A Review

Often, when sales are down, or when a new book does not quite meet expectations, I wonder if I am doing the right thing by continuing to write. I suspect that this is something that almost writers struggle with from time to time. Surely the 20+ hours a week that I spend writing could be put to better use making money for my family. I have children and a wife to think of, and all the adult practicalities of life to bow to. Usually these thoughts are put down with me realizing that I have drunk too much coffee that day, or thinking of the positive reinforcement that I have received from readers, or family.

The thing is, even if practicalities demanded that I stop writing, I am not certain that I could. I have kept writing through some fairly rough (for my life) stuff in the last few years. I am nearing publication of my eighth novel in spite of it all. Its pretty fucking crazy, really. But, I do it because writing is one of the things that I do to feel alive.

It took me a long time to come to this realization.

And that is where Walter White comes into this. If you have never watched Breaking Bad, you should. I came late to the party, finishing the show well after the final season and well-deserved the glory that came along with it. I loved it despite the fact that I do not like outlaw stories, prefer not to watch TV for the most part, and really dislike grim stuff. Breaking Bad rose above all of that, implausibly in my case, and I am glad that my wife prevailed on me to watch it. It is the first TV show that has given me the same feeling, when it ends, that I have when I finish a great book or video game. That is something special.

I cannot offer you any new insight into the show. The acting is amazing from all sides. The characters and the writing are legendary. The descent of Walter White is both gratifying and horrifying, but no matter how you view his morality, it is a satisfying tale. It is cited as one of the best shows of all time for good reason. I have been replaying the last episode and some of the highlights of the show for a week now.

It is a masterwork.

What I can add is what it taught me about myself. I see a little bit of Walter White in me. In the end, he realized that being Heisenberg made him feel alive, and everything else was just an excuse. It was his art, as writing is mine.

Through art we come to know ourselves…

Disclaimer: I do not intend to use my writing for evil… 😀

Teaser Tuesday

This week’s teaser comes from Bloodlust: The Shield Maiden (Domains of the Chosen #3), and features another of the lesser known characters, a Hearthbound to Gavin named Riritaka. She is actually introduced in an earlier book, but features more here, although I feel there is more potential in the character, as a stranger to the perspective culture.

Bloodlust TSM cover

In his first match for Master Rank, Gavin fought Riritaka, a Spirit-Binder from the people called The Pale. In the end, he had decided against killing her, defying convention. Riritaka’s thoughts often turned to the Gladiator known as Lionfang. The mercy he had shown her ensured that she lived, seeking her freedom in the arena. She was too weak to win often, especially without access to powerful spirits to bind, but she cared little for her record as a Gladiatrix. It was enough for her simply to live, for now.

Life among her people was a distant memory as were the endless interrogations by the Grey-Robes. No longer considered a Heretic, she was as free to travel as any Gladiatrix. She had visited the great cities of the Empire; seen her first snowfall; walked in the bamboo gardens of the Far Isles; fought a Wirn to the death in the Grand Arena in front of more people than she’d imagined could fit in one place. They had cheered her on that day. It was a precious memory, even if it felt like a betrayal of old hates.

The Spirit-Binder often wondered if she was a coward for choosing life over honour, but it was now a philosophical question, no longer a gaping wound that brought sleepless nights and bitter regret. She had chosen life, and that was what she did. She lived.

The Krassian Empire held many wonders, strange foods and interesting people and part of her had come to love it, even though another part of her still hated it. She was at peace with her enemies; books, chipped ice, and Light-Elf men with clear blue eyes were good reasons to live.

Riritaka is an outcast from her people, betrayed by her father and captured by the Legions. As an outsider who uses magic, she is automatically labelled a Heretic and sent to the arena after the Deliberative interrogates her. Here she meets Gavin, who still suffers guilt for killing a heretic early in his career and decided to show her mercy (or perhaps defy expectations, depending on how you see it). After this she fights in the arena for a while in the outsiders league (I don’t have a name for the League where the heretics go to fight if they survive that first Deathmatch) and wins her freedom. Gavin searches her out and she joins him as a Hearthbound.

