Tuesday, February 28, 2012

100 Books #19 - MeiLin Miranda's SON IN SORROW

Available soon at meilinmiranda.com and other fine bookselling  type places!
MeiLin Miranda likes to use an amusing tagline for her fiction, announcing that she writes "fantasy with all the good parts left in," and it's quite apropos. The book for which she is perhaps best known to date (how I discovered her, at any rate) is the first set in this "Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom", Lovers and Beloveds, had lots and lots and lots of "good parts" in its two entertwined storylines, an arousing and disturbing and graceful read if ever there was one. And yes, I'm talking about sex, which is treated both frankly and delicately and in some detail in this series.

But what she could equally call it is "the feminine side of fantasy," for while these stories are set in a more or less typical epic fantasy world* -- gods are real as is magic, big burly men wear shiny armor and fight with swords, feudalism is in full effect -- but Ms. Miranda is more interested in the lives of the women who are kept in keeps and castles until they're useful to cement alliances or birth babies or look good on a nobleman's arm, even as these books seem primarily concerned with the life and education of a young man, Prince Temmin, heir to a vast kingdom (his education as we see it is focused on teaching him the stereotypically "feminine" qualities of empathy, compassion, attention to small detail, and oh, yes, good sex, which in Ms. Miranda's world does not happen without those other qualities. Let's hear it for MeiLin!).

Above all, we are prompted to consider the consequences of sex, and how women bear the worst of them in pretty much every society, even a fantasy one in which great goddesses actually walk among their worshippers through taking over willing "Embodiments" -- the many roles of woman, of lover, mother, teacher and healer may be sacred, but the actual women playing these roles still get treated pretty badly.

In Lovers and Beloveds, we were pulled into the story of Prince Temmin as a young man, as he fell for and doggedly pursued the woman who served as one of the Embodiments of the Lovers, twin deities, male and female, who preside over love and sexuality -- meaning, he was after a woman who is off limits -- right into her Temple, where he decided against his father's most strident wishes to enter as a Supplicant, a sort of high level lay priest (there was apparently a prophecy that if the Heir ever joined the Lovers' Temple, the monarchy would end in revolution and revolt, something no aristocracy wants to happen). As he decided to buck his father and the rest of society's expectations, he was magically immersed in the sad-yet-lovely story of some distant ancestors, a dethroned king and a cruelly enchanted princess whose love ultimately triumphed and whose experiences helped guide Temmin into deciding to go for it.

Alas, no decision made by one in his position is without consequences, and so he becomes the titular Son in Sorrow of this second volume (that title guides the reader's thoughts down a melancholy path as the story takes hold, and this is no accident), close to the Embodiment yet never further away even when he gets to sleep with her, enduring the icy disapproval of his father, and mostly out of contact with his mother and sisters, whose own anguished affairs threaten at times to dominate his tale -- even when a man is center stage in this Intimate History, he is defined by his relationships to women, even when he rides out to battle, as evidenced in the ancestral story Temmin is immersed this time around, this one a royal bastard whose mother bounced from kingdom to kingdom until the grieving ruler of one of Tremont's enemies married her and made her troubles even worse.

These works are often compared to George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, and for good reason, but I find the comparison sells these Intimate Histories short: I find them to be superior works in many respects. Miranda may not write battle scenes as well as Martin, though she is no slouch in that department, but her understanding of and compassion for her characters is far greater, her magical and theological conceits better thought out and more thematically and aesthetically consistent, her insights into the human psyche keener. Male readers may dislike how her male characters are circumscribed by her females, but then, that is the whole point, for the whole nature of these books is to tell the "unknown" stories of royal mistresses and jilted lovers and illegitimate children even as they detail the coming of age of a Crown Prince whose very existence is owed just as much to the suffering -- and triumphs -- of these women as to the mighty kings and princes (and bastard sons) who make up his male lineage.

I didn't want this book to end but found myself racing to the finish nonetheless and now I find myself grateful indeed that Miranda releases her fiction in serialized doses on her website before formally publishing it. I first encountered her Intimate History this way, but then held off for the second novel until this volume saw formal publication**. I'm pretty sure I'll just be haunting her website again for more, though. Patience was never really one of my virtues.

*A lot of readers have compared this world to Victorian England, but I kept thinking of Austria. The Antremonts (the royal family of this series) made me think more of a polytheist Hapsburg clan than of the early Windsors. Let's say, the Hapsburgs had they and their empire been colonized an an early date by the Goa'uld, for that is what this setting's polytheism most reminds me of.

**Not that I totally had to wait; Miranda is a personal friend and gave me an advanced review copy of this book when I wheedled her into it. She's nice like that. Try that with George R.R. Martin, kiddies!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

100 Books #18 - A.J. Hartley's ACT OF WILL

Who would have thought a brash, know-it-all teenager could make such a charming narrator? Such, though, is most definitely the case of Will Hawthorne, the antiheroic protagonist of what would otherwise be a run-of-the-mill fantasy. He's 18 years old, an actor and playwright whose youth and slight, perhaps even spindly build has confined him to playing female parts, and, most amusingly of all, he doesn't believe in magic. How could I not be charmed?

