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The Iron Ship by K. M. McKinley: Extract & Cover Art

A few weeks ago I was sent a book called The Iron Ship, the first thing that struck me about this particular book was the fantastic cover art. It is far from your typical fantasy cover, but at the same time it is somewhat familiar. I think it reminds me of older adventure novels. As I flipped open the pages I quickly found it had that kind of narrative too – light, easy-to-read, fun and a real page turner.

The novel is set in a world at the beginning of the age of industry, where the balance between science and magic is fraught with danger and difficulty. The iron ship belongs to an explorer named Trassan Kressind; he has a plan to combine the power of magic with the strength of a great ship to travel across unexplored ocean. It’s not just Tressan the explorer we follow either, ambition runs strongly in the Kressind family, and for each of Trassan’s siblings fate beckons.

Soldier Rel is banished to a vital frontier, bureaucrat Garten balances responsibility with family loyalty, sister Katriona is determined to carve herself a place in a world of men, outcast Guis struggles to contain the energies of his soul, while priest Aarin dabbles in forbidden sorcery. Innovation and ambition will propel the family forward, but an ancient evil could well pull them back.

Solaris have very kindly agreed to allow us an exclusive extract of chapter one. In addition to that they’ve also given us the original cover art designed by Alejandro Colucci, check it out!

The Iron Ship (cover art)

Now on with the story!

– – –

The Iron Ship
Chapter One
“The Haunted Marsh”

“‘As you gaze on where I lie, have a care, you too shall die.’”

Aarin Kressind moved so that his good eye was better positioned, and reread the words. The grave marker was exiled from the burial grounds atop the cliffs, half hidden by the wooden stair of the Path of the Dead. A commemoration for a criminal, the inscription was worn by time and weather and barely legible. A stylised face of a man, described entirely by arcs and circles, gaped at the top of the stone, staring out to distant sea in dismay.

That was the resting place referred to; not the cliffside, but the ocean, the ultimate home of the dispossessed and the criminal. Aarin wondered who the marker had been raised for, and if their ghost still roamed the marshes.

Aarin looked back up the greyed wood of the Path. If he held his hands boxed so, either side of his face—hands that were smooth and ink stained yet strong—he could shut out the city. Karsa did not encroach on the Path of the Dead. Through his hands he was looking back a hundred years to a time before Karsa had swollen with self-importance and burst its guts all around the county. He saw the Path of the Dead as it had been for a thousand years. A notch in the cliff edge closed by black iron gates leading down from the plateau, turning the instant it crossed the edge to lead down smooth, treacherous rock to the top of the wooden stair. The land around the steps was free of the spires and roof ridges that crowded the sky both left and right. Once all the dead of Karsa city had been brought this way and on out to the Black Isle. No longer. That lone and dismal outpost of the cliffs in the marsh had become choked with bones two centuries ago. Cemeteries lined the route to the head of the path, a plot in one of those was the best a man could hope for.

Aarin’s moment of reflection passed. His irritation overcame him.

“Pasquanty! Move yourself!” he yelled upwards.

His deacon’s reply was reedy with distance and broken by the wind, but his fear was unmistakeable. “Coming Guider Kressind!” The stairs vibrated quicker with his tread.

The ledge broke the precipitous descent in two. Black rock stretched down six hundred feet to the marshes. The stairs were rickety. Grey wood pinned to the cliffs by rusty iron. Aarin would have to report their condition to the Order. This was not fitting. The living forgot the dead at their peril.

On both sides of the path, Karsa city spilled over the brinks of the cliffs as if pushed. A static avalanche of shacks teetered over the marsh. Wood and sheet metal huts held in place by braced diagonal beams and optimistic cantilevers, connected by bridges and walkways woven from equal parts rope and hope. The shanty extended eighteen fathoms down and stopped in an abrupt line. The high water mark was still some eight hundred feet below the bottommost shacks, but it was not the vagaries of the tides that discouraged people from building lower.

