Review: The Malice

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.

26160162.jpgI 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.

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Review: The Djinn Falls in Love (And Other Stories)

I love genies, or djinn, or jinn, about as far back as I can remember. I think my first exposure to them was an extremely child-friendly edition of 1001 Arabian Nights and the original Aladdin (which was set in China (written by a Muslim guy to look exactly like an Islamic city (which is how you get characters like the Sultan of China))) that kept out a lot of the more gruesome elements. Then, of course, there was the Disney version that came out when I was about 7 years old. and is one of the first films I remember seeing at the theater. In my teens I stumbled upon Neil Gaiman, who took a much more adult approach and delved into some of the background of the race.

They’re fascinating to me because they are completely unlike anything else I’ve encountered in mythological studies. They’re a supernatural race that isn’t an existential threat, or an enemy of the regional god, or demigods themselves. They’re more like our half-remembered brothers and sisters. We were made of clay and dirt, they were made of fire and shadow. We were given the oases and fields, they were given the dark places and the glass palaces hidden in desert mirages. We see each other out the corners of our eyes sometimes. In many places where the djinn legends are prominent, they follow the same religion as the human cultures, complete with prayer rugs and singing. Even the most basic description of them from the old texts, men made of smokeless fire, is something I’ve always found evocative and striking.

I like that just like people, they aren’t good or bad by nature, they have free will and can choose to use it in the way they wish. You get good djinn who do bad things, bad djinn who do good things, and neutral ones who simply want to be left alone, just like you see in humanity.

51s9+SWaZ6L.jpgThe new anthology The Djinn Falls in Love manages to capture so many aspects of what I love about the dense and intricate folklore of these beings. I don’t think that such a thing could have been captured outside of a collection like this, because the djinn are so diverse that you need many stories to explore their many facets.

It opens up with possibly my favorite story of the book, a tale about a boy who stumbles into his mosque to find it inhabited by a congregation of strangers with flame-red hair who all fall through their prayer rugs at the end of the service, and goes from there. You have everything from mysteries, to love stories, to military thrillers to horror. Often these genres are mixed up and you’ll find several in the same story, which is tremendously fitting for the subject matter at play here.

It’s one of those anthologies where I liked some stories more than others, but I didn’t dislike any of them. If I were to re-read it I don’t think I’d skip around to favorites.

I was very appreciative of how accessible the stories were. There are some books I don’t recommend to friends unless they’re also into reading a lot of the weird and esoteric stuff I do, and like stories that require you to have a bit of that background. You could walk into this not knowing anything about the djinn and walk out with a good understanding of just how diverse the folklore around them is.

I also like how many new authors it introduced me to. Of course Gaiman’s story from American Gods still holds up remarkably well (and feels even more relevant in today’s world of immigrant and refugee crises), and Nnedi Okorafor’s delving into African djinn legends was fascinating, but I ended up with a big to-read list based on the entries of some authors I’d never heard of before. Sami Shah’s REAP is one of the creepier pieces I’ve read in awhile and I would read an entire novel set in the military-horror setting he’s created. Sophia Al-Maria’s Righteous Guide is equally creepy for entirely different reasons and doesn’t shy away from exploring the repression of women in many of these regions, and the interplay between the idea of djinn possession and female sexuality for some of the more superstitious. E.J. Swift’s Jinn Hunter’s Apprentice grabbed me way harder than I would have expected; space opera did not seem like a logical place to start exploring djinn magic but there you go.

Not all of the stories will make you feel good, but all of them will definitely make you think and give you an appreciation for an element of folklore and mythology that often doesn’t show up in western fiction unless it’s been scoured clean and bowdlerized beyond recognition.

Review: The Heart of What Was Lost

51qdqrflmcl-_sy346_So, obviously, this is going to have some spoilers for Memory, Sorrow & Thorn, the story beginning just a few weeks after that series ends. If you haven’t read them, tread lightly, because they do have some good twists and you’ll want to read them before tackling Heart here.

I am actually going to be the weird guy here and say that I enjoyed this more than the original trilogy. That seems vaguely heretical coming from a fantasy fan, but I actually didn’t get into MS&T until I was in my late twenties, and at the behest of my wife. I knew that it was a good series but it was kind of relegated to the “oh god, I don’t have time to devote to a doorstopper fantasy series right now” pile and when I did have time I inevitably ended up with some new release in my lap.

I feel that Heart manages to capture my favorite aspects of the original series while jettisoning many of the parts I found arduous. Now, don’t get me wrong, I did like all four books of the original trilogy (god damnit Williams) but there were segments that you could cut out and not lose anything from the story. What I loved was the sense of depth and history that he managed to infuse the setting with, and speaking through unreliable narrators long before that became a standard trope and the basis for many grimdark series. The idea that ancient prophecies about fighting back dark lords might actually refer to genocidal human imperialists, and that they might not realize it until after they tried to fulfill those prophecies with themselves as the heroes, that’s really good stuff and you can see how it shaped the genre as a whole.