As must be the case, this unlikely hero is torn from the world he knows (and which has made him a know-it-all), a theater company in a second-rate town that has been added relatively recently to the vaguely menacing and greedy Diamond Empire. He is accused behind his back of being a rebel, of writing seditious plays, and is chased into the waiting company of a party of adventurers straight out of any D&D play group. The adventurers help him escape the Empire's guards and bring him along on their latest mission: to find out what is behind a series of raids that are all but destroying the commerce of three principalities that are distant enough from the Empire's current borders to still be free. Again, bog-standard fantasy, but livened up by Will's scoffing, scathing narration. He mocks a companion's magic sword. He tries (and fails, repeatedly) to hit on the pretty swordswoman. He gets in big trouble for mocking a duke to his face. He's totally a teenager from hell.

But he is also an acute student of human behavior and motivation, and thinks well on his feet, and can be tricked by circumstance into accidental bravery -- also totally like a teenager. Were he a modern lad, he would definitely play D&D, and would be the bane of his game master through his talent for coming up with completely off-the-wall solutions to problems that the GM cannot quickly find a way to defeat. What a brat.

What an awesome, awesome brat.

And his adventures are far from over. I'm sure the Diamond Empire would still like to get its steely gauntlets on him, and there's still a whole world of fantasy tropes and figures at which to scoff. Which is to say that yes, there is a sequel, Will Power, and yes, I will be snagging it forthwith.

Fun stuff!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Beetle, an OULIPO of Paul Valery's The Bee (FGC #3)

The Beetle 

So deadly delicate your stipule! 
Yet, O golden beetle, I place
Over this soft cutback, saddening, 
Nothing but a dressmaker of laddie. 

Prick the breeder's fine gown and press
Home where luck dies, where sleeps his spermatozoon! 
Thus may some of my rotary
Rise to the round and stubborn flight! 

I need a hut that's kerfuffle and swindler. 
A tortilla prompt and soon done with 
Is better than one that sleeping lies. 

O may my boiler be made warm 
By this tiny gold alcohol 
Without which luck sleuths or dies!

Blogger's note: this is an OULIPO poem created from Lionel Abel's translation of Paul Valery's symbolist poem L'abeille (The Bee). I chose the traditional N+7 technique, mostly because it offered the most amusing substitution -- "beetle" for "bee." To jump start, I used the online N+7 Machine, but such computer-generated efforts have trouble distinguishing when a word like, says "rise" is really being used as a noun, so some tweaking was in order. In addition, I have a fantastic old edition of Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary at hand, and as I checked this over I found a better substitution than what the generator offered in one place: "stipule" instead of "stingy" (which is actually an adjective anyway).

For those who wish to see the original poem, and read an essay on what it has meant to me, I refer you to an appreciation I wrote several years ago for the online arts magazine Escape Into Life, HERE.

Friday, February 24, 2012

100 Books #17 - Robert E. Howard's THE BLOODY CROWN OF CONAN

Lately, the more I read of Conan the Cimmerian's adventures, the more I want to. So I can totally understand why there are a whole mess of novels -- homages, really -- by other writers that feature this character in store for me, but for now, for now my Conanical heart belongs entirely to Robert E. Howard. And to Del Rey books for releasing these magnificent collections.

This second one contains just three tales ("People of the Black Circle," Hour of the Dragon and "A Witch Shall Be Born") where the first one contained a passel. But one of these tales is a novel, folks, and that is a fine, fine thing, because Hour of the Dragon is one fine novel, if short by modern standards.* Therein, we see Conan on the throne of Aquilonia (a situation to which the films starring a future governor of California in the title role loved to allude to as "another story" they teased us they'd adapt some day but of course never did) (but maybe Jason Mormoa will get a shot doing same, though I pray to Crom that if there is another Mormoa Conan movie they'll use more than the odd out of context line from Howard's outstanding original source material, AHEM), AND leading armies into battle AND chastely falling in love with his future queen AND doing battle with an undead sorceror AND questing after the magical jewel that is said undead sorceror's weakness... Yeah, man, this is Conan complete with kitchen sink (err... pail of water dashed vigorously at his gigantic muscle-y self?). If it doesn't make you want to strap on some mail and rush out to wave a sword around and have over the top adventures, then you've definitely been in your cubicle too long.

And then there are two other stories, both full of swords and sorcery and evil plots and deceptions and slaying!

A beloved friend and I were just chatting last night about how reading Conan as adults has enhanced our commitment to physical fitness. The idea of actually becoming that badass is irresistible. Or at least of trying. And never in my life have I tried so hard as I am now. I think I need to get audio versions of these books to play on the boombox in my garage gym. I bet I do twice as many pull-ups listening to them as I do listening to music, even to ska!

