#SmallPressBigStories: THIS DREAMING ISLE

A paperback copy of This Dreaming Isle sits in front of a three-legged cat named Mycroft.
This Dreaming Cat

THIS DREAMING ISLE, edited by Dan Coxon, Unsung Stories, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-907389-59-7, 322 pages, paperback

This review is part of Runalong Womble/Moriarty’s #SmallPressBigStories initiative: for the month of November ’22, a host of bloggers, reviewers, authors (and me) are flying the flag for the under-represented and often overlooked small and independent presses that are the heart of speculative fiction. I have a horse in this race: my epic fantasy novels are published by Grimbold Books, an award-winning small press, and many of my published short stories come via either Grimbold or Fox Spirit Books (another award-winning small press!). As a very rough generalisation, small presses occupy the middle ground between the monoliths of Hachette, PRH, Simon & Schuster etc on one side and the multifarious independent self-published writers who increasingly gather under the banners of SPFBO and SPSFC. Small presses get looked down upon from both sides and yet they hold and entertain an absolute wealth of talent and fantastic writing. Ignore them at your peril – for if you lose them, you lose massively important pieces of the spec-fic genre as a whole.

[/removes soapbox]

THIS DREAMING ISLE is for me one of the standout titles in Unsung Stories’ catalogue. Seventeen short stories set across the length and breadth of Britain, exploring the dark corners of urban myth, fairy tale, and – in a few cases – the truly bizarre depths of the human condition. This anthology is Unsung in a nutshell: the odd, the liminal, the uncanny. Unsung’s branding and presentation is the first thing to remark upon – design that punches far above the weight of a small press. THIS DREAMING ISLE includes maps to preface each section of stories – they’re divided into City, Country, Coast – rooting the anthology deeper into the geography and history of Britain. Dan Coxon’s introduction makes that connection even clearer, evoking the folk-horror tradition embodied by films such as The Wicker Man and going so far as to reference the apocalyptically stupid Brexit – weird fiction functions very well as a response to such fuckwittery as foisted onto us by that policy.

That response turns up in several of the stories within, to varying effect. Not All Right, by James Miller, dives deep into the paranoia, intolerance, and onanism of the alt-right; the protagonist is a punchable tool to say the least and he deserves what he gets, but somehow Miller’s online ghost doesn’t unnerve enough. Jeannette Ng’s We Regret To Inform You goes full epistolary in form and makes the reader work harder to fill in the gaps between the emails. It’s one for the history buffs, but with time travel consequences included – subtle, and well worth revisiting.

Both of those stories are located in the City section, as is Richard V Hirst’s Lodestones (a snapshot of a short cut going very wrong), and Robert Shearman’s The Cocktail Party In Kensington Gets Out Of Hand. For god’s sake, don’t flick through and read this latter story first. I made that mistake, and then I had to read it again, and then everything prior to page 155 suffered by comparison when I had to go back and start from the beginning. The Cocktail Party is one screwed up story, taking urban myth right to its extremities and smacking the reader around the head with a hefty dose of class-based allegorical horror to boot. Reader, this is a compliment.

On either side of the City section lie Coast and Country. These are perhaps more predictable in tone and content, in as far as the landscape may form the tales – the Coast tales hold kelpies, hostile beaches, blood on the rocks, stiff English family dynamics, and a whole malevolent seaside town in the case of Gary Budden’s Hovering. This last tale evokes a whole late 70s feel through references to places and music, just as Moorcock does to London.

Out in the Country, the stories are more traditional still: Stephen Volk contributes Cold Ashton in the spirit of MR James, a slow and satisfying ghost story. Tim Lebbon’s Land of Many Seasons is just as satisfyingly spooky, while Catriona Ward’s The Pier at Ardentinny riffs on Bluebeard and Kirsty Logan’s Domestic Magic becomes more unsettling by the page as the list of items discovered extends into the inexplicable.

