Nyanga sample

No Julius and Livia today! A couple of reasons. Livia is about to start berating Skylur, and that speech has to be just right, like Diakon Huang before the Assembly. Also, thanks to being bullied persuaded by readers to extend Julius and Livia to a novella, I have a second thread which needs to come in and which I haven’t developed, so there will be a week’s delay.

Instead, I’ve had quite a few messages about the comment ‘Afro-centric steampunk’, used to describe one of my back-burner writing ideas, so I thought I’d post a chapter to illustrate it. (With the warning this is very much on the back-burner, whereas Julius and Livia will tick along at weekends)

I am posting the world-building background and how the story came to be as comments below the post. Just one quick word about Zulu names. Where names start with ‘M’ or ‘N’ for instance, and are followed by a consonant, the initial letter is usually pronounced separately. So Nyanga in n-YAN-gah, and Mlungu in m-LUN-goo.

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Chapter 1

The City of the Serpent


Hear me, you many hills and secret valleys, hear me. I am come. I am Nyanga.

Yes, I am named for the moon. The moon is my mother; her light shines through me. She is the source of my powers. She lifts the boundless seas with her beauty. She bears down the multitudes of men to sleep beneath her silver heel.

I anoint my brow with the cool air that she gifts to the dusty lands. I rise up to her song.

I am Nyanga, child of darkness.

Hear me; I am come.

My mother stood high above the gentle hills, wearing the aspect of the Great Buffalo, Nyathi: the bright, bone-white crescent of horns, carried on a black head as wide as the whole night sky, and dusted with stars. On those horns, she pushed the old year out before her, and dragged the new year in behind.

She moved at her own pace, as always, neither fast nor slow, but she did not stop.

As the worm-skinned Mlungu measure such things, it was about midnight on the southern winter solstice in the hills of the great Zulu homelands.

The seasons turned. Old ways died and new ventures began; the circle was unstoppable, whether I tried to slow it or not. I might as well try holding the broad Mgeni river in my hand.

I trembled.

Was it the night itself? It was not that cold, and the night holds few terrors for a follower of Ngoma; witch-doctors as the Mlungu call us.

Yet I trembled. For I tell you this; it is a fearsome thing to stand before the City of the Serpent under the uncertain light of the waning moon.

For the city is a living thing, and it should not be.

It moves. It speaks.

Its tales are of graves and death, the chill, bitter end of dreams, and the heavy yoke of duty. Its voice is the clink and clatter of many stones, striking one against another. Its breath is cold decay.

It moves like a blind and dying man, dragging itself along the ground. The whole city shivers and its walls writhe in the moonlight. Its grey arms reach out. Its dead, grey fingers tremble on the ground, seeking out its path.

Look up again and the bulk of the city has loomed closer.


It is the place all followers of Ngoma must come to learn their fate.

I am Nyanga. I am come.

But one does not walk toward the city of cold stones and lamentation. One stands in its path and waits, trembling.

My left arm hissed and chattered, which it does when I am afraid. I made a fist and moved my elbow in a circle to ease it. My mother’s light gleamed softly on her daughter’s metal arm. The gears whined and pistons huffed at the limit of hearing, and then they all fell quiet when I stopped moving.

The city crept closer, uncaring of my fear, and slowly, it revealed its true self to me.

It is a city of stones. They are grey and flat, those stones, and they are numbered like the antelope in the herds of the plains, like the stars in the cold, black sky, like the fish in the great rivers of this land. And the city moves because a boundless host of people crawl like ants over its walls. They take the stones from where the city has been and they place them where it will be, one by one. One by one.

Where the city passes, nothing but dust and ashes remain.

The people of the city walls do not pause. They are in rags, or naked. They are men and women, old and young. They are black and brown and white and yellow, but all skin shares the color of corpses in the light of the Great Buffalo moon.

I could see that, without regard to their heritage, there were roles and ranks within the undead congregation: there were those that carried and those that directed.

Hear me: this is the great humor of the City of the Serpent. Those that direct are blind; their eyes have been put out. Those that carry are missing a hand or foot, struck off at the joint. And they all must sing, so they all have had their tongues ripped out.

This I saw, as the city surrounded me.

And I tell you this, that you will remember, should your time of hearing come; it is a fearsome thing to stand as the City of the Serpent pulls you into its dead embrace, but stand you must.

Some of its inhabitants stared at me as they passed, whether they had eyes or not. And some giggled, or smiled dreadful smiles. Some without hands held their stumps out, as if to beg, or to stroke me with long-lost fingers.

They are the Dangele, the Sorrow of the Serpent, and such is the fate of a follower of Ngoma who breaks the laws of the City of the Serpent. Or runs away. Or fails at their appointed task. They are bound in their misery to the city forever.

