Synopses, A Lengthy Discourse on a Pithy Topic

I’m posting about synopses as part of a project set up by Joshua Palmatier to help newer writers deal with some of the scarier parts of trying to sell a novel. There are three parts, each with a master page linking out to all the participating writers.

The elevator pitch project.

The query project.

The synopsis project.

Being the somewhat lazy soul that I am, I’m going to borrow from my own previous writing on the topic and only update the bits that I feel I got wrong. So, stealing from myself:

First, and, IMHO most important, is the question of what a synopsis should do. If you don’t get that right, the details hardly matter.

Now, the marvelous agent/blogger Miss Snark* claimed at one point that all a synopsis had to do was be short, not painful to read, and show that the author hasn’t screwed up somewhere in plotting the book. Now, those seem like good minimum conditions, but I want more from my work than to demonstrate I haven’t screwed up in the minimum number of words.

I want to leave the reader with questions that interest them enough to want to read the whole manuscript. This does not mean questions about what happened–those are by way of screwing up, because the reader of a synopsis needs to end their perusal knowing what happens. What I’m talking about are questions of method. I want my reader to say something like That’s cool, I want to see that or, Really? Why didn’t I see that coming, I have to read this, or just, oooh, nice.

A well written synopsis gives conflict, plot, setting, character sketches, and some genuine flavor of the book, at least in my opinion, and if that takes slightly longer, I think it’s okay. I keep coming back to the idea of talking about what excites you about this story as a writer as I did in the elevator pitch post, because that’s what’s going to convey the most important parts of the book’s flavor. Since I already covered that in detail I’m going to go ahead and give you a bunch of bite sized thoughts on the matter followed by examples in the shape of the proposals that sold WebMage, The Fallen Blade Series, and School for Sidekicks.

Practical advice on writing synopses.

1. Learn how to do it. If your career ever takes off, it’s likely to be an important and painful part of your life.

2. This is easiest if you can A, write several of them in quick order, and B, get your hands on someone else’s synopsis to read and really thoroughly critique. Knowing what worked or didn’t work for you in someone else’s synopsis is a great learning tool. Doing this with several is better, and synopses that have sold books are probably best, especially if you can read the book at the same time. You needen’t ever give the critique to the author, that’s not why you’re doing it.

3. The normal structural stuff: one inch margins, double spacing, etc.

4. The abnormal structural stuff: Present tense. Five pages is standard for most synopsis requests. For pitch sheets one page, (single spaced!?!-what’s up with that?) is what I’ve been told is standard and how I do mine. different editors and agents often have different rules for these, so YMMV, and be sure to check before sending it along.

5. Dig through your favorite books. Read the dust jacket or back of book blurbs. Really study the ones that successfully represent the book in question. Try to write several of those for your book. Do the the same with the ones that strike you as bad. Pick the best of your sample and expand from there. Don’t try to trim it down from the book.

6. Again, what’s cool to you should drive the synopsis. But don’t forget plot, character, setting, and theme.

7. Try to write it in the same style as the book, not the same voice necessarily, but a funny book should have a funny synopsis.

8. Pace and swear. No really, this helps. So does a long walk away from the computer where you mutter to yourself about what your story is really about.

9. Call your writing buddies. If they’ve read the book, ask them what they thinks its about. This will be enlightening and possibly terrifying. If they haven’t read it, tell them about it. Remember what you’re telling them and use it.

10. Treat yourself when you’re done. The job sucks and you deserve a pat on the back.

11. It goes to eleven!

12. Write the one sentence version. Expand from there.

13. If you outline, grab the outline and trim it to the right size. Then edit for tone and format.

14. The rules can sometimes be bent. My WebMage outline was ten pages double spaced. Both agent(s) and editors were cool with this. Don’t try this at home, i.e. without the approval of your agent if you’ve got one.

The examples are going behind the cut, because they’re enormous.

EXAMPLE ONE, WebMage full synopsis:

Ravirn is a child of the Fates, literally.  His grandmother is Lachesis, the Greek weaver of destiny, and like Hercules before him, Ravirn lives in that middle country between the mortal and the divine.  He’s also a computer hacker of unparalleled ability, capable of finding the fatal flaw in just about any program.  He’s only really happy when he’s breaking into other people’s computers, the tougher the security, the better.

This isn’t Homer’s pantheon anymore.  The Fates have moved with the times to create a fully modern computerized operation that spans a near infinite number of possible worlds using a magical version of the world wide web.  Ravirn’s talent for finding flaws makes him a master at locating bugs and fixing them as well.  It’s this latter skill that initially gets him into trouble.  Atropos, the Fate who wields the shears, has come to him with a proposition.  She feels that too much free will has been creeping into the weave of destiny and she’s unilaterally decided to excise it.  She’s crafted a program called Puppeteer to tighten the strings of Fate, but it doesn’t work, and she needs Ravirn to debug it.  Ravirn refuses, infuriating Atropos, who’s working behind the backs of the other Fates. Without their support, she can’t compel him to her will.


Opening Gambit:

Aided only by his webgoblin familiar Melchior, Ravirn hacks into Atropos.web, the computer system which Atropos uses to control her part of Fate’s domain.  He’s looking for a copy of the spell she wants to use to destroy free will.  He believes that with the spell in hand he’ll be able to thwart Atropos.  He doesn’t get the opportunity.  While Ravirn and Melchior are ransacking Atropos’ office, they are detected by her security net, forcing them to flee.  Melchior, half goblin, half laptop and one hundred percent cynic, is thrilled to depart.  He might have been designed specifically for hacking, but he’s deeply attached to his skin and terrified of Atropos.

He has every right to be.  Ravirn leads a second life as an undergraduate majoring in computer science at the University of Minnesota.  He’s there because his grandmother wants his debugging skills honed and, due to a certain lack of motivation, he’s already flunked out of MIT and Carnegie Mellon.  Within an hour of their return to Minnesota, Ravirn learns that Atropos is backtracking his computer trail.  To avoid capture, Ravirn employs a virus/spell called Scorched Earth designed to churn the local portion of the mweb into a chaotic froth.  Unfortunately, the virus gets out of hand and crashes the entire mweb, severing the primary bond between the worlds.

Ravirn is suddenly in very serious trouble.  He learns how serious when his cousin Cerice sends him a message over the local net.  Cerice is a distant cousin by blood, but a close one by affection.  She has just come from a meeting of the Fates at which Atropos has demanded to be allowed to snip Ravirn’s life thread.  Atropos needs to protect her hidden agenda and she wants to punish Ravirn for refusing her.  Crashing the mweb has provided her with the perfect excuse.

Still, Ravirn is Lachesis’ grandson, and she won’t countenance his summary execution.  The third fate, Clotho, agrees with that.  Killing a member of Fate’s family puts an end to a life that, barring accident, might last for millennia.  However, Clotho agrees with Atropos that crashing the mweb demands drastic punishment.  So by a vote of two to one it is decided that a trio of Atropos’ grandchildren will be dispatched to try and kill Ravirn with the outcome left in the hands of Tyche, goddess of Chance.  This leaves Ravirn with a real problem.  The assassins, coming directly from the Fates, are able to travel between the worlds to Ravirn, but with the mweb down he’s confined to the world that he currently occupies.

