Monday, 25 June 2012

Summer Reading Challenge!

Have you heard of the Summer Reading Challenge? It takes place in libraries over the summer holidays, and the challenge is to read six or more books before you go back to school... or, if you're really keen, ALL the books! But the whole point is that this challenge is meant to be fun. So you don't have to read any book you don't want to read, and if you borrow a book but don't finish it, then that's ok too - just bring it back to the library and try another one.

The great thing about books is that they are all different, so there's bound to be something on the list you'll enjoy. And if you happen to enjoy sword fights and magic set in the world of King Arthur, I'm delighted to tell you that one of the titles on the "older" list is the first book of my new Pendragon Legacy series Sword of Light. Here's a short video clip of me talking about it. (Muse: I used Katherine's little digital camera to make this, so it's probably my fault it's so quiet... I'm a unicorn and I've only got four hooves and a horn and no idea what I'm doing with technology, so that's my excuse! Just turn up your volume if you want to hear what she's saying.)

This year's challenge is called the "Story Lab", and there's a singing dancing video (much better than mine!) on the website explaining what it's all about, with embedded clips from some of the authors featured talking about their books.

Sounds fun? Then head on down to your local library this summer, sign up for the Story Lab... and enjoy your reading!

PS. If you haven't got a local library any more because the government closed it, or yours is under threat of closure, then your parents might like to support the campaign to save libraries(Muse: Closing public libraries, where Katherine spent most of her weekends and read hundreds of books when she was at Reading Challenge age... whatever next?!)

Monday, 18 June 2012

MUSE MONDAY: Celia "this is not forgiveness" Rees

Celia Rees’ latest novel This is not Forgiveness came with a clever press release claiming “this is not Celia Rees…” which worried the unicorn a little bit, because Celia is known and loved for her spooky stories and atmospheric historical novels such as Witch Child.

But fans of her earlier work need not worry. You can still sense Celia's trademark spookiness lying just beneath the surface, with passing reference to tarot cards and ouija boards to keep even a unicorn happy. Told in accessible first person style by her three narrators – innocent teen Jamie, his damaged elder brother Rob fresh back from Afghanistan, and the beautiful, slightly witchy girl Caro who gets too close to them both – there unfolds an unsettling story of modern teens that you just know is going to get dark and dangerous before the end.

Today, the Muse is delighted to welcome Celia “this is not forgiveness” Rees to talk about why she felt compelled to write this book…

 I was delighted and honoured when Katherine asked me to contribute to Muse Monday on the Reclusive Muse, but I felt like a bit of a fraud. I was by no means sure that I had a Muse to write about. The more I thought about it, however, I began to realise that for each book there was something important, call it a significant presence, if you like, sparking my inspiration, leading me onwards, lending deeper significance to what I was writing, feeding the well springs of creativity.

For Witch Child it was the hare. When I first had the idea for the book, I knew I wanted Mary, the main character, and her grandmother, to be witches. Not kind sought by the Witch Finder General, in league with the Devil, but belonging to a wholly different tradition. I drew on a theory of European Witchcraft, first put forward by Margaret Murray in "Witch Cult in Western Europe", that witchcraft was a kind of survival of paganism. It didn’t matter that her theories have been widely discredited; it made sense to me and also meshed with the connection I wanted to make with Native American Shamanism. It seemed that there were many correlations: psychic ability, the power to heal, and shape shifting. A shaman’s ability to shape shift, to take the form of an animal, is very common in Native American belief systems. In English and Scottish witch lore, it was often claimed that a witch could turn into a hare.

I shall go into a hare,
With sorrow and sych and meickle care;

This is the charm used by Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie and this transformation is commonly attested to in folklore and folk song. So when I was writing Witch Child, the hare became my totem animal. And still is.

The beguiling of Merlin

The Wish House could not be more different from Witch Child. It is a near contemporary coming of age novel, set in Southwest Wales but this area is suffused with Celtic myth and magic, one of the settings for The Mabinogion and the fabled site of the Vale of Glamour. I couldn’t ignore such riches. A powerful sense of place and myth became increasingly important as I was writing the novel. At the heart of the story is an ageing artist and his beautiful daughter. While I was writing, the legend of the beguiling of Merlin began to take on greater and greater significance.

