The Metamorphosis of a Book Cover

Earlier this year, I released a novella called The Crossroads Bargain, a gothic fantasy tale about an old forest with a dark history, a tryst with an elven lord, a lot of unexplained deaths and disappearances, and a faerie curse cast in a centuries-old crossroads bargain.

I created the cover art in the usual way. But for some reason, it unsettled me; it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. There were nervous whispers. I brushed them aside, knowing full well how reckless that is.

Just recently, I did a painting of a scene from the book, in which our protagonist, a sensitive, tormented sort, fades into the faerie realm and there sees the hall of an elven lord tucked into the forest. As I worked on this, a calm whisper suggested that it might make a good cover image.

Okay but I’m keeping that spiderweb.

Then, I suddenly thought of a title, from a saying in the story that describes what to do on a crossroads if you want to summon something from the otherworld:

A northward gaze; a wish as clear as a mountain stream; and a willingness to sacrifice the unimaginable.

Yeah, that little bit of advice causes all manner of horrors, by the way. But never mind that. My new cover came together so beautifully, I decided to change it. It captures the vibe of the story well.

A Northward Gaze is now available on Amazon. Oh, and about those crossroads instructions. Don’t try that shit at home.

© F.T. McKinstry 2023. All Rights Reserved.

New Cover Art and a Freebie

Happy New Year!

For a while now, I’ve had this dark little wolf in my head. Well, ok, my mind is full of all kinds of wild things at any given time–but this guy needed a furever home. So, after painting him, I put him on the cover of one of my books: Raven of the West, a standalone short story that’s part of the Chronicles of Ealiron.

The protagonist of this story is named Urien. He belongs to the highest order of the Keepers of the Eye, a hierarchical order of wizards who maintain balance in the world of Ealiron. Among other things, Urien can shapeshift into flora, fauna, earth, or fog, and he can cast an apparition or merge with the minds of gods. For years, he has haunted the fringe after having loved and lost a powerful wizard on the verge of ascension. But such secrets do not hide well, and when he delves into the darker powers at the bidding of a shady priestess with a hidden agenda, Urien finds himself facing the loss of everything he loves.

To celebrate my lupine invisible friend, Raven of the West will be FREE on Amazon, all day Saturday, January 7. This story is around 60 pages long, gives a rich, detailed picture of the wizards’ realm in Ealiron, and delves into all kinds of unsavory things like witchcraft, heartbreak, vengeance and disasters at the hands of the powerful.

Dark and darker. But fear not! Light always follows, and the days are getting longer now.

Raven of the West on Amazon

© F.T. McKinstry 2023. All Rights Reserved.

A Northward Gaze, A Novella

Previously published as The Crossroads Bargain by F.T. McKinstry.

Elspet’s mother died between the worlds, her staring eyes as milky white as a lily. A common occurrence in their bloodline, it is said. Even marrying into Aelfwine, an old family with as many secrets as trees in the dark wood that borders the estate, did not qualify her to be buried in hallowed ground. This fact is not lost on Elspet, a sensitive, tormented soul who has inherited her mother’s wayward interest in the Fae.

Grieving amid a turbulent household of superstitious servants, the mysterious disappearance of her father, and an ambitious aunt with a draconian agenda, Elspet begins to see things in her bedroom wallpaper. What begins as a mesmerizing portal to the Otherworld, however, becomes all-consuming when a beautiful elven lord slips through and captures her heart. Only Elspet knows the reason for the series of grisly, unexplained deaths that flood into the wake of her lost innocence.

What she doesn’t know is the high cost of consorting with the Fae. When her otherworldly trysts begin to result in impossible events, she is driven into the forest for answers. But not even the village witch or the Fae themselves can stop her inexorable descent into her mother’s fate. After a devastating loss, Elspet is drawn into a war between her lover and his enemy—an elven warlock who cursed her bloodline on a crossroads centuries ago.

To end the curse, she must destroy him with a secret whispered in a dream.

Novella, 120 pages
Available on Amazon.
Read for free on Kindle Unlimited.

© F.T. McKinstry 2023. All Rights Reserved.