Soon the assassins arrive.  Ravirn is able to prevent them from killing him in the initial attack, but just barely.  When it comes to physical prowess, he’s more than human, but he’s no match for his cousins.  As he is being pursued, he takes refuge in an art gallery.  Here he is reminded that before the mweb there were other ways of passing between the worlds.

In the old days, interworld travel was via the gateways provided by a special kind of art.  The gates are one-way and inefficient, crafted by human artists who can see beyond the bounds of their own worlds.  Melchior locates one such painting for Ravirn.  It leads to a bizarre and twisted landscape, but offers the only opportunity for escape.  Sacrificing a fingertip to create a doppelganger of himself, he sends it to face his cousins.  A battle ensues in which Ravirn shatters a knee and the doppelganger and one of the assassins are killed.  Because the doppelganger was magically identical to Ravirn, his cousins believe that he is dead, enabling him to make an undetected escape.


Hidden Agenda:

The world beyond the picture is a sort of Garbage Faerie in which the Fey inhabit a giant eldritch dump.  Ravirn doesn’t know it, but Melchior chose this picture for multiple reasons.  Ravirn and most of his family think of their familiars as being semi-autonomous at best.  They’re wrong.  The familiars are fully independent beings with a secret familiar underground. Garbage Faerie is one of their refuges.  Melchior has brought Ravirn here because this is one of the few places where they can remain hidden even from the Fates.

When they arrive, Ravirn is badly injured and unconscious. While he is in this state, a vegetarian troll named Ahllan takes them in.  A former familiar of Atropos’, discarded and believed destroyed, she is the leader of the familiar underground.  It is only because Ravirn is attempting to thwart Atropos that Ahllan is willing to take him in, and even so she insists that Ravirn remain ignorant of the nature of Garbage Faerie.

Ahllan attempts to heal Ravirn.  But her efforts aren’t enough, so without Ravirn’s knowledge, Melchior summons Cerice to Ravirn’s aid.  He chooses Cerice because she cares deeply for Ravirn and because she is the only member of the family of Fate who is in on the secret of the familiars.  Cerice arrives, furious with Ravirn for almost getting himself killed.  Nonetheless she proceeds to help.  Ravirn is grateful for the aid, but worried that Cerice will be drawn into his conflict with Atropos, so he conceals the truth about his argument with the Fate.

While he is recovering, Ravirn and Cerice spend considerable time together and almost accidentally, they end up in bed.  It’s something they’ve both been thinking about for years, and Ravirn wants to make a relationship of it, but Cerice isn’t ready for that yet.  She can sense that he’s hiding something from her, and suspects that it has to do with Atropos.  Unwilling to start a romance with secrets between them, she leaves Ravirn in Garbage Faerie.  Physically healed, but disappointed and hurt by Cerice’s rejection, Ravirn follows suit.


A Visit With The Family:

No sooner does Ravirn arrive back at the U of M than Atropos, having discovered the faked death, makes another attempt on his life.  He is still trying to figure out what to do about that when his grandmother arrives.  He wants to tell her what’s been happening with Atropos, but never gets the chance.  She’s there to deliver an ultimatum.  If his behavior doesn’t improve, he will find himself imprisoned in a monastery.  She also cuts him off from the mweb.

This is too much for Ravirn, and for a while he buries his head in the sand, pretending he’s just an ordinary college student, and trying to figure out what went wrong with Cerice.  Weeks go by with no word, and, cut off from the mweb, he is unable to contact her.  It takes another attempt on his life to jolt him into action.


Desperate Times:

Ravirn knows that his chances of surviving the coming conflict with his aunt are slim and he doesn’t want to leave any loose ends.  His abortive romance with Cerice is a big loose end.  With the mweb closed to him, and no painting leading in the right direction, Ravirn’s only option for reaching Cerice is wild magic.  Using his blood and the stuff of chaos, he creates a faerie ring.  It gets him there, but it’s a rough ride.

Ravirn tells Cerice the whole story.  He also tells her he loves her. It’s been building for years, but he hadn’t been willing to admit it, even to himself, until now.  The pair reconcile and spend a brief interlude together before Ravirn leaves to continue the conflict with Atropos.

As a first step in this campaign, he sets out to attach a software dead-man’s switch to his life thread in the Fate Core.  He hopes this will allow him to stop Atropos’ plans even if she kills him.  The Fate Core is the computer where the destinies of every individual in all of the worlds are stored. If he’s caught breaking in, not even his grandmother will be able to prevent Atropos from snipping his life thread.  It’s a desperate measure, but he can’t see any alternative.

He begins his attempt by hacking into so he can use its computers as a gateway to the Fate Core.  Through a clever use of one of the early lines of the mweb, he is able to penetrate  Once he’s in among Atropos’ servers, he finds a connection leading into the Fate Core and sends a probe in. That’s when Ravirn discovers that the Core has already been hacked by a huge and vicious virus.  It appears in web-space as a gigantic electronic dragon.  The dragon is swallowing the golden life threads that govern destiny, processing them, and excreting them as clear hollow strands.  Ravirn isn’t quite sure what the dragon is doing to the threads,  but he realizes that a virus so complex and dangerous could have only one author: Eris, goddess of discord.

This is a danger that goes beyond Ravirn’s feud with his great aunt.  Eris can’t be allowed to have her way with the Fate Core.  Unfortunately, he can’t let the Fates know what’s going on without also letting them know how he found out.  Ravirn is on his own.  So he codes a special purpose vaccine called Saint George.  But inserting it into the Fate Core trips a security alarm and one of Ravirn’s cousins, Laris, finds him.  Alone among Atropos’ family, Laris was once a friend of Ravirn’s.  Using that friendship, Ravirn convinces Laris to help him stop Eris’ virus-dragon.

The only way to ensure that Saint George has a real chance at destroying Eris’ dragon is for Ravirn and Laris to magically bond themselves with the program and guide its attack.  In the course of the battle, they and Saint George are swallowed by the dragon.  This gives them an opportunity to kill the beast, but Laris dies in the effort.  After the battle, Ravirn is leaning over Laris’ body and mourning when Hwyl, one of the original assassination team, comes in.  He immediately leaps to the wrong conclusion and tries to kill Ravirn.  But Ravirn fends him off and escapes back to Minnesota with a number of his murderous cousins in hot pursuit.  There he uses a spell to create a gigantic blizzard.  In the whiteout that follows, he is able to elude his pursuers, though he does sustain several significant injuries.



His respite is temporary.  Interfering with the Fate Core is a killing offense in the family of Fate.  Ravirn’s only hope for clemency is to convince his grandmother and Clotho that he followed Eris’ virus into the Fate Core and killed it to protect the life threads.  But even as this is occurring to him, Atropos is destroying the evidence that ties the virus to Eris.

Atropos has also discovered the virus’ aftereffects.  Eris’ program was a chaos pathogen designed to eradicate destiny.  Everything that was eaten by the code dragon had its destiny wiped, including Ravirn when he was swallowed whole.  This has turned him into a man with no Fate.

She is still trying to figure out what to do about this when the other two Fates arrive in response to alarms triggered by Ravirn’s fight with the virus.  When they check the Core they find the clear life threads, the shredded virus, and the evidence of Ravirn’s meddling.  Believing that Ravirn is responsible, they condemn him to die, but because of the erasure of his Fate profile, his life thread can’t be found.  Clotho and Lachesis assume that this was Ravirn’s goal in hacking the Fate Core and call in the Furies, the enforcement arm of the gods.


