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Monday, November 07, 2016

UPCOMING EDMONTON LAUNCH and SOME REVIEWS....

WHAT WITH THE UPCOMING RELEASE of The Tattooed Queen on December 1st, I hope you'll all bear with me. It means I have to do a bit of promotion (when I'd much rather be starting on something new.)

So, let's talk about my upcoming joint launch first.

Ann Marston, who has numerous books to her credit and who is also part of the Five Rivers author family, is joining me in a joint launch. Her book, A Still and Bitter Grave is also being released December 1st as is The Tattooed Queen. We're combining forces at Audrey's Books, here in Edmonton on December 7th, at 7:00 PM. Please join us for readings, signings, and refreshments.

A reminder as well, for those of you who own a Kobo e-reader: you can get a free e-copy of my first book in the trilogy, The Tattooed Witch from Kobo until November 30th - the day before The Tattooed Queen is released. It's a great deal. There's no telling how much the books will go for after December 1st.

Lorina Stephens, my editor and publisher at Five Rivers, has also been busy publicising my final book in the trilogy by posting reviews of The Tattooed Witch. Here's a few 'snippet' reviews from various sites:

1). @LibraryThing says The Tattooed Witch 'fast-paced, romantic, vividly imaginative' #freebook @kobo http://ow.ly/cjGZ305bLts

2). @Goodreads says 'fantastic read' The Tattooed Witch #freebook @kobo http://ow.ly/cjGZ305bLts

3). @FletcherMR 'beautifully written' re The Tattooed Witch #freebook @kobo http://ow.ly/cjGZ305bLts

Here are some of the best (5-starred) reviews on Amazon.com, of both The Tattooed Witch and The Tattooed Seer:

About The Tattooed Witch (Book One):
"Readers wary or unfamiliar with the genre will enjoy this book. It is extremely well and tightly written and moves quickly along. It's nicely organised and divided so that there are frequent logical points to stop reading… only you won't want to stop reading. The characters, even minor characters, are well developed. The lush landscape is easily pictured. This book would make a great movie. While the book can stand alone in the sense that events are sufficiently wrapped up by its ending, you won't want to wait to see what happens in book two, The Tattooed Seer. MacGregor is currently working on the final instalment in the trilogy, The Tattooed Queen. I'm looking forward to reading both."
"Susan MacGregor is one of those rare writers who can pen interior dialogue without forcing the average male reader to run for cover. This is brilliantly done, intriguing and down right spooky in places and I, for one, fully intend to read this trilogy to its conclusion."
"I absolutely loved this book. The beginning just grabs your attention and the story keeps you wanting more. When I began reading it I was extremely busy...but after some really late nights and squeezing in time at work *cough cough* when I should have been working...I blew through it in a couple of days. I have given it to all of my friends and we all have truly loved it. Can't wait for book two!"
About The Tattooed Seer (Book Two):
"This is one of my favourite new series! I read the first book last year and was very eager for the second one to come out to see what happens to these fascinating characters. Susan MacGregor is a skilled story teller who has managed to weave fantasy with elements of historical Spanish inquisition into a compelling and inventive world full of intrigue, peril and magic. I was a particular fan of the first book for how MacGregor sets up the complexity and intricacies of her well-developed societal milieu. I got lost in this multifaceted world with characters facing danger and adventure. The second book hits the ground running and keeps the momentum up throughout, I often had chills and my only disappointment in the series so far is that I have to wait for the 3rd book to see what happens! This is a very mature read and very rewarding for fans of fantasy who still like to have roots in reality and believability. I definitely recommend this little known gem!"
"If you are a fan of historical fantasy or romance this book will sit in your sweet spot. But here’s the thing. I’m not and yet this book still works for me, largely because Susan MacGregor is a literary craftsman. In my world fine writing trumps genres any time and this is fine writing."
Thanks for your indulgence. If you've read my books and have enjoyed them, please post reviews and let the world know. Those of us who publish through a smaller press need all the help we can get to put the word out about of our work. We don't have the big marketing and publicity machines behind us, as do the large publishing houses. I appreciate your support more than you know.

- Susan.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

THE TATTOOED QUEEN - CHAPTER ONE

AS PROMISED, here is Chapter One of The Tattooed Queen. It opens with Miriam talking to Alonso, her ghostly love, aboard a Spanish galley (a nao), in a stop-over port in the Canarias (the Canary Islands). Several days prior, as established in The Tattooed Seer, they set sail from Qadis in Esbaña (Spain) for the New World.

