Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"Midsummer Night"

Freda Warrington is the author of nineteen (and a half) novels including Elfland, A Blackbird in Silver Darkness, A Taste of Blood Wine and Dracula the Undead. Elfland won the Romantic Times Award for Best Fantasy Novel of 2009, and her second novel for Tor, Midsummer Night, has just been published with another stunning cover by KY Craft.

She applied the Page 69 Test to Midsummer Night and reported the following:
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of glamorous creatures who appear human but aren’t; angels, demons, elves, vampires, demi-gods, what you will. My Aetherials (or Aelyr) evolved as my interpretation of such a race.

Now that the second Aetherial Tale, Midsummer Night is out, I’ve been thinking about its origins. Oddly, it’s been in my head for over ten years – I actually began writing an early version of it long before Elfland. The final version has evolved a lot since then, but it always pivoted around the same central character: a grande dame, a renowned sculptor in her sixties called Juliana Flagg. Of course there are younger folk in the story too, but I loved the idea of writing about an older woman with the magnificence of a dowager duchess and some dark secrets to unravel.

Midsummer Night is stand-alone novel, so you don’t have to read the first book to enjoy it. However, it is set against the same background – a contemporary world where the Aetherial race lives quietly (sometimes!) among humans, occasionally crossing into the Otherworld, aka the Spiral. Some of the fun I’ve had with the book lay in introducing the occasional character from the first novel, or a strand of plot that explores what seemed, in Elfland, to be just a throwaway reference. I hope readers will enjoy picking up on these small connections too, and thinking, ahah

So, to the story. Decades ago, at the remote Cairndonan estate on a storm-lashed coastline where the veil between our world and the Aetherial realm is thin, Juliana’s uncle – a young man called Adam – vanished in mysterious circumstances. Now Juliana has inherited Cairndonan – did I mention I’m obsessed with huge, atmospheric old houses? – where she sculpts and runs a summer art school. However, all is not well, as she is plagued by ghosts, money troubles and her sinister ex-husband.

Then a young woman named Gill arrives to rent a cottage on the estate, in order to escape problems of her own. All Gill wants is solitude, but soon she’s entangled with the eccentric, flamboyant artist Peta, the creepy manservant Ned Badger and other residents of the great house – not least Juliana herself.

One day Gill accidentally wanders into a strange village called Boundry that appears on no map. There she meets the seductive Rufus and his equally gorgeous but silent, brooding companion, Leith. The encounter leaves her unsettled. Are these two young men as innocent as they seem – or are they poised to visit chaos, vengeance, death and heartbreak upon the human world?

Turning to page 69, it’s a quiet and intimate moment – hardly an all-out action scene – but a very telling point in the plot. Up until now, Gill has been a prickly hedgehog, refusing to reveal her secrets to the nosy Peta (artist and mask-maker). But Leith has turned up on the doorstep of Gill’s tiny cottage, out of his mind with fear. While he’s upstairs sleeping in her only bed, Gill and Peta are sharing the sofa bed downstairs. Finally Peta manages to tease Gill’s secrets out of her – a huge deal for Gill, because she feels so vulnerable. Actually I think I’ll just give you part of the lead up from page 68… then you can discover what she says on page 69 for yourself!
Gill lay down fully clothed on the thin mattress, pulled the duvet over herself and stared at the ceiling, all too conscious of the strange, terrified man in her bed upstairs. Presently, Peta reappeared, flicked off the light and slid in beside her, wearing just a camisole and briefs. Gill stirred uneasily at the unfamiliar weight and warmth… How had she let this happen, this invasion? Suddenly she felt Peta’s arm working its way beneath her shoulders. She stiffened. ‘What are you doing?’

‘What’s the matter, haven’t you ever been to bed with a girl before?’

Gill coughed, not knowing how to respond. She said stiffly, ‘Not since my schooldays.’

‘Shall we take turns, then?’

‘At what?’

‘At staying awake to make sure our guest is okay. What did you think I meant?’ Peta spoke with a smile in her voice. Her forefinger began to play gently in Gill’s hair. Gill moved her head to stop her although, it fact, it felt soothing.

‘Whatever, I won’t sleep anyway.’

She felt Peta’s breath warm on her cheek. ‘You know, your body language says that you feel about as attractive as a garden fork, but it’s not true. You’re lovely, Gill, or will be when you learn to like yourself.’

‘I’m not gay!’ Gill blurted, then felt foolish.

‘That’s a shame.’ A ripple of laughter shook Peta’s slim body. ‘Relax, I’m only teasing you. Goodness, you’re so touchy.’

‘I think I have a right, after the episode with your rotten mask.’

‘I noticed you still have it. You could have destroyed it or thrown it out, but you kept it.’ Peta was quiet, breathing gently in and out. She smelled deliciously of herbal shampoo, mixed with the comforting, earthy scents of paint and papier maché. Then she asked, ‘What are you afraid of, Gill? What did you see?’

Lying in the dark, feeling Peta’s arm around her but not having to meet her eyes, it was all too easy to talk. The mask had swept away a barrier inside her and it was a disturbing feeling. ‘When I put it on and looked in the mirror, it was like looking into a void. Only the void was me. The next thing I knew, all the bad stuff I’d tried to forget came flooding into my head and I couldn’t cope with it. That’s why I went into hysterics.’

‘You didn’t have hysterics. You just very emphatically told me to leave.’

‘Well, it felt like it, inside. Was that what the mask was intended to do?’

Peta’s voice was steady and serious. ‘No, not as such. It’s a sort of portrait that brings hidden attributes to the surface. But that carries a risk of stirring up stuff that needs to be released…’

‘Maybe it did, but who the hell asked you to do that for me?’

Peta gave a small shrug. ‘No one. It was an impulse I should have controlled. Truly, I didn’t mean to upset you. Sorry. I’m nosey and rude, with all the subtlety of a blundering bulldozer.’

‘You said it. In your gigantic hob-nailed boots.’

‘Anyway, now the poison’s out, won’t you tell me about it?’
Learn more about the book and author at Freda Warrington's website, blog, and Facebook page.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue