On leave, and out of his head with boredom, NZDF Sergeant Taine McKenna joins biologist Jules Asher, on a Conservation Department deer culling expedition to New Zealand’s southernmost national park, where soaring peaks give way to valleys gouged from clay and rock, and icy rivers bleed into watery canyons too deep to fathom. Despite covering an area the size of the Serengeti, only eighteen people live in the isolated region, so it’s a surprise when the hunters stumble on the nation’s Tūrehu tribe, becoming some of only a handful to ever encounter the elusive ghost people. But a band of mercenaries saw them first, and, hell-bent on exploiting the tribes’ survivors, they’re prepared to kill anyone who gets in their way. As a soldier, McKenna is duty-bound to protect all New Zealanders, but after centuries of persecution will the Tūrehu allow him to help them? Besides, there is something else lurking in the sounds, and it has its own agenda. When the waters clear, will anyone be allowed to leave?
“Murray pretty much nails small unit tactics.” ‒ Justin Coates, author of The Apocalypse Drive
“A fantastic blend of military fiction, a very real primordial monster, and powerful mythology.” ‒ Paul Mannering, author of Hard Corps, Hell’s Teeth, and Eat.
No longer content to rumble in anger, the great mountain warriors of New Zealand’s central plateau, the Kāhui Tupua, are preparing again for battle. At least, that’s how the Māori elders tell it. The nation’s leaders scoff at the danger. That is; until the ground opens and all hell breaks loose. The armed forces are hastily deployed; NZDF Sergeant Taine McKenna and his section tasked with evacuating civilians and tourists from Tongariro National Park. It is too little, too late. With earthquakes coming thick and fast and the mountains spewing rock and ash, McKenna and his men are cut off. Their only hope of rescuing the stranded civilians is to find another route out, but a busload of prison evacuees has other ideas. And, deep beneath the earth’s crust, other forces are stirring.
“INTO THE ASHES is a kick-ass thriller with twists you will never see coming! Lee Murray serves up a nail-biter of a weird-science action adventure. Brava!” —Jonathan Maberry, New York Times best-selling author of DEEP SILENCE and V-WARS
A deadly wash of lava and rocks, as wide as the Waikato River, surged around the house, taking the line of least resistance. The side of the house exploded in flames. Taine had no time to take it in because the front wheels of the Unimog were lifting in the swell, the air blackening with the smoke and stench of immolating tyres.
“Hine, go!” Read croaked. Grabbing Brooker by his shirt, he dragged him back onto the Unimog.
She jumped clear, landing near Taine as the lava surged around the Unimog. Carried on the broiling wave of lava, it circled in a bizarre ballet, Brooker and Read still inside.
Dammit. Taine had to get them off now. That truck was a toaster oven bobbing on a sea of red heat. “Read!” “I’m sending Brooker to you. Line-out style. Be ready!”
Taine had to hand it to him: as ideas went, it was gutsy. With the bed of the Unimog still floating above the flow, there was a chance it could work.
“Hine, we’re going to have to catch Brooker.” Hurry it up, Read.
Standing as close as they dared, Taine and Hine braced themselves…
The Unimog circled. Come on!
The vehicle came around. Read bent his knees, grabbing Brooker by the overalls below his hips. When the vehicle neared the lava’s leading edge, Read thrust him upwards, Brooker jumping as best he could.
Dammit. He was going to fall short. Taine stepped forward, his boot searing at the edge of the liquid rock. He leaned out and yanked Brooker to him, while, crouched low, Hine caught the boy’s trailing leg before it hit the lava.
Taine snatched his own foot back.
“Fuck me! That was close,” Brooker panted, his chest heaving. One down, one to go. What if Read leapt and missed? Taine glanced at Hine. He could spare her that at least. “Help Brooker to the twin cab,” Taine shouted. “I’ll get Read on the next pass.”
Suddenly, Lefty was there, pushing Hine out of the way. “It’s okay. I’ll do it. You get clear.” The soldier hefted Brooker over his shoulder, carrying him down the driveway, where Miller was backing up the truck, slowing just enough to allow the men to pile on.
The Unimog was like a raft on the rapids, the viscous current pulling it towards the middle of the lava-river.
“Read!” Taine yelled.
“Is Brooker safe?” Read called over the roar of the lava.
Taine glanced back. Lefty and Pringle were lifting Brooker onto the truck while, on the flatbed, Parata dragged him in.
“He’s safe. Read—” Taine jumped back as a spray of lava spurted off the surface.
“I know, I know. I’m coming. Just waiting until the…” he trailed off.
