Twenty Palaces

When it comes to fiction, in general, I’m a two-genre kind of guy: mysteries and science fiction. There are exceptions, of course, but as a rule historical and faux-historical settings don’t appeal to me. This takes out a lot of fantasy and nixes steampunk as an SF sub-genre. (Even Sue Grafton’s alphabet series, which remains set in the 1980s, drifts further into historical territory with every new book.) Romance is not my cup of tea, either, and high school destroyed any possibility of me ever taking pleasure from literary fiction.

I used to like the occasional piece of horror and slipstream, but until this summer I had no great desire to read urban fantasy. My probably unfair impression of the field was: vampires, werewolves, and woo. Real life is so full of superstition and pseudo-scientific claptrap that my appetite for the paranormal in fiction is diminished by association.

The notable exceptions to my genre-bound reading habits tend to come about as a result of a personal recommendation, or a favourite author trying something different. For example, I’ll read anything Lois McMaster Bujold writes: her Chalion and Sharing Knife series are fantasy, and I love them. My friend Julian suggested Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift series to me, and I enjoyed the heck out of A Madness of Angels. And I simply adore Charlie Stross’s Laundry series, which are a kind of Lovecraftian tongue-in-cheek (sometimes) spy thriller crossover. Ish.

It was on Charlie’s blog that I first came across Harry Connolly. Harry was writing some guest posts while Charlie was away earlier this year, and I particularly liked his thoughts on “High and Low Thrillers

Me, I write low thrillers. The setting is generally commonplace and localized, most of the characters are regular folks, and the plot is played out through the exercise of personal agency rather than cultural or organizational power. In fact, one of the most persistent criticisms of my books has been that they don’t have a high thriller insider’s view of the Twenty Palace Society.

Charlie’s recommendation that “if you like my Laundry stories there is a good chance you’ll find Harry’s Twenty Palaces yarns agreeable” was good enough for me, and Harry’s first book, Child of Fire found its way into my shopping basket in time for the summer holidays.

Although my reaction upon finishing the book was, “Great! Want more!” my first impressions were mixed, because I came to the book with skewed expectations. Thinking that it was going to be like the Laundry books, I was expecting more humour. Thinking of other hard-boiled low thrillers I like, I was expecting Ray Lilly, the protagonist, to be more confident and self-assured. Both expectations were wrong.

Ray Lilly is tough, but he’s not cocky. He’s one step above hired muscle, but he’s not a thug. At the start of the book, it is very clear that he is not top dog in the situation. He is out of his depth. His boss Annalise Powliss can kick his ass, and he knows it. He doesn’t have the endearing haplessness of Bob Howard in the Laundry. He’s not a private eye who cracks wise to cover up a sensitive nature or a tortured soul. Ray has seen and done things that scare the shit out of him. He doesn’t want to help save the world; he just doesn’t know what else he can do any more.

It takes a while for these expectations to settle in, and judging from Harry’s comments, maybe they don’t for everyone:

“The folks who believed that nothing happened in the first third of Child of Fire confused me at first, until I realized that, until Ray and Annalise identify the villain they’ll be chasing, the plot question for the book was “What the hell is going on?” For some reason, a sizeable segment of the readership doesn’t recognize that as legitimate narrative. That’s surprising and interesting to me.”

Ray is low on the totem pole of an organization called the “Twenty Palaces Society”. The Society exists to limit who has access to magic, because magic is really dangerous. People who wield it sometimes mistakenly think that they can control the creatures they summon from the Empty Spaces. The Society calls those creatures predators, because they want little more than to cross over into our world and enslave, eat, or simply kill all life on the planet.

Annalise Powliss is a peer in the Society, and her job is to go around and stomp on magic — hard. She doesn’t use a cute Men In Black neuralizer device to erase people’s memories; she just kills them and takes their spell books. Ray is her Wooden Man, a role he first thinks of as subordinate, but which he later comes to understand is much closer to decoy, or simply bait.

As I mentioned earlier: there is no wise-cracking here, no jocular camaraderie. The job they do and the things they see take a terrible toll on them. This is a dark book, not a buddy movie. But despite the Lovecraftian terrors, disturbing twists, and grisly scenes, I would call it a grim thriller rather than a horror novel. This is perhaps what sets it apart from Charlie Stross’s Laundry books: their sometimes cheerful British attitude towards the end of the world belies a peculiar flavour of despair that does flag them as horror.

At the end of Child of Fire, I was completely drawn in to the world, and wanted to read more. Fortunately the second book in the series, Game of Cages was already in print, and the third, Circle of Enemies was due out at the end of August, so I didn’t have long to wait for my next fix.

