A Short Intermission


There's a bit in the film version of The Man Who Fell To Earth* where David Bowie is watching loads of tellies at the same time, all tuned to different channels, and it looks like fun at first, but after a while it all gets a bit too much for him and he goes...


Well, having been on the Internet for a few years, I think I know exactly how the poor chap feels. So I've decided that the best way to get 2014 off to a good start will be to step offline for a while.

I'm not going to be a complete digital hermit. I expect I'll still post Instagrams, and any sketches that I happen to do; I may post the odd blog here, and I will be doing some guest posts for Girls Heart Books. And once Goblin Quest comes out in the spring and the Seawigs roadshow rolls back into action I shall probably return to Twitter, Facebook etc.

But until then, there will be a short intermission. Thanks for reading my stuff, if you have been. May 2014 bring you all that you hope for.


*Read the original novel by Walter Tevis: it's 10,000 times better.

2013 - the Year of the Seawigs

Sarah McIntyre & friend at the Edinburgh Festival
Almost the end of another year, and, looking back, it feels as if it's been a fairly productive one. I spent last January writing short stories which are both available in anthologies now - The Roots of Evil for the Dr Who 50th Anniversary anthology, and We Know Where We're Goin for The End of the Road. And in March the Goblins of Clovenstone returned for Goblins vs Dwarves, which wasn't a book I'd intended to write (I thought Goblins was a stand alone when I was working on it) but which turned out to be enjoyable to do, and better than its predecessor, I think.

But from then on it was the Year of the Seawigs. Oliver and the Seawigs was another book I never planned to write, but it turned out that working with Sarah McIntyre is the best decision I ever made, and certainly ...Seawigs is the most fun I've ever had writing, and the publicity campaign has been amazing. I never imagined that I'd end up as one half of a double act after all those years of solo writing. And I certainly never imagined that I'd be performing sea monkey singalongs on the Golden Hinde next to a six-foot-tall illustrator in a six-foot-tall wig, or that our book would be advertised on the London underground, but look...

Photo: Blast
Photo: Stuart Pyle

Photo: Lauren O'Farrell
So in the coming year I shall be writing the third Reeve and McIntyre Adventure (Sarah is already hard at work on final artwork for the second, Cakes in Space, which will be out next September).  In April the third Goblins book will be published - it's called Goblin Quest, and I dare say the goblins will be taking over this blog to let you know all the details nearer the time. And I shall also be returning to illustration, for a new series by Kjartan Poskitt called Borgon the Axeboy (who may or not be a relation of our old friend Urgum the Axeman).

Anyway, if you've been reading my stuff in 2013 (or even if you've just been reading this blog) thank you!

And if you're still feeling festive, or if you've read Oliver and the Seawigs and are wondering what became of Stacey de Lacey and his army of Sea Monkeys, here's a short story which we posted on Sarah's blog while I was away in Ireland before Christmas.

And here's a lovely SONG, recorded for posteriority at Daunt's Books by the wonderful Candy Gourlay.


Behind the Sword in the Stone - the Premiere


In the ancient oak woods on the Glendalough Estate in County Wicklow stands this mysterious mossy pillar. At first glance it might be mistaken for an old gate-post, but in fact it's a bit of movie archaeology. For these are the woods where, back in 1980, John Boorman shot his movie Excalibur, and this relic is the concrete stabiliser from inside the artificial boulder in which Excalibur itself was stuck. There's a slot in the top into which the sword would have fitted, and the two bolts on the side would have been tightened up to make sure that no one but King Arthur (Nigel Terry) could draw it from the stone... a trick that would appeal to my own Myrddin, in Here Lies Arthur.

