Burkina Faso Popular Uprising


The riot shield war trophy was one of yesterday’s iconic images. There were many, of course. Parliament burning. The Rond Point des Nations Unies obscured by tear gas. Angry young men in the TV station. 24 hours later, the uprising already has its own Wikipedia entry: 2014 Burkinabé uprising.

It has been brewing for a long time, of course. Any president who hangs onto power for 27 years must expect to become increasingly unpopular.

Living in Burkina Faso on a tourist visa, a guest of the state, I always had to be very careful what I said about President Blaise Compaoré. My references to him in my books tended towards the cryptic. The powerhungry villain of SOPHIE AND THE PANCAKE PLOT was Alai Crepe-Sombo, an unsophisticated anagram. My last novel OUTLAW was dedicated to journalist and novelist Norbert Zongo, who was one of the President’s most courageous and outspoken critics.


There seemed to be some ‘mission creep’ going on yesterday. What started as an action to prevent Parliament from changing the constitution turned into an all-out demand for the President to resign with immediate effect. His refusal to do so has angered protesters, who are still occupying many of Ouagadougou’s most important landmarks. We shall see what today brings.

To my Ouagadougou friends and erstwhile neighbours, bon courage. Tomorrow we’ll discover what our God in Heaven has in store! One more dawn. One more day. One day more!

Update (Friday, 1330): A few minutes after I posted this, Blasie resigned as President, calling for a 90 day transition and then elections. This is a huge moment for West Africa. Blaise has defined an era, not just for Burkina Faso but further afield as well.

Hampshire Book Award 2012 Result

Half Brother wins 2012 Hampshire Book AwardHuge congratulations to Canadian author Kenneth Oppel for winning the 2012 Hampshire Book Award. His book HALF BROTHER is the story of Ben Tomlin, whose research-scientist parents bring home a baby chimp to raise as a human child.

The final vote took place today, with dozens of Hampshire schools sending representatives from Year 8. Many thanks to all those who voted for OUTLAW – it came third in the end, behind HALF BROTHER and LA Weatherly’s supernatural romance ANGEL.

What do Julian Assange and Jason Bourne have in common?

Ecuador Embassy in London

Today’s instalment of the Wikileaks true-life spy story saw Julian Assange take refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy.

These events bring to my mind one of the strongest scenes in the Bourne Identity film (indeed, in the whole Bourne franchise to date) – the scene at the American Embassy in Paris. Bourne cluelessly seeks refuge there, but finds out that it is not the safe haven he had imagined. His arrival is memorable – Parisian cops outside baying for blood and being restrained by American security officials as Bourne slinks inside. His exit even more so – he is relying purely on his instincts and his training as he procures an agent’s headset, consults the Evacuation Plan from the wall of the corridor and makes his way cool-ly to the roof. Fantastic stuff.

Interestingly, the whole embassy scene is an addition to the original Robert Ludlum novel. In the novel, Bourne does not go to the American embassy in Paris – he goes straight from the bank to the hotel, where he meets Marie, or rather takes her hostage. Well done to the writers of the screenplay for conceiving the embassy scene and setting up one of the best action sequences in film history ever (yes EVER, I went there!)

When I am writing a thriller I start by writing character profiles and then go on to put together the plot as a series of set pieces. When I was outlining the novel OUTLAW, I had the idea for the embassy scene before any of the others. I won’t go into detail because the scenes in question come near the end of the book and would constitute a spoiler. Suffice to say that embassies (and the Treaty of Vienna which protects them from any ‘violation of dignity’) carry vast potential for tension, drama and conflicts of interest. In the stories of Jason Bourne, Julian Assange and Yakuuba Sor, the drama is heightened because we are seeing our protagonist at his most vulnerable – one man taking refuge in a fragile shell of a building, protected only by a few sentences of diplomatic legalese, whilst the fiercest of tempests is gathering outside. ‘Chase your character up a tree, and then throw stones at him,’ goes the thriller-writing adage. Refuge is temporary – our man is about to be battered by the full force of the Receiving State.

Here’s hoping that Julian is intimately familiar with the layout of the Ecuador embassy – or at least knows where the Evacuation Plan is pinned.

Updates (29 July 2012)

1. It was the Zurich embassy, not the Paris embassy. Bourne told Marie to drive to Paris from there. (Incidentally, there is no US embassy in Zurich – only a consulate!)

2. Broadly speaking, I am not pro-Assange. Some of the Wikileaks material was probably in the public interest, much was not. He also stands accused of rape under Swedish law.

OUTLAW shortlisted for the Hampshire Book Award

I was pleased to learn today that my latest teen book OUTLAW has been shortlisted for the 2012 Hampshire Book Award. The result will be announced in June.

So here is the Hampshire Book Award 2012 shortlist:

  • Burning Secrets – Clare Chambers
  • Outlaw – Stephen Davies
  • Reckless by Cornelia Funke
  • Theodore Boone – John Grisham
  • Half Brother – Kenneth Oppel
  • Angel – L.A. Weatherly

Hampshire Book Award shortlist 2012

Outlaw appears on Best Books 2011 list chosen by School Library Journal

Stephen Davies OUTLAW

I am thrilled by the news that OUTLAW has found a place on School Library Journal’s Best Books of 2011 list, in such excellent company as Patrick Ness (A Monster Calls), Marcus Sedgewick (White Crow) and Veronica Roth (Divergent).

