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Sal the Cacophony has a list of seven names, and a very large gun.

The self-professed “manhunter” (because it sounds more dramatic than “bounty hunter”) brings ruin wherever she goes, and she is hellbent on her revenge.

See, for generations, the Imperium sought to rule the world through magic, and for the most part, they succeeded. The nuls, who lack the Lady Merchant’s gift of magic, began the Revolution, uncovering and crafting mighty weapons to secure their freedom from Imperial forces. Residents of the Scar were frequently caught in the middle.

Then the Empress gave birth to a nul, and declared that her child would still become the next Emperor, despite objections that a mage must lead the Imperium. A conspiracy was hatched. A group of powerful mages led by Vraki the Gate launched a secret plot, hoping so install a magic-wielder to the throne instead. The members of the Crown Conspiracy, as it came to be known, failed in their initial attempt and scattered across the Scar, becoming Vagrants. Despite this setback, it was inevitable that Vraki and his followers would eventually regroup and begin their plan anew. These wandering mages soon became aware that someone, or something, was hunting them down: Sal the Cacophony.

Sal is a wreck of a human being. She bears countless scars, both physical and emotional. She drinks and swears excessively. She’s willing to sink to almost any depth in order to cross every last name off of her list. She may very well be my favorite fantasy protagonist of all time. She is the only one capable of wielding the Cacophony, the fearsome gun from which she takes her name. With the assistance of Liette (Sal’s lover, and the brilliant spellwright who crafts the enchanted shells used by the Cacophony), Congeniality (her carnivorous, Chocobo-inspired mount), and a kidnapped Revolutionary soldier named Cavric, Sal just might be able to track down the members of the Crown Conspiracy before Vraki the Gate can complete his newest plan. They may even save a few lives along the way. Or at least keep the collateral damage to a minimum.

Seven Blades in Black is an absolute blast of  a book. The creativity and care that Sam Sykes has put into his worldbuilding this time around is undeniable, not that his previous work had been lacking. This book gave me all of the best Trigun feels, y’all. It’s high-action fantasy with a gunslinger as a protagonist. Sykes combines gunfire with one of the most clever magic systems I’ve ever seen. Mages make a Barter for their powers. In a very Fullmetal-Alchemist-equivalent-exchange manner by way of The Monkey’s Paw, they must pay a cost. Maskmages, for example, gain the ability to shapeshift, but the more they do so, the more their own physical features will fade away. Skymages can control winds, soaring above a battle, but will slowly lose the power to draw breath, and eventually suffocate. The world itself is just as scarred as Sal, as it turns out that putting these spellcasters into combat situations tends to screw up, well, everything. Cities crumble, burn, or freeze at the whims of the Imperium. Then there’s the Revolution, whose massive suits of powered armor wield Gatling-style cannons that pulverize anything they aim at. They counter Vagrants and Imperium mages alike with gunpikes, tanks, and Relics, pieces of ancient technology that may or may not be alive.

Sykes skillfully blends military might and magic, thieves and merchants, cultists, and eldritch abominations ripped from their homes and deposited into Sal’s world. The journey is a long one, but well worth it, and I can’t wait for the second book in this series.

Eres va atali.” 

“I used to fly.”

The following piece has been crafted for another one of Chuck Wendig’s writing challenges. We were given three lists of ten topics, for sub-genre, location, and included element. Thanks to the luck of random number generation, I ended up with erotic fairy tale, capital city of an ancient civilization, and a magical pocket watch. Here’s “Shambhala” for your reading pleasure. Or just pleasure. 😉


Shambhala

Tick…tick…tick…

Edmund heard the watch before he saw her, long before he knew what it would come to mean. Nitya was her name, and the watch was hers.

Tick…tick…tick…

His cell was cool, but comfortable, with a woven blanket to keep him warm at night. He didn’t know if the others in the expedition had been taken captive as he was or if they had been killed, but he could hear none of them if they were imprisoned. He could hear nothing but the watch.

Tick…tick…tick…

On his first night in his cell, angry, refusing to sleep, he had seen her. Nitya walked the passage, and the sound had been overwhelming, though her bare feet padded silently on the floor. She had been the first person Edmund had seen since he had woken behind the cold bars, the first he’d seen since he had encountered the girl on the outskirts of the city.

