Monthly Archives: September 2012

First Chapter of Songs for a Machine Age

Just for your entertainment, here is the first chapter of Songs.  I hope you enjoy it!


The Fight

It was a street of broken shutters and crooked windowsills, kept tidy under severe coats of whitewash; the ugly straight-rowed gardens straggled, poor in flowers but rich in cabbages and marrows. Elena’s skin crawled in sympathy for all the unseen structural flaws. She wanted to shout at the people living there, both in anger for the neglect and to warn them of the danger, but their unfriendly faces kept Elena’s mouth shut, the desire to speak swelling behind her lips; and so she kept moving.

She walked on, hurried past a particularly treacherous cottage, its trampled front denuded by harsh weeding, and was startled by a fat woman in a greasy brown tunic.

“Go away!” the woman shouted, and shook her fist at a Device scuttering across the roof-tiles toward the center of town. A Dancing Spider, Elena noted, squinting upwards. Who had set it going in this awful place? She shook her head, still pressing her lips down on the expanding words that fought to get out of her throat; already several of the people had turned to watch her green cloak and red tunic go past.

She’d been counting on the Festival day to cover her approach, but among these people, she stood out like a Clown Engine among horses. She drew on her most self-effacing Body-Speak and quickened her pace. The lane curved toward the center of town, and she whispered to herself as she paced, letting the words out as silently as she could, and wished the Browns had chosen some other color to signify their beliefs. Too many people wore brown simply because it was the color of their sheep.

“The roofbeam will fall,” she whispered. “The window is awry, there is a sinkhole in the road.”

She could feel the pressure inside her deflating, oozing out so that she didn’t have to scream warnings to people who neither cared about, nor were capable of fixing, the groaning stones and slipping roof-tiles around her.

The curve of the road opened out into the traditional square, wide and green and dappled with oaks. To her surprise, the festival Devices were performing, shining and glimmering as they passed from sun to shade and back again. Elena stood for a moment surveying the sparse crowd doing what Festival crowds always do: eating sweetmeats, watching the show, raising their children up for a better view, and laughing at the antics of the Clown Engines. Despite this, there was something wrong. She could feel it, even from a remove: an aura of tension, the way each person in the crowd looked alertly about them, like chickens when a fox is near.

She walked slowly around toward the river on the far side of the Square, assessing the crowd, trying to weigh the danger. As she neared the water the great wooden water wheels, taller than houses, groaned and sloshed, covering the noise of the Festival. They stood in the middle of the current, heavy and wet, lifting carved and dripping buckets to sluice water into the upheld arms of strongly arched stone aqueducts striding on tall, sturdy legs, heading away from the river to other parts.

Elena eyed them critically, still aware of the mood of the crowd behind them. She was looking to see when they had last been repaired, and how neatly and efficiently it had been done. Most of them looked good, clearly cared for by deep believers in the ways of the Hand and the Eye, but a few of the more recent repairs hadn’t been done very well: there was some rot, repaired sloppily with hunks of wood poorly attached to the wheel. Her stomach felt heavy with dread when she saw this, knowing she should move on immediately, but she was still tired from the long week of travel she’d put in. Perhaps she could get something to eat, under cover of the Festival. Surely she’d be safe in this crowd, at least for a little while.

She stopped to watch the fat wheel-shaped Clown Engines, those revered and playful Devices created in celebration after the Revolution, their design handed down through generations of Gear-Tourniers. A woman stood near them, singing, and several of the onlookers sang along. It was a sparse and careful crowd, but they were trying. They wanted their Festival. The Clown Engines danced in response to the sound of the singing, their padded floppy limbs flailing comically as the Engines twirled and leapt in a way calculated to look impossibly off-balance, like kittens leaping for a string. Children laughed, and parents, looking dogged and wistful, smiled, doing their best.

Her stomach growled as she encountered the smells from a meat pie booth, and she decided to get one, if only to take with her as she made her way out the other end of the square. Pushing through the press, she stood behind several men to buy a pie from the vendor at one side of the Square. As she received her change, she could feel the crowd thicken a little, the tension going up a notch. She turned around, cramming a large bite of pie hastily in her mouth. The crowd shifted a little, and then a shout went up near the Clown Engines. The singing woman fell silent, and Elena noticed, suddenly, that all the children were gone.

