This evening, we have an annotated excerpt from Notorious Sorcerer by Davinia Evans. The novel is due out tomorrow, to be published by Orbit. Here’s the synopsis:
In a city filled with dangerous yet heavily regulated alchemical magic, a man from the slums discovers he may be its only hope to survive certain destruction in this wickedly entertaining fantasy.
Welcome to Bezim, where sword-slinging bravi race through the night and rich and idle alchemists make magic out of mixing and measuring the four planes of reality.
Siyon Velo, Dockside brat turned petty alchemist, scrapes a living hopping between the planes to harvest ingredients for the city’s alchemists. But when Siyon accidentally commits an act of impossible magic, he’s catapulted into the limelight — which is a bad place to be when the planes start lurching out of alignment, threatening to send Bezim into the sea.
It will take a miracle to save the city. Good thing Siyon has pulled off the impossible before. Now he just has to master it.
A dazzling fantasy bursting with wild magic, chaotic sword-fighting street gangs, brazen flirting, malevolent harpies, and one defiant alchemist.
Now, over to the author…!
Siyon couldn’t get the damn square to line up, and the hangover definitely wasn’t helping.
There’s a piece of writing advice that goes: Start by showing your main character doing the thing they’re best at.
So I did!
But (I hear you say) he’s a disaster.
Yes. Yes he is.
He squinted at the ash lines on the floor. The tiles tessellated in a not-quite-repeating pattern of swirls and spirals that could probably cause headaches all by itself. It was left over from before this place was taken over as the Little Bracken bravi safe house, when it had been a…temple? Church? Whatever. They called it the Chapel now, so probably one of those. Siyon didn’t know much about all that religious stuff. He’d been born and bred here in Bezim, where they preferred the certainty of alchemy instead.
The building was nice; tidy brickwork, tall pitched roof, narrow windows of coloured glass. From the pale hair and impressive beards on the figures, Siyon thought the stories probably drew from the cults and myths of the North, not the remnants of the Lyraec Empire he was more familiar with.
Oof, are you dizzy yet? I love books that just hit the ground running, that show me vibrant characters living full lives in a setting that is obviously familiar to them, and while I might not understand everything, I can get enough context to start piecing it all together while I follow along, until it all feels real to me as well.
So that’s what I’ve done my best to achieve here. Come along on an adventure! We’ve so much to see.
The Chapel was quiet right now, with the morning sun cutting through the dust motes dancing around the lofty beams. The bravi were denizens of the night—the feet that rattled fleet as a passing rain shower over your roof tiles, the midnight laughter that promised mayhem and crossed blades and adventure. Last night they’d been all of that, the stuff of the dreams of children and poets, and now they were sleeping it off. So the tall, vaulted space—which might otherwise be cluttered with the scrape of a sharpening sabre, the clatter and call of training duels, the bicker and bellow of arguments over style—was all at Siyon’s disposal.
He still couldn’t get his delving portal square.
Siyon’s tea had gone cold on a pushed-aside pew. He lifted the tin-banded glass, high and higher, until the light through the stained-glass windows both made him wince and turned the remaining liquid a fiery golden orange. A colour burning with righteousness. An Empyreal sort of colour.
Siyon reached through that connection and snapped his fingers. And then nearly dropped the suddenly scalding glass.
Fair warning for any purists: I play fast and loose with the real-world concept of alchemy in this book. (Though I come from a place of love?) But one of the elements that I’ve kept – and embroidered further – is the notion of similar or linked essences, something that bears a strong resemblance to the idea of sympathetic magic.
This is our first glimpse at the concept of the other planes that make up Siyon’s reality, linking the Empyreal (a very old-fashioned word for heaven, but one with obvious linguistic linkage to fire through “pyre”) with flame, but also with righteousness. All these tangled resonances overlap, and can be used to make the things you want happen… if you’re a little flexible.
Siyon, by necessity, is very flexible.
