Covering Ground: A Groundbreakers Travel Guide

On February 19th, I’ll be launching my complete volume of the Groundbreakers saga. That means all three fantasy novellas collected in one epic adventure! To learn more about the series, click here. For anyone considering the journey into Sygne and Jamal’s world, I thought a bit of a travelogue would be useful. Here are some of the key locales that play into the story.


The ULTIMATE in nerdy, world-building gratification…. We’ve got a MAP!

Embhra: The continent that hosts the entire saga. Embhra is home to the Golden Empires… a rivalrous collection of city-states that will probably remind you of Babylon, Ancient Greece, Petra, and Persia. (Albeit, anachronistic, fantasy-versions of those places.)

Krit: A small, centrally located city-state where our story begins. Krit has just been conquered by the expanding (and basically evil) Issulthraqi Empire. The conquering Issulthraqis have just made good on their threat to make the streets run red with blood, which is actually far grosser, even, then it sounds. So Krit is far from a pleasant place to be right now—and that’s before you account for the Lovecraftian horror that dwells in the caverns below the city.

Sarthoon: A dingy port for dinghies of every sort. The coastlines of Embhra are littered with harbor towns like Sarthoon, all of them boisterous lairs for pirates and prostitutes. This one drunkenly proclaims itself the ‘Capital of Lice!’ … Oops. That was supposed to be the ‘Capital of Vice.’

The sibilant seas: The bodies of water that surround Embhra are all named with ’s’ words…

The Slumbering Sea: Could this refer to some ancient hibernating force that lies dormant under these calming waters? Most of the Golden Empires speak of Ancient Ones, demons who wallowed in the primordial seas before men—or even gods—existed.

The Serrated Sea: Named for its tall and ravenous whitecaps.

The Sanguine Sea: The western ocean, named for the warm hues that it gathers as it nestles the setting sun.

The Sapphire Sea: A beautiful blue sea caressing the ports of Albatherra. Just another reason why Albatherra appears to be a very pleasant place to live.

The Silent Sea: A misty, boggy place, cluttered with remote islands. Beyond this insufferable barrier lies the Hinterlands. Little is known about the fair-skinned peoples that live in the dark forests of the Hinterlands, except for the few that immigrate south to the sunnier parts of the continent. Sygne is an orphan who was taken from the Hinterlands at a very early age. She seems to remember very little of her past. But her past remembers her, and it may just come back to haunt her!

I just read: Ninth House

ninth-house-leigh-bardugo-coverI think I’ll always check out a book that set in the mold of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. I loved that book so much… Kinda-snooty college kids in a creepy, ivy-covered campus, delving into mystical secrets that are just as likely to leave them maimed as to lead to wealth and wisdom. I’ve read other books that try to capitalize on the idea of being ‘the-next-Harry-Potter-but-darker,’ and I’m usually disappointed.

Leigh Bardugo’s novel did NOT disappoint. First of all, the novel stands apart by grounding itself within a real-world locale: Yale University. Those Yale secret societies that we’ve all heard about, that produce so many presidents and captains of industry? In this book, they are all covens of witches and wizards, each with its own specialty (necromancy, glamours, clairvoyancy, etc.) and a Game-of-Thrones-style crest and motto. Sweet! For some reason I’ve always wanted to visit New Haven, and this book is like a travelogue for the city, delving into details that set the mood by being creepy and intriguing—but also effectively set the stage by being mundane and unvarnished when needed.

So excellent details. And I really loved the way Leigh Bardugo laid out the rules of magic in her world. I also I liked the rules around ghosts. For instance: Ghosts hate graveyards. If you want to avoid being haunted go there. On the other hand, ghosts love anything salty and sanguine—anything that reminds them of life. Spilled blood and loud dance clubs and sweaty hook-ups are all prime lures for specters who are searching for any kind of connection to their former lives.

The characters are all distinctive and relatable. The plot centers around a mystery which I also found very enjoyable, although like a lot of these urban fantasy books, the machinations of the mystery are all paranormally convoluted. I took my guess at who would be the ultimate culprit; and I was both impressed with myself that I was right and impressed with Bardugo that my correct guess in no way affected the exciting reveal and climax. It sounds like Ninth House could be coming to a streaming service near you, and I, for one, can wait to watch and read more!

