First of all, apologies for being scarce on the reviews lately. I have actually been churning through a ton of books I want to talk about, but it’s been a fairly hectic month and in what little free time I have outside of reading, I’ve been prioritizing my writing. I’ll do a life blog thing later on to go into some detail.
But the most recent book I read, I really want to talk about and hopefully get some people interested in.
I am talking about Peter Newman’s The Malice. It is the second book in his The Vagrant trilogy, and a wonderful book. I read and reviewed The Vagrant earlier this year and a lot of what I said about that book held true here.
I have mentioned before, but I think Newman has a gift with naming things. You would think this kind of gift would be common in fantasy and science fiction where you’re kind of making things up wholesale and need to come up with a descriptor for them, to get across certain concepts, tones and ideas to people who would never encounter them in real life. It is not common at all, and in fact I find it a major failing of a lot of fantasy in particular. Occasionally you get actual mad geniuses like Gene Wolfe spewing out beautiful prose that requires you to go digging through esoteric thesauruses to figure out what the hell he means. Elsewhere on the sliding scale you have someone like China Mieville who uses grotesque and bizarre word combinations to put uncomfortable images into your head (I will never forget reading about the limb-farms and bile-tanks of the Grindylow in The Scar).
Newman utilizes elements of both. He plays with words that don’t typically go together, and makes them work, makes you think of very disparate things and how they might physically appear or influence the tone of an object or a person.
To wit, one of my favorite things he’s come up with is a group called the Knights of Jade and Ash. I just love the taste of those words together. You don’t often find jade in the company of ash, so what on earth has drawn these two words into a singular troupe? He’s fairly sparse with his descriptions, too, so you can fill in the blanks with your imagination.
The story is a nearly textbook bildungsroman as a young girl named Vesper inherits a very dangerous weapon from her father and begins a long trek to grow as a person, a warrior and a savior (or destroyer) of a world threatened by a massive cyst in reality known as the Breach.
Honestly, a lot of the good I have to say mirrors my thoughts on The Vagrant itself, but I think this book does a bit better than its predecessor. This may be by virtue of featuring a talking protagonist, someone who has to grow and change quite a bit, instead of favoring the ronin motif of the first book. I love the Vagrant himself as a character but past a certain point you kind of knew what was going to happen; he’d be surrounded, forced into a fight, and he would decimate his foes in a beautiful, almost lyrically-written fight sequence. Vesper starts off as someone who is a bit more pure, a bit more naive in the ways of the world, but still very much willing to throw down like her old man.
I must also admit a weakness for enchanted blades, and The Malice itself is a delight. It’s explored far more thoroughly here than it was in the first book. You learn a bit about its history, its powers, its potential. It’s a scary holy weapon that will turn on you if you falter or show weakness, or will get you killed spurring you into a crusade that your body cannot yet handle. I don’t see cursed “good” swords very often; usually they’re straightforward in trading your soul, your blood or your friends for fighting prowess. Here, on the other hand, is a blade so driven to fight the forces of the abyss that it will turn you into a monster in pursuit of this divine task. The descriptions of it are brilliant too, I love the eye-pommel and the twitching wings that make up its crossguard, and the…
Well, you’ll have to read on to see what else, I hate spoiling.
All that said, definitely start with the first one. There’s a nice little catch-me-up section at the very beginning here but you’re losing a ton of context and brilliant worldbuilding if you dive in midway, even if the story will make a rough kind of sense.
First off, I really just want to take a moment here and encourage people who want to write but haven’t started yet: you really should start. Everyone wants to have written a book. The hard part is not actually coming up with the ideas. I have friends who claim to not have a creative bone in their bodies but who still throw out cool ideas for settings or characters and blow my mind. The hard part is approaching it like a job, blocking out a time per day when you work on it, and forcing yourself to sit down and do that work at that assigned time. It saps the romance out of writing but it will leave you with a manuscript, and the manuscript will go further towards paying your bills than the idea of romance or “the zone” or “muses” will.
There’s a very good reason that widely published, beloved, brilliant writers all say the exact same thing: start putting words on the page and fix them up later, because you’re never going to get them perfect on the first go.
I got half an anthology put together over a couple of months of doing this. It’s doing well. I’m not going to be buying a house with what it brought in, but my co-author and I can certainly put the proceeds towards fancy booze and nice boots, and more importantly it got people looking at our weird stuff. Wouldn’t have that if we didn’t make ourselves approach it like a deadline at an office job.
I have carried that over into my solo stuff pretty handily now that I’m back in the habit. I have two, going on three project spinning outside of my day job right now. The everpresent war and nationbuilder epic that will not be done for awhile, and more recently that fairytale I started working on last month. I may start another one if I can block out the time for it and not deprive myself of too much reading time, but we’ll see.
Anyway, the fairy thing.
It literally started with a pitch I scribbled to myself after waking up early one morning: Mad Max – Fury Road meets The Dark Crystal. A caravan traveling across a post apocalyptic wasteland infested by horrifying, flesh eating, Froud-inspired fairies and spirits. I made a box around that concept and started making notes in the margins over a couple of weeks. Incorporate the old school Welsh bardic traditions and other oral historian orders. Translate that into modern music somehow. Take the idea of a “queen of air and darkness” like Mab from Midsummer Night’s Dream and work it into an entire host of fairies. Figure out how fairies would go up against a modern military. Figure out why they would go up against a modern military.