“Matt,” Hine whispered.
Lee Murray is a Bram Stoker-nominated writer and editor horror fiction, and multi-award-winning writer of dark speculative fiction (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows). Her works include the Taine McKenna adventure series, and supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra (co-written with Dan Rabarts). She is the editor of ten dark fiction anthologies, the latest being Hellhole: An Anthology of Subterranean Terror (Adrenalin Press). Lee lives with her family in New Zealand where she conjures up stories from her office overlooking a cow paddock.
Fun Fact#1: You know that old story about having to smooch a lot of frogs before you find the prince? Well, before becoming a writer, I tried on a lot of hats: I was a research scientist, a massage therapist, a safety and health officer, as well as New Zealand’s Energy Advisor to the OECD. I’ve also done some time putting up kiwifruit irrigation lines, serving chateaubriand, and as a wallpaper hand. These days, you’ll find me in my natural writing habitat, in my home office overlooking a cow paddock.
Fun Fact#2: A serious cheese junkie, I’m lucky that our travels have allowed me to indulge my addiction. In fact, we have lived for several years in some of the most significant cheese locations of the world, beginning with my home country of New Zealand, then England (home of Red Leicester and Wensleydale), France (my favourite is still the Tome de Savoie) and America’s Dairyland, Wisconsin, famous for its cheese curd and Montforte Blue.
Fun Fact#3: One of my great grandmothers was Rebecca Brooker (née Jenner) 1819-1887. The daughter of famous British physician Edward Jenner (inventor of the smallpox vaccine), she was a missionary nurse and a signatory to New Zealand’s famous Treaty of Waitangi. Rebecca Avenue in New Zealand’s Christchurch is named after this famous ancestor.”
Which of your novels can you imagine made into a movie?
I’d love to see the entire Taine McKenna series made into movies, but all writers say that about their books don’t they? The thing is, I’m not the only one saying they would love to see McKenna on the big screen. One New York Times bestselling author told me he thought they would be the perfect vehicle for actors like Jason Momoa or Dwayne Johnson. What a lovely compliment. Aussie thriller writer Greig Beck, bestselling author of the Arcadian and Primordia series, has made similar comments:
“Lee Murray is one of New Zealand’s most awarded and top selling authors, and INTO THE ASHES is Lee’s continuation of the Taine McKenna adventures. This magnificent story weaves ancient Maori mythology, brutal action, and cinematic scenes that cry out for movie treatment.” – Greig Beck, author of the Arcadian series.
Readers of the series agree:
“A story begging to be made into a film.”
“A monster movie in book form.”
“I can totally see this as a movie. Peter Jackson, never mind what you’re busy with, drop everything and make Into the Mist.”
“This would make an interesting movie.”
“Definitely one for fans of action movies rooted in local (New Zealand landscape and traditions.”
“Go and write the movie script!”
“Peter Jackson – read this one.”
While my Path of Ra series (with Dan Rabarts) has garnered some film interest (nothing concrete yet), I haven’t had any bites on the McKenna series, but I have my fingers crossed. If anyone reading this post has film industry contacts, please send them my way!
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
I’ve been on lots of literary pilgrimages. When my children were small, we lived in abroad in Wisconsin in the United States. Because my daughter (then aged 6) was a huge reader, we took a weekend trip to visit the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum in her birthplace in Pepin, and the model cabin in the Big Woods. I remember buying my daughter the cutest pink bonnet in Laura Ingalls Wilder style. Of course, Ann Packer’s 2002 bestseller The Dive from Clausen’s Pier was set in Madison about the time we were living there, although the pier itself is fictional. I have stood on the Pont Mirabeau in Paris and watched the Seine flow past, as Apollinaire did in his famous poem. I have visited England’s Lake District where Beatrix Potter was inspired by the rolling landscape, and Baker Street where Conan Doyle set his famous detective series. New Zealand pilgrimages include visits to the former homes of writer Janet Frame in Oamaru and of short story specialist Katherine Mansfield in Tinkori Road, Wellington.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal? Apparently, like Cho Chang, my patronus is a swan—I took a test. The Results: You may be quiet, but that doesn’t mean you’re antisocial. Constantly surrounded by a group of friends, you can always count on them to act as a support system in times of emotional distress. Keep your head up and enjoy the simple pleasures in life. Do your best not to dwell on the past: the future is bright. [Fingers crossed]
What inspired you to write your most recent titleInto the Ashes?
