Tag Archives: Os Penitens

In the Year of the Blue Heron…

“Mummy, I’ve done my first blog!”
“Yes, dear. Now clean it up.”

Although I do intend to write widely (and inaccurately) about literature, lurchers and life, as it says somewhere on this site, my main reason for setting up greydogtales was to promote, and often apologise for, my writing. So I’m going to start with a piece about my largest and least useable body of work – Os Penitens.

What happens when you lose control of your creation? I’ve always been a bit suspicious of authors who go to conventions and talk about how the characters “wrote themselves”. Clearly they didn’t. Fictional folk can’t use word-processors. I’d prefer it if they did could. Then, when an agent says that a particular one didn’t work, I could turn round and shout at the character. It wouldn’t be me that got it wrong, after all.

But all of your writing comes from you, somehow, and it’s your fault. And that brings us back to losing control. One of my greatest frustrations as a writer, apart from rarely being paid for it, is the existence of Os Penitens.

In the eighties (probably before you were born, best beloved), I wrote an extensive outline, and many short pieces, concerning Isaine’s Sorrow, the Tower of Falling and the dissolution which overcomes a mandragore when its twice-born body finally fails.
These were stories of Os Penitens, that vast metropolis once known as The Mouth of War, ruled in part, and in its own peculiar way, by a Gynarch who may not even exist. If the city owes anything to anyone in literary terms (I can’t tell anymore), I would probably credit Gene Wolfe and Lord Dunsany. I do know that Os Penitens would have Minas Tirith for supper and still be hungry. It might have to roll its sleeves up to take on New Crobuzon, but the Ossine have some serious players. The Red Whore could probably slaughter a district or two on her own, after all.

It is said that Os Penitens was once entered and occupied briefly by a people from the north. Their language is lost, their name forgotten. They were consumed, utterly. If that is not true, it should be. This is what my city does…

I wrote and wrote. I produced a 350,000 word novel about the struggles of the Procurator Malyse anBaralte and the failed suicide Carfanel (he had been failing to commit suicide with any success for centuries, so don’t worry, there was no urgency). I was working full time, but being rather obsessed I followed on with half another Ossine novel on the nature of being alive. That itself was followed by details of the sexual proclivities of Angrale, the sarcomancer usually called the Red Whore. In the nineties came “The Wavedancer’s Daughter”, where the Shroud must question their role in a world where steam and merchant banking were becoming more important than loyalty to their Gynarch. After that, “The Cooper’s Child”, on how one insignificant person might accidentally alter thousands of lives. And there was more, naturally. The whole story cycle of To Hear Leviathan in fact – sorrow, malignancy and mortality.

He is only a messenger, a small mind, and changed. He hovers, a nail-paring against the huge and cloudless sky, a pale crescent of tight-bound feather and breath, and then he is falling. Down, down across the plains, the empty land which is alive with rock mouse and lizard, the dark banded snake and the fledgling.

None of which he can take, because he is changed.

Reading the hot winds, he banks and swoops, gains a hundred feet and is away from the red iron taste of the flesh under the fur, the soft gut beneath the scale. His cry would be frustration, if he understood such a thing. Farmlands now, and irrigation ditches which croak with a thousand fat frogs…


And now the walls, great sand-scoured things like sudden cliffs, thermals which catch him and toss him higher. The city crumbles away in layers, from the great bastions of the Black to the old Imperial curtain wall. The twist in the air which is all the river means to him, and then the Sprawl, a shanty-town, the stink of tanneries and dye-works, of running sewage and the plump, slow rats which have learned nothing from their kin on the plains beyond.

That place is Sarvis Est, where the Thunderers walk. The last Ossine territory in the east, where they remember the Fields of Garesine and plan betrayal on a genocidal scale…

I knew the city and the lands of Os Penitens so well. I still do. And that’s what went wrong. It became impossible to pin down one particular story which would make up the plot of a novel. The creation had become too large, and I found myself becoming its historian, not its controller. Once the concept of The Historian entered my head, things got worse. My writing became more fragmented if anything, as chunks of Os Penitens “wrote themselves”, regardless of what I consciously intended to produce for publication. Let this happen, lose professional focus, and you have Os Penitens. A creation out of control.

When something reaches this size, it becomes almost impossible to step back far enough to see it. If I were a much beloved fantasy author, I think I’d just franchise the lot and take a cut. “More strange and twisted stories set in John Linwood Grant’s Os Penitens. With an introduction by Neil Gaiman.” Yeah, that’ll happen.

Last month I wrote a short horror story for a US project. It concerned the repercussions of the slave-trade in Bristol, set around 1910. It made a nice change, and in time, that sort of writing may cure me. I can’t be sure.

Of course, it’s still true that Nemors once discovered a rare mirific made of ironwood and the finger bones of drole. It is said that when stroked, the device played a tune that only the blind could hear, yet the blind were so moved by it that they could never describe the sound…

Doesn’t make a good story, though.

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