CHAPTER ONE: SLAVE MARKET

AFTER FOUR DAYS of enduring the dank and cramped quarters in the lowest deck of a three-masted nao, Miriam Medina thought the port of Santa Sul in Tenerifa could not come soon enough. A stiff breeze threatened to pry her from where she stood at the Phoenix’s rail. Her head veil whipped about her face, making the muslin abrade her cheeks. Above her, sail billowed and yards groaned. Ships of all descriptions littered the bay, their masts cutting the sky into shards. One ship in particular held her interest—a wide-bellied carrack with the stars of Sul emblazoned on its sails. La Estrella del Mar was docked at the port’s stone mole. Anxiety assailed Miriam, as much as the wind.
   Are they still in the hold? she asked.
   Standing beside her, Alonso de Santangél glimmered faintly, unseen by anyone save those with the Sight. He was both a handsome seraph and the rat inhabiting her pocket. At the moment, the rat was twisting about, trying to make itself more comfortable. Alonso looked as if he wanted to do the same.
   They haven’t unloaded them yet. Don Lope is haggling with a port official. You’re cold. We should go below.
   She said nothing but gripped the ship’s rail tightly, causing the stump of her little finger to bleed.
   Now look what you’ve done! Standing here isn’t going to hurry things, Miriam. There’s no point in waiting for someone who—
   I’m not leaving until I see him.
   She felt Alonso’s prick of annoyance, and then it was gone. He wasn’t happy with her dismissing his suggestion, even less so with her wanting to catch a glimpse of Joachín de Rivera, her husband
and patriarch of the Tribe. La Estrella del Mar was Don Lope’s slave ship. Joachín had stolen Don Lope’s gold, and later, had humiliated him by knocking him out and dressing him in a puta’s gown. The night before the Tribe was to set sail, Don Lope had captured Joachín, his cousin Iago Gonzales, and friend Barto of Andor. It was almost certain Don Lope would sell them at the slave market in Tenerifa.
   She tamped down her impatience. She shouldn’t have been so short with Alonso, but she suspected he had been about to denigrate Joachín as a lowlife and a thief, something he did fairly often. Just a little longer—please.
   His expression remained pained. After a few minutes, he nodded at the ship. You’re about to get your wish. They’re bringing them up from below.
   She tensed with worry and anticipation. The last time she had seen Joachín, he had been in bad shape—barely conscious after receiving a flogging at the Grand Inquisitor’s hands. She had rescued him, only to have him apprehended by Don Lope. A crowd was swelling onto La Estrella’s waist. Most of the slaves were black-skinned, but a few were white. It was hard to make out features; she couldn’t tell if Joachín was among them. Suddenly, streams of water flew into the air, tossed by the crew. As it struck the slaves, they ducked and shied. Salt water was painful on open wounds.
   They’re cleaning them up for market, Alonso said unnecessarily.
   Knowing that didn’t make her feel any better. With the dousing done, she watched as the slaves were forced back below. She wanted to row a cockboat across the bay and attempt a rescue. I couldn’t see them, she said, striving for calm. Better to say ‘them’ than ‘him’ for Alonso’s sake. Were they in the group being washed on the waist?
   I would’ve had to leave the rat to tell for sure. Alonso needed a physical host so they might communicate. All I know is, they’re still on the ship.
   He wasn’t about to give away any details. Over the past few days, he had barred her from his thoughts, but she still managed to catch a few glimpses of what he had seen. In segregated sections, men, women and children lay on pallets on La Estrella del Mar. The men were shackled at the hands and feet. The women and children were left unbound, but they still had no recourse when they fouled themselves. There had been a dozen deaths already, all of them children. The crew had thrown the bodies overboard.
   She dug her nails into the wood. Somewhere below the spar deck, Joachín lay chained in his own filth, his wounds turning septic. She couldn’t reach him fast enough.
   A voice hailed her. She turned to see Zara, Luci, Casi, and Maia approaching them at the rail. Alonso disappeared as Zara blundered into his space. He disliked sharing the same spot with the living, saying possessing the rat was hard enough. For a moment she worried the rat might bite her, but she felt its breathing slow. Alonso had lulled it to sleep.
   “Is that it?” Zara pointed at La Estrella del Mar, unaware she had banished Alonso.
   Miriam nodded. She hadn’t shared what she had learned of the slave ship, but she suspected the women knew. They had seen such ships before, although it was more likely they were familiar with the oared galleys rowing between Gibralt and the land of the Turques.
   “I asked Ximen where the slave pens are, but he’s no help,” Zara said. As the Tribe’s Rememberer, Ximen recalled anything a Tribe member, living or deceased, had experienced. His talent was so
developed, he sensed memories deriving from events occurring only moments before. “None of us has ever been here, so he has no idea.”
   “Fra Francis says once we get through the gate, we pass through the souk, then head for the main square,” Luci said.
   “That one!” Zara made a face. “How do we know he won’t take us to the slave block and sell us, himself?”
   Over the last four days, Zara’s suspicion of Francis had become wearing, especially in the closed quarters they had had to endure. Miriam strove for patience. “He wouldn’t do that, Zara.”
   “Why not? He has no morals. He’s a priest and a spy.”
   “He hopes to convince us to go to Inglais. He thinks we can help secure the Inglaisi Crown.” She dropped her voice, hoping Zara would do the same.
   Zara didn’t. “As if we’d help a queen with more blood on her hands than the Grand Inquisitor! Any involvement of our part would be seen as sedi…seda—” She gave up finding the word. “We Diaphani must stick to ourselves,” she added, looking to Luci and Maia for support.
   The peal of a watch bell interrupted them. Suddenly, there were twice as many crew swarming the deck. Luci squeezed against the rail as two men ran past her. One glowered, having to manoeuvre his way around Zara, a sizeable detour. Miriam cast a parting glance at La Estrella del Mar.
   “’Hoi! You vrouwen!” Jager de Groot, the Phoenix’s bosun, lumbered toward them with that rolling gait all the crew had. He was a big man, blonde, with fists the size of dead eyes—those wooden blocks used to secure the ship’s rigging. His shirt flapped about him like a dirty sail. “We need to top th’ water. Get below!”
   When he wasn’t bawling orders, he eyed them suspiciously, his lips pursing as if he sucked vinegar. Over the past few days, Luci had heard him complain to his mates—Why do these vrouwen travel alone? I tell ye, somethin’ ain’t right.
   Zara confronted him. “I am not going back down there! I’ve been cooped up for four days, and I am sick and tired of it!”
   “Fine! Get knocked over th’ head, Old Cow.”
   Her mouth fell open. “How dare you speak to me in such a way! I’m a paying passenger!”
   Miriam steered her to the companionway, about as easy as manoeuvring a cart with one wheel. “Don’t give him more reasons to hate us, Zara.”
   “Why? He doesn’t scare me!”
   She pulled her along. “Luci overheard the crew talking last night. They wonder why we aren’t travelling with our men. The bosun thinks we’ve either run away or rid ourselves of them. Apparently, Ximen doesn’t count, being old and blind. Nor Francis, because he’s a priest.”
   “Women can’t travel on their own?”
   They had told Captain Vrooman that Joachín and the others had been detained and would be joining them, but the crew remained superstitious. “If we cause too much trouble, the bosun will convince the crew we’re bad luck. He might even say we’ve cursed the ship.”
   “I should curse him. He’s a bully and a brute.”
   “For heaven’s sake, keep your voice down.” Good gods, dealing with Zara was like teaching a chicken to swim. “Our foremost duty is to find Joachín, Iago, and Barto. Once they’re on board, all suspicions should cease.”
   “There you are!” a pleasant male voice called.
   Miriam sagged in relief as Francis met them at the top of the companionway. He always seemed to know what was happening, even when he wasn’t around. If the crew muttered about curses, she
hoped his presence quelled suspicions. He smiled ingratiatingly at the bosun. “Allow me to accompany you below decks, ladies. Let’s not get in Mister de Groot’s way.”
   “Where have you been?” Zara glared at him as if he had wandered off against her wishes.
   “Speaking with the captain.” Another brief smile touched his lips. Over the past few days, Francis had convinced Captain Vrooman he had taken the Tribe under his wing to build a new temple in Xaymaca—all to the glory of Father Church.
   “That one.” Captain Vrooman was another with whom Zara wasn’t much impressed. He had been in the habit of inviting Francis and Ximen to share his table, but he hadn’t extended the same courtesy to her or Miriam. And we’re the ones in charge! she had complained the night before. “What about?” she demanded.
   Francis glanced at Jager de Groot. The bosun was busy with the water casks, but Miriam suspected he bent an ear. “About the procurement of certain goods.”
   Meaning Joachín, Barto, and Iago, of course.
   “And?” Zara pressed.
   “And I know where we might find them.” He regarded Miriam with concern. “Your hand looks as if it’s bothering you, Miriam.” Fresh blood had seeped through her bandage.
   Miriam glanced down at her hand. It was a strange glamoury Rana Isadore had set upon her. Perhaps the only real thing about her was the finger stump, although the hymenoptera welts were still painful beneath her veil.
   “Here, now!” Zara clucked. “We can’t have that. Come down, Matriarch, and I’ll replace that dressing. As for you—” she eyed Francis sourly, “see if you can’t find some ointment while you’re procuring our goods.”
   Francis bowed. “That was foremost in my mind.” With only a few words, he had misdirected Zara and she hadn’t even suspected. Francis was an expert manipulator, a great advantage for a spy. Let’s hope his talent is enough to secure Joachín, Iago, and Barto, Miriam thought.