Touch and Go:

Ravirn is unaware of the depth of the trouble he’s in.  Again, it’s Cerice who warns him.  Using her connections with the familiar underground, she’s been keeping a close eye on things.  Clotho’s webtroll/webserver gives Cerice a report of what happened at the Fate Core, but only from the time Clotho arrived.  Cerice is confused and angered by the news about the dragon virus, because that’s not what Ravirn said he was going to do.  She’s terribly hurt that he would do such a thing without letting her know about it, but the evidence seems overwhelming.  Still, she loves him, and she warns him about the Furies.

In response, he unleashes his mweb scrambling spell again with the intent of crashing the system to cover his trail.  But after the last time he took down the mweb, the Fates programmed in new security measures.  Rather than shutting down the web, Ravirn ends up crashing Melchior.  A few moments later, the Furies arrive on the scene.  With his primary hacking tool and best friend out of commission, Ravirn is forced to flee on foot.  Fortunately, the blizzard is still raging and even the Furies have trouble tracking someone through a Minnesota whiteout.

When they catch up to him at a small gas station, Ravirn transforms the gasoline in the tanks back into a pack of the dinosaurs that make up a portion of its source material.  Casting a spell without the aid of a familiar is a messy procedure, and quite a bit of raw magic gets released, a bit of which partially reactivates Melchior.  The webgoblin is still too damaged to function magically, but he is capable of speech.  Seeing that it’s their only hope for survival, Melchior sends him back to Ahllan in Garbage Faerie.  It’s at this point that Ravirn realizes he’s been treating Melchior in the same way that the Fates treat everyone else, as a minion. He resolves to change his ways if he survives and gets Melchior back in working order.

Ravirn follows Melchior’s instructions and heads for the U of M and its art gallery.  He arrives only moments ahead of the Furies.  Snatching a bottle of vodka from a frat boy out front, he smashes it on the wall above the painting.  Opening the gate to Garbage Faerie, he summons a spark, lights the vodka, and dives through.  Flames destroy the painting.

He takes refuge with Ahllan while he races to repair Melchior.  Cerice arrives to have it out with him over the desecration of the Fate Core.  She’s furious for what she believes is his betrayal of the family of Fate and, more personally, of herself.  Ravirn tries to explain, but she doesn’t believe him.  Only after Ahllan steps in, arguing for Ravirn, does Cerice relent.  The question then becomes: what next?  They can’t use the information from the webtroll to clear Ravirn’s name without revealing the existence of the familiar underground.  And Ravirn still hasn’t found a way to stop Atropos from using the Puppeteer spell to destroy free will.



The Furies pose the most immediate threat and the only way to turn them aside is to offer an alternate target.  In order to demonstrate his innocence, Ravirn must find evidence that points to Eris as the author of the Fate virus.  So he decides to break into Castle Discord, just as soon as he gets Melchior back on-line.  He finishes his repairs to the familiar, apologizes for his previous behavior and sets the webgoblin free.  But they’ve been together for years and Melchior decides to come with Ravirn, as a friend instead of a servant. They open a link to Castle Discord and prepare to depart. They’re still on the threshold when the Furies arrive at Garbage Faerie.

Cerice knows the Furies have no cause to kill her and that Ravirn can’t hope to stand against them.  So, with the Furies bearing down, she sends Ravirn through the portal and closes it behind him.  He ends up in the basement of Eris’ fortress, where he begins to search for the evidence to clear his name.

In Castle Discord, Ravirn and Melchior are attempting to find the info needed to prove that Eris is the author of the virus when they are discovered by the goddess.  They fight, but the contest is unequal and she easily defeats them.  Ravirn is in her power, expecting to be killed, when he says something that intrigues Eris.  They begin to talk and discover that they’ve been working at cross purposes.  Eris was able to sense the shift in the forces which balance chaos against order when Atropos first tried her spell. This is why she hacked the Fate Core.  It was a desperate measure taken because she has been unable to complete a program to try to summon a copy of the Puppeteer spell so that she could create counter-measures.

Eris also explains how the balance works, and that the goddess Necessity is its guarantor, with the Furies as her handmaidens. She also tells Ravirn she doesn’t believe that Atropos could be doing what she is without the other Fates’ complicity.  This shakes Ravirn badly, because he realizes it must be true. Eris shows Ravirn her anti-Puppeteer spell, and he begins to debug the program.  He’s almost finished when the Furies arrive at the perimeter of the castle.  Eris gives Ravirn her spell and tells him to stop Atropos.  Then she turns to do hopeless battle with the Furies.

Returning to Garbage Faerie, Ravirn finds Ahllan’s home is destroyed and Cerice and the troll are gone.  At first he believes Cerice taken and the troll dead, but he soon discovers that Ahllan is alive and in hiding.  He joins her there and debugs the program, leaving a copy in Melchior’s memory.  Then he makes contact with the Fates.  They offer to release Cerice in exchange for his surrender and Eris’ spell.  Knowing it will mean his death, he accedes, but insists that the terms of the deal be witnessed by Necessity.  The Fates are still trying to decide exactly what to do with him when the Furies arrive carrying Eris.

The Fates put Ravirn and Cerice in a cell from which they can neither be seen nor heard. Ravirn watches as the Furies begin a process which can only end in a judgment against Eris for interfering with the balance.  All of the Fates are drooling over the possibility of destroying Eris as a power. During the process, Ravirn comes to realize this is all about breaking Eris as a power and that he has evidence that could free her.  Eris’ spell, which he fixed, can summon Puppeteer and prove that Eris was only responding to actions initiated by Atropos.  Catching his grandmother’s attention, he lets her know he can ruin things.  She offers him his freedom and protection from future reprisals for himself and all of his friends if he will hold his tongue.

This poses him a dilemma, full reinstatement in the house of Fate, or Eris, free will, and justice.  It’s a terrible choice, but he realizes he can’t betray his own beliefs and is about to turn his grandmother down, when a third possibility occurs to him.  He agrees to the deal, but then reminds Melchior that there is another copy of the spell stored in his memory.  At this point everything balances on the webgoblin.  Taking his free will firmly in his hands, Melchior casts the spell and summons Puppeteer.

The Furies destroy the spell and Eris walks away free.  This is the final straw for Ravirn’s grandmother.  Combined with his erased Fate line, and his championing of free will, he has crossed the line.  She names him an agent of chaos, disbars him from the house of Fate, and takes back his name.  Then she leaves.  Atropos goes next, but not before promising revenge.  Clotho pauses long enough to give Ravirn a new name, Raven, then follows Atropos, leaving him alone with Cerice and Melchior.  Ravirn, now Raven, turns to Cerice, a question in his eyes.  She’s his lover, but she is also a member of the house of Fate.  She seems uncertain for a moment, then smiles and takes him in her arms.


EXAMPLE TWO, Kingslayer Series Proposal




The Kingslayer books are intended to be an open-ended series of standalone novels with a traditional fantasy setting and a structure somewhere between high fantasy and detective noir, sort of the Dresden Files meets the Heralds of Valedmar.