I don’t regard myself as a fantasy writer, but in my writing career, I’ve had a go at most things. My novel, The Stone Testament, is the closest I’ve got to real fantasy. It is split into three different time periods, the near future, the near past (early 20th Century) and the deep past – 25,000 years ago. I was interested in the idea that there could have been advanced, sophisticated civilizations before our own and that perhaps they formed a kind of Ur Civilization. If this was so, then our only access would be through the universality of myth; ancient and world wide beliefs in essentially the same things – mother goddess, sky god and gods and mythical creatures who are half man, half beast. In that book, the Great Mother, in all her forms and manifestations became very important to me, distilled into her symbol of the bee.
I don’t always know exactly what will gain significance in a book, or why. In The Fool’s Girl, it began with an amulet: the cimeruta, an Italian charm against witches and the Evil Eye. I’d first seen these displayed in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, and although I did not consciously think, ‘Ooh, one day I’ll put one of those in a book’, I registered them as interesting and every time I was in the Pitt Rivers, I’d pull the drawer out to look at them. When I wanted a charm to put round the neck of my character, Violetta, the cimeruta seemed the natural thing. The Fool’s Girl is based on Shakespeare’s play, Twelfth Night. Violetta is Viola’s daughter, she is from Illyria, which I locate on the coast of modern Croatia, an area where east and west, Christian and Pagan meet. The cimeruta is a powerful charm, a stylized sprig of rue, Shakespeare’s ‘herb of grace’, with three main branches, hung with up to eight different symbols, including a hand, the moon, a dagger, a flower, a cock, a fish or dolphin, and sometimes a bee (an intriguing connection to The Stone Testament). The amulet in its most primitive form is very ancient, examples have been found in Etruscan tombs. The cimeruta’s three branches make it a charm associated with Diana Triformis or the three formed Hecate, Goddess of the Crossroads, of Witches and of the Dead. I didn’t know about this connection until I began to find out more about the cimeruta for The Fool’s Girl. Once I knew, it seemed all the more significant, Shakespeare being no stranger to witches, or to their worship of Hecate, as we know from the Scottish Play.

In my latest novel, This is Not Forgiveness, water is important. A river runs through the town where the story is set, and through the novel. Jamie, the main character, has a job on the boats. He takes Caro, the girl he’s becoming obsessed with, to an island, only accessible by water. Caro loves to swim. She identifies herself with nixie, the shapeshifting water spirit. Yet she fears death by water.

Myths, legends, elements and elementals are important in all my novels. I don’t claim one muse, but many.

Thank you, Celia! Which is your favourite Celia Rees novel? Please leave a comment below!

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Sword of Light goes to Windsor

It’s been an exciting weekend for my author, who is just back from the joint School Libraries Group /Youth Libraries Group /School Library Association Lighting the Future conference held at the beautiful Beaumont Estate in Old Windsor.

Katherine with her book "Sword of Light" at the Templar stand

The weekend began on Friday with a long train ride and magical timing by Katherine’s editor Helen Boyle, who arrived at the local station on a totally different train just in time to share a taxi to the conference. The taxi driver told us that Windsor was the site of the last ever duel to be held in England – most appropriate, since the knights in the Pendragon Legacy series are always challenging each other to duels! And Helen discovered a recent dig at Windsor Castle claims it might have been Arthur’s legendary court of Camelot… again very appropriate.
Templar commissioning editor Helen Boyle (right) with PR girl Jessica.

That evening Templar MD Amanda Wood officially opened the exhibition with a speech, and illustrator Simon Bartram and I got to shake hands with the mayor and mayoress of Windsor. I was too busy shaking hands to take pictures, but I wore my party dress underneath a lot of warm layers to combat the 'cool summer breeze' (Muse: howling gale) that blew in through the doors of the exhibition marquee. Well, it's an English summer, isn't it?

Story telling at the indoor barbeque... those lights do look a bit like stars, don't they?

After the drinks reception, the barbeque was thankfully moved inside because of the wind, and we all enjoyed a much warmer story-telling evening in the hall by the entertaining John Agard among others.

"Lighting up"

A celebration cake followed the delicious food, with a rather large candle (more like a roman candle!) and Chris Riddell’s illustration for the conference done in blue icing…

after which my author crept off to bed to prepare for her breakfast session about King Arthur’s daughter Rhianna Pendragon scheduled for the following morning at…

8am... YES, 8am!

Possibly the earliest session ever, and yet a group of dedicated librarians got out of bed to attend. Katherine hopes the harp music was not too loud for so early in the morning, and that her lookalike Excalibur (plastic version for getting past metal detectors at school gates and airports) worked the required magic.

Excalibur... the Sword of Light?

After her talk, Katherine had a proper breakfast with Helen and Templar PR Jayne Roscoe, while the librarians rushed off to other sessions. When Helen and Jayne went back to “woman” the Templar stand, she met a fellow SF/Fantasy fan who, it turned out, had a real sword collection… though thankfully he’d left his swords at home, so she didn’t have to pretend to be Rhianna and test out the plastic Excalibur in a duel at dawn.

