Act of Will

Act of Will

by A. J. Hartley


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New York Times bestseller A. J. Harley brings us a fantasy with plenty of mystery and adventure, set in a mythical world reminiscent of Shakespearean England and told by a morally dubious apprentice actor called Will Hawthorne who finds himself in serious trouble with the local authorities and casts himself on the mercies of a band of principled adventurers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780991304691
Publisher: Dystel & Goderich Literary Management
Publication date: 01/02/2014
Pages: 372
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.77(d)

About the Author

British-born writer A.J. HARTLEY, author of the New York Times bestselling The Mask of Atreus and On the Fifth Day, is the Distinguished Professor of Shakespeare in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. As well as being a novelist and academic, he is a screenwriter, theatre director, and dramaturge. He is married, with a son, and lives in Charlotte.

Read an Excerpt

Act of Will

By Hartley, A.J.

Tor Fantasy

Copyright © 2010 Hartley, A.J.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780765360885

Show Business

The day started quietly, which, as it turned out, was not so much ironic as completely misleading. I had risen late after a long night memorizing speeches by the dodgy light of a cheap tallow candle. Mrs. Pugh—the miserable and vindictive woman who had been paid by the theatre to “look after� me since my parents died, which basically amounted to keeping me alive till my apprenticeship was done—had woken me at eleven o’clock, then forced me to eat what looked suspiciously like a bowl of fried porridge. Why anyone would do anything with porridge, let alone fry it, is a serious bloody mystery to me.

It was my eighteenth birthday, which meant that my theatre apprenticeship was officially over: now the company would either take me on as a full member, or they would cut me loose. Either way, this would be my last day in a dress. Thank God.

I’m not sure why the Empire doesn’t allow women on-stage. It’s pretty stupid when you stop to think about it. But everyone is used to it and it keeps the likes of me in steady work, so I’m not complaining. Admittedly, most of the parts I got as a woman were comprised of simpering love poetry and vacant smiles, but once in a while I got to do a good death scene, or double as a nameless soldier in a battle, or something. That was pretty fun, and it got me out of those bloody corsets for ten minutes or so.

But none of it equaled the time I got to play a prince. I had three long speeches and a fight scene and, best of all, I got to write some of my own lines. (All actors think they’re poets. Most of them aren’t.) I got a standing ovation at the end of each performance. Not all the boy actors graduate to men’s roles, but I was the best we had at the moment, so I figured there’d still be a job for me when I hung up my skirt for the last time. Probably. Not everyone in the company appreciated my talents, of course, least of all the really stupid ones, who—needless to say—had a lot of sway in the company. If they didn’t take me in as an actor, I’d probably be able to make a living writing for them, but it wouldn’t be much of a living, so I was a bit apprehensive about what they’d tell me after the show.

That was when it would happen. After the stage had been swept and the taproom closed, before they got everyone back out to rehearse the next day’s show, they’d meet and vote and call me into the green room for their verdict. Then I’d be an actor, a writer, or both, or I’d be homeless with no source of income till I could cobble a play together and sell it.

I should say that being an eighteen-year-old in Cresdon means that you’ve been a man for at least half a decade already, even if you’ve made your living in a dress. I can’t compare it to other places, and I’m sure there are kids my age whose comfort and happiness are still carefully engineered by other people, but unless you’re gentry where I live, you pretty much have to claw your way into manhood, and there’s plenty who don’t make it. Kids starve, or they get beaten to death by their so-called benefactors, or they get sold into slavery. I’m not trying to shock you or convince you that I’m some kind of hero for making it this long; but I don’t want you thinking you’re going to get a tale about some blue-eyed tyke with a heart of gold in a world where good triumphs over evil. You’re not, I’m not, and in my experience it never does.

Just so we’re clear.

Anyway. I lived less than half a mile from the theatre, but one of those impromptu markets which Cresdon’s residents seem so fond of had spontaneously appeared right outside the goldsmith’s on Aqueduct Street. I was soon up to my armpits in goats and cheese and bales of smelly wool imported by the equally smelly herders from the Ashran Plains, north of the city. By the time I reached the backstage entrance of the Eagle Theatre, I could already hear the bugles finishing up, which meant they were halfway through what passed for a musical introduction: a florid-faced idiot called Rufus Ramsbottom and an instrument (in the loosest possible sense of the word) which he claimed was an Andastrian bagpipe but which sounded like three cats and a chicken tied together in a sack. Not that anyone took any notice. This was strictly background noise to make the paying public feel that something was starting, thus encouraging them to focus on the crucial business of buying one last pint and fighting each other for seats.