So hey, you market tappers out there, you Nerd Fitness guru types -- you're missing out on a fantastic opportunity. I propose a set of exercise videos: the Cimmerian Workout. Jason Mormoa can be the presenter.

I know of at least two, maybe even three, people who would buy them sight unseen.

*Though in this age of giant doorstop fantasy novels that are in themselves incomplete without half a dozen giant doorstop fantasy sequels, this is actually, probably, a virtue, however.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

100 Books #16 - Bernard Cornwell's ENEMY OF GOD

Bernard Cornwell scoured pretty much all of the material that has been swept up and classified as Arthurian over the centuries and teased out something rather remarkable out of it: far from being the inspiration for the Quest for the Holy Grail, Arthur was pretty much the villain in a lot of the Lives of the early Celtic Christian saints "making more of them than God did" according to our narrator in this second volume of the Warlord trilogy.

I've mentioned already how much I like Cornwell's take on Arthur and his story, in which magic is coincidental and largely a matter of persuasion and belief and the courtly chivalry of a High Middle Ages, Normanesque hero-king is replaced by the brutal struggle to rebuild Britain after the Romans left its tribes to fend for themselves and its culture threatened with extinction by both the Saxon invasions and the spread of Christianity. Arthur here is not a king at all but a pagan warlord fighting to preserve a kingdom while the child who is its legitimate heir grows up.

It's all very powerful stuff, given focus through the quest undertaken by our narrator, the warrior-much-later-turned-Christian-monk Derfel Cadarn, to retrieve a cauldron that is one of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain from the Island of Mona, now in wicked Irish hands. With it, the druid Merlin insists he can get rid of both threats and create a new British golden age in which Britain is British and so are its gods.

But while the first volume focused mostly on the Saxon threat, here it is the Christians who are the villains, sheltering opportunists like Lancelot (who showily converts when it becomes clear he won't be initiated into the warrior brotherhood of Mithras) and eager to rid the world of pagans in time for the Second Coming in 500 A.D., whether by conversion or killing, it doesn't really matter which. I'm fine with this perspective, of course, no fan of any kind of religious absolutism, but I found myself wondering again and again as I read what kind of reception this book got in the greater world, where religious dogma is still an acceptable excuse for not thinking.

Of course my reading was colored very much by current events, in which political candidates purporting to be led by their faith are proclaiming that faith is all the reason they need to curtail my liberty and pen me up -- so from my perspective, Enemy of God came across as a very brave book, and also, which I've not mentioned yet, a very funny one, full of old soldier wit that comes at the expense of pagan and Christian alike (and Arthur himself isn't much of a pagan; he honors his culture and its rituals but expresses no belief in anything more mystical than the ability of a sword or spear point to draw blood and kill).

I look forward to the third volume, Excalibur, which I'll start on as soon as my tablet recharges -- not least because now I'm really wondering how it's going to come about that Derfel is going to become a monk, and not just a monk, but one in the monastery of Samsun, his arch-foe whom he and Nimue have nicknamed "the mouse lord."

Monday, February 20, 2012

John Carter

As you might guess, I'm a big fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs and especially of his Barsoom books. When I first heard a few years ago that a film adaptation was at last in the works, I sat down and re-read them all from the beginning and found that they hold up incredibly well. They're exciting, imaginative, romantic, everything that pulp sci-fi should be (in fact, they pretty much defined the genre). I believe I undressed once or twice and tried to come up with a Dejah Thoris outfit as a young'un (and my Own Dear Sinister Mom, who reads this blog, is either saying "what what WHAT?" or laughing and nodding). I see from this and other clips that Disney has decided movie-Dejah Thoris needs more clothing, which is too bad, but we live in puritanical times. Anyway, it's Barsoom, so I'm going. Probably on opening day. What about you?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Lost and Found (FGC #2)

Alica paused to shake her hands and looked at the clock. Oh god, she had been typing for three hours, and yes, most of it was chatting with this guy whom her two best friends had insisted she'd like. And she did, basically, sort of, but things were definitely going south.

His referring to how much he loved to stimulate "lady softness" was a definite clue that this was someone she did not need cluttering up her real life. But how to get rid of him.

She had already tried her usual gambit: "Well, it's getting late..." which the fellow had blithely ignored -- indeed, it was that which had prompted reference to "lady softness." What a phrase. She would never get over it. And she would make sure that Michael and Clay didn't, either.

She would make sure they never, ever forgot it.

"Look," she typed, "I've really got to call it a night. Really nice chatting with you. Good luck with the whole steer wrassling thing and all. That sounds very exciting."

"OH, IT IS," this CWBY28 typed back. "So, when can I call ya? Can't wait to take you out for a steak!"

She had told him twice she was a vegetarian. Taking a deep breath to summon courage, she went for the straight-up honest approach.

"I'd rather you didn't call me, to be honest. You seem nice, but I don't think we're a good match. Sorry. No hard feelings?"


"Yes, it's like that." No, this was not going well at all.

"MIKE DINT TELL ME YOUR A SNOB." Still in all caps. Great.