A week later I had an incredibly rough outline, and two days after that I shrugged, said “alright, one thousand words a day, go” and started free writing in accordance with that outline.
I should be breaking 20,000 words on that today, or 1/5th of the first draft.
That’s a secondary story. That’s something I’m only putting less than an hour a day into. If I maintain that word count give or take a thousand a day, that’s a completed draft in less than four months. It may be complete trash that everyone hates, because I doubt there’s a huge intersection out there between fans of post apocalyptic survival road trip stories and the fairy courts, but it’ll be done and that’s the most important part. A finished draft.
You can absolutely do that. Trust me, I’m easily distracted, I have too many hobbies, I go to look something up and get sidetracked reading about weird historical tidbits that no one cares about for two hours, if I can hold myself to this you can too, and you should. It’s good for you.
So that’s my self-indulgent attempt at a pep talk, and setting the stage for what I really want to talk about for a little bit.
Because I’m writing fairies, and I want to do something new with them, I’ve gone back to some of the older texts about fairyland and fairytales. Urban fantasy is chock-full of fairies to the point that the new generation have their own well-defined tropes, ones that I don’t want to include. The older stories that served as a springboard are much weirder and largely forgotten to the public, which makes them perfect to mine for raw materials and inspiration.
It gave me an excuse to go back to a favorite book of mine, and one that I consider criminally underappreciated and unknown, along with its author.
It’s called Lud-In-The-Mists, by Hope Mirrlees, and if you enjoy fantasy stories, poetry, even just literature in general it has probably influenced some of your favorites. Hope Mirrlees has become a little bit of an author’s/scholar’s writer and I’ve found her to be virtually unknown outside of people researching the roots of different kinds of storytelling.
You can learn some details about Hope from her wikipedia article and cited sources, but the short version is that she sharp, articulate, well-read woman during a time when those traits were not particularly valued in women. She was a polyglot who spoke Russian, Spanish, French and devoured the contemporary and classical literature from each of those countries, traveled extensively throughout Europe and South Africa, and cultivated friendships with many great scholarly figures of the time. She was incredibly close friends with Jane Harrison, an early feminist and suffragette, and someone known in classical mythology circles for defining the boundaries of what we consider the Greco-Roman mythos today. She was good friends with T.S. Eliot, Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf and a host of others. Her poetry influenced many, and her stories influenced many more.
Lud was her only foray into fantasy, and one of the greatest books of the genre. It incorporates, subverts and critiques elements of the hero’s journey cycle two decades before that cycle was clearly laid out. You will find trace elements of it in the DNA of most fantasy novels written since the 1930s.
It’s a pleasure to read. If you have an interest in fairytales, or fantasy, or just really good storytelling and narrative voices you should pick it up and give it a go. It’s short by modern standards but dense in prose and ideas. She asks you to invest some time into understanding it, but pays back way more than you put in. It’s as psychologically incisive as the best Pratchett novels and was written at a time that you had to put real legwork into the kind of research she used.
There are precious few sections I could quote for examples that don’t spoil major events, because it’s a tightly paced piece, but I always loved this section about a hero returning home after facing danger, and not necessarily missing that danger, but finding that he appreciates the banal from new angles:
But after he had heard the Note a more stay-at-home and steady young man could not have been found in Lud-in-the-Mist. For it had generated in him what one can only call a wistful yearning after the prosaic things he already possessed. It was as if he thought he had already lost what he was actually holding in his hands.’
From this there sprang an ever-present sense of insecurity together with a distrust of the homely things he cherished. With what familiar object – quill, pipe, pack of cards – would he be occupied, in which regular recurrent action – the pulling on or off of his nightcap, the weekly auditing of his accounts – would he be engaged when IT, the hidden menace, sprang out at him? And he would gaze in terror at his furniture, his walls, his pictures – what strange scene might they one day witness, what awful experience might he one day have in their presence?
From his secret poison there was, however, some sweetness to be distilled. For the unknown thing that he dreaded could at times be envisaged as a dangerous cape that he had already doubled. And to lie awake at night in his warm feather bed, listening to the breathing of his wife and the soughing of the trees, would become, from this attitude, an exquisite pleasure.
He would say to himself, “How pleasant this is! How safe! How warm! What a difference from that lonely heath when I had no cloak and the wind found the fissures in my doublet, and my feet were aching, and there was not moon enough to prevent my stumbling, and IT was lurking in the darkness!” enhancing thus his present well-being by imagining some unpleasant adventure now safe behind him.
Gorgeous, isn’t it?
So, yeah, go out and find a copy. It’s been reprinted fairly recently with a great introduction by Neil Gaiman and some notes by Michael Swanwick. Her other books and poems are good, too, and I wish she was more popular and read more widely than she is. Whenever I see something that’s been influenced by her, I’m reminded of all those really depressing figures on how when you see brilliant old quote attributed to “unknown,” it was probably originally written by a woman who no one bothered to remember even if they liked what she said. Mirrlees is as integral to fiction as all those forgotten women Harvard employed to document astral bodies were to space exploration.
