Review: The Seven

Hopefully the last in my “god damnit, reviewing the last book in a trilogy without spoiling anything” series for a little bit, but I got a chance to chew through the final book in Peter Newman’s The Vagrant universe.

154643-FCX.jpgI’ve mentioned in my reviews of his previous books, but I really like Newman’s naming conventions. It reminds me a little bit of a less esoteric Gene Wolfe, and it gives you perfect mental pictures of these things that continue to exist in a post-apocalyptic, dying, war-wracked planet.

Throughout the rest of his trilogy, we’ve seen that turned on the demonic denizens of the setting. See, long, long before the books starts, a giant Breach opens up and infernal beings begin to pour out of it onto our world, an alien world for them. They can barely exist in our atmosphere, and they have to repurpose human beings and other living things as what amounts to space suits. They also leak Essence, a kind of soul-stuff that warps and changes anything it touches, turning some people into Tainted – an entirely new species, or several species loosely unified by their new, otherworldly heritage. I’ve mentioned the Knights of Jade and Ash before, and they’re joined by things like The Man-Shape, the Backwards Child, the living city-state of Wonderland, and many more.

The Seven, capping of the trilogy, finally explores the holy empire that has spent the series opposing these invaders. We’ve gotten glimpses of it before, usually as characters rush past it into the wilderness or return from that wilderness to rest, but here we get not only a tour of the place, but a deeper exploration of its religious practices, its leadership, and its history.

Now, admittedly, in-universe historical lore is a major weakness of mine. I’m the kind of broke-brained nerd who reads The Silmarillion on a yearly basis for fun and who used to sit around reading old D&D manuals for the fluff blurbs. So this feels like it was made for me, finally providing exposition in a setting that has only shown its past through the cracks.

We’ve gotten hints in the previous books that the empire is not necessarily a pleasant place to live, only looking like a shining city on the hill by sheer virtue of not being beset by infernal creatures from another world 24/7. But as the other two books in the trilogy started pointing out that while the world is dangerous, people are not only living but living in harmony with the invaders in a lot of places, I did start to wonder just how wholesome the empire was and how is was staying so “pure.”

Confirming my suspicions, this is very much a story about the concept of paladins and angels taken to their logical extreme. The forces of Order go far enough in one direction to become an authoritarian state governed by an absolute theological institution. But they’re not necessarily evil, or fascist, like I was expecting. They’re a lot deeper than that. Their history stretches further back than you’d ever guess, and the titular Seven have a backstory that is layered in tragedy and triumphs, making you feel sympathetic for the state as a whole even as it starts to perpetuate atrocities. This is not a setting that’s had particularly sympathetic villains before, and it fills a nice gap. Hell, they’re barely villains past a certain point. I’m not going to spoil it, but I went from rolling my eyes and going “oh good, Nazi angel robots” to taking that back very quickly as I read.

Villains obviously can’t push the whole story along themselves, so I should talk about our heroes here too, our protagonists. We finally, finally get to see Vesper and the Vagrant as equals, fighting alongside one another, uniting the disparate themes and narrative styles of the trilogy. Vesper’s chapters are chatty, and whimsical, and full of the optimism that defined The Malice, while the Vagrant’s chapters are a throwback to the first book – minimal dialogue as countless enemies fall before this dying earth Man with No Name and a big, fire-spurting, singing sword. They’re surrounded by a cast that balances their extremes out and provides a more human element to the place, given that at this point in the story they are basically immortal fighting machines that can carve through enemies by the dozen and withstand railgun blasts to the face.

Not to say that it ever gets boring or loses tension, because while those two are functionally immortal, the people around them and the communities they’re protecting may as well be made of wet tissue paper for how vulnerable they are to the predations of this very angry, righteous crusade.

I think that overall the first book of the trilogy remains my favorite, but I’m glad that Newman wrote the two followups to explore the world some more and fill in all the corners and the gaps. It never felt stretched out or padded, or just written for the sake of infodumps, and like the last book I reviewed it makes me want to go back and re-read the earlier stuff with a deeper understanding of why the different parts are moving as they do.

