Software Engineering and the Chasm between Science and Magic

Today I have the honor of being a guest over at Fantasy Book Critic, one of the ten bloggers participating in Mark Lawrence’s 2016 Self Published Fantasy Blog Off. I’ll be talking about software engineering, genre definitions, the merits of having nerve, the subtle yet indisputable element of science fiction in Outpost, and the chasm between science and magic. It’s a geekfest. You can check it out there, or read it below.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

“Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible.” – Rod Serling

Way back when I had a respectable job, I took some college courses in software engineering. One of them was on compilers, a software program that transforms programming language into machine language used by a computer processor. I sat in there amid a serious bunch of guys wielding thick glasses, pocket protectors and computer science degrees, and I felt like an impostor. For my final exam, I wrote the front end of a compiler in AWK (anyone who knows what that is gets an Award of Excellence in Geekery). I didn’t know what I was doing, but I had imagination and a lot of nerve. I also feared the worst. When the instructor handed me my graded final, I expected him to say, “Who are you and what are you doing in this class?” Instead, he said, “I’ve never seen anything quite like this.” He gave me an A.

Turns out, this is an obscure metaphor for my take on fantasy and science fiction.

I spent the better part of my childhood reading not only speculative fiction but also the esoteric things that inspire it. I was the kind of kid who would do a book report on Hermetic occultism or Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. I was more somewhere else than here, but oddly, this taught me about reality. I never bothered to define the difference between fantasy and science fiction; now, I couldn’t say how many novels there are mixing strong elements of both. It’s a challenge to mix them without throwing out the definitions. Genres tend to blur over time, and then split into sub-genres, because gods forbid we can’t conveniently define something.

exileFor the sake of argument, let’s call these genres distinct and go with classical definitions. To my mind, Science Fiction starts on a foundation of what’s known and provable, usually involving technological advances, the state of civilization, etc., and goes from there. Think Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke or Becoming Human by Valerie J. Freireich. Fantasy deals more in the realms of myth, fairy tales and the unreal, usually involving magic or otherworldly forces—and that’s not to say it has to be soft or without rugged themes or realities. In this context, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings is definitive; the Legend of Drizzt series by R.A. Salvatore, Blood Song by Anthony Ryan and Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea Cycle are exemplary.

In fantasy, within reason, you can do anything if you can imagine it. This is probably why I’ve always leaned towards this genre, particularly the epic or high sub-genres where nearly everything is made up aside from basic references that serve to ground us in the story; for example, a medieval setting. I’ve written some science fiction, but it’s not my first love and despite a long and varied high tech career, I avoid writing it for the same reason I hid beneath an invisibility cloak in compiler class: Impostor! It’s a world full of geeks and somebody will call me out.

And yet, by way of my aforementioned nerve, I went there.

After writing Outpost, which is decidedly fantasy—if not epic or high fantasy if we want to get persnickety—I wrote this little tag line: “Epic fantasy entwined with Norse mythology and a touch of science fiction.” I must have taken out and put back in “a touch of science fiction” a dozen times. Finally, I removed it, but it left a stain. No science fiction here! I grumped, and then I thought about it—an interdimensional portal with specific dimensions and geometry built by extraterrestrial warlords to travel to and from other planets without having to wait for rare planetary alignments, humans trained in the principles of light, crystals, and energy so they can maintain the power source—Yeah yeah, ok. A touch of science fiction.

Odin Rides to Hel

“Odin Rides to Hel” (1908) by W. G. Collingwood

But it’s subtle. Said warlords are immortal, like elves, they are essentially Vikings—albeit highly evolved ones—and walk alongside warlocks, goblins, draugr and gods. Reprieved! The idea here touches on Arthur C. Clarke’s venerable quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In other words, what’s real? There is a seeming chasm in our society between science and magic; what’s acceptable as real and what’s not; and this is evident in these genre definitions. There’s a feel to it. However, as the advance of quantum theory is showing us, this chasm is itself an illusion.