Allegedly Kolah Negedi—the long-dead father of alchemical practice—had strong views about casual use of the Art. Something about the essence of another plane not being a dog to fetch your slippers. Poetic, but frankly, the great Kolah Negedi didn’t seem all that applicable to the life of Siyon Velo. Let the fancy azatani alchemists, with their mahogany workbenches and expensive bespoke glass beakers, debate his wisdom. All Siyon did was fetch and carry for them. And that’s all he’d ever do, unless he could scrape together enough hard cash to pay for lessons. Today’s work would barely add to his stash, but one day, maybe…
In the meantime, at least he could have hot tea.
Siyon blew gently across the surface of the liquid, took a careful sip, and sighed as the blissful heat smoothed out the jagged edges of his hangover.
“Sorry,” someone said. “I can come back later if you’re enjoying your alone time.”
Not just any someone; that was the tight, pointed accent that went with leafy avenues and elegant townhouses and lace gloves. That was an azatani voice. Siyon cracked one eye open, and looked sidelong toward the doorway.
The young woman wouldn’t have come up to his chin, but she stood straight and tall, barely a trace of a girl’s uncertainty in the way her weight shifted from one foot to the other. She was clad head to toe in bravi leathers—sturdy trousers, tight vest, bracers laced up to her elbows. They creaked with newness, and the sabre at her hip gleamed with oil and polish. The tricorn balanced atop her tied-back ebony curls had an orange cockade pinned on with a Little Bracken badge.
They’d probably run the tiles together, two fish in the great flickering school of the Little Bracken, but Siyon never paid too much attention to the azatani recruits. They joined, they had their youthful adventures, they left to take up their serious adult responsibilities. None of his business.
But here she was, getting in his business. “What are you doing here, za?” he demanded, though he had a bad feeling he knew the answer.
“I was sent by the Diviner Prince to…” Her words petered out, uncertainty conquering the assurance she was born into. “Er. Assist you? Hold something?”
Siyon snorted. “I need an anchor, not a little bird. Go back and tell Daruj—”
“No,” she interrupted, her chin coming up in a belligerent jut. “I can do it. I’m bravi. Same as you.”
Honestly, if Zagiri knew how getting involved with Siyon was going to turn out… she’d probably still be fighting to stay. Girl has way more belligerent grit and stubbornness than she does common sense. Which is possibly demonstrated by the fact she’s a member of a roof-running grandstanding duelling gang…
Siyon sauntered out into the aisle, where she could in turn get a good look at him. At the fraying of his shirtsleeves and the scuffs on his boots, at the battered hilt of his own sabre, at the lean length of his limbs and the freckles and even the glint of red in his brown hair that said foreign blood. That confirmed he was a mongrel brat.
She could probably trace her family back a few hundred years to the end of the Lyraec Empire. They’d probably helped overthrow the Last Duke and claim the city for the people. People like them, anyway. They’d renamed the city Bezim—in Old Lyraec, that meant ours.
“Yeah,” he drawled, stretching the Dockside twang. “We’re peas in a fucking pod. How old are you, anyway?”
“How old are you?” she demanded right back. There was a flush of colour in her warm brown cheeks, but she wasn’t backing down. Was it even bravery when you hadn’t heard the word no more than a dozen times in your life?
“Twenty-three,” Siyon said. “Or near enough. And I’ve been on my own since I was fourteen, delving the planes since seventeen. That six years of crossing the divide between this plane and the others tells me I’m not trusting you”—he jabbed a finger at her, in her new leathers with her boots that probably got that shine from the hands of a servant—“to hold the only thing tying me back to the Mundane. No offense, princess.”
She hesitated in the doorway, but then her chin came up again. “Fuck you,” she stated primly.
Oh yeah, profanity warning! There’s, um, quite a bit of swearing in this book. But we’re all adults here, and I’m of the view that the English language is a magnificent and overflowing toolbox and all its parts have their places. (Still… sorry, Mum!)
“I can do it. And I’m all you’ve got, anyway. Daruj went down to the square; Awl Quarter have called public challenge.” There was a twist to her mouth. It stung, to be sent to do this, rather than being included in the party to bare blades against another bravi tribe, even in a small morning skirmish.
Siyon knew what that felt like. He drained his tea and set the glass down on the pew next to him. “You’re well out of it. It’ll be dead boring. Lots of posturing, barely three blades getting to kiss daylight. No audience in the morning, see? So no pressing need to fight.”