*

   An hour later, she, Francis, Luci, and Maia squeezed their way through the crowd on the mole. They stopped briefly at an herbalist’s tent where Francis procured a balm of comfrey for her hand. As they left, they were bombarded by merchants hoping for sales. Turbaned men shouted at them in dialects they didn’t understand. Their wives shook copper pots or bolts of cotton in their faces. Urchins plucked at their sleeves. Francis intervened, but often, he had to push their pursuers away. After each attempt, Miriam’s respect for him deepened. There were few languages he didn’t know. By the time they had forced their way beneath an ancient gate leading to the medina proper, her talent as a sentidora had spun out of control. The bombardment of so many people left her dizzy and sick.
   “How much farther?” she gasped. Now that they had passed beneath the gate, the crowds were less thick, although both sides of the street were lined with shops.
   Francis pointed. “After we go down this alley, we come to the main square. We cross it, then come to another street that leads to the stocks. The slave pens are on the far side.”
   “What time is the auction?” Luci clutched at her side.
   “Noon.” He squinted at the screens overhead, shading the street. Above them, the sun was a crosshatched ball. “We should make it.”
   Maia nodded. She had left Little Grim in Zara’s care. Miriam suspected she was afraid someone would outbid her for Barto. Of the three men, he was the largest, so he would fetch the highest price.
   “I’m surprised the slave pens are inside the city’s walls,” Lucy said. “Wouldn’t it make more sense if they were along the quay?”
   “They are,” Francis replied. “The slave ships dock further down the wharf. We’re on a promontory, so we’re angling towards the other side. We’ll soon pass beneath the north gate. This way, we don’t have to fight bigger crowds.”
   Thank heavens for that foresight, Miriam thought.
   As promised, they passed beneath another keyhole gate before stepping onto a sunny esplanade. This side of the port was broader, making room for cargo. Camels brayed from where they were picketed. Horses milled and stamped in makeshift corrals. Poultry roosted despondently in cages, looking as if they might expire from the heat. The air stank of tar and dung. From somewhere beyond the quay, a bell tolled noon.
   “We need to hurry. This way.” Francis led them past the paddocks.
   They came to a place where a small crowd had gathered before a low platform. Dilapidated shacks stood behind it, looking as if a strong wind might knock them over. A portly man in a worn leather doublet, dull pantaloons, and ankle-high boots, climbed onto the stage.
  “M’ lords and ladies!” he bellowed, snagging everyone’s attention. “I bring you quality goods, the pick from Afrik. Step up and examine ‘em. They’ve only been on board a few weeks, so still pretty fresh.” He signalled a burly assistant to bring forth the slaves. From the nearest shack, a line of six black men appeared, chained at the ankles and wrists. As they shuffled, their skin shone greasily—an old trick, Francis had said, to hide welts. They ranged in age and size, but they shared one thing in common. They gazed out on the world as if they were no longer a part of it. They seemed the epitome of hopelessness.
   A number of customers approached them, demanding they open their mouths so they could check for rot. The auctioneer forced the slaves to comply. Then they were made to bend their arms and legs
to prove they were able. Miriam’s stomach turned at the sight of it. Joachín is depending on me, she told herself, sickened by her own unwillingness to interfere. She couldn’t create a scene. After the first group were dealt with, they were taken away. She caught her breath as a group of children replaced them. The eldest looked to be no more than eight. The little ones clung to each other and eyed the crowd, as if too terrified to cry.
   “And here we have the young’uns, suitable for pages or maids. Or gentlemen’s companions.” The auctioneer winked. A few buyers guffawed. Miriam spun about, wanting to pick them out.
   “Easy, now.” Francis nudged her elbow. “If it makes you feel any better, they’ll all go to that woman over there.” He pointed to a well-appointed noblewoman dressed entirely in white. She stood a ways from the crowd as if choosing to keep her distance. A servant shaded her with an umbrella while she cooled herself with a fan. A chamberlain stood to her right.
   Miriam released her jaw. She had been grinding her teeth.
   “Just watch. They’re about to begin.”
   As the auction progressed, Francis proved right. The woman’s chamberlain outbid everyone who challenged her. When the bidding ended, he shepherded the children away. “It isn’t a great outcome,”
Francis said, watching them go, “but she won’t abuse them.”
   “How do you know?” One little boy had started to cry. Miriam’s heart went out to him.
   “Consider what she’s wearing. White is her trademark.”
   She frowned and then understood. The woman wanted the children so she might flatter herself in her social circles. Dressed in silks and satin, they would surround her like black pearls around a
diamond. They were jewellery, embellishment. When she tired of them, she would discard them for something else.
   She was so angry she found it hard to breathe. “That’s terrible! They’re children, not things!”
   “The world is a terrible place,” Francis agreed. “Speaking of which—look who’s here.” On the opposite side of the crowd, Don Lope appeared. Her fury dissipated as she shrank behind Francis. “Don’t worry,” he whispered. “He won’t know you. You look like Rana Isadore. I just thought it wise not to draw attention to ourselves.”
   She drew in a breath to steady herself. He was right. The callousness of the noblewoman had been a breaking point. She needed to concentrate on the matter at hand—they were here to buy Joachín, Iago, and Barto. Don Lope wouldn’t know who she was. She never thought she would be grateful for Rana’s glamoury, but she was now.
   A new group of slaves was ushered onto the platform. According to the auctioneer, they were ne’er-do-wells from various jails or other penurious circumstances. Joachín, Barto, and Iago weren’t among
them. “They aren’t there,” Luci said, crestfallen. She wasn’t the only one who was disappointed.
   “Perhaps in the next group,” Francis murmured.
   As the afternoon wore on, eight more groups were displayed and sold. At the end of the auction, Don Lope headed for his ship while his men organized their human cargo. Miriam wanted to chase after him, to demand he release Joachín, but she knew better than to try. She turned to Francis, frantic to salvage whatever scrap of hope he might offer. “Is there another auction, later?”
   He stared after Don Lope, his expression troubled. “I don’t think so.”
   “Why weren’t they here?” Luci asked anxiously.
   “I don’t know. I’ll learn what I can.” He headed for the auctioneer. They exchanged a few words. When he returned, the news wasn’t good. “There are no more slaves in the pens. All I can surmise is,
they’re still on La Estrella.”
   “But, why?” Luci pressed.
   “I don’t know. Maybe Don Lope didn’t want to sell them. Maybe he intends to keep them on board until La Estrella docks in the New World.”
   “If Joachín’s welts are festering, the poison will travel to his heart.” Miriam felt her own constrict as she said it. “We have to do something, Francis. Surely, you can come up with some kind of a ruse to have them released.” It was disturbing to realise how much she had come to rely on him in so short a time.
   “If we had more time, possibly, but under the circumstances, I don’t think we do.”
   Her heart sank.
   He eyed her dubiously. “There is one thing that might work. I don’t suppose you have coin.”
   She flushed with new hope. “Not coin, but this.” She handed him the pouch Joachín had taken from Don Lope in Qadis. He eyed it curiously and then opened it. His eyes widened at the sight of the
nuggets. “Where did you get these?”
   “From Don Lope. Joachín stole them from him. The first time was when we were in Marabel, the second, when we were in Qadis. Hopefully, the nuggets look like any other.”
   “He stole them twice? That’s a story I’ll have to hear when I get back.” He tied the pouch to his belt and strode in the direction of La Estrella del Mar.
   “What do we do while you’re on the ship?” Luci shouted after him. “Wait for you, here?”
   “No.” He turned and waved. “The sun is about to set. Go back to the Phoenix. It isn’t a safe for you ladies to be out on the streets after dark.”
   “When will you return?” Miriam called.
   “If I’m not back with the men by midnight, tell the captain we’ll be there by dawn.”
   She nodded. She would have Ximen advise Captain Vrooman. He would listen to another man. "Gods’ speed,” she shouted. If anyone could release Joachín and the others, it was Francis. “We should hurry,” she told Maia and Luci.
   They headed back the way they had come. Dusk drenched the town in ambers and indigo. Men smoked openly at the tables now, their hookahs coiling before them like serpents, the smell of hashish and qahwa, a bitter drink from Ethiope, thick upon the air. Common houses were open for business, offering everything from beer to girls. As they passed, they were eyed with speculation. Francis was right. It was a mistake to loiter. They hurried for the jolly boat, glad to see the Phoenix’s sailors waiting to escort them back to the ship.