I was in Ireland last week for the premiere of Behind the Sword in the Stone, a documentary film about the making of Excalibur by Mossy Hare Productions. You might remember that, this time last year, I was auctioning off signed books and drawings to help raise money for their Indiegogo fund-raising drive.  I also made a donation of my own, which qualifies me as an executive producer - so I could hardly miss the first screening. And when I told director Mark Wright that I was coming, he very kindly invited me to stay with him and his partner Kathleen. So I flew over to Dublin on Thursday night, and on Friday I helped gather wine and glasses for the reception after the screening, and watched in amazement as Kathleen cooked more vol-au-vents and mini quiches than I think I've ever seen in one place. Then, in a howling storm, Mark drove us down to Bray, and the Mermaid Arts Centre, where the film was to be shown. Despite the foul weather, a good crowd turned up to watch, including Terry English (who made the armour for Excalibur) and John Lawlor, one of the assistant directors. And it was great to meet one of the other executive producers, Leah Krevit, who runs the Byrneholics website dedicated to all things Gabriel Byrne. She'd flown in all the way from Texas, where she's building a house in the mountains near Alpine.

Obviously I'm far too partial an observer to review the new film, but it more than lived up to my expectations, and seemed to go down well with the whole audience, including those who have never actually seen Excalibur. One of the things which makes Excalibur so important, and makes Behind the Sword in the Stone such a worthwhile project, is that it gave a start in movies to a lot of people who have since become household names; Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Patrick Stewart, and composer Trevor Jones. It was also a major early role for Helen Mirren, while Neil Jordan, credited as Creative Consultant, shot a behind-the-scenes documentary which Mossy Hare have drawn on for their film. Mark and his co-director Alec Moore have secured interviews with all of them, and also with Nigel Terry, Cherie Lunghi, Clive Swift and Paul Geoffrey, with John Boorman himself, with his son Charley and daughter Katrine (who both appear in Excalibur), with Terry English, and with important behind-the-scenes figures such as John Lawlor, and Kevin Moriarty of Ardmore Studios.

'Behind the Sword in the Stone' Excerpt from Alec Moore on Vimeo.

They all have great anecdotes to tell, many of which are very funny - there was a lot of laughter during the screening. They all seem to look back on Excalibur with immense affection. Gabriel Byrne is hilarious, and Patrick Stewart is particularly twinkly as he recounts his misadventures on horseback and in armour. But as the film progresses, the tone shifts subtly, remembering those members of the cast who have passed away in the thirty three years since it was made. They include Nicol Williamson, who dominated Excalibur as the wizard Merlin, and whose absence from Behind the Sword in the Stone could have seemed a major hole - but he's there in spirit, I think, with a long-ish chunk dedicated to the cast and crew's memories of him.

One of my favourite minor performances in Excalibur was that of Niall O'Brien as Arthur's brother Kay. Although he was a heroic figure in the early Celtic Arthurian tales, Kay is usually portrayed as a bully and a buffoon by later writers, but Niall O'Brien rehabilitates him; he's always there in the background, a dependable older brother who sticks by Arthur to the very end. Sadly,  Niall O'Brien died in 2009, but I was pleased to meet his wife at the screening, and also his son Ruairi, who directed his father in this short film, Teeth.

But most of all, and quite rightly, Behind the Sword in the Stone stands as a tribute to John Boorman's vision, and to the charm, skill and perseverance with which he managed to bring it to the screen.  Always an excellent interviewee, it was great to see him talking at such length about my favourite of his films; not just about the technical difficulties, but also things like his decision to dress the actors in mediaeval armour that is far too late for the dark ages setting - he wanted to make it mythic. And, of course, he succeeded; I can't think of a better evocation of myth in mainstream cinema.

We were hoping that he would attend the premiere, but sadly the weather on Friday night was so bad that he decided to stay at home. But on Sunday morning Mark drove me over to Glendalough (through a surprising snowstorm in the Wicklow Gap). We met Alec at the Glendalough Estate and they showed me around some of the Excalibur locations there, including the little hill in the woods where the sword in the stone stood...

Photo: Alec Moore
 and the avenue of conifers where Arthur and Guinevere were married.

Photo: Alec Moore

How very strange, having come to know these scenes so well from the movie, to walk around them in real life. And how very much stranger, shortly afterwards, to drive up to John Boorman's lovely old rectory and meet John himself, who gave us coffee and some (very good) cake.  We didn't stay long, and I was struggling to avoid having a FANBOY MELTDOWN, so I never got around to telling him that I think he's the best film director we have, and that his films helped to turn me into a writer. But I'm very happy to report that he is still hard at work; he had just returned from Roumania, where he's been shooting his latest project, a sequel to Hope and Glory called Queen and Country.

