A good friend I met in Colombia who also helped me by reading a beta version of Harbinger, and who had also loved The Gallows Gem of Prallyn, gave me some valuable feedback by asking me a great question: why is my world, that had so much magic in it, suddenly so devoid of manifestations of the mystical?

It's deliberate.

First, it's worth noting that Gallows Gem is a self-contained story, albeit one that leaves some questions unresolved, whereas Harbinger begins another saga set on the other side of a large continent but in the same world. Astute readers will find brief references to the other side of the world in each book.

Following on from that, indeed, Gallows Gem has a lot of magic: people debate how they come by it ... does it come from the gods? is it a manifestation of people able to tap into the full power of their minds? does it arise from cultural ceremonies? On the other hand, in Harbinger, everyone (except Elkor) sees mystical manifestations or the will of the gods (or demons) in everything, including what we in our world might simply categorize as natural phenomena, such as a cold wind blowing on a fateful day, the blind chance of four women giving birth on the same night, or people studying cadavers to learn about anatomy.

So, why the difference?

I admit that in Harbinger, there are no circles of power capable of summoning supernatural entities or gate-destroying fireballs, but I contend we do encounter hints of the mystical: strange dreams, religious fervour, prophetic visions, glimpses of creatures that radiate light, to name a few.

I do not intend my books to be read as a series, one after the other, except in so far as it would be better to read Harbinger, Book One of Northern Fire, prior to The Winter Wars, Book Two of Northern Fire. However, as a reader encounters the books and becomes familiar with my world, they will slowly see a bigger narrative running through the works.

Thus, without revealing any spoilers, all I can say is that the question above from my beta reader is an astute one arising from a close reading of both books currently available. I hope you all keep with me on this journey of world-building so that you discover the answer in due course.

Does that make sense?

A reader recently contacted me and asked the following:

"I am half way through Gallows Gem, and it is quite exciting. How did you conceptualizer the plot? How did you think of all those names? And how do you pronounce the names? Have you thought of posting an audio file of pronunciation?

Good questions! Here are some thoughts:

Conceptualizing the Plot: I think that all authors are different in how they figure out what the plot is and how to go about telling the story to get from point A to point Z. In the acknowledgements of Gallows Gem, I noted how the project started as a mess and how I needed to bring order to the narrative and figure out a plot from a lot of disparate pieces. 

What really helped me as I went along was that I had a very good feel for at least three principal characters (Charano, The Red Fox, and Ruknor), so I knew where they would want to go and how their arcs should unfold. That provided half the formula. I needed to get Charano into the citadel and then into the Saint Garyn Temple, first with his plan in mind, and then reacting to the sweep of events carrying Prallyn along towards disaster. I needed to get the Red Fox to intersect those plans. And, I needed Ruknor to renege on his promise and return home.

That left me to figure out what they would be up against, but I focussed on the characters, not the narrative. That allowed me the space to see where powerful, driven people would take Prallyn as it lurched towards the abyss. Ferina Saradin, Siko Bikoyo, the Duke of Blackabbey, Archprelate Lovyn, Prelate Stanfyr, Miss Thrynn took the narrative to where it needed to go just by advancing their own interests and being true to themselves. At some point I did have to make sure the timing was all aligned, but I really just hung on for the ride in many ways.

Thinking Up Names: This is tricky, because the names have to ring true with the culture from which the character hails … I couldn’t have a Baranthu warrior called Steve after all! The Baranthu names were heavily influenced by East and Southern African naming conventions, and that was easiest in many ways. They likely stand out for readers in Gallows Gem. The Thryll names often had a practical descriptor, “eg. Stoutwall or Blackabbey” or had a “Y” in them, just to give them a common look and feel. 

I have taken this a step farther in Harbinger … for the Fjordlanders, I took either some genuine Norse names, or I tweaked them by changing, adding or subtracting a letter (Helgya arising from Helga, for example). When they get to Straeland, I gave the names a Germanic feel by doing the same thing to German names (Wolfgar arising from Wolfgang). It seems to work.

Pronunciation: An audio file might well be a good idea … especially seeing as I now seem able to generate them! In the absence of such guidance, though, I dare say that a reader is right to pronounce the names in whatever way adds verisimilitude to the narrative. I won’t hold it against you! 

To celebrate International Women’s Day, I reviewed the books I read in 2015 by women (I admit to a gender imbalance that I am well on my way to correcting this year!). I present to you my top three and note that I rated no book by a man higher last year.

A word of warning about my reviews on Goodreads. I am a pretty tough critic: of the 141 books for which I have posted reviews, only 12 received 5/5 stars, two of which I shamelessly note are MINE! Of the other 10, two are by the (English) bard, Shakespeare! The only book that I added to the list of 5 star earners from last year’s reading was a compilation work that makes me pine for the land where I formerly lived! For me, a good read that I truly enjoyed ranks a 3. I hope that puts what follows into context:

Another caveat: You’ll note that I have been trying to re-acquaint myself with where speculative fiction has evolved, so most of what follow fall into that genre, so I present you that caveat in advance. First up, though, is one that falls outside of the speculative!