Ordure streaked black rock and wood. Privy holes opened in the underside of the buildings directly onto the roofs of their neighbours. Between the shanties the sewage of the upper city spewed from modern culverts piercing the cliffs. All part of Per Allian’s plan to clean up the capital. No thought had been given to the marshes. It appeared neither Allian nor his sponsor Prince Alfra cared for them or their sanctity. Aarin seethed at it. The slums were a disgrace. Every time he came here it was worse.

The sewer’s rank bounty supported its own indelicate web of life. Gulls screeched in wheeling formation, fighting the unpredictable gusts deflected from the cliff face to return to their roosts. By day they feasted on the crabs and worms and other things that gorged on Karsa’s shit. Thousands—tens of thousands, some said—plagued the new cliff edge districts in aerial hordes, worse off to the north where the Slot climbed down to the sea. There the city proper tumbled eagerly about the locks, coming as far as the high watermark one hundred yards above the marsh. There were clouds over the tight streets of the Slot and the Locksides, dark and thick in resolute defiance of the wind. Hard to tell from that distance if it was smog or yet more of the blasted gulls.

There were no gulls over the Path of the Dead, their cries were always distant. There was a war on in cliff-edge Karsa, unofficial but earnest nonetheless, between the gulls and the people. Each side regarded the other as trespassers on their territory, but the stair was kept out of it. That was for the dead.

Aarin was one of a very few with a key to the gates, and therefore had little fear for the height, the path or the haunted marsh it crossed.

Aarin was a tall man, heavily built around the shoulders if gangly in the limbs. One eye was a milk-white orb crossed by a ragged scar. Despite this disfigurement he was handsome if seldom smiling. He wore robes of green and gold under his weather-beaten cleric’s coat. His hair, a mix of his father’s red and mother’s sandy tresses, was in the stark Guider’s style, shaved all over but for the front part of his skull. Further signifiers to his vocation were the rings he wore, and the chain about his neck of linked, stylised skulls. Anyone who set eyes upon him, living or dead, would be immediately aware of his calling as a minister to the deceased.

If that did not prove informative enough, then his companions surely were.

The Twins were some three dozen yards back and upwards, between Aarin and Pasquanty. The chest they carried was heavy, but the twins, neither twins nor any longer alive, lacked the capacity to feel discomfort at bearing its weight or to complain about it. They marched onto the ledge, and stopped before the priest. One had been a pale-skinned Karsan, the other a darker northerner, though both had become somewhat grey in death. Their dead eyes rolled ceaselessly, seeing nothing, oblivious to the dread of the place.

Pasquanty came next. Aarin’s deacon was a habitually anxious man, and so he was very afraid. He glanced at the sky fearfully as he stepped onto the ledge. Evening was coming. Light was draining from the sky surely as water runs from a tipped basin. The horizon blushed pink over the distant ocean. Above the cliffs the clouds were purple, and brooded sullenly at their bruising.

“You will not delay the coming of dark by checking its progress every half minute, deacon,” said Aarin irritably. “I am not by nature a vicious man, Pasquanty, but your nervousness is testing me. Remember what you are!”

“I… I am sorry, Guider Kressind.” Pasquanty’s Karsarin had a slight accent, that of Corrend. His apology did not stop him from anxiously checking the sky once again.

“Do stop that! We have nothing to fear, you or I. We will pass unharmed.”

“But the spectres, Guider Kressind. The roaming ones, the…”

“There is nothing to fear from them either, if you are wise. Be wise! And stop looking at the sky! It will be dark soon, do you need to know the exact moment that dusk comes? Take a care or you’ll fall.”

Pasquanty had a pair of large eyes whose soulfulness was somewhat undone by their watery nature and the mountain of a nose that divided them. Pasquanty’s blink was unusually expressive, indeed, all his facial configurations were as melodramatic as those of a mime. No one was ever in any doubt as to how Pasquanty felt. At that moment, he broadcast misery. This endless play of emotion was one of the many factors that provoked Aarin’s irritation.

“I am sure that you do it on purpose,” said Aarin.