Sadira looked at Riritaka. The Pale woman was changed, skin covered in spotted fur, features catlike. She moved with admirable silence now that they had shed their disguises, creeping between the great wheels of the juggernaut that housed the war altar.

A Fologi ride had landed them on the coast south of the Deomen, and from there they had circled and entered the enemy camp from behind. They had killed a few sentries and taken their robes as disguises. The Deomen were lax about security now that the battle was underway, especially with Sadira wearing a Gold Mask. Riritaka had bound the spirit used by the mask’s previous owner, a complex weave that had dazzled Sadira. As a consequence the Pale spirit-binder now knew how to speak the Howling tongue of the Deomen.

Riritaka is a spirit-binder, a gifted who wields a form of magic that is unfamiliar in the Domains. She is able to bind spirits and express their characteristics, even shapeshifting to emulate them. Here she invokes some of the abilities of a hunting cat and uses the knowledge gleaned from an enemy spirit to understand their language.

I feel Riritaka, like most of the Hearthbound, has yet to live up to her potential as a character. She works best as a lens through which the reader sees the Domains, but has mostly been stuck in Ithal’Duin so far, which is a weird place for everyone, by design. In Bloodlust: The Seeds of Ruin (still iffy on that) I will be exploring more of the Domains and the idea of heresy in general, so expect more of her.

Teaser and Commentary — adding minor characters to flesh out my epic fantasy.

The following is a scene I recently added to Bloodlust: The Blades of Khazak Khrim, the upcoming novel in my Domains of the Chosen Series. It is still fairly raw, although I did fix one sentence where I used the word enough three times.

“Candidates!” the prince’s voice carried clear and strong over the sound of the waters. “This is the final obstacle between you and your destiny. If you survive these waters you will join The Blood. You will be elevated to the status of Nobility and all of the rights and privileges of your station. You will be blessed in the eyes of the Forge Father and your offspring will have the right to train to join the Blood. Your clan will be honoured as well. I am often told to emphasize the harshness of the cold waters and the difficulty you will face holding your breath for the long minutes required to claw your way across. But I would rather tell you of what wait you on the other side. The warmth of fire and feast, women to serve you, and above all the honour of standing with me as we defend these sacred halls and earn our place at the Forge Father’s right hand!”

Durekk cheered.

The first dwarf lowered into the river was Herlin of Stonebreaker. The fast-flowing waters of the channel were so deep that only the tip of Herlin`s back-banner stood out, yet they were clear enough that he could see the other man’s form well.

Herlin began to push against the waters. He made it a about halfway paces before he paused. After a breathless moment, the banner began to move again, more slowly this time. Then less than two paces from the ramp, it shuddered to a halt once more. Several voices, led by the prince shouted encouragement. The banner twitched for a moment. Then stopped. The cheers slowly grew silent. They hooked Herlin’s banner and pulled his body out of the water to return the armour and the corpse to his clan. They treated his body like that of a warrior, despite his death. At this stage in the testing, even failure was an honour.

Durekk is a new character, one that I felt compelled to add after I finished the first draft of Blades.I tend to have minor characters here and there in the books, mostly to flesh out the world and avoid exposition without action. A minor character allows me to show the reader a part of the world that the major players don’t get to see. When possible I like to draw these characters from previous works, someone familiar for the reader to latch onto. In this case, however, there are very few familiar faces among the Vvath, with only Twin-Swords being familiar to readers.

Minor characters also have potential for larger roles later on, like many of the fighters in the Bloodlust: Red Glory. Blue Hornet is a good example of this, having become a big part of the series after being a rival fighter in Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s tale.