The Eagle sat at the end of a dim alley which, like all the others in the city at this time of year, was hot, muddy, and rank with the odors of wandering livestock and abandoned refuse. It was a typical Cresdon theatre: round (near enough), with a raised thrust stage, a pair of stage entrances, a balcony, a discovery space, and a trapdoor to the cellar-age. The house held close to three thousand, packing eight hundred standing into the pit and seating the rest in three galleries, one on top of the other. The best view of the stage was from up top and would cost you three standard silver pieces, but you could get a good deal if you were prepared to stand down front. Some of the local aristos would pay six or seven silvers to actually sit on the stage and show off their fancy new duds, something all the actors hated with a passion. They never kept still and you were lucky if they did no more than yawn and wave to their friends. Sometimes they gave you acting notes or stopped the show to argue a plot point. Rich people always think they know best.

I got into my dress and blond wig as quickly as I could, and took a last glance over the script. We were doing a pompous tragedy called Reynath’s Revenge, whose entire last act was a series of preposterously engineered assassinations. It wasn’t just the end that was stupid. The whole play was rubbish. We’d just put it back into the repertory because a new one by the same author had opened a week or so ago over at the Blue Lion. The only audience who bothered showing up to ours had probably seen it a dozen times. It had been crap every time, but they kept coming back.

My dress was too tight around the throat because it had been made for Bob Evans, who had had the frame of a plucked chicken till he was about sixteen, when he had doubled in all possible dimensions, bursting every seam in every dress they put him in. By sheer surging hormonal bulk, combined with the timely death of old Silas Woods from the wheezing sickness, Bob attained what the kid actors all dreamed of: he had started playing men’s roles.

I poured myself a small beer, lit a pipe, and joined the pre-show card game in the green room. I say “pre,� but it would go on through the show, pausing only when too many of us were onstage to continue.

By the end of the second scene, the game was going badly. For me, I mean. It was going swimmingly for everyone else. I sipped my stale beer and tried to figure out how much I had lost so far.

Like most Cresdon theatres, the Eagle did double duty as a tavern and was famed for its taproom, which served beer throughout the show. When there was nothing going on onstage, cards, dice, and darts were the rule. All of these humble pastimes could be turned to advantage by a perceptive and audacious actor-cum-gambler, storyteller, and performer: namely, me. William Hawthorne, known as Will the Sharp or Quick Bill to the patrons of the Eagle Theatre and Tavern, at your ser vice. Care to place a bet, sir, madam?

Except that it was only me who used the epithets of Quick Bill or Will the Sharp, and if your ears were good enough, you would be more likely to hear those worthy patrons announce me as Bill the Cheat, Lying Will, That Kid Who Tried to Rip Me Off, etc. etc. In fact, Bill the Incompetent might be nearer the mark, as a quick tally of today’s winnings suggested.

See, the taproom was, generally speaking, fairly easy pickings. Most of the people who came to play were either regulars (who you knew to avoid) or incompetents who couldn’t fork their cash over to you fast enough. But I wasn’t in the taproom now; I was in the green room. Normally I played conservatively here, but today I was nervous, perhaps a little too anxious to show how little I cared whether they gave me a job or not in a couple of hours. The combination had made me reckless.

The problem with the green-room games was that they were populated solely by theatre people, mainly actors. Here, the usual bluffs, prevarications, convenient fictions, and barefaced cheating would afford you little, because everyone there knew them of old. Rufus Ramsbottom, for example, was a lousy actor who could barely deliver a line without fumbling or dropping something, and he wasn’t a particularly good cardplayer, but he knew a cheat when he saw one, and he was looking at one right now. He had mean little eyes and a fat pink face, producing the look of a rather slow but pathologically malevolent pig. Those eyes held mine, and he wasn’t giving me an inch.

“Come on, Hawthorne,� he said. “I have to go on.�

“I doubt they’d miss you,� I said. “The show’s better when actors do only their own lines.�

This was a particular talent of Rufus’s. He couldn’t remember his own part if his life depended on it, but he would blurt out other people’s lines constantly. It was taxing for actors and audience alike.

“Just play or fold, boy,� he said, glowering so that the red bristles on his forehead stood on end.

“Blood and sand,� I muttered as I threw my cards down, abandoning the sorry bluff. “Fold.�

He grinned, raked the coins into a pile, and then marched to the stage door.

“I’ve counted them, Hawthorne,� he said warningly before disappearing through the door. He hadn’t, of course. That would have taken him, like, half an hour.

You could always tell when Rufus Ramsbottom went onstage because there wasn’t a sound from the house, except maybe a few groans. Usually actors got a little patter of applause when they went on for the first time in a show, but Rufus was such a giftless swine that even the kids who only came to see the sword fights and pig’s blood started shifting in their seats and muttering darkly about getting their money back.