THIS DREAMING ISLE works excellently as a snapshot of post-Brexit uncanny fiction, demonstrating that no matter which vampires go for our necks, they still can’t hold a candle to the myths that underpin Britain. And as Coxon himself puts it in his introduction, “Those who see [the past] through rose-tinted glasses aren’t engaging with it, they’re simply fantasizing – and that’s always dangerous.” Just as importantly from the point of view of Womble’s initiative, THIS DREAMING ISLE is a yardstick of sorts: a proof of Unsung Stories’ concept of uncanny fiction, and an excellent example of small press work.

You can buy THIS DREAMING ISLE direct from Unsung Stories here.

Damaged Intelligence – out now!

Play the music! Light the lights!

Damaged Intelligence, the sixth – sixth! – installment of the very Traveler RPG-inflected and extremely pulpy space opera Empire Dance series, has gone live and is out there in the world!

In case you had forgotten, the cover looks very much like this:


And what’s in it, I hear you asking? Oh, the usual – artificial intelligences, Kiiren, religious fundamentalists, guns, starships, clones, explosions… all in one tasty, crunchy, 55000-word chunk. And the set-up for ED7, provisionally titled Towers In Sand, will be an absolute banger.

And where can you get it? That’s the important part, right?

Easy. It’s right here, behind the click. But be warned, you’ll need the other five in your library too…. 🙂

ED6: Damaged Intelligence – COVER REVEAL!

Cover reveal time! The sixth installment of the Empire Dance series is sat on the launch pads, nose pointed at the stars, ready to go – and yes, there will be pre-order links soon!

But first…


That’s CAS Special Agent Kit Nagoya there, diving through clouds of shattered glass as ne pursues nir target, the fugitive Captain Kelly. A lovely, punchy cover, wrangled by An Amazing Egg. Just like the other books in the series, Damaged Intelligence will be available immediately on launch through Kindle Unlimited.

When? Oh, I was thinking perhaps the beginning of May…

Legends Anthology – Pelicos the Brave Swings into Action!

That last post concerning the winding up of the David Gemmell Legend Awards was something of a downer. But earlier this week NewCon Press announced the table of contents for the third – and now final – Legends Anthology, packed full of stories in tribute to the late great master of modern fantasy fiction, David Gemmell.

I’m over the moon about this, because – look! That’s me, on the cover, alongside a whole host of extra-talented and awesome folks! There’s an RJ! And an Anna! And a Danie! KT Davies is in there too! Seriously, I’m excited to read the other stories in this, not least because what I’ve seen so far is absolutely top notch. Plus, it’s NewCon Press, y’all – Ian Whates makes his books with love and attention.

Cover artist: Dominic Harman

1. Introduction by Stan Nicholls
2. Blood Debt – Gail Z. Martin
3. A God’s Mercy – Richard Webb
4. Berserker Captain – Neal Asher
5. The Price of Passage – Keris McDonald
6. Summoner – Danie Ware
7. Pelicos the Brave and the Princess of Kalakhadze – Steven Poore
8. The Timekeeper’s Tarot – Den Patrick
9. Her Grail – Ben North
10. Piercing the Mist – Shona Kinsella
11. Chosen of the Slain – K.T. Davies
12. The Dying Land – Nick Watkinson
13. A Hero of Her People – Anna Smith Spark
14. All Deaths Well Intention’d – RJ Barker
15. By Any Other Name – Justina Robson

So – what’s my story?

Heir To The North and The High King’s Vengeance were both at heart stories about stories. One of the heroes of these shaggydog tales within the narrative, often merely mentioned in passing, was Pelicos the [Insert Noun]. A swashbuckler with a heart of fool’s gold, Pelicos undertook every daft quest you could think of, and more besides. In Pelicos the Brave and the Princess of Kalakhadze, our titular jack-of-all-trades scales the heights of a fabled island city to rescue the Dunundaya Heir from her tower cell so that she and her beau can elope together! Except, of course, that’s not what really happened…

Keen readers will observe a cameo appearance by a certain warlock. And, in keeping with my liking of buried histories, the Princess of Kalakhadze feeds gently into the setting of the upcoming Age of Talons trilogy. But sssshhh…. go, preorder, and enjoy!