Durekk is one of The Blood, the warrior-nobility of Khazak Khrim. I wanted to show the reader the aspects of some of that warrior cult, which, like historical warrior cults is very admirable and heroic in many ways, and yet alien and grotesque in others. Durekk allows me to show you what The Blood are like from the inside, which is far more interesting than a clinical analysis.

The Hugo Awards: The Money Angle

I wanted to write something about the Hugo awards, but I don’t really know enough about them to contribute meaningfully to the discussion one way or another. I have never been to Worldcon, and as a self-published author who flies well below the radar I don’t expect to see any of my book up there anytime soon, nor do feel bad about that. I’m just here to write and entertain.

Personally I dislike both the extreme right, and extreme left getting involved in this debate. North American directional politics, fed by the twenty-four hours “news” channels and the pundit blogs, is capable of very little other than bringing rage and ruin to everything it touches right now. I hate to think that in the midst of the massive boom in genre fiction that this ugliness could turn people off, and possibly even stunt the growth of SF/F.

What interests me most about the whole debate is that none of the articles that I have read about the whole Kerfuffle, most of which are very good, none cover the economic aspect of winning an award.

I would not buy a book simply because it was a Hugo award winner. However, if I was on the fence about a book and saw that it won an award, that would make me more likely to buy it. An award is an indication of quality, at the very least.

Perhaps more importantly winning (or even being short-listed) an award acts as additional exposure acts for both the work and the author. It will not push a niche intellectual work to bestseller status, to be sure, but I am confident that winning an award, especially a prestigious award, will expose a book to new readers and elevate sales in almost all cases.

Many authors are ego driven enough to value the award above the sales that it generates. Some writers, however, are far more motivated by sales figures and really don’t care how they get them. Attaching “Hugo” to their name and book will get those extra sales and so they have an economic motive, regardless of what ideology they might be espousing to justify their actions.

So while there is an ideological battle here, which is very sad, there is also the simple fact that by gaming the system the Sad Puppies have gained publicity and increased sales. The people who are outraged by their actions are not in their intended readership and I suspect that they, or their publishers, know it. The very nature of their very public campaign, and the amount of publicity it generates for their works, win or lose, demonstrates that at least some of them are motivated by sales as well as ideology.

Making money is not a bad thing, of course, but while winning an award increases sales, battles like this can damage how people view the award, which degrades the value of the endorsement that the award represents.

Unfortunately, it is a hard problem to fix. Every system can be gamed, and as George RR Martin brilliantly stated changing the rules to stop this behaviour only feeds into the narrative of a liberal conspiracy at the Hugos promoted by the Sad Puppies. Incidentally this will get like minded people to buy more of their books as well. Readers will often support writers they feel are being persecuted, as I found out when this happened. After I complained, readers picked up on the attack and sales increased.

Which means that there is also a possible economic motive behind complaining about being persecuted, which can get people on your side and sell more books… 😦

P.S: I don’t like identity politics, but people who form factions to promote their works based on not being part of a certain clique are only engaging in reactionary identity politics.

James Bond Complex, continued (now with Dirty Harry and Ferguson)

dirty_harry_1

A year and a month ago, I posted an article called the James Bond Complex in response to the NSA revelations, in which I argue that spy fiction is likely more harmful than Fantasy because is is very, very hard to mistake the real world for a Fantasy world, no matter how many bad movies come out that say otherwise. Meanwhile someone who mistakes the world of a good spy thriller could do a lot of damage. Fantasy is not written to be realistic, even the most hard-bitten Grimdark is seriously removed from the real world. Mean while a good spy-thriller is usually meant to seem as realistic as possible. This is not a knock against spy thrillers, but rather the logic of people who attack Fantasy and Super-heroes as dangerous. Even children know better than to try flying after they watch a superman movie for the most part, but it seems increasingly possible that some powerful people, and even whole agencies are carrying out their James Bond fantasies.