I saw Moana this last week, and read some very good books. I did not do this intentionally, but found that they all contained a similar thread: they were all about tricksters.
I like trickster characters a lot. I always have. I gravitated towards the Odysseus stories the most out of all the classical canon because he seemed like the thinking man’s hero who generally couldn’t rely on his brawn to get things done. He had to outwit and outmaneuver most of his foes. Out of Norse mythology I love Loki, and not just the snarky version we get in the Marvel universe. Something that has always drawn me to Native American folklore and storytelling is the prevalence of trickster archetypes over every other archetype combined. I find that as a Jewish dude, many of my own folk heroes are tricksters, be they biblical or more contemporary media. They’re a mainstay of African American literature and you could argue that the best Shakespeare plays feature prominent tricksters. They’re everywhere, and when they’re done well, I love them.
Hell, it’s the reliance on tricksters that probably drew me to Neil Gaiman’s body of work in the first place. The dude loves them even more than I do and his knowledge of them dwarfs what I would consider my above-average knowledge of the archetype in both mythology and pop culture.
They’re just so much fun. They generally never come from a position of power. They’re underdogs who have to scrap and claw their way to greatness, and most of us love stories like that. They’re regularly confronted by people who could kick their ass without breaking a sweat, and the only way to survive those situations is by wit and manipulation. Half of them are, admittedly, terrible people and not what you’d call role models, but they readily demonstrate the possibilities of lateral thought as a skill that should be cultivated.
Anyway, with that bias divulgedhere are my brief reviews.
Moana was brilliant. Easily my favorite Disney movie since the 90s, and I liked Tangled and Frozen. I went into it afraid that it was going to fall into some bad traps, but it avoided them splendidly. Polynesian tattoo culture was given the respect it is due as a form of familial tracking and storytelling instead of just decoration. The first and only animated film you’re likely to see that features a scene of mallet and bone comb tattooing, and they didn’t just cover the men with them. Moana’s grandmother sports a backpiece anyone with an appreciation for ink would be jealous of.
My fascination with tattoo stuff aside, it was just a fun movie. It made you feel good without being cloying about it. The music is gorgeous, even if there are points where you want to maybe pull Lin-Manuel Miranda aside and remind him he doesn’t have to do Hamilton breakdown raps in everything. The soundtrack is addictive and I’ve had it on my ipod practically nonstop since seeing the movie, particularly Jemaine Clement channeling late 70s David Bowie as a gilded coconut crab (seriously, go see this movie).
I liked that Maui didn’t steal the stage from Moana at any point. As most they were co-stars, and she did a lot of the heavy lifting without him taking the credit for it. I was really afraid that they’d downplay the trickster elements of his demigod character because, frankly, if you have The Rock in your cast as a giant muscled dude it’s probably pretty hard to fight the urge to have him blow things up. Instead he was much more reliant on his tools and magic than his brawn, because he was routinely going up against things that made him look scrawny by comparison. That was cool and unexpected. Moana is one of the most badass Disney princesses (still trying to work out if tribal chieftain’s daughter still counts) and I like that there was emphasis on her being groomed to run things on the island herself instead of being married off with the conflict coming from somewhere other than romantic entanglement, as even some of the most well-meaning Disney flicks have done in the past.
Moving on from that, let’s talk books.
First, I picked up Vicious with VE Schwab, a book that I’ve had on my kindle for over a year but kept failing to read, and now I very much regret that. Schwab’s narrative voice is a delight to read, frankly. She mixes sinister with funny without detracting from either tone, and the characters are all incredibly well developed for having what amounts to a couple of days together plus flashbacks to ten years prior. Victor is the definition of a good antihero in the sense that he is the protagonist, and he is going up against people worse than he is, but he’s an absolutely deplorable murderer and torturer in his own right and you kind of hate yourself for liking him. But you do like him, and you can see why his motley crew of companions stick with him beyond fear of his powers.
Speaking of which, something that scared me off reading this was someone describing it to me as Superman versus Luthor but with Luthor as the good guy, because I’d already seen variations of that in Megamind and Doctor Horrible. It is not that. It is way better than that. It has a collection of powers and a take on superheroes that you’ll be thinking about long after you put the book down. Stuff I have not seen before, and I consider myself a pretty well-read nerd on things like this. Good enough that I’ve already loaded up Schwab’s other, urban fantasy tinged novels on the ground that if they’re half this good I’ll probably still love them.
Finally, I picked up the climax to one of my favorite series ever, The Fall of the House of Cabal. It perfectly caps off the prior books and short stories, wrapping up loose ends and dipping the entire knot in sealing wax to create a work of art. It’s a strong story, one that knows exactly how it’s going to end when it starts out, if that makes any sense. The problem I’m running into here is that it’s book five in a quintet, and I can’t really talk about anything I liked in it without spoiling the prior books. So, instead, I’ll talk a little bit about those prior books and why you should go read them (and this) if you already haven’t.
