Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Excerpt from "Esme's Amulet"

Some of you may be wondering why there are no CSFF blog tour posts this month. There's a simple explanation. Review copies for the October selection arrived on Saturday. (I almost backed my car into the mail truck as it careened into my driveway.) The October tour will start next week, the first week of November.

I don't have much to post right now because I'm busy reading, finishing the novel I had already begun and starting the one that arrived on Saturday. What's freaky is that both novels reference the same quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet. So, in lieu of posting about the work of someone else, here's a teaser from "Esme's Amulet," which appears in the October-November-December print issue of Golden Visions Magazine, available in paper or pdf. I love the cover art for this edition.

This excerpt picks up with Esme at a village market, desperately trying to sell a goat that has been eating her mother's prized vegetables.

Esme asked every passerby if they wanted a goat. Her cheeks ached from smiling. A few acknowledged her as they hurried to some urgent appointment, but most brushed past, and to the one man who showed an interest, Gertrude stomped her front hooves and lowered her head to butt him.

"Mother will cook you as sure as the sun sets if I take you home. And I'll get a whipping. Do you want to be eaten?"

Gertrude stared at her with placid eyes then bleated.

"I'll take your goat, miss."

Esme spun around urgently, searching for the owner of that female voice, fearful lest the buyer vanish and suspicious, after so much failure, of her own senses.

"Over here, lassie." Directly behind her, an old woman, whom Esme assumed to be a harmless though likely shrewd widow, sat in the shade of her stall selling trinkets. On her head she wore a red cloth wrapped multiple times like a turban. A smile softened the severity of her thin, wrinkled face, and her raised eyebrows questioned, inviting conversation. Esme jerked Gertrude in the stall's direction, and to her great surprise, the goat followed willingly.

"Did you say you want to buy my goat?"

"Well now. Buy is a strong word, but I'll trade you something for her."

Something worth five ducats ought to be just as good. She scanned the bronze chains, buckles, brooches, and bracelets displayed on the stall's wooden counter, grayed and softened from years of rain and sun. An oval-shaped brooch with a single garnet embedded in the middle with interlocking vines etched around the border caught her eye. How grown up she felt to be bartering. "That brooch is nice."

"Yes, it is, my sweet, but is that all you want for your goat?"

"My mother told me to bring home," she paused, then announced firmly, "six ducats."

"Six? I should say that goat's worth no more than three. She's got a sour temperament."

"She's skittish from the crowd."

"I have something that would be perfect for you." The old woman retrieved from her apron pocket a gleaming, gold-colored pendant strung on a leather cord. "What do you say to this?"

Esme admired the pendant as it swung hypnotically beneath the woman's hand. At the charm's center, a green stone, its surface a myriad of interlocking planes, each reflecting light at a different angle, captured her attention. She noted the five garnets embedded in a ring around the stone with runes in between and beyond those fought snakes and vines with each snake swallowing the tail of another while the vines coiled tightly around the scaly bodies. But to the stone her eyes returned, always retreating to the stone after forays among the red gems and writhing snakes.

The woman snatched the pendant away, replacing it in her pocket where it jangled, settling among coins. Faltering as dizziness overcame her, Esme placed her hand on the stall to catch herself.

"So what do you say? My charm for your goat. And it's more than just a pretty trinket. It's an amulet. Those runes ward off evil in all its slippery forms. Seems an even trade though I suspect you're getting the better bargain."

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Short Stuff Take 6

"Hero for Hire," by Milo James Fowler in A Fly in Amber

"Hero for Hire" does not belong in the fantasy or science fiction genres. It's set firmly in the present world as we know it. But it addresses fantasy in a comical way and suggests what might happen if someone tries to turn their fantasy into reality. Darrell, the protagonist, is what most people would call a loser. He's twenty-seven, lives in a cottage in his parent's backyard, works the graveyard shift at Target, and still relies on his mother to do his laundry, which he also neglects to retrieve in a timely manner. His most prized possession is a samurai sword that he bought on eBay. He routinely dresses in a gi purchased at Party City and acts out mock battles with imaginary Ninjas in his living room. He always prevails. Not a bad way to get some physical exercise, but he decides that mock battles or attacking watermelons and pumpkins are becoming boring. He needs some real enemies. He needs to use his skills for good. So far, his only nemeses are a cat that leaves dead birds on his doorstep and his angry mother, who nags him about his laundry. He puts an add in the paper: "Hero for Hire" along with his phone number. For two weeks, nothing much happens. He gets some prank calls, but then, someone requests a hero. An old lady claims that someone has stolen her laptop. Darrell accepts the job. I won't spoil it by recording what happens. It's funny and sad with some interesting twists. No one gets hurt, except for Darrell's ego, which takes a beating, and his feet, which are scorched on the hot sidewalk. Fowler handles his subject matter with wit and compassion. We feel sympathy for Darrell even as we laugh at him. "Hero for Hire" reminds me of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," only in Fowler's story, the protagonist attempts to turn his fantasies into reality.