Lets take the recent focus on Ferguson, Missouri. The spectacle of a heavily militarized police force confronting protesters shocked everyone who hasn’t been paying close attention to the post 9/11 use of force. Hell, even the Republicans came out as against the use of that level of force, at least before they were reined in and reminded where they stand on (non tea-party) protesters.

Ferguson has shed a light on police militarization in the US (among other places) in the same way that The Snowden Revelations (give em’ hell Ed!) demonstrated the pervasive perfidity of the spy agencies. Both groups have abused the post 9/11 homeland security zeitgeist to enrich themselves with new toys, new powers, and new mandates.

One of the more interesting statistics to come out in the spate of articles about Ferguson was that 62% of Swat Raids are drug-searches. This of course brings me back to the war on drugs, and the images and propaganda of my youth that painted junkies as incredibly dangerous, almost civilization threatening, instead of merely sad and problematic in most cases. And that reminds me of another fun fictional character: Dirty Harry.

In the same way that I can see that the NSA has a little bit of a James Bond Complex going on, I also think that some police forces have something similar going on with Dirty Harry.

In a fun coincidence Dirty Harry came out in the same year that Nixon coined the phrase “war on drugs”.

For those of you who are unaware of what I mean by Dirty Harry, take some time to watch it before I spoil it for you. The series is emblematic of a certain style of police movie in which a detective decides to act as a vigilante because the justice system does not stop crime and the only way to end a killer is with a bullet. Basically the usual ends justify the means as long as the bad guy gets it stuff. It is remarkable how similar Jack Bauer from the TV show 24 and Dirty Harry are, actually. Right down to the willingness to torture, as long as it might save an innocent.

Part of me wonders if it Dirty Harry and James Bond pass muster simply because they have been around for so long. The thriller may once have been controversial the way the first person shooter or D&D were, but gradually became dominant, but still controversial, and then just gradually became accepted. Perhaps movie audiences will soon look upon Spider Man as we would James Bond, and just judge the film on its merits instead of as a superhero movie… that might be kind of nice.

Still, I think Fantasy, Comic Books, and other Geek Chic fiction come out a little ahead because they cannot be mistaken for reality by most people. It is a simple point, but one that bears mentioning, especially when the old guard still occasionally looks upon gaming as dangerous, D&D as satanic, comic books as insanity inducing, and so on. Genre fiction that is obviously removed from reality is rarely mistaken for real.And here we are in 2014 and it seems that the “shoot first and ask questions later” ethos so heavily promoted by vigilante cop movies like Dirty Harry seems more alive than ever. Meanwhile, I still don’t see any ring wearing Hobbits stabbing anyone in the back…

Jack_Bauer

Also a questionable role model.

Thoughts on evil in fantasy fiction

“Great People talk about ideas, small people talk about other people.” Tobias S Gibson, paraphrasing an old saying attributed Eleanor Roosevelt (Ideas > Events > People) or maybe even Socrates.

The days when Fantasy fiction limited its portrayal of villains and heroes to purely black and white are long gone. While unfathomable evil still has its place, and we all love our elder gods and zombies, these are rarely the enemies that take centre stage in modern works. Instead we might focus on the high priest who dooms the world by re-awakening great Cthulhu or the compound of survivors who do unspeakable things to others after the undead uprising. Partly this is the maturation of the genre: the language has solidified to and extent that it no longer needs lengthy exposition (one barely needs to define what a zombie, and orc, or a spell are any more). Perhaps more importantly, modern entertainment is fixated on characters over story and setting, arguably more than ever before. We like complex, rich, interesting characters, and while the elder gods and zombies are awesome and very popular they do not have the greatest “voice” when thrust centre stage as main characters (though some books do just that).

Of course the best works of modern fantasy manage to layer a more complex set of ideology and commentary above the character level. The clash of ideas is truly elevating and interesting, and can work with almost any tale in the hand of a skilled writer. Of course, some writers have no desire to move beyond Jersey Shore Fantasy, focusing entirely on characters who have little meaning behind the interactions. Myself, I like putting characters in situations where grand, crumbling systems and powerful influences lurking behind the action act as the true villains. Evil still has a place in even the most down to earth Fantasy fiction, even if it is only a shade darker than the protagonist.