You guys know how I’m a gigantic Terry Pratchett fan, yes? I can’t go five feet without thinking of how Discworld applies to a situation, I quote him as often as I do Tolkien, I can’t think of a single author who shaped my worldviews as much as he did, right?
I say with my hand to my heart that Jonathan L Howard is just about the only living author I can think of who approaches Terry Pratchett’s skill, at least of the authors I read.
The Cabal series is an exploration of a certain style of literature where horror, strangeness, science fiction, fantasy and comedy are blended together and refuse to acknowledge boundary lines. There are scenes where you’ll burst out laughing and then immediately blink back tears. They’re also written in era-appropriate prose somewhere in the 1930s-1940s, channeling Wodehouse with a supernatural tinge.
They have a little something for everyone, and that’s what makes them work. Howard doesn’t stick with one genre, although he could have made it into a period piece urban fantasy if he really wanted. That would be too easy and constricting.
You’ve got Necromancer, a Faustian bargain story inspired by the same demonic carnivals that gave us Something Wicked This Way Comes but is told from the perspective of the carnival’s owner, who really isn’t all such a bad person and has his reason for ripping peoples’ souls out. Detective is a murder mystery channeling the best of Agatha Christie aboard a zeppelin midflight. The Fear Institute is a beautiful riff on HP Lovecraft and his dreamwlands setting, underappreciated and often forgotten in the cavalcade of Cthulhu ripoff stories. Brothers Cabal is every Hammer Horror trope mushed together and stewed over a low heat.
They are some of the books I go back and read again and again, and that’s before I even get into the novellas/short stories.
What I love about Johannes Cabal is that he is such a great take on the smartest man in the room trope, a beloved archetype whose social awkwardness is outpaced by his brilliance, which is such a dominant trait that people can’t help but throw themselves at him and want to befriend him (see: Sherlock, House, etc). This time it’s played straight. He’s the smartest man in the room and people generally hate his guts because he is so overbearing and unable to read others’ emotions that you want to reach into the text and slap him. It’s a breath of fresh air for a worn out character type today. He’s a perfect trickster, too, in that he often finds his necromatic powers dwarfed by the foes he goes up against – or simply by the guns he usually finds pointed in his direction when he makes one too many badly timed sarcastic remarks.
The books are all good. I think the quality of Brothers dips a little bit by sheer virtue of not being about Johannes so much as split between him and his less interesting brother, but it’s still a damned good read and head and shoulders above most books you might compare it to.
Okay, that may be a little melodramatic. It was only in the low 80s this Christmas, high 70s if you sat in the shade. Fahrenheit, of course. I’m still getting the hang of the whole Celsius thing, as a godless Yank. My current rule of thumb is that if it’s over 28 by mid morning, I’m going to feel like death by mid afternoon. Anyway, anything over freezing is going to feel weird when I see Christmas trees decorating the shops, and will probably continue to do so for several years. Possibly forever, considering I spent 28 Christmases in Maine, and 2 in New York City. I equate it to shoveling massive amounts of snow.
When I say Christmas here, I really mean Hanukkahmas. Or Chrismakkah. Or whatever other bastardization other Jewish-but-not-super-serious-about-it families have used throughout the years. My parents always put up a tree under the rationale that it was the best way to show off all the ornaments they had collected traveling through Europe, and really, the whole bringing a pine tree inside and dressing it up has more in common with drunken pagan rituals than anything having to do with the fellow in the manger. We usually paired it with potato pancakes, menorahs, dreidels and all the other accouterments of the traditional Jewish holiday.
By the way, the story of Hanukkah would still make a kickass action movie and I’m forever upset that no one has made it yet. I mean, you’ve got a massive, bloody siege in the midst of the Maccabean revolt. A band of brothers standing up to an invading force being pressured by corrupt Tobiads to profane the great temple with pigs’ blood and idols to Zeus and whatnot. Do some gritty desert town battles culminating in the final week of the siege. Get The Rock, Vin Diesel, Nic Cage, Gerard Butler and Jason Statham as the Sons of Matthathias. Get Kurt Russell to play Matthathias himself. At the end of the movie he can run Antiochus through with a giant spiked menorah and yell “shabbat shalom, motherfucker” or something equally colorful. I’d watch it. I’d be there on opening night.
Well, I think that’ll just about satisfy my hate mail quota for the end of 2016.
All that aside, this was a good Christmas, a good holiday season in general. It feels weird to get as much time off as I am. I’ve got a solid ten days here, and I’m used to maybe getting a four day weekend. I plan to spend a lot of that time doubling down on reading and writing, which is something I’ve already started chipping away at.
I had an idea pop into my head, related to that post I made back in October about fairies and horror. I kind of rolled it around in my mind over the weekend and I think I’d like to try and write a contemporary fairy tale, one that is uniquely American and not an urban fantasy piece. Not a noir-esque story with supernatural creatures, but something about the thin lines between the two worlds and what it looks like when the veils fray. I’ve got a couple thousand words down on paper as an experiment and I’m finding myself incorporating, of all things, the imagery of the post-apocalypse and the authoritarian-flavored dystopia as a parchment on which I’m slowly fleshing out fairies, changelings, bards and stone circles. I’ll post some more once I actually figure out what I want to do with it, but it feels good to write and that’s rare enough in a new story that I’m going to pursue it.
