Book & Audio Spotlight: OBVERSE BOOKS

PrintE-mail Written by J. R. Southall

As part of our series of articles turning the spotlight on publishers in the independent sector (our sequel to last year’s Books! The Best Weapons in the World! – A Guide to Independent Doctor Who Publishing feature), this week we’re taking a look at the work of Stuart Douglas and Paul Magrs’ company, Obverse Books.

“Obverse Books have had a really solid last twelve months, branching out into new areas both in terms of subject and type of book,” says Stuart.

“After the success of the first Faction Paradox collection (described in the Doctor Who Information Network review as ‘quite simply the most accomplished Who-related books I have read in years’), we published a second short story collection, and have just published our first Faction Paradox novel.  Four other Faction novels are in the works, in varying stages of completion, and I've just this week commissioned a third Faction collection, to be edited by Kate Orman and featuring only female writers.

“Our Iris Wildthyme range continues to be something we're really proud of.  After a break for a smaller paperback collection last year as part of the Obverse Quarterly, we're back to a full-length hardback this year,  celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of Iris in print, and featuring all sorts of different Irises for the first time! We also printed our first Annual, celebrating the best-selling steampunk characters Newbury and Hobbes, which sold out in less than twenty-four hours, and a first general genre collection, Shenanigans edited by Paul Magrs.

“Away from that, the biggest difference over the last twelve months has been the launch of Obverse's sister e-imprint, Manleigh Books.  We launched with a single Senor 105 novella and now, a few months later, have published a single author story collection by well-known Doctor Who author, Stewart Sheargold, and have a flourishing and ongoing Senor 105 novella series, now up to its fifth entry, range edited by creator Cody Quijano-Schell.

“Looking ahead, the biggest thrill for me has been the acquisition from IPC Media of the rights to Sexton Blake, the Baker Street detective. George Mann's novella Sexton Blake and the Vengeful Dead is out in hardback in the summer and will be the first new entry in the Sexton Blake Library for over forty years.  We intend to do both new material and reprints of the older, very difficult to find Blake magazine stories from the 1920s and 30s. 

“We've also signed a deal with PJ Hammond regarding Sapphire and Steel – more details on that deal will be available in the next month or so and are negotiating for one or two other properties which we think might be interesting.

“Finally, we intend to publish our first non-fiction in October, as part of the Doctor Who fiftieth anniversary celebrations.  Paul Castle, the editor of Shooty Dog Thing, has compiled the world's most in depth and comprehensive guide to the stories – in every medium – which makes up the Doctor Who universe, Tim Burton biographer and Doctor Who DVD Production Subtitles author Jim Smith has re-worked Who's Next, to be retitled Who’s Past, the very popular single volume guide to the tv show (adding twenty essays on Who-related topics as well as completely rejigged text), and from the guys at Outpost Skaro we will be publishing Face to Face, a collection of interviews with Doctor Who stars spanning the entire fifty years of the series.

“So, all in all, very very busy!”

Against Nature

By Lawrence Burton

(Chapter One)

1.1 (east)

There is the world we see, and there is the world beyond, the realm of sacred forces. Each is different to the other, but there are points at which they meet, where crossings are made. Lakes, rivers, and caves - these are dangerous places at the periphery of common experience, regions where one may glimpse the mechanism of the cosmos.

Primo Acamapichtli Isleño de la Vega stood at the edge of the fountain gazing at coins that had been tossed into the water, willing himself to see something more meaningful than a few pesos scattered in vague hope of making the big one in the Lotería Nacional. The centre of the fountain was dominated by a monolith, a basalt replica of Chalchihuitlicue, the River Goddess. It was a copy of one now standing guard at the gates of INAH in the city centre and which had been found here in San Miguel Coatlinchan, a surrogate for that which had been taken.

Maybe this was a glimpse of the mechanism of the cosmos, here at the water’s edge under the gaze of She of the Jade Petticoat. Everything came from water. It was one of those points upon which both science and religion were roughly agreed, loosely speaking. Maybe it didn’t matter that this was only a replica. The image was the thing, the representation. One could not deny her sacred credentials any more than one could claim that a word repeated was not really a word.