Advertisements

Review: City of Miracles

So.

This is the third book of a trilogy. It’s loosely connected to events in the second book, and is a direct sequel to the first book, and to those of you who haven’t read either of them, I’m going to try really hard not to spoil anything from the series as a whole.

The Divine Cities novels have become one of my favorite ongoing series, and I consider them doubly impressive for having not been planned as a series. City of Stairs was a great standalone that got expanded into the foundation for further stories, and I think it’s a testament to the author’s skill that he was able to go back and retroactively turn one-offs from that first novel into foreshadowing for future books. It’s like the inverse of the usual tragic genre tale of the author who ends up sucked into an endless, plodding doorstopper machine and starts churning out books where the cast of characters you once loved now spend 600 pages walking three miles to pad space between the “event” stories.

City-of-Miracles_Final.jpgI digress, though. I like the Divine Cities because they present a world that isn’t heavily rooted in any real world mythology, but takes disparate elements of pantheons from Hindu, Slavic and a variety of other stories and uses them to craft a surprisingly delicate tale about colonialism, revenge, family and more.

If City of Stairs was about the ethical fallout of a successful coup and just how far the once-oppressed could push things before they became actual oppressors (can you be morally justified in wiping out another culture if that very culture contained actual magical spells and miracles that once wiped out your people by the thousands and could do so in the future?), and City of Blades dealt with what amounts to veterans of a literal holy war left with no support after their god has been slain and their afterlife sucked into oblivion, City of Miracles is about children and different kinds of familial ties.

Something I like about the world of this series is that it is actually allowed to advance. Stairs presented a world that had elements of late 19th and early 20th century technology and cultural baggage, and by the time of this third book we have a roaring 1930s-40s metropolis and a place where technology has nearly outpaced the miraculous magic that once shaped the world. The City of Stairs itself feels much less impressive and downright dull compared to a place of gleaming skyscrapers and air-trams. You don’t see magic in direct competition with it, but attempting to coexist with it, which is a nice break from the everpresent fantasy versus technology that dominates much of the genre.

Speaking of nice breaks from the norm, something I love about these books is that the protagonists are very rarely good at fighting. You’ve got a cast of the young and inexperienced or the old and aching. Even in this book, arguably the one with the most battle-hardened protagonist of the lot, most of the fights are handled cleverly. There’s not bareknuckle brawling, there’s a lot of setting traps, creeping around, playing the odds, and bemoaning that the best laid plans often end with something blowing up and hoping that the shrapnel doesn’t fly the wrong way.

I think my only complaint about the book is that it’s so action-heavy compared to the prior mysteries. It’s filtered through the lens of someone who solves his problems through violence, and that makes the writing rather blunt and brutal. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I still enjoyed it, but it was a bit of a departure from the more measured investigations of the first two novels. That’s not to say he’s some kind of berserker, it’s just that his particular skillset is lacking what added tension to the struggles of his predecessors. Even with that niggling issue, it pays off in the end with a series of rapid-fire revelations that make me certain I’ll enjoy it much more on re-reads. Hell, it makes me want to re-read the entire trilogy from start to finish and see what other foreshadowing I can find, which is pretty damn good for a novel that was the result of the author’s agent essentially talking him into continuing within the setting when he’d only planned out one book set there to begin with.

It’s the kind of trilogy where I’m perfectly okay with it ending where it ended, but I wouldn’t feel like he was trying to milk it dry if he continued with another few books. The cool thing about tackling elements of classical mythology from the angle of “what if the gods got brutally murdered a few generations back” is that there are so many of those elements floating around to experiment with. We’ve seen magical beasts, afterlives, covenants, demigods and more, and there’s a boundless expanse to continue mining before you ever start to repeat the same themes.

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.

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.

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.

tumblr_mzlxx9IVKk1s6h2wzo1_500.jpg

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.

Launch Day for The Shadow Box

Well, today is the day. The Shadow Box is available for public consumption now. I’m never really sure what to do for launch day posts, everyone does them a bit differently. I’m going to talk about the book broadly, and then my own contributions to it (I’m sure Chris will have a similar post up) and some plans for the future.