I just read: Trust Exercise

trust_exerciseOK, this novel starts off weirdly, with a blithe description of a sexual assault in a classroom (quickly followed another consensual sexual encounter in that same classroom). The writing seems affected and distant (never thought I’d see a book that uses the ‘c’-word and the word ‘thus’ in such close proximity), and the characters are all fairly unlikeable—teenagers with whacked-out priorities in the thrall of a petty and manipulative Drama teacher.

But there’s a twist at the halfway point of this short novel that casts a new light—completely bending the narrative. Then two more big twists after that. How do we see someone else’s truth, or the stories they tell themselves to try and feel like the hero of their own tale. With that twist, Trust Exercise totally redeemed itself, justified the first half’s pretentious style and characters, and became one of my favorite books of the last year!

I just read: Disappearing Earth

disappearing_earthDisappearing Earth is medley of stories in the lives of various women living in the isolated Kamchatka peninsula. Kamchatka is situated on Russia’s northeastern coast, and it’s a region that I think most Western readers would not be familiar with. (I certainly wasn’t. When I think of the gigantic country of Russia, my mind can only summon up two kinds of settings, an urban center like Moscow or St. Petersburg, and the frigid reaches of Siberia.) These stories take place in and around socially-conservative coastal towns, quaint colleges, on mountain hikes, or among the modern descendants of the nomadic tribes who herded reindeer in Kamchatka’s hardscrabble wilderness.

No matter their disparate backgrounds, these characters have a lot in common with each other—and with Western readers. They listen to Rhianna on their smartphones; they have frenemies; they debate whether to cut ties with old college friends, or old high-school boyfriends; they suffer through the baby-blues; they roll their eyes at their aging parents. The author, Julia Phillips, weaves in connections between some of these stories. The main underlying connection is the kidnapping of two girls, which happens in the first chapter. Throughout the book, the mystery of the kidnapping is a central theme, and a source of tension and reflection for several characters.

My favorite stories:

December: Ksyusha is a bookish college student of native Even descent. She thinks she’s happy sticking to herself and maintaining a long-distance relationship with her smothering boyfriend back home. But then her cousin convinces her to join a dance troupe practicing indigenous folk dances, and Ksyusha meets a boy who might throw her life into chaos.

New Year’s: Lada is celebrating New Year’s at a cabin with a bunch of other twenty-somethings when she is suddenly reintroduced to one of her closest friends from high school. Masha has ‘escaped’ provincial Kamchatka for cosmopolitan St. Petersburg. Seeing Masha again stirs up conflicting emotions about Lada’s present and her past.

April: Zoya is a housewife muddling through severe ennui and taboo daydreams of the immigrant laborers working outside of her flat. (I’m wondering if her smoking plays more of a role in the story than she realizes?)

This book reminded me a bit of ‘There, There’ by Tommy Orange, which is also a collection of loosely connected stories centered around a culture and a setting that you might not often think of. In ‘There, There,’ the book follows 21st-century Native Americans living in Oakland, California. Both novels end at a modern rendition of a traditional native ceremony. I have to say that I think the characters in Disappearing Earth were more distinct and easier to keep track of. The kidnapping mystery IS resolved by the end of the novel, and I have to say I was genuinely creeped out by the gradual reveal of it. I loved how Phillips weaved in earlier characters to bring the mystery to light, and I was impressed that she had made the characters memorable enough that I could say, ‘Oh! That’s that guy!” as each recurring character was brought into the story.

The Boys: TV vs. the Comic

I talked about the comic series a little in this previous post. It was a long series (72 issues) that I really enjoyed reading in 2018. And in several ways, the TV show improves on the source material. If you’re asking, ‘how so?’ then read on; I’ll list a few of the major differences between the comic and the TV show. Sometimes the divergences in premise might get close to spoilers (after all, just some of the stuff that happened in the comic might end up happening in Season 2), but I’ll give a warning for any speculative spoilers before I get into it.


Billy Butcher:
In the comic series, Billy Butcher is a straight-up CIA operative. And he’s so good at his job that he’s given free reign to do whatever he wants. The Boys are his hand-picked and totally sanctioned team. In the comic, Butcher can manipulate Agent Raynor (played by Jennifer Esposito on the TV series) to do whatever he wants. On the show, Billy has virtually no control over the mechanisms of the ‘Deep State.’ He’s like an outlaw freelancer, which gives him a cool, seat-of-the-pants ‘Han Solo’ vibe. Butcher’s origin—the reason for his vendetta against superheroes—is pretty much consistent between in both TV and Comic versions. Slight spoiler warning for the rest of this paragraph: Basically, the story about what happened to Butcher’s wife is straight from the comics. But then the Season 1 finale adds a new wrinkle to the story.