Heart takes the idea that even in a fantasy conflict there is more depth than first appears, and applies it here to an incredibly stereotypical conflict: big, burly viking warriors versus sadistic dark elves.

Except the vikings actually kind of did wipe out the elves’ fore-bearers without much provocation, and only a few members of the current leadership would consider offering mercy to even the women and children of their enemies. These are the kinds of vikings who will very literally ravish and pillage your town in the worst ways, but we are conditioned to consider them the heroes of the story through certain framing devices and juxtaposition with enemies who are far worse.

Except the aren’t.

There wasn’t very much story told from the perspective of the Norns, the darker half of the elven/fairy race in the original trilogy. Here a full half of the book explores their culture, their religion, the interplay between different state powers, and the vast web of personalities that inhabit their mountain strongholds. While they served as faceless mooks in the first books, you kind of retroactively feel awful for them here.

The story is told through three perspectives: the Rimmergard lord Isgrimnur is trying to deal with his bloodthirsty (and rightly so, in some ways) lieutenant and with an infuriatingly enigmatic Sithi emissary both at the same time, each pulling him in a different direction when it comes to approaching the siege of the Norn lands. There are a pair of mercenary warriors who find themselves very far from home and not sure how to deal with that. Finally there is Viyeki, a military engineer from the Norn homeland, serving at the behest of his elder and the leader of the engineer corps.

The meat of the story is in this last third. We kind of know what to expect of the Rimmersmen from their prominent role as shock troops in the original trilogy, but the Norn stuff is very new and incredibly interesting. Their immortality adds a certain tragedy to them; each of them has hundreds if not thousands of years under their belt, knowledge of the forgotten world lost forever in the swing of a sword or an axe. You get a glimpse at their magic practitioners, the engineers, and the military forces who consider themselves dead from the moment they pick up a blade. Each one wants a different thing out of the conflict, and is willing to sell out certain aspects of their timeless culture to bolster what they consider important. Underneath it all you come to understand that the Storm King is far from the scariest being in their wasteland home, and there’s a very good reason that they came willingly to his banner when faced with some horrifying alternatives.

I like antagonists who make me think, which is one of William’s strengths.

It’s short as well, which forces him to condense what I like instead of meandering off. There’s a certain number of set pieces here, only a couple dozen named characters, and the immediacy brings a certain vividness and urgency to the narrative. While MS&T was all about sweeping fantasy, exploring the corners of the world and forging alliances with far-flung kindred in the face of obliteration, this is about a very bad siege. For the people involved in it, the expansive world outside no longer exists, and their entire lives revolve around sapper tunnels, food, and how and when they want to die. Beyond the races, the only link to the first trilogy is that both stories deal heavily with the idea that history is not as it seems, that as a set of lies agreed upon by scholars it is subject to change and rewrite depending on who happens to be holding the biggest pen at the time.

It left me looking even more forward to the second trilogy, which this serves as a bridging novel to, The Last King of Osten Ard. I’d love to explore the depths of the Norn mountain stronghold even more fully than we got here, and I especially love the hints he’s continuing to drop about the origin of the Garden from which all the elven peoples originally sprung.

I also kind of wish more books were like this. At his best I consider Williams the master of blending elements of grimdark with epic fantasy. It isn’t a curse-laden swear-and-rapefest like grimmer offerings, but it has enough unexpected deaths, a mature approach to medieval politics and too bloody-minded a take on combat to fit comfortably among the true heroic fantasy out there. And that’s to it’s benefit, because whitewashed heroic fantasy gets very old, very fast, and I’d much rather have the best of it mixed in with deeper questions about colonization, revisionist history, culture clashes and misunderstood prophecies.

Reviews: Abomination, The Thousand Names, Norse Mythology

Since the weather here in Sydney, Australia can be described as somewhere between “wow, I didn’t know my sandals could melt like that” and “oh my god, I’m on the surface of the sun,” I’ve spent most of the weekend lounging in front of the air conditioner and getting some reading off my backlog.

51tk2cyu4nlAbomination by Gary Whitta is actually something that I’ve had on my kindle for over a year now but kept letting it slip off my radar as new books would come out, which I now regret. It’s a very good book and not for the reasons I went in expecting it to be. All of the blurbs talk about it melding together cosmic horror with historical combat, but truly I found it to have more in common with a really good lycanthrope story than anything else.

Just a lycanthrope story featuring things like knights templar, monstrous scarab beetles, and conflict between the Saxons and the leftovers of the Great Heathen Army in the 800s or thereabouts, featuring cameos by a variety of historical figures. Admittedly you are not going to find a lot of historical accuracy in those figures or in the years, but given that this book literally opens up with corrupted vatican officials using eldritch scrolls to transform animals into unstoppable berserk monsters, you kind of go in knowing it’s going to be pulpy alternate history. The fun comes from taking figures like Alfred the Great and trying to guess at what their reaction would be to the borderline apocalyptic events of the novel.