I’ve also transcribed about fifty pages worth of notes from all the historical documents I’ve been sifting through. Everything from Babylon to the WW1 era, everything I’ve been hinting at here to various degrees. It’s a lot of damn notes. Putting them in order and tagging them for future reference is as arduous a project as any amount of worldbuilding I’ve done before. I’m trying to be extremely careful not to get sucked into a worldbuilding hole under a different name, too. This is the bare bones I need to work on the story, the surface stuff and the bones underneath.
Now that I’m done making myself sound suitably Frankensteinian,
I spent the week slowly doling out essays from Neil Gaiman’s new-ish collection, The View from the Cheap Seats. It is an absolute delight of a book. Every single essay inside of it is a treasure trove for hungry minds. You will find meandering essays on the evolution of Sword and Sorcery fantasy from Conan to Leiber nestled in alongside tributes to Lou Reed, prophetic warnings about the comic book recession from someone who had ridden the wave of its boom in the 90s, suggestions on books to read and things to look for. It’s one of the most hopeful books I have ever read, even at its darkest points. I think my favorite parts are the bits about his interactions with other artists of various mediums. Old stories about going on late night walks with Tori Amos or getting lost with Terry Pratchett and seeing how the man was basically a rage-fueled tornado with a gnomish smile and a silly hat hiding it all. I think it’s an invaluable book to anyone who looks books, either reading or writing them. If you do both then it might be one of the best things you read this decade, frankly. I acknowledge that I hero worship Gaiman a bit and that’s going to bias me heavily; I got into Neverwhere and The Sandman the same year I picked up my first Discworld novels and between the two authors I realized that I needed to write.
That’s my nonfiction book of late. For fiction, I picked up a nice little anthology called New Worlds,Old Ways edited by Karen Lord. It was good. I am afraid that I lacked the cultural context to understand a few of the stories, but even then I was able to appreciate them on a purely surface level, the raw form of the story and the crafting of the language in all of these is great. If anything, many of them kind of remind me of Jorge Borges. I understand that this is extremely weird, Borges hailing from more of a Latin American backdrop, but there’s a certain dreamy, surreal quality that permeates their work in the same way. As I read more and more outside of the American/British monopolgy, I find the weirdest bleedovers and similarities, and I suppose Argentine and Trinidad writers having similar structure isn’t that much stranger than Finnish stories seeming a close sibling to Japanese literature in terms of how the stories are laid out. But I digress here. New Worlds is not perfect, but it’s new and different, and that happens to be what I crave lately. I was never sure exactly how a story was going to turn out because I didn’t have a massive amount of familiar tropes and setups to help me predict what would happen next. I like that. A lot.
Christmas vacation has officially begun, so here in Australia that means a lot of sunbathing, gardening and catching up on my backlog of books. I read two this last week that left a huge mark on me, so I want to go a little more in-depth than my usual “just go read this” type recommendations.
The first one is Invisible Planets, an anthology of short stories from contemporary Chinese authors with translations provided by Ken Liu, whose own personal work I have been championing ever since I got my hands on the first Dandelion Dynasty book. He’s done an absolutely brilliant job here, providing not just readable translations but also context for the stories and information on the authors that helps fill in the gaps of cultural knowledge I might have as a western man approaching Chinese speculative fiction. There are essays in the back of the book explaining the evolution of SF/F in China as something considered infantile and useless, to something that you might be able to use to bait younger audiences into “real” science, to propaganda, to a true cultural phenomenon experiencing something of a renaissance right now. Stuff about how there is a generation right now that instinctively lashes out against CCP propaganda and is at war with the volatile nationalism that many politicians carefully stoke to remain in power.
But it would be completely unfair to these stories if you were to read them as commentaries on China. Instead, as Liu says in the introduction, you have to read them as commentaries on humanity, our place in the cosmos, and the way that technology has been integrated with everyday life at an exponential pace.
There’s some absolutely brilliant work in here, unlike anything I have ever read before, using story structures that are unfamiliar to me and keep me guessing. I love that and it’s what I crave in literature these days, what drives me outside of the mainstream and into whatever I can find from other cultures. There aren’t the traditional three-act plot skeletons in this book and that leaves me feeling cast into a strange landscape, in the best way.
I’ll give a brief, spoiler-free rundown of some of the stories that stood out to me. First off, Chen Qiufan does some of the best near-future cyberpunk I’ve read since I borrowed my dad’s copy of Neuromancer as a young teenager. It does for the modern day what classics like that and Snow Crash did for the 80s/90s. “The Year of the Rat” is one of the best, most subversive military thrillers I’ve read since The Forever War and the other stories he contributes are on the level of something like Blade Runner to me. After that you segue into the works of Xia Jia, probably my favorite author in the collection, who tells stories that feel like a combination of Neil Gaiman’s best work and Tsui Hark’s Chinese Ghost Story film that blew my mind clean out the back of my skull in the late 90s. Then you get Ma Boyong’s sole piece, which feels like it could be a commentary on Chinese internet censorship but has chilling repercussions when you consider how universal its themes are. Hao Jingfang is a close second to Xia Jia for me with some almost whimsical travelogues through the greater cosmos and then “Folding Beijing,” one of my favorite short stories I’ve read in years, following an illegal courier who lives in a near-future Beijing where the population has been divided into three sectors who take turns inhabiting the surface, with the city folding up underground and new people unfolding to the surface as each sector goes to sleep.
