Trudeau, Castro, Cuba, Canada, and News Bubbles

I almost did not write this. It is an opinion that could lose me fans. But part of being a writer is having the courage of my convictions.

This week the Canadian Prime-Minister, Justin Trudeau, briefly managed the nigh-impossible feat of attracting more media attention than Donald Trump by offering a eulogy for Fidel Castro. The hashtag #TrudeauEulogies quickly trended, with fake Trudeau eulogies for Hitler and Stalin being the most popular.

Then our American allies discovered (again) photos of our PM being held by Castro when he was a child. And then they rediscovered the pictures of Castro at Pierre Trudeau’s funeral and the shit really hit the fan (for a few hours, until Trump tweeted about SNL or something).

The things is Canada has never really been at odds with Cuba. It is more of an American thing.

While the Canadian right was quick to jump on the bandwagon and enjoy a good ol commie scare, most Canadians shrugged. Almost a million Canadians vacationed in Cuba last year (2015), spending over 700 million $, and notably few them were taken prisoner, shot, or radicalized. Many of those Canadians actually left the beaten and talked to the locals, who are amazingly well educated despite the isolation forced on them by the embargo.

Some people who live in the US, particularly Cuban exiles and escapees, have real reasons to hate Castro, I cannot deny that. These people have family members who have been executed and property that has been confiscated, and many escaped under harrowing circumstances. Their view of Cuba is the one that I grew up with, as Canada is often inside the US media bubble. That view was of Castro as a brutal dictator dominating his country, always on the brink of being overthrown.

When I visited Cuba, I found that greatly at odds with the reality. There were far fewer police and military than I expected and I began to see how the elder Trudeau could have a friendship with the Cuban dictator.

I learned a great deal from the Cubans I encountered. There is a lot of history on that island, which is, after all the first point of modern European contact with the Americas.

Cubans do not hide that Castro did brutal things. They spoke openly about them. The US backed dictator that Castro overthrew, Bautista, apparently did worse things. He just wasn’t a communist. In the midst of the cold war, that made all the difference.

The US tried many times to overthrow Castro. Each time they made a crucial mistake.in hoping that the Cuban people would rise up and overthrow the cruel dictator. Each time that rebellion failed to materialize, even when backed by Cuban exiles and escapees. From the Bay of Pigs, to the embargo, to Radio Free Cuba, all of these failed.

While I was in Cuba I was reminded of the time after the fall of the Soviet Union, when the US tightened the embargo, hoping that without the support of that bastion of communism, Russia, that Cubans would finally be driven to oust the dictator. I forgot about that until I visited Cuba and on of my day tour guides mentioned what they call “the special period”, with a haunted look in his eyes.

You see that tightening of the embargo produced starvation in Cuba. People died when goods could not be sold and food could not be brought in. Dying of starvation is a kind of torture, is it not? And yet, the Cuban people did not blame Castro for the embargo, nor did they have higher than normal resentment toward the American people — they blamed the US government and US politics.

But mostly the people I talked to about that period, which includes a number of Cuban immigrants to Canada since my visit, look at it as a sad, painful event.

So while some Cubans have reason to hate Castro, the Cuban dictator and the Cuban situation is more complex than the mainstream media lets on and the US government is not exactly free of blemishes regarding the island. My hope is that President Trump helps lift the embargo and that the people of the US can travel there to learn on their own.

It certainly opened my eyes.

Idea: Focus Crystals

This is an idea for a book series that I will likely start writing in 2018, after my third Shadow Wolf Book (The Whore’s War) comes out.

I have gone on about industrial age fantasy before. My current favourite book series that fits the idea is Brian McClellan’s flintlock fantasy which begins with Promise of Blood. I believe that we will see more and more industrial age settings as the genre branches out. I can even see it becoming one of the dominant forms of the the fantasy genre. Steampunk has done well, but the industrial age is larger than victoriana.

The Focus Crystal

The idea behind the Focus Crystal is to combine the industrial age with fantasy magic. The crystal is a specially treated mineral that converts concentration into magical energy that can be used to power magical effects, or as a mundane source of energy.

