Horse Power: a writer’s guide

It’s hard to avoid mentioning horses (or ponies, pack mules, etc.) if you write certain genres. These four-legged beauties are everywhere, leading the charge in a martial battle scene, galloping across the page in those sweeping epic fantasies, or slowing to a gentle walk to allow the romantic pair to gaze longingly into each other’s eyes.

So far, I’ve managed to get away with not writing about horses by setting my novels in the present day or the future. The truth is, I know very little about them, and I’m sure I would make endless mistakes if I had to include horses in my work. But other writers have no choice. If you write – for example – certain types of fantasy, or historical fiction, then you can’t really escape using horses for transportation, at the very least.

How, then, can you make sure you get your equine characters right? I asked fantasy author Kerry Buchanan, one of the owners of Fir Tree Farm Stables in Northern Ireland, to shed some light on the subject…

 

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Photo credit: Fir Tree Farm Stables

Juliana: What horse-related mistake makes you cringe the most in fiction?

Kerry: I think the worst, and commonest, is when the writer has horses galloping all day, or even for days on end. Horses are not capable of keeping up a fast pace for a long time, and even trained endurance horses do the majority of the miles at walk/trot with only some cantering. They’re grazing animals, and need to eat frequently to keep healthy, as well as drinking too.

There are a few stories and films featuring a child and a wild or half-wild horse who inexplicably bond, with the horse allowing the child to ride it bareback, communicating (it seems) by some special telepathy. The Black Stallion film springs to mind, and maybe National Velvet. The reality is that the child would probably get nowhere near the horse in the first place, and if it was rash enough to climb aboard, would probably end up as a trampled patch of strawberry jam in the dirt.

I find it’s often the fine details that irritate me. Someone tries to be clever and Googles the parts of a horse’s tack/harness but doesn’t quite get it right. Perhaps a character hauls on the bridle (instead of the reins) to get the horse to turn or stop when they’re riding it. The same goes for descriptions of horses (green eyes? Seriously?). Sometimes I think the author’s only contact with equines has been through My Little Pony….

Juliana: Name a favorite book or movie that features horses accurately.

Kerry: It’s hard to fault Black Beauty. The story is romanticised, but the details were accurate for the era, and the characters of the horses are just beautiful. I still can’t read it without crying when the cart goes by with Ginger’s body in it. I particularly like the early section where Beauty first gets a bit in his mouth, and the way it feels, but how he is reassured by his trust in the man who trained him. Later in the book, another horse, Captain, describes how it felt to be a horse in battle in the Crimean War. The noise and confusion, plus the absolute trust in his rider, and the panic when he loses his rider, seem well-observed and, as with everything Anna Sewell wrote, beautifully done. It was a landmark book from the first day it was published, and continues to be one of the most respected fiction books featuring horses.

For a more modern example, the Green Rider books by Kristen Britain are really well written from the point of view of equine accuracy. Condor, the principal equine character, has quite a personality, and the books are well worth reading. When Karigan, the inexperienced new Green Rider of the title, tries to push her horse too hard, she has to learn that the poor animal needs recovery time, and the journey can end up being slower than it would have been had she paced him correctly from the beginning. I think a few directors of Westerns could learn something from this!

Juliana: You write a lot of mythology-inspired fiction. Are there any horse myths you particularly like?

Kerry: I love the story of Pegasus and have written a short story featuring the flying horse which will be coming out in an anthology in the near future. His birth was dramatic enough (son of Poseidon, sprung from the body of Medusa when she was killed by Perseus), but his exploits with Bellerophon kept me enthralled as a child, and still do now. Bellerophon captured Pegasus using a golden bridle (a gift from the goddess Athena), and then went on to ride the wonderful creature to victory over the dreaded monster, the Chimaera, which was terrorising the kingdom. Bellerophon and Pegasus had many adventures together, but in the end the heroic Greek over-faced himself by trying to ride Pegasus up to the top of Mount Olympus, home of the gods. Zeus unseated him and he fell, but Pegasus made it all the way and became a constellation of stars in the night sky.