The Other ‘Boys:’
In the comic, two-fifths of the team, Frenchie and the Female, are barely more than two-dimensional. On the show, they are far more fleshed out. Which provides some good tension because you both feel invested in them as supporting characters, but also more worried that they could die at any moment (as supporting characters are wont to do in shows like The Boys!) Mother’s Milk is probably gets a higher ratio of attention in the comic, but his character is basically the same. Here’s hoping they don’t follow the comic when it comes to explaining his family story (past & future) and they find a different way to explain his nickname.

The Seven:
The Seven on the TV show is mostly recognizable to the original team from the comic. There is no Translucent on the Seven from the comic book. Instead there is a character called ‘Jack from Jupiter’ who is an obvious counterpart to the Justice League’s Martian Manhunter. In the comic, Queen Maeve is a jaded, martini-swigging sadist. On the TV show, she obviously has a conscience, even if she’s being force into going along with some pretty messed-up stuff.

Hughie and Annie’s relationship:
In the comic, Hughie is a nebbishy Scotsman. In the comic, his face and personality are based on the actor Simon Pegg. (Although I think there is a bit of Karl Pilkington in there as well!) As an homage to the character’s origins, now now Simon Pegg is playing Hughie’s (Jack Quaid’s) dad. Hughie’s an American on the show, but his origin is essentially the same. He’s a regular guy who loses his girlfriend, joins the Boys, and then meets Annie January on a park bench.

In the comic, Hughie is a bit of a git (as Scot might say). He works with the Boys and dates Annie for about half the series before he realizes that she is a member of the most famous superhero team in the world. Annie’s alter ego, Starlight, doesn’t even wear a mask! In fact, it’s Billy Butcher who discovers that Hughie is dating the enemy, and eventually Billy drives them apart by showing Hughie video of Annie being coerced into a sexual assault by some of superhero coworkers. This comic takes places before #metoo, and unfortunately, the comic character of Hughie chooses to do some victim-blaming and uses this as one of his reasons to dump her. It’s pretty obvious in the comic that they’ll eventually get back together, but not before Hughie goes through what seems like dozens of issues of sulking on the subject.

In the show, Hughie has far more agency. He quickly realizes who Annie is, and he spends most of Season One torn between a couple of valid but paradoxical impulses. Does he do things that are good for his burgeoning relationship with Annie? Or does he do things that are good for the ‘quest for justice’ he’s started with Billy? Also, how does he handle his feelings of guilt over dating someone so soon after his former girlfriend’s death?

Compound V:
This, I think, is the biggest difference between the show and the comic. And here’s where I’m going to talk about things that might end up being plot points in Season Two. So skip this section if you’re concerned about spoilers. OK… here goes:

In the comic, the Boys know about Compound V from the very beginning. In fact, they’re all using it! So they are just as strong as their supe foes. (And some would say just as prone to being absolutely corrupted by those absolute powers.) In the comic, the Boys massacre dozens superheroes, and it never seems quite clear why they don’t take on the Seven in a full-on frontal assault. On the show, the scenario is far more clear and dire. The Homelander is the most powerful entity on Earth, and the Boys are all mere mortals (except for Kimiko, of course). So that really makes for a more interesting story with higher stakes.   

The Ending??
How will the TV Series ultimately end? There’s a good chance that even the show-runners don’t know yet. But here’s hoping that this is one case where the TV show follows the comic pretty closely. Because the endings for the comic-book versions of Billy Butcher, Hughie, and the Homelander were all pretty epic! And that’s all I’ll say about that.

What’s distracting me right now: Comics

I love Comixology Unlimited! $6 a month, and I get access to what seems like tens of thousands of comics that I can read any time I want. Marvel, Image, Dynamite, IDW… nearly every American publisher is represented, plus a bunch of European and Manga titles. I had to crack open a beer and celebrate on the day that DC joined the library.