I put my cards down and tipped my purse out onto the table. I considered the paltry pile of coins left to me, and it was like being punched in the gut by someone wearing (for reasons I can’t begin to guess) very cold gloves. Rufus, however, was positively flush and getting flusher as the game wore on. He had money. I needed money—possibly a lot of it if the post-show meeting went badly. There was a certain inevitability to the whole thing, really.

The green room was momentarily deserted. Barring some clamorous fiasco in the present scene (always a possibility when Rufus trod the boards), I probably had about another thirty seconds before Jack Brundage, who had been sitting on my left, would get offstage and return to the game. I considered the pile of coins where Rufus had been sitting, took a deep breath, helped myself to two silvers, rearranged what was left, and then helped myself to another.

If I’d stopped at two, I might have got away with it. But no. Brundage emerged at the stage door just I was withdrawing my hand. I grinned and blustered and asked him what the crowd was like, but it was no good. He’d seen.

Brundage was a tall, slender man with a sardonic face that made him seem smarter than he was. He was a good minor bad guy, but didn’t have the stage presence to be a real villain, and though he had a loud voice that carried well in a brassy sort of way, he delivered every line at full volume. As a man and as an actor, he had no depth, no richness or complexity. He also didn’t like me very much and was a good friend of Rufus Ramsbottom.

It was thus with some trepidation that I slipped past him, avoiding his eyes as I made for the stage door. He let me go, but he was smiling that slightly twisted smile of his, like he was sucking something very sweet and very sour at the same time. He wasn’t letting me off the hook; he was figuring out how best to twist it.

I listened for the cue and strode out, but my heart wasn’t in it, and even the familiar patter of applause at my appearance didn’t still the wobble of my stomach. This was going to get worse before it got better.

“Good day, my lord,� I said on cue. “I feared I’d come too late.�

I was Julia, a minor love interest in a play largely preoccupied with a series of bizarre poisonings. I’d played the part a dozen times, and though it was a smallish role by my standards, I had some speeches in the fourth act in which I whined about justice and honesty and got to rant and wail a bit. Sometimes the audience even cried.

Not today, I thought. If there was any weeping to be done, it would be me, crying over an empty purse and being drummed out of the company for dishonesty. And it might be worse. Brundage and Rufus were men of little imagination, but they usually came up with something terse and painful in the way of punishment. Once when one of the prop boys had been caught listening in on some conversation they had wanted to keep to themselves, they had cut off his right earlobe to make the point. It was as close as they came to whimsy.

Twenty lines into the scene, Rufus had an exit. Usually it was a relief to see him lumber out of sight, and the play as a whole picked up as those still onstage got to do more than navigate around his cluelessness, but not today. I knew that the moment he got off, Brundage would be waiting to tell him how I had adjusted his funds, and by the time I headed into the green room, they’d be ready to have a little word with me. Except that it wouldn’t be a word. It would be something altogether different involving an oak cudgel and a bit of lead pipe. Whether or not they would hand over what ever was left to the Empire, I couldn’t say, but being welcomed into the company after this seemed a long shot.

I watched him go off, my guts hollow, and it was like I’d never been onstage before. I knew I had lines, but for a moment I just stood there, my mind blank, feeling the audience starting to watch me in that too-curious way they have when they sense someone screwing up, like hyenas spotting a wounded gazelle. Rafe Jenkins glowered at me across the stage.

“So, Lady Julia,� he said, completely buggering up the verse, “you already spoke to my lord Francisco?�

“What?� I said, tearing my eyes from the stage door where Brundage and Rufus were whispering just out of the audience’s sightline. “Oh, right. Yes. I did.�

Someone in the front row nudged her neighbor and giggled. Even in my stark, bewildered terror, a tiny part of me hated her for it.

“And,� said Rafe, laboring and glaring still more pointedly, “Lord Francisco told you that—�

“That,� I said quickly. “Something. Yes. He told me something.�

It was like I was watching someone else, some stupid kid in a dress who had no right being onstage in public.

A ripple of mirth coursed through the entire pit and I flushed. There was a long pause and Rafe glared at me. I had no idea what my lines were. I couldn’t remember the plot or who I was supposed to be. All I could see clearly was Rufus waiting for me in the green room with his cudgel. Then there was a bang at the back of the house and, for the briefest of moments, things seemed to be looking up.

The bang came from the main street entrance into the theatre. I heard shouts, and the crowd standing in the pit began to part like sheep before a dog. Probably a rowdy drunk, I thought: just the excuse I needed to slip away until things cooled down a little.

But it wasn’t a drunk. It was a man on a horse, riding right into the theatre. He wore silver plate armor and a white cape. Behind him were twenty foot soldiers: Diamond Empire guards. There was a murmur of discontent, but the air smelled of unease, even panic. Nothing like this had ever happened before.

The mounted officer produced a roll of parchment and, as his horse skittered to a halt on the cobbles, started to read aloud in one of those voices that you can tell isn’t used to being messed about.