Another horse myth I enjoy is the story of Bucephalus, the war horse of Alexander the Great. Famously, the young Alexander won the horse in a wager with his father. Alexander realised that the horse was terrified of its own shadow, so he simply turned Bucephalus around to face into the sun and successfully climbed aboard, but not before he’d done a deal with his Dad, Philip of Macedonia, to let him keep the horse if he could manage to ride it without being thrown off.

A version of this story is beautifully told in the book, I Am the Great Horse, by Katherine Roberts.

Juliana: Please share some tips for writers planning on including horses in their work.

Kerry: It’s much the same as any other type of research for fiction-writing, really. Don’t just rely on Google or similar to get your facts, as the interweb is not always the most reliable source. Even if you find a trustworthy article, it can be all about the interpretation.

I’d say to write the story any way you like, but then ask someone who really knows about horses and riding to read it for you, to help you clean up any gaffes. If the horse(s) are a key part of the story, it’s probably worth consulting with a knowledgeable horsey person during the writing phase, too. If you want to get it completely right, spend some time around horses, and maybe learn to ride one. You’ll soon get a feel for them, and you never know: maybe you’ll get addicted!

I’m always happy to help, and will read sections for people if asked. I can also lend out a really cute small pony for equine inspiration. She’s no trouble at all and will settle down happily in your home, watching TV with you. No? Okay. Maybe another time….

Juliana: If you could ride any fictional horse, which would you choose?

Kerry: It really has to be Shadowfax, the grey stallion ridden by Gandalf in both book and film of the Lord of the Rings. Even though I’m not usually a great fan of grey horses (you should try getting grass stains out of a grey coat), I’d definitely make an exception for Shadowfax. Of course, we’d have to get rid of Gandalf somewhere along the way, as the two of them seem to be bonded pretty tightly, but I’m sure that once Shadowfax met me, he’d quickly change allegiance.

Failing that, who could resist riding a flying horse? If Athena would only gift me with a magical golden bridle, I’m sure I could do the rest!

Check out Kerry’s website and Facebook page for updates on her writing, and follow her on Twitter @Cavetraveller.

Fir Tree Farm Stables is located in Ballynahinch, County Down, Northern Ireland. You can find more information at www.firtreefarmstables.co.uk. 

Easy as Pie

As I’m sure happens with all authors, I often get asked questions about my writing process. How long did it take you to write your book? How much editing work do you do? Who helps you revise? I thought I’d put together a rough recipe of how Heart Blade and Night Blade (Out soon in November! Shameless plug!) were baked, from pantry to table. Remember, this is how things worked out for me. Every author has their own way of doing things, and their own timelines, and so does each publisher. If you’re a writer, you need to figure out what works for you.

How to bake a novel (Juliana style):

1– First draft. Slow in the beginning, as I play around with ideas during a chapter or two, and then pause for worldbuilding, character development, and plot outlining. Picks up speed after a few chapters. Usually hits a lull at around the midway point, where I pull my hair out for a bit and despair of my writing skills. This ‘wall’ often means I went wrong somewhere, so when the way forward becomes suddenly murky, I find it helps to take a couple of weeks off to do nothing but read other people’s work and binge watch Netflix, while keeping things ‘on the backburner’ until I figure out where I messed up.

The first draft phase would probably take around 2 months condensed, but in reality it’s longer then that because writing gets paused for things like school holidays, day job stuff, other commitments, etc. Much as I love my made up worlds, real life is an actual thing!

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Working on the first draft of Night Blade

2 – Revision notes. While writing the first draft, I’m sending out individual chapters to my critique group and noting feedback. I’m also keeping a list of things I’ve realized will need changing or adding after the first draft is done. I don’t revise much at the initial stage of writing, so I end up with a huge pile of notes in my nearly illegible handwriting. Up to this moment, no one has seen the entire thing yet – there would be no point as the first draft is in part a brainstorming activity in itself, and I make a ton of changes afterward.

