants and porters who passed it by on a daily basis.
“You can’t charge me for that,” a burly middle aged woman was complaining, “this is a public thoroughfare.”
“But it’s a tourist attraction, this is,” argued the collector. “It’s a very popular landmark.”
“Well I’m not a tourist, am I?” retorted the woman, jabbing a finger into his chest. “I live down here and I’m taking cabbages to the market up there. I come this way three times a day, as well you know.”
“Ah ha!” cried the official, “Three times? Well then, you’ve said it yourself; that’s fifteen Cuprei you owe!”
“Oh bugger off,” said the woman, wafting her wrist at him as if shooing away a fly. She wandered off into the square, taking her woven bag of vegetables with her.
The collector watched her departure for a moment and then his gaze locked onto a thin old man coming the other way just a few steps ahead of Al.
“You! I saw you looking!” he shouted. “You definitely turned your head.”
“No I didn’t,” protested the elderly fellow. “I’ve got a stiff neck, that’s all.”
By now, towering above the older man, Al had drawn nearly level with the brightly buttoned official and was almost visibly fuming. Unfortunately for all concerned, the collector misinterpreted his angry glare.
“Oh! Oh! That was a definite look!” he shouted, making a swift and very unwise grab at Al’s shirt.
A wooden button spun through the air, bounced on the flagstones and performed a short, inelegant pirouette before coming to rest in the gutter. By the time it had stopped, so had most of the crowd.
The young official looked slowly down at the button and then back, along his outstretched arm, to where his hand still gripped Al’s torn cotton shirt. The man seemed momentarily confused as to what it might be doing there, as if he and his hand were somehow unconnected. Above his fingers – quite an appreciable way above his fingers, in fact – a pair of dark, fiercely narrowed eyes suggested that that very separation of man and fingers was fast becoming a real possibility.
“You have torn my shirt,” rumbled Al, in a tone that would have made a bull elephant sound effeminate.
“Em. Yes,” agreed the smaller man. His eyes were still on his own hand, which for some unfathomable reason still chose to stay where it was. He wondered if it might be playing dead.
“And one of my buttons is now in the gutter,” added Al.
“Mmm.” The official’s voice sounded a little strangled. He was urging his fingers to withdraw with every ounce of will he possessed but they seemed bent on betraying him.
Around the two men, the members of the watching crowd shifted and muttered excitedly.
“And what is more,” growled Al, leaning in a little closer to the collector’s ashen face, “you have your hand on my chest.”
The young man nodded nervously, wincing as Al took his wrist gently between forefinger and thumb. As his fingers let go, the torn material fell open to reveal a large and jagged scar running almost vertically across Al’s collar bone to somewhere just above his heart. It was obviously long healed but it made a startling impression. Had Al been wearing full armour, hefting a battle axe and singing Here We Go a-Killing Oh, he could not have conveyed a more convincing impression of martial prowess and a willingness to slaughter.
About the Author:
Rob Gregson spent much of his youth reading fantasy novels, immersing himself in role playing games and generally doing everything possible to avoid life in the real world. In his defence, we’re talking about the late 1980s – a time when ridiculous hair, hateful pop music and soaring unemployment were all very popular – so it wasn’t altogether a bad decision. However, had he abandoned the realms of elves and wizardry at an earlier age, he might have developed one or two useful life skills and he would almost certainly have found it easier to get a girlfriend.
Since that time, he and reality have developed a grudging tolerance of one another, although their relationship still goes through the occasional bad patch and his first two novels – Unreliable Histories and The Endless Land – are evidence of that.
Rob lives in Lancashire (UK) and is married with two children, although he has absolutely no idea why anyone should find that interesting.
Links to Purchase eBooks
Link To Buy Unreliable Histories On Amazon