The books are set in another world, Gram, where magic is common and familiar-based. Virtually all of the movers and shakers in the books are capable of some level of magic, though precisely how much and of what sort will vary widely depending both on the characters’ own innate strengths and more radically on the natures of their companion creatures.

A mage who is partnered with a snake might be better at poisons and potions, whereas someone who has a fire elemental for a familiar will be capable of doing amazing things with flame and smoke. Beyond that, mages die when their familiars are killed and vice-versa, so there are obvious advantages to being attached to a dragon as opposed to a hedgehog. Length of life is tied to whichever half of the partnership has the longer natural span, which means that some mages are demi-immortal. The way that any given mage ends up with a particular familiar is governed by a number of factors, the most important of which is whether they are accepted into a mage-order, each of which has an associated breed of familiar.


The Order of the Assassin-Mage and Aral Kingslayer:


The central character of the books is Aral Kingslayer. Aral is a former temple assassin/mage. At some point hundreds of years before the action of the books, Namara, the goddess of justice and the downtrodden, created an order called the Blades of Namara–effectively templar assassins whose job it is to kill nobles and high officials who abuse their power in unforgivable ways. The goddess chose to arrange for her templars to have special powers, familiars, and training aimed at assassination rather than combat because important authority figures are very hard to attack directly under normal circumstances and because open warfare tends to fall heavily on the downtrodden. As champions of justice, the Blades are white-hat assassins.

In terms of familiars, the mage order of the Blades are partnered with creatures that can best be thought of as shadow elementals called Shades. These are creatures from another dimension who appear in our world as living shadows bound to the shadows of their companion mages. They vary in preferred form and size, but all are shape-changers who conceal their true nature within the shadows of their companion mages most of the time.

The two major exceptions are when a Blade wants to use magic and when mage and familiar want to speak directly. In conversation the Shade adopts a preferred form and speaks aloud. For example, Aral’s familiar, Triss, normally appears as the shadow of small dragon. When a Blade performs magic his shadow will completely surround and envelop him, either close-in, like a semi-transparent second skin, or in a large dark cloud which cloaks the Blade in shadows and makes him all but invisible–very handy for an assassin. One cool side effect of this is that a Blade performing magic casts no shadow, no matter how bright the light.


Aral’s Backstory:


At twenty-four, Aral Kingslayer was one of the best of Namara’s Blades, a talented young assassin and a strongly religious man devoted to his goddess. Then several of the other deities became angry with Namara because of her willingness to use her Blades to kill religious officials who were abusing their power. With the blessings of the pantheon’s rulers and the human church hierarchy, a small group of gods murdered Namara and used their own knights templar to destroy her temple and wipe out as many of her people as they could find.

The survivors fell into three groups: assassins who used their powers to escape, assassins who cut a deal with the Son of Heaven–effectively chief priest of the combined religions of Gram–and assassins and others who were away from the temple at the time of the attack.

Aral falls into this last group. Had he been at the temple at the time of the attack, he would probably have chosen to die in the fighting. Instead, he didn’t find out about what had happened to Namara until he returned to the ruins of the temple and found a declaration banning worship of Namara, proclaiming her works to have been anathema, and proscribing her servants.

Until this moment Aral had always thought of himself as being on the side of truth and justice, doing a necessary if somewhat morally dubious job to make the world of Gram a better place. So the declaration, signed by the Son of Heaven, hit Aral like a moral sledgehammer, shattering his faith in both the gods and himself. In response Aral threw his sacred blades and all tokens of Namara into the lake behind the temple and walked away from what he used to be, proclaiming himself a broken man.

That brings us up to the present and the opening of Broken Blade. Aral, now twenty-nine, is living in a cramped one-room apartment in the large city of Tien in Imperial Zhan and slowly drinking himself to death. That’s one of two ways he’s flirting with death; the other is that his biggest claim to fame is that he once killed the king of Zhan, of which Tien is the capitol. The current king is the bastard son of the old king, almost as nasty as his predecessor, and would have Aral flayed alive if he realized he was there.

The only thing that’s prevented him from a more direct sort of suicide is the awareness that it would kill his familiar Triss as well. Through the books Triss will act both as a sort of grafted on and artificial sense of self preservation and as a companion and confident, with the balance between the roles shifting ever more toward the latter as Aral slowly recovers from the destruction of his earlier life.

In order to finance his drinking, Aral has become a jack of the shadow trades, taking odd jobs that walk the edge of criminality: bodyguard, smuggler, illicit courier, finder of lost things, etc. The only thing he absolutely refuses to do is contract killing, saying he’s a shadow jack, not a black jack. He’s become something very like a classic hard-boiled detective and his “office” is in a local tavern, The Gryphon’s Head.


Broken Blade


The story opens in the Gryphon with the entrance of Maylien, an attractive woman of about twenty-five. She has come looking for Aral. She wants to hire him to smuggle a letter to someone at the mansion of the Baroness Marchon. The letter is real enough, but the job itself is only a ploy to get Aral into a position where he will encounter Devin, one of a group of ex-assassin-mages who’ve banded together and gone very, very bad, essentially reversing their old role and acting as guards and enforcers for oppressive nobles. Devin was once a good friend of Aral’s, but no longer.

Aral attempts to deliver the letter and ends up overhearing part of a conversation between Devin and the Baroness before his presence is detected and he has to make a run for it. Devin follows and briefly traps Aral in a corner of the estate. Though Devin isn’t able to see Aral, he makes some very canny guesses about who he is and offers him a deal of the join-us-or-die variety before giving him forty-eight hours to think about it.

At that point Aral returns to his office in dire want of a drink and only then remembers the letter. Up until now its contents and address have been magically concealed. But this time when Aral pulls it out, he finds it addressed to “Aral Kingslayer, last Blade of fallen Namara.”

Aral collects a bottle from the Gryphon and reads the letter. In it Maylien confesses to the set-up and informs him it was a test. She had to know if he really was that Aral–only an assassin-mage could have escaped. She appeals to what he once was and tells him she is the dispossessed heir to Marchon and needs his help to regain her seat from her wicked cousin the current Baroness. She tells him that she will be contacting him again soon to discuss the matter.

Aral initial response is to burn the letter and retreat into the bottle. But when he wakes up in the morning with a brutal hangover he decides he has to investigate Devin’s activities and track down Maylien. Over the course of his investigations, he discovers just how bad things are with the Barony of Marchon and Maylien’s cousin, and how much Devin’s support matters on that front.

So, when Aral does finally catch up with Maylien he is in a mood to help her. However, there are two problems. First, she wants him to kill the Baroness, which he flatly refuses to do. Second, Maylien is a mage with a falcon familiar and the nobility of Zhan are deeply suspicious of mage-nobles. This is because the Zhan aristocracy is a warrior caste and Zhani nobles are always open to blood challenge from any relative with a claim on the title, and they feel that magery gives too much of an advantage in challenges.

Despite all that, the two of them begin to work toward putting her in the Baroness’s seat. In the course of these events, they become lovers, though as with all such attachments in the first couple of books the romance will not carry over into the next novel–Aral is simply not emotionally in any state to maintain a more long-term sort of relationship.

Aral also discovers enough about the new Order of the Assassin-Mage to utterly revolt him. Ultimately, Aral fights Devin, badly wounding him and clearing the way for Maylien to kill the Baroness in a duel, and Maylien takes up her rightful title.