Both books are cracking good reads, as much in terms of the self-contained stories they tell as in what they reveal about Ray and Annalise, and the dangerous world they inhabit. The ghost knife that Ray wields turns out to be much more intriguing than just a tool and a weapon. Ray himself turns out to be much more capable than the typical Wooden Man. And the secretive Twenty Palaces Society itself turns out to be more fallible and less powerful than the world perhaps needs it to be. As tantalizing hooks for future plots go, it would be hard to beat the discovery Ray makes at the end of Circle of Enemies. I love finding new series, and this was a winner.

Or so I thought, until I saw a tweet that led me back to Harry Connolly’s blog, where he had posted an entry titled “It’s Official: The Twenty Palaces Series Has Been Cancelled (long)” on 14th October. Damn it.

There are no guarantees in writing. You work like crazy on a story that means a lot to you, and when you send it out into the world where it’s met with scorn, or indifference, or casual contempt. There are no guarantees that X will be a great story or that Y number of readers will fall all over it and spread the word. I know as well as anyone that no one owes me anything.

First Dananananaykroyd breaking up, then the Twenty Palaces series being cancelled. Noooooooo!

As Harry describes it, he got excellent support from his publisher, but the market just didn’t respond. The books got good reviews, and have gathered a loyal set of followers, but in the end not enough people bought them. I feel a kind of selfish disappointment that there won’t be any more books in the series, but just as George R.R. Martin is not my bitch, neither is Harry Connolly. All I can say is that he has gained an admirer in me, and I’ll be looking forward to anything he writes in the future.

The bright point at the end of this tale is that I do still have one more Ray Lilly story to savour. Just yesterday, Harry self-published Twenty Palaces, a prequel story to the whole series, in which Ray meets Annalise, creates his ghost knife, and sees a predator for the first time:

When Ray Lilly was 13 years old, a handgun accident landed his best friend, Jon Burrows, in a wheelchair and turned Ray into a runaway and petty criminal. Fifteen years later, Ray returns home after a stint in prison; he’s determined to go straight, but he knows he can’t do that without making peace with his old friend.

What Ray doesn’t expect is to discover that Jon has just received a mysterious cure–not only is he out of his wheelchair, he seems stronger and faster than… well, pretty much anyone. Worse, his cure has drawn all sorts of unwanted attention: the media are camped out on his block, the police are investigating him for insurance fraud, and weird shadowy figures have begun to draw closer, figures who clearly do not mean to do Jon any good.

Can Ray atone for the biggest mistake of his life by protecting his oldest and best friend? What’s more, should he?

I bought it ($4.99) as soon as I saw the blog post. What I didn’t realize until I got the PDF is that this “story” runs to a novel-length 268 pages. I’d been expecting something much shorter. As a fan of a cancelled series, that’s not just good value; it’s priceless.

The mobile web splash screen antipattern

Brad Frost’s tweet yesterday reminded me that this is a request I have been presented with, and argued against, on every mobile web project I have been involved with:

First-time visitors to the mobile website should see a splash screen inviting them to download our App. They should also have an option that allows them to proceed to the mobile website.

This is symptomatic of another bad, but regrettably common practice: building your native app before you build your mobile website.

The impulse to put a splash screen in place is driven by a variety of factors and assumptions, not all of them correct (and not all of them openly acknowledged):

  • The native app has a prettier UI than the website. Users like pretty. Therefore it will drive more engagement, and more conversions.
  • The native app goes on a user’s home screen, therefore they will see it regularly, and use it more often than the web.
  • A user might prefer a native app, and they might not know that we have one.
  • If we get lots of downloads, we will rank highly in the App Store, which is good for marketing and will lead to even more downloads.
  • We just spent a lot of money building a native app! If someone just uses the website instead, then all that money and effort was wasted!

Here are the counter-arguments:

  • It’s a barrier to user engagement. A user has to click through the splash screen to get to where they were trying to go in the first place. If you know about purchase or marketing funnels, you know that every screen is another step in the funnel. You never gain users as you step through the funnel, you only ever lose them. The splash screen is a valuable opportunity for you to lose customers.
  • The idea that someone who goes to the effort of downloading your app will become a more engaged user is questionable. You should also consider the possibility that they will get distracted or just give up during the process of a) being redirected to the App Store, b) reading the app description, c) acquiring the app, d) downloading & installing the app, e) launching the app, f) figuring out how to navigate your app to get to the point you led them away from in the first place.
  • The request is usually to provide a splash screen for first-time users. If there is any category of users who should never be presented with an extra hurdle it’s first-time users. If they are visiting your site for the first time, then they almost by definition don’t know enough about your product or service to decide whether they want to carry on using it, or download an app for it. In the desktop web world, you may have come across sites that show a popup asking you to take part in a survey about the site. How do I know if I want to do that before I have experienced the site itself?
  • It’s disrespectful. If a user has arrived at your website using a web browser, very likely by following a link from another website, then maybe they were trying to use their web browser to use your website. Extend your users the courtesy of considering that they might actually know what they’re doing. Putting up a splash screen is like McDonalds putting a bouncer on the door, and telling customers who just parked their car and want to enter the restaurant that they should use the drive-through instead.