The last few stories I can’t really get into without spoiling them, but they are equally brilliant and imaginative to the extreme.
I truly cannot recommend this book enough. Doubly so because I want to see it succeed in the west to a level that more and more works like these get translated and released.
The other one I picked up is a serious change of pace, a historical text by the venerable Eric Cline called 1177: The Year Civilization Collapsed. This is the kind of book that will somewhat ruin fiction for you, because you’ll never encounter fantasy on the scope of what actually happened. Entire cultures being swallowed up and leaving empty cities behind, languages lost to the dust of time, and a series of catastrophes on a scale that the next generation of civilizations could not even comprehend. This was the collapse that led directly to the Atlantis myths of the classical era, because the scholars and philosophers of that time could only come up with ideas like the sea swallowing an advanced civilization to explain the devastation that they discovered and the mangled framework of the people who had come before them. It makes the Fall of Rome look minor in comparison.
In college, when I was dipping my toes into the Late Bronze Age Collapse – as it was then labeled – I found that the general description was lacking. Sea marauders came, there was some sickness, and everything kind of got wiped out over a few years. That doesn’t begin to describe what happened. This was the entire Mediterranean region with some of the most advanced cultures on the planet all falling like dominoes in under a generation. The Mycenaean kingdoms collapsing alone would have been staggering, but then you get into the Egyptians, the Hittites, the people of Mesopotamia, these people who were the apex of mankind up until that point. All crushed into the dirt by both natural and man-made disasters, political mishandling, open revolt, quiet mutinies, abdication of royal responsibilities, alien invasions from beyond the waves. It’s truly apocalyptic in scale and it laid the foundations for later collapses just as readily as the aftermath of WW1 led into WW2.
Reading it also made me mad at all of the pundits saying that even with the madness of the current political world right now, all of the big nations around the world are simply too strong and powerful to succumb to any kind of collapse and that everything is going to be fine, that we should sit back and wait. Because they are unknowingly echoing that every single group of “learned” commentators have said about every culture that went on to fall into the dust piles of history.
I caught a couple of new prequels this week. You might have heard of them, even though they are small, indie movies: Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them, and Star Wars: Rogue One.
You know, it’s really hard to make a good prequel. A lot of them fall flat on their faces for a variety of reasons. When you make a prequel, the odds are already working against you:
You’re probably basing it off a beloved, or at least popular and profitable story, and it will be compared to that story right off the bat.
Everyone is presumably going to know what happens at the end of your story, or at least most of it.
If you have referenced events in the original story, you’re competing directly against the audience’s imagination and you’re probably going to lose.
So seeing two prequels back to back that I actually really enjoyed is kind of an oddity. I generally don’t like them, they come off as cash grabs most of the time and I find that even the best typically aren’t as good as the original stories.
I liked these, though, and I’m going to say why without any spoilers:
They add depth to the original story instead of width. There isn’t a feeling that they’re trying to outperform their respective parent stories. They’re not necessarily flashier or edgier. Instead they make it so that small things in Star Wars or the Harry Potter films suddenly have a lot more weight to them, small references are going to conjure up visuals and stories where they might have originally been filler.
There’s more of a focus on the characters, because both films acknowledge that you know what happens later. The Rogue team does not destroy the Death Star. Grindelwald will get locked up and eventually killed by Voldemort, and Newt will publish his manuscript and become very well known in the wizarding world. I will say that Rogue One didn’t measure up as well here simply because it threw so many characters at you in rapid succession, but the characters of the rebel alliance and the empire themselves were evolving over the course of the story. You can see the rise of one from ragtag cells to a movement, and the descent of the other from authoritarianism to fascism.
They married the old and the new. If you take a prequel and try to retell the original story or place it in a similar setting, you’re going to fail because it will seem like a pale shadow. Tweak the genre and turn it into, say, a travelogue in early 20th century postwar America or a military thriller with elements of the original story sprinkled in? That’s good.
Not too many injokes. Because, dear god, have I developed a hatred of blatant self-referencing over the last few years. I get it, you’ve got a shared universe of some sort, you want your stories to acknowledge one another, but revisiting iconic quotes or trying to be ironic with them every fifteen minutes is grating on the nerves.
They were both good and I’d recommend seeing them on the big screen, they qualify as spectacles worthy of being viewed via huge projector if you have the opportunity. If you’re a Harry Potter fan you’re probably going to love Fantastic Beasts – I went in with somewhat cynical fellow fans and we all walked out talking about it being better than expected. If you’re a Star Wars fan you’re probably going to love Rogue One, but interestingly, I think if you weren’t very impressed with The Force Awakens you’ll like this much more. I’m admittedly a huge Gareth Edwards fanboy and I’ve seen Monsters and his Godzilla more times than I care to admit, but I think he really did a good job here by looking at the old SW universe through a new angle. It’s absolutely the same place but it has strange shadows you’ve never seen before.