At this point, Maylien reveals she is also a rival heir to the current occupant of the throne of Zhan. The King Aral killed was her grandfather. Under normal circumstances, Maylien would almost certainly have been allowed to succeed the old king since her father was already dead. But her uncle, now known as the Bastard-King, successfully had her bypassed for magery. She asks Aral to help her take the throne from her tyrant uncle. The book ends with Aral absolutely refusing before he walks out on her and returns to the Gryphon.


Bared Blade


Bared Blade begins much as Broken Blade did, with Aral sitting in the Gryphon with a bottle and a bad attitude. Despite his refusal of Maylien and his anger with her, Aral feels on some level that by restoring her to her Baroness’s seat, he has partially redeemed himself. Enough, at least, to believe that even without the structure once offered by the goddess and the temple he can hope to do some good in the world.

He has returned to his life as a shadow jack but begins now to be more choosy about his “PI” work, only taking jobs where he can accomplish something positive. The story starts with Aral noticing a pair of clearly foreign women who have just entered the Gryphon. He and Triss sense something odd about them, though neither can put a finger on it right away.

Both women are dressed in traveling outfits that include minor weaponry and leather jackets that walk the line between clothing and light armor, but it really doesn’t seem to suit either of them. As Aral watches them he slowly decides that one is dressed up and the other down in terms of how martial their gear is. His first thought is that it’s a noblewoman and her bodyguard traveling incognito, and he tries to dismiss them from his mind. But despite himself he keeps finding his eyes drawn their way. This is reinforced by the obvious and ongoing interest of Triss.

Finally, when a couple of local thugs start to make clearly unwanted advances toward the pair, he sees a chance to satisfy his curiosity and do a little good at the same time by intervening with the thugs. But a few seconds after Aral moves to side with the women a group of the Elite burst into the tavern and all hell breaks loose.

The Elite are the Zhani secret police and since they have standing orders to capture or kill any former Blade that they come across Aral reasonably assumes that they’re there for him. Before he can do anything about it, however, the two women go into action. Acting with impossible coordination, the pair take down the thugs and move on to the Elite.

Whether Aral was an original target of the Elite or not, he becomes one now as the fight is joined. Even in the middle of the action he can’t help but notice whatever odd thing first drew his attention to the women seems significantly magnified by the combat. Together the three of them manage to kill all six of the Elite and most of the score of regular troopers they had with them.

Unfortunately, a couple of soldiers escape, and that means it’s only a matter of time before they’ll be back with reinforcements, lots of reinforcements. Since the Gryphon is about to get way too hot for Aral anyway, he offers to show the women the fastest way out. They agree with obvious reluctance and the trio head out the back door. Aral stops briefly to collect his working gear then leads the women on into the night.

As they’re passing through shadowed streets, the trio finally have time to make mutual introductions. The women call themselves Vala and Stel, names that could have come from any of a half dozen of the kingdoms of Gram, so no clues there. Then, as they’re slipping down an alley, Stel hisses a warning to Aral about something that only Vala could have seen and he finally understands that the pair are the two halves of Citadel Dyad.

All mages need two things to do magic, mage-gift for power, and familiar-gift to bind them to the companion who will act as the lens for that power. It’s possible, though rare, to be born with one but not the other. The result of that is usually made up entirely of might-have-beens. One major exception comes from the city-state that occupies the only break in the mountains that divide the northern continent east from west, Lakodamia, also known as the Citadel of the Gap. There, the gifts tend to breed true but singular in the two parallel groups of families that make up the ruling caste.

Those with mage gift are raised from birth to be scholars of magic, learning everything they possibly can on the subject so that they’re ready for the Choosing. The familiar-gift families train their children in all the arts of war. Then, when the familiar-gifted children reach puberty they are taken to the Temple of Choosing where they familiar-bond with a mage-gifted counterpart. The two merge, becoming one creature with two bodies and a single driving will. At that point the two personalities function almost like the two lobes of a brain, with either being able to direct all the actions of either or both bodies.

Dyads are very dangerous people both physically and magically, and Aral is quite shocked to see a pair beyond the bounds of Lakodamia. He’s still trying to decide whether or not he should let them know that he knows an hour later when they settle into temporary refuge in an abandoned brewery that he had previously prepared for such an emergency. Before he can decide, Stel tells him that they recognize him for what he is, reveals their own identities, and asks him for aid in the name of fallen Namara.

She tells him that they had come to the Gryphon looking for a jack named Aral to help them find a lost ring, and were shocked to realize the jack was Aral Kingslayer. The ring is a signet belonging to the king of the southern Durkoth–a subterranean branch of this world’s fae analog–who rules the lands under the southern end of the Hurnic Mountains. In payment of a debt owed to the king, the Archon of Lakodamia agreed to deliver it to representatives of the Durkothian northern kingdom.

Stel and Vala were supposed to deliver the ring, but their party was ambushed and the ring was stolen. By the time they caught up to the highwaymen, the ring had moved on with a thief headed for Tien, and they need a local to help them track it down. That Aral is a former Blade is a huge bonus as far as they’re concerned, because the Elite have become involved, probably with the goal of embarrassing the Archon. Aral initially wants to refuse, but when Triss come into the argument on the side of the Dyad he finally agrees to help and soon the group is tracking the ring by way of all the bodies that are ending up in the streets of Tien. Aral and the Dyad also become embroiled in a rather odd little romance.

The search is further complicated when representatives of both Durkothian nations appear and also join the hunt. Durkoth are almost never seen this far from the mountains and rarely above ground. Eventually Aral and the Dyad get their hands on the ring and deliver it to the rightful heir of the northern kingdom. In the process Aral learns a great deal that he never wanted to know about Durkothian politics and more about the corruption of the Bastard-King of Tien.



Crossed Blades


Crossed Blades begins with Aral returning to the Gryphon in disguise. He takes a table and asks for a bottle of his usual Aveni whiskey. The Gryphon’s owner Jerik brings it to him along with a concealed note and a whispered warning that he’s being watched.

When he gets a chance to read the note, Aral discovers that a strange woman has been in three times asking after him and has left a letter which Jerik has hidden along with Aral’s trunk in the rafters of the stable. Also, there’ve been sneaks about, probably paid spies for the Elite. Finally, the Gryphon is too hot for him to hang around for long but he’s always welcome.

Aral quickly collects the letter along with a few things he’s been wanting from his trunk, then removes himself to the broken rooftop cistern that he’s currently using as a base of operations. There he gets his first chance for a good look at the letter. The seal is a broken blade under the letter J. Opening it reveals that it comes from one of his former fellows.

Jax is one of the four surviving master Blades who have not joined the group that cut a deal with the Son of Heaven and a former lover of Aral’s. She was captured at the time of the temple’s fall along with Loris, a second of the four, and they were both tortured by the Hand of Heaven–roughly equivalent to the medieval Inquisition–before escaping. She and Loris have remained together since then and have gathered up as many of the free journeymen and apprentices as they could find, forming something of a secret mage school in the tiny mountain country of Muir.