Then a bit more wandering around the exhibition… where we found Catnip’s re-issue of Song Quest at the Bounce stand (that's Walker’s distinctive candle in the background on the neighbouring stall... another form of light!).

Katherine's Branford Boase Award winning book "Song Quest"

There followed some book signing at a table shared with charming author Aidan Chambers (thanks for sharing, Aidan!), where she finally got to meet the lovely Bookette Becky Scott, who did a long blog interview when "Sword of Light" came out earlier this year.

Templar had just produced these lovely proof copies of Book 2 “Lance of Truth”, and those who woke up in time to catch the breakfast session got a copy complete with shimmery cover proof, all done up with a matching purple ribbon and magical Arthurian jewel. (We're just hoping that nobody got the jewel from the Crown of Dreams that came out of the shadow-realm of Annwn... if you have that one, please treat with utmost care because it can be known to summon dragons.)

A final nose around the bookstall, a quick lunch in the bar, and then back to Reading to catch the train home.

This proved an eventful journey since, after crawling to a standstill somewhere in the countryside between Reading and Taunton, the ticket collector announced: “We’re sorry for the delay… this is due to children playing chicken on the line.” (Muse tip: Kids, next time you’re bored DO NOT PLAY CHICKEN WITH TRAINS! Borrow some great books from your local library instead, then you’re much more likely to grow up to be a train driver. I am serious.)

Katherine is now safely back home writing the remaining Pendragon Legacy books, so keep your eyes open for the rest of the series as they publish in hardcover and paperback:
Lance of Truth: October 2012
Crown of Dreams: Spring 2013
Grail of Stars: October 2013

A big thank you to all the organisers, who wore very well-deserved big rosettes at the conference. It was lovely to be among all those “knights in shining armour” of children’s reading – and if you didn’t see me, the unicorn, at Katherine's side then that’s because I’m a bit shy in a crowd. (But I bet you spotted me somewhere among all those lovely books…)

Friday, 1 June 2012


The trouble started with Father’s will. He divided the wealth of the Iceni and gave a mere half to Emperor Nero. The other half he left to his Queen, with the understanding she should rule in his place when the spirits finally claimed him.
     It might have been the way things were done in my grandparents’ day, but it certainly wasn’t the way our conquerors ruled. Classicianus, the Prefect’s tax collector, had been most anxious I should understand our position upon Father’s death. “Submit as Roman women do,” he advised. “Then Nero will allow you to stay in your home. The only thing you’ll lose is your titles – a small thing, surely, compared to what he has the power to take from you, should you cause any trouble.”
     I knew it would be no use talking to Mother or my sister. So while the fortress slept beneath the moon goddess Serapha’s silver eye, I crept to Father’s bedside, fell to my knees and begged him to reconsider.
     He tried to lift the plait that hung heavy as a bronze rope across my face, but did not have the strength. “It’s too late, Ralla my child. The scribe has come and gone. Your mother would have it no other way. Don’t worry. I’m sure when the great Emperor Nero realises I have no son to inherit my lands, he’ll make an exception in this case.” His words erupted in coughs. He leant into the shadows at the far side of the bed, and there came the sound of retching.
     Though a chill sat beneath my heart and I could feel demons waiting in every corner, I did as Classicianus had taught me and reached for my inner light. “Please, Father!” I said. “You could call another scribe. Classicianus says Mother’s crazy if she thinks Nero will let her rule, but that if you were to let him, he could word it in such a way that we’ll be allowed to stay here under a Roman representative—”
     I had gone too far. Father rose up on one elbow. The imported linen of his night robe was spattered with blood, and Serapha chose that moment to withdraw her blessings from the room. The demons shrieked in triumph as they whirled towards the bed.
     "I love you, Ralla,” he whispered. “I love your sister. I love your mother. When I walk with the spirits, I need to know you’ll still have a roof over your heads, meat on your table, and the respect of our conquerors.”
      “But that’s exactly what we won’t have! Mother won’t work with the Romans as you did. She offers sacrifices to Adraste whenever you’re away. She makes me and Kwelona watch. She talks to the Druids in secret, and she’s stolen gold from your coffers to fund their cause.”
     “Ralla, I don’t want to hear this.”
     “Classicianus is right. She’s crazy, Father. I’ve seen her dance naked in the sacred grove, and—”
     “I’ve seen her drink blood.”
     His back arched on a scream. I thought his spirit had gone. But when he fell back, his breath bubbled in the darkness.
     I felt for his hand, clutched it tightly and bowed my head. “Please Father, you don’t understand! If you give her this power, she’ll make the Iceni worship Adraste’s spear, and…” I couldn’t see how I would bear this. “…she’ll stop me seeing Classicianus.”
     He whispered something then, just before he died. Maybe something about love and sacrifice. But the blood broke his words, and Adraste’s demons carried the pieces away.