Ergo, I can write the front end of a compiler in any language I want. Hold my beer.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Outpost Cover ArtOutpost, Book One in The Fylking. In a war-torn realm occupied by a race of immortal warlords called the Fylking, trouble can reach cosmic proportions. Using the realm as a backwater outpost from which to fight an ancient war, the Fylking guard an interdimensional portal called the Gate. The Fylking’s enemies, who think nothing of annihilating a world to gain even a small advantage, are bent on destroying it.

After two centuries of peace, the realm is at war. A Gate warden with a tormented past discovers a warlock gathering an army that cannot die. A King’s ranger is snared in a trap that pits him against the Fylking’s enemies. And a knitter discovers an inborn power revered by the gods themselves. Caught in a maelstrom of murder, treachery, sorcery and war, they must rally to protect the Gate against a plot that will violate the balance of cosmos, destroy the Fylking and leave the world in ruins.

The god they serve is as fickle as a crow.

“McKinstry’s book proves to be one of the best independently published fantasy novels of the past year. Tense, gritty, exciting, and romantic, Outpost is a tale avid fantasy readers won’t want to miss.” – Self-Publishing Review

Read for free with Kindle Unlimited.
Amazon

© F.T. McKinstry 2016. All Rights Reserved.

The Orb Weavers’ Empire

The Norns

The Norns

Spiders are fascinating creatures. I have great respect for spiders; aside from the good work they do around here, they have an ancient history of lore and mystique surrounding them. In many cultures, the spider is a powerful totem embodying the forces of creation. In Norse mythology, the spider is associated with the Norns, the spinners of fate. The Old Norse word “norn” also refers generally to weavers and workers of magic.

Garden Orb-Weaver

Garden Orb Weaver

In summer, the eaves around my house are cloaked in spider webs. Some of them are small and humble; others are huge. They hang in layers, and when the sun shines on them they look like galaxies. The big webs are made by a common spider called an orb weaver. A lovely, poetic title.

These creepy critters have grown so big I’ve given them names. In the image below, on the left by the hummingbird feeder, that web is home to Mephistopheles. Next one down is Sauron and the one over the bugbane is Poe (you can kind of see him in the center). It tends to get my attention when one of them drops down to attend to some dastardly business or other.

Orbweavers

Spider Paradise: House eaves, morning sun and gardens beneath.

Balrog lives on the porch. He spins a spectacular web every day in the same spot, right where I need to go to get out to the yard. He lurks up there as if to say “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” (he finds this amusing) and I either have to brush the web aside or climb the woodpile to get by. I’ve explained to Balrog that building his web elsewhere, like, I don’t know, two feet to the left, would be good. But I’m not going to argue with him. One day I came out and there was a fly struggling in Balrog’s web. I actually waited for him to come down, wrap it up and haul it off before I cleared the way. Didn’t want him to miss out on a meal or anything.

By the mudroom there’s a web over 2 1/2 feet in diameter. I call it Shelob’s Lair. Yeah whatever just…back away slowly. Fumble for the Phial of Galadriel and hope for the best.

Deer FlyThe northwoods in summer is home to the ubiquitous deer fly. In case you’ve never encountered one of these assholes, here’s a description. (Tell me this wasn’t written by a New Englander. Hah!) Deer flies have been clocked keeping up with speeding trains (I’m not kidding), so you won’t get far. But I digress. As I was sitting on the porch one day, a deer fly hit the big web above the rosemary plant, struggled there, and damned if I didn’t cheer that spider on. “Hey, Death Eater! Breakfast! Come and get it, Buddy!”

I was a disturbed child.

Alas, the orb weavers have a short stint, here. Winter is coming and soon all that will be left of their empire are frozen cobwebs in the porch rafters. In honor of this venerable creature, there is a character in my novel Outpost called, simply, Spider. She’s a wisewoman revered by the warriors of her immortal race. Early on, Spider appears to a seer named Arcmael and gives him some cryptic advice. Later, she casts a powerful spell on his behalf–but it’s not what it seems. This causes Arcmael to abandon everything he knows to the point of nearly bringing on the imminent annihilation of the world.