Photo: Alec Moore
It's been a pleasure to be involved with the Mossy Hares, and Behind the Sword in the Stone, which they shot at their own expense over the past two years, is a great achievement. Next year they will be arranging screenings in London and New York and, hopefully, some TV broadcasts. After that, Mark is planning more documentaries, while Alec has already shot a short film, In This Place, currently in post-production, and he is working on a feature.

Happy Christmas!

I'm off to Dublin shortly, to attend the first screening of Behind the Sword in the Stone, the Excalibur documentary for which I was helping to raise funding this time last year - I'll post a full report on here when I get back.  But since I may not have a chance to write it before Christmas, I thought I'd better wish you all a very merry one.  Here's a festive-looking picture of Dartmoor from a few winters back (it looks nothing like this at the moment, being mostly composed of mud and rain).

And if you keep an eye on Sarah McIntyre's blog (or follow her on Twitter) there should be some festive Reeve&McIntyre Seawiggery appearing over the next few days...

Happy Christmas!

Whatever Happened to Arlo Thursday?


Artwork: David Wyatt

I'd still love to write a fourth Fever Crumb book some day - I always intended that her adventures would form a quartet to balance the Mortal Engines books. I did scribble a few chapters down back in 2011, as soon as I'd finished Scrivener's Moon.

My idea then was that 'Fever 4 'would interweave three different plots. One would be about Fever's ongoing trials and travels in the north (where the Oakwall settlement won't last another winter, and the motorisation of London has led to all sorts of upheavals among the nomad armoured columns). The second would be about London itself, and the resistible rise of Charley Shallow. The third would be set in South America, and explore the origins of the Air Trade.  Presumably these strands would have to join together somehow in the middle part of the book, but I don't like to plan books too far ahead, and I never wrote that far.

What follows is the rough opening chapter of Fever 4. Whether it will still be the opening chapter if the book is ever completed, I have no idea - I tend to abandon a lot of material as I go along. It might change a lot, or I might decide to lose it all together and convey the same information in a few lines of dialogue instead.

It's taken straight from the notebook, not properly edited, and proof-read only by me (readers of this blog will have realised by now that I'm a useless proof-reader). But I thought it was worth posting because it does answer one question that I'm asked by people who have read A Web of Air - what became of Arlo Thursday, and will he ever return?

Artwork: David Wyatt

Arlo on the Beach

“Arlo!” Arlo!” called the birds, soaring over the surf.  Reflections of their white wings rushed across the mirrors of the beach, the shining low-tide sand.  Wing-shadows flicked over Arlo where he lay at the sea’s edge, the fine lacework of the breaking waves washing around him and over him, sand in his hair and his open mouth.  Each wave heaped more sand over him, then washed it away, rushing back to deeper water where the bigger breakers played with spars and barrels and the pale shattered planks that had been his cutter, the Jenny Haniver

“Arlo!” called the white birds.  “Arlo!”  

Some had landed on the sand, a little further up the beach, where tide-wrack lay strewn in long lines like turned swath.  They pecked at the sand, unearthing shells and insects, eating thoughtfully, trying to see if the snacks in this new land tasted as good as the snacks they’d left behind.  Arlo was their friend, but they were hungry. If he did not wake soon they would feel no guilt about snacking on him, too.

A few hopped closer, eyeing up Arlo's eyes.  The tide had retreated now. The little worn-out fans of surf which made it far enough up the beach to reach Arlo were no longer powerful enough to stir his limbs and give him the semblance of life.  One of the birds perched on his face and pecked at his earlobe, and still he did not stir.  

Before it could peck again a noise arose out of the line of dark trees behind the beach.  A jabbering and cackling that the birds had never heard before.  Panicked, they scrambled back into the sky, the beat of their big wings sounding like scattered applause above the steady thunder of the surf.  Arlo opened his eyes to see white feathers falling all around him.