She stuffed the rest of the pie in her mouth, already moving and shouldering her way through the thickening crowd. Several people hurried away with Devices, their Body-Speak as muffled and self-effacing as if a cloak had been thrown over them. The air had gelled. People craned their necks, looking toward the road she’d come in by. Conversation faltered. A crash slammed outward from the middle of the crowd, followed by a great roar of dismay.

“The Clown Engines! The heretics are destroying the Clown Engines!” The cry sailed over the crowd, breaking the tension into a thousand fragments as angry people surged forward.

Elena lodged herself into the lee of the food-stall and watched as cudgels appeared from nowhere and were raised. Thuds and clangs resounded, and bits of machinery and bright fabric flew into the air. Through a gap in the crowd Elena saw a group of men and women with bale-hooks striking and prying at a Device on the ground. Before the gap closed, a man in bright Festival clothes launched himself into the fray–a large man, very determined-looking, and before the crowd drew tighter he had snatched a beefy woman’s baling-hook from her and flung it away over the heads of the crowd, towards the river.

Angry shouts gained volume and depth as the crowd swayed this way and that; sticks, arms, and fists flailed, a stone whizzed past her ear. Some people broke away and ran toward the river, but were chased and beaten by others in brown vests and coats. People burst from the crowd to defend them, and the smack of flesh being hit mingled with grunts and scuffles. Like one of her nightmares, all chaos and horror and a terrible dragging helplessness, Elena was pressed, trapped, against the food booth.

Someone had climbed up onto the aqueduct, and now edged his way out toward one of the water-wheels. Another person shoved against Elena and she fell underfoot. Gathering her cloak around her she crawled between trampling legs toward the river. Dust rose up into her eyes. She narrowly avoided a stave flailing past her ear. She crouched and ran, bumping against legs, to where the crowd was looser and she could duck out into the open.

She made her way toward the old willow trees along the river bank as fast as she dared. Shouts from above, from atop the water-wheels, turned her attention to the two people moving along the structure that held it in place. A gangly man in brown thrust a stave between the cross-pieces of the wheel. The other, the brightly-colored man she’d seen earlier protecting the fallen Clown Engine, climbed along one of the struts. The first man swung his stick, but the colorful one advanced, sure-footed and purposeful, across the rotating cross-pieces toward where the gangly man slipped on the wet wood, flailing about with his stave to regain his balance. Now the wheel gave a squawk that Elena was certain would alert the crowd. The height of it leaned on her, the axle pressing, splintering, trying to get out.

“Ware!” she shouted. The wheel loomed, pressing, pressing, forcing words from her mouth. “Look out! Oh, look out!”

The colorful man had gotten hold of the other fellow’s stick and now tore it away from him, making him slip. Gangly man caught himself and climbed higher, and Colorful man followed. The wheel squawked again. Neither man heard it; no one heard it but her. The axle twisted horribly, trying to escape. Elena felt the wood’s pain as the wheel rotated, saw how it wanted to let go. The wheel’s housing was going to come loose at any moment; the higher the men climbed, the more top-heavy it became. She shouted, running along the bank, unable to help herself, waving her arms frantically, heedless of the surge and sound of the crowd behind her.

“Come down!” she screamed, “Come down! It’s going to fall!” But the two men couldn’t or wouldn’t hear, and even if they did, they wouldn’t believe. No one ever believed, not until the disaster fell and she was blamed for causing it, when all she wanted was to prevent it. They called her a witch and worse. She couldn’t speak; not here. Not with the Browns all around her. Elena struck another knot of crowd, slowing her. Her lips moved as she tried to worm her way through, but hands grabbed at her, holding her back. Festival-goers lay everywhere, unconscious or wounded. Elena’s heart squeezed, but the pressing of the wheel outweighed it. She dragged her eyes back to the river. She itched; the wheel was squashing her lungs; she must say something, must do something. She felt the words, those damning words, fill her throat. “It’s going to come loose!” she shrieked, and pulled her pack around to protect her belly. “Let me go! It will crush us all!”