3 – First major revision/rewrite. I may have done smaller changes to the first draft along the way, saving each version under a new file name each time. But this is when I do a full read-through and revision. First I organize both my personal notes and the comments from my critique partners. Then I rework the entire thing. Now it’s ready to be seen…

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Organizing Heart Blade edit notes

4 – Beta readers. I send my manuscript to a few writing buddies who are kind enough to beta read the whole thing for me. They send me their feedback, which I consider and work into my manuscript. I dive into another round of edits, fixing things my beta readers have pointed out. Last read through, fixing minor details.

5 – Deliver manuscript. It’s time to hand my manuscript in. The novel is pretty much as tight as I can get it without further eyes on it. Now I wait for feedback from my publisher. Bite nails.

6 – Final revision. By now, I’ve received the official editorial notes. Anytime I get major feedback, I always read through it all and then give things a few days to sink in, and to come up with solutions to problems. Criticism is hard, but very, very necessary. No one wants to rip your work apart; they want to help take out the wobbly bits and build it stronger so the building soars. (And now I seem to have strayed from baking analogies to architecture. Oops.) Heart Blade, my first Blade Hunt novel, needed a full rewrite. My editor didn’t ask me for this, just for revisions, but I felt the changes I wanted to make went deeper than simple edits could handle. There was a lot of character building I wanted to work on. So it was easier to rewrite the entire thing from scratch, using the previous version as a reference, which I did over six manic weeks of non-stop work. With Night Blade, though I did rewrite a few sections entirely and added a chapter or two (and deleted another), I was on firmer ground, having all of the work I’d done on the precious book to guide me. This stage might include a few back-and-forths; Heart Blade went through three rounds with my editor before it was declared fit for consumption.

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Checking notes during final Night Blade edits

7 – Copyedits. Now the whole thing goes to the copyeditor, that saintly person who will make sure I haven’t done ridiculous things with commas, or named my Space Council different things on different pages. (Spoiler alert: there are no actual Space Councils in the Blade Hunt Chronicles. Or actual space. I mean, space is there, I haven’t erased it or anything.) After the copyeditor has had their say, the manuscript comes back to me so I can go over all the suggested changes and approve them. I thought this was going to be boring, but it was rather fun. And eye-opening! Once copyedits are approved, the almost-baked-book goes to my proofreader, who acts as a final set of (very sharp) eyes on the whole thing. Again, the manuscript returns to me for approval of changes.

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Going through Heart Blade copyedits

8 – Dish and serve. It’s ready! There’s nothing else for me to do, in production terms. Now it’s all up to my publisher, and next time I set eyes on my story it’ll be a shiny new ARC, and then an actual-factual book, fresh from the oven and piping hot. It’s time to relax, and enjoy. Easy as pie. A really, REALLY long-baked and complicated pie…

(I don’t actually have a book-pie image. So please enjoy a cup of tea and some sweet treats instead.)

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Night Blade, book 2 of the Blade Hunt Chronicles, will be out on November 7th. Cover reveal coming soon!

Buy book 1, Heart Blade, here.

Taboo Or Not To Taboo

A guest post by Jo Zebedee, author of Abendau’s Heir, Sunset Over Abendau, Abendau’s Legacy, Inish Carraig, and the brand new dark fantasy release, Waters and the Wild.

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When I started my first book – which eventually became Abendau’s Heir – I had nothing more in mind than writing something that had been floating around my head for a number of decades. What I intended was to confront the concept of the ‘chosen’ one and challenge it. Which meant the poor main character had to go through an ordeal. That ordeal turned out to be a lengthy torture regime, including a rape.

Now, in genre novels rape is the great taboo. It is often used for weak plot reasons. It brings about accusations of gratuitousness quicker than practically any other trope. And, to add to the fun, torture isn’t that far behind it… And all in a debut novel….

I’ve often asked myself if I would have the guts to write something just as hard hitting as Abendau again. If I’d have known then what I know now (that many people would find the book too dark, that it might define me as the dark little bunny in the writing group), would I do it again?

On the face of it, Waters and the Wild, my latest book, is a million miles from Abendau. There is no torture. There is no rape. The darkness within it is subtler and less confrontational to the reader. But there are still themes within it which will challenge a reader and which were not the easiest to write about.

