I think all authors have novels that never really go anywhere. I wrote this on spec as an educational novel designed to get students thinking about whether they control technology or technology controls them. It’s an Oliver Twist + Zombies + Steampunk novel with a touch of Fahrenheit 451 (seriously). but it’s short, running about 24,000 words yet written to a teen audience. These were the constraints of the publisher. Maybe it was a mistake to write a novel on spec for an educational publisher due to the challenge of finding options for it afterwards, but they did provide a wonderful cover for it and I am appreciative of that. I also enjoyed writing it and for what it’s worth, it has a very powerful story packed into a very quick read.
Proposed cover copy:
All Ruined must burn.
The Ruined plague the city of Steamdon despite the efforts of the burners to see them ash. The cause of ruination is unknown, yet the affliction spreads.
As John’s Ruined Lord and Lady parents gutter on the cobblestones, he evades burner flamethrowers, escaping into the sewers. In this dank underworld, Anna One-Cut reveals the devastation wrought by the disease and its connection to the inventions of his father’s nemesis.
Together they must discover the truth of the disease, before Steamdon becomes a Ruined nation.
If I find the time for the next couple of months. I’ll put it out in the wide world and see what people think. To be honest, I’m not keen on the self publishing option for younger audiences, but it is professionally edited and typeset. All it needs is a quick read over for typos and some readers!
For your reading pleasure, here is Chapter 1:
John jumped to hang from the man’s arm.
The man, a burner, held a long shaft of steel tipped with a lick of flame. Despite John’s weight, the burner brought the flamethrower to his shoulder like a musket. But the flame wavered, angering the man. “Get off, kid!”
Reflected in the burner’s face shield, John saw his puffy face, his tousled hair. His pajama stripes glowed white and red in the night.
“Don’t kill them! Not my mom and dad,” John screamed.
His parents knelt in the center of the cobblestone street. The evening rains still dripped from copper roofs, the wet pavers refracting the movements of the burners’ torches. The pale faces of neighbors pressed against leaded windows, most already barred or shuttered against the growing Ruined threat.
The burner spoke hollowly through the slit of a vent.
“The Ruined must burn, boy.”
John grabbed the nozzle of the flamethrower. He cried out. The heat of the barrel seared his hands, and he stumbled back. Fire arched into the night. Through tears, he could barely see the two figures hunched in the blaze. Neither screamed in pain. They just clutched one another as the liquid fire rained over them, coating them and consuming them.
The roar of the flames absorbed the cries. The burners worked quickly. Their flamethrowers were fed by hoses that tracked serpentine paths back to the burntruck’s great boiler. Squatting like an iron dragon on twin rails, the truck belched sparks out of a steamstack. A faceless man steadily stoked the boiler’s furnace with coal, and the red light glinted against the neighborhood’s stone walls and ornate facades.
John dropped to his knees.
At the edge of his awareness shutters snapped shut and doors were bolted, either due to heat or the risk of becoming Ruined themselves. Fearful whispers shrouded the night like cold mist: “Is he Ruined too?” they asked. “They were such nice people.” And, “I never saw it happening.”
The flamethrowers paused, and darkness rushed the metropolis of Steamdon, seat of the SteamQueen. A brave few lurked in stone archways, standing beneath the crests of family names that marked the citizens of the area as Lords of the House and advisers to the SteamQueen. John’s father had been such a Lord, Lord Larry Roberts.
The neighborhood bordered the SteamQueen’s palace, the homes descending in quality and the inhabitants falling in rank as they neared the river, where the Ruined lurked. Where John’s future might now lie.
His Ruined parents were no more than puddles of licking fire turning to ash, when drudges with brooms and buckets emerged from alleys, sewers, and dark corners. They looked on, eyes bright in the night, sweepers who would leave no trace of the Ruined remains.
“Come away.” A hand fell on John’s shoulder and another guided him to his feet. The voice sounded breathy and distant beneath the government-issue mask, but the visor now lifted to reveal a gray-bearded, kindly face with watery blue eyes. By the gold of his phoenix-emblazoned crest, John recognized him as the Chief Burner. His cheeks creased as he smiled.
“Should have taken a cloak with you,” he said. “Too late for that now.”
Another blast of flames launched. John stumbled back again in fright, clapping a hand over his mouth to keep from crying out. The burners hosed down his home with enough force to pierce the second-floor shutters and pour fire into John’s bedroom, cremating his clothes, his toys, his life. Flames burst from the next window, and a lady gasped with surprise as if she watched fireworks and not the incineration of a family.
John couldn’t think. He caught sight of the neighbor, Lord Lamprey, often a supporter of John’s father in the House of Lords. John raised his hand, but the lord ducked away. The heat from the burning home billowed over John; his skin stretched and prickled. His tears dried on his cheeks before they could fall. His hands ached, scorched.