"I'm not. I just... trust me, we're not a good fit. Good night, and like I said, good luck."

He had already signed out of chat.

Alicia sighed again, but then took a moment and took stock. She was, she realized, actually pretty proud of herself. She had been honest and direct and not wasted anyone's time. She hadn't prevaricated with any of the usual "It's not you, it's me" crap; she hadn't accepted a date she really didn't want to go on; she hadn't led him on. Her only mistake had been to let the happy couple, Michael and Clay, try fixing her up again. They loved her, sure, and she them, but when it came to dating, their idea of a perfect match for her was... any heterosexual man they came across and thought was "hot."

They meant well.

Alicia looked up at the clock again. It wasn't too late to call them -- and maybe it was a good idea to get her side of the story on the record before this got blown into something it wasn't.

Michael picked up on the first ring. "Hi, heartbreaker," he said, with more than a hint of mockery. Great. She was too late.

"'Lady softness', Michael. He called it 'lady softness!'"

"Aw, how romantic!"

"Not romantic, Michael, lame. And that's just the beginning. But short version, just, just, no. I mean, shit, he's a Republican. Not even just a Republican. You do realize if he got his way you and Clay would be in prison, or worse, right?"

"Aw, that's too bad."

"But you thought he was 'perfect' for me?"

"Clay," Michael's voice was a little muffled; he'd pulled the phone away from his mouth for a moment. "Did we say that guy was perfect for her?"

Alicia couldn't hear his answer.

"You know. Whatshisname. That we met at the Ranger last week." Michael continued. Then he returned to clarity. "We never said he was perfect for you, Leesh. Just... we really thought you should meet him. Or at least sleep with him a few times."

"Giddyup," Clay's distant voice came tinny over Michael's phone. "Yeehaw."

"No, you said 'perfect'" Alicia insisted with a sigh. "So did he already call you and tell  you I'm a bitch?"

"I don't even think he has my number."


"I see. So I was just supposed to be your proxy again?"

"Ha ha ha. Yeah... something like that..."

"Oh, honey, please stop that, okay? It's really not funny and it makes me feel pretty awful."


"Michael, really. Do you just not get it?"

"I guess not."

"Well then, please, just accept that I don't want it. I know you guys mean well and all but Christ, I'd rather stay single and celibate than mess around with the jerk parade. Okay?"

"Sure. Love you, babe."

"Love you, too. Say good night to Clay for me."

"Sure. G'night!"

Alicia decided to go for a walk. There was a light snowfall so she'd need to bundle up. On went the coat (a Scott-E-Vest, with great pockets, all nice and secure), boots," scarf... She stood in the mud room of her house and pondered a moment. It was very dark out, probably too dark to write, but the greenway had lights here and there... and surely the one time she didn't bring her Field Notes would be the time she had that killer idea for a new story, or thought her way out of the plot problems she was having with the current one. And hey, that's why she had all these pockets. In it went.

She took two steps outside and realized she needed a real coat. The Carhartt. Back to the closet, on with the really warm coat, quick pocket triage, Field Notes fit if she left the wallet -- and why did she need her wallet for a late night greenway stroll in the snow anyway?

Of course she had the paths to herself, hers the only footprints in the powder covering the asphalt. The willows along the constructed wetlands' edge looked magical in a light coating of frost, as did the big cottonwoods looming over the walkway here and there. She gathered her resources and broke into a run, trying to achieve enough speed to create the Star Wars hyperspeed effect, when the snowflakes seemed to be coming right at her in trails of white light, but she just wasn't that fast. That only happened in a car on a snowy, windy, stormy night in the middle of nowhere.

She stopped in her tracks. That was it. Strand those characters in a car on the highway in a winter storm. That would get them talking. That might even get them having the talk.

"Yes!" she screamed, knowing no one else would hear her lunacy. Instinctively, she reached for interior coat pockets that weren't there. No pen loop, no zipped up pocket with her little notebooks inside. Wrong coat. Exasperated, she tore off her gloves and dug into the front pocket of the coat she was wearing. There it was. And there, mercy of mercies, was a pencil, which would write better in the damp anyway.

Scribble. Scribble. Scribble. Frantic scribble. Exclamation points and underlining. Yes.

She should go for snowy walks more often.

Finished at last, she jammed the Field Notes and pencil back into her pocket and resumed her stroll. She had gone maybe a half mile before she realized she had forgotten to put her gloves back on.

She only had one.

With a sigh, she turned around and went back for it, watching the ground closely until she saw it lying there amongst her strange footprints from her writing stop.

"There you are!" she said, bending to pick it up. She missed on her first try, awkward in bulky extra clothing, bobbing like a drinky bird toy. "Gotcha!"

She didn't miss her notebook for a few days, when she again decided to tackle the novella she'd solved on her walk.