Firstly, the book has a main character dealing with the day-to-day reality of coping with a mental illness. Whether she is mentally ill or whether fairies really do speak to her is largely irrelevant – because, whichever it is, it causes compulsions in her, bring anxiety and fear, causes her confusion and disassociation. That Amy has had these thoughts, or has heard these voices, since she was a child, is redolent of our modern era – where teenage mental health problems are growing and our services (where I am, at least) are stretched and support is often patchy.

But the thing that Waters and the Wild does (which has been picked up in even the earliest reviews) is question what that does to a wider family. The repercussions of mental health difficulties – not just Amy’s – reverberate through the book. No one is unscathed by it – because we are not islands and when someone we love struggles, we can’t just close ourselves off from it.

Up to this point, I’m on safe ground, I feel. I researched. I got feedback from people who were more knowledgeable than me and acted on it. I researched some more. I drew on whatever personal knowledge I have, or have been privileged enough for people to share. As with Abendau, I’m confident the themes that have arisen have been dealt with carefully, with thoughtfulness and honesty.

That’s before the book is released, however. Once it goes out as a published book, I no longer own that book.

With Abendau, I hoped I’d be recognised for writing a thoughtful trilogy about a character’s journey. Mostly, though, I’m known as the lady who writes great torture. Those 3000 or so words in a sea of 250,000 are what define the trilogy. With Inish Carraig, my Belfast-based alien invasion novel, I’ve had to come to terms with people reacting to a reflected Belfast in the book. It’s not why I wrote it, but that’s okay. It’s what resonates with so many readers.

What, then, for Waters and the Wild? I hope the dark mythology will stand out but, looking at early feedback, the character interactions in all their quirked and strained ways, are coming to the fore. The mental illness themes, too, are resonating. We’ll see where they all settle down and what the book’s identity becomes.

What I do know is that, for me, it’s only by writing challenging themes that a multi faceted book emerges. Which I suppose answers my question. Would I tackle hard themes again, knowing they might cause discomfort, and put some readers off?

Yes. Yes I would. Because I should be honest to the story, the characters and their theme. And I hope readers will find that I have been.

***

You can buy Waters and the Wild here.

Add Waters and the Wild on Goodreads.

Follow Jo on Twitter @jozebwrites, and check out her wonderful blog posts on writing and publishing at her website, www.jozebedee.com

Cha-Cha-Cha-Changes

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Oh, hey! It’s another character naming post! (And here’s one I made earlier… *gestures like chef on cooking show*)

This time, it’s about naming difficulties I ran into while working on Heart Blade.

Changing a name after a first draft is done is always tricky. A new name can change a character in unexpected ways. But sometimes, it’s unavoidable. Here are three naming hurdles I came up against while revising my novel for my publisher.

1) Sometimes the character shifts and outgrows a name. Take Alex, who first emerged from my odd little writer brain as Brother Jerome. Jerome was originally supposed to be a sort of Old Master type character. The name was perfect at the time. He’s a vampire, almost 1000 years old, and he used to be a knight in the Crusades. But Jerome insisted on, well, not being Jerome. He’s perpetually eighteen years old, ruggedly handsome in a shaggy blond, broad-shouldered-from-sword-work sort of way. He’s covered in tattoos. And despite being an honest-to-goodness monk (though ‘recently’ ordained, I should add – only a couple of hundred years ago!), his penchant for wearing jeans, black tees, and an old pair of converse sneakers under his robes were a dead giveaway that I had the wrong name.

I renamed him Alexander of York and the poor guy got a whole new lease of immortal life.

2) Sometimes a character is too close to another writer’s character with the same name. I had this problem with Rose, née Lila. I have big plans for Rose in book 2! She’s a little edgy, and a little angry, with a lot of abandonment issues to work through. Her original name was Lila, which I loved. But then a couple of my critique partners had a Lyla in a co-authored story, and after a while their Lyla began bleeding into my Lila. They’re very different characters, but there are also a few similarities, and the name just stopped working. I needed my Lila to be 100% mine. So I ditched the name. It took me forever to find a new name I liked, one that showed her as she is in Heart Blade, but could be changed slightly by Rose herself to suit who she starts to become in book 2. I won’t tell you what she renames herself – you’ll have to wait for Night Blade for that. But I’m happy with Rose, and I’m glad she’s made the name her own.