Moral of the story: Never disregard the advice of a spider.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Outpost Cover ArtOutpost, Book One in The Fylking.

A race of immortal warriors who live by the sword.
A gate between the worlds.
Warriors, royals, seers and warlocks living in uneasy peace on one side of the Veil.
Until now.

© F.T. McKinstry 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Author Interview at Circle of Books

FT Banner

Welcome Midsummer, the longest day of the year. This year, the solstice coincides with a full moon, a rare alignment that happens once in a lifetime. What better time to shine light on the murky inner workings of a fantasy author?

Rose Moon, by F.T. McKinstry

Rose Moon, by F.T. McKinstry.

My interview with Circle of Books is now up on their website. Among other things, I talk about what inspires me to write fantasy, how I go about it, what I’m into, and my latest book, Outpost, Book One in The Fylking. Art, cats, music, notebooks and a passion for the worlds between, it’s all there. Serious questions for a tortured soul.

Come by for a visit!

 
 
 
© F.T. McKinstry 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Of Mice and Swordsmen

Dormouse
I live in the woods. Mice are a way of life, and while I’ve always had ferocious hunting cats, mice are very resourceful, especially in the fall when they’re looking for winter shelter. Who can blame them? Winter is nasty, here.

You could make an interesting psychological study some 3AM, wide awake staring at the ceiling, listening to a mouse chewing on something, who knows what, insulation, wiring, rafters; it’s stockpiling caches, building nests, making baby mice–the sucker is at least a foot long, has to be–yes, you could be the Great Shaman of all Wildlife Lovers but after imagining the horrible results of nocturnal mouse business you’ll be capable of anything.

Pattern Sense Cover ArtA while back, I wrote a little story called Pattern Sense, about a knitter who discovers the strengths and pitfalls of an ancient power through the love of a swordsman. I wasn’t being tormented by mice at the time (past trauma maybe), but in a vivid description of the aforementioned scenario, I came up with the perfect impetus for my protagonist to discover the extent of her skill.

If a mouse in the middle of the night can’t bring out a woman’s hidden powers, nothing can.

Pattern Sense made it to the second round finals with Daily Science Fiction, and then I published it in Tales of the Talisman. And then, something magical happened. This story, it seemed, was a glimpse of a full blown novel. This began to unfold and eventually became Outpost, Book One in The Fylking. In that story, there is more to our knitter’s power than mere hedge witchery; and the love between her and the swordsman goes to dark places indeed, a subplot driven by sorcery, treachery, war, and even the gods themselves.

Who knew? Mice have a good place in my life after all. Besides, they are cute.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Outpost Cover ArtOutpost, Book One in The Fylking.

A race of immortal warriors who live by the sword.
A gate between the worlds.
Warriors, royals, seers and warlocks living in uneasy peace on one side of the Veil.
Until now.

© F.T. McKinstry 2016. All Rights Reserved.

The Phooka

The Phooka

Arcmael froze as hot breath flowed onto his neck from the air above. On the edge of his sight slipped a dark horn, slender and curved like a cruel knife. Entwined in the beech leaves, it moved with airy swiftness, drifting in and out of solidity, the head of a goat and the gaunt, wiry shoulders of a man. – From Outpost, Book One in The Fylking

Phooka. Malevolent, shapeshifting fiends, or so it is told. The name has many variations which show up in Celtic cultures throughout Northwestern Europe. In Irish, púca means “spirit” or “ghost.” The Old Norse term pook or puki refers to a “nature spirit.” This creature is a shape changer, part human at times, or part or all animal such as a goat or a horse, always with dark fur. Bleak, uncanny and generally wicked, the phooka is best to be avoided; yet can also be beneficial depending on mood or circumstance. Traditional accounts are vague and leave much to the imagination. This adds a creepy air to the thing, a hallmark of Celtic fairy tales.

Between the WorldsIn the realm where Outpost takes place, the veil between the worlds is thin. It is an interesting place to be a seer, depending on what side of things one is on. As it turns out, our protagonist, a seer named Arcmael, lands on the bad side. When a sorcerer summons a phooka for a personal task, the beast roams around creating trouble not only for Arcmael but also for Othin, a seasoned warrior who has no idea what he’s dealing with.