Among all the choices, in the last few months there have been three series that have really stood out to me, hitting that spot of exactly what I want in a comic. Here’s a quick bit on each of them:

Astro City
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artists: Brent Anderson and others
52 issues
Publisher: Vertigo (DC)
OK, I’m an old-school comic reader. I don’t like my comics to be super-short (decompressed) with tons splash pages and not much exposition. Also, I kind of like it when the character-designs are kind of cheesy or campy, but the stories are taken seriously. That’s what you get with Astro City. This is one of those ‘analog’ books (see my post on Black Hammer) where there’s a knock-off version of Superman, a version of Wonder Woman, a version of Doctor Strange, etc, etc. Mostly, Busiek focuses on short stories in his Astro City universe (1-to-3 issues long). Sometimes he focuses on his superheroes; then, at other times, he focuses on ‘regular folks’ who are somehow caught up in the lives of these superheroes. If you check out the series, you’ll meet a woman who works as the personal assistant to the Sorcerer Supreme—later you mean the Sorcerer Supreme’s lawyer. There’s a woman who salvages robots that have been built my evil geniuses—and consequently destroyed by heroes. Even an alien pre-teen who gives us his perspective on what it’s like to have the Fantastic Four ‘invade’ your extra-dimensional, totalitarian society (ala the Negative Zone). Very fun. I’d recommend this series for any comic fan of the 70s or 80s.

GI Joe: Real American Hero, Vol. 2
Writer: Larry Hama
Artists: S.L. Gallant and others
Publisher: IDW
112 Issues (and still counting…)
Speaking of 80s nostalgia. IDW tapped into it big time when they hired Larry Hama to continue his 80s run on GI Joe: Real American Hero. From 1982 to 1994, Hama was the main creative force behind all 155 issues of the original series. With IDW’s help, he kicked off a new run in 2012, starting with issue #156. A lot of people my age loved those GI Joe comics in the 80s—not to mention the cartoon and the toys. I was shocked at how well Hama captures the feel of that original run. You’ve got all of the same outlandish villains and outfits and codenames, but again (like Astro City) the crazy sci-fi plots are presented with just the right level of seriousness and humor.
But my favorite issues are when Hama gets gritty and detailed with what seem to be very well-researched spotlights on different aspects of military life. I remember in the original 80s run, one of my favorite issues involved this technical explanation of what it’s like to man a hovercraft. In this present day series, he does the same thing. He’s got stories devoted to tactics in a tank duel, a story on combat-survival, a sniper tactics battle on a mountain range that looks like it could be Afghanistan. So far, the new run has been chugging along for over a hundred issues, and I hope it’s been a big success for IDW because I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve read so far.

The Boys
Writer: Garth Ennis
Artists: Darick Robertson and others
Publisher: Dynamite
72 Issues (Including several Spin-Off Specials and Mini-Series)
The last series I’ve been working my way through is The Boys. It’s written by Garth Ennis, who is probably best known for his ‘Preacher’ series, which has been adapted as a TV series on AMC. Ennis revels in creating stories and characters that are abundantly non-PC. He tries hard to offend everyone on both ends of the political spectrum. So this book has some pretty raunchy scenes, hyper-violence, and homophobic and misogynistic characters—and it’s probably not for everybody.
Like Astro City, it’s set in a superhero analog universe, with its own version of Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, etc. But in this world, almost all superheroes are phonies—they’re just in it for the money, the fame, and whatever particular form of vice gets them off. The ‘real heroes’ in the series are a team of spies and enforcers (‘The Boys’) who help keep the supers in check—or put them down when they commit some act that is too despicable to let slide.
I really like the concept of this series—which, like Preacher, is also being adapted for TV (this time by Amazon Prime). But sometimes ‘The Boys’ tries so hard to be outrageously raunchy that it ends up being almost Puritanical. There are times in the story where it seems like being ‘hedonistic’ becomes shorthand for being ‘evil.’ But the two things are not necessarily the same. Also a lot of the book is about the political cultures of Britain and America, and those sections seem kind of dated in a post-2016 world. Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s updated to small-screen.

I just read: You Know You Want This

You Know You Want This is a collection of short stories by Kristen Roupenian. I had so much fun reading these stories! Which is sort of a weird thing to say because they are all pretty dark. Some of the stories turn violent, and some of them involve magic or horror elements (although I’m dubious as to whether the horror elements are ‘real’ or just in some of the protagonists’ heads). The stories are mostly about love and desire, and how we can twist ourselves up in what we see in ourselves and what we hope other people see in us.