He peeled his head out of the wet sand, raised one hand to finger his pecked ear.  For a little while he could not remember anything. Then, in a rush, the memory of the storm returned; the three-day blow he had struggled against while sails ripped and white water foamed across the deck, cursing his own folly at setting out to cross an ocean all alone in his small cutter.  When the mast went by the board and that last great wave broke over him he had assumed that he was dead, and had been too tired to care much.  But it seemed he had been closer to land by that time than he’d thought.  Unless he was a ghost and this the Sunless Country, he had survived - and this was not the Sunless Country, for the sun itself came up at that moment, rising out of the sea that he had crossed.  The noise from the treeline swelled to greet it; a chorus of parakeets and monkeys and the Mae Abaixo knew what else. They were all hooting and squawking and jibbering to welcome the new day as it dawned upon the shores of Nuevo Maya.

It was the birds, not Arlo, that drew the beachcombers down past the tideline that morning.  They had not seen birds like those before; ungainly birds with raggedy wings and too-big heads, whose cries sounded almost like words as they swooped and circled above that thing upon the sand.  Arlo, lying half asleep there, heard the voices drawing closer.  He felt their shadows fall across him. The beachcombers spoke a language that he did not know, but that was close enough to the language of his home for him to understand.

“It is driftwood, that’s all.”
“It’s not!  It’s a man!”
“It's a dead man!’

Arlo turned his head and opened his eyes.  “Ai!” cried the beachcombers, skittering backwards, semaphoring complex signs to ward off evil.  They were mostly children; half naked, copper coloured.  There was one older than the rest; a short, stocky young woman, who seemed to be in charge.  Arlo did his best to smile at her, salt and sand flaking from the creases of his face.  He did his best to rise, but he was too weak; too battered; he could barely move.

The young woman was called Ixchel, and she was as frightened as the children, although for their sake she was determined not to let it show.  The birds unnerved her, swooping and circling with their strange, half-human cries.  The low sun made rainbows on the spray that was blowing across the beach, and Ixchel remembered how, in the stories, there was a paradise in the eastern sea where the sun god Kinich Ahua lived as a beautiful young man, with magical birds as his messengers.  For a trembly moment she imagined that this was Him, cast ashore by last night’s storm.  Then she shook herself, and told herself not to be so foolish; Kinich Ahua would not let himself get shipwrecked; he could just ask the storm-god Hu’raqun to calm the winds and waves.  Anyway, Ixchel lived among boatbuilders, and she knew that the wreckage strewn along the beach that morning had been some old ship, not the sun god’s magical canoe.

“He is not driftwood, and he is not dead,” she said, speaking to the children behind her without taking her eyes from the young castaway’s.  “He is nothing to be afraid of.  We must help him.” 

The children made a game of it.  They scrambled up the beach to fetch big branches from the tideline, tough green leaves the size of coffin lids from the trees beyond.  They laughed and chattered as they worked, making a sort of stretcher, and when it was finished they argued about who was to have the honour of carrying the driftwood man.

In the end they all did, rolling him onto the stretcher and lifting him onto their small shoulders, up the beach and along paths which snaked between the enormous, brooding trees.  Arlo’s home island had no forests, so he was not sure what to make of this one. With its green light and towering trunks it reminded him of nothing so much as the Temple of the Mae Abaixo back in Mayda.  Slipping into uneasy sleeps, he half imagined that he was under the sea: he had drowned after all, and this was the Garden of the Mother Below.  But the girl Ixchel was too plain and sturdy to be a sea-nymph, and she kept waking him, holding his hand and talking loudly to him, sometimes in the language he half-understood which sounded so much like Old Maydan, and sometimes in another that he did not know, all hard cracking ‘k’s and strange shushing noises; dry twigs in a stream.

They climbed a hill, and came out of the tree-shadow into hot morning sun.  Fields of maize, summer gold against the brooding darkness of the forests.  Houses perched on stilts, painted in gaudy colours: red, pink, blue, gold.  Pigs were grubbing in wattle pens.  Parrots perched on the roof-beams.  Wayside shrines were carved with the fearsome faces of strange gods and spirits.  The gods had long noses and big mouths and almond eyes, the same features as Ixchel and the children and the people who left off their work in the fields and came hurrying to stare at him as he was carried past; to stare, and then to ask questions and offer advice, a rising babble of voices, with Ixchel’s in the midst of it repeating, “Maa!  Maa!”