“What, Guider Kressind?” said Pasquanty.

“Being confused! Your face displays your innermost thoughts, plain as the words on a broadsheet. The appearance of this expression on you Pasquanty is not, alas, uncommon.”

“I am sorry, Guider Kressind.”

“As you said! Come on!” Aarin was habitually close-mouthed, and having to talk so much annoyed him further. The dark bulk of the Twin was heaving itself over the edge of the world. The first few stars were igniting. “The moons will be in position soon. We have nothing to fear from the dark, but we do risk running out of time.”

The silent twins set into the lurching motion of the dead, and went first.

A perilous climb in day became more dangerous as daylight ebbed. The steps were provided with long rope handrails passed through iron loops driven into the rock. The rope could be grasped should one slip, but alas, like so much to do with the Order in those times, they were poorly maintained and untrustworthy. The wind grew stronger along with the dark, and so Aarin and Pasquanty breathed sighs of relief when they reached the place where the black rock of the cliffs met the mud and grasses of the marsh. The cliffs rose implacably over them, the shanties clinging to them mighty as barnacles. Refuse was heaped everywhere. There had been none of the greater tides to clear it all away for months, only lesser inundations, and these only gathered the trash into mounds fit to mock the mounds of barrow-kings. There would be wealth of a kind hidden in them, but the gleaners had departed no matter. No one was poor or desperate enough to chance the marshes at dusk when the Twin approached and both moons rose.

Ahead of them the Path of the Dead became a bleached boardwalk, meandering towards the Black Isle.

Pasquanty leaned out over the water-smoothed railings. “The grass, I hear voices…”

“Pay them no heed. Most are harmless. If we listen we will draw the ghosts out and will spend our night hearing their petitions. Pay them no heed!”

Pasquanty gulped, sending his oversized larynx bobbing up and down his skinny neck. Aarin gave him a despairing look. He set out at a brisk pace.

The boardwalk ran on pilings moated by dank pools. The marshes were bleak wastes that went on for miles. There were a few islets, topped by a fuzz of salt furze and dwarf sycamore hardy enough to withstand drowning by the tides. Between them were many smaller rocky protrusions mottled with grey limpets who waited with the patience of ages for the sea. Chains of bright orange iron were anchored to three of the largest sea rocks, grouped together within sight of the cliffs.

“The killing rocks?” said Pasquanty.

“What else?”

“Have you ever…?”

“Officiated? Of course. The deaths of the condemned are unpleasant. Drowning is the best they can hope for, the anguillons or the dead get them in the main. I don’t like it, before you ask. To see death without being able to send souls on to peace goes against my inclination.”

“They are criminals.”

“Everybody deserves the chance of the hereafter, Pasquanty. But others greater than we deem it otherwise. I see it as part of our duties, and best borne with dignity. Be glad there are no executions scheduled.”

Pasquanty had to strain to hear. The wind droned through the railings, rattling the grasses and snatching at Aarin’s words. He dared not ask Aarin to speak up.

“They say their spirits are the ones that haunt the marshes.”

At this Aarin did stop and turn, so unexpectedly it caused the Twins to stumble.

“Their ghosts are the most common of the spirits one might meet on the marsh, but not the most dangerous. Cease thinking on them! You will draw them to us.” He shook his head. “How many times must I tell you this?”

Pasquanty swallowed again. Aarin resisted the urge to push him into the mud eighteen feet below.

Their feet knocked hollowly on the wood. Silver water rippled in creeks. The evidence of the tides was visible in looped patterns of scummy brown foam. There was a lot the marsh could tell you, if you knew where to look. Aarin was not born to the place, but had had the sense to ask those who were. He was thinking on one of them, a gleaner whose back was stooped from carrying his coracle around with him perpetually like a species of human snail, when a curlew let out its haunting cry. Aarin stopped dead. A trio of oyster catchers burst from the reed bed half a mile away. He narrowed his eyes, scanning the horizon. The sun was finally slipping under the sea, the rising Twin taking an opportunistic bite from its rim. The last light was confusing, bouncing from wet sand and water in dazzling scintillations of bronze, silver, and gold. The flatness of the landscape made perspective a trickster, turning the trunks of driftwood trees into sticks, and stones into mysterious islands.