Key Points

  • The Focus Crystal works better for people with stronger will and better concentration.
  • The Focus Crystal can store energy for a limited period of time. Small crystals lose half their stored energy every 15 minutes while the largest and most elaborately made have a storage half-life of 24 hours.
  • The energy from a focus crystal can power a spell. Originally they were used by hereditary sorcerers to supplement their magical abilities, but it was eventually discovered that the energy could be used for more mundane uses like electricity in the real world. Eventually it was discovered that it could be used by a non-sorcerer to power a magical effect when combined with a spell plate.
  • Focus Crystals can be mass produced from materials extracted from the earth.

In the setting I am considering Focus Crystals undermine the nobility, who claim power through hereditary sorcerous power, by making magic more accessible.

The working title for the series is End of Kings.

Musings on user reviews

Reviews are the lifeblood of e-commerce. Without the ability to actually examine the product for themselves consumers are forced to make a judgement based partly on the description of the product, the reputation of the vendor, and the reviews of the item. Yet often these reviews are rife with ideological crusaders, reviews for sale, and odd design choices in the review systems themselves.

As an indy author this is painfully obvious for me at the moment. I have to solicit reviews on amazon because most people who read my work prefer to review it on Goodreads. I have even been tarred and feathered by fake reviewers looking to lower their average score in order to seem legitimate when they give 5 star ratings to their clients. The review system is annoying, and yet I need it to move books and reach potential readers.

The first and largest problem in the review system is that it often reads like any other comment section anywhere else in the internet. I am not popular enough to have this problem yet, but it does annoy the heck out of me when I am reading reviews of games or books and people are using the review system for popular products to push their personal views rather than actually review the product. This can be a fine line, to be sure: should Lovecraft be docked stars because he is racist? for example. Mind you in most cases it is not. I’m sure you have all seen reviews like this, if not go look at the reviews on your favorite (non classic) popular computer game or book. Some are legit, some are lazy, and some people are there to make a point that has little to do with the product itself. I’m not sure how to fix this, yet.

Fake reviews are more sensational. There is a thriving cottage industry in selling fake reviews of all sorts of products, as well as companies putting up their own fake reviews of their products. Since reviews still help drive sales, there is a real economic incentive to cheat if you can get away with it. As I noted these ‘reviewers’ often give crap ratings to low profile indy authors in order to even out all of the five star reviews they give to their clients so that they look like a tough reviewer.

The review systems themselves are sometimes even more of a problem. Amazon, the most important reviewer for my career, has some quirks that annoy the crap out of me. They do not amalgamate reviews from all of their secondary sites on my book, even though the product is exactly the same on amazon.com as it is on amazon.ca or amazon.uk. People who have written reviews for me sometimes do not get them approved from various reasons (some are legitimate I suppose, sorry mom!). Even worse is that Amazon owns Goodreads and could easily show the goodreads reviews on a particular title, like Steam shows the metacritic score, but they do not and thus compete with themselves for reviews. I don’t know too many people who are willing to review a product on multiple sites without prodding. This is not to mention the problems with the scoring systems themselves and even how ratings drive searches.

One solution is professional reviewers, people whose job it is to review a product for a trusted third party. Unfortunately in many arenas Professional reviews are missing in action, or lost in the noise. Even if they are easy to find, a professional reviewer often wants different things than the average reader. This can lead to authors skewing their work to solicit favourable opinions from elite reviewers. This is nothing new, but it is still annoying; authors should be free to write for their intended audience, ideally, rather than jump through hoops for publishers and reviewers. Still, hunting down high profile reviewers who will like your work has been a piece of advice that many of my peers have given me.

For now, I rely on fans and organic growth while examining other possibilities.

Shadow Wolf Sagas: Red Fangs post mortem.

Hi all.

Last week wrapped up the latest installment of my Thursday night serial, The Shadow Wolf Sagas: Red Fangs. I would like to cap that off with some thoughts and a preliminary examination of what I will likely change for the final write up when I gather it all up in the fall.