3) Sometimes everyone just hates the name you pick! My main guy, Ash, was originally called Jimmy. It made sense to me: his full name in that first version was James Arthur Deacon III, after his father and grandfather. Jimmy matched the sweetness inside him. But although – interestingly enough – the guys who beta read the story for me were fine with the name, it got a resounding NO from all my female readers. This one took me a long while to puzzle out. I still wanted the family legacy thing to go on: Ash/Jimmy carries a pretty hefty family burden on his shoulders. So I decided to keep James Deacon and change his middle name. The men in his family would all have the same first and last names, but different middle names. The catch: it had to be a bible name. Ash’s family is descended from angels and they have an important role in policing the preternatural community. I went through a gazillion naming websites before I hit on Asher, a beautiful Old Testament name that just sounded right. (Kudos to my daughter, who suggested it in the first place.) I tried it out on a few female friends and relatives and everyone agreed it was a keeper. Jimmy was out – Ash was in.

I love the three new names, and can’t imagine my characters being anything else now. And the time I spent agonizing over the changes meant time spent thinking deeply about who those characters were and what really made them tick. That’s the light at the end of that particular tunnel: once you find the right shiny new name, you’ll feel you know your character even better than you did before.

May all your character naming problems be easy to solve! And now (because how could I not!), the gentle reminder that maybe get a second opinion if you’re in doubt. Courtesy of Friends and the inimitable Phoebe Buffay.

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Read For Pixels 2017 – International Women’s Day Edition

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The Pixel Project’s ‘Read For Pixels’ (International Women’s Day Edition) is still going strong. The non-profit has reached its initial target of U$5,000 in donations, and they are hoping to hit their stretch goal of U$10,000.

The Pixel Project gathers funds and raises awareness to help end violence against women around the world. Their twice-yearly Read For Pixels campaign has online hangouts with top authors, as well as books and other prizes that you can claim as ‘perks’ with your donation.

My novel Heart Blade is in one of the donation bundles, along with 1st Edition hardcovers from bestselling YA Fantasy authors Kimberly Derting (The Taking) and Alyson Noel (Unrivalled). Last time I checked, there was only one of these bundles left! There are many other donation perks, though, like books by Kendare Blake and Karen Rose.

Check out the campaign page here.

Also, keep an eye out for the Gaming For Pixels Spring Slam 2017, a 48-hour gaming marathon fundraiser to take place on April 7th-9th. More information here.

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Write Now

Blog post title is a play on Van Halen’s ‘Right Now’. If you don’t know the song, go and look up the lyrics, and maybe watch the awesome award-winning video clip, too.

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My kitchen table ‘office’

On a writing forum I belong to, someone asked whether it was worthwhile paying to rent an office space away from home and all its distractions.

Of course, there’s no right or wrong answer to that. I know people who need a secluded spot where they can shut everything out and write. Other people need the hustle and bustle of a coffee shop to inspire them. I’ve met people with writing sheds, or who prefer (like me) the kitchen table. One memorable encounter I had with a best-selling author revealed they go on location to wherever their book is set, and spend a couple of weeks dictating the entire novel onto a recording device, to later be typed up and revised from their home office.

Hey, whatever works. (And I’m totally up for the writing on location thing, by the way. Anyone want to sponsor my next book set in, say, some nice sunny beach? I promise to Instagram all my fruity umbrella drinks writing notes.)

The discussion thread got me thinking about my own writing habits, and I realized that, for me, it was less an issue of work space, and more one of head space. Wherever you write, there will always be umbrella drinks distractions. Writing takes discipline, whether you carve out a dedicated time of day for it, or snatch spare moments whenever you can. (Look up #5amwritersclub on Twitter for inspiration!)

When I decided to start writing seriously, I had young school-age children. Afternoons were full of homework supervision, and other kid-related things. So I promised myself a couple of free hours every morning. Between 9 and 11am, I would write.