Tolkien Meets Poe

I am a passionate and dedicated fan of high fantasy; that is, any world other than this one and preferably one that smacks of a fairy tale, though not in a wholesome way. You know, like those old, dark Irish or German fairy tales that are not written for children. Beautiful things cast long shadows, and the summit is never far from the abyss kind of thing. Think J.R.R. Tolkien meets Edgar Allan Poe.

I started reading these authors roughly around the same time, when I was a kid in the 70s. Tolkien changed my life, I’ll just say that. Among other things, Poe’s short stories and a steady diet of Dark Shadows messed me up properly and got me hooked on Gothic Horror.

So this kind of crept up on me recently, the way the universe sometimes gives you a bitch slap so you’ll recognize what you’ve been looking at all along. While I love Gothic Horror, especially the supernatural–ghosts, werewolves, vampires, witches and the like–I never sat down and tried to write something like that, not specifically. But it was there nonetheless, slinking around in my work like a shadow in the corner of my eye.

Then this happened: A story flashed into my head. It was right out of one of those 60s pulp Gothic Horror novels, with a voluptuous sex kitten in a white nightgown fleeing over the moors from a black castle on the hill. It also featured the kind of fairytale lore I like to write into high fantasy novels. Yeah. My subsequent internal dialogue went something like this:

Writer me: I don’t know how to write this stuff.
Smarter me: You’ve been writing this stuff for years.
Writer me: Rubbish. This isn’t fantasy.
Smarter me: Um. It has elves in it.
Writer me: So. He’s not–
Smarter me: He’s a fucking elf. Beautiful, moves between the worlds, enchanting, seductive, and sneaky. So he’s not from the House of Fëanor, big deal.
Writer me: It’ll suck. You suck.
Smarter me: Whatever. Get to work.

So I did. It’s a novella called A Northward Gaze. A manor hall bordering an old forest with a dark history, a family curse, a string of grisly, unexplained deaths and a fey young woman who sees otherworld beings in the floral patterns of her bedroom wallpaper. Spoiler alert: Our aforementioned elf is one of them and he’s up to no good. Well, maybe. Maybe not. The Fae are tricky like that.

 
 
 
 
© F.T. McKinstry 2023. All Rights Reserved.

The Old One

In the Chronicles of Ealiron, the Old One is a primordial goddess of nature, life, death, and transformation. Often referred to as Maern, which means “mother” in the wizard’s tongue, she is unknowable in her true form, but perceived as the concept of the Triple Goddess, a being that comprises three aspects of the Divine Feminine integrated as one: Maiden, Mother and Crone. These aspects exist and are manifested in all things, whether nature, events or the shadows of the psyche.

In the world of Ealiron, wizards govern balance in the realms and gods walk among them; but both mortals and immortals revere the Old One as sovereign. While referred to as a deity, she is more like a force underlying all things. She is inexorable; she is wyrd; she is the void from which all creation emerges. Life always comes, it preserves itself to its own expression, and all things die. She is the power by which consciousness knows itself.

Maiden

She was the first woman, the only woman, the one all women knew. She was as pure as the first breath, soft as flowers and fresh cream as she yielded to him, her cry blowing through the tree in the swirling language of the lair as he broke through her maidenhead and into the eternal warmth and safety of a mother’s womb. – From The Winged Hunter

The Maiden emerges from the void as new: birth, spring, desire, unfolding. She is the individuality of a bud, an egg or a fresh idea, innocent of darkness. Her light shines like a beacon attracting its own demise, as the cycle begins.

© F.T. McKinstry

Mother

She was all cycles, all changes, all movements in the shapes of waves, circles, wells, and caves protecting the wounded. – From The Winged Hunter

The Mother is the abundance of life. She nourishes, grows, heals and protects. She is the exuberance of a blooming garden in full summer, the blush and glow of pregnancy, the instinct of a mother protecting her offspring and the healing of a warrior’s wounds.