"No, it's probably long gone. Or just wrecked," Alicia said into her phone. Michael had been trying to cheer her up with stories of how she might yet find her Field Notes if she retraced her steps one more time. "Anyway, I mostly remember what I scribbled down, for the story anyway. The rest was just grocery lists and stuff. And oh -- but you can just give me that recipe again..."

"I'll email it as soon as Clay gets off the computer," Michael said.

"Huh huh, gets off," Clay said in the background.

"Your boyfriend's a loon," Alicia said.

"Wouldn't have him any other way. So oh, okay, Clay just emailed it to you. The recipe."

"I think I did," Clay said. "Can she check? I might still have her address wrong."

"Thanks, babes," Alicia said.

"You coming out for bar trivia tomorrow night?"

"If I get this draft done. I promise."

"We'll hold you to it, sweetie pie."


The amount of email was, as usual, staggering. Thirty five messages since last night? Sometime soon she really needed to sit down and unsubscribe from some of the mailing lists she was on. Just because she bought some stuffed grape leaves online once didn't mean she wanted to hear about the entire catalog of fancy foods she could order from Company X.

Delete. Delete. Delete. There was the recipe. Delete. Delete. What the hell?

From an unknown address there was a message that had gotten past her spam filters and snared her attention instantly. The subject line was "found on the greenway."

"Dear Alica -- We do not know each other, but I'm pretty sure I found something of yours on the greenway Thursday night. I know how I'd feel if I dropped one of my Field Notes, and I see you had some pretty important notes in yours (yes, I peeked). On the inside cover you circled that there IS a reward for returning it, but I'd rather be a beta-reader for that story you're working on than take any of your money. I can just mail it to you if you provide an address. Sincerely, Mick Carlson."

Alicia froze, staring at her netbook screen as several different thoughts collided in her head. Her notebook was found and legible. Oh god, someone read those notes. This guy not only had perfect grammar and punctuation but also knew what a beta reader was. Another Field Notes fetishist. Stalker! Stalker! Stalker. Was he single? How pathetic was it that she was wondering if he was single? Oh god, someone read those notes. Good thing she only made grocery lists when she was shopping for healthy foods. Who named a kid Mick these days. Stalker! Her notebook was found. She could get it back.

She had to write him back.

"Dear Mick -- What a relief to find out you picked up my notebook! You must have been out there right after me or else it would be..."

Delete that second sentence. Keep it brief and noncomittal.

"I'd be very grateful if you could mail it to me. I'm at..."

Should she really give a stranger her mailing address, which was also her home address? Why hadn't she gotten a P.O. Box? Well, that thought had just occurred to her, but she probably should. Stalker! Stalker! Stalker!

Oh, what the hell. Clay had a friendly ex at the police department. If things got bad, it could still be all right.

"I'm at 139 Legerski Avenue, here in town. And yes, I could use a new beta reader; some of my current ones are getting flaky. Thanks again, Alicia."

SEND, before she started over-thinking it.

Flustered, she decided to take another walk. At least this time, the weather was going to let her go back to her wonderful, reliable Scott-E-Vest.

As she left the house, a window popped up on her still-active netbook. It was a chat request from none other than Mick Carlson.


Much refreshed, Alicia sat down to resume writing.

And there it was.

>>Hey there. You there? Is this too stalker-y?

She looked at the time stamp. Not too long ago. Should she answer him?

Before she even realized she'd decided, her fingers were typing.

>>Hey! Yes! Was on a walk and left Gmail open. I'm here, now. Are you?

>>Were you on that same stretch of the greenway? Damn, I bet I just missed you. I was biking.

>>In this weather?

>>Sure. It's actually pretty fun, and it makes me feel like a badass.

>>Ha ha, I bet it would.

>>Do you have a bicycle? You should try it.

>>I totally do! Should I get, like, chains or something?

>>Naw. The asphalt on the greenway is pretty dry most of the time. Hardly any ice. I even go at night.

They continued chatting until very, very late.


"Mick Carlson? Sounds like a porn star name or something," Michael quipped, sipping his tall Bud Light.

"Wonder if it's his real one," Clay said, mopping up the ring Michael's mug had left on the table.

"I think it's real," Alicia said, blushing a little.

"So you guys were up all night chatting?"

"Yes," she said, feeling foolish. "I gave him my phone number, too. Eek!" She buried her face in her hands.

"Hubba hubba," Michael said.

"Oh god, why did I even tell you?" Alicia glanced around. The rest of their trivia team was arriving. "So hey, um, don't tell the rest of the guys about this, okay?"

"Mum's the word," Clay said. "Right, Michael?" Clay looked sternly at his partner.

"Of course!"

"Hey, look who's here!" their friend Paul shouted, taking a seat on a barstool. "You realize this is the first time I've seen you in three months? Freaking hermit!"

"Hi, Paul," Alicia said, watching the rest of the team assemble. There was a new face at the end of the table. Short hair, clean-shaven, hipster glasses, tallish, comfortably overweight, really nice voice. Michael caught her staring.

"Who's the new dweeb?" he bellowed down the length of the table.

"Pipe down," one of their teammates said. "Time for the first question."