*

Little Grim was fussing. Under the dim light of their alcove’s lantern, the baby’s face was turning red. It won’t be long before he’s screaming, Casi thought.
   “I can’t do a thing with this baby.” Zara unwrapped his swaddling. “I need to sponge him off and give him fresh water. We’re nearly out. Be a good girl and go fill that pail.” She nodded at their water bucket standing in a dark corner. “And don’t dawdle.”
   “I won’t.” Casi grabbed the pail and skipped out the door. It was good to have an excuse to leave their nook. Babies had a tendency to smell. Other than Zara and fussy Grim, everyone was napping.
It was nearing the end of siesta, of what had been a hot and boring afternoon. Maré, Miriam, and Maia had gone to the slave market to fetch Iago, Joachín, and Barto. Maré had said it was too dangerous for her to go, so being asked to leave their cramped space on the orlop deck was a relief. She felt like a canary, freed from its cage. And if I’m lucky, I’ll catch sight of Maré coming back with Iago, she thought.
     She hoped Iago was okay. As much as he annoyed her at times, he was still her brother and she had worried about him. She had tried to hear his thoughts, but her talent didn’t seem to work over water. Everyone else on board the Phoenix was another matter.
   On the second deck, none of the crew loitered or snoozed in their hammocks. It seemed today, they preferred to spend their free time in the open air. She sighed in relief. She didn’t like their conversations or their thoughts. The discussion she had heard last night still disturbed her:
   Where are th’ men? I tell yer, it don’t make sense.
   It ain’t like they’s sailin’ alone. There’s th’ priest an’ th’ old man.
   Any priest who listens to women, ain’t a proper priest. Good Book says,‘Let no woman usurp ‘thority over man. For Adam was first formed, then Eve’. Not th’ other way 'round.
   Never realized you was such a hand at scripture, Jager.
   Nothin’ wrong with it. You should try it, Ignaas.
   Cap’n says we ain’t s’pposed to talk religion.
   I ain’t talkin’ religion. I’m talkin’ about trouble on board. Ship’s no place for women. That fat, old one—she’s got th’ evil eye. I seen her lookin’ at me crossways. An’ th’ one with th’ veil—
   Oh, come on, now! Ye sayin they’s witches? They ain’t nothin’ but simple women!
   Aye? Well, we’ll see when their men show up. I’m guessin’ they won’t.
   After that, their conversation had turned to the journey and the weather. It had been a relief when they were called to their watch. She didn’t like the starboard crew or the bosun, Jager de Groot. She
had drifted off to sleep after that. I hope he’s sleeping, now, she thought. Hopefully, she wouldn’t run into Jager while fetching water.
   She glanced about quickly as she climbed onto the waist. Some of the crew were scrubbing the deck with holey stones. She ignored them and made her way to the cook who was plucking chickens for the captain’s supper. He had wounded his leg, somehow. Maybe all sailors weren’t mean. Beside him, a boy of about fourteen sat on a low stool.
   She cleared her throat, hoping she wouldn’t sound fearful. “I need some water.” She held out the pail for them to see.
   “Aye?” The cook squinted at her. Feathers had settled onto his grey hair and his grizzled face. The boy watched her with a closed expression, saying nothing. “Seems a bit soon to be takin’ your ration,
ain’ it?”
   “It isn’t for me. It’s for the baby. He’s sick.”
   He frowned. She had said the wrong thing. Anyone sick on board was a risk. Luckily, she could tell from his thoughts he wasn’t unsympathetic. “Is he, now?” He pursed his lips.
   “Or maybe he’s just hot. Auntie wants me to bring him some water so she can cool him down.” Technically, Zara wasn’t her aunt. She was a great third cousin, but she had known her all her life.
   “Well, we can’t have that, can we, Kip?” The cook glanced at his assistant. The boy looked uncomfortable. She wasn’t sure why. Was it the baby, or because she was a girl? “Tell yer auntie to bring ‘im up here, so he can get some fresh air. I’ll have broth for ‘im later, if there’s anything left o’ th’ captain’s soup.”
   “Oh, he isn’t eating real food. He’s still….” She turned a bright red. It was embarrassing to speak of such things before an old man and a teenaged boy.
   “Well, tell his moeder she can have th’ broth if she wants,” the cook replied implacably. “If th’ babe’s still on th’ breast, she’ll need it.”
   Casi blushed even harder. The cook eyed her. “You, too. Yer a skinny one. Y’ need some meat on them bones. Come see me in th’ galley later, and I’ll give y’ some soup.” The boy smirked.
   She shrank with embarrassment. She was skinny, but after days of beans and hard biscuit, the chicken broth was appealing. Not knowing what to say, she turned to go.
   “Wait! Ain’t y’ forgettin’ somethin’?” the boy pointed out. “Th’ water for th’ babe?”
   She swallowed and offered him the pail. He took it and ladled a small portion of water into it. “Thank you,” she muttered after he was done.
   “Mind, y’ don’t spill,” he said, in that superior way all boys had. “Water’s precious on a ship.” The cook smiled.
   “I won’t.” She made her way carefully to the companionway, sensing they watched her all the while. The boy’s interest in her felt particularly acute. Did he think she was incapable of carrying a bucket? I’ll show him, she thought. Stepping carefully, she descended the companionway without mishap. As she turned to take the second, someone grabbed her by the arm. She let out a small cry.