Tick…tick…tick…

The watch’s chain glistened in the moonlight, looping her neck once before vanishing from sight. Edmund knew that the watch itself hovered just below the curves of her breasts, though he found himself wondering how he knew. In that instant, she turned and smiled at him, dark eyes shining. “It had to be you,” a soft voice murmured inside his head as she turned to walk away.

Tick…tick…tick…

He had been offered whatever treasure he could find in exchange for leading the expedition, and so he chartered a plane to Delhi, rode for over three hundred kilometers into the Himalayas, and found a small group of men who would attempt to guide him to the ancient city. The map that his financier had provided was in an ancient form of Sanskrit that few recognized and even fewer could interpret, but soon he was deep in the mountains in search of the mythical Shambhala.

Tick…tick…tick…

On the second night, Nitya passed by his cell again, the sound of the watch the only noise. This time, he lay beneath his blanket and watched her until she passed from his sight, entranced by her beauty. She wore no jewelry, barring the watch looped about her neck, and was clothed in a simple sari. Again, she turned to face him, and once more he heard her words, though she never spoke aloud. “I knew from the moment that I first saw you.”

Tick…tick…tick…

“Ask her who she is,” Edmund had said. The expedition had reached the top of a plateau, where an unbelievable sight had greeted them. A lush, verdant landscape opened before them, trees and ferns and flowers the like of which had never been seen were flourishing here in the harshest mountain range on Earth. In their midst stood a small girl, black hair cascading over her shoulders. She said nothing, but simply stood watching the men. Finally one of Edmund’s interpreters spoke up, speaking first in Hindi, then Urdu, and finally (after a suggestion from Edmund) Sanskrit. At this third attempt, the girl had smiled and raised one hand, as if in greeting. Edmund felt himself growing tired. The last thing he saw before his eyes closed was the flash of a golden chain about the little girl’s neck.

Tick…tick…tick…

Could she possibly be the same girl? Edmund’s mind raced. The chain was the same. It had to be. It was the only possible conclusion. That meant, however, that Nitya had been responsible for the fate of his companions, whatever that might have been. The day passed in a confused blur of sleep and hunger. When he awoke with the moon on the third night, he found a small cup of water on the floor beside him. He sipped slowly, knowing that the ache in his stomach would only be worse if he didn’t pace himself.

Tick…tick…tick…

She was coming. The moon was waxing, and Nitya was drawing near. The sound of the watch grew louder. Was it really the third night that he had been locked in this cell? Time seemed to lose its natural rhythm. Was the moon waning now? Edmund could no longer be certain of anything. She had passed into his field of vision, and once again she paused before him. “I have been waiting my entire life for your arrival,” she said without speaking. “My father, King Suchandra, told me that you would come, but he has been gone for over six hundred years, and the Kulika now rules here.” She smiled again. For the first time, she opened her mouth and Edmund heard her voice with his ears. “Hello, Edmund. I am Nitya. And it is time that you were freed.”

Tick…tick…tick…

Edmund stood outside of the bars of his cell for the first time. Nitya stood beside him, an ivory and gold sari wrapped around her. “Welcome,” she said. “Welcome to Kalapa.”

“W…where am I?”

“Kalapa,” the woman repeated. “Capital city of the great realm of Shambhala.”

Edmund stammered again, confusion and disbelief mingling on his face. “S…Shambhala?”

“Is this not what you have sought? Was it not your wish to find this place?” Nitya’s voice was soft and mysterious, unmistakably feminine but with deep, dulcet tones and an accent akin to that of Edmund’s Sanskrit interpreter. When he said nothing, Nitya continued. “I see. You searched for my home, but you did not believe. You did not know that such a place could possibly exist.”

Tick…tick…tick…

“What happened to the rest of my men?” Edmund demanded, finding his voice at last.

“They have been sent away, returned to their families with no memory of this place, or even of you, Edmund.”

“How?”