"Question #1," the trivia master began. "Name the famous composer who became George Sand's lover in 1838."

"Who the hell is George Sand? Was he gay?" Michael asked.

"George Sand was a she," Alicia explained.

"So you know the answer, then?"

"Fuck, 1838. Franz Liszt or Frederic Chopin? When did she meet Chopin?" Alicia muttered.

"It was Chopin," the stranger said, confidently.

"Not so loud," a teammate said. "You sure?"



"I think he's right."

"Okay, writing it down. You take it up, Leesh."

As she returned to the table, her eyes and the stranger's met just as the trivia master announced they'd been right. The stranger winked.

"Hoo-ee," Michael said, nudging her. He never missed anything, the bastard. Alicia blushed.

The team didn't win, but a few stayed behind to have a drink to celebrate anyway. Paul gestured at everyone to move in closer. Closer to the stranger.

"Hey, Leesh! Have you met my buddy Mick yet?" Paul said.

Michael and Clay sputtered into their drinks.

"No, I haven't," Alicia said, proffering her hand. "Alica Hess."

The stranger -- Mick -- started to laugh. "Um. Mick Carlson."

And suddenly there was no one else in the bar.

2500 WORDS

Friday, February 17, 2012

100 Books #15 - Ian Whates' CITY OF DREAMS & NIGHTMARE

Never before in my experience has it been harder not to think of another book -- in this case Alastair Reynolds' Terminal World -- while reading this one, and this includes my experiences last year with Christopher Priest's Inverted World (and that's a whole lot of world, eh wot?). Which is not necessarily a bad thing, in that I really enjoyed the Reynolds book; everyone knows he's my favorite living sci-fi author. It was just a bit odd.

There are definite and undeniable resemblances between the two, of course. Both feature vast, vertical, layered cities with the elites high up top (in Reynolds' book the elitism is technological and has to do with the physics of resolution, whereas in Whates' the elitism is more traditionally class-based and economic). Both follow detectives from the heights as they venture down into the rabble below to solve mysteries. And really, they're both pretty awesome.

What makes Whates' book different and thus worth reading in its own right is the characters, particularly the secondary ones (the protagonist is very much a typical orphan-who-is-secretly-the-most-important-kid-like-ever, not so fresh, but not poorly done by any means). Of particular interest are Tylus, a somewhat nebbishy member of the higher level's elite public safety division, the Kite Guards (more about them in a minute; they're really cool and by far the most memorable bit in this book) who discovers that he actually likes being a cop once he's sent into the slums below and has some actual crime to fight, and Dewar, the main bad guy's henchman-assassin who is secretly sent down to look after/assist Tylus because, well, nobody respects Tylus, who, after all, let the OWISTMIKLE get away from the bad guy in the story's opening movement. Again, these are both very well established types, but against the interesting background of the city and the story, they feel fresh and just a tad unpredictable. And since both are tossed into an interesting stew of street toughs, weirdly constructed monsters and the truly unusual setting of a city that has literally been carved out of a mountain, I never got bored with them.

Now, about the Kite Guards. Damn, what a cool idea. Since their jurisdiction is way up high at the top of the mountain but they frequently have to go down a few levels (but almost never all the way to the bottom), they wear kite capes (hence the name, duh) which let them fly, or at least glide -- less well than Superman but better than Batman, let's say. The passages in which Tylus deploys his cape are easily the most exciting in the book and almost by themselves make City of Dreams & Nightmare worth reading. I totally, totally want one.

As is so often the case with speculative fiction these days, City of Dreams & Nightmare is the first of at least three extant books in the City of One Hundred Rows series. While part of me says "Oh balls, another trilogy", I did like this book well enough to want to read the others sometime soon. Watch this space, children.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

100 Books #14 - Bernard Cornwell's THE WINTER KING

Zounds, did I enjoy this book.

I've read my fair share of Arthuriana in my day - Le Morte D'arthurThe Mists of Avalon, The Once and Future King, The Quest for the Holy Grail, Gawain and the Green Knight, The White Raven etc. etc. etc. But never, not even when I was a teenager in love with Lerner & Lowe's Camelot (I grew up listening to the original cast recording with Richard Burton and Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet), have I been so utterly delighted with it as I've been reading this first book of Bernard Cornwell's Warlord trilogy.

What I love is the approach Cornwell took to the material, trying, via his narrator Derfel Cadarn, to depict the "real" story from the point of view of a man who was there and who, as he struggles to put his account into writing, can already see his truths being embroidered into romance and really wishes they wouldn't be.