Ahead, above the painted houses, white against the trees , a pyramid rose in three high steps, with a stairway leading up it, and on its summit stains and streaks of something rusty, and the squabbling of carrion birds.  Arlo thought, I am in the empire of the Nuevo Maya, and they are going to cut out my heart and gift it to their gods.  And he did not feel afraid, but disappointed, because it seemed an awfully long to have come just for that. 

The Nuevo Maya had arisen many centuries before, when the world lay wrapped in night and winter after the dreadful happenings which people in Europa called The Downsizing and people on this continent thought of as The Day The Sky Collapsed.  Realising that the ways of the Ancients, with their cars and flying machines, had called down the anger of the gods upon poor humankind, the ancestors of the Nuevo Maya had looked back deeper into their past, to the old empires of the Aztec and the Inca, the Toltecs, Mixtecs and Maya.  Many of the lands which those empires had ruled were gone - the isthmus which had once joined North and South America had been obliterated when the sky fell - but, from the fragments of history and memory which survived, the Nuevo Maya were able to cobble together a new civilization, powerful enough that, by Arlo’s time, it had spread from the shores of the Caribbean all the way to the snows of Paraguay.   The old gods they worshipped had been good to them, which seemed like clear proof that they’d been right to resurrect them.  At first, it was true, the gods had demanded human sacrifice. Thousands of captives from the wars which broke out along the empire's ever-lengthening borders had been brought in chains to Nuevo Teoticuahuan to have their beating hearts cut out by priests with blast glass knives.  

But times change, and religions mellow.  Now only the Maize King went to meet the gods up the long stairway of the great ziggurat in Neo-Teo; a symbolic victim whose blood would keep the fields and mothers of the Nuevo Maya fertile for another year.  The people of Chiqana del Mar, the little harbour where Arlo Thursday had been cast ashore, did not welcome him into their town to become a sacrifice. They welcomed him because they were sailors and fisherfolk, and sailors and fisherfolk the world over look kindly on castaways. 

After all, they might become castaways themselves one day.

© Philip Reeve 2013

Artwork © David Wyatt, from his cover for A Web of Air, Scholastic, 2010


Here's some more splendidness from Jaekyung Jaguar Lee, who (if I have the time-zones right) has now graduated from his course at the Art Center School of Design in Pasadena.

One of the interesting things about Jaguar's Mortal Engines concept design project is that he has only read the first book, so he doesn't know any of the backstory and extra details which I developed in Predator's Gold, Infernal Devices, A Darkling Plain and the Fever Crumb series. His version of the development of Traction Cities, which I posted here a few days ago, isn't quite the same as my version, with the Nomad Empires and their motorised castles inspiring the development of London. And his version of Airhaven has a different history, too, which results in a rather different looking structure from the one I described in the book. Jaguar says that he imagined the people of Airhaven didn't have the technology to float their entire city, so they modularised it and got the various bits airborne one by one.

As with many of the images he's shown me, I don't mind admitting that his version is much more visually interesting than mine.

Here are three of his sketches and one big, breathtaking painting (which you can click to enlarge). The text is the 'official' history of Airhaven as recounted by Jeremy Levett and I in our patchily-available e-book The Traction Codex.


Airhaven was a flying town at which airships from all over the world could dock to trade, provision and refuel. It inhabited a curious middle-ground in the long feud between Traction and Anti-Traction, enjoying friendly relations with all both the League and the major towns and cities of the Hunting Ground; although very definitely a mobile city, it was not technically a Traction City and caused no damage; its existence was thus not an affront to Anti-Tractionists.

It began as one of many caravanserais built among the high passes of the Shatterlands to cater to airships making the journey from the Middle Sea to the Hunting Ground. As the air-trade developed, these competing caravanserais moved further and further up the mountainsides (air-traders always preferred to anchor at the highest ones rather than waste gas, fuel and time descending to those at lower levels). This stepping-stone contest of climbing hill-towns went on for many decades, and did not stop when the caravanserais eventually ran out of mountain; they attached gas-balloons and large tethers so that their establishments could actually hang in the sky above their mountaintops, to be hauled down to safety in poor weather. Airhaven was the first to take this process to its logical conclusion by attaching engines and cutting its tethers, becoming, in effect, a gigantic, slow-moving airship. 