As far as negatives go, it has to be said that the characters are fairly stock with one or two exceptions, and you know how the PoV characters are going to react to anything well before they do. The honorable knight is going to be honorable, the tomboy girl who wants to join the elite monster hunting corps will act like a 90s movie action girl after being sexually threatened by some roving antagonists. But around that core there’s a fascinating story woven and I found the logistics of the… well, supernatural aspects, I guess, fairly compelling and page-turning. It’s a horror novel but most of the chapters are devoted to how to keep that horror contained using medieval tools and education, a combination I haven’t run into before.

It’s under a dollar this month so I’d definitely recommend picking it up if any of this interested you.

 

51ott4phrdl-_sx308_bo1204203200_Next, I finally got to another one, The Thousand Names by Django Wexler. Here is a book I found frustrating: I loved it, but I loved it because of the background rather than the foreground elements. Anyone who has read my blog or my writing knows that I am fascinated with the middle east and annoyed at how little it’s used as a springboard for genre fiction, and I’ve had this one recommended to me several times as Napoleon’s Cairo and Syria wrapped up in flintlock fantasy and bizarre shadow magic. Extremely my jam to the point that I put off reading it because I didn’t want it to influence some of my own mid-east fantasy works.

My frustration comes from Wexler crafting a really compelling take on fractured, fantasy Egypt, split between followers of an ancient religion, a new group of fanatics who have begun taking over, the exiled prince of the whole mess, and the everyday people who are living out their lives in the ruins. You’ve got a military divided into droves of barely-armed peasants led by singing priests, a western-style military force that had been trained by the imperialist powers during the height of the occupation, and dark forces lurking around the corners.

And then you take all of that and you wedge it into the corner and only catch glimpses of it while watching a bunch of totally-not-English/French soldiers go through the daily drama of life as an occupying force. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the hell out of Janus and Marcus as military characters who have a brain between them, Winter was great and I’m always cool with more LGTBQ representation in fantasy, Bobby is awesome, Feora is cool… but you don’t even have a single PoV character from this amazingly gripping world. There are a few chapters that tell things from the perspective of Jaffa, a neutral-ish lawkeeper in the city, and I found the three of them way more interesting than the rest of the book combined, and the hints that his chapters threw my way are what got me to go buy the rest of the series for reading later this month.

Don’t take any of that as a harsh critique, please, because I truly did love the book and kept turning pages, but it managed to push all my buttons without the payoff I was begging for at the same time. I’ve love a side-quel book written from the perspective of the auxies, the Redeemers, or anyone from Mother’s court even just going over the same events.

Also, I’m really glad I read it before getting too far into my own fantasy epic where one of the defining traits of one of the tribes is having grey-tinged skin from their close association with krakens and the tattoos they use leeching into their bodies, because I’m pretty sure it would be taken as a ripoff of the greyskins here.

 

515hhtyn0glFinally, the book I have been waiting on for months now is finally out and I read the whole thing in a sitting. I am speaking, of course, of Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. I don’t know that I can say enough good things about this collection. It is the rare book that I can call flawless; something that I finished and wanted to read again. It is not a “Neil Gaiman book” in the traditional sense, he has tapped into an entirely different narrative voice. It addresses you as easily as some weird old one-eyed man chatting you up at a seedy pub somewhere and asking you if you’d like to hear some stories about gods long dead.

Now, I’m a giant, nitpicky mythology nerd and the Norse pantheon is about tied with the Greek one for me when it comes to myths I cut my teeth on, so I went in with a very high bar and was surprised to find it cleared with so much seeming ease. I’d honestly call it the defining take on all of these stories, having read many, many translations of each before now.

If you’re a Gaiman fan, you’ll be happy to know that in spite of this radically different narrative voice, it does feel like it slots neatly into other works of his. The Odin talked about here absolutely does show up in American Gods, in all his glory. The Asgardian squad who make their appearance in The Sandman step directly out of these pages. It’s the same Thor, the same Loki. It’s not the Marvel-ized versions of anything, even though Gaiman does acknowledge that he only ever got into these myths after devouring the old Mighty Thor comics as a boy.

Old Books, New Fairies, Forgotten Women

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.

0c8fc758e6bc67308259b06975078c95.jpgThat’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.

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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.

220px-HopeMirrlees.jpgYou 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.

Christmas in Hell

14764449685_72755725e3_z.jpgOkay, 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.

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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,

29069003.jpgI 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.

41cQuu21lIL.jpgThat’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.

Invisible Planets and the Fall of Civilization

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.

5156C3sbiOL.jpgThe 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.

51-njdis6lThe 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.