A good review also from Armadillo magazine:

This is, quite simply, a cracking action thriller.

It has all the classic elements: a swashbuckling outlaw; a capable but aimless young hero brought to maturity through adversity; a feisty heroine; corrupt officials; gadgets; kidnap; and a countdown-to-disaster climactic scene. It is, however, very definitely an action thriller for the 21st Century, and none of these classic elements feels in any way clichéd in Stephen Davies’ capable hands.

Jake Knight, son of the UK ambassador to Burkina Faso, is kidnapped along with his younger sister Kirsty by… well, by whom? His kidnappers are not whom they at first seem, and nor are his initial rescuers. Helped by a charismatic African Robin Hood figure, Jake must find his way home before the wrong man is hunted down and killed for his abduction.

Davies lives in Burkina Faso, and his writing brings a real sense of the country to the reader; but he also clearly knows his modern technology, and he makes full use of – among other things – his hero’s smartphone to keep the story belting along in a way that would make Ian Fleming proud (who knew, for instance, that you can charge your phone using AA batteries and cream?).

Outlaw is clever, moral, action-packed, and a great story. If that’s the kind of book you like, I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

OUTLAW was published in the US last month by Clarion. Here are the links to the OUTLAW page on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Dubious priorities? Burkina Faso marks a disastrous harvest by purchasing three new war planes.

Super Toucan war planes in Burkina Faso

My neighbours in Djibo, and people all over Burkina Faso, are talking about their government’s recent purchase of three warplanes at a cost of 10 million dollars each.

It’s bad timing, at best. Harvests in Djibo have been miserable this year, due to a poor rainy season (July – September) and a massive invasion of sparrows. Our friend Paul got nothing from his field this year, not even enough millet for one meal. Our neighbour ‘Vieux’ spent every night in his field rather than at home, trying to scare the birds off – and his efforts were rewarded with about one month’s worth of millet. All over the country farmers and journalists are beginning to mutter the f word. Famine. And it’s only November.

I spoke to Monsieur Romba at ‘Action Sociale’ last week. He did not use the f word. He used the phrase ‘food security crisis’, which amounts to nearly the same thing. What’s to be done, I asked him. ‘Aid,’ he said. ‘Our government will have to provide food aid this year, and lots of it.’

But rather than concentrate on countering the effects of feathered birds, the government seems to be more interested in acquiring metal birds. Metal birds with a 1.5 tonne capacity for loading bombs, rockets and missiles. Brazilian metal birds with the name – you’ll love this – Super Tucano.

Super Toucan.

Robot drone operators are immune to conscience

My latest novel OUTLAW contained several scenes in the heart of Predator Ground Control at a secret airbase. A Predator pilot and sensor operator are preparing to launch a Hellfire missile on a suspected terrorist camp in the Sahara Desert. One of them has struggles with conscience, the other appears not to.

I read a fantastic article about drone warfare on the Antiwar website today. Justin Raimondo always writes challenging and passionately argued opinion pieces, and this one is no exception. He links to technology blogs which are reporting that drone warfare is set to evolve one step further – eliminating the conscience-ridden pilot altogether and letting robots decide who to lob missiles at.

Science fiction?

If only.

Why there are no zombies in OUTLAW

I wrote OUTLAW in Chichester Library during my sabbatical year in the UK. The library is within slingshot distance of Waterstones, so I used to go there on my lunch break and pore over newly published fiction. During one such lunch break I leafed through Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, looking at the pictures and chuckling and wishing that Outlaw had more zombies in it. Or any, for that matter.

As I walked back to the library that day my mind was spinning. Perhaps it’s not too late, I thought. Perhaps I could introduce some zombies in my novel without breaking the plot. Cram them in, shoehorn them in, Ctrl-v them in by the bucket load – then sit back and inform my publisher that they will need to find an African zombie illustrator. No, two African zombie illustrators – one for the cover, one for the innards.

My favourite motivational book is Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. She devotes several chapters to describing how you need to give your left brain permission to think wildly and freely, and how you should not let your right brain jump in too fast with a No-no-no-it’ll-never-work. Good advice, right up until the moment your left brain suggests parachuting a regiment of zombies into your work-in-progress. When this happens, there is only one course of action: extract your left brain, pulverize it and dance on the remains with hobnailed boots. Which I did, right there in the library foyer.

Right brain thought it had won, of course, and over the next few days it was even more obnoxious than usual. So imagine right brain’s confusion the following week when the following happened: I was sitting at my computer reading about Mungo Park (a famous Scottish explorer of West Africa who features several times in Outlaw) and came upon this webpage explaining that there was a mystery surrounding Park’s disappearance in the heart of Africa. Not just a mystery, but a zombie mystery:

Park’s disappearance was big news back in England, where the public had developed a fascination with explorations in Africa. A rescue mission was quickly put together under the direction of Africa Society director Joseph Langley. Langley and his team traced Park’s route, sailing up the Gambia and crossing the jungle to get to the Niger.