In other words, this book sort of tries to demystify the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, or at least to ground it in reality, but without making it dull, without diminishing it or mocking it. So Arthur is here, but he is the bastard son of the King of Dumnonia (now a part of southwestern England) and a great warlord during the long and bloody Saxon invasion of Britain. And Guinevere is there, but she's the daughter of a client king and not nearly as important as the woman Arthur spurns to marry her. And Pellinore is there, but he's a naked madman in a cage. And Merlin is (barely) there, but he is something between a Druid and a Druid fanboy and spends much of the story off on his own quest after the 13 Treasures that can bring back Britain's good old days (meaning Britain before good old Clau-Clau-Claudius and his Romans made Brittania into a backwater Roman province). And Lancelot is there, but -- oh, I can't even hint at what Lancelot is like, except to say that I laughed my ass off every time his name wound up occurring.

The Winter King concerns itself mostly with war and politics, but there is a little magic and religion, too, but -- and this is my favorite bit, the bit that makes this trilogy look very much to be what I most wanted George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire to be -- Cornwell doesn't care if we believe in it or not. Any spells cast or prayers said are just depicted as weird things that people do (mostly spitting) and any "results" could just be coincidental. The reader is free to interpret it as magic or, more interestingly, as a testament to the power of superstition and the cleverness with which that can be exploited. It's subtly and cleverly done and is a big part of what makes this book such a pleasure to read.

And every single character, whether drawn from history and legend or created for this book, is vivid and unmistakeable. The reader is expected to keep track of a whole lot of them and remember their relationships to each other, as is often the case in, e.g. giant doorstop fantasy series like The Wheel of Time , but here it never feels like work; one barely notices she is doing it, so immersed does the reader become in this lively and believable version of Dark Age Britain. Wow!

But that's not all, of course. There are also the fight scenes. Oh, the fight scenes. Oh, they are glorious, very much the work of a man who has done his homework and thought everything out in great, gory detail. Fans of Shouty Men in Shiny Armour need look no further than this stuff.

Does it count as fantasy? I'm really not sure. Does it count as historical fiction? Not sure there, either. What I am sure it counts as, though, is really off-the-charts-good storytelling.

So yeah, I'm pretty much diving straight into the sequel, Enemy of God, right about... NOW.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Can We Keep Them? [FGC #1]

"What's that you've got there?" Deputy Marty Nicodemus asked, leaning out of the window of his squad car. He was pulled over, cowboy conference style, on Rattlesnake Road for another night of watching for cattle mutilators with Jake Crenshaw, a Highway Patrolman. "That isn't what I think it is, is it?"

Jake laughed around the hand-rolled cigarette now burning in the corner of his mouth. "Naw," he said. "Confiscated this from Martin, though, believe it or not." He took a drag. "It's just tobacco. Pretty good, though."

"Got another one?"

"Last one. But here, try a puff." He passed the cigarette through his window to his friend.

"That is nice. Your boy does good work."

"Little shit. What I get for naming him after you, I suppose." Both men laughed at this old joke, a favorite right up there with "How's your wife and my kids?"

"But seriously, where'd he get this stuff?" Marty asked, passing the cigarette back.

"Hell if I know. He clammed up when I confiscated 'em"

"Smart kid."

The two men sat back in their cars, listening to the squawks and static of their radios, sitting up only to pass the cigarette back and forth until it was done.

"Sometimes I can't believe we get paid for this shit, you know?" Marty crowed.

"Shut up. That's how the bad shit starts," Jake said.


Marty had a point, though. It was a calm, windless Tuesday night, lit by a half moon and a million stars and nothing else, and Marty and Jake had no worries beyond answering the odd status check and keeping an eye out for those freaks the local ranchers kept reporting, freaks with a taste for skinning and stabbing cattle and dancing around an open fire with udders on their heads. Freaks that no one else ever saw -- but there was no denying the dead livestock with strange triangular cuts, bore holes really, like a geologist's core sampler.

Based on where they tended to strike, they had to be using Rattlesnake Road, though, and so the county sheriff, just months away from a hotly contested Election Day, had ordered Marty to stake it out, and Marty had convinced Jake that it would behoove the Highway Patrol to help out with the exercise.

"Wait, I think I see something!" Jake said, waking Marty out of a light doze.

"Where? Over beneath the mountain?"

"Gotcha. Man, you snore like a fuckin' bandsaw. How does Brandy put up with you?"

"Asshole," Marty said, but Jake could hear his smile.

"Whatchoo doing Monday?" Jake asked after a while.

"My day off. Might... well, shit, I don't know."

"Let's do some fishing, then. Best time of the year for it. At least until the moon's full."

"Good idea. Mind if I bring the squirt?"

"Miss Melissa is always welcome in my boat."

"I thought so. We gotta get her back in town by noon, though."

"Oh yeah, shit, kindergarten." Jake thought about it for a moment. "Well, hell, we'll probably need a beer run by then."


A faint, greenish ray of light flashed across Marty's face.

"Hey, pod, I think you've got your radio turned down again. Someone trying to get ya?"

Marty bent toward the dashboard, checked some dials, picked up the mic. "Everything's on... Nicodemus, Carbon, you trying to reach me?"

A tinny yet somehow still sultry voice came back over the radio. "Negative, Nicodemus. How's the moo detail?"

"That what they're calling it?"


"Outstanding. I'll be sure to bring some evidence just for you."