The Shadow Box Cover Final.jpg

The Shadow Box was a real labor of love for both of us. Chris and I last collaborated on That Weird City (which we have dropped the price on for a combo deal kind of thing, if you haven’t read it) back in 2011-2012. We both knew each other from some writing and gaming communities prior to that, and we’d seen publication in the same magazine a couple of times, so we decided to throw together an anthology of weird horror stories that we’d had kicking around. It was very much a new author book with all that entails. Some formatting errors, some typos that slipped through, one story where the initial upload was a draft instead of the finished copy in the rush to get it up and ready for the self-imposed deadline. We actually just uploaded a kind of remastered version of the collection this weekend to coincide with the new launch, utilizing a lot of things learned over the years.

We have both learned a lot since City came out. We’ve both made a huge effort to expand the scope of our reading. City was very much a couple of New England dudes who grew up reading too much Lovecraft and associated mythos authors. Going back over it for the recent edits, I’m honestly kind of shocked at how little I cringe away from the narratives but also at how many new ways I would have expanded those stories if I’d written them today. My voodoo-tech support would be way, way more enmeshed with contemporary New Orleans Voodoo and all the social and cultural depth that entails, instead of being a convenient magical system for my white protagonist to use while fighting off evil spirits. I also would have leaned way, way less on the cosmic evil antagonists that popped up in many of the tales. I’m also very aware that five years from now I might look at that story and figure out a way I would have written it differently. Writing is never being satisfied with what you put out and knowing you can do better, but still making your best available while pursuing the higher goal.

Hindsight is 20/20. I walked away from the revision thinking that I played it really safe, and it was okay, but I want to do better than “okay” in my writing.

The Shadow Box is an attempt to push ourselves outside of the comfort zone. We may dip into the mythos for some trappings, but we’ve decided to twist them into new shapes and new directions. Chris’s work is tackling themes of masculine insecurity and testosterone poisoning, or art criticism and the idea of the creative zeitgeist as a force outside of our world entirely, or looking into the future-that-wasn’t of cyberpunk and marrying our current corporate dystopia with the trappings of the 80s. I’m shoving myself out of my own culture and upbringing to look at other things; I’ve got stories more approaching fantasy and dark fairy tale than the new weird, I’m trying to incorporate settings that don’t get a lot of attention otherwise, and I’m trying to be hyperaware of the ways that stories can be misconstrued if you aren’t careful with them. I have some stories on immigration and refugees that I went back over three, four, five times to make sure they were written right, because when you’re blending real world issues with the fantastic there’s so many ways to do it wrong.

I think it came out okay. I hope it came out okay. We’ve sent these out to beta readers of all genders, creeds and colors and we haven’t had anyone come back with “you insensitive assholes” yet. We gave ourselves a much more flexible deadline this time around and I think it paid off. There were many cases of finishing a draft and basically just taking a core element and a few characters to rewrite them from scratch. There was one where I had to stop it a few pages in and then work on another while reading several hundred pages out of a historical textbook to make sure I was getting a bunch of details right when they weren’t on Wikipedia.

Now it’s out there and if you decide to pick it up, I hope you enjoy it. If you do, or even if you don’t, the reviews help. Even a couple of lines on Amazon bump it up in the search and sorting algorithms. If you like it, maybe recommend it to some friends. Lend it to them on kindle – I mean, the spiced rum money is nice but the point of writing is to get it into a lot of hands – and throw a “hey this isn’t awful” post up on FB if you are so inclined. It’s incredibly helpful and appreciated and allows us to keep doing this kind of stuff.

Speaking of. I have no doubt that we’re going to put another anthology out sometime in the next couple of years, but with this having gotten us back on the writing horse we’re both working on our respective novels/series. Chris has some crazy-cool stuff brewing, I’m hammering out what started as a bit of a murder mystery and is now growing in scope with every history book I read and take notes on. Hell, when I finished a few of these short stories going “I want to make a novel out of these characters or this setting,” and I’ll probably take a stab at that as well. Doubly so if there are reviews from people saying they liked reading them in particular. Hint hint.