 A number of other towns followed its lead, including Kipperhawk and Stratosphereham, but by 1000 TE Airhaven was the only one left, the others having variously drifted into volcanic ash-clouds, crashed or found themselves undone by the unfortunate combination of flammable gasbags and drunken Tractionist-versus-Anti-Tractionist gunfights.

All images © Jaekyung Jaguar Lee

In the Bleak Midwinter


I've not written much about Mortal Engines on the blog this year - mainly because I've been busy reinventing myself as one half of Reeve and McIntyre and trying to help Sarah McIntyre and our brilliant publishers at OUP to publicise our first book together, Oliver and the Seawigs (available at all good bookshops, and 'a fun-packed delight' according to the Daily Telegraph.)

But, inspired by the brilliant paintings which Jaguar Lee has been sending me (like these and these, and the one above), I've decided that this is officially MORTAL ENGINES WEEK.

There will be more Jaguar Lee tomorrow in a post about Airhaven, and on Saturday I'll post a little snippet from my notes for Fever Crumb 4.

But first, since it's Christmas, I thought I'd re-post the festive Mortal Engines story which I wrote, and Sarah McIntyre illustrated, two years ago...

Shrike was dead: to begin with.  Dead as a doornail.  The girl had known that since she first saw his stark, white, armoured face staring down at her.  But thanks to the machineries and miracles the old-time folk had stuffed his carcass with, he could still move faster than her. She had to trot to keep up with him as he strode up the steep western face of the bluff.  Snow lay deep there, scrunching and squeaking under her boot-heels as she stumbled along in the old Stalker’s tracks.  As long as she kept setting her feet down in the deep prints he’d left she could manage; each time she strayed off his path she found herself floundering thigh-deep in drifts.

They’d been on a long trip, Shrike and the girl.  They’d been hunting a fugitive named Lardy Ampersand who’d robbed a bank aboard the traction town of Twyne.  Ampersand had fled into the Out Country, and the mayor of Twyne hadn’t bothered sending good men after him.  He just called in Shrike, the best and most feared of all the bounty killers, and Shrike had tracked the robber half way to the Westersea, with the girl following.  Now they were heading back to Twyne with Lardy’s head in a bag slung from Shrike’s belt.  For the first few miles of their hike the bag had seeped and dripped, leaving red splotches like a trail of poppies on the snow.  The blood had long since dried or frozen, though.  Twyne had moved on, and Shrike and the girl had been following its wheel-marks for a week.

The day was fading now.  A lavender twilight lay over the snowfields, and the air was sharp.  Above the hill’s curve a big planet shone, or maybe it was one of those left-over space-castles from the olden times.  The girl had stopped feeling her feet a long way back, but deep in her pockets her clenched hands burned cold.  Her face hurt too, but then her face hurt always. It was barely a face at all, riven in two by some dreadful blow - she did not remember the circumstances - which had left her with one eye, no nose to speak of, and a twisted mouth which was having to learn new ways to eat, and drink, and make words.

The girl’s name was Hester.  Shrike had found her that summer, washed up with the weed and driftwood on some Westersea beach.  Nobody knew why he had taken her in, least of all Shrike himself, a stone-cold killer with weirdy old-tech whirring and glowing where his heart should be.  Something about that ruined, thrown-away child had touched him.  He’d untangled her from the sea-wrack and kept her with him ever since.

He reached the top of the bluff and stopped there.  Hester caught up with him.  She stood at his side and looked east, and there was Twyne, rumbling away from them across the frozen marshes with long black bundles of exhaust smoke blowing sideways from its stacks like lumpy pennants.  It was moving slow, but not so slow that Hester could catch it without running.  She sagged at the thought of running, the weariness of her long walk coming down on her like a weight.