“What is it?” asked Pasquanty.

“We should proceed carefully,” said Aarin.

“I thought that was the general plan, out here, you know, on the Paths of the Dead.” Pasquanty made a pathetic attempt at a laugh. It came out shrill.

More carefully. We have been noticed. Do not leave the boardwalk, Pasquanty.”

“You know,” grumbled the deacon, “none of this is making me feel any better.”

Who would they meet? wondered Aarin. It could just be gleaners, of course. Whole clans of them roamed the marshes. But with the tide due tonight, they would have gone to higher ground or their floating villages. In any case, few of them would come this way at this hour. The area was treacherous with quicksand, and lousy with the dead. There was talk that bands of the Drowned King’s reavers had been seen. This Aarin doubted; it was too close to the city. More likely they’d come across Rattling Jimkin, the Wailing Death, or Hollow Anika. Such colourful names, thought Aarin, but a shiver troubled him nonetheless. It was one thing to watch the ghostlights roaming the mud from the clifftop, another thing to be among them down here in the muck, Guider or not.

“Still, needs must,” he said to himself. “Needs must.”

He hoped it wasn’t Hollow Anika.

Of course, it was.

There was a broad space of temporary dunes halfway out to the Black Isle. The marsh winds laboriously built them up for the next Great Tide to wash them flat again. After the flood the dunefields became places of sucking quicksands and sinister creeks along with everything else, then the mud dried and the dunes crept up again, gathering around whatever minor prominence that encourage their growth. They were at the apex of their height; twenty-three feet this close to the Great Tide, five over the height of the boardwalk. Aarin slowed as they approached. Sand banked over the edge of the rails. He halted Pasquanty with a touch to his arm. The Correndian stopped. “The boardwalk is buried for twenty yards or so,” he whispered.

Pasquanty squinted. “Is it safe?”

“No. But if we keep our wits about us we should be pass unmolested.” Aarin loosened his iron darts in their case at his belt all the same.

“I hear nothing,” said Pasquanty.

“It is not a good sign, deacon. No bird or beast. The ghosts on the wind are gone. Something has scared them all away. We would be safe on the boardwalk.” He tapped at a worn sigil carved into the rail. “But a covering of sand can render the wards inoperative. We must be extremely cautious.”

“And when we are past?”

Aarin looked into the distance at the broken crags of the Black Isle. Past the dunes, the boardwalk curved across foetid pools choked with the city’s outfall. He grumbled and pulled his brass spyglass from its leather tube and put it to his good eye. More delays. “I see nothing there, living or dead, and the walk is sound. We should be alright, once we are past the dunes.”

Pasquanty opened his narrow mouth, but Aarin silenced him with a scowl. He held his finger to his lips in a savage gesture that pressed them white. Pasquanty warned, the Guiders proceeded.
They came nearer to the buried part of the walk. A desolate wailing froze them in their tracks.

“What was that?” said Pasquanty, his voice a squeak.

Aarin’s eyes flashed in anger. “Shut up!”

The wailing stopped. When it began again it was closer to the boardwalk.

“You fool,” hissed Aarin. “You have given us away!”

“To what, to who?” quailed Pasquanty.

“Hollow Anika, that is the cry of Hollow Anika! Come! We must hurry!”

They reached the buried part of the boardwalk, and struggled up onto the dune covering it. The sand was pocked with the impacts of a recent shower, and was damp and cloying. Pasquanty, wracked with fear, stumbled in it, leaving a splayed handprint in the sand. Aarin was indomitable, hitching up his Guider’s robes and ploughing on. The twins were not troubled at all. They broke into a trot and stolidly barged Pasquanty out of the way.

“Guider Kressind, wait!” called the deacon.

The wailing loudened, dreadful keening that came from many throats singing out their pain as one. “Where, where, where?” the voices sang. “Where are my children?