   “What are y’ doin’ with that?” Jager de Groot towered over her, a blond, sweaty giant. His hand was calloused and thick. Other than the two of them, they were alone. His thoughts were a mix of malice and suspicion. His grip hurt her arm.
   “It’s water,” she stammered. “For the baby.”
   “Why?”
   She wasn’t about to make the same mistake she had with the cook and the boy. “He’s hot and fussing. Auntie sent me.”
   “How long did you spend at the water?”
   “A few minutes.” Why was that important?
   He shook her arm. Fear raced through her. The water slopped over the side of her pail. “Did the cook give y’ all that? What did you say t’ him?”
   “Nothing! I just asked for water!”
   “What else?”
   “I didn’t do anything!” Let me go! Why was he being like this? Why was he attacking her?
   I know what yer about! You mean to hex our water! If any o’ us sicken, I’ll drown ya with m’ own hands!
   He was the ogre from the fairy tales her brother used to tell. In another second, he would smash the life from her with those big hands. “I…I wouldn’t!” She couldn’t stop her teeth from chattering. Her heart was pounding so hard she was seeing spots. “I don’t know how to hex water!”
   “YAH!” He released her as if burnt. “HOW DID Y’ KNOW I WAS THINKIN’ THAT?” He grabbed her again by the back of the neck.
   “Let me go! You’re hurting me!” The pail’s handle slid through her hands. Water slopped everywhere.
   “What’s going on here?” Zara appeared half way up the lower ladder with Little Grim in her arms.
   Thank heavens for auntie! Never in her life had she been so glad to see her.
   Jager released her and his cheeks shook. He pointed at her, his fingers forming a starburst of Sul. “FOR SHE WHO DIVINES MUST BE CAST OUT, AS VERMIN FROM GARMENTS!” Then, before she could react, he backhanded Casi so viciously, it sent her reeling. Her temple struck a bulkhead. The world blackened and there were sparks. Then pain chased the dark. She hurt so much she felt sick.
   “Casi!” Zara cried out in horror. There was a curse, some creaks and scrabbling. Someone fled up the ladder. Jager.
   “That’s right! You’d best run from me!” Zara shouted after him. Little Grim was set beside her, a squirming mass. Warm hands clasped her by the shoulders.
   “Casi, can you speak? Let me see your head….” Fingers prodded her temple, making her moan. “All right, I won’t touch it. We’ll put a compress on you, instead. Can you sit up? Maybe stand, so we can go below?”
   She started to cry, ragged, harsh hiccoughs that came from her stomach as they forced their way up. Everything hurt.
   “Oh, here now! You rest there a minute! We don’t have to go just yet.”
   No one had ever struck her like that. Why had she let it slip, that she had known what he was thinking? Because he scared me, that’s why. I should have been stronger, more careful. How could he think I would poison the water? What had he said about vermin and wickedness? None of it made any sense.
   She sucked in a shuddering breath and rubbed her head. “I’m sorry, Auntie.”
   “What happened?” Zara helped her to sit.
   She stared at her miserably. How could she admit what she had done? Her weakness had put them into danger. Maybe Jager would think he had imagined it, but she doubted he would.
   Zara pursed her lips. “Well, don’t worry about it.” She surveyed the companionway to their deck below. “It’s going to be difficult maneuvering the ladder with Little Grim. I can take him first, then come back for you. Or…can you manage on your own?”
   She nodded and regretted it. It hurt to move her head. Auntie was eyeing her like an eagle its eaglet. “I think so.”
   “Good.” Zara cast a baleful glance up the companionway. “If it’s rations he’s on about, I can do without.” She turned to her. “I’m sorry, Casi. I should’ve gone for the water myself. That brute won’t dare cross me. If he does, he’ll suffer the consequences. Come along now, but watch yourself.” She descended to the lower deck.
   Auntie was furious, she could tell from her thoughts. She said nothing more about Jager de Groot, but she, Maré, and Miriam would discuss him later, at length. Maybe they would even tell the captain
what he had done.
   Casi called after Zara from the top of the stair. “Maybe we shouldn’t say anything, Auntie! I don’t want more trouble.”
   Zara’s voice floated up to her from below. “Don’t you worry, niña. That bosun’s the one who should worry, not you.”
   She followed her down the ladder, too sick to reply.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

(And so ends, Chapter One. There's much more to The Tattooed Queen, of course, regarding what happens to Joachín and the men on board the slave ship, La Estrella del Mar. Things also get much worse for Miriam and her Tribe aboard the Phoenix. As well, Tomás, the Grand Inquisitor and his pet sorceress Rana, follow Miriam, Joachín, and Alonso across the Great Ocean Sea to Xaymaca. Plus, there are pirates, and cimarrónes, and voodoo, and even a search for the elusive Fountain of Youth. In the end, the love triangle between Miriam, Joachín, and Alonso, is finally resolved.

If you haven't read the first two books, The Tattooed Witch and The Tattooed Seer, I suggest you do for everything to make sense. The Tattooed Queen is the final book in the trilogy. It's set to be released December 1st, 2016.)