Does a fantastic job of getting into the head of her male characters. I think she’s spot-on with her characterization of males navigating their twenties and thirties. Maybe that says a lot about me. A lot of the male characters get caught in this loop of wanting to be the ‘nice guy,’ and they play into that, with alternating good and bad intentions.

I guess ‘Cat Person’ is the big draw here, because it was published in The New Yorker and generated lots of buzz. It’s a good kind of character piece, about a ‘boy’ and a girl flirting and fluttering around each other on the months leading up to a very memorable first date. The tone of the story really drew me in, because isn’t sure of herself, she isn’t sure of this dude she’s interested in, and the whole story becomes a sort of mystery. Is this guy a sort of lovable loser? Or is he just a plain loser with some masochistic and mysognistic baggage? The way both characters seem to vacillate and question each other (and themselves) will probably seem very familiar to anyone thinking back on their early days of dating.

The Good Guy follows similar themes, but over a longer period of time and from the male’s perspective. Reading these stories I could totally see Netflix or Hulu snapping up the rights to the whole collection and turning them into a series that would be sort of like a cross between You’re the Worst, ‘You,’ and the new Twilight Zone.

Here’s some micro reviews of some of the stories that that really stuck with me:

‘Look at Your Game, Girl’: Classic, coming-of-age creepy.

‘Sardines’: Excellent vignette of a bad mom and her worse daughter, with another truly skin-crawling ending.

The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone: Psychoanalysis by way of a fairy tale.

Cat Person: Again, kind of ambiguous throughout. Where are we going with this? Are we supposed to feel sorry for the narrator’s crush, or cringe at him? But then a slap-in-the-face finale that resolves the question pretty definitively.

The Good Guy: Another excellent, if cringe-inducing, character study.

The Boy in the Pool: Who doesn’t remember watching those late-night cheesy thrillers on Showtime or Cinemax?

Scarred: Magical realism. Love how the main character sort of blithely takes on her role.

The Matchbox Sign: Oof. Maybe I’m choosing to interpret this one in a way that wasn’t intended, but this one was depressing and unnerving in just the right way.

Biter: A perfect sort of snarky, dark note to end on.

This definitely put me in the mood for reading more great short stories. Here’s hoping I can find another collection as energizing as this one. Or that Roupenian will publish something else soon!

Writing Progress: Fall 2018

the third book in my Groundbreakers series. Hooray! The Groundbreaker books have all been shorter than my other novels, but nonetheless, that means I’m on my way to having seven novels finished. (And one novelette—I’m not forgetting about my invisible friends in Shadow Sideways!)

By the way, my tentative title for the Groundbreakers third book is ‘Blades of the Demigod.’ My intent was to always finish the third book Groundbreaker book and then release all the books together in a box set. But halfway through ‘Blades,’ I decided it needed to be more of a conclusion to a trilogy, as opposed to simply the third in a series of interconnected adventures. I thought the box set as a whole would be more satisfying to the reader if there was an underlying thread (or threat) that runs through all three books, which is then wrapped up in Book 3.

That plot point was the Ancient Ones, which were introduced in Book 1, and which are a big presence in the first two books, always there as this incomprehensible, immense threat in the background. You see, it’s revealed in Book 1 that the villainous Issulthraqis want to reunite the Ancient Ones and used their combined powers to re-write the world. My first iteration of Book 3 was a sort of detour adventure, that veered away from the Issulthraqis plot. But I realized with a few minor adjustments, I could rework the plot to intro more stakes in the third and final story, and to help create closure for the three books as a whole.

My original idea was to write six or seven Groundbreakers books, with the Ancient Ones threat always there in the background, but now, if I write a fourth book in the series, I can be completely free to take the story wherever I want. Or, if I move to something completely new, then at least the series has a bit of closure for now.

Which brings me to my next chunk of big news! I’ve already started my next novel. Maybe not the smartest move, considering ‘Blades’ is still in first-draft mode—and also I need to do some post-publication tweaks to Books 1 and 2 to make the story cohesive—but I was too excited about my new idea to hold off!

Fans of Idyll will be happy to know that I’m writing in science fiction again. This time, near-future sci-fi. The story is about what comes next, after iPhones and social media. What will it be like to live in a world with A.I.s and organic upgrades that make us smarter, prettier, and more long-lived. Of course, as in all sci-fi, the world is never as bright and as shiny as it seems.