Basically, a mobile splash screen, no matter how pretty your designer has made it, is annoying and needy. You are placing your own desires above your user’s. Don’t do it.

“But how will people find out about our wonderful native app then?!” I hear you cry. There may indeed be cases where users can do things in your native app that they can’t do on your website. (Push notifications, for example.) Some people prefer to use apps than websites. For frequent-use, highly-interactive services, a native app may be a faster, lower-friction option than a website. Fortunately there are plenty of less intrusive ways to let your web customers know about it:

  • Show a notification bar at the top of the page. You can leave it visible until a user dismisses it, or until they have viewed N pages, or some other criterion. But it shouldn’t obscure the page, or require explicit action before the user can carry on interacting with the page.
  • The page footer, traditionally a place people look for additional information, can carry a link to the native app.
  • If your site involves some kind of sign up process, you can tell people about your app options at the end of the sign-up process, or in a welcome email. Signed-up users have indicated a clear level of engagement with your product or service; this is a good time to entice them further. Read Jared Spool’s 2002 article about “Seducible Moments.”
  • If your site carries advertising, consider injecting ads for your own native app into your ad stream.

But above all, don’t rely on a native app to be the only way a user with a small-screen device can interact with your business. You’ll literally be turning away customers.

There Was A Way

Back in June I wrote that Hey Everyone by Dananananayroyd was one of my favourite albums of 2010 (it was released in 2009, but I’m slow like that). This was after I’d listened to their second album, There Is A Way, but before I’d seen them live in Paradiso in July.

I remember being unsure about There Is A Way when I first listened to it, even though that seems inconceivable now: it is nothing short of brilliant. Like Hey Everyone, the first thing that strikes you are the screamed vocals. Underlying the back-and-forth yelling, though, are a set of songs that are intricately melodic and cleverly structured. The energy the band brings is more under control, with fewer tracks like “Infinity Milk” and “Some Dresses” that bounce off off the furniture in all directions like a hyperactive toddler. But when they do let themselves go, they positively soar. The climactic “Make A Fist” that closes the album is exhausting and ecstatic: an orgasm of a track.

But seeing them live was something else entirely. On 19th July, they played the small upstairs room at Paradiso in Amsterdam, and I have never seen anything like it. It was far from a capacity crowd, and I was right up at the front. They opened with “Reboot” from the new album, which has an instrumental intro lasting about a minute and a half. During the intro, the two singers John and Callum jumped down off the stage and mingled through the bemused audience giving hugs, and treating us all like best friends they hadn’t seen for years. And when they were done, they hauled themselves back up onto stage and belted out one of the best live sets I have ever seen.

Dananananaykroyd have two settings: off, and FUCK YEAH! The energy they put out was amazing. There is no barrier between the audience and the stage at Paradiso, and throughout the set they continued to jump in and out of the crowd for particularly animated screaming duels (“The Greater The Symbol And The Hash”) and guitar solos, or because they just felt like it. They looked like they were having a great time, and even though the audience was pretty small and relatively timid, they just kept on firing at top volume and top speed. And then there was the Wall Of Cuddles

The Wall Of Cuddles is what Dananananayroyd does instead of a metal Wall of Death. About half-way through “Some Dresses” they split up the crowd into two halves, and explain how on the count of four both sides should run headlong into each other and…cuddle as many strangers as they can. Because this happens at the end of the gig, everyone is all nice and sweaty and happy and ready go go along with whatever weird instructions they get. I still saw some tentative looks and “er, really?” expressions, but I certainly rushed into it with abandon.

After it was over, I emerged into the Amsterdam evening, my ears ringing, a huge grin on my face, aware that I had just experienced something really special.


I wanted more.