Noon approached and the sun had begun to cook the flagstones of the Zocalo. Vehicles sounded their horns, raising dust and exhaust fumes. A group of school children were crossing, heading towards Avenida Insurgentes, a giggling crocodile of T-shirts and backpacks. Soon the Aztec street theatre would arrive with pheasant tailfeather headdresses to dance steps which they felt were almost certainly the sort of thing their ancestors would have appreciated, and sweating tourists in comical shorts would applaud and throw coins and try their best to avoid being kidnapped. It was good for business no doubt, although Primo couldn’t help but wonder if a point hadn’t been missed somewhere along the line.

There was another point that he had himself missed, he realised. Something large had set off this train of thought, something so vast that it remained, for the moment, invisible.

He had spent an hour or so at Rudolfo’s place. They drank coffee and listened to music and talked about life. Primo needed to be at work at six, and it seemed wise to allow about an hour’s travel time into the city. Once he was home he would have something to eat, sleep a while, and then get ready for the evening shift.

Caves and lakes: the idea that was too big to consider now returned to him. He’d been inside a cave, hiding out, and there was that damn pain at the base of his spine. He reached back and felt the skin as raw and sensitive as ever beneath his shirt, still with no idea what could have caused it. Rudolfo had told him to go see Ultima. She would know what was to be done.

He had been in a cave, hiding out here in Coatlinchan, and the rest of the memory jarred against common sense because on some level he knew with certainty that it had not been a dream. Acamapichtli, his namesake and founder of the Mexica dynasty, the first true Tlatoani to occupy the seat and mat of Tenochtitlan had hidden himself away in that cave; and he too had thought about the world he saw and the world beyond and the points at which they met. Taking the positive view, the cave was, so he had decided, a womb from which history would be born.

That would have been late fourteenth century, the 1370s or thereabouts, when the Valley of Mexico was ruled by Tecpanecs and the Mexica were still not much more than a tribe. Acamapichtli had been in hiding under the protection of Lord Acolmiztli of Coatlinchan.

Primo had all of this written down somewhere, and certainly it turned up in a few of the accounts, but his memory tended to retain the mythology better than the dubiously historical details his ancestors had described to Christian friars. Coatlinchan, the Serpent House, was on the eastern shore of the lake, the place where the sun was born from the underworld each day, and the place from which the first ruler emerged. If the history seemed doubtful, the symbols were at least rock solid.

Primo crossed the Zocalo, heading for Avenida Morelos and home, thoughts of lunch inspired by the smoky tang of beef and corn burning on the griddle of a food seller.

He could see it, clear as he could still see Rudolfo’s front room in his mind’s eye. Somehow, by some mean, he had looked to a circle of sunlit greenery framed by the mouth of the cave, the leaves and boughs of a woodland that kept the subterranean hollow hidden from the familiar world. A little way past those trees and down the mountain’s incline, the town of Coatlinchan had gone about its daily affairs - hunters bringing fish, frogs, and birds up from the lake; merchants dealing precious feathers or stones in the market; mothers filling flat breads with peppers and michihuauhtli for the hungry mouths of their little ones.

A flurry of movement had unsettled the leaves of the trees, the bird he had much later identified as a screech owl. A man named Tzonatatetl had drawn closer, the jingle of ceremonial gold denoting his presence in the gloom, remarking I see that you are troubled, Lord.

Of course I am troubled, Primo had told the cleric without feeling he needed to state the reason. He still considered himself an ordinary citizen of Culhuacan. Now he had learned he was to become full Tlatoani for the Mexica, his father’s people.

You served as Cihuacoatl to the court, Tzonatatetl had told him, which somewhat disqualifies this claim of having been an ordinary citizen. Furthermore, your mother is of Culhua blood. Her grandfathers were Toltecs. Fame and esteem is your birthright.

It was not only that Primo recalled all this, but that he recalled it in such detail, and with such an overpowering sense of the familiar. He knew that certain poisons could produce visions, and thought again of the burning in his lower back.

A healer had arrived at the cave wearing robes of a material that was neither cotton nor maguey fibre, the cut and hue of which betrayed foreign heritage; and his face and hands had been the colour of woman’s milk. Primo’s retinue took this in their stride, concerned more by the possibility of his being a Tecpanec assassin than his ghastly appearance. The stranger spoke as though his tongue were better attuned to some rustic language, explaining that his name was either Serpentine Fire or Fire in the Serpent or something of that sort.