Getting back to new fiction books, finally, I just finished a great one today.
Well, new as in over 50 years old and recently made available to the wider public.
I speak of The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, by the one and only JRR Tolkien, released by Harper Collins last month. It is a 500+ verse poem in the format of a 15th century Breton lai, a particular kind of adventurous poem borrowing heavily from the stylings of German and French narrative poems popular a couple of hundred years prior. It follows a man who is so devoted to a woman that he sells his life to a witch/fairy in order to be with her, giving up what essentially makes him human to try and fill the gaping wound in his heart. I will say the book is not for everyone. It’s dry, and it’s incredibly archaic, and the main reason to read it is to pick up on the ways that this particular style of poem – and this lay specifically – influenced the way Tolkien approached the penning of his elven/human histories. You can see direct ties between it and The Tale of Beren and Lúthien, or The Lay of the Children of Húrin. It’s probably one of the darkest pieces of prose that Tolkien ever laid his hands on, it deals with the utter destruction of a man and his family at the mercy of powers beyond their comprehension, something that is echoed in the far more glamorous Fëanor stories.
A man being beguiled by otherworldly women is a recurring trend in Tolkien’s stories and the roots stretch way back before this particular piece, but you can see it strongly here. It’s hard not to read the negative messages in that. I choose to take it less as Tolkien himself expression misogyny as him romanticizing the fairy tales of the land, many of which were misogynistic in nature and meant to warn young men off dallying with sexually adventurous women. I think it’s fair to say that Tolkien’s body of work has a common theme drawing from this tradition, although he never gave me the impression that he himself believed it. You can see the most pleasant representation of it in Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, or Aragorn and Arwen, or even Beren and Luthien themselves.
Hell, you can see elements of it in the way he described his wife and the way he used to watch her dance in fields of flowers to draw inspiration for his work. He always describes her in such beautiful, otherworldly terms and their romance as a thing beyond the bounds of earth, like in this letter he penned shortly after her death and shortly preceding his own, when he sought to explain that he did not nickname her Lúthien so much as draw Lúthien the character from Edith the woman:
I never called Edith Lúthien, but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of the Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire (where I was for a brief time in command of an outpost of the Humber Garrison in 1917, and she was able to live with me for a while). In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing – and dance. But the story has gone crooked, and I am left.
I’m a bad person who has fallen completely down the gamer hole on Tyranny since my last post. Everything I raved about the other day? Pretend I did that twice as hard. I don’t think I’ve fallen in love with a game this much for years. I haven’t even touched Dishonored 2 yet or thought about picking up the new Final Fantasy, two other franchises I adore, because I’m too busy planning out future playthroughs and alternate paths through Tyranny.
Last time I talked at length about the morality of the setting, and how you need to approach it as alien to our own. This time I want to talk a little bit about the magic and how it differentiates itself from anything else I’ve played in the genre, or even in similar games like the Dark Sun series.
The magic of the game is sharply divided into three different tiers. At the top you have Edicts, which are the native power of Kyros the Overlord; proclamations that have a delayed or immediate effect on the world. Prior to the game’s start he could melt and entire nation into slag by having someone speak his Edict out loud, and the historians of the game tend to define eras by the Edicts proclaimed in them. We don’t really know what limitations they have, if any, and a large part of the game is prodding that. They seem to be open to interpretation and rules lawyering in a fun way. Here’s a small spoiler for how you can break the first Edict you encounter:
The game starts around the 20th of the month. The Edict you are sent to proclaim will take effect on the 26th of that mont once spoken. If you proclaim it on the starting day, you’ve got about a week. If you proclaim it on the 25th, you have one night. What I discovered was that if you buy up camping supplies and stay away from the settlements until the 27th, and then speak the Edict, you have a year until it takes effect. It will come down on the 26th of that month the following year, and you have what feels like infinite wiggle room. Not only that, but I found that characters actually have unique dialogue for if you break the game like this.
It’s really fun and you can either play it straight or be a sneaky bastard and get around the rules by interpreting them broadly. I think that adds a cool element to the game, where you aren’t just playing fantasy Judge Dredd who must enforce the letter of the law at all times. You can choose to make yourself into someone who interprets the spirit of the law and judges based on that, and you have a capacity to really stretch the boundaries.
The next level of magic is what the Archons have available, and to be honest I’m still exploring that a bit. One of them can shield his loyal followers from harm no matter how far away he is, another can devour the bodies of captives and add their minds to his, one can walk through shadows, so on and so forth. I’m just now entering the part of the game where I’m starting to poke and prod at how these interact with the world and if they’re permutations of the Edict or of the magic most readily available to the player:
Sigils are a little bit Morrowind-esque, which is already a massive point in their favor from me. I love them because they’re kind of like magic based on poetry or writing. Each spell is a miniature essay or argument against reality that you craft by hand.
