London has been the second city of the Habsburg domain since the ascension of Mary I and Philip of Spain’s son to the throne in the 1600s. It is an empire that sprawls from North Africa to the Low Countries, across broad swathes of the German lands to the New World.
While clockwork airships and other scientific wonders help prop the empire up, superstition still dominates it and not everyone is happy to see these technological wonders in the sky. A cabal within the Inquisition seeks to blunt the progress of science and technology by destroying a new steam-driven airship – the Majestic Maria – on its maiden voyage over London.
As a result, the ship's designer Professor Benedict Hawthorne finds himself plunged into a dangerous, shadowy world. The cabal wants to break him and discredit his innovations, and will use their full power and deadly secret arms to achieve this. A mysterious assassin, the dreaded Kit, seems to have taken a disturbing interest in him.
He has many allies, though. His friend Heneage Grimley, Captain of the Majestic Maria; the enigmatic spymaster Arthur Melbury; and Hawthorne’s childhood sweetheart, the brilliant, unconventional Agueda Santiago. They will need to work together and apply all their cunning and courage to stay alive and expose the truth behind the skyship’s ddestruction.
It will become their first step in discovering the truth behind the Northumberland Codex.
This is a new kind of steampunk. It’s alternate history – but where the divergence from our own history is a small change that has massive repercussions. Rather than being set in a world of Gothic Victoriana fused with steam-powered technology, The Frost Fair explores an exciting, vibrant baroque society that has just taken to the skies – you could almost call it ‘proto-steampunk’).
It’s fast paced, in places bloody, and doesn’t hold back from exploring the darker aspects of the world in which it’s set. It tries to get under the skin of the society rather than following a band of upper class adventurers and shows the grimier side of 17th Century life, where the new technologies have yet to have an impact and where superstition still holds a strong sway.
Hawthorne breathed deep of the damp air, tasting the acrid tang of the smoke now streaming from the stacks; felt the wind on his face and knew briefly what it was to be alive in the way Grimley and the others lived. He could feel the beat of the engine's pistons through the soles of his boots, like the thud of a great beast's heart. The deck moved, always in motion, tilting slightly as Grimley put the Maria into a slow, wide, glorious turn around the dark bulk of Heathrow, and all of London was spread out before him.
Winding his arm into the shrouding, he leant far out over the quarterdeck railing and drank in the sight of it. A dark mass of close-packed houses drifted by under the curved keel of the gondola, separated by narrow streets that still flickered with night lights. The city stretched for miles, bisected by the winding silver ribbon of the Thames. The river was still very much the lifeblood of the city, despite the growing numbers of skyships that plied the skies. Already the working boats were putting out from the docks along the curved shore, skiffs and pilot boats spreading canvas as they headed down river or tacked up beyond London, barges and longboats looking almost like pond skaters as they crept out towards fat-bellied merchantmen and tall, powerful men o’ war lying at anchor in the deep channels further downriver.
Benedict let his gaze follow the bends of the river until it fell upon the wide arches of Westminster Bridge and the sullen mass of the Palace where dry old men debated decisions that, in the end, were not theirs to question. Then came the old London Bridge, cluttered with four centuries' building and topped with the latest crop of heads from the Tower. It seemed that every month some new batch of traitors went to the headsman's block, which was made even busier now that the practice of burning heretics had ceased.
“Any friends or colleagues?” Grimley asked. The captain had joined him at the rail with a glass that he directed towards the bridge, checking for familiar faces distorted by death and hot pitch. It was an old Navy custom that the Sky Fleet had inherited. “No one we know,” Grimley added after a second, before handing the glass to Benedict. “But that's not what you're interested in, is it, Bene?”
Benedict took the glass with a smile and looked beyond the old to the new, hungrily seeking out the new bridge works. He picked out the Tower of London, and found the bridge he had helped design. The bastions that would anchor it astride the Thames had already risen up to challenge the spire of St Paul's, the venerable Cathedral mercifully spared by the Great Fire and untouched in the Bloody Year when Philip of Spain and Mary Tudor had secured England for their son and the Empire.
Hawthorne forced himself to look beyond the technical and engineering marvels of the bridges, to take in all of London in its grimy glory as Grimley gave the Maria more speed and altitude. The towers and spires of the magnificent Royal Palace, 'London's Alhambra', trapped his gaze with their seemingly unplanned, chaotic complexities. Churches, mercantile guildhouses and stately homes reared out of the crush of buildings around the Palace, petered out the closer one got to the river and the Rookeries. The sullen bulk of the Battersea hydrogen works dominated the East End, a temple of the new industries that contrasted with the pleasant green oasis of Queenspark, an easy ride from the Palace; and further out the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens where those with less blue in their blood could take their ease.
The ship was challenging the lowering clouds that were already swallowing the dawn. Hawthorne was lost in the joy of it.
“There's the old Retribution!” Grimley said happily, pointing towards the mighty dockyards further along the Thames, the true commercial hub of the city. Lying off the docks and quays was a Royal Navy squadron, great line of battleships which looked from this altitude like nothing so much as the toy ships Benedict had played with as a child. “I served in her as a midshipman. The Santa Maria, moored three along, was my first posting after I made lieutenant.”
“Providence itself at work, Heneage, that we should observe the old Maria from the new,” Benedict offered, trying to steady the glass on the two two-deckers Grimley was pointing out. Most sailing vessels looked somewhat similar to him.
“Something along those lines, old bean.”
Planned game of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay has fallen through today due to player illness, so an extra few hours of hammering a keyboard. Thought it would be nice to share a bit more of the text, so backers can see more of what they're getting and, hopefully, encourage people who are considering it to jump on board before this skyship leaves dock...
This is the prologue, so no spoiler risk here…
A couple of super cool people have already bagsied one of the Airship pledge levels, earning the right to name one of the skyships in a later installment (and there will be a later installment - this is planned as a trilogy and is part of a much bigger universe). I'm really pleased by this pledge level and look forward to seeing what comes forward.
There will be a fair few skyships that feature…
Unbound tells me updates are a good thing. So here's an update.
First off, thank you to those who have already pledged. This is an exciting project for me and I'm really looking forward to bringing it all together.
Secondly, and probably most importantly - this is a finished manuscript. Although I'm sure there will be editorial changes, you won't be waiting round for me to finish writing it…