In The Wolf Lords, Book Two in The Fylking, the phooka returns with its gloves off, and wreaks a special kind of misery on the one who originally summoned it, an Adept named Leofwine. As it turns out, the deal Leofwine made with the phooka for what looked like a simple task had some hefty strings attached, strings that make him some nasty enemies and land him in the middle of a war.

The phooka has its own agenda, of course, and no one, including the one who summoned it from the mists of the Otherworld, knows what that is. All the better. Heh.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Outpost Cover ArtOutpost, Book One in The Fylking.

A race of immortal warriors who live by the sword.
A gate between the worlds.
Warriors, royals, seers and warlocks living in uneasy peace on one side of the Veil.
Until now.

“The tone is excellent, reminiscent of some of the earliest examples of grim Norse fantasy.” – G.R. Matthews, Fantasy Faction

Finalist, SPFBO 2016

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

The Wolf Lords Cover ArtThe Wolf Lords, Book Two in The Fylking.

A wounded immortal warlock bent on reprisal.
An ancient order of sorcerers hungry for power.
Warriors beset by armies of demons and immortals.
And a lonely hedge witch whose dark secrets could change everything.
…If only they could find her.

“Awesome book. Loved the first book also. I hope there will be more in the series.” – Customer Review on Amazon

© F.T. McKinstry 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Goblins and Creepy Horses

Lone Mountain Moon

Lone Mountain Moon

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand. ~ Albert Einstein

One of my favorite things about writing is bringing the stories into visual art. I find this every bit as challenging as I do writing; in either case, the final product, while possibly beautiful, never matches my imagination. A fantasy novel is a spectacular source of imagery, and all the more interesting to create because it’s made up. The real world has some references, but it can also limit things. There’s a weird sort of comfort in having more stories and paintings in my heart than I’ll ever bring into focus.

Here are some recent creations, inspired by my latest novel Outpost, Book One in The Fylking.

Goblins of Wyrvith Forest

Goblins of Wyrvith Forest

Nasty, foul-mouthed, malevolent creatures, goblins. You would not want to cross their path, let alone offend them. Arcmael, the protagonist of Outpost, does both. He is a seer and a servant of the Fylking, immortal, unseen warlords who hold dominion over the realm. For love of a friend, Arcmael shatters his vows to his immortal masters. This puts him on the bad side of the Otherworld, where most beings revere the Fylking as gods. This includes goblins, who revere nothing.

Truss him up!
Drag him hither!
Bind his limbs!
Make him slither!

Poor Arcmael. The goblins capture him and he must make an even greater sacrifice to escape their palace. But I won’t spoil that.

Between the Worlds

Between the Worlds

Rose Moon

Rose Moon

A while back, I drew a series of images to accompany verses that appear in the Chronicles of Ealiron. This collection is called “The Solar Breath,” and one of the images is called “Rose Moon.” The accompanying verse goes like this:

Rose Moon loves the ancient oak
Strewn with chamomile and light
Tall white horses thundering
O’er meadowsweet and rue.

Recently, while contemplating nothing in particular, this image came to mind, particularly the creepy little horses. Otherworldly, in fact. Aha. I grabbed them, put them into the “Lone Mountain” painting, tricked it out in magical storms and mists, and I got “Between the Worlds.”

No end to the trouble I can get into.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Outpost Cover ArtOutpost, Book One in The Fylking.

A race of immortal warriors who live by the sword.
A gate between the worlds.
Warriors, royals, seers and warlocks living in uneasy peace on one side of the Veil.
Until now.

© F.T. McKinstry 2015. All Rights Reserved.

One Foot in The Otherworld

a day in my life

Writers spend a lot of time avoiding writing. I was doing that today, tinkering around on the internet (don’t get me started), tending to all these things I told myself were so important but were not important at all, no, just mindless distractions draped in gold, sugar and obduracy. And then I came across this brilliant little GIF.

