by Autumn M. Birt
There are novels that stand out as being something far from the ordinary. Storm Dancer immediately hit me as something different.
I swear that I actually first saw this book in a stack at my mother-in-laws. I loved the cover and read the back blurb, finding myself intrigued. The story line lingered in my mind long enough that when I ran into Rayne on Twitter, finding Storm Dancer tantalizing me once again, I knew I’d read it.
Demon-possessed siege commander, Dahoud, atones for his atrocities by hiding his identity and protecting women from war’s violence – but can he shield the woman he loves from the evil inside him?
Principled weather magician, Merida, brings rain to a parched desert land. When her magical dance rouses more than storms, she needs to overcome her scruples to escape from danger.
Thrust together, Dahoud and Merida must fight for freedom and survival. But with hatred and betrayal burning in their hearts, how can they rebuild their fragile trust?
‘Storm Dancer’ is a dark-heroic fantasy. Circa 150,000 words. British spellings. Caution: this book contains some violence and disturbing situations. Not recommended for under-16s.
What drew me to this novel was the setting: a fantasy story set in the desert. Plus, I was intrigued by the main character of Dahoud being both the hero and the villain, a man plagued by inner evil that he seeks to control. As a writer, I had to see how Ms. Hall pulled that off. She does it brilliantly.
The setting of a harsh desert country beset by drought, during a time equivalent to our bronze age, is rich and well written. Neighboring counties are a threat, even when it is assistance they send rather than war. Merida is such a beneficial ambassador, sent to help a land considered primitive by her refined homeland. The plotting of a corrupt government quickly entangles Merida far from home and without aid. She has only her wits and ability to call rain to keep her somewhat safe.
There are many great characters in the novel and each are unique in their failings and strengths. The interweaving stories along with what would seem to be inconsequential details thread together to impact the ending – a feature I admire in a story and author. The twists in the plot left me surprised. I never really knew where the story would go next, which was lovely.
If you read other reviews you will quickly see the mentions that the novel is graphic with both torture and rape. Oddly though, I agree with others in that I think one of the few failings in the novel is that it could have been darker yet. The one time that Dahoud’s djinn wins its battle of lust and conquest, the scene is quickly glossed over. Most of the time, Dahoud wins over his demon with only hints of the time in his life where it had ruled. I would have loved a larger moment or at least a longer after effect of guilt when Dahoud succumbs to his inner evil.
I would have also loved some insight to Merida’s thoughts at the end of the novel, especially when she makes the final choice she does in the story. The ending to me was very believable as she changes during the course of the story, but I would have liked to hear that final epiphany from her.
Lastly, I would have loved a map to visualize the world, though directions and landmarks were consistent enough that I felt familiar with the landscape and cities. But a map to look at while reading would have enhanced my experience.
I will read this novel again in the future. I am a very fast reader, so the story length was great for me (it took more than a day, yeah!). However, it pulled me in so tightly, I raced through it finding it hard to put down. I want to go back without that need to see what the next page or chapter holds and really enjoy the setting and story!
If you are looking for a unique, dark epic fantasy, I highly recommend Storm Dancer. I give it a solid 4.5 out of 5 stars . . . maybe even 4.75. I loved it enough that after posting reviews and recommendations everywhere, I pestered Rayne for an interview. I’m so thrilled that she agreed!
So pull up a chair and meet Rayne Hall! Not only is she an excellent author, she is an extremely nice person and a mentor to many authors. Like Storm Dancer she stands out from the crowd.
Rayne Hall has published more than forty books under different pen names with different publishers in different genres, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction. Recent books include Storm Dancer (dark epic fantasy novel), 13 British Horror Stories, Six Scary Tales Vol 1, 2 and 3 (mild horror stories), Six Historical Tales (short stories), Six Quirky Tales (humorous fantasy stories), Writing Fight Scenes, The World-Loss Diet, Writing about Villains and Writing Scary Scenes (instructions for authors).
She holds a college degree in publishing management and a masters degree in creative writing. Currently, she edits the Ten Tales series of multi-author short story anthologies: Bites: Ten Tales of Vampires, Haunted: Ten Tales of Ghosts, Scared: Ten Tales of Horror, Cutlass: Ten Tales of Pirates, Beltane: Ten Tales of Witchcraft, Spells: Ten Tales of Magic, Undead: Ten Tales of Zombies and more.