With a final heave, she burst free, only to be snatched back by a gnarled hand. Her pack fell in the dust.

“Hold your tongue!” The gnarled hand shook her like a rat.

“It’s a curse! Stop her mouth!”

“The wheel! The wheel will crush us! Get out of the way!” Damn her voice. Damn her mouth! Damn her cursed luck to be born with this gift.

“Witch!” The hand propelled her toward the low voice, and a fist slammed her full in the face. She fell, her head ringing. Blood gushed from her nose and pattered in the dust, while the Browns stood over her, frowning open mouths and angry eyes and fisted hands, ready to hurt her.

And then a rending, shrieking crash roared over the crowd. The wheel fell from its housing, the force of momentum rolling it up the bank, flinging spray before it. The two men still battling on the wheel waved their arms—panicked, teetering, nearly falling—then jumped clear. The wheel topped the rise and paused, like a dancer on her toes, between the trees; then, with a heavy, moaning shift, it began to move directly toward the crowd. Toward Elena at the front.

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Announcing the Songs for a Machine Age Art Contest

I’m holding a contest.  Not just any contest, but a contest wherein people make art about one of the mechanical characters in my new novel, Songs for a Machine Age. This character is a 300-year-old secret whom no one understands, a cornerstone of history and culture in Devien, where Songs takes place.

Here’s the deal:

Check out the Steam Beast Snippets –– various passages from Songs having to do with the Steam Beast, a very mysterious and mechanical character in the culture of Devien.  In fact, posted in the Snippets is a segment of never-before-seen writing from the prequel to Songs, in which the Steam Beast is being worked on by its creator.

Then let your imagination take hold.  What does the Steam Beast look like?  How could you represent this mysterious and tragic being, a being who was born to speak, but had that power taken away, 300 long years ago –– who is seen now as a sort of magical monster, living alone in the underground Labyrinth under the Palace?

What I’m looking for is artwork showing the Steam Beast.  It can be computer-made, hand-drawn, painted, mixed-media or sculpture; whatever you are best at.  You create it, and send me high-quality digital images of it (1 image for 2-D work, and 3 images for 3-D work) by midnight on Sunday, October 28th November 18th (Editor’s Note:  the deadline has been extended to allow me to spread the word at the World Fantasy Convention!).  I’ll be the judge, and you will hear back from me by Wednesday, October 31st November 21st (the day before Thanksgiving). My email is heather -AT- heathermcdougal -DOT- com.

  • The winner will receive $200 and a signed copy of Songs for a Machine Age
  • The three runners-up will each receive a signed copy of Songs, and their work will be posted (with credit, of course) along with the winner –– on this website, Cabinet of Wonders, and Facebook, among other places (more to follow on that; I have some very interesting ideas up my sleeve).

For some more tidbits about the Steam Beast, you can see the video at my Indiegogo campaign, or go to my blog-serial Neddeth’s Bed, where the Steam Beast was first conceived.

Let the art-making begin!

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Monday Brain Fodder: The Secret Train Car in Bloomingdale’s

Okay, this is like everything in Neverwhere and all my favorite British children’s books: a train car in Bloomingdales.  But not just a train car, a secret one, not so easy to find.  Check out this person’s journey to see where it’s hidden.

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Help Get SONGS Out There

Okay, it’s up! I just launched an Indiegogo campaign (sort of like Kickstarter). My goal is to fundraise to send at least 100 copies of Songs for a Machine Age to the World Fantasy Convention to be put in the book bags there. My publisher is a small press and like most small presses, they don’t have a large PR budget. I want to raise enough funds to help with additional ways to really kick off my book.

Every attendee of World Fantasy gets a bag full of free books when they walk through the door. There’s a table where you can exchange books — so even if the people receiving my books don’t want them, there are other people who will see them on the table, read them, handle them, and perhaps take them home.

It’s a no-brainer. Check it out!

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