I stared at it for a while, my mind blank as I tried to put it together. What’s happening here? I asked myself. Then I burst into laughter. What an utterly accurate depiction of my life! Sitting up here in the snowy woods — eight months of the year, that — doing yoga or whatever deep, damned thing I need to do, and all the wild, unseen beasties are there, going about their business with nary a lifted brow.

Let’s hear it for the internet. (And the crowd roars.)

© F.T. McKinstry 2015. All Rights Reserved.

The Trickster

The Trickster

Birds in the corvid family have always intrigued me, ravens and crows among them. These birds are extremely intelligent and surrounded by myths and fairy tales. Among other things, they are said to move between the worlds, making them harbingers and messengers of the Otherworld. They are playful, clever and at times devious, giving them a reputation as tricksters.

The hooded crow (Corvus cornix) is striking. It is found across Europe and in parts of the Middle East. Also called a hoodiecrow, corbie or grey crow, it is ash gray with a black head and throat, wings and tail. It looks like it’s wearing a black cloak with the hood down. How cool is that?

This fine creature has a special place in the story of Outpost, a fantasy novel woven with Norse mythology, mythical beings, swords and sorcery. In this tale, the hoodiecrow is a trickster par excellence, appearing as a particularly curious bird, a dream, a synchronistic event, or a charm given to a warrior by his love. To a knitter with the power of the earth in her hands, the crow takes form as an otherworldly rider.

A warrior on a gray horse thumped over the fresh snow, spruce boughs swaying with silvery restlessness in his wake. His horse moved strangely, as if it had too many legs. The rider wore exquisitely wrought mail of ash gray, black leggings and boots, and a mantle that covered his head and shoulders with feathery black. The hilts of two fine swords glinted above his shoulder. He reined in before the cottage and looked up, revealing the smooth, straight beak of a crow. His eyes glittered like stars.

Melisande stood in the snow in her bare feet, gazing up at the crow warrior like a child. He was beautiful, strange and vast, like a force of nature. He was not Fylking. Not Otherworld, either. He was beyond that.

“Beware.” The sound was the voice of the wind, his voice.

To a wayward seer at odds with the Otherworld, the hooded crow appears to spring him from a trap, a fortuitous event that comes with a very high price.

“Self-pity is powerful magic, is it not?” the crow said. Its pale ash body glowed beneath the pitch mantle of its cloak. “It turns the ridiculous into the sublime.” It cocked its head mockingly.

After delivering an annoying lecture, of course.

As with any trickster, the crow hides its agenda in mystery and surprise. What looks like guidance, mockery, companionship or a warning can—and most likely will—throw one into trouble. But that’s the way it works, with tricksters. Chaos leads to transformation.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Outpost Cover ArtOutpost, Book One in The Fylking.

A race of immortal warriors who live by the sword.
A gate between the worlds.
Warriors, royals, seers and warlocks living in uneasy peace on one side of the Veil.
Until now.

© F.T. McKinstry 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Writing and the Fairy Dust of Familiarity

Oona Creeping, by F.T. McKinstry

Oona Creeping

Consciousness dislikes chaos. Like cats pacing the borders of the yard, we tend to treat familiar things as safe and reliable. It gives us a sense of security. Given that familiarity makes a lot of arbitrary assumptions about reality, however, I personally think it’s an illusion, a convenient facade that makes it easier to deal with things. That’s natural enough, but when it comes to writing, one wants to be careful.

I recently finished a novel. It’s entitled Outpost, interestingly, a term that implies an unfamiliar place in some context or another. I finished it, revised it, edited, polished, washed and repeated until every word was as familiar as the lines on my hand. I’m weary of looking at the thing, truth be told. I put it in the capable hands of my editor.

Now things get interesting (note the mild sarcasm). Being familiar with one’s words is insidiously comforting. The process of writing, both mystical and miserable at the same time, has a way of making one’s work beautiful. Oh yes, the Universe is singing its brilliance because after all, suffering is noble. This is perilous, like being dusted with fairy glitter. You might think you’re looking at a nice green field with flowers and butterflies but those flowers have thorns, there’s a cat lurking in the shadows, the butterfly is headed for a spider’s web and the lambs are fleeing from an impending earthquake. Chaos is everywhere. This is what a good editor will see, because she isn’t strung out on fairy glamor or glossing over the goblins with a palette knife heaped with love and imagination.