Okay, I’ll stop now.

Off to read a treatise on turn of the century Cairo.

Stealing From History

11126447075_ff5be41bc3_z.jpgEvery single writer is a thief. This is a well established fact. Writing is not you extracting gossamer threads from the æther and weaving them into a wholly original story that has never been told and bears no resemblance to actual events, as lovely and romantic as that notion is. Writing is regurgitating a bunch of what you’ve picked up through your observational skills and media consumption and hoping that you’ve consumed a wide enough variety that the end result looks sufficiently different and better from its base components.

When you think of stories, think of them as an extension of yourself. In order to create that extension, to grow it, you need to be eating a varied diet and making sure you get enough of all the proper nutrients. You cannot craft a good story from bad brain food any more than you could develop an athlete’s body while eating nothing but mcribs for every meal. This is tricky if you’re a genre reader because that are so many good genre books coming out on a daily basis that it’s already impossible to keep up with more than your favorite authors, new ones introduced by word of mouth and a speckling of intriguing looking debuts. Trust me, I know. My plate right now is piled up with HexThe Corroded ManWolfhound EmpireSnakewood, and that’s just my older backlog. Oh, and Alan Moore’s monster tome Jerusalem. And the upcoming Lost Gods and Taste of Honey.

The problem is if I only read those and go to write a book I’m just going to be aping them, and probably poorly, because while reading other fantasy writers’ work is tremendously inspiration it does not provide an appropriate level of building blocks for me. For that I need to turn to history.

I admit my bias here. I am a history major. I actually switched over from being an English major halfway through college not because I disliked those courses at all but because I had dipped into high level history lessons for a couple of semesters and found that the research and note taking skills they were teaching me was far better for my writing than the literary analysis skills I was picking up in English.

If you’re going to steal… Well, let me put it in boring historical education terms. When you go to write an essay your argument gains more weight when it relies on as many primary sources as possible. Interviews, diary entries, eyewitness reports, it’s still going to have inherent biases but provide you with the clearest picture of the event. Secondary sources may be good and put things in a wider context but they’re still being filtered through an additional level of narrative. Tertiary sources are even more dangerous and can border on opinion pieces in extreme cases. It’s the same with fantasy. You can treat fantasy novels as secondary or tertiary sources to the events they were inspired by. You’re going to find more fertile creative ground if you drill through them to get to the original historical stuff that they were based on.

Take a look at something really iconic like the Battle of Pelennor. Very dramatic, huge clash between multiple infantry battalions, wedges of cavalry crashing into flanks, back and forth on a plain that becomes soaked with blood over the course of the battle. If you read it and want to write a battle story, you can take all your inspiration from Pelennor and probably come out with something that will either look like a homage to or a ripoff of Tolkien. If you drill down farther, take a look at some of the real world battles that inspired Tolkien in the first place. Buy a book on the Battle of Maurica or the Battle of Nedao and you’ll get the stuff that makes Pelennor look like child’s play, and if you incorporate elements of those into your story you’re going to come out with something that has a similar feel to Pelennor. Same family but not necessarily a direct descendant with all the baggage that entails.

George R. R. Martin’s another good one for this. Any major event in Game of Thrones can probably be drawn back to something even worse happening in real life. Want to write something as shocking as the Red Wedding chapter? Take a look at the primary sources Martin was using and skim through various medieval Scottish massacres that necessitated the laws of hospitality be upgraded and long daggers included in formal wear in case you needed to brutally murder your host before he did the same to you.

So in addition to all those books I listed back toward the beginning of this post, I have also hit the stage where I start getting Very Weird Looks from the librarian because I’m forcing myself to make time to read other stuff, like Lawrence in Arabia and Pre-Ottoman Turkey or The Lords of Battle. I’m incorporating elements of steppe nomad culture into the background of my books, but if I took it all from other fantasy novels or wikipedia entries I’d probably come out with something so thin as to be offensive. Compare to my reading the ascent of Genghis Khan the other week and ending up with seven pages of notes about early practices of the Turkic and Mongol tribes where they’d do stuff like train for war during monthly hunts by coordinating massive rings of hunters who would herd animals into a circular killing ground but not be allowed to fire a shot until the leader sounded the call, in order to instill discipline and encourage teamwork in the men and women who would later use similar tactics against armies that shot back.