My working title for this new book is ‘The Fire and the Burned.’ My plan is for it to be a single, standalone novel. If I can finish it (working that third Groundbreakers book in the meantime, here and there) then I will have eight books in my oeuvre! Not quite Stephen King’s, but nothing to sneeze at either! Here’s to making it to double-digits one day!

I just read: Three Dark Crowns

Three Dark Crowns has a killer premise. It’s Game of Thrones meets The Hunger Games. Every so often, a set of girl triplets is born on Fennbirn Island, and each sister becomes the champion, or ‘Queen,’ of one of three rival factions on the island. When the Queens turn sixteen, they have to fight it out—assassinate their sisters—to claim the throne. It’s like Battle Royale with real royals. Pretty cool, right?

Author Kendare Blake is working in popular territory here. Luckily, she spices up the mix with intriguing and relatable characters, and several good twists. For one thing, mystical powers are not a rare thing on Fennbirn. Each of the three factions specializes in a different type of supernatural gift. The Elementals can control fire, water, wind, and earth (to varying degrees). The Naturalists can tap into the life energy of plants—and control animal familiars. The Poisoners are immune and ingenious when it come to poisons (duh!). Another surprising twist on the expected tropes: Two of the Queens, Katharine (the Poisoner) and Arsinoe (the Naturalist), start the book with extremely weak, nearly non-existent powers. As the lethal contest approaches, they are big-time underdogs to their Elemental sister Mirabella. Another unexpected surprise: the non-underdog is probably the most noble, most compassionate character of the three.

The novel follows the mostly-isolated plot lines of all three sisters, and it’s fun to pick your favorite sister and watch her story develop. (I liked the Poisoner’s story the best.) At some points, I started to get confused about which supporting character belonged in which sister’s storyline. There are a few ‘best friend’ characters that start to blur together, and all three sisters are dominated by three different matriarchs with questionable intentions. But if you enjoy the intrigues and intricacies of Game of Thrones, then you’ll probably enjoy the challenge of keeping everything straight. The book is written with a Young Adult vibe, so it honestly never gets too complicated.

Despite the homocidal premise, the story never gets too violent, although it gets a little gory in spots. (One of the sisters resorts to ‘low,’ blood magic to attempt to gain an advantage in the upcoming fight.) As I mentioned, there are a few good twists. And although the ending felt a little loosey-goosey to me, it also included two real jaw-dropping surprises that had me clamoring to check out the sequel. Lucky for me, I’m a few years behind on discovering this series, and the sequel, One Dark Throne, is already out!

Idyll Excerpt: The Streets of Belleterre

In honor of Westworld Season 2 premiering this weekend, here is a sample of my own sci-fi Western novel, Idyll. Idyll is now available for $0.99 here on Amazon!


The afternoon sun descended beneath the bluffs, and the quartz hills wrapped themselves in velveteen shadows. Samuel found a noisy stream, broke down his tack, and scrubbed Titan where a thick scum of lather had gathered around her saddle. The mare wandered down the bank to chew through a stand of tall grass, and Samuel squatted by the water—at a respectful distance—and watched the surface glimmer as it bustled past. Their father owned a high-priced casting net just to fish these streams. Alma Starboard had teased him because there was no place in Glenn County to use such a net, unless he wanted to try chucking it into wells or rain barrels. Samuel warily dipped his hand into the frigid water and watched the current form hillocks as it bulged and rushed around his fingers. For all he knew, Josiah Starboard had stopped at this very spot.

Samuel imagined that he was speaking to him.

“Is that why you told us it took ten days to get to Belleterre? Because you spent a full day fishing? “I’m going to beat you there, Dad. Nine days.”

Within ten minutes, he and Titan were on the move again. As he cleared each ridge Samuel expected to be suddenly staring down at a crowded city of timber, aluminum, and live glass. He remembered his father’s reports of streets covered with pearlescent river stones and three-story houses with foundations of laser-cut rock. Josiah painted pictures of deafening waterfalls powering gigantic mills and propelling water through a webwork of aqueducts and aluminum pipes. Belleterre seemed to be a hectic paradise with its toy stores, puppet-shows, and men selling food or candy on every street corner.

What if Belleterre had recovered since the Lullaby? At this very moment, the market might be teeming with merchants, hawking their wares, roaring to be heard over the river. Samuel imagined boys sluicing horse manure off the curbs. What if these city folk had been living their lives in busy luxury while Samuel and his family had been living in isolation, withering away bit by bit? Logically Samuel knew that this would be the best possible scenario, but the idea made him want to scream. They had waited for three years. Suffered through—and wasted—three years.