She’s come looking for Aral now because Loris has been recaptured by the Hand along with many of their students and she needs Aral’s help to free them. Aral and Triss are in complete agreement on this one and set out immediately, meeting Jax in the free city of Oen in the magelands. There Aral and Jax are set upon by agents of the Hand supported by several lesser assassin-mages who belong to the same group as Devin had. In the attack Jax is badly wounded and tells Aral to abandon her. He refuses and they just manage to escape.

Later she admits that she had a part in setting up the ambush. Everything she said in the letter is true up through the capture of Loris and their students. But instead of coming to him for help, she’d been blackmailed into trying to help trap him. Further, if she was successful she was supposed to repeat the ploy with Siri Mythkiller, the fourth free master, who is currently living in the Sylvani Empire in the south–something like a combination of classical faerie and the Byzantine empire.

Aral is angry, but understands and forgives her. Triss is angrier but Aral and Jax’s familiar, Laviss, talk him around. As Aral nurses Jax back to health, the pair decide to make the original intent of the letter come true by freeing Loris and the others, which they do successfully.

Before heading out to return to Tien, Aral and Triss spend considerable time talking to Jax and Loris–who has been tortured again–and their familiars. In dealing with the Hand, Jax and Loris learned more about the fall of the temple, including the fact that Namara and the Blades were betrayed from within by Kelos Deathwalker, the best known assassin-mage of the generation ahead of Aral and Siri and probably the strongest member the order had produced in the last two hundred years.

The book ends with Jax and Loris urging Aral to go south to Siri and join with her to take down Kelos. Aral refuses, telling them he’s not the Kingslayer anymore, just a plain old jack.


Further Development


There are two more potential books in this series that are currently laid out in rough, Blade Reforged and Drawn Blades and I will treat them briefly here.


Blade Reforged


Blade Reforged begins with Aral returning to the Gryphon to find the windows boarded up. He investigates and finds out that Jerik, the owner, has been taken away by the Elite on charges of sheltering an enemy of the gods. Realizing that Jerik is suffering because of him, Aral sneaks into the prison to free him. But security is too great–they’re hoping to catch Aral–and Jerik will probably be killed if Aral gets any closer to him, so he leaves.

Later he realizes that there’s more than one way to free a political prisoner, and if he wants to get Jerik out he’s going to have to effect a change in government. He’s seen enough of the evils done by the Bastard-King to believe that he really ought to be removed. Triss is practically exultant at this as he sees it as a return to their rightful role in the world. So, Aral looks up Maylien and offers to help her take the throne–all necessary backstory will be explained within the context of the moment so as not to require readers to have read Broken Blade for this to make sense.

With Maylien waiting in the wings, Aral and Triss make an attempt on the Bastard-King’s life. Unfortunately, as Aral discovers when he puts one of his swords through the king’s heart, the king is already dead, well, undead really and in the thrall of an unknown necromancer.

At this point Aral hits a major moral dilemma. He knows that leaving the situation as it is might result in great evil, but the only weapons that he can quickly get his hands on that will kill the undead king are the swords of Namara that he abandoned when he became a jack. Eventually, with much prodding from Triss, he decides the cause is important enough and retrieves his swords. Then, with Maylien’s aid, he kills the Bastard-King and the necromancer who controls him. After much soul-searching and discussion with Triss, he resolves to keep using the swords, though he replaces the symbol of the goddess on each with a plain black oval.

The symbol of the goddess is the unsleeping eye of justice, an oval of unpolished lapis the exact deep smoky blue of the sacred lake. In temple-ordered assassinations, a dagger with the eye on the cross-guard is always left at the scene so that when the body is discovered the victim will be seen to have been chosen by the goddess–there will also usually be a scroll wrapped around the hilt that details the crimes of the dead. The sacred blades of the assassin also bear the eye. Matched short, curved sabers designed to be wielded either one or two-handed, they have oval guards so that in looking up the blade at the assassin an opponent see the unblinking eye staring at them. Aral’s choice of the black stone for the guard is his way of saying that justice has closed her eyes.

The book ends with the following exchange:

As he is leaving the palace, Melisand calls after him. “Aral, will you do one other thing for me?”


“If I become my uncle, or worse, my grandfather, will you kill me?”


“Thank you.”


Drawn Blades


Drawn Blades currently only exists in sketch. It begins with Aral sitting in the restored Gryphon quietly drinking a glass of whiskey. He is interrupted by a woman who wants to hire him to bodyguard her daughter, Dara, as she travels to Varya. Thinking it would be good to get out into the country again, Aral agrees. En route the caravan is attacked by the Hand of Heaven and Dara is badly injured.

It is clear to Aral that it happens because of him, and he decides that it’s time to do something about the Son of Heaven as soon as he gets Dara delivered. From there he travels to Muir to talk about the problem of Heaven with Jax and Loris. He is surprised and delighted to find Siri there as well. The four of them agree that they must move against the Son of Heaven and his pet assassin, Kelos Deathwalker.

What follows is essentially a gang war ending with the death of Kelos and an ultimatum being delivered to the Son of Heaven in the form of a dagger sunk in the headboard of his bed with a note that promises that no matter the cost, if he doesn’t leave the Blades alone, the next dagger will be left in his heart.

Then with the Son of Heaven officially lifting the ban, Loris–who has lost a leg in the fighting–and Jax found a true school for assassin-mages in the free city of Oen while Siri returns to the Sylvain and Aral heads back to his work as a jack in Tien.

EXAMPLE THREE, Book Proposal for School for Sidekicks: The Totally Secret Origin of Foxman Jr

Setting the Scene

Evan Quick is a boy in love with Masks—the metahuman heroes first seen in the late ’80s. All of his young life Evan has wanted to grow up to be Captain Commanding, the super-strong, super-fast, media darling of the heroing world. The Captain is everything a Mask is supposed to be, lantern jawed, bold, brave, invulnerable, an all-around hero’s hero and bright star in the media firmament.

When Evan starts to manifest limited powers of his own at the age of fifteen—more powerful than a lawn tractor, faster than a speeding bicycle, slightly bullet resistant, etc.—he believes he’s finally on his way. Evan makes a costume that is quite imitative of the Captain’s and starts practicing fighting skills and the Captain’s moves at his parents’ farm. As he’s studying video of the Captain, Evan occasionally stumbles on footage of the Captain working with Foxman, a once famous hero who has since fallen on hard times.

Foxman has no super-powers of his own, but he has used a once great fortune to build himself a powered suit and to have himself trained in all manner of martial arts. Where the Captain is the quintessential daytime Mask, all shining smile and photogenic rescues, Foxman has a much darker image, more on the line between good and evil, and he has mostly worked in the night and away from the cameras. Evan, of course, knows about the later chapters in the Foxman saga as well, where the grim hero grew even grimmer and turned to drink. Evan sees Foxman as a lame has-been, a man who besmirches the good name of herodom simply by his existence.

Foxman and Captain Commanding are among the most prominent heroes of the first generation of Masks that came into being in the “hero bomb” incident way back in ’88. Most of the succeeding generations have started out with much weaker powers. Those powers that they do manifest are also more likely to change or simply vanish without explanation—call them proto-powers. But Evan isn’t willing to let the fact that he’s only super-humanish get in the way of his dreams of fighting alongside Captain Commanding.