“The watch,” she replied, reaching beneath the sari to reveal a golden pocket watch attached to the chain. “It grants me some control, within the boundaries of Shambhala.”

Tick…tick…tick…

Edmund blinked and found that he was now standing in the middle of a sandalwood grove, an enormous mandala towering over him. Nitya was at his side.

“This was my father’s garden,” she said. “And now it is mine, to share with the one that I deemed to be worthy. So it is that I saved you from your companions and brought you here.”

“Were you the little girl that we met at the edge of the city?”

“I was,” Nitya nodded, “but when I saw you, saw that you were of your age, I knew that the form I had taken to greet you was too young to welcome you properly. The watch accounted for this as well. And now,” she continued, “I am ready.” Nitya crossed her arms, taking the edges of the sari and pulling them down, exposing the full, smooth curves of her breasts. “I have waited for centuries, Edmund. Waited for the one with whom I could share the fullness of maithuna.” The sari fell away from her body as she stepped toward him, placing a kiss on his lips. “Do you understand now?”

Tick…tick…tick…

Edmund’s heart was racing as he wrapped his arms around her. “I came here to find  you, didn’t I?”

“You came here because I desired it,” Nitya whispered, unbuckling Edmund’s belt. “You came here,” she kissed his neck, “because I desired you.

“Why me?” Edmund was gasping as his arousal grew. Nitya’s hands reached into his pants, pulling them down.

“You have the kundalini,” she said. “The sleeping energy. It is only waiting for you to reach the proper understanding, to awaken, for release.”

Edmund lifted his shirt over his head and tossed it to the ground as Nitya’s hands came to rest on his back. “The energy is here,” her fingers traced lightly over the base of his spine, “but you are yet unprepared.”

Tick…tick…tick…

Edmund lay naked on a bed of sandalwood, the moon now full overhead. Nitya knelt behind him, slowly massaging a fragrant oil into his skin. She chanted quietly in a forgotten tongue, her hands helping him to relax.

“If you fight, Edmund, if you are unprepared, the awakening can be most unpleasant. Breathe deeply now.” For what seemed like hours or days or months, her hands caressed him, until finally Nitya ran her index finger up his spine, placing a kiss at the back of his neck. Edmund felt a tingling race along his back, following the path Nitya had drawn, and his eyes flashed open. “Now.”

Tick…tick…tick…

“Now,” Nitya whispered, “maithuna, the union.”

Edmund rolled onto his back as Nitya climbed onto him, slowing lowering herself and moaning with pleasure. The watch swung on its chain as Edmund kissed her breasts, as he tasted her, as he filled her. Time fell away as they came together, again and again, the moon waxing and waning above them as energy surged between their bodies.

Tick…tick…tick…

“Your life outside of Kapala is now over, Edmund. Your time in the world beyond Shambhala is at an end, but your time with me is only beginning.”

Edmund and Nitya kissed beneath the pale glow of the moon.

“Then I shall stay,” he said. “I shall stay.”

Sometimes it’s the little victories that bring us the most joy. For me, one of the biggest such triumphs is knocking out a title from my “to-read” list. I’ve finally gotten it under control recently, though one of my coworkers at the library has described making progress on a reading list as a feat akin to slaying a hydra…

No, not the kind from “Captain America”

In my line of work, I’m generally adding a new book to my to-read list every other day. After a staff meeting a few weeks ago where one of my coworkers introduced us to the concept of the reading map via this example she created, I knew that I had to add yet another. You see, this reading map introduced me to Erin Morgenstern and her debut novel, The Night Circus. I was absolutely blown away by the book, which is a strange and fantastic combination of the magic competition presented in The Prestige and the environment presented in Something Wicked This Way Comes. Morgenstern weaves a tale of intrigue and romance as two young illusionists compete in a game with a mysterious circus serving as the venue. Celia and Marco are bound to the game by their masters, neither of them fully aware of the rules, including the fact that only one of them can survive. The Night Circus is a series of complex rings, much like the black and white striped tents that make up the titular location. I couldn’t put it down. Finishing it is one of those little victories. I can’t recommend it enough.

Next up on the reading list is another debut novel, A Once Crowded Sky. See you soon.