Primo had told him sorcery has been visited upon me, as though I have walked over the hair of the Gods. I am unaccustomed to the ways of those who cause such things to happen, but I recognise an attack to the darkest third of my tripartite being. My affliction came from clouds and mist, and that part of my body which sits east bears an unhealing wound.

The foreigner took a tool from the pouch upon his garment, something like a bolt of stone with four hollows carved into its length. Its face was inlaid with an equal number of silvered thorns stood in a row, each projecting outwards like the needles of a young mizquitl tree. Primo winced at the improbable memory of four needles piercing his flesh. It had been a dream by virtue of the fact that it could hardly have been anything else; but he had no idea where he’d experienced it, or when it had surged up from the depths of memory. He understood only that he knew it now, and knew it as though it had happened. It had been a dream because he read far too much, and his own second name was Acamapichtli thanks to an unusually patriotic father, and there was no such thing as reincarnation. Even Ultima would have agreed with him on that score. Why always Cleopatra or Elvis Presley, she once asked him in rhetorical fashion, why never the poor soul who has to clean the lavatory or wipe arses for a living?

Minutes later, Primo was stood before the door shared with three other families, fumbling a key from his pocket, slotting it into a lock which rattled within the wood. He stepped into the sepulchral cool, savouring cold black and white tiles through the soles of his shoes; then flinching as those same black and white tiles moved, a rippling motion, something that stirred his gut adding to the pain in his back. It took him a second to recognise the swift motion of a snake making a break for a gap where the street door didn’t quite meet with the step. It was one of those little rattlers, grey with the darker bands, and very shy - nothing worth getting upset about.

The sound of the television set buzzed somewhere at the top of the stairs. His mother was home from her cleaning. He found the second key on the fob and went into their apartment.

‘Hello, my son. How are you this day?’ His mother’s voice sang over the television noise but her gaze remained fixed upon the screen, TV Azteca as usual. ‘What do you have to tell me?’

‘Rudolfo is fine.’ He set his bag down upon the counter top and went over to the huge, old fridge, big as a safe and very noisy. The cool air hit him in a wave as he opened the door and briefly recalled the snake, wondering why it should have come inside rather than stay out there soaking up heat like every other reptile in the city. He took out a transparent plastic box in which his mother had saved a couple of tacos and went to the side for a plate.

María, his mother, sat upon a stool at the counter, still wearing the dull blue apron that came with her job. She sipped a glass of milk, her gaze loyal to Los Peligros de Ivan on the television but her mouth curling as though sucking a lemon. ‘There he is, the perfect victim,’ - her face creased in disgust - ‘the poor, sainted Indian child with his heart of gold.’

It took Primo a moment to realise she had been referring to the telenovela in which a dashing and yet patently black-hearted Christian delivered a choreographed beating to a young boy in dazzling white campesino clothes.

María sucked at a tooth. ‘Never do you see one of ours but he is in the news because he has shot someone, or he is dying in a novela so that others may have something to cry over.’

Primo allowed the moment to pass, then made his announcement. ‘I will visit Ultima, I think.’

‘That is a good idea. She will know what to do. Always you were her favourite.’

Long hikes through woodland back when he was a child, passing offerings to the old woman - cigarettes or liquor dangling from twine in the subterranean gloom - the memory went out as a commotion erupted from the other rooms, squawks of animal panic. His mother was already through the door. The handle slammed into the wall dislodging yet more plaster in the usual place. Primo set his plate to the counter and raced after her.

The front room was still in darkness. María knelt amongst the chaos, a chair and some newspapers which had been scattered by the collapse of bird cage and stand. She glared at the cat, at Señor Mullido as he was called.

‘Primo, hold that beast - quickly!’

He scooped up the creature, so focused upon its prey that it barely noticed, muscles taut with fur arched all along its back. It wrestled, compelled to return to the scene of its crime by pure instinct. He tossed it out into the hall and slammed the door.

His mother wailed softly. ‘Oh Francisco!’

Before her the lifeless bird lay surrounded by a tiny halo of torn and bloody feathers.


You can order Against Nature here, or as an Ebook here. Find Part 1 of our Spotlight series here.

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