He imagined the city folk gaping at him. What would they think of this refugee in a torn shirt and stitched boots? He had expected rough riding through the quartz hills, and he was wearing his dusty chaps, which were discolored and scarred, with flaps of torn fabric hanging off of them. Samuel was certain that he looked like a hermit. He wished he had followed Walt’s example and taken a bath this morning. He had shaved on the day that they left their father’s ranch because he had fully expected to find people at the county seat. Since that disappointment, he hadn’t thought about shaving at all, and now his beard was tight and itchy, a webwork of ivy on his face.

After another fifteen minutes of climbing, Samuel saw the corner of a building emerge from behind a steep slope of rock. The highway crested a hill, and Samuel had his first good look at Belleterre. His notions of loud merchants and busy street cleaners quickly died as he stared down at dozens of dark row houses and empty storefronts. The buildings seemed exhausted somehow. As he looked closer, Samuel realized why: Where wood showed, the timbers were black and sagging. Broken panes of live glass littered the streets—crooked mirrors shining up to the sky.

There had been a huge fire here. Half of the city had been razed.

In a moment of horror, Samuel realized he was very visible on the hilltop. There could be lookouts hidden among the buildings, watching the road for careless travelers. He turned back down the hill and led Titan to a scrubby niche in the rocks, a spot where the highest buildings wouldn’t have an angle to see them. He dismounted and tethered Titan to a deadfall. Then he unlatched his chaps and his jangling spurs. He peeled the bulky water pouch from his back.

A footpath zigzagged from the hidden niche up into the hills. The path was sheltered on both sides by steep embankments and scrubby conifers. Samuel scuttled from one hiding place to another, always watching the burned out buildings for signs of life. Soot-blackened windows stared down at him like the mascara-smeared eyes of world-weary burlesque dancers. But the windows were empty.

Soon he was ducking through an archway and into the city. He saw that someone had chipped pieces off of the arch’s quartz pylons, probably to feed a rock-roller. Samuel reached over his shoulder and shook his own rock-roller carbine. Its ammo of polished pebbles clattered in the stock. Samuel remembered Uncle Warren’s stories of rival militias battling in the chaos that followed the epidemic. Apparently those skirmishes had spread to Belleterre—or perhaps the skirmishes had started here. Either way, the men who had conquered this city were probably still holed up somewhere in these buildings.

Samuel’s heart was pounding high in his chest, threatening to choke him with each beat.
For the next twenty minutes Samuel worked his way past deserted inns, saloons, and barter shops. Several buildings had collapsed, and the aluminum skeletons of porches, roofs, and plumbing systems had been twisted and dragged into the avenue to create ramshackle barricades.

He weaved between shards of live glass, careful to not cut his shoes or make noise. Live glass was one of the Settlement’s most precious commodities. Each square-meter was honeycombed with hundreds of tiny cells that expanded or contracted based on temperature changes. The cells were designed to store and multiply energy that could be transferred to mechanical devices, stoves, or incandescent lights. Even broken panes of live glass were valuable as insulation materials. And yet, here were thousands of square-meters (shattered or not) that had not been salvaged. The survivors in Belleterre must have had more dire priorities. Or perhaps there were no survivors at all.

Samuel crossed a footbridge that resembled two squat staircases fastened together—one going up and the other coming down. Beneath the bridge, a section of the Kepler River foamed through a narrow canal. All around him, the metallic roar of the continent’s second-largest river echoed between buildings, rattled shards of glass, and settled as an uncomfortable weight between Samuel’s ears. He could see the city’s famous mill wheels, but the wheels had ground to a halt. The falls thundered off their useless paddles. Water sloshed over the sides of bent aqueducts, falling and slapping the ground. The clamor of millions of liters shook the city as if it were a gigantic caged creature. But the river raged at no one. The city was empty.

Belleterre was dead. They had trekked for nine days and subjected their mother to stresses that had nearly killed her. All of that suffering had been for nothing.

Samuel was ready to be away from these claustrophobic streets. The oppressive noise and humidity was settling on his shoulders, turning his clothes cold and heavy. The buildings loomed over him. He looked up, and the view made his head swirl. He came to an intersection between four hulking buildings and turned toward the sunset. He was trudging across a wide road that must have been one of the city’s main avenues. He didn’t worry about being seen; there was no one to see him.