Red Fangs begins with Ragnar in a depressing position. After book one, his friends/roommates/lovers, The Twins are embroiled in a conflict to see who runs Doxies’s Guild. Ragnar feels marginalized, since it really isn’t his show, and takes to drinking. Things get worse when his favourite waitress at the willing wench gets killed by vampires.

Right here we run into a few problems.

  • The Twins: Readers want to know more about The Twins. I found this out from reader feedback long after I started writing Red Fangs. I will have to write a bigger part for them, as I did with the final version of Blade Breaker.In this case I will also want to showcase the Whore’s War, who The Twins are up against, and why readers should actually care about who runs prostitution in Myrrhn. A good start would be adding in a little modern politics with one of their opponents wanting to kick out trans-gendered guild members or something like that.
  • Ragnar drinks normally as a cultural artifact. He needs to be more obviously melancholy, perhaps peeved that The Twins have hired security that isn’t him. Not whiny, but maybe feeling a little old. Perhaps a way to endear Delilah to the reader would be to have her explain that this security is a way for The Twins to keep Ragnar out of a bad situation because they care.

Soon we have Ragnar tracking down a mysterious Vampire who seems to be very active in the city’s slums.

  • I like the idea of Cinder, a semi-mythical Vampire who wants to cause a war between humanity and the bloodsuckers. I love the idea that this is really just a monicker taken up by other vampires to stir up trouble.
  • Early references to Cinder all need to be cleaned up.
  • Ragnar needs to bash more heads searching for the information.

The last half of the book involves the Vampire, Berkhilda, a woman who is not proud of her vampire half and really just want to be a viking. They capture Cinder by accident, and eventually discover that they have her. Hijinks and BLOODHYDRA ensue.

  • Berkhilda’s internal conflict needs to be clarified for the Reader. A scene where she feels revulsion after drinking blood would be good.
  • Ragnar and Berkhilda need to talk about Nordan culture more, not only is it a good way to world build, it also helps them better establish a relationship.
  • The Mercenaries that attack them should be tied to the Whore’s War.
  • Cinder and Berkhilda need to argue more.
  • Fights need to be more epic (EPIC!)
  • Delve in Ragnar’s relationships a little more.

UPDATE: The Links

2.1

2.2

2.3

2.4

2.5

2.6

2.7

2.8

2.9

2.10

2.11

2.12

2.13

2.14

2.15

2.16

2.17

2.18

2.19

2.20

2.21

2.22

2.23

2.24

2.25 ???

2.26

2.27

2.28

2.29

2.30

2.31

2.32

2.33

2.34

2.35

2.36

2.37

2.38

2.39

2.40

2.41

2.42

2.43

2.44

2.45

2.46

2.47

2.48

2.49

2.50

2.51

2.52

2.53

2.54

2.55

2.56

 

 

Reading and Reviews

This has been an eventful week for me, and I wanted to share some of the good stuff.

First up, popping my cherry at the Chi Series Guelph. Public reading has been low on my list as an indy author. Hell, public anything rarely rates high on my priorities, unless it involves politics or written discussion.

Nonetheless, a friend invited me to read at a local event in Guelph, held at the Red Brick Cafe, just down the street from the apartment where I wrote my first two books.

I have to say that while I was nervous, the experience turned out to be very positive, with the added bonus of meeting some lovely people and talking with other authors, face to face. The experienced convinced me that I should stop acting like a hermit and attend a few more events.

And now for a common complaint you hear from authors: that most dreaded of subjects, the Amazon Review.

This week Amazon saw fit to take down my mother’s review of my first book (in which she identified herself as my mother and gave it a less that perfect 3/5). I have no problem with that — Amazon does say in the TOS that relatives should not be reviewing each other’s works, but it does annoy me that a small group of them took the time to mock her before taking down the review.

Mom, it was an honour to have your review.

That aside, the issue did get me to sit down and take a look at my amazon reviews. I have sold a fair number of books, but have very few reviews on Amazon — almost an order of magnitude less than the reviews that I have on Goodreads. This hinders sales a little, I think, but mostly it seems that the review system needs to be reworked and properly incentived. Amazon should do more to solicit reviews from readers or take a page from Steam and post the book’s Goodreads score as a secondary indicator, which Steam does with Metacritic. Amazon owns Goodreads, after all.