I knew they were playing some more dates in the UK at the end of their tour, and I had been wondering if I could justify a trip across to see them. My rule of live music is, “Never miss an opportunity to see your favourite band, because you never know when they will split up, or die.” Cases in point:

  • Back in 2003 my brother Scott and I took a trip across the Atlantic to see Toad The Wet Sprocket in Boston when they did a small reunion tour. We had never seen them while we they were still together, and it was too good an opportunity to miss. Turns out Toad are semi-back-together again now, and still gig regularly, but I couldn’t have known that back then.
  • I saw the Tragically Hip at Paradiso in November of 2009. While we’re on the subject of great live acts: The Hip are amazing. So good that I went to see them again the very next week. I was across on Scotland on business anyway; they were playing the Garage in Glasgow; I couldn’t pass it by. Who knows when they’ll be back in Europe again?

But when I learned that Dananananaykroyd were splitting up my need became much greater. Now I knew this was going to be my last chance. So I booked two tickets to see them in Glasgow, the cheapest flights I could find (hello, Skyscanner), a twin room at the Holiday Inn Express, and convinced Scott that it would be a great idea for him to come through to Glasgow for a night out.

Tweet: The best kind of madness: next Saturday I'll be flying from Amsterdam to Glasgow to see @dananananaykroy on their final tour.

And oh boy was it worth it.

The cheapest flights were crazy early. Abi kindly drove me to Schiphol at 05:30 on the morning of Saturday 29th October so that I could catch the 07:05 to Glasgow. The plane arrived in Glasgow at 07:30, and I was in town by about 08:30, well before anything interesting was open. I nursed a hot chocolate in a Starbucks for an hour or so, and checked cinema listings to see if there were any interesting matinees. No luck, so I decided to take a bit of a walk instead. I wandered down to the Science Centre and back again, then stuck my head in a few music shops to see if I could find some musicians’ earplugs — on the recommendation of Mr Grapefruitmoon. After traipsing round Merchant City and down Argyll Street, I finally found some at Biggars on Sauchiehall Street. Then met up with my parents for a late lunch before heading over to the hotel.

It’s not very rock ‘n roll, but after I had checked in and Scott had joined me a short while later, what we both really wanted to do was…have a nap.

So we were thoroughly refreshed for the gig, of course! We got the the ABC quite early, around 19:15 or so, and the place was dead quiet. We had a beer, and I went a bit mad on merch, buying three T-shirts for myself and a small pink (sabbath) girly one for Fiona. (Can you blame me? Last chance!) United Fruit came on at about 19:45 and played a blinding little set from their new album Fault Lines. Here’s a tip: this is another band you should go and see. They’re good.

I had tried out the earplugs during United Fruit, but they damped the sound a bit too much, and I wanted to positively bathe in the noise of the main event, so I left them out. We positioned ourselves close to the stage, but not quite on the front lines. This evening they kicked off with “E Numbers”…and David’s guitar promptly broke. John and Callum kept up some banter while they got things sorted out, and they carried on with a wild and wonderful hour-long set:

  1. E Numbers
  2. Reboot
  3. All Us Authors
  4. Hey Everyone + Watch This
  5. The Greater Than Symbol & The Hash
  6. Think And Feel
  7. Muscle Memory
  8. Black Wax
  9. Time Capsule
  10. Infinity Milk
  11. Pink Sabbath
  12. (encore) Some Dresses

It’s hard to say how this compared to the gig at Paradiso. The crowd, being out in support for a local band, was more energetic and appreciative. The band seemed less rehearsed, looser, more frantic. And knowing what to expect, and knowing that I was in a group of like-minded fans who were all there for a historic final gig, I took part in the Wall Of Cuddles with more gusto than my first time. I was hugging people all over the place.

And then it was over. The band left the stage, the lights came on. As I looked round, I saw that the venue was maybe half full, no more. Dananananaykroyd have received so many plaudits, have been praised to the skies as one of Britain’s best live bands, but they didn’t sell out their farewell home town concert. I wish I could have been cloned, so I could have appreciated them twice. I’m so glad I went.

It wasn’t even 22:00 when we left the venue, so Scott & I did what any right-thinking pair of brothers does in Glasgow on a Saturday night: we had a burger at McDonalds, and hit a pub. Our next move was a little less orthodox (a late-night showing of The Ides Of March at the Cineworld on Renfrew Street), but at least we weren’t in bed before midnight. Pure dead radge.

Back on an early flight the next morning. Scott was going to give me a life to the airport, so we were downstairs at reception at just before 07:00 to get me there for my 08:15 flight. As we were checking out, Scott asked the receptionist if she could validate his parking. He had parked his car at Buchanan Galleries the evening before.

“Oh,” said the receptionist, “They don’t actually open until 9 o’clock on a Sunday…”