The bravi were one of my trickiest world concepts to try and convey, and that includes the magic system! Are the bravi street gangs? Or entertainment? Or petty criminals? Or secret societies? Or sporting teams? The answer is: yes. All of that. And then some.
But by now, in this first scene, you’ve got the essence of them: it’s about belonging, and the thrill of the fight, and an audience.
She really did look like a doll playing dress-up, but she hadn’t fled. And if Daruj was off playing Diviner Prince(Siyon never found his friend’s bladename less ridiculous, whatever its proud history), then she probably was the best Siyon was likely to get until later this afternoon. Which would be cutting it fine to make his deliveries.
… but Siyon is set apart from the rest of his bravi tribemates. For him, there’s also business. There are deliveries. He can’t just spend his time prancing about with a sword. He has shit to do.
He sighed. “What’s your name again?”
She grinned, sudden and bright and blindingly pretty. She was going to carve her way through society when she set aside the blade to take up a ball gown. “Zagiri Savani. And I’m eighteen. If it matters.”
Siyon shrugged. “Not to me. Come on.”
His ash square still looked a little skewed at one corner, but he wasn’t redoing it again. “How much did Daruj tell you about what’s involved?”
Zagiri stayed well back from the lines of ash, so at least she was sensible. “You’re going to raid one of the other planes. For alchemical ingredients.”
Basically right, but she’d need more than basics. “I tear a hole between the planes,” Siyon elaborated. “Which is what the square is for. Keeps the breach contained. There’s no risk—not to you, not to the city.” The inquisitors might feel differently, but they weren’t here, and what did they know anyway? “That also cuts me off from the Mundane, so to get back, I need a tether.”
She nodded. “Which I hold.”
“Which you hold.” Siyon watched her for a moment. Clearly a little nervous, but she had a strong grip on herself. That irritating azatani arrogance might be good for something after all.
He unhooked his sabre from his belt and set it down on a pew, picked up a coil of rope instead. It was rough stuff, thick hemp and tarred ends, liberated from docks duty. As mundane—as Mundane—as rope could get, heavy with work and sweat and dirty, fishy business. “One end ties around me,” Siyon said, looping it around his waist, under his shirt and the weight of his cross-slung satchel. “And you hold the other. You hold it no matter what you see, or what you hear, or how much it jerks around. You hold on to this.”
It’s always a challenge to introduce the ways in which a fantasy world is wildly different from our known reality (he tears a hole??) but actually just part of the day-to-day for a character. Siyon’s matter-of-fact about this. It’s no big deal. He does it all the time. There are risks, and he wants to make sure they’re managed, but hey, it’s just like wearing your seatbelt.
This is, in a way, the counterpoint to that opening impression of Siyon as a disaster. He is. But he’s a grittily functional disaster.
And, of course, this a chance to build anticipation. He’s going to tear a hole in reality! He needs a safety harness! And what might Zagiri see, or hear? What might jerk the rope around?
She wrinkled her delicate little nose as she set a hand just above the thick knot tied in the end. She’d probably never put her pampered hands on anything this coarse in her life. “What happens if I don’t?” Not a challenge, more curiosity.
Siyon smiled, tight and brittle. “I get stuck in there. Since I’m delving Empyreal today, that means I’m trapped in unforgiving heat with the angels on my back until either I can find a way out or you”— he prodded at her shoulder—“scarper off and find someone to summon me back. I recommend Auntie Geryss, you can find her through the tea shop near the fountain in the fruit market. If, y’know, you fuck up completely.”
Little bonus fun fact: Auntie Geryss is my favourite sort of character – that sort of benevolently badly-behaved godmother character who should definitely be addressed as “Auntie” if you don’t want to get a smack upside the head for disrespect.
Zagiri swallowed hard, wrapped the rope around her fist, and braced her heels against the tiled floor. At least she was taking this seriously. “All right.”
“Don’t worry.” Siyon grinned, the thrill of what he was about to do starting to tug at him as surely as a tether. It never got old. “I’ll be right here. Well. Right here, and on the other side of reality at the same time.”
She didn’t look reassured.
Siyon stepped into the ashen square and vanished into heat haze.
The boy knows how to make an exit!
And if you want to know what happens next… well, I guess you’ll have to read the book!