Evan’s Story:

After training all summer, Evan returns to school in the fall eager to start heroing. He is on a field trip to the science museum when metahuman villains led by a Mask who calls himself Spartanicus seize the place and use Evan and his fellow students for bait in a trap to draw in Captain Commanding. Though Evan is dying to tear off his school uniform to reveal the costume underneath and thrash the villains, he has just enough good sense to see how badly that might work out under the circumstances—many of his fellow students are in position to be killed in the crossfire. To say nothing of the power differential between himself and the villains.

So, Evan is elated when Captain Commanding arrives to save the day. But when the villains easily take down the Captain with carefully planned maneuvers, Evan is both shocked and frightened. The students are released as Spartanicus prepares to kill the Captain. That’s when Evan sees his chance to act and takes it. Though he is badly injured in the process, Evan manages to free the Captain before falling into unconsciousness when his limited powers of regeneration briefly put him into a caterpillar-style cocoon while the damage to his body is repaired. It’s not exactly the most glamorous way to heal, but hey, it works.

When Evan wakes up, Captain Commanding is checking on him to make sure that he’s going to be all right. Evan is practically in heaven at this point. He’s saved the life of his favorite hero and now, finally, he’s going to get the chance to be a hero himself. It’s at this exact moment that things start to go wrong. The Captain has called in OSIR, the government agency charged with keeping meta-humans on the right track.

Before Evan can so much as say one word to his hero, he’s whisked away to an OSIR safe house where he’s told that he’s far too young and inexperienced to be allowed to do any heroing on his own. He must first serve an apprenticeship under a more experienced hero and take a full course of classes at the Academy for Metahuman Operatives or AMO.

That’s a bit of a letdown, of course, but Evan has high hopes for serving his apprenticeship with Captain Commanding. After all, didn’t he just save the Captain’s life? But those hopes go out the window when he sees the news coverage of the museum attack. Captain Commanding modestly takes credit for rescuing “those poor kids” and doesn’t so much as mention Evan or his help. When Evan complains to his OSIR case agent, he’s told that the Captain specifically asked that Evan not be mentioned or allowed to contact him.

Things get even worse when Evan arrives at the AMO and discovers that all his fellow metahuman teens knock the place even worse than students at a typical high school, calling it the School for Sidekicks, the Lackey Academy, or Minion High. Evan reaches his absolute nadir when he meets the only hero willing to take him on as an apprentice, a half-drunk Foxman, who wants to give Evan the codename, Foxman Jr. After a huge argument, they settle on Meercat.

While Foxman and Meercat doesn’t sound much better to Evan, at least it ditches the “Jr.” What Evan doesn’t know at this point is that Captain Commanding put out the word to his fellow masks that they shouldn’t take Evan on. Or that this blacklisting is a good part of why Foxman chose to do so despite never having an apprentice before.

Each day after school Evan goes to Foxman’s secret lair, “The Den,” and watches his new role model drink himself into a state where he can bear to go out on patrol. From up close, Foxman’s decline looks even worse than the stories Evan’s been hearing. A super-rich dilettante with a tragic past who just wanted to make a difference, Foxman has long since blown his vast fortune on creating his super-suit and all the gadgets that go with it. Those range from the incredibly useful chameleon spray gun to the bizarrely self-indulgent miniature speakers he’s installed in the shoulderpads of the Fox suit so that he can play the theme music he commissioned from one of the leading rock acts of his youth.

On patrol, Evan and Foxman mostly go up against powerless muggers and stick-up artists. At this point Foxman’s been almost completely relegated to the dustbin of herodom by too many failures and too much booze, and Evan almost starts to think of heroing as something of a dull grind. But slowly, over time, Evan comes to see the hero that lies beneath the drunken Foxman façade. Through Foxman’s stories he also learns about the glory-grubbing hollowness of Captain Commanding, whose antics are responsible for many of Foxman’s worst failures.

In parallel with discovering the underlying decency and heroism of Foxman, Evan is learning important heroing skills at the AMO and making friends among the metahuman teens there. Most are bitter at being shunted off to sidekick school and wish they could join the big leagues now, especially those who are apprenticed to some of the more high profile heroes. They’re not all that impressed with the curriculum either, which includes such dubious heroing classes as banter basics, costume maintenance, and combat with dinnerware.

Of course, there’s more to the curriculum and their roles as sidekicks than is immediately apparent to the students themselves. They are bonding with each other and learning to use their powers in concert in a way that none of the older heroes have. In this world there are as yet no teams of Masks, though there have been occasional ad-hoc partnerships of the sort briefly formed by Captain Commanding and Foxman in the late ’90s. Though the older heroes currently get all the glory and press, it’s the younger generation that presents a real hope for meeting the challenges of the future.

While learning from his friends and his drunken mentor, Evan is also using Foxman’s gear to follow the exploits of Spartanicus and the other villains from the museum—they managed to escape between Evan’s cocoon forming and Captain Commanding waking him up. As Evan masters the Foxman equipment and techniques he becomes ever more sure that the museum villains are planning something major and that their escape after the events at the museum will someday be seen as the greatest failure of Captain Commanding.

Finally, with the reluctant aid of Foxman and the more enthusiastic participation of his AMO friends, Evan discovers a plot to kill Captain Commanding and seize control of Heropolis. Spartinicus wants to make it into an independent meta-human city-state that will eventually rule the world—the new Sparta he’s always dreamed of. Evan knows that he’ll need all the help he can get to stop the villains. He must pick Foxman up, dust him off and lead him back to being a real hero in the process of defeating the villains. And, if Captain Commanding is made to look like the shallow idiot that he is in the process, that’s just icing on the cake.


Evan’s Fellow Students:

Like Evan, all of the other AMO students have proto-powers that are both weaker and more erratic than those of the actual heroes of the older generations.

Blindmark, real name Erik Anwyn. Erik is a blind martial arts student with the ability to affect the vision of those around him. He can become mostly invisible if he holds still, can occasionally cause others to see things that aren’t there, or black-out parts of their vision; he can also see through the eyes of those around him. He lost his own vision when his powers manifested. He is intermittently bitter about the loss of his vision and prone to bouts of depression.

Emberdown, real name Alissa Carver. Alissa possess limited powers of light and heat that allow her to shine or burn from within as well as send out low level bursts of light and heat. She is as volatile as her powers, having been at ground zero of her parents’ divorce in the years after her abilities manifested. Her father, a circuit court judge, was all for Alissa going off to AMO and learning to become a hero. Her mother, a defense attorney and Brazilian immigrant, was less sanguine about the idea. In particularly grumpy moments she considers herself to be little more than a glorified human lighter.

Speedslick, real name, Jeda Marquez. Jeda possess heightened reflexes and speed that are magnified by the ability to selectively reduce or increase friction and air resistance. For example, when his powers are working properly, he can make his shoes grip the ground to give him good purchase for running while simultaneously reducing the amount of air resistance and friction for the rest of his body. When they aren’t, it’s more like trying to run on a field covered in banana peels. He moves significantly faster than a normal human, as well as being able to do things like instantly cleaning his clothes by rendering their outer surface momentarily frictionless. He is easygoing, a natty dresser, and hasn’t really experienced a lot of personal turmoil to date. He just seems to slip through life.