Shrike sensed it.  He turned, and the green beams from his headlamp eyes lit up her face.  He was not used to thinking about anyone but himself.  He forgot sometimes the girl had muscles in her legs instead of pistons.  He reached out his metal hands and lifted her, setting her on his wide iron shoulders.  Hester grabbed hold of the ducts and flexes on his armoured skull as he set off again, striding along at an improbable pace which made the frozen head of Ampersand go bomp, bomp, bomp against his hip.  The chimneyed smudge of Twyne started to resolve itself into houses and factories; two decks, with the big, clawed, barrel wheels turning beneath.  Soon Hester made out individual windows, and in each window was a warm glow and pinprick points of light a-twinkling.  The glow and the lights put her in mind of something.  She could not say what it was because most of her memories had spilled when her face was broken, but she stared at those lights and felt the memories brushing past her like big fish circling in the sea’s depths, just out of sight.

Shrike caught up with the town and strode into the din and dark between its rumbling wheels.  No lights down here, unless you counted the slivers of furnace-glow showing through chinks in the deck-plates.  But the old Stalker could see in the dark, and knew his way around the underside of towns.  He found an access ladder, and Hester held on tight while he scrambled up it, punched open a locked hatch, and emerged into the streets of Twyne. 

It was quiet up there.  Just a few passers by to stare at the Stalker and his shadow as they went up and aft towards the Town Hall.  Singing came from taverns and the temple of Peripatetia.  In every window candles burned, and tinsel stars hung.  In the snowy square in front of the Town Hall a whole tall pine tree stood, fresh cut, held roughly upright by four creaking guy-ropes, swaying with the town’s movements.  Little electric lamps burned among its branches, and strands of glittering stuff were wrapped around it.

“Winter festival,” said Hester.

Shrike looked down at her.  She didn’t often say much, and he didn’t often listen, but something had stirred his memories too.  He’d been making his way among the towns and cities of the world since before towns and cities learned to move, and it hadn’t escaped his notice that some decked themselves in lights and greenery every twelvemonth.  It had just never occurred to him before to wonder why.
Hester wiped frost from a window and peered in.  She saw holly branches; paper chains; candles burning on a shrine to household gods.  She said, “I remember when I was little...  Every year...  Roast chestnuts and stories by the fire.  Presents too.  The old Winterdad in his red coat, carryin’ his sack of presents for good children...”
And somehow Shrike remembered those things too.  Snatches of memories from long ago; candles and stories, the excitement of children.  
Now he stood in the snow in front of Twyne Town Hall, his old dark coat flapping around him, the stained bag weighty in his steel hand. 

A door opened with a sudden crash, as if kicked.  Lamplight lapped at Shrike’s toes.  In the doorway stood Twyne’s mayor.  Two other men stood with him, goggled and body-armoured, clutching shiny guns.
Shrike upended his sack.  The robber’s head fell into the snow like a dropped cabbage.  The mayor of Twyne looked down at it, and nodded.
“Nice job,” he said.  
“He needs payin‘ now,” said Hester.  She’d noticed that Shrike didn’t always stay around to collect the bounty once a job was done.  To be fair, he hadn’t much to spend the blood-money on; he didn’t care about clothes or a place to live, and she’d never seen him eat.  She hungered though; she needed clothes on her back and a roof over her.  So she always made sure he got paid.  “Ten gold ones,” she said, tugging her scarf up to hide her face. “That’s what you promised, for Ampersand’s head.”
“Ah...” said the mayor.  Pilbeam was his name, and he at least had the decency to look ashamed.  “Stuff’s changed, since I set you after Ampersand.  These gents...” (He indicated the men who stood on either side of him, the tree-lights starry in their goggles.) “They work for the Shkin Corporation; a big slaving company from down south.  Seems they provide fighters for the Nuevo Mayan circuses and they’re after new attractions.  They’d dearly love a Stalker, so they asked if they could have a word with you when you got back here, Mr Shrike, and I said...”
“I AM NOT AN ATTRACTION,” said Shrike, in a voice like a city changing its rusty gears.  His hands stayed at his sides, but his fingers all grew sharp, bright blades, like icicles. He said, “SHKIN’S MEN HAVE ASKED ME TO APPEAR IN THESE CIRCUSES BEFORE.  I TOLD THEM NO.”
“Well this time we ain’t asking,” said one of the slavers, and both together raised their silvery guns and pulled the triggers.
Lightning arced across the square and crackled against Shrike’s armour.  He stumbled backwards, tinselled with sparks, eyes flickering.  “Now!” shouted Mayor Pilbeam.  Hester looked up and saw that there were other men on the front of the town hall, perching like trainee gargoyles on ledges and gutterings.  A weighted net spread as it fell, settling over the Stalker where he struggled, wrapped in electricity.