“Don’t cry, lad,” Chief Burner said. “It’s a bad day when you find your parents Ruined, but don’t you worry. The Steamlaws have accounted for orphans and there’s plenty of future in Lord Bokor’s factories making things. Fun, too.” He cleared his throat. “Or so I hear.”
As John’s home blazed and his parents guttered in the street, the sweepers began to brush and then scrub at their embers. A phrase penetrated John’s shock: Bokor’s factories. On the river’s edge. He started to look around. Lord Bokor ran Steamhold, the factories which made the goggles. Lord Bokor had been a family friend for decades, his daughter Minnie a playmate of John’s, a good friend, maybe a best friend, if Lord Bokor and John’s father hadn’t had their falling out. His father forbade John ever to see Minnie again.
“My parents weren’t Ruined,” John said between gritted teeth.
The Chief Burner stumbled a little, then his mouth hardened, “Besides the goggles, the signs can be difficult to catch, but see how they didn’t scream? That’s as sure a sign as any. Off in another world.”
“My parents never goggled, they opposed the goggles. Hated them!” But yes, they were indeed wearing them when the burners arrived. Sleek silver ones. Goggles he’d never before seen. Never even seen Minnie modeling.
“No one’s proven the link between the Ruined and the goggles,” the Chief Burner snapped, and then his expression softened. “Those are House of Lords’ concerns.”
“But my father was a Lord! My mum is Lord Anthony’s sister!”
The Chief Burner remained grim. “Don’t matter if you’re a sweeper or a lord, anyone can catch it. It’s a rare and terrible disease.” And as if remembering just how terrible, he backed away a step, removing his gloved hand from John’s shoulder and wiping it on his suit. “We’ll be wanting to get a look at you before we send you on to Steamhold. Mum and Dad didn’t happen to give you a little nibble lately?”
The blue eyes looking at John widened with traces of fear.
John understood. And he ran.
The Chief lunged for John, but the heavy burnsuit hindered him. Other burners, too, made shambling grabs as John slipped past. The Chief yelled at the sweepers to catch John, but they only paused to look up from their work.
John sprinted down the street.
“Halt! By order of the SteamQueen!”
John’s naked feet slapped the pavement, his lungs burning and his nightshirt soon clinging to his back. With each block the houses shrank, the whitewashing turned grey, pillars thinned, and gardens turned to short lawns and then gravel. He ran toward the river, where no one would recognize him, where many feared to tread. It was Autumn, and the wet was cool on the cobblestones. When sounds of pursuit had faded, he stopped, resting with his hands on his knees. For a minute only the ticking of lamplights and his breathing filled the street. Then the newsmen called out like city cockcrows, signaling the approaching dawn.
‘House of Lords Deem Goggle Use Not Linked to Ruined.’
‘Lord Anthony’s Steamdon Times Threatened by Goggle Usage.’
‘Lord Bokor’s Daughter, Minnie, Models Goggle’s Newest Fashion.’
‘Lord Larry Roberts, Anti-goggle Lord, Burned, Son Missing – Presumed Ruined.’
John nearly cried out at the mention of himself. Presumed Ruined. If they caught him, he realized, they would burn him.
John’s head jerked up. A steamcoach chuff, chug, chugged as it approached, an old version, with no driver cabin. John snuck unseen into the alley between two tenements. The coach wheezed past; the driver hunched high above the rails, face blackened by the soot. In the coach’s dying echoes, John slumped onto the alley’s pavement, arms wrapped about his knees, shivering. He was farther from home than he’d ever before ventured, but he realized that wasn’t true at all. His parent’s were dead. He had no home at all.
He couldn’t seem to hold on to a thought without images of flames intruding, but he had to think. With his eyes clenched, he pressed his hands to his temples.
If he went for help, he’d be turned over to Steamhold, or worse. He recalled Lord Lamprey’s dodge. Lately his parents had been acting weird. They’d told him the combination to the safe – their birthdays – and that they loved him over and over. Most importantly, they told him never, ever to try the goggles, not until they said it was okay. And despite the trend, he’d never before seen them wearing goggles. John had wanted to try them, he thought guiltily, but never had, not after his parents had expressly forbade it.
Ruined. He wasn’t Ruined, and his parents certainly hadn’t nibbled him—the rumor that being bitten by a Ruined caused the infection was silly, at least it had seemed that way when John’s father had told them about the rumor as they sat around the dining room table.
John would wait for light, return home to see if anything could be recovered from the safe, and then become one of the growing numbers of street urchins. Better than the factories or being burned. But so much worse than he had before.
Flames again and the stench of soot and oil interrupted his thoughts. His parents were dead, Ruined and then burned.
He was alone.
He cried for an hour, waiting for dawn to break or for sleep to come, and he didn’t hear their approach until it was too late to flee.