Even with the Romans’ new roads and fine ships, it’s a long way from Camelodunum to the Narrow Sea, which separates this land from Classicianus’ home, and even further across Gaul and into the warm sea called Mediterranean that washes the shores of Nero’s great city. Classicianus once explained it in the strides of a hare: one for the lands of the Iceni, ten for all Britannia, twenty for Gaul, but a thousand huge leaps to cross Nero’s Empire. So it was that while the messages were travelling by horseback and ship, we had time to bury Father, time to mourn, time to feast, and time to be afraid. I could not understand why someone with so much land already would want ours too, but I knew Classicianus’ warnings were given in good faith and I dreaded Nero’s reply.
     Meanwhile, Mother revelled in her new freedom. She invited the Druids to join our feasts, even though they were outcasts after the last edict from Rome, and quite openly defied the Prefect’s representatives who called at the gates to demand audiences. She ordered one particularly obstinate man who had tricked his way into our hall to be trussed like a deer, and dragged him through the streets of Camelodunum behind her chariot. She was drunk at the time, but that was no excuse. The representative died. I felt awful in case he had been a friend of Classicianus’.
     Kwelona stared at the filthy, bloody body stripped of most of its clothing. She chewed on her knuckles, then giggled. “Look, Mother!” she said. “He’s got a big worm hanging between his legs!”
     “Idiot,” I hissed. “You know what that is. You’ve been to the sacred grove. Stop laughing, it’s not funny.”
     But even as I spoke, I knew Kwelona had not connected what she had seen in the grove with reality. With the Druids’ masks and costumes, their smoke and their drums-that-beat-in-the-head, what she saw there must have been like a tale told to frighten children. I bet she thought the blood of the sacrifice Mother drank to bind her spirit to Adraste was nothing more sinister than blackberry juice.
     The way Kwelona laughed reminded me of Mother in her crazier moods. I took hold of my sister’s shoulders and shook her. “Stop it!” I shouted. “Stop it now!”
     Whereupon Mother seized my hair from behind and slapped me before all the guests who had piled out to watch the fun. “That’s enough,” she said, her voice like iron in spite of all the mead she had drunk. “Remember you’re a princess of the Iceni! Now spit on the foreign filth and get in the chariot.”
     There was a hush. Kwelona stopped giggling and went back to chewing her knuckles. In the torchlight, her hair burned and the golden threads of her best gown glittered. But the hem was splattered with mud, and she had lost one of her slippers in the sewer. I turned my face away from the dead man. “I will not,” I said quietly.
     Mother tugged my plait harder. “Roman sandal-licker,” she hissed into my ear. “Your pretty Gaulish tax collector will be next. Or maybe we should keep him for something special? To read the portents, perhaps?”
    I turned cold. I knew what she meant. The Druids have many ways of divining the future. Some involve animals, others certain herbs picked by Serapha’s light. But the ceremony she was referring to involves plunging a dagger deep into a man’s heart and watching the way his limbs thrash as he enters the world of the spirits.
    Mother laughed at the expression on my face, leapt into the chariot and grabbed the reins. The mare shied, and for a moment the platform teetered on one wheel. Mother laughed even louder. “All right, Ralla! Have it your own way and walk. Coming, Kwelona?”
    My sister shot me a look over her knuckles, edged around the dead man, then spat quickly at his trussed ankles and jumped for the moving chariot. Their laughter echoed in the dark streets long after the hoof beats and the rumble of wheels had faded.
     To my shame, as I walked home alone that night with the demons chasing me and my dagger in my hand to discourage the rabble from thinking I was an easy target, I actually wished Emperor Nero would cross the thousand leaps of the hare and take away Mother’s power, even if it meant we had to live in one of the hovels clustered around the grand marble buildings the Romans had erected in the centre of Camelodunum – though I did not seriously believe he would make a queen live in a hut. I still believed in Classicianus’ inner light, and that this light would one day shine in every corner of our land. To tell the truth, when Serapha shone on the centre of the town, and I saw how our fortress brooded in black contrast against the sky, I rather fancied living in one of the marble palaces that had taken so much of the Iceni’s wealth and labour to build.
     Yet even as I dreamed, the hare was busy leaping.

Can you guess who Ralla's mother is? Want to know what happens next?

You can read the rest of this story, and six other tales of fantasy heroines, in DEATH SINGER available as an ebook for Kindle from for £1-99 and for $2-99 (age 12+).


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