Hester had grown so used to the idea of Shrike as unstoppable that it had never occurred to her that she might one day be called upon to help him.  She ran through the jerking blue light, the stuttering shadows.  She drew her knife and hacked through one of the lines which held the pine tree up.  The men ignored her, advancing towards Shrike, playing the blue fire of their strange guns over him.  She hacked another.  That was enough.  The tree teetered.  She pressed her small body against its outer branches and its scratchy clouds of needles; shoved.  

The falling tree swept a couple of men off the front of the Town Hall.  It came down hard on Mayor Pilbeam and the men with the electric guns: curses, a crackle of splintering branches, the great trunk smashing them flat.  One of the guns exploded with a shear of blue light.
Shrike was recovering.  He shook himself, like a wet dog shaking off water.  He tore his way out of the net.  One of his eyes was on the fritz, flickering and buzzing like faulty neon till he smacked himself hard on the side of the head and it righted itself.  He listened for a moment to the faint groans that came from underneath the tree.  He dragged out the remaining gun and crushed it.  He did not thank Hester, just went into the Town Hall with her following.  
The building was full of running footsteps, cries.  No one was sure what happened in the square, but they all knew that the Stalker had triumphed despite those fancy electric weapons, and nobody wanted to stay and face him.  As Shrike and Hester went from room to room they sometimes glimpsed people scrambling for the exits or squeezing out of windows.  They found a big, dim room where a fire was burning and plates heaped with food waited on a long table.  Hester tried some pie, a cake.  Shrike spiked a chestnut on each of his finger-blades and stood by the fire.  “ONCE UPON A TIME,” he said, “THERE WAS THIS...  IT WAS...  THERE WAS A GIRL WITH A DOG, AND THE DOG WAS CALLED NOODLE POODLE.  AND THERE WAS...  THERE WAS...  ONCE...”

He was trying to tell a midwinter story, Hester realised, but he wasn’t very good at it.  She crammed more pie awkwardly into her awkward mouth and said, “How about, ‘Once upon a time there was these two people, and it was a cold, hard world they lived in, so they went about together, for company.  And one midwinter they found a good snug place to stay, and stuff to eat, and they were warm enough for a bit.  And it was good.’”

Shrike looked at her, and the lamps of his eyes flickered ever so slightly, and from his outstretched hands there came wafting a smell of roasted chestnuts.  

...and a Merry Midwinter to us, one and all!

Illustrations © Sarah McIntyre    

More Mortal Engines from Jaguar Lee


As promised in my previous post, here are a couple more pieces of Mortal Engines concept art by Jaekyung Jaguar Lee; Miss Fang's duel with Valentine at Batmunkh Gompa, and the Guild of Engineers deploying MEDUSA.

One of the things I like about these pictures is that they aren't illustrations of the book - they take the basic ideas and images but change them in all sorts of ways. Jaguar's Anna Fang is nothing at all like my idea of her (where's her big red coat? She'll catch her death...) and the sword fight which, in the book, happens on a quiet and snowy balcony, now takes place in front of a wall of burning airships.

That's exactly the sort of change you could expect to see if anyone ever made an actual movie of the books, and you'd think it would be irritating for an author to have their stuff altered in that way. But it's such a long time since I wrote Mortal Engines that it doesn't really bother me - I'm very pleased that my stuff has inspired Jaguar to create these paintings (I just wish I'd had them to refer to when I was writing the book, because it would have been much better!)

Jaguar has been studying at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, where his graduation show opens today.  I think my favourite of the images he has sent me is his spectacular painting of Airhaven, but in an attempt to generate a bit of bloggery tension, I'm going to hold that over till tomorrow...