Rayne has lived in Germany, China, Mongolia and Nepal and has now settled in a small dilapidated town of former Victorian grandeur on the south coast of England. You can find more about her and her many books at: https://sites.google.com/site/raynehallsdarkfantasyfiction/
Rayne kindly answered my questions and true to her chosen country of residence, the spellings are in British English (so you can better imagine an accent).
1. What inspired you to write Storm Dancer? I noticed on your bio that you’ve travelled. Did the seeds for the story get planted long ago?
My mind is filled with story ideas… so many ideas, so little time! When two or three ideas click together, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, a story starts to form. My experiences of travelling and working in foreign countries contributed many of those idea pieces.
The first idea came to me when I was staying in a ger (yurt) at the edge of the Gobi desert in Mongolia. It was a vague idea at first – two people who hate each other must become allies to survive, and although they have previously betrayed and harmed each other they must now depend on each other and learn to trust.
Storm Dancer is set in a fantasy world loosely based on the cultures of the Bronze Age period and the climate and geography of the Middle East, so my travels in the Near and Middle East and in North Africa inspired many colourful details. A few elements from Asia – including Mongolia – have also found their way into Storm Dancer.
I also used personal experiences of what it’s like to work in a distant Third World country, cut off from all support, at the mercy of an employer who doesn’t honour the terms of the contract.
My experience of performing and teaching bellydance has found its way into this novel, too, so when Merida learns to bellydance in the harem, and when she entertains in a tavern, those scenes have authenticity.
Further inspiration came from ancient cultures, especially Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Persians and Hittites, and from quirky characters and bizarre situations I’ve observed.
Storm Dancer also explores a subject I’ve thought about a lot: how we’re not responsible for what fate deals us, but we’re responsible for how we deal with it. Dahoud is a troubled hero with a dark past. As a siege commander, he once razed, raped and killed… and he enjoyed it. Now he needs to atone. He has sacrificed everything to build a new identity and a life of peace, and he devotes himself to protecting women from harm. But Dahoud is not alone. Inside him lives a devious demon, a djinn that demands he subdue women with force. It torments him with pains and tempts him with forbidden desires. How much of it is the demon, and how much is the dark psyche? How can he learn to control the evil inside him? How far must he go to redeem himself?
2. How long did it take you to write Storm Dancer or a novel in general? (Does it drive you crazy that something that took you months can be read, by fast readers at least, in 6 hours?)
Storm Dancer took me about ten years to write – longer than any other book – because I rewrote it several times. When I started to write Storm Dancer, I created Dahoud as a standard swashbuckling hero. I had almost finished the novel when he confessed that he was possessed by a demon. Of course, this changed everything, and I had to rewrite the whole book. During the rewrite, his personality changed, so I had to start yet again. It took several rewrites before I realised just how dark his past was and what a terrible secret he carries inside him, what drove him and what he needed to do to atone.
If a reader chooses to spend time with my novel, whether that’s a few hours or several months, I’m honoured.
3. What has been your favorite moment of being an author?
I’ve loved almost every moment of it. Highlights include: When the author copies for my first ever book arrived from the publisher – the pristine pages, the smell of printers’ ink, the glossy covers with my name on it. My stories and articles in prestigious magazines. Meeting someone in a non-writing context, and they say, “Are you THE Rayne Hall? You’re one of my favourite authors!” Every time ideas click together and form a story. Sitting in an outdoors coffee shop, listening to birdsong while jotting down notes for my next story. Getting invited to literature festivals and conferences as a speaker. Bookshop staff recognising me and asking me if I would please sign the copies they have in stock. Talking shop with other writers. Getting tweets and email from readers who’ve enjoyed one of my books. It’s all very exciting.
4. Has there ever been a time you nearly gave up writing?
There was a time when I gave up fiction writing for several years, a tough and painful decision. I continued to write features and non-fiction books, though, so it wasn’t a complete break from writing. Some years later, my circumstances changed, and I started to write again. I chose a new genre and a new pen name, allowed myself to be a beginner once more and wrote with renewed passion.
5. What is your favorite story that you’ve written and favorite one in general?
I can’t choose just one – I have hundreds of favourites among the stories I’ve read. I like dark horror stories with and without fantasy elements, especially horror of the creepy and disturbing sort (not gory stuff). Favourites include The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, Miss Hazeltine’s Miracle by Mort Castle, The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs, The Signalman by Charles Dickens, The Phantom Coach by Amelia Edwards, The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe, The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, When the Clock Strikes by Tanith Lee… and many others. Among the novels I’ve read over and over is The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.