I also think that all of a book’s reviews should show up on its page, instead of being divided by region of purchase. More information is better, especially if it is well organized. Extra review scores would help authors and readers and an increased number of reviews helps weed out fakers and reviewers for hire.

Just some thoughts, cheer!

Teaser Tuesday

Another throwback Teaser this week, this time to Bloodlust: Will to Power, the second book in the Domains of the Chosen series. Gavin is trying to fight his way through the Death Leagues to confront Valaran diVolcanus. The Death Leagues of Dregs are some of the more extreme side arenas in the Great Games, a bloody mix of the desperate, the mad, and the great. Gavin’s presence here is offensive to the fans, who are eager to see him bleed out in their favoured fighting ground.

The Cover for Bloodlust: Will to Power

The Cover for Bloodlust: Will to Power

Baron Bones hopped up. His cultured voice carried over the din of the crowd as Gavin and Choker met in the centre of the arena and turned to face him.

“Welcome supplicants,” said Baron Bones. “Today is a good day for one of you to die.”

“BLEED FOR US SLAGFUCKERS!” shouted someone nearby.

“I WANNA SEE YOUR GUTS!” came another voice.

“They’re talking about you,” said Choker, his voice singsong and mocking. A Shadow-Elf, he carried a heavy whip made from metallic cords and a short, brutal-looking serrated sword. Gavin knew that his opponent was a skirmisher by training, versed in life magic and dirty fighting. It was Gavin’s guess that, unlike his beloved Sadira, Choker had developed his natural shadow manipulation abilities: such powers were just too useful to a Gladiator who relied on misdirection. He could not guess at what other training the man might have.

Gavin ignored the jibe.

“We have a special guest today,” said Baron Bones.

Baron Bones is an amusing character, the sort of archetypal ring master that seems appropriate to the Death Leagues. His mix of class and mummery is especially fun to write and I bring him back in Bloodlust: Red Glory (and I intend to make use of him again soon enough)

Baron Bones cadaverous disguise is a nod to Baron Samedi, but also to the religious origins of the Roman Gladiatorial games as the funeral games for a culture where ritual sacrifice still held significance. Baron is also a title that has little real significance in the Domains, a relic of the times before the Reckoning.

The Baron quickly becomes a foil for Gavin, trying to force him to accept the harsh realities of the Death Leagues. This clash of ideology is central to the tension of Gavin’s battles here, and leads to a fateful decision.

Choker’s eyes went wide. Lionfang had performed flawlessly, accounting for the impact of his blades and pain while delivering the fatal blow. It was a master-stroke, almost unbelievable in Choker’s eyes. Gavin let go. The heavily armoured Shadow-Elf dropped his weapons and toppled, hands tugging at Gavin’s sword. His mouth worked but only blood came out.

Gavin’s spear flew into his hands. He looked down at Choker.

“KILL HIM!” came a shout from the crowd.

“MAKE HIM SUFFER!” came another.

“BLEED HIM, BLEED HIM, YEAAAAHHH!” another shout.

Gavin’s eyes met Choker’s. He saw defiance and acceptance there, a strange mix. He supposed that very few Gladiator’s came to the Death Leagues expecting to lose. The thought of killing Choker filled Gavin with disgust. He thought of Omodo on the ground, hacked to pieces, a gleeful Valaran getting ready to foul the corpse. Gavin did not want to be like that; he was tired of pointless killing. He placed the tip of his spear at Choker’s throat.

“Yield, and I’ll let you live,” he said. “Do you yield? Nod if you can.”

Mercy in the Death Leagues demonstrates Gavin’s growth as person. He confidently rejects the demands of the crowd, placing principles above popularity. It is a simple twist, but one I am proud of.

The writing in book two is better than book one, but could still use a touch up. On the whole though, I think it is a strong work, and well worth delving into for anyone who loves action and magic.