Crone

The Destroyer curled her body with supple grace, caressing the depths. She moved up towards the shimmering surface in a silent spiral, hungry and inexorable. To be worthy of providing a vessel in which to hide her child, these mortals would surrender to the forces that gave him life. – From The Gray Isles

The Crone is the Unknown, the Void, Formlessness, that from which all things come and to which all things must return, from a blade of grass to a galaxy. Hers is the power of death, transformation, rebirth and regeneration. All things must pass through the darkness to know the light, and it is usually through her that one can perceive the aspects of the Old One as inseparable. There can be no birth without death; no protection without swords; no healing without destruction; and no innocence that cannot fall. Likewise, there can be no destruction without rebirth. Every phase of life depends on the other.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

The Old One appears in one shape or another throughout the Chronicles of Ealiron and many of the short stories in Wizards, Woods and Gods.

 
© F.T. McKinstry 2021. All Rights Reserved.

BookBub

Greetings, geeks and bookworms!

So I finally got my cats in a row (it’s a more accurate metaphor than ducks, trust me) on BookBub, a good place to find new books and authors, get deals, recommendations, author updates and the like. If you’re into it, feel free to follow me there. I won’t lose you in a creepy forest, I promise. Well. Not right off, anyway.

 

Happy Halloween!

© F.T. McKinstry 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Creativity and the Fallen Warrior

For three days I’ve been sitting her under a pile of chores and things that need doing. I’m not doing them. I don’t care.

I’ve lost someone I loved to cancer just recently. My cat is sick. I’m sick. In the news, another fifty people were senselessly killed in New Zealand by some fanatic. Another creature sliding onto the endangered species list. Wildfires. Glaciers collapsing. The usual array of messed up, cruel and childish bullshit in Congress. Trump and his stupid fucking border wall. Politicians ranting about every injustice to get us all stirred up for the 2020 elections. Authors and artists begging for clicks. I drift through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, taking the blows.

The only things I respond to now with any glimmer of life are humor, animals, and beautiful things. An otter crunching on a crab. A homeless man giving his last bit of food to a stray dog. A friend’s garden. Esther the Wonder Pig. A funny meme. Anything involving cats. A cool upcoming film about a monster hunter. But every time I laugh or squee, I feel like an asshole. Where are my tears and indignation?

A friend on Facebook recently posted a funding campaign for cancer. It’s not that I don’t care; how could I not? But my mind shut down and I didn’t touch it. And when he posted a picture of his cat I hit the love button. Why? Because the need for support felt like a black hole, while the cat let a ray of light into my heart. Maybe I really am an asshole.

Truth is, I’m numb.

I see plea after plea. We’re all suffering, we all have issues. We must band together to protect and stand for each other, for the environment, for truth and justice. Yes, we must. But when I try to rise and lift my sword, I crumple under the weight. I’m so tired of grief, pain and outrage. It’s incessant. There are only so many times my heart can get hit before it closes down to protect itself. My inner warrior is sitting under a tree, shit drunk, glassy eyed, darkening the earth with the blood of a thousand wounds. Where is all this resolve supposed to come from?

Numb.

Trouble is, I’m not an asshole. The reason I go out and surf the internet fifty times a day is to find things that remind me that my heart is still open. That it can be. That it’s worth keeping that way.

It’s been months since I’ve written or painted anything of note. I need to heal and I feel like a stagnant pool in an old forest, oily and choked with slime, abandoned by frogs, snakes and salamanders. I spend most nights reading fantasy novels and binging on Dark Shadows. But today I remembered something.

The Source

The Source, by F.T. McKinstry

Creativity. It’s one of those words we hear so often that the meaning is lost. To me it’s everything, the source of hope. Anything is possible. But the creative force is tricky. Firstly, the very senses that make me creative are those which expose me to the pain. Close one down and lose the other. Open my heart to the healing waters and I’ll get annihilated. But then there’s this other thing. I can’t shut off the creative force for long; it finds me. It’s very clever. Pain and trauma aren’t the end-all be-all, oh no. They’re like an engine, driving me. All the books and stories I’ve written, the paintings, drawings and poetry. Warriors, seers, sorcerers, old forests, animals, the in-between realms. My realms. Metaphors, visions, psychological archetypes.

Healing. The world would have us believe it isn’t possible. That there is only dissolution, deterioration. How can that be true when we are all creators? Just look around. There are no limits to this. It’s infinite. Divine, even.

I mean c’mon. The cat memes alone…

© F.T. McKinstry 2019. All Rights Reserved.