My favourite among the stories I’ve written? I like different stories for different reasons. Burning (republished in Six Scary Tales Vol. 1) is perhaps one of my best; it’s subtly disturbing. The Bridge Chamber (republished in Six Scary Tales Vol. 4) is probably my scariest – it frightens me when I re-read it. The Devil Eats Here pleases me because it almost wrote itself. Scylla and The Pepper Pirates is a tongue-in-cheek fantasy adventure yarn that was fun to write. Take Me To St Roch’s is perhaps typical for what my horror fiction, atmospheric and creepy.
Of my novels, Storm Dancer is my favourite. Definitely. It’s the kind of novel I enjoy reading: exciting, with scary moments and quirky elements, intense, thought-provoking and disturbing.
Okay, if you haven’t gone and found something by Rayne to read yet (I have several on my iPad, including one from her lessons to improve and hone writing techniques!) then I’ll just have to give you something. Rayne let me pick a scene from Storm Dancer to share with you! So here is a scene that got me hooked and I hope it does the same for you. If so, you’ll find Storm Dancer on Smashwords, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and probably wherever you purchase your favorite e-books. Enjoy – I did!
Excerpt from Storm Dancer by Rayne Hall
At twenty-five, he had a conscience heavier than a brick-carrier’s tray and more curses on his head than a camel had fleas. He had left the legion to cut himself off temptation, to deprive the djinn of fodder. After a siege, rape was legal, a soldier’s right, practically expected of him, part of the job. By returning to war, he would forfeit his victories over his craving. The djinn would again be his master.
Yet he ached to wear the general’s cloak again, to silence sneering bureaucrats, to make women take notice. He lusted for that power the way a heavy drinker, deprived of his solace, ached for a sip of wine. The yearning to wield a sword ached in his arms, his chest throbbed with the urge to command, and his loins flamed with the dark desire. He felt the panting breaths of women and their hot resisting bodies, smelled the scent of female fright and sweating fury.
“Why is the Consort writing to you?” Govan leant forward to grab the document. “You’re out of your depth with royal matters. I’ll read and explain.”
“Why should I want your counsel?” Dahoud tucked the rolled parchment into his belt.
“Don’t get pert, Samili!” Govan barked. “Give me that letter.”
“The Consort summons.” Dahoud rose. “Good afternoon, my Lord. Don’t expect me back soon.”
He strode to the exit, his mind reeling like a spindle. Could he deny that he was the Black Besieger? Refuse a royal order? Lead an army without stimulating the djinn?
On a low stone wall near the entrance gate, a row of whiteseers perched like hungry birds. Whiteseers had glimpses of futures others could not even imagine. One of them slid off the wall and sauntered in his direction. A coating of pale clay covered her sharp-boned triangular face and her long hair, and painted black and blue rings adorned her clay-whitened arms.
“Your hands,” she demanded.
“I need to know what will happen if -”
“Give your copper to a soothsayer,” she snapped. “We white ones only give advice. We can see the future; we can see several futures for everyone, but we won’t tell you all we see.”
“Advice is all I want.”
“That’s what they all say. Yet everyone asks for more. I give one piece of advice, the best I can give to help a client. They always demand that I tell them what I see. Well, I won’t.” Nevertheless, she grabbed the copper ring from Dahoud’s fingers and threaded it on her neck-thong. Her tunic smelled of old sweat and mouldy wool.
She grasped his hands to pinch their flesh, her long nails tickling. Her white paint contrasted with Dahoud’s bronze tan. When she felt the pulse and lifted his hand to her face to listen and sniff, he could have sworn he saw her blanch under the white clay as her closed eyes stared into his past. She sagged forward and stayed in a silent slouch.
At last she straightened, her eyes wide, her mouth open, but no words burst forth. So she had seen what he had done, and worse, what he might do once more.
“I assure you, I’ll never again…”
“I can’t read if you chatter.” She frowned at his hands. “My advice: Get stronger arms.”
He flexed his biceps, startled. “My arms are strong! I do trickriding, I wrestle, I lift weights.” Every night, Dahoud exercised until his muscles screamed, to block out his cravings and punish his body for its desires.