Pasquanty struggled up. He followed as quick as he could after the retreating figure of Aarin. Movement caught his eye, and there, standing on the dune crest above the boardwalk, was a woman. Stick thin, her pretty face emaciated so that her eyes appeared enormous in their sockets. Thin fingers plucked at a filthy dress.

You! You, have you seen my children?

Aarin’s feet tocked on wood, safe again. He turned back to see Hollow Anika float down to the covered walkway, the toes of her bare feet trailing across the sand, and interpose herself directly between Aarin and Pasquanty, cutting off the deacon from his master.

“Lost gods damn him!” cursed Aarin. He strode back onto the sand, passing the twins. His dead servants dutifully trundled about to follow, and he was forced to pause and command them to proceed on to the isle. Hollow Anika was turning toward Pasquanty, revealing the space in her back to Aarin that gave her her name. She was as hollow as a rotten old tree, a pit from her shoulders to her buttocks that stretched away forever. Dull red light shone from somewhere very deep.

Hello little priest,” said the spectre to Pasquanty.

The deacon fell to his knees and moaned.

Have you seen them? Have you seen my children?” She reached skeletally thin fingers out to him.

“Don’t look in her eyes!” bellowed Aarin. He needn’t have said so, for the deacon had wrapped himself into a ball, his arms about his head. “Stand away from him, departed one!”

I am not departed,” said Hollow Anika, swivelling on the spot to face Aarin. “I am here. Can you not see?” Her head lolled to one side and her mouth split in a wide, black toothed grin. “Come with me. Such pretty singing we will make.” She rushed at him, arms outreached, eyes unblinking.

That was always the worst, thought Aarin. “I command you to hold!” he shouted. He withdrew five darts in a fan from their case. He threw them one at a time, long practise allowing him to work a fresh missile up his hand into position between forefinger and thumb after each cast. The first two went wide, but the third hit home, eliciting a piercing shriek from the spectre. She thrashed at her shoulder where the iron pierced her, but could not bear to touch the dart to pluck it out. She snarled and came on again.

Aarin set his feet wider and tossed his last two darts. He neatly hit her in each foot, pinning her in place not four paces from himself. Where the iron met her flesh, glowing smoke curled upward, bright in the evening. She screamed with her mouth closed, the sound emanating from the cavity in her back. She glared at him, dead eyes full of hate.

“Come on Pasquanty! Get past her! Onto the wood once more!”

Pasquanty crawled past, as far from the revenant as he could get. His hands found part of the railing buried in the sand. The touch of the wood gave him strength and he scrambled past her with redoubled speed. She watched him go to his superior, whose sleeve he grabbed in a shocking lapse of etiquette.

“I saw, I saw…” Pasquanty gulped. For once, Aarin forgave the squirmings of his face. “I saw the dead, howling at me from the pit in her back. Like they were a long way down, though she stood upright…”

“The souls she has snared,” said Aarin. He looked disdainfully at Pasquanty’s hands clutching his arm. The Correndian muttered an apology and removed them.

Pasquanty looked back to where the spectre stood silently, still watching them. “Will she be waiting here when we return?”
“In all likelihood no, not even Hollow Anika enjoys the bite of iron.” Aarin became brisk. “We should hurry. We have wasted enough time with this. We are fortunate, in a way. Hollow Anika will have scared away the other dead. We should find no more trouble on our way to the Black Isle.”

“Are you certain?”

“No,” said Aarin, “I am not. But whatever the marshes hide, you will see worse upon the isle. You should prepare yourself, Pasquanty.”

“Guider…”

“You wanted to come. You wanted to learn. It is too late now to raise objections.”

– – –

The Iron Ship (cover)

The Iron Ship by K. M. McKinley is out now.
Buy Now: US paperback | UK paperback | ebook

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar ScarletBea says:

    Ooooh another one for my wishlist 🙂

  2. You’re right, this cover is absolutely amazing! So jealous. Sounds like a good book, I’m gonna have to check it out.

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