But it was not for me to ease their torments; if I stumbled tonight, I would share them.

So I stood silently, and trembled while the center of the city, the Hall of the Ancients, swelled up before me, stone by impatient stone.

The building was a huge tower, conical, leaning in at the top, about a hundred paces wide at the bottom.

There was only one entrance, at the bottom of the wall facing me; low and narrow.

A thousand, thousand stones spoke all around me with their rattling voice.

Hurry, hurry, they seemed to say.

I knelt down at the entrance and started to crawl like a hunting dog.

The passage smelled like an old fire-pit, and it got lower.

How long was it? How thick was the wall? I could not see.

Lower. Until I had to squirm like a lizard, and my left arm shook. Until the very breath felt crushed from me.

And thus you come before the Ibandhla, the Council of Ancients: trembling, on your belly, with your face in the dirt.

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About Mark Henwick

I was born in Africa and left out in the sun too often. An early interest in philosophy and psychology was adequately exorcised by tending bars. And while trying to enroll in a class to read Science Fiction full time, I ended up taking an engineering degree which splendidly qualified me to move into marketing. That in turn spawned a late onset career in creative writing. When not working, I get high by the slightly less conventional means of a small light aircraft. My first books are available on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Mark-Henwick/e/B008SBO5YK/

5 responses to “Nyanga sample”

  1. Mark Henwick says :

    Where on earth did this come from? 🙂

    When I decided to change careers to writing, one of the most common bits of advice I received was to ‘write what I knew’. As it ended up, my editor and I had a laugh that I was neither female nor American, and didn’t even live in Denver, but I’d written this story about a gal named Amber… But before I got to that stage, I had sketched out a very different story set in Africa, where I was born. I was thinking of an anti-hero, and the setting was ‘alt-reality’ – recognizable as this world, but with changes in history. Then I started thinking of adding the paranormal, but at that point, the rocket that became Bite Back took off in my mind and the African adventure went on the back-burner.

    Much later, while looking for an illustrator for my mother’s book, also set on Africa, I chanced across one of those images that sets the mind thinking.

    It’s the image in this post: a female witch-doctor in a steampunk setting.

    Well, it all went onto the back-burner, but the thing is, all those pots at the back of the stove sometimes talk to each other. So…my original thought of a book set in Africa became steampunk, revolving around a young Zulu woman anti-hero, in the alt-reality world I had envisaged originally, and a Young Adult/New Adult tone. And thus Nyanga and the Iron Snake slithered a little closer to being written.

    Developing the ‘voice’ of Nyanga was difficult. In the setup chapters, I’m trying to get a feel of the declamatory oral tradition of Africa, where stories have a rhythm and descriptions are also used as mnemonics. Too much of that would make it unreadable.

    Have I got the right amount?

    Where it is not purely imagined, this is, of course, cultural appropriation on an industrial scale. I guess I’ll have to live with that.

  2. Mark Henwick says :


    The world of the Nyanga is quite different from ours. It’s vaguely Victorian era, with the addition of cunning and complex bio-mechanical engineering that powers devices like ornithopters and prosthetic limbs, oversized vehicles like the glittering zeppelins that float above tall cities, and great steam engines that pull trains as big as rolling towns across the vast swathes of the continents. And a little magic.

    In the background to the story, the British Empire bestrides the world, encompassing North America, the Indian sub-continent and Australia. But it’s a true democracy…and so, although there’s still a Queen in Windsor Castle, and universities at Oxford and Cambridge, and lords and ladies wearing top hats, tails and frills at Ascot races, and polo, and cricket matches, and honey for tea…all that goes on under the rule of a London parliament which is run by a coalition between the North American People’s Party and the Party of Enlightenment from the Indian sub-continent. The British Isles themselves are covered in farms and parks and the estates of great mansions. (The surplus middle and working classes have all emigrated).

    There’s also the Holy Roman Empire (Italy, Spain and South America), the United States of Europe (Germany, France, etc.), The Russian Union, The League of Araby and, of course, China.

    Africa is not colonized, though many desire it. It comprises a loose federation of Greater Egypt, the Empire of Mali (western Africa), Maravi (eastern Africa) and Mzansi (southern and central Africa).

    • Justin says :

      Good sir I must inform you that all alternative earth prime worlds (either politically or geophysical) require a map. Also yes steampunk vampires

      • Mark Henwick says :

        Yes, yes. Maps there will be. Chilly, aristocratic, gothic vampires and their like… not sure. I have the outlines of a plot and a world, and some sketches to fix the atmosphere, but the real bones of the story are yet to be developed. A lot of other stuff in the pipeline comes first!

        • Justin says :

          Yes that’s I want to hear,more books for me to read. Also Steampunk is always a good option, so go ahead and make whatever Weird land you dream of at night. I’ll read it

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