Here are a few of the better versions of evil in modern Fantasy and my thoughts on them:

  • Evil is the unknowable outsider: It used to be that the outsider as evil was uncomfortably close to racism. Orcs, savages, and barbarians raiding civilized peoples occasionally strayed uncomfortably toward certain world views about closed borders and nationalism. Now the Orcs and Barbarians are more often the hero and the outsider is presented as something well beyond our understanding or ability to communicate with, such as zombies. The Zerg from Starcraft and the Tyranids from 40k, are other favoured examples of unknowable evils — these are forces more akin to sentient natural disasters than understandable beings. This trope works well, but as I noted above an evil that is unknowable is best used as a background element, since it is by definition hard to characterize in a compelling fashion. Its not a bad trope, as long as one does not stray into xenophobia.
  • Evil is what is at the bottom of the slippery slope that begins with selfishness: Extreme selfishness, the hoarding of vital resources, the taking of what belongs to others, disregard for life and freedom, and so on harkens back to the a more traditional view of evil. This view of evil is fairly simplistic, but still capable of nuance. A thief that steals bread, for example, is far better than a rich man who takes food from others to control them. Again, if well done, this sort of evil can avoid entering mustache twirling land, but I think the author would have to work in some views of how the society and systems create the conditions for this kind of selfishness for it to catch my interest.
  • Evil is the apathy/indifference of good men: Apathy is one of the great modern evils. In societies where everything is compartmentalized it is easy for everyone to deny personal responsibility. After all, if someone is being murdered, that is a matter for the police, right? Of course, the denial of responsibility was used as a defence for people who ran the death camps in the Holocaust. “Just following orders,” turned out to be a poor defence when complicit in genocide. This is one of my favourite evils, but understandably it is very, very hard to work this into a character driven fantasy narrative. For one, apathy and indifference are usually boring qualities for a protagonist and not exactly exiting as forces to fight against. More power to those who can actually make this idea of evil actually work in their novels.
  • Evil is the purposeful promotion of ignorance: (rant warning) I despise Fox News and, to a lesser extent, the other 24 hour cable news shows. These channels purposefully promote large scale ignorance in order to simply push their ratings higher. In world of complex, fun, entertaining media from books to computer games it is really difficult to fill a channel with meaningful news 24/7  and get viewers to tune in. The truth of things is that beyond our areas of interest most of us are only interested in the news, beyond staying informed, when something important is happening. To compensate the 24 hour news channels overinflate the importance of almost everything. The worst of them purposefully obscure the facts or outright lie to get ratings. The same is true with climate change deniers funded by oil billionaires, men paying to obscure the facts so that they can continue to reap record profits. There are more examples everywhere, but the central idea here is that the people who promote great ignorance for their own ends are doing something evil. This is an idea I love seeing explored in genre fiction, because we can remove it from the hyper-politicization that characterizes modern discourse on most subjects, and examine the consequences of promotion of ignorance in an of itself.

In general, I think evil in modern Fantasy should remain on the idea level, influencing the actions of the characters. Characters who are evil personified are too simplistic for the most part, and readers who want complex characters are unsatisfied by that kind of characters, be they villain or hero.

Stories from my Grandmother

Florence May Harris

Florence May Harris

My Grandmother’s funeral was yesterday.   She lived from February 26, 1924 to May 21, 2014. Her name was Florence May Harris (maiden name Kettle).

It was a beautiful ceremony, attended by friends and family from all over the country. I had to park down the street from the Church, in fact.

It is hard to qualify the influence that this amazing woman had on me, and really on everyone around her. Like so many of the generation that grew up during the depression and World War II, she had an influence that seemed far out of proportion to that of a single being. My grandmother was the type of person that built communities, and that was evident at her funeral.