You have a Core Sigil which represents your theme, your thesis if you will. Expression Sigils are the structure of your argument, how you channel your theme. Accent Sigils append your Expression, and Enhancement Sigils are kind of like citing other sources to draw additional effects. You could create a core sigil of frost, expressing itself in projected force, with accents of ricochets and enhanced residual decay. You’ve just created an ice lance that bounces around and leaves a ticking poison effect on each enemy struck, and within the context of the game, it’s because you’ve successfully argued reality itself into submission and twisted the new reality through your essay into a powerful magic attack.
I fucking love it. I usually don’t play casters in games – typically a bard or a ranger is the furthest I go – but in Tyranny I do find myself drawn hard into the spellcrafting system because it revs my imagination up like crazy. I get the feeling that Sigils are going to tie into the higher tiers of magic somehow, and I can’t wait to find out how.
Speaking of revving the imagination up, I’m almost done with my (admittedly very slow) re-read of IT. Man, I forgot how long this book is, and it’s not really one I can blaze through because I get caught up on details.
Details are what I want to talk about briefly here, in the context of mindfulness.
If you aren’t familiar with the term, it’s something that has been around for awhile but has become affiliated with a lot of… I guess new age-y philosophical sects and there are a billion different permutations on it. Some people take it super-seriously as a lifestyle, others try to incorporate a few minutes of it into their daily routine, others only use it as a stress relief or pain management thing.
I tend to tap into it as a writer, particularly when I’m gathering information as an observer.
One of the core attributes to mindfulness is that you acknowledge things happening around you without judgement, accepting the good and not taking the bad personally. You don’t get upset at the red light, you just see that it’s turned red and you wait. You try to make yourself intensely aware of things like plants growing in cracks, or people smiling, or whatever else is happening immediately around you. There isn’t any focusing on the past or worrying about the future, you’re trying to fill your mind with the present without letting it have a negative impact.
You can see how this would be tremendously useful for writing.
It’s something I have to force myself to do, honestly. I tend to fidget about the past a lot, and spend the rest of the time daydreaming about the future (even if it’s just future story ideas), but that’s the equivalent of breathing out constantly. You have to remember to breathe in from time to time.
King, I think, really gets that. You can see it in any of his books, but IT is probably the most solid example. His narrative voice is mindful and not passing judgement, which makes it stand out all the more when you zoom in and see something through a protagonist’s eyes with their thoughts coloring things one way or the other. It’s how his country town settings are densely populated with some of the most believable characters I’ve ever read. Never mind that, on the surface, they’re rarely more than caricatures. Every one of these characters has a certain level of realism, honesty even, that most authors can’t capture in a novel. Sometimes there are authors who can’t capture it in a series. King regularly captures it in a paragraph. He gives you just enough of a realistic frame that you can fill it all in with people you’ve known.
I think in many novels, in many stories – mine included – the bit characters can become objects knocked around by the protagonists or the antagonists. By being mindful of the fact that every single bit character is a fully realized human with all the unpredictability that entails, King is able to flip that around and have the main characters get knocked off their feet by the bit characters. Their actions directly influence the course of the overarching story, because each of them has their own parallel story that may intersect with it at the most random time.
I also like that the stories make it all the more clear that Pennywise isn’t necessarily the main villain of the piece. We don’t really know for sure whether he made the soil of Derry for fertile for atrocities or if it was like that and he settled down to plant his proverbial crops. Just like Salem’s Lot, IT represents the massive ugilness just beneath the surface of some small towns. A shape-shifting cosmic horror is almost unnecessary when you’ve got an entire town of damaged and abusive adults pretending that they know how to raise a generation of kids and failing miserably. If anything, the monster is a welcome reprieve because you know that in a fairy tale these 12 year olds stand a good chance of beating the dragon, at least better odds than preteen Beverly has of winning against her physically abusive father or Eddie has against escaping his helicopter mother.
When the narrator is talking in a neutral, mindful tone of all the little details in Derry, it makes the horror stand out all the more when we’re seeing those things through the eyes of one of the protagonists. The dispassionate description of a homemade dam becomes a totem of hope and unity for the Losers when they realize it’s brought them together and made several of them the first friends they’ve ever had, and the nonjudgemental descriptions of decay in an old apartment become creepier and creepier when viewed through the eyes of those same kids when they realize that what we disregard as water damage might be a true monster getting its claws in the world and manifesting through things falling apart. Be that buildings or relationships.
It also does something that I strongly admire King for, which is being kind of a time capsule of progressive thought for different eras. For a novel written in the 80s, it opens with a truly horrific gay-bashing and it’s explicitly portrayed as a very bad thing, to the point that it is tied in to the awakening of a fear-eating monster that kills everyone on both sides. You can see all the prejudices of everyone in the town in a way that’s completely realistic, like the cops who talk about how they “hate fagolas” but that doesn’t mean they want the guys to get beaten to death walking home together. Just by mindfully presenting the casual homophobia, racism, sexism, domestic violence, torture, extra-judicial executions… the ugly parts of American history and still very much parts of America now, he presents them as inexcusable and something to stand against, because in addition to being atrocities in their own right they often point towards a sickness under the skin where they manifest.