Caroline Doherty de Novoa’s Dancing with Statues took me back and forth between my ancestral homeland and the beautiful country in which I was living last year, Colombia. This work was a lovely, well-crafted piece of novel writing, made all the more relevant to me because of the beautifully described settings, intriguing characters, and hidden secret at the heart of the story. It is well worth exploring.

You can find out more about Caroline Doherty de Novoa’s writing here:


The sum of my thoughts can be seen here:



Next up is K. V. Johansen’s Blackdog. This book also had intriguing characters and I very much enjoyed the narrative. What really made this book interesting for me was that there were some elements that I hadn’t encountered before in fantasy. In particular, the notion of gods who are anything but omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, as well as the portrayal of the inner thoughts, ambitions, and fears of the antagonist.

You can find out more about K. V. Johansen’s writing here:


The sum of my thoughts can be seen here:



This next book, Ilana Myer’s Last Song Before Night likewise broke free of some tropes that I find re-occur too much in fantasy, and thus was a very rewarding read. Often in fantasy, antagonists are cut-out caricatures, but what about injecting feelings of regret to temper some of their ambitions and to readjust their trajectory? Can characters grow and evolve beyond in their capability to overcome the antagonist? Can they learn enough to overcome themselves? This novel explored those themes, all the while plunking us down in a world filled with song and verse.

You can find out more about Ilana Myer’s writing here: https://ilanacmyer.com

The sum of my thoughts can be seen here:


This has been bugging me for a while. No new blog entries in a very long time. 

What to say? 

There was a lot going on: a move from Colombia back to Canada, dropping work in the mother ship of Canada’s foreign ministry to follow my wife for her career, the discovery of a new part of my country in which I now live, the organization of a new home, and, after a summer of inactivity (see the listing earlier), a concerted sprint to bring Harbinger to publication. 

That’s what.

Happy New Year to all. We’re now in 2016. We have moved to the Maritimes. It’s the first very cold day of the winter as night gives way to day. Nature is presenting us a scene of beauty beyond the usual. The golden sunrise is glimmering off white, snow-clad trees. It is a time of reflection. It is a time for typing something for the blog.

Above all, I hope that 2016 is a more peaceful year globally. Of course there will be many conflicts … I just hope they are fewer and of less barbarity. I hope that allows the world to contain and/or diminish the scope of those that remain.

I also hope for good health. This I know requires more effort from me! I hope my exercise routine hardens and intensifies. The new year has started out reasonably in this regard.

Harbinger, Book I of Northern Fire, is nearly done, done, done, done, done(ish). My editor and I have pulled it all apart and I have worked hard to put it all back together again. Final read-throughs are under way and it has already gone out to a cabal of beta readers to harvest impressions and reports of typos! The New Year will be dominated by looking for a printer, coordinating cover lay-outs, reviewing proofs, coordinating eBook formatting. I’ll be very busy indeed.

But I am not writing anything original.

Editing necessitates original writing, but a sentence here, a paragraph there, or at most a page or two of new material to fill some gap or explain better some odd dynamic that is affecting the narrative. I do not feel like I have written, really written, since April, when I was still in Colombia. So that is something that I hope the new year brings to me. I note I wrote this as if the new year were an animate entity that could take actions by itself. Of course, it isn’t, and I won’t do any original writing unless I carve out the time necessary to do so. So … here’s hoping I am disciplined enough to succeed.

I also hope this is the year I devote the time and effort necessary to find a publisher. Being independent is all fine and great, but my successes will remain micro-successes until such a time as I have a publishing house’s distribution and marketing capabilities behind me.

I also hope that those of you who have taken the time to follow my writing activities are successful in reaching your own ambitions for 2016. 

I very much enjoyed the article linked to this blog post. It is by the talented, Bogotá-based, Irish novelist, Caroline Doherty de Novoa, a prominent member of the English language writing community here. She presents an interesting perspective into the use of the term "storyteller."

Now, I freely acknowledge my complete ignorance of how the term is used in either the UK or Ireland and whether there are connotations attached to it designed to belittle the Irish. I would certainly take Colm Toíbín at his word and give his perspective its due consideration, as Caroline does so well in her article.

That said, in Canada, we often celebrate our best novelists by describing them as "great storytellers." Indeed, you'll see from the first link below that my alma mater - the University of Lethbridge - notes the following, "As one of Canada’s finest writers, Margaret Atwood is a poet, novelist, story writer, essayist and environmental activist – the embodiment of a storyteller." 

A national periodical our ours - MacLean's Magazine - describes our one Nobel laureate for literature, Alice Munro, as being a wondrous storyteller (see the 2nd link), although I might actually prove Colm Tóibín 's point to some degree with this, given that she published compilations of short stories over novels.

Nevertheless, after having just put out my first novel, I would feel honoured if someone applied the monikor "natural storyteller" to me!



Are the Irish Natural Storytellers?

When someone says to me that the Irish are natural storytellers, I’m usually really pleased. I’m an Irish writer, and isn’t it the ultimate aim of all writers…


ian at ianmckinley dot com (written this way to guard against spam … you know how to interpret it) © Ian McKinley 2016