Perhaps the beast measure of a person, in my view, is in the stories they tell. Hateful people tend to tell tales that justify their lists of grievances. Blowhards brag about their various victories. Good people tend to tell stories of a different sort. Here are some of my Grandmother’s”

  1. Marriage. My Grandfather, Howard, was a friend of my Grandmother’s brother, Charlie. They met at  and married just before Grandmother turned twenty. My great Grandmother (Grandmother’s Mother) was initially very cautious about her daughter’s relationship. When Florence announced her desire to marry Howard, her mother told her that she would have to wait until next year. They were married on January 1st, 1944. That date says a lot about my Grandmother.
  2. The Sandwich: My grandmother did not like to talk about the depression. Usually she just said that they had what they needed, so it did not feel so bad. Once I pressed the issue, telling her that it was professional curiosity. She related a story about how her father would often invite the hungry into the kitchen and share a sandwich with them. She said he would always close the door to the rest of the house, so they could eat in privacy. My post 9/11 thinking kicked in at that point and I asked if that was for the protection of the family. Grandmother laughed and said no, it was so that their guest could eat in peace and enjoy the dignity of good food without people staring and pitying.
  3. Working Woman: My grandmother was from a working class family and yet finished high school, a relative rarity in her day. Nonetheless her job prospects when she finished were bleak — service (maid etc) was the only readily available job. Nonetheless my grandmother, a lover of math, prevailed and found gainful employment in several fields. She told me many tales of overcoming sexist and just plain annoying employers, but her favourite job story was more about herself. In short while applying for a job she noticed that her prospective employer had made several spelling/math mistakes. During the interview she corrected him, which cost her the job. She was proud of her choice, but also quick to note the consequences and laugh at her lack of diplomacy.
  4. Politics: My grandparents were true supporters of the democratic process, volunteering on election day well into retirement. I enjoyed discussing and debating politics with them, and will sorely miss my grandmother’s perspectives. My grandmother was heavily involved in the creation of the NDP (then CCF) and the canadian healthcare debate. The NDP were often seen as “those damned socialists” in those days, mostly by the type of people who always seem to think society reached its pinnacle during their childhood (or the middle ages) and everything since has been a horrible decline. One of my Grandmother’s favourites stories was about canvassing and putting up signs for her party and drawing the ire of a man who railed against her in anger, and began to get very threatening. Let’s just say Florence gave as good as she got and wore her colours proudly, without fear.
  5. George: My father is named after my Grandmother’s brother, who died of Polio when he was twenty. This was long before the universal health care that Florence helped fight for or the wide-spread use of the polio vaccine. The family gave up everything to pay her Brother’s hospital bills, losing houses and long hours to pay the costs involved. In the end he succumbed. My Grandmother carried her brother with her, in her heart, as long as she lived, painting a vivid picture of him in her stories about him. Through her I know of his wit and his artistic side, his smile and his courage. I feel like I know him, because of her words and stories. To come to know someone who died long before you were born, through stories and sighs, is a profoundly powerful experience. I owe my grandmother much.

We owe much to my Grandparent’s generation. They were not without flaw, to be sure, but they deserve the title of the greatest generation. My grandmother fought for social change, women’s right, equality, and fairness. She did not wallow in the difficulties of a world that often seemed like it was staggering from one crisis to the next with war and nuclear apocalypse looming ever closer. Her solution was always to forge on, in the direction she thought was in the service of her family and her country and the Good (that bright and shining good that seems lost now, even in fiction), no matter if things were murky, or difficult. In the end she willed her way through a congenital heart defect, the loss of an eye, and a long battle with c. dificille, an infection that is usually lethal. She pushed her way to 90 so that she could see her great-grandchildren grow and enjoy the lives of her friends. She never stopped building communities, never stopped anything really, until she finally wound down.

I will carry her in my heart, and speak of her in my stories.