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

THE TATTOOED WITCH - SPECIAL DEAL FOR FREE E-BOOK on KOBO

IN CASE ANY OF YOU DIDN'T SEE THIS on Facebook or on the Five Rivers Publishing website, etc, Kobo Books is offering a special deal on the first book of my trilogy The Tattooed Witch. To save time, I've copied the promotion from the Five Rivers website:
"To celebrate the conclusion of Susan MacGregor’s trilogy, Five Rivers Publishing is offering 45 days at Kobo where you can download a free copy of the first in the series, The Tattooed Witch. The promotion runs October 15 through November 30. For those of you who haven’t delved into this lush, tense paranormal fantasy, we’re sure you’re going to be hooked. The last in the trilogy, The Tattooed Queen releases December 1. Happy reading!"  
This is an excellent deal. Normally, the printed book goes for $25.99, although it's currently offered on Amazon.ca at $34.29 and $31.99 on Amazon.com. This link will take you to the Kobo site for the free e-book. If you haven't already read them, you can also check out the first two chapters of The Tattooed Witch on Suzenyms here.

As a bonus, I will be posting the first chapter of the trilogy's final book, The Tattooed Queen, on Suzenyms, shortly.

- Susan.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

THE TATTOOED QUEEN - FIVE RIVERS INTERVIEW, PART TWO

THIS IS A CONTINUATION OF THE INTERVIEW of my prior post about The Tattooed Queen and The Tattooed Witch trilogy, which I began with my editor, Lorina Stephens, of Five Rivers Publishing. The Tattooed Queen will be released December 1st, 2016.

Lorina (LJS): You deal with the horrors of the slave trade in this novel. What was the reasoning for exploring that dark stain on history?

Susan (SJM): In 1550, slavery in the New World was big business and a horrific fact of life. There is no ‘story’ during this time, that doesn’t include this part of New World history. The slavery was encompassing. Not only were black people from Western Africa captured and imprisoned, but the indigenous tribes were forced to work, only to be wiped out by smallpox, syphilis, or other terrible diseases. Indigent whites who populated the jails of Europe, or those who roamed (gypsies), were also caught, shipped, and forced into servitude. It’s important to remember the sins of the past so we fight them as they occur today, and to thwart them in the future.

LJS: Was there an element of this particular story you found a challenge? Or did the story unfold relatively organically?

SJM: Mostly organically, but there were challenges. I think the biggest one I had to deal with, mainly in The Tattooed Seer and The Tattooed Queen, was plot. I had The Tattooed Witch’s story line mostly decided upon, and I knew some of the highlights I wanted to cover in the second two books. I also knew how the trilogy would arch and end, but as for actually getting to points a, b, c, and d, there was a lot of ‘fill’ I hadn’t worked out. For The Tattooed Seer, the geography and remnant cultures in Spain after the racial cleansing in 1492 offered ideas – Jews in hiding (the Olivares), Moslems appearing to embrace the state faith (the al-Ma’din’s), etc. Both the history and the geography led to some interesting research and helped fill those gaps.

The other challenge was the research, especially for The Tattooed Queen. I’m a prairie girl. When I started The Tattooed Queen, I knew next to nothing about sailing, about historical ships – galleys, naos, and what have you, how they were constructed, manned, how long a trip to the New World took from Spain, where the likely ports of call would be along the way, how they were victualed, where poor women passengers might have to sleep – all that. The same goes for piracy and voodoo. I had to learn these things, and go over a number of aspects several times to make sure I had the details right. (Next time, I’ll keep much better notes!) This meant a great deal of reading in order to prepare, as well as checking and double-checking things as they came up along the way. But that’s what a historical writer does, and I enjoyed doing it. I don’t think after researching and writing The Tattooed Queen, that any attempt at a historical novel will daunt me.

LJS: You’ve based the cultural construct of The Tribe on the Roma people. What is it about that culture that attracted you?

SJM: This trilogy had its earliest beginnings in my own family history. My relatives on my mother’s side used to tell a story about how the family was kicked out of Spain. Supposedly, we were nobility and didn’t get along with the king. I questioned the story which started me on this path – who were the people who were forced out of Spain? Of course, that’s pretty obvious to anyone who has a basic understanding of European history. In 1492, Isabel and Ferdinand ousted the Moors from their last stronghold in Granada, unifying the country under a Catholic monarchy. In that same year, all Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism or to leave. Anyone caught practising the Jewish faith after that was termed a heretic and dealt with by the Church. Moslems were treated a little better, allowed to stay for some time afterwards, but eventually, they were also forced to leave or convert. Even as conversos or moriscos (converted Jews or Moslems), these groups were looked upon with suspicion. As for the gypsies, they were disparaged because they roamed. The first wave is mentioned to have appeared in Barcelona in 1492 - not the best year for them to arrive. It’s more than likely my family were Jews forced to convert, because we were also – according to the family mythos – well off. (If you were accused of heresy, the Church could confiscate your property without recourse. Many people chose to leave before such charges arose.) We eventually left Spain for Eastern Europe, where we settled in Austria, near the Ukrainian border. One of my relatives, Ivan Franko (Franco, in Spanish, which happens to be a converso surname), became a poet-laureate of the Ukraine. As well as his books, he wrote many supportive essays about the Roma people – a strange thing for him to do considering how maligned they were. It’s hard to say what my family’s original roots actually were. I’ve always felt an affinity for both Jewish and gypsy (Roma in eastern Europe/Caló in southern Spain - Andalucía) cultures.

LJS: What’s next for Susan MacGregor?

SJM: A new book, potentially a brand new series. I’m already doing the research and getting excited about it. I don’t want to say too much because I believe in jinxes, having jinxed myself before with talking about projects prematurely. But I will say this. It will likely be a historical fantasy set in England around 1910. In tone, it will be much lighter than the trilogy. I’m hoping it’ll be a lot of fun. We’ll see. It may be that my dark side will win out and the book won’t be the amusing jaunt I've planned after all.

Either way, it’s bound to be a challenge. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. 

- Susan.

Monday, October 10, 2016

THE TATTOOED QUEEN - FIVE RIVERS INTERVIEW, PART ONE

I WAS ASKED THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS by Lorina Stephens of Five Rivers Books, regarding The Tattooed Queen and the trilogy in general. It's great to have an opportunity to do this, not only to promote the final book and the trilogy itself, but to be able to address some of those things which may not be as evident simply from reading the books. As the interview is fairly lengthy, I've divided it into two posts. If any of you have questions, please feel free to ask or comment:

Lorina (LJS): The third and final novel in The Tattooed Witch trilogy, The Tattooed Queen, releases December 1, 2016. It’s a vastly different novel than the first, having transported Miriam, Joachín, and the Tribe across the ocean to the New World. Was that a metaphor for not only the evolution of The Tribe, but for Miriam herself? New World=New Understanding.