Nighthowl, real name Melody Rainsong. Melody’s powers are primarily sonic in nature. She can modulate her vocal cords in ways that allow her to produce a wide range of sounds. Her teachers hope that she will eventually be able to reach from the deep subsonic up into the high ultrasonic with volumes ranging from the sub-audible up into the hundreds of decibels. In the meantime she does a pretty good imitation of an old fashioned radio sound effects tech. She also possesses slightly heightened speed, strength and reflexes and claims that she can transform into a wolf, though no one has ever seen her do it. Melody was raised by new age herbalists on a communal farm in western Wisconsin and has spent the years since coming to AMO rebelling against everything they ever wanted for her. She sports a mohawk, tattoos, and a lot of leather.

Blurshift, real name unknown. Blurshift is a shapechanger who refuses to give his or her name or place of origin. He or she—Blurshift has assumed both genders—cultivates an air of personal mystery, much to the annoyance of his fellow students. Though very hard to pin down, Blurshift is a reliable friend and devoted to those he…or she cares about. Blurshift’s powers work slowly, and currently only seem to allow transformation between different human appearances. It’s hoped that someday Blurshift will be able to perform much more significant transformation.

Evan’s closest friends at the school are Emberdown, Speedslick, and, later, Nighthowl. Blurshift and Blindmark are as much rivals as friends, though they are assigned to Evan’s cadre.


Foxman and Captain Commanding are among the Masks created by the detonation of the so-called “hero bomb” in the heart of what was then known as the Twin Cities—Minneapolis and St. Paul—in 1988. The public story of the hero bomb is short and simple. Unknown forces detonated a mysterious energy weapon underneath the I-94 bridge over the Mississippi on August 7th, 1988.

Though the damage to property was minimal, the effects on the inhabitants of the Twin Cities was huge. Over half of the million people living within the blast radius died in less than twenty-four hours. Of those who lived, the vast majority seemed completely unaffected by the bomb. A very small number of the survivors—between fifty and five hundred—developed super powers of one sort or another. For example, flight, super-strength, and invulnerability in the case of Captain Commanding, or the ability to create devices that work for the user but can’t be replicated by anyone else, such as Foxman’s combat exoskeleton.

After a gap of a bit over ten years and without any further hero bomb incidents, new Masks started to pop up all around the world, though the Twin Cities area continues to have the highest concentration of Masks by far. This has led to the area being informally rechristened as Heropolis. These new metahumans are usually quite young when their powers manifest, and those powers tend to be weak as well as unstable and prone to failure for some years after first manifestation. For reasons that aren’t fully understood powers either fade away completely or grow and become set with age and maturity.

That’s where OSIR comes in. Unbeknownst to Evan, or most of the human race for that matter, OSIR is charged with a much more important mission than just keeping an eye on the Masks: saving the world from alien invaders who are expected to arrive sometime around 2030. The hero bomb was a device sent back from the future for that express purpose along with the woman who detonated it, Backflash, a Mask from the year 2183.

In Backflash’s timeline Earth was invaded by aliens in 2032 and most of the human race was destroyed. A small handful escaped to the newly built asteroid mining facilities and played a deadly game of hide and seek with the invaders for the next hundred and fifty years until the discovery of the meta-trigger gave humanity a powerful weapon for fighting back. The meta-trigger is an energy pulse that interacts with a series of genes in the human body setting off a cascade of transformation in the individual who is hit by the pulse. Mostly it’s fatal for those who have the genes necessary to be affected—about half the human race—but in a small subset of cases, the person develops superpowers.

By the time of the discovery of the meta-trigger in Backflash’s timeline, there were so few humans left that they simply couldn’t create enough Masks to effectively fight the aliens. Then Backflash came along. Her powers allow her to move through time, but she only goes backward because she can only travel to a known point and no matter what point you’re at in time, the past is fixed while the future is mutable. The humans of Backflash’s future decided it was worth their own erasure from the timeline to save the Earth of the past and sent Backflash and the hero bomb to Minneapolis in ’88.

After the detonation of the bomb, Backflash turned herself in to the US government. They secretly tried her and sentenced her to death, then suspended her sentence and put her in charge of the organization that would become OSIR. With the aid of an unlimited budget and the powers of a couple of the Masks created by the hero bomb, OSIR was able to come up with a test that more reliably separates potential Masks out from those who carry the Mask genes but would likely be killed by the meta-pulse. They also created a space-based beam-weapon that can target individuals for meta-pulse transformation.

Evan and his fellow students at the school for sidekicks are all products of the new meta-pulse. It’s a gentler but less reliable process resulting in weak and unstable powers, at least initially, and it can only be used on younger people who haven’t finished physically maturing. AMO exists both as a training ground for the young heroes’ individual powers and as a place that can teach them to act in teams in a way that the older generation of meta-humans—badly scarred by the trauma of their origins in the hero-bomb—simply aren’t capable of. It also teaches them how to use their powers in unusual ways—the older generation of heroes tend to punch their way through problems.

The sidekick/apprenticeship part of the program teaches students to think in broader terms than self as hero and how to be a part of the world instead of apart from it. It also gives students the chance to help reground the older heroes in society. The apprenticeship program was created in part in hopes of gently bringing those older heroes into a more team-oriented state of mind by exposing them to their younger peers and giving them someone to care about.

To avoid panic, OSIR keeps all of this information under the strictest wraps, especially the fact that they fully expect an alien invasion sometime in the next few decades. In Backflash’s original timeline the invasion happened in 2032, but the future is mutable and the simple fact of Backflash’s time travel has churned things up such that no one knows when or if the invasion will happen in Evan’s timeline. It could be 2030, or tomorrow, or never. No one knows. All they can do is try to create a world where the Masks will be there when and if they’re needed.

Over the course of the story Evan will learn bits of this history and the importance of sidekick school.


Further Notes:

I see this first and foremost as a stand-alone novel, though I can see a clear path for a sequel or sequels, either following Evan’s friends’ individual development into heroes, or following up on the hero-bomb secret history and the possibility of alien invasion or a mixture of those two. If that looks like something Feiwel is interested in pursuing at some point, I could easily spin up proposals for further novels.

Direct links to the other synopsis posts:
Chaz Brenchley: (Originally posted 3/17/2008)
S.C. Butler: (Originally posted 3/18/2008)
David B. Coe: (Originally popsted 3/18/2008)
Harry Connolly: (Added 9/21/2017)
Jennifer Dunne: (Originally posted 3/18/2008)
S.L. Farrell/Stephen Leigh: (Originally posted 3/18/2008)
Gregory Frost: (Originally posted 3/18/2008)
Jim C. Hines: (Originally posted 3/18/2008)
Elaine Isaac/E.C. Ambrose: (Added 9/21/2017)
Kay Kenyon: (Added 9/21/2017)
Jackie Kessler: (Originally posted 3/8/2008)
Mindy Klasky: (Originally posted 3/18/2008)
Misty Massey: (Originally posted 3/18/2008)
Kelly McCullough: (Originally posted 9/19/2008)
L.E. Modesitt, Jr.: (Added 9/21/2017)
C.E. Murphy: (Originally posted 3/18/2008)
Naomi Novik: (Originally posted 3/18/2008)
Joshua Palmatier: (Added 9/21/2017)
Jennifer Stevenson: (Originally posted 3/18/2008)
Michelle Sagara West: (Originally posted 3/18/2008)