Hemlock, by F.T. McKinstry

Hemlock

A useful exercise is to put the book aside for a time, let the fairy dust wear off and go back to it with a more objective perspective. This only works if you’re able to face reality without the high. If something nags you or doesn’t look right, don’t brush it off for fear of chaos by deciding it’s fine. It probably isn’t. It takes strength and courage to see through familiarity and let the work evolve.

These days, everyone is a writer. So I see a lot of things on the internet about How to Know If You’re A Real Writer. That’s a big topic fraught with nail biting. But I figure one of the criteria is knowing what it’s like to wake up from the fairy glamor with a nasty headache, a broken heart and some healthy skepticism.

In other words, chaos is a writer’s friend.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Outpost Cover ArtOutpost, Book One in The Fylking.

A race of immortal warriors who live by the sword.
A gate between the worlds.
Warriors, royals, seers and warlocks living in uneasy peace on one side of the Veil.
Until now.

© F.T. McKinstry 2015. All Rights Reserved.

The Gray Isles

The Gray Isles Cover Art

The Gray Isles is the second book in the Chronicles of Ealiron, a heroic fantasy series that revolves around an assassin called Lorth of Ostarin.

In the Gray Isles, a northern realm cloaked in legends and storms, lives a secret. For thousands of years it lay in the Otherworld, known only in the imaginations of sailors. Now, it has surfaced; first to Eadred, a wizard banished by his kind after being cursed by a witch; and then to Hemlock, a fisherman’s son orphaned by the sea. When their paths collide, a change is set into motion that the heavens watch with dread; for the legends tell, it heralds the birth of an immortal and the death of the realm.

Lorth of Ostarin is a formidable wizard with a turbulent past. An elite assassin and servant of the old powers, he is given a mission by his masters to question Eadred, a high-ranking wizard banished for breaking the codes of his order. Lorth arrives in a fog of eerie impressions to find both Eadred and Hemlock missing, a mystery that swiftly deteriorates into a manhunt that plunges Lorth into a tricky world of visions, secrets, legends, and island politics.

Some secrets are best kept hidden, and madness often hides wisdom. In his quest to lift a curse responsible for his fall and subsequent exile, Eadred has gathered great knowledge of Hemlock’s origins. Through him, Lorth reaches the sobering conclusion that Hemlock is not what he seems. Unfortunately, Lorth is not the only one who has discovered Hemlock’s secret. Racing time, he must bare his sword against an army, violate discretion and risk his own stature in order to free Hemlock from an otherworldly fate before the forces of earth and sea are unleashed upon the mortal world.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Novel, 292 pages
Third Edition
Edited by E.G. Stone
Can be read as a standalone story.
Ebook includes a Glossary and a link to Maps.
Glossary
Excerpt
Map of Ealiron: Sourcesee and East
Map of Ealiron: The Gray Isles

Add to Goodreads

“Wow. Gorgeous. Highly recommended.” – Amazon Customer Review (See Entire Review)

“F.T. McKinstry has a lyrical voice that suits the ancient magic she describes. The majesty of the gods and mystical forces of the novel entranced me…” – David Lee Summers, Editor of Tales of the Talisman and author of Owl Dance

“The Gray Isles is a very tight and compelling tale of suspense on rocky shores and the high seas.” – Alex Willging, Mr. Rhapsodist

“The strength of this novel lies in its descriptions of Hemlock’s psychological states as he undergoes his psychic changes. It also abounds in excellent descriptions of emotions and sensations.” – Michael D. Smith, author of the Jack Commer Series

“The Gray Isles is an incredible mystery set in an incredible mythical land. Its story captivated and enthralled me from beginning to end.” – Aimee at redheadedbooklover (See Entire Review)

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Read for free with Kindle Unlimited.

© F.T. McKinstry 2017. All Rights Reserved.