“On behalf of the Diamond Empire, governors of these territories,� he said, “I hereby declare this and all such theatres permanently closed as houses of rebellion and immorality. The building will be demolished by fire and the land impounded by the state. The following lewd and seditious persons are to be taken into Empire custody for their part in the playing and writing of plays and entertainments unbecoming to the dignity of an Empire territory.�

I stared at him. He couldn’t be serious. Close the theatres? Arrest the writers? It was madness.

The crowd thought so too. There was a surly grumbling from all over the building and a scattering of boos and hisses.

The officer nodded as if this was to be expected, and the soldiers drew their weapons. They were serious.

“William Hawthorne,� said the officer.

“Hello?� I said guilelessly. “Yes?�

The officer paused.

“I’m reading the list,� he said.


“Of those who are to be arrested,� he added with steely patience.

“Ah,� I said. “William who?�

“Hawthorne,� said the officer. “Isn’t that you?�

“Me?� I said. “No. Never heard of him. I’m just a kid.�

“That’s Hawthorne, all right,� said a big, booming voice from the stage-left side. It was Rufus. He took a step out onto the lip of the stage and pointed a thick finger at me. “William Hawthorne.� He added, in case anyone might have missed the gist of the chat thus far, “Actor, playwright, thief, liar, and all-round snake.�

It was his most flawless performance to date.

The officer considered this. Then, returning his eyes to the list, he said simply, “Take him.�

Excerpted from Act of Will by A. J. Hartley.
Copyright © 2010 by A. J. Hartley.
Published in 2010 by Tom Doherty Associates Book.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.


Excerpted from Act of Will by Hartley, A.J. Copyright © 2010 by Hartley, A.J.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Act of Will 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
bezoar44 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Set in a low-magic fantasy world roughly comparable to late Elizabethan England, Act of Will is a coming-of-age story. The title is a pun; the narrator, Will Hawthorne, starts the novel as a callow and immature actor, falling from one scrape into another, with very little deep thought guiding any of his actions. Hardly anything he does is actually an 'act of will'. It's an open question, I think, whether that aspect of his personality changes in the course of the novel, but the character certainly deepens, and he develops from being obnoxious to (somewhat) sympathetic. The biggest challenge of the book is that Will's narrative voice for the first half of the book is really annoying (not particularly funny), which doesn't really jibe with the notion that Will is telling the story after-the-fact, and after his gradual accumulation of empathy and depth. The plot - Will falls in with a group of adventurers sent to discover the force behind a series of brutal raids -- is fine, but the draw to make it through the book is Will's relationships with the other party members.
susie080856 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved it. Will Hawthorne is such an engaging character. If you like fantasy you'll like the pace of this book. It's fast and fun. And the author has a sequel coming out in November.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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ROVA More than 1 year ago
I picked up this book out of curiosity and got far more than I bargained for. Hartley's previous novels have been well crafted contemporary mystery-thrillers, but this excursion into quest-fantasy reads like a real labor of love. The plot is original and fast-paced, the characters are engaging and sympathetic, and the narrator's wry sense of humor is delightful. What's more, it tells a complete story in ONE volume -- something exceedingly rare in the genre. A sequel is indicated, and I eagerly look forward to it.
harstan More than 1 year ago
Young Will Hawthorne plays female roles in an acting troupe. Currently they are performing at the Eagle theatre and tavern in Cresdon, a place recently conquered by the Diamond Empire, who have somewhat outlawed theater as rebellious and seditious. During a game of cards while drinking stale beer, Will is caught stealing someone else¿s winning pot. He knows the most likely punishment is exile from the troupe.

However, the militia arrives to shut the theatre and arrest the actors. Will escapes via jumping into the rafters and climbing several rooftops. He ends up in a tiny room where rebels are holding a meeting. Though he has doubts about the wisdom of rebellion against an overwhelming force, he reluctantly joins them to stay alive until the next act when he can exit safely. Instead he observes shocking behavior for the better good that he always thought was make believe drama not real. Still he hopes to escape by the third act but not before he serves as the leading man with lovely Renthrette. However, as he and his new ¿troupe seek to destroy the mystical deadly cavalry that rides to and from magical mists leaving behind death, he wonders how he got his first starring role in the theatre of the absurd: real life.

Sort of returning to Shakespeare as his base (see WHAT TIME DEVOURS), A.J. Harley provides an enjoyable quest fantasy starring a wonderful anti-hero who wants nothing to do with rebellion that is not staged. In a way Will¿s reactions to the inane values of loyalty and selfless service by his new comrades is a coming of age story as he begins to realize what he thought only existed on stage apparently is part of real life though he thinks his new troupe consists of insane troopers. Fans will enjoy this engaging tongue in cheek tale of heroism.

Harriet Klausner