The Sea Witch’s Bargain

This story is based on an excerpt from The Wolf Lords, Book Two of The Fylking. It’s a tale about a hedge witch, two dodgy ravens and a sea monster with a score to settle. It is included in Wizards, Woods and Gods, a fantasy short story collection.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

The wise tell tales of Otherworld beings one must never tangle with. Powerful, elusive and malevolent, these beings will lay traps around one’s ignorance and need, if given the chance. But once in an age, a mortal comes along who dares to either cross or bargain with such creatures…and a darker tale is born.

Ingifrith, an ordinary hedge witch, thinks little of such tales until she falls afoul of the Fenrir Brotherhood, an ancient order of sorcerers who serve the Wolf Gods of the North. They know her secrets. They know her weaknesses. And she has something they want.

So does the sea witch who lures and traps her into a nasty bargain—in return for protection from the Brotherhood’s reach. Fleeing for her life with nothing but a scrap of advice given to her by a demon warlord, Ingifrith must use her wits to trick a seasoned pirate out of a stolen charm, a feat that will either get her killed or placed in the hands of the sorcerers hunting her.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Read Wizards, Woods and Gods for free on Kindle Unlimited.

© F.T. McKinstry 2023. All Rights Reserved.

Weighing In: LGBTQ Characters in Fantasy

I grew up in the 70s in Houston, Texas, in a relatively old neighborhood near Rice University. Across the street lived a couple named Bob and John. My mother once told me they were married. Looking back, I’ve realized that couldn’t have been true in a legal sense, but at the time I didn’t question it. Bob was a radiologist and John was an animal trainer. Their house was decorated in rich colors and full of antiques and interesting artifacts. They had an old cat, a pair of ferrets and a cockatiel, and their tiny backyard was a jungle of exotic plants. When they went on vacation, I had the honor of taking care of their plants and critters; and when we went away, Bob and John returned the favor. They were awesome and I loved them.

I ate, drank and slept fantasy novels as a kid. It was sanity; it was identity. My first experience of LGBTQ in the genre was Elizabeth A. Lynn’s Chronicles of Tornor. Many of the characters were LGBTQ, and I liked how it was presented, as a matter of fact. Like Bob and John. A big deal wasn’t made of it one way or the other.

Eaglin of Ostarin

Eaglin of Ostarin

When I started writing fantasy, I unthinkingly followed suit. I wasn’t purposefully drafting LGBTQ characters or anything. When it comes to writing, I’m one of those whack jobs who needs to take every step in darkness and see where it leads. And as any author will tell you, characters have a life of their own. They are who they are, straight, queer or whatever. I suspect trying to assign or remove identity would no more work than it would on a flesh and blood person.

When characters with LGBTQ inclinations do appear to me, however subtle, casual or intense–mortals, immortals, elves, warriors, prostitutes, spies, whoever–they do so without taboos or religions trying to shut them down. They might be good or evil or somewhere in between, but their sexual preferences aren’t singled out, marginalized or labeled, let alone persecuted. This isn’t to say horrible things don’t happen to them, or that some jerk won’t take a shot there for lack of something better, but that sort of intolerance is not part of the culture. Frankly? There’s enough of that bullshit in this world, and I’m not about to map it into mine beyond the throes of love, lust and heartache that everyone deals with. So you’re a man and you prefer to fuck men? Huzzah for you. Grab a sword, we have incoming.

Anyway, a protagonist will step up now and then. Here are a few mentions.

Cover Art“Love knows all paths, where even gods and cats are blind.” – from Raven of the West

My first LGTBQ character, so dear to my heart, is named Urien. He belongs to the highest order of the Keepers of the Eye, a hierarchical order of wizards who maintain balance in the world of Ealiron. Among other things, Urien can shapeshift into flora, fauna, earth, or fog, and he can cast an apparition or merge with the minds of gods. For years, he has haunted the fringe after having loved and lost a powerful male wizard on the verge of ascension. But such secrets do not hide well. When he delves into the darker powers at the bidding of a shady priestess with a hidden agenda, Urien finds himself facing the loss of everything he loves.