The seer’s mouth curled with contempt, making more clay crumble. “You’re not listening. I didn’t say strong. I said stronger.” She pinched his biceps. “Much stronger.”
“What difference can arm muscles make?”
“I told you to give your copper to a soothsayer.” She ambled off, leaving a cloud of unwashed stink and crumbles of clay.
Dahoud hurried to the stable to ready his horse. He had to persuade the Consort not to send the Black Besieger back to war.
At the entrance to the royal audience hall, green-uniformed guards confiscated Dahoud’s dagger-belt. The door thudded shut behind him.
Light seeped through slitted windows, painting stripes on the carpet. Rows of whitewood benches stood empty, as if waiting for spectators to stream in and take their seats. The Consort Kirral sat on an elevated divan, a jewel-encrusted white turban on his head, his moustache shaped into a pair of pointed blades. The steep platform bearing the divan forced visitors to gaze upwards, a technique Dahoud himself had often used to intimidate callers.
“Highness, you summoned me.”
Grape-green eyes peered from under dark bushy brows. Kirral cracked a saltnut between his teeth and spat the empty shell on the carpet at Dahoud’s feet. Dahoud permitted himself no response. Standing as straight as a soldier before his commanding officer, he inhaled deeply of the stale incense and old breath that lay in the air, and waited.
A mural of the Queen, a white full-moon face under an ornamental headdress, dominated the room, reminding audience-seekers that she was the true ruler of Quislak – even if she took little interest in politics. She left the day-to-day government to her Consort, who in turn delegated most work to his head-wife.
“Would you like some saltnuts, young man?” Kirral’s voice had the soft scraping tone of a sword grinding against a whetstone.
To take the nuts from the Consort’s outstretched hand, Dahoud had to walk up to the platform and look up, the way a lapdog accepted morsels. Kirral grinned, and his slippered feet wiggled in anticipation.
If the Consort gained pleasure from humiliating visitors, pride was a waste of time. “Thank you, Highness.”
“The Koskarans ransack our settlements, rob our caravans, slaughter our people.” Kirral twisted a saltnut between his fingers, as if assessing its value. “Are you the man who subdued those savages four years ago?”
“I am.” Dahoud glanced at the statues lining the cedar-panelled walls. He had looted many of those marble deities from temples in conquered lands, including Koskara. Now they queued at floor level, paying homage to Quislak’s nine Mighty Ones, who stood haughtily on a brocaded dais. “If my experience may be of use, I’ll gladly advise the general in charge.”
Kirral cracked another nut. “I want you to squash those rebels to pulp.”
“You need a different man, Highness.”
“I need the Black Besieger, and I will get him.” Kirral stroked the parchment scrolls at his side with a lover’s caress. “My favourite reading matter: personal dossiers. These are from your employers, past and present. You were the youngest general in the Queendom’s history, the first ethnic Samili to rise to that rank. Then you threw your career into the dust.” Kirral’s eyes focused like a hawk’s before the kill. “Why?”
“Your personal reasons entertain me,” Kirral said. “During a fine game of Siege last night, I asked my good friend Paniour why the Black Besieger quit. I learnt that he had a sudden attack of conscience. Not about battlefield deaths, but the treatment of captives.”
Dahoud stayed silent.
“To fool the world that the Black Besieger no longer existed, you spread rumours about his death. His supposed demise occurred not on the battlefield, but at the hands of an enraged woman. How imaginative.” Kirral cackled like a spotted hyena. “Paniour tells me you imagined yourself possessed by a djinn. A mythical creature from nomad lore.”
Dahoud knew better than to insist on the gruesome truth of demonic possession. “It was a figure of speech.”
Kirral’s bushy brows rose to his turban rim and stayed there. “For two years, all traces of you vanished as if you had indeed died. What did you do before Govan took you on?”
“Labour.” The kind of work a Samili could get: digging latrines, dragging a builder’s brick-loads like a sweating donkey, stirring a dyer’s pots of boiling piss.
“Watching you would have been educational. A leopard may dress as a rabbit, but he will find the garments too small.”
Dahoud said nothing.
— Autumn is the author of the epic fantasy novel Born of Water and its Novel Companion and, most recently, the compilation of adventure travel stories Danger Peligros! All are available at Amazon, Smashwords, and other retailers of e-novels. Her next novel, Rule of Fire, will be available late this spring. You can also find her stalking her favorite authors online on Twitter at @weifarer or on her Facebook page.