"No thanks. I've seen your boots."

"Ha ha. Ten-four."

"Twenty-one forty-three."

"Damn, that woman could come talk on my radio anytime," Jake said appreciatively.

"She's not bad, she just talks that way," Marty said.

The green ray lit up his face again, for a moment longer than before.

"There, you see it?" Jake said, pointing.

"Where's it coming from?"

Jake craned his neck to peer out his passenger side window. As he did, another green ray lit up the back of his head.

"You've got one, too, now."

"Where are them sumbitches?"

Cautiously, Jake and Marty got out of their cars and circled around them. Neither had drawn his weapon yet, nor turned on his flashlight, but they were ready for either.

"See anyone?" Jake asked?

"No. Not even any cows."

"Ha ha."

The two continued their circuit around their parked cars. When each was back at his own car door, they exchanged a look in the moonlight.

"I'm calling this in," Marty said. He reached through his open window for the mic. "Nicodemus, Carbon, I'm gonna be out of the car for a few."

"See something?"

"Unknown yet. I'll be available on portable."

"Ten four, Twenty-one fifty-six."

"You reporting this in?" Marty asked Jake.

"I don't have radio contact out here, usually. I was just planning on driving back out to the highway every couple hours and checking in. Long as you got signal, we're good."

"Twenty-one fifty-six. Twenty-one fifty-six. Twenty-one fifty-six...." Marty's radio had suddenly gone crazy. Every iteration of his dispatcher's sign-off -- the current time -- was at a different speed and pitch, and continued on and on. Marty hit his mic button to try to cut in and was rewarded with squealing feedback.

"What the hell?" he said angrily, shaking the device as if that would make it work better.


"God damn things..."



"Behind you --"

"Behind you, too!"

Jake felt an enormous hand cradling his head. An unearthly voice crooned nonsense into his hear. An impossibly long and strangely jointed finger caressed his neck and tickled at his chin. His eyes darted over to his friend, who was being cradled in an impossibly huge set of arms. Jake counted... four of them. Attached to... nothing he could see.

And now Jake, too, felt himself being lifted into the air, but not at any great height. The voice continued to babble. The sound soothed Jake into not minding that he was actually helpless, could not even reach for his sidearm. The sensation of floating was pleasant, the gentle touch of the weird hands calming.

Marty, too, was weirdly relaxed as the pair of them were carried, swiftly, away from their cars. He thought fleetingly of his five-year-old daughter and her pet rabbit, Clover, but couldn't think of why...

"Hmmmm..." Jake managed to say, not really fighting the urge to doze off as he was gently rocked and stroked and petted.

"Mommy, can we keep him?" Little Melissa's voice echoed in Marty's mind's ear.

And then there was nothing.

The next thing Jake and Marty knew, they were sprawled out on the hoods of their respective cars, awakened by the distant scream of a siren. Another county car was screaming up the dirt road, lights ablaze. Kicking up enough dust to make the men cough, the squad car ground to a sudden halt nearby, and Sheriff Al Guerra himself leaped out, not even bothering to shut the door.

"The hell you two doing, napping?" the sheriff demanded, angry but also, obviously, a little relieved.

"What? What's going on?" Marty asked, sitting up a little too soon. Dizziness overtook him, but he struggled to stay upright.

Jake was already standing, thinking fast. "What's the problem, Sheriff?"

"The problem is, nobody's heard from either of you two yo-yos in six fuckin' hours," Guerra bellowed.

Jake swallowed, noticing for the first time that dawn was creeping up from behind Elk Mountain. "Well, we don't have much reception here, do we?"

"I take it you didn't catch anyone pulling shit," the sheriff said.

Jake and Marty looked at each other, trying to come up with an answer, still confused.

"Nope," Jake finally said.

"So whatchoo been doing for all this time?"

"It's... it's complicated," Marty began, but his boss cut him off.

"You can tell me about it when we hit town. You're buying. Oh, and you also owe Danielle a box of chocolates. Worried her white-haired, you jerk. Come on."

And just like that, the sheriff was back in his car and revving up its engine, letting its roar communicate the rage he was too professional to express verbally.

"Ow," Marty said, rubbing at his shoulder as the sheriff drove off.

"You too, huh?"

Both men had small, triangular wounds in meat of their scalene muscles.


"I can't explain it," Marty said, pouring himself another cup of coffee.

"What about you, Patrolman?" the sheriff asked.

Jake just shrugged. In the background, the diner's phone rang loudly. A waitress answered, and soon sashayed up to the table where the officers were sitting.

"Jake, it's for you," she said. "It's your boy."

Jake walked to the counter, picked up the receiver, and simply said "What."

"Uh, dad...?"

"I'm busy, Martin."

"You didn't, uh... you didn't..."

"I didn't what, Martin?"

"You didn't smoke those cigarettes, did you?"

"What if I did."

"Uh oh. Um, so..."

"WHAT, Martin?"

"So, um, have you ever heard of DMT?"