Fortunately, his erstwhile lover has a secret, too.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

“On soft white pads, he slipped unseen into the trees to the singing of blades and the shudder of the earth drinking blood.” – From “Deathseer”

Liros is the protagonist in “Deathseer,” a short story included in the collection Wizards, Woods and Gods. The commander of an occupying force in a foreign land ruled by the presence of a mysterious alien observatory, Liros has the ability to see the hand of Death, a secret he hides for the sake of sanity, as his commanders would stop at nothing to use it to their own ends.

When a terrible dream drives Liros to check on an outpost, his lords send his lover Thorn, an assassin, to accompany him. Liros knows him well enough keep him close. As Liros’s gift betrays him and exposes a devastating breach of honor by his men, he and Thorn must choose between duty and love, both choices involving bloody consequences.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

“Arcmael handed the charm to the sorcerer. Leofwine studied it intently, his face drawn. After a moment he said, ‘This is old magic. Very old.'” – From Outpost

Leofwine Klemet is seneschal to the High Constable of the King’s Rangers. Knowing that the quiet, watchful man’s duties to their lord involve something more intimate than those of a seneschal, the rangers suspect Leofwine is a spy belonging to a dark and ancient sorcerers’ brotherhood. So does the suspicious, vengeful high constable. After fleeing for his life on the eve of war, Leofwine becomes a friend and ally to a ranger who also gets on the wrong side of the high constable after discovering a plot behind a curtain of sorcery. Here, Leofwine’s arcane knowledge comes in handy–for he is a sorcerer, of course. And a spy. But no one needs to know about that.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

“Leofwine breathed a foul string of words, the blood on his body and the void of his lover’s death giving them form, the culmination of spit, roots, hate and tears, eyes that never closed, hunger that was never sated. A sudden gale rose up from the north and whipped the trees into a frenzy.” – From The Wolf Lords

In The Wolf Lords, Leofwine’s full potential is revealed, complete with a host of demons, torments and nasty enemies. An adept sorcerer of the Fenrir Brotherhood, Leofwine has given up espionage and now serves a hall in a remote forest as a protector of their interests. It is a thankless job but for his lover, a prince, and shelter from his enemies, both mortal and immortal.

Fenrir sorcerers tend to have long shadows, and Leofwine is no exception. When his enemies catch up to him (which enemies always do) and reveal a devastating secret involving someone he holds dearer than life, Leofwine goes berserk and summons a demon capable of destroying the entire realm in a maelstrom of blood. This redoubtable act gains Leofwine not only the condemnation of his order but also the title of Wolf Lord, a wry designation used by otherworldly beings such as demonic warlords and sea witches to refer to the servants of Loki.

And this is only the beginning of his troubles.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

The Chronicles of Ealiron
The Fylking
Wizards, Woods and Gods

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

Wolves, Ravens and the Hooded One

Wolves and ravens. Romanticized, vilified and deified, these intriguing creatures reflect our dreams and shadows like few others. One source of their fame in popular imagination began in ancient Scandinavia, where reverence for wolves and ravens was not only pragmatic, such as the symbiotic relationship in which the animals led hunters to prey and shared in the spoils; but also pantheistic, by connecting to and identifying with the animals as helpers, shamanic totems, and messengers of the gods.

Enter Odin, the Allfather in the Norse pantheon. A deity par excellence, Odin is the one-eyed, all-seeing god of war, magic and wisdom. He is a complex and enigmatic figure, associated with poetry and inspiration, madness and battle fury. He hungers for knowledge. A notorious shapeshifter, he is known as a trickster who might grant favor to a devoted follower only to vanish when most needed. Odin is a patron of shamans, poets and magicians who, in their search for truth and pattern, endure grueling trials of hardship and isolation.

Wolves and ravens are Odin’s familiars, of a sort.

Among the many names attributed to Odin is Raven God. The connection between Odin and ravens is deep and ancient, existing before the Viking Age. A god of death and war, Odin was naturally associated with these carrion birds, the beneficiaries of sacrifices and battlefields, and harbingers of the god’s favor. In keeping with Odin’s intellectual nature, ravens are also extremely intelligent. Two of these birds, Hugin (thought) and Munin (desire), fly over the land and tell him of all they see and hear.