Susan (SJM): I want to address the first part of that statement, that The Tattooed Queen is vastly different from The Tattooed Witch and The Tattooed Seer. Yes, it’s different in that the settings are different. The first two books take place in Spain, and the last one covers Miriam and her Tribe’s adventures on the Great Ocean Sea (the Atlantic), then sets them in Xaymaca (Jamaica) in the Caribbean. The Tattooed Queen is different because the new settings are different. There is also a shift in the balance between fantasy and romance. Books one and two explore relationships – Miriam’s love affair with both Joachín and Alonso, her becoming the matriarch of her Tribe, etc., set within a magical world. In The Tattooed Queen however, the fantasy element takes precedence, outweighing the romantic elements, which are still there, but which step back somewhat. Which is also why I consider the trilogy more of a historical fantasy than a historical romance. All that said, The Tattooed Queen remains similar to the prior two books because the characters develop and grow, and because of the themes I initially introduced.

Was Miriam’s journey to the New World a metaphor for her own evolution? All good characters should evolve, and evolve she does. Like most of us, life knocks off our edges, makes us see things in grey, rather than in black and white. I think that’s an apt description for the changes Miriam goes through. She starts out with some fairly fixed ideas about morality and faith. Her morals, initially rigid, become less so – much like Joachín’s approach to life, where he is forced to become more conscious of right and wrong. (Personally, I enjoyed exploring that switch). As for her faith, or her lack thereof, Miriam realises the world is a much bigger place than what only five senses and logic can show you. I suppose you could say that the journey to the New World mirrors her growth, which is a metaphor, although I didn’t plan it to be so.

LJS: You flirt with and explore Voodoo culture in The Tattooed Queen. What was the reasoning behind introducing a new magical construct?

SJM: The original religion in The Tattooed Witch reflects an antagonism between a patriarchal and repressive institution and that of a personal faith. That I chose to make Miriam’s introduction to the Diaphani religion as one augmented by magic, is actually beside the point. We each need to find our own way, our own spiritual approach (or lack thereof) without the dictates of a repressive and controlling body that may not have our best interests at heart. For the Diaphani faith, I incorporate a lot of pagan elements – faith in a goddess and a god. Voodoo or voudou (depending on where it’s based), is also a religion of many gods or lwa. Knowing that I was moving the plot into the New World, I had to do the research – see what African religions were brought there through the slave trade. What excited me were the similarities – a belief in multiple gods or spirits, similar to what I had already established in the first two books. In the trilogy, Lys is a goddess, represented by the sea, her elements being water and air. She is personal, more intimately involved with her followers than Sul, the god. I was delighted to find counterparts in voodoo – Damballa, the universal serpent, is similar to Sul as the creator of the universe. La Sirene, goddess of the ocean, is similar to Lys. Discovering these similarities was serendipitous.

So, new magical constructs? Not really. They were reflective of the ones I had already established. Which theme-wise was also important. I think it’s better to look for similarities, what we have in common with people who are not like us, rather than to focus on the differences. Jamaica (Xaymaca in the book) is a nice metaphor for that. There, the tribes mix, become heterogeneous. In terms of basic hopes and dreams, most of us are not so different from one another. We need a place to belong, to feel safe. We want to take care of our families and contribute to our communities, no matter what colour or sexual orientation we happen to be.

LJS: Having achieved recognition as Matriarch, and a considerable power, Miriam’s ascendancy takes place without a tattoo imbued with the power of her people, but rather through bonding with the spirit-god of a snake. Why have Miriam make this break with tradition and a magic she already knows so well?

SJM: I think my response, above, explains that somewhat. A new tattoo wasn’t necessary for Miriam. Alonso, as a disembodied spirit, is also part of her original tattoo magic, and it is he who helps her handle the snake situation. I wouldn’t say Miriam bonds with Damballa, the spirit-god of the snake, at all. In fact, she worries she may have misrepresented herself in that very aspect. As for tattoo magic, Joachín’s sub-plot deals more directly with his tattoos, and how they combine and evolve, making his requirement to tell the truth into a serious talent for determining what is real and what isn’t. Rana, one of Miriam’s rivals, also continues exploring her own version of blood magic, through scrying. So, no breaks, or switching from one magical tradition to another, but the evolution of those original abilities.

(Part Two, to be continued next post...) - Susan.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

THE TATTOOED QUEEN - COVER

I HAVE BEEN SOMEWHAT REMISS in my posts these past couple of weeks. Here is the new cover for The Tattooed Queen by Jeff Minkevics. I love how it's in keeping with the theme for both The Tattooed Witch and The Tattooed Seer. I've been very lucky to have been allowed input with all three covers, one of the perks of publishing with Five Rivers Books. I've also completed an interview with my editor, Lorina Stephens, about The Tattooed Queen which I will post here, this coming  Monday (Thanksgiving, here in Canada), so if you're interested, check it out.

As for Thanksgiving, I feel I have so much to be grateful for. The Tattooed Queen is set to be released December 1st (I expect there will be opportunity for pre-orders through Five Rivers and Amazon, etc., although they haven't been posted yet.) I also have a date for my first Edmonton launch at Audrey's Books for December 7th. It will be a joint launch, which I'm sharing with the amazing and talented Ann Marston. Her book, A Still and Bitter Grave, is also through Five Rivers.