I needed to finish the series! Not only did I have a contract to fulfill, people, myself included, were hanging out to see what would happen between Taine and Jules, and whether Temera would regain his gift for seeing. However, the inspiration for this particular story came entirely from the New Zealand landscape. I was on a road trip with my son and husband and we were passing through the central plateau on a spectacularly clear day, and I remember thinking the region would make the perfect backdrop for the last book in the series. There were the mountains, the supervolcano, the lakes, the army training grounds, and all the wonderful local legends and mythology associated with the area. Adding to that, one of our greatest fears down here in New Zealand is fear of ‘the big one’: a massive volcanic-earthquake event. Located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, New Zealand is sometimes referred to as ‘the shaky isles’. My mind was racing: already ideas were coming thick and fast. Then my son said, “Mum, you should call it Into the Ashes.” And that was it. The idea was born.
What can we expect from you in the future?
Thank you for asking about my other work. In July of 2019, Dawn of the Zombie Apocalypse, the first book in my middle grade adventure series is releasing from IFWG Publishing in Australia. I’m thrilled to have found a home for the series and especially excited that the publishing house has commissioned Australian artist Greg Chapman to do the cover design. There are two more books in the series--Dawn of the Mutant Invasion and Dawn of the AI Revolution--which are still to be completed, so I’ll need to get cracking on those if I want to keep pace with the readership. Kids grow up fast! Then there’s the third book in the Path of Ra supernatural crime-noir thriller series which I co-write with my New Zealand colleague Dan Rabarts. The manuscript for Blood of the Sun is almost complete, and readers can expect to see that released from Raw Dog Screaming Press in late 2019 or early 2020. Also bubbling away are a couple of collaborative works in early planning stages, an offer to publish a short story collection, several short story commissions, and another secret project. I’m also pondering a Taine McKenna spin off series focusing on another character from the books. Lots of readers have asked for a series featuring Matt Read and Hine, for example. That might be fun…
Do you have any “side stories” about the characters?
Yes, a Taine McKenna short story called Into the Darkness is available on all the usual platforms for readers to enjoy for free. Chronologically, Into the Darkness falls between Into the Mist and Into the Sounds when the army is trying to clean up the mess left in the Urewera forest. Taine and Jules are holidaying in France:
Laying low after a furore in the Urewera ranges, NZDF Sergeant Taine McKenna accompanies girlfriend Jules Ashes to France, where something ancient and evil has left its kill on the cobbles of La Ferté-Bernard. The terrified villagers have seen it before. That time, elders closed the gates and whispered of the plague. Now, the danger threatens all of Europe. The local gendarmes are going to need help. Lucky for them, McKenna is available, expendable, and ultimately deniable…
How did you come up with the concept for the series?
The idea for first book, Into the Mist, came to me while I was out running in the New Zealand bush. Before sustaining an injury, I used to run marathons--completing 25 marathons and a couple of ultramarathons--which meant a lot of time running on trails. While the terrain can be dangerous, and the weather conditions can change rapidly, running in the New Zealand bush doesn’t offer up a lot of beasties. There are no mountain lions, no snakes and no grumpy bears. Probably, the worst thing a runner is likely to come across down here is a wētā or two, or maybe a swarm of wasps. Out on the road, you might meet a stray pig dog, or a herd of cows on the way to milking, but I’ve never encountered anything on a bush trail. I was discussing this with some girlfriends while out on a trail for a long run once, and it occurred to me ‘what if there was something?’ and ‘what might that be?’ and the idea evolved from there. I went home and opened a file which I optimistically called “Global Blockbuster” and that was how the series came about.
Where did you come up with the names in the story?
Oh dear. This is where I have to reveal all the identities I’ve stolen! With so many varied characters across the three books, it was inevitable I would start borrowing from my friends and family. You’re going to get me in so much trouble with this question. Here goes…Taine is named after a former New Zealand rugby captain, and Pringle (Into the Sounds and Into the Ashes) was a former New Zealand cricketer. Rocky Stone (Into the Sounds) and Chesterman (Into the Mist) are both named after my weapons advisor from the New Zealand Defence Force. Matt Read is my husband’s nephew, while the names Miller, Fogarty and Summers are stolen from members of my critique team. Reckwerdt and Loughlin are family friends. Harris is a real estate agent friend from Lower Hutt. Hine is the Māori term for girl, and Rawiri (Temera) is the Māori term for David, the name of my husband, father, son, and father-in-law. Into the Ashes’ villain Barnes is the name of my US publisher (she’s nothing like him!). The character (not the name) of de Haas came from someone I once worked with--although I could have named him anything since I’m certain everyone has worked with someone just like him at some time or another. Charles Rutledge, one of the prisoners in Into the Ashes is named after the famous American horror-thriller writer, who dropped me a social media note while I was writing the book, asking me to please ‘tuckerise’ him in my novel--so I did. It pays to be careful what you wish for around writers!