It wasn’t easy at first. There were all those darn distractions! It was so tempting to jump up and do something – anything – to escape my self-imposed BIC (butt in chair) time. There were days when even cleaning toilets seemed like a good alternative to fixing a plot hole. But I stuck with it, and over time have reached a head space where I can sit down, tell myself ‘let’s write’, and switch the world off for a few hours until hunger and the dog remind me that lunchtime has come and gone.

My point? (Besides that fruity umbrella drinks sound like a good alternative to the snow piled up outside my door?) Don’t worry too much about your writing space. Not at first, not until you’ve found your writing groove, and worked out what (and when) works best for you. Get into the head space, and you’ll figure out the rest. If you wait to find your perfect office, or café, or public library nook before you can write, you risk never finding it. And that search becomes your excuse, your distraction.

Don’t wait. Write now.

Interviews!

I was interviewed by the awesome Gwendolyn Kiste about Heart Blade and writing. Interviews are so much fun, and I had a blast answering this one.

Check it out

And if you’d like to see other interviews, you can click here for my press page.

Note: If you’re a blogger or reviewer and are interested in Heart Blade, I’d love to hear from you! Please get in touch through my contact page.

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Just for fun: Lego Alex, Ash, Del and Camille. 

Heart Blade Promos!

E-BOOK PROMO:

Buy Heart Blade as an e-book for the special promotional price of 99c/99p.

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PAPERBACK PROMO:

The paperback should be up for sale on Amazon either Monday or Tuesday!

For those interested in the paperback, I have a special something for you…

The first 30 people to email proof of purchase of the paperback to contact.jspinkmills@gmail.com will receive a set of four exclusive Heart Blade character postcards with Corinna Marie‘s adorable artwork.

You can send me a copy of your purchase receipt email, or a screen print, or anything really as long as it shows you’ve bought the book. Don’t forget to include a snail mail address so I can mail you the postcards. They arrived today hot off the press and they look lovely.

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Add Heart Blade to Goodreads

 

VIRTUAL LAUNCH PARTY:

I have so many friends in different countries that I decided to throw an online launch party for Heart Blade. Come and join me on February 14th between 4.30-7pm EST (9.30pm Greenwich time) on our Facebook event page. Ask me questions, chat about books and writing, and take part in the Heart Blade Scavenger Hunt, which starts in the morning on February 14th, when I post up the list of items, and ends at 7pm. There will be prizes! And, of course, the glory of knowing you’re the Ultimate Heart Blade Scavenger™.

 

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Juliana on Keystroke Medium LIVE

 

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Yesterday I was a guest on Keystroke Medium‘s LIVE! interview show, with hosts Josh Hayes and Scott Moon. I had so much fun chatting with Josh and Scott about writing, Young Adult fiction, and longswords! Keystroke has lots of terrific author interviews, and it’s well worth checking out their YouTube channel.

If you’d like to have a look at my interview, here’s the link:

LIVE! with Juliana Spink Mills

Keystroke Medium has partnered up with cover artist Tom Edwards to raise money for Parkinsons.org.uk. If you’d like more information on this fundraiser, have a look at the Facebook page: Covers for a Cure.

Also, for all you military science fiction fans, Scott has a brand new book out today!

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Character Intro: Meet Ash

It’s character intro week! Over the next few days I’ll be introducing some of my characters from Heart Blade, Book 1 of the Blade Hunt Chronicles. The gorgeous art work is by Corinna Marie and used with permission.

James Asher Deacon

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Ash by Corinna Marie

James Asher Deacon, or Ash as he’s known to his family and friends, is a seventeen-year-old sentinel, a descendant of angels. His father leads the New England Chapter of sentinels, and fully expects Ash to take over when he grows up. Ash isn’t sure he wants to serve the archaic system of laws that turned a blind eye to his mother’s death, but what else is a Scion’s son supposed to do?

 

PAPERBACK PROMO:

At the moment only the e-book is up for pre-order. Once the paperbacks go up for sale (probably on or near release date, February 14th), I’ll be running a special giveaway. The first 30 people to order a paperback copy and email me proof of purchase will win a set of four postcards with Heart Blade character art by Corinna Marie. More on this later!

Find Heart Blade on Amazon

Add to Goodreads