Wherever you are, and whenever you celebrate it, have a wonderful Thanksgiving, everyone!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

LETTERS to the SLUSH PILE #24

INSTEAD OF PENNING A LETTER to writers who shall remain anonymous, I thought I'd create a list of some of the things I've seen in the On Spec slush pile that make me reluctant to support publication. These flaws don't necessarily mean a rejection. If the story is good and the problem fixable, I'm as likely to suggest a rewrite. I should also point out that these are my particular pet peeves. At On Specwe don't always agree on what's good and what's not (which is a good thing.) So, in no particular order:



Ten Things That Make Me Less Than Enthusiastic About Publishing a Short Story:

1).  An unsympathetic protagonist. I'm especially not keen on protagonists who prey on children, even if they get their comeuppance. An unsympathetic protagonist is a hard sell. There needs to be something I like about him. If I don't, why should I care?
2). A Mary Sue protagonist, in no matter what guise she might appear. If she's always good, she's dull. For me, innocence and naivety also tend to be boring. This character isn't so shallow, as she lacks depth. (There is a difference.) Victimisation is also a turn-off, unless there's some kind of gain to be made.
3). Sexual stereotypes, particularly of women. Prostitutes are a hard sell unless I get a glimpse of their interior life, their humanity, and even then I might question, 'Why does she have to be a prostitute? Is the writer trying to be provocative or titillating?' (Don't try to be glib, worldly, or sensational. We editors are a jaded lot.)
4). Openings that introduce the main character(s) as 'he', 'she', or some other undefined term. Give them a name from the get-go. For me, this is almost always a give-away that the writer is still working on their craft. Usually, the rest of the story proves me right.
5). Details in the opening that have little (or nothing) to do with the plot later on. It's important to flesh out a story, but everything needs to be there for a reason - details should be pertinent to plot or character.
6). Anachronisms - in particular, modern slang in an historical story (unless time travel is involved). If you're not sure, don't use it.
7). Lack of a definitive ending. If the story doesn't go anywhere, what's the point? Day-in-the-life stories often have this problem. It takes solid writing to pull these off, and in good ones, there is always a point to be made.
8). Conflicting mythos - when a story fails to explain why it differs from the traditionally held ideas about setting or character. For example, fairies who tolerate iron. The common myth is - they don't.
9). Too much exposition. This usually involves back story - how characters met, their history, etc. Sometimes, the back story is more interesting than the plot. It's the story you wish the writer would have told.
10). Not SF Enough: sometimes, we get stories that are well written, but the science fiction or fantastic elements aren't strong enough. I always feel bad about turning these down, but On Spec is a science fiction and fantasy magazine, after all.

I'm only half-way through reading the slush, so there could well be another list forthcoming. As I said earlier, if you think you're even the slightest bit guilty of these, don't worry too much. There might be enough good stuff in your work for us to ask for a revision.

- Susan.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

LETTERS to the SLUSH PILE #23

Dear ----------

Re: Memo #3

I just want to start off by way of an apology. I was hard on you in Memo #3, and that wasn't fair. We all start out by writing what we think is pretty good stuff, and it takes a while to develop an eye to see the flaws. I think back to some of the earliest stuff I sent out, and I either cringe or laugh.

That said, I thought it might be much more helpful if I told you why I was so put off by your story.

You opened with telling me your protagonist had just lost a limb - her hand - to a monster. You didn't elaborate on what kind of monster, and quickly reassured me that your protagonist was all right, if a little inconvenienced by the loss of her hand.

You realise this could have made a pretty gripping opening? Setting it aside so quickly turns it into back story - never a good way to start a short story, or a novel for that matter. But even more to the point is the fact that your protagonist shrugs off losing her hand as if it's no biggie. She even goes so far as to clean herself up and hide her missing part beneath a fold in her skirt so her boyfriend won't notice.

Okay - a few issues here. Either she's a superhero or you're taking us into comic territory reminiscent of the Black Knight in Monty Python's The Holy Grail. I'm pretty sure this isn't what you intended. Even if your protagonist is a superhero, the loss of a limb should cost her something. When our protagonists suffer, we empathise with them, we see their struggles and how they deal with them as a kind of character depth. Think about it - if you were to lose an arm, how would you feel about it? I doubt very much you'd shrug it off as your protagonist did. We want your interior story, we want to see your struggle, gain an insight from your pain. You gave me none of that.

Then we head into some sexual territory with your protagonist planning on obtaining semen from her boyfriend to create a magical spell. I suspect you've done some research and found some old superstitions involving semen, menstrual blood, etc. If you want to use these old techniques, you really need to think about how you present the scene. As you've written it, your protagonist comes across not only as shallow (because the loss of a hand hardly makes her blink), but also as manipulative because she intends to obtain the necessary ingredients under false pretences. Furthermore, if she's strong enough to suck it up over losing a hand, why would you objectify her with planning a hand job? Sorry, but this just raises my feminist ire. It also fills my head with some weird visuals. So far, there is nothing about your protagonist that appeals to me. Maybe if I understood her reasoning, why she needs to do such things, I would like her better, but as she is, you've made her unsympathetic, a role better played by your antagonist.

I hope this clears things up a bit. I also wish you all the best with your future writing.

- Susan.

Friday, August 19, 2016

MEMO to the SLUSH PILE #3

To: ---------------

Re: ---------------

When your protagonist loses a limb to a monster, she doesn't go home, clean herself up, and put on a pretty dress AS IF NOTHING HAPPENED, EVEN WHEN IT DOESN'T HURT. And she certainly doesn't plan on JERKING OFF HER BOYFRIEND later.

God help me. Why am I even reading this?

- S.

LETTERS to the SLUSH PILE #22

Dear -------,

In your opening first paragraph, you were off to a great start. Your premise and description were dark and foreboding and they grabbed me. I found myself looking forward to reading the rest of your story with anticipation. Which is why I found paragraph two a bit of a disappointment (yes, I know - I'm already coming off as being annoyingly picky. 'Wow - she got stopped in paragraph two?'You're a good writer. I know this because we've published you before. So what stopped me in my tracks in paragraph two?

You start out with your first sentence describing your protagonist's action - a very specific one that draws my attention to an important object in the setting. The second sentence pulls my attention (and your protagonist's) from that to a description of the sky. The third sentence shows what a group is doing near the important object. The fourth sentence covers more action by a secondary character. The fifth sentence has the secondary character moving the group along. Then we come to the end of the paragraph.

It was a little confusing to keep track of all that was happening. Your sentences were short, and I felt jerked around, like I was being forced to dance a literary version of the polka. A little fleshing out would help, with a stronger focus on your protagonist's point of view. I also suspect you write as I do - the ideas flow from your imagination onto the page, but as they come, they aren't necessarily arriving in a smooth or logical order. You need to take a little more time to rearrange things so they hang together better. Let setting sentences support each other. Let action bits do the same. When you mix them as you've done, it's harder for the reader to keep things straight. I suspect you already know this. (I'm sure you do.) So often, we're blind to our own work. I'm already imagining you smacking your forehead and saying to yourself, 'yeah, damn it, she's right.'

I'm returning to read the rest of your story, now. If On Spec decides to buy it, I'll be making these suggestions to whomever works with you as your editor. (Who knows? That might even be me.)

All the best --------. I hope you found this letter helpful.

- Susan.

P.S. Okay, I finished reading the entire story. I liked it, but your opening has little to do with what happens. I get the feeling this piece is from a much larger work. You need to tailor this so that it reads like a self-contained short story. - S.