In traditional animal lore, crows and ravens are given the honor of belonging to both the seen and unseen realms. They are creatures of the hinterlands, mysterious, powerful and devious. That these birds tend to accompany death also makes them ominous, both feared and revered by their presence on the carcasses of animals, the condemned, or fallen warriors. They are omens, symbols of the implacability of death, and bringers of information from the other side.

Odin is also accompanied by two wolves, Geri and Freki (both meaning “ravenous” or “greedy one”). He gives his wolves all of his food, and drinks only wine. The wolves are said to roam over battlefields, devouring carnage. As the ruler and bestower of battle madness, Odin is the patron god of berserkers and warrior shamans called úlfheðnar (wolf-hides), who underwent powerful initiations in the wilds, living like wolves, to reach a state of possession and thereby acquire the beasts’ strength, fearlessness, and fury—much to the terror and dismay of their enemies.

On the flip side, Odin is the enemy of Fenrir, a monstrous wolf sired by Loki, a wily and ambivalent trickster god. When Fenrir grows out of control, the gods are compelled to chain the wolf using deception, a stunt that comes with a great sacrifice. Fenrir will break free at Ragnarok, the fall of the cosmos, and devour everything in his path, including Odin. Another story tells of Fenrir’s sons Skoll (One Who Mocks) and Hati (One Who Hates), wargs that chase the sun and moon through the sky in hopes of devouring them. At Ragnarok, they will catch their prey, and the sky and earth will darken and collapse.

The wolf, with its ferocious and apocalyptic reputation in Norse mythology, its prowess and grace in nature, and a distinctive howl that puts a primordial chill on the flesh, is an exemplary metaphor, an antagonist in many a dark tale, and a patron of warriors.

Given the frequent appearance of wolves and ravens in mythology, legends, folk and fairy tales throughout the ages, and their remarkable natural traits, it’s easy to see why they are so common in works of fantasy. Battle prowess, cunning, guile, mystery, trickery and darkness—imagery and metaphors abound. My own work is no exception; a love of Northern European mythology and the grim and sublime traits of wolves and ravens inspire me to no end.

In the Chronicles of Ealiron, an ancient hierarchy of wizards holds the raven as the highest level of attainment in the magical arts. The wolf takes on its spookier characteristics in the lore of the Old One, a goddess of life, death, and transformation. In her darkest aspect, the Destroyer, she appears in the shape of a wolf. Raven of the West, a novelette that takes place in the world of Ealiron, delves deeply into the shadowy, fickle nature of this being, who commands a high price for being summoned, good or ill.

Lorth of Ostarin, the driving force in the Chronicles of Ealiron, is an assassin raised by a wizard. He has the eyes of a wolf and an affinity for ravens, which, being the opportunistic creatures they are, tend to follow him around in much the same way they follow wolves, and for the same reason: to clean up the mess. Lorth and his grim companions also appear in “The Om Tree,” a short story told by an ancient tree that gets its best gossip from—you guessed it—ravens.

The Norse gods haunt many worlds, not just Earth. In Outpost, Book One in The Fylking, Odin, in keeping with his nature, appears at strange times and in strange ways, leaving our protagonists to wonder what he is and whose side he’s on. He goes by many names: Hooded One, Wanderer, Magician. He is served by the Fylking, immortal, Viking-like warriors who take the shapes of wolves and ravens, among other things, though even they can’t guess his agenda. The Wolf Lords, Book Two, delves into the Fenrir Brotherhood, an ancient order of sorcerers who serve the Wolf Gods of the North, including, it is said, Loki himself. Fenrir is their patron, a force used in a variety of nasty ways that don’t always serve the ones who summon him.

Odin, of course, lurks in the shadows, watching and waiting.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

If you’d like to see something beautiful about the value of wolves in nature, watch this: How Wolves Change Rivers

And if ravens fascinate you, do check out the work of Bernd Heinrich, a naturalist who has done fantastic research on ravens in the wild:
Ravens in Winter
Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds

Norse mythology? Here’s a good website, and it includes a reading list: Norse Mythology for Smart People

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

The Chronicles of Ealiron
The Fylking
Outpost
The Wolf Lords
Raven of the West

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