Soon he was crossing a covered bridge over a large, squared-off canal. He watched the water bluster away under him, foaming angrily over splintered moorings and half-sunken boats, and his stomach roiled because all this water—all these buildings and manmade things so close to it—seemed unnatural. Samuel could not swim; he had never wanted to learn. He had a cattleman’s natural disdain for bodies of moving water. This city’s humidity—all its closeness—felt sickening to him. It was no surprise that the Belleterrans had all been wiped out by a contagion. Maybe their corpses had been swept away by the river, similar to cattle in a flash flood.

Samuel wanted to be in the saddle and racing away, far and fast and riding strong. But he was on foot and probably a full kilometer from his horse. His escape would be so slow, it almost didn’t seem worth it. Belleterre was dead. And Marathon might be dead too.
Samuel made himself walk. With his first step he stumbled on a loose flagstone on the bridge. The flat rock was angled wrongly and obviously out of place—as if someone had set it there specifically to trip him up.

Too late, Samuel realized he had triggered a booby trap.

A beam of wood crashed through the bridge’s aluminum canopy. Samuel flinched, raising his hands to his face to ward off any debris that might be flung up when the huge weight hit the stones before him. But the beam of wood didn’t fall normally; it arced toward Samuel, swooping to meet his knees as it accelerated to a bone-smashing velocity.

Samuel saw thick coils of hempen rope tied to each end of the beam. It was a pendulum. He didn’t have time to bend his legs and jump; he dove forward into the empty air above the hurtling beam. But a splintered edge caught his boot, and his body was flung backward and upward. He landed face first on the stone paving. Samuel stayed there, crumpled, for a split second. Then he remembered that the trap was a pendulum. It was coming back for him. Samuel rolled as fast as he could to avoid the beam’s lethal backswing. He fell off the bridge.

And the river swallowed him, pulling with an instant and nearly irresistible power. Samuel observed his situation with cold detachment, perhaps he was dazed from his fall onto the stone bridge. In some dim corner of his mind, he was considering the fact that he couldn’t swim. Simultaneously, he was absurdly fascinated by the novel sensation of being submerged in moving water.

He felt as if he were being propelled by a hundred mismatched cogs, all greased and moving incredibly fast. He was flung sideways, the current twisting his shoulders. Now he was face-up, now he was plunged headfirst to the cold, dark bottom. Samuel thrust out his hand, and his fingers raked up a slurry of mud. He rolled and plowed his heels into the muck, hopping along the bottom, going with the current, slowing his momentum. He straightened his legs and found that he could hold his head above the surface. Still, he took in a mouthful of frothy water as he tried to gasp for air.

The current pushed him toward a shattered skiff. The stern of the flat-bottomed boat had settled against the side of a broken building so that it formed a ramp out of the canal. Samuel grabbed the boat and clung for his life.

Now that he was within an arm’s length of dry land, his state-of-shock calm quickly flowed away. This new possibility of salvation made the imminent threat of drowning more palpable—more horrifying. His heart was pumping uncontrollably, as if the ferocious current was rushing through his chest. His legs were as flimsy as reeds beneath him. Did he possess the strength to pull himself out of the water?

He did. Samuel heaved himself up onto the slanted planks, which didn’t budge under his weight. Somehow, the strap of his rock-roller had shifted so that the carbine was stationed across his chest, not his back. Water dripped from his nose and from the twin prongs of the weapon. He wondered if water would affect its electromagnetic sling. Samuel climbed until he was teetering on the lip of a ragged hole in the side of a ruined building.

Its interior was dark and expansive. Here and there, damaged columns broke the darkness like jagged teeth. He looked down and saw that this improvised ramp had been tied to the building with ropes, not unlike the cords that had bound the booby trap on the bridge.

“Oh.” Samuel said. A flicker of green fabric moved among the shadows. He pulled the butt of his rock-roller to his shoulder.

An explosion went off in his right leg. He looked down and saw that his knee was wrapped in glittering wire. The wire crackled with blue lightning. Samuel could see and smell the fabric of his dungarees beginning to burn, but he couldn’t move to beat out the flames. He was paralyzed. His brain wouldn’t work. He couldn’t speak—couldn’t scream. The world seemed to spin around the fulcrum of his burning knee. Again he tried to grab it; instead he just pitched forward against the stone floor.