At the end of the second day on the river, the team paddled around a bend and laid eyes on the legendary city of Tellem. In his 1808 account of the mission, Dark River, Langley recalls his team’s disappointment upon finding that, far from being a city of gold, Tellem was a small village constructed of mud. As the team drifted closer, they saw dozens of Africans emerging from their homes and walking towards them with a peculiar, stiff-legged gait. In his account of the trip, Langley remembers being initially heartened by the sight of the villagers: “They wore brightly-coloured garments and the broadest of smiles.” But as he got closer, Langley realized that what he had mistaken for smiles were actually the grimaces of flesh-hungry zombies: the entire village had been transformed. Langley ordered an immediate retreat, but the canoes became swamped in the rapids. As the voracious zombies waded into the river, Langley was swept into the current and carried several miles downriver. He eventually reached a friendly village; the villagers took him to the mouth of the Niger, where he was picked up by a British ship.

Though Langley had gone further into Africa than any white man before him, he found himself the subject of scorn upon his return to London, where his zombie story was derided as a self-serving excuse for a failure in leadership. However, later accounts from the Asante tribes of East Africa lent support to Langley’s account. Denkyira, the Asante king, informed the English garrison in Gambia that he had led a raid on Tellem and destroyed many zombies, including several white men. The king presented the garrison commander with the clothes and personal effects of these men. Among the items was Park’s diary, with its ominous last entry: “Tomorrow, we should reach Tellem, a city that has haunted my dreams since I was a child. I cannot sleep for the excitement.”

I minimized Opera, maximized Open Office, and started rewriting Outlaw. My heart was pounding. Sparks flew off the keyboard. The zombie mystery surrounding the death of Mungo Park would become the central feature of my reworked plot, providing a dose of horror and a whole barrel of Zeitgeist. The story arc would be exquisite. The teenage protagonist’s journey would bring him inexorably closer to Tellem, the location of Park’s disappearance. Fleeting encounters with zombies on the road would prepare the way for a full blown battle in the final pages, culminating of course in a thrilling duel: African Zombie King versus African Robin Hood, no holds barred, to the death.

As I went to bed that night, I even had a title for my surefire bestseller: ZOMBIES VERSUS OUTLAWS.

It was so very nearly perfect. But then in the dead of night I was woken by a thought even more chilling than the zombies I had been imagining: What would Hemingway say?

The curse of the Hardcore Hemingway Fanboy (HHF) is that whenever HHF sits down to write, Hemingway stands close behind the right shoulder, gurning, tutting, smoking and being raucously and unapproachably brilliant. He comes to you even in your dreams where you think you are safe, bearing down on you to dispense pithy advice littered with #writetips and #writequote hashtags (for even as a figment of a literary imagination, Ernest is keen to move with the times).

Before he got very far into his rant, it was clear that the great man was not keen on ZOMBIE VERSUS OUTLAW. He sneered so much that his upper lip actually touched his nose. Then he drew himself up to his full height and said what he always says to young writers:

Write when there is something you know, and not before.

Forget posterity. Think only of writing truly.

Write as well as you can with no eye on the market.

Know what to leave out.

Which is not to say that no one should write zombies. He or she who knows zombies must write zombies. But it was time to face facts – I do not know my zombies. I’ve never even seen Dawn of the Dead.

The next day, the WIP was retitled Outlaw and the Tellem zombies were banished forever. The Zombie King grinned, shrugged and waded stiff-legged into the River Niger, closely followed by my chances of fame and fortune. But at least Ernest was grimly satisfied. And the silver lining, which he himself discovered as a young writer in Paris in the twenties, is this: The pictures in the art galleries always look better when you’re hungry.

Outlaw blog tour

How many guest posts constitutes a ‘blog tour’? Two? Three? I think my tour takes in three. Still, it’s been enjoyable and (cue elderly-man-being-discharged-from-hospital voice) everyone has been most kind.

First was the inimitable Bookwitch, who wants to run around town waving a copy of Outlaw at every potential reader she can think of. (Go on – I dare you!) She kindly allowed me a guest slot yesterday for some recent Ouagadougou news. If you are even remotely interested in children’s or YA books, Bookwitch is definitely one to bookmark.

Second stop on the tour was BookZone4Boys, which I have been reading ever since it first started. It has grown a lot since then and its author Mr H (a deputy head at a secondary school) is now being deluged with review copies of boys’ action adventures. So I was glad he was able to make time to read Outlaw – and even gladder that he liked it. Here are the links to the BookZone4Boys review of Outlaw and today’s follow-up interview, where we talk about MacGuyver, Robin Hood and running up walls.

Third up, either today or tomorrow, is a guest post on I Want to Read That. Its author Sammee works in a bookshop and knows more about YA (young adult) lit than most people alive. I’ll post the link as soon as it’s up. Update: it’s here: Stephen Davies guest post at I Want To Read That

Since blog touring is such fun, I am happy to extend the tour for a couple more days. If you have a dazzlingly well-followed blog, do get in touch.