Watch the Flank (CuriousFictions)
It’s an unfortunate sign of the times that we are currently living in that many authors, regardless of how successful they might be, need to find income streams in their careers other than the traditional ones revolving around submitting stories for publication to journals, magazines and publishing houses, or self-publishing their own work. In the past few years there have been a profusion of websites that have marketed themselves as platforms for authors to publish fiction, the most well-known being companies like Patreon. Authors are able to publish a variety of different types of fiction on their account on the platform, whether it’s micro-fiction, short stories or even novels published in a serialised format, and can charge in a tiered structure, with greater payment meaning greater access or various privileges. However, Patreon is not a specifically author-focused or fiction-focused platform, with artists, illustrators, crafters and many others using it as well, and I was wondering how long it would take for a platform to appear that was dedicated to fiction rather than a broader remit.
I wasn’t therefore hugely surprised to see CuriousFictions appear recently, with a similar structure to Patreon, but dedicated to connecting authors with their readers. I’ve subsequently seen a number of authors I follow on social media create accounts on the platform and begin utilising it. To take just one example Josh Reynolds, who I consider to be one of the best authors in the sci-fi and occult detective genres at this time, is currently serialising his novel The Whitechapel Demon, which is fantastic since it’s been out of print for quite some time and is a great slice of occult detective fiction. I was also pleased to see that Thomas Parrott, Black Library and Aconyte Books author, also recently created an account and has begun publishing short stories. The details about his subscription benefits and what exactly he’ll be writing each month can be found here, and he’s already published his first short story, entitled Watch the Flank. I was lucky enough to be provided with a review copy of the story, and decided to take a look at what it was like.
I should start by stating that I’m a huge fan of Parrott, and think he’s one of the most talented scifi authors that I’ve come across in a long time reading through the genre. His debut novellas for Black Library, Isha’s Lament, was a fascinating, multi-layered character study merged with fast-paced action sequences and an innate understanding of the Black Fortress setting in the Warhammer 40K I.P., and was for me the standout title in the Novella Series 2 collection the publisher released earlier this year. His short stories have been just as impressive – not just the ones published by Black Library, but also To Catch A Thief, his excellent contribution to the recent Aconyte Books anthology KeyForge – Tales from the Crucible. So I was genuinely excited to see what he would come up with when given the opportunity to develop his own, original I.P. without the constraints of the requirements of another publisher’s setting. Watch the Flank comes in at a shade under 5,000 words (thereby matching Parrot’s pledge on his Curious Fiction page to post a story of that length each month) and it’s an indication of his skill as a writer that, despite the relatively short length of the story, he manages to pack in a huge amount of detail and world-building as it progresses.
In the world of Watch the Flank, where magic is so integral to the environment that it forms in the air itself and can be seen dusting leaves with tiny crystals, Bond-Pilot Leyna Raskin controls a mech-like construct called a giganphract, or phract for short. Twenty-foot high and armed with some astoundingly powerful lighting-based weapons, Raskin’s phract is a machine to be feared by anyone facing it in combat. Parrot imbues it with a barely-concealed lethality as it moves around, especially when Raskin comes into contact with an enemy force, and there are also some intriguing elements around the pilot’s connection with the rig; the use of terms like ‘puppet’ and ‘marionette’ give some indication of that link, but it also goes deeper depending on how much concentration Raskin needs in combat situations, linking with the spirit bound within the frame of the phract. Piloting this fearsome machine, Raskin finds herself supporting a cadre of infantry as they patrol the flanks of a distant warfront, not really expecting anything other than an uneventful patrol and to gaze at the scenery – which Parrott deftly describes, creating a peaceful atmosphere that is soon shattered. Suddenly encountering hostile forces in the dense forest along the flanks of the advance, Raskin finds herself thrust into a deadly, fast-paced duel with something that appears to be another phract yet nothing like anything she’s ever encountered before. Lighting blasts are pitted against more exotic and organic weaponry, and it soon becomes clear that this might be the last patrol that Raskin ever takes part in.
Watch the Flanks is a short story, but it’s an absolute blast that ended far too soon for me, leaving me craving more about this strange new world that Parrott has begun to develop in his fiction. The world-building is absolutely superb, carefully crafted to build a framework around the central tale of mech-related violence without being overwhelming, and is complemented by some great descriptive prose; the magic-infused air and environment were particularly intriguing to me. The combat sequences are – as expected – the highlight of the story, with Parrott using his previous writing experience to craft a tense, fast-paced and fluid battle between the two phracts, but it’s all done in a way that makes it feel unique to Parrott’s world. Despite the clashing of melee weapons, lighting blasts and giant wooden clubs, it all feels lighter somehow, closer to KeyForge than Warhammer 40,000; as if Parrott has taken the best parts of both settings and blended them into something unique and original, and thereby far more appealing to the reader. It has the cheerfulness and positivity of the KeyForge universe without the constant soul-sapping edginess of the Warhammer 40,000 setting, and made me want to read more tales in this setting. With Watch the Flanks Parrott has set his own, unique mark on the scifi genre and made a highly promising start to a setting independent of his previous I.P. work. I really hope there are more stories in this setting, and I’ll definitely be subscribing to Mr Parrott’s CuriousFictions account to see what he forges.