I’ll take a second and plug Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast. I used to listen to it all the time but kind of fell off the wagon during a dry run when he was taking awhile to put together double length episodes for a special. I started listening to them again last month and just caught up, and if anything the new stuff is even better than the classics. I don’t agree with 100% of what he thinks (he does go through pains to point out he’s not a historian, just an enthusiast with an active imagination) but his ancient world episodes have been a godsend and integral to a handful of my short stories. His episodes are like two bucks apiece and run for upwards of four hours, and he rotates through a selection of freebies to try out on his site/youtube. I particularly recommend Blueprint for Armageddon and the Kings of Kings trilogy.

51eorCA5-5L.jpgIf you want a really good example of stealing from history, Ken Liu’s The Wall of Storms just came out this week and improves on Grace of Kings in every single way. And that’s speaking as someone who loved Grace. I’m trying my best not to spoil anything from the first book here, since there are major gamechangers and twists at the end of it that have an impact all throughout Wall. What I like about this series in particular is Liu’s narrative style. It reads like a dramatized historical piece as you’d find in the works of Luo Guanzhong (duh) or Herodotus. It’s got a sweeping omniscient narrator that pans around the setting and provides an overview, and then zooms in on particular vignettes and characters who are pushing the plot along with their actions big and small.Where Grace was a book about the old order being toppled down and then a civil war kicking in when the inheritors can’t decide which version of “better” they’d like to install over the ashes, Wall is wider in scope. It’s about trying to push progressive reform through an incredibly regressive government. It’s about first contact and cultural misunderstanding. It’s about engineering, and exploration, and warring philosophies and so much more. What immediately stands out is that Liu has rectified my biggest problem with the first book, which was that the female characters were very much pawns and background pieces compared to the males. Here we’re retroactively examining why that was, and looking at what happened to those women when the men (and thus the narrative voice) wasn’t paying attention to them. It also incorporates gay couples in an incredibly nice, low-key way. A couple of guys (high ranking military men, no less) adopt a baby and no one bats an eye. There are references to widows who are no longer obligated to seek out a new man shacking up together for emotional and physical support pretty regularly. It’s completely normal to the setting and just made me feel good to read about.

One of the biggest complaints I heard about the first book, and that I understand, is that the narrative is a bit dry. The battles and duels are done up like historical texts more than anything else, they aren’t written to be very visceral. I think that Wall improves on them quite a bit, there are battle scenes where I felt incredibly tense. Not only that but he applies the same voice to any conflict. The first quarter of the book is dominated by a massive standardized test where hundreds of students compete to see who will join the royal schools and it’s as engaging and page-turning as any combat sequence I can think of, especially since the writing in this world is made up of wax logograms which must be affixed to silk scrolls and then carved to be pleasing to the eye as well as presenting a compelling argument. Reading about one of the protagonists carefully arranging her essay wax drop by wax drop was absolutely engrossing and I should probably stop before I sound even nerdier than I do now.

It is a love letter to epic fantasy and at the same time it upends so many of the tropes and stereotypes. It feels like a breath of fresh air for the entire genre and there’s an element of unpredictability that will keep you guessing at what will happen next. This second book also massively expanded the mythology of the setting after the first one was incredibly low in magic, we’re starting to see things like the gods creeping back into the world after a long absence, and metaphysics versus technological advances, and the titular wall of storms which has to be read going in blind for the full impact. Liu doesn’t just remix Han Dynasty legends either, I’ve noticed elements of Malay, Māori and other tidbits of Polynesian folklore showing up across the island empire.

If you didn’t care for the first book, I’m going to do something I rarely do and say try the second one anyway because the improvements are very noticeable. If you haven’t read the first one, pick them both up, if you are the kind of person who enjoys my esoteric recommendations and weird history ramblings you’ll probably love this series.