Tell us about your main characters - what makes them tick?
What makes Sergeant Taine McKenna tick? As a soldier in New Zealand’s Defence Force, Taine’s core mission is to protect New Zealand and its citizens, something he does without regard for his own safety. It’s a bone of contention for partner Jules, who fears she’ll lose him. But Jules’ has her own mission and it’s not too different from Taine’s. As a scientist working for the Conservation Department, she’s hell-bent on saving as many of New Zealand’s endangered species as she can. The country has a unique fauna, with birds and animals not seen anywhere else in the world, and once they’re gone that’s it. Jules will do anything to ensure the survival of a species, including putting herself at risk. Both Taine and Jules are headstrong and loyal--the very characteristics that keep them apart. The series isn’t a love-story, romance never the main focus of the stories, but it’s interesting to know that the two key characters have similar motivations.
How did you come up with the title of your first novel?
The first novel in the Taine McKenna series, Into the Mist, is named for the rugged tribal lands of the famous Tūhoe people, who have traditionally lived in the Te Urewera forest. Also home to the mischievous patupaiarehe-fairies who play their flutes in the beech trees, the region is often steeped in treacherous mist which drifts into the valleys and up onto the mountaintops, hiding cragged rocks and swiftly flowing rivers. It’s because of this pervasive mist that the Tūhoe people are called The Children of the Mist. So when the story called for a group of soldiers to head into the Te Urewera forest on a babysitting mission for the Conservation Department, it seemed logical to name the book Into the Mist.
The second novel, Into the Sounds, takes McKenna and his friends into the plunging waterways of the Fiordland’s Sounds, while the third book, Into the Ashes, has the team on a rescue mission to the North Island’s volcanic plateau, with the supervolcano threatening to erupt at any minute!
Who designed your book covers?
The cover of Into the Mist was commissioned by Cohesion Press and designed by award-winning British cover designer Dean Samed, who is responsible for a lot of gorgeous covers by authors in the horror genre. When I moved the Taine McKenna series to Severed Press in 2017, we were fortunate to be able to retain the artwork for Into the Mist, and Severed Press contracted an in-house designer to produce the subsequent covers on a similar theme. I couldn’t be more pleased with the result.
Did you learn anything during the writing of your most recent book, Into the Ashes? As it happens, when I was writingInto the Ashes,the dramatic 2018 eruption was occurring on Kilauea. While I followed the daily reports on television, I learned that the island was being spattered with tiny opaque green gems called olivine, a mineral closely related to peridot, which occurs in Hawaii’s mantle. In fact, a large proportion of the world’s mantle is made up of the olivine mineral, but it takes rather exceptional circumstances to cause the little gemstones to rain from the sky ‒ they must be separated from the melt by the violent force of an eruption. Fascinated by this little snippet of information, I was prompted to research more about olivine, coming up with a major plot twist forInto the Ashes.
If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead?
I’d love to see a home-grown actor play the role of Taine McKenna, so Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is an option, since he went to school down here! Like Taine, Johnson is over two metres tall, and I’m pretty sure he has the requisite abs, too. Another possible contender is home-grown New Zealand actor Xavier Horan. Also an accomplished actor with multiple credits, Horan has the “steely eyes” and “skin liked polished rimu” of Taine. He’s a personal trainer too, so I imagine he’d have Taine’s natural grace and coiled strength. We mustn’t forget that along with his NZDF sense of duty, my protagonist is also a gifted matakite (seer), imbued with all the spirituality and mysticism the role engenders, and, in my view, Horan’s portrayal of Rangi in Toa Fraser’s acclaimed film The Dead Lands reflects these qualities.
What is your favorite part of this series and why?
The landscape. Writing the Taine McKenna adventure series made me realise that the New Zealand landscape, with its geysers, crater lakes, mountain ranges, and dense mist-filled forests is a wonderful source of story, and New Zealand storytellers have only begun to scratch the surface of what is possible. And if we imbue our stories with our history and culture, throw in the call of the kōkako and the whims of our gods, and add in the Māori concept of the landscape representing our ancestors, then there is a point of difference, something unique that doesn’t appear in other literature. As a New Zealand writer, I feel there is a responsibility for us to tell our stories, to offer our perspectives in this moment, and our landscape is essential to that viewpoint.
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