"The Lych Owl's Cry," by Terrie Schultz in Golden Visions Magazine print edition (October-November-December 2010)

The word lych is a Saxon word for corpse used in modern English as an adjective in phrases or names associated with death or burial, such as the lychgate at the entrance to traditional English churchyards. Lych owl is another name for the barn owl, whose cry, according to folklore, portends death. Schultz's story begins and ends with the lych owl's shriek. The protagonist is Jessa, a healer in a village, who hears a lych owl one night and with resignation, waits to be summoned to some neighbor's deathbed. The dead are a young wife and her newborn baby. Jessa tells the husband that there is nothing she can do but he begs her to cross the Veil and bring them back, something remembered in tales but never done by Jessa, her mother, or her grandmother. The tales told of healers coming back haunted or never at all. Jessa relents and agrees to try. She finds the recipe for a salve in an ancient tome that she hides under a stone in her cottage. The salve works and she rises from her body in a ghostly form and follows a path through the churchyard to a hedge of hawthorn and rowan at the edge of the village where she crosses the Veil into a misty, barren place, a sort of purgatory. She had feared that she would meet demons. Instead, the meets her recently deceased neighbors and family and learns why so many characters from the old tales never came back. Schultz builds her haunting story with sharp details and flowing prose. While many such stories might focus on the terror of death, the operative emotion in Shultz's tale is love and the grief that comes with loss and saying no.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Comments on How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (Genre Writing)
If you want to write science fiction or fantasy, I recommend giving Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy a read, maybe multiple reads. This is a short guide, less than 140 pages of text, but it's packed with  cogent advice. While most books on writing dwell on general skills, such as the mechanics of building sentences and creating effective dialogue, Card focuses on problems and skills at the story level targeted at issues particular to the science fiction and fantasy genres. For example, he devotes one of the book's five chapters to world building.

In the first chapter, he attempts to describe speculative fiction by defining its boundaries. He explains that science fiction and fantasy are labels defined by the publishing industry, sometimes useful in helping readers find your work and sometimes a way to pigeon-hole you. The terms also label a "fluid, evolving community of readers and writers" (p. 17) as well as a "ghetto in which you can do almost anything you like" (p. 17). His clearest definition states: "science fiction and fantasy stories are those that take place in worlds that have never existed or are not yet known" (p. 18). This covers a lot of works that would not ordinarily be considered speculative. However, if a story does not fit this definition in some way, it's not in the speculative genre. What about the boundary between science fiction and fantasy? Card provides a somewhat accurate rule:
If the story is set in a universe that follows the same rules as ours, it's science fiction. If it's set in a universe that doesn't follow our rules, it's fantasy (p. 22).
In either case, the writer must define the limits of technology or magic early in a story and stick to them.

The longest chapter covers world creation. Card discusses where ideas come from, using some of his own works--Ender's Game and Hart's Hope--as examples.  Hart's Hope began with the map of a walled city that Card drew to pass some time. He then asked himself questions about the city, named the various gates and determined their particular functions. Asking questions and then more questions, Card contends, is the key to world and story creation. Once you have the germ of an idea, Card emphasizes the importance of creating rules of time, technology, and magic for an invented world. Characters will have to contend with those rules just as we have to wrestle with the physical laws limiting our abilities. Card warns that readers will notice if a writer is sloppy with rules or breaks them. Those readers will feel betrayed. Card also comments on creating geographies and cultures.

In the chapter on story construction, Card identifies differences between the protagonist and a viewpoint character and suggests how to determine which characters should fill those roles in your stories. Another difficult task when developing a story is deciding when it should begin and end. To answer this question, Card offers the MICE quotient. (Yes, those lowly rodents can be your friends.) MICE is an acronym for four types of stories: milieu, idea, character, and event. In a milieu story, such as Gulliver's Travels, the purpose is to explore a strange land. An idea story depicts the discovery of new information. It begins with a question and ends with the answer. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the story begins with a mysterious monolith and ends when someone discovers its purpose. A character story traces the "transformation of a character's role in the communities that matter most to him" (p. 79). In an event story, the narrative begins when something in the world is out of order and ends when a new order is established. Examples include Hamlet and The Lord of the Rings. Stories may contain sub-plots which draw on any of the types but the dominate plot will follow one of these formulas. Card is not saying that speculative fiction is formulaic. Anything can happen between the beginning and the end, but it's important to know what kind of story you're writing so that you can honor your reader's expectations.

The fourth chapter covers writing, namely exposition and diction. Card discusses how to guide readers into the strangeness of an invented world, using Octavia Butler's Wild Seed as an example. Later in the chapter, he discusses  how to use appropriate diction for an invented world.

In the final chapter "The Life and Business of Writing," Card discusses markets, agents, and query letters. He comments on the usefulness of classes, workshops, conventions, and professional organizations. Keep in mind that How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy was published in 1990. Much of the information in this chapter is dated as the internet has opened many new markets for speculative fiction writers. But some of Card's advice is timeless. Consider his amusing but apt comments on the writer's self-image. Card argues that a writer must believe two things at all times.
1. The story I am now working on is the greatest work of genius ever written in English.
2. The story I am now working on is worthless drivel (p. 109).
Perhaps holding contradictory opinions simultaneously is a sign of madness, but the writer has to call on both of these ideas to do his work, calling on number one when submitting the story to an editor and number two when revising it. Two points come up over and over again in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and if you get nothing else out of the book, you should at least remember to honor the rules you create for your world and honor your reader's expectations.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Review of Masters and Slayers: Another Trip to Starlight

Reading Masters and Slayers by Bryan Davis was a strange experience for me for two reasons. First, I read a digital copy of the galleys. I had never read a "published" novel in digital form before. I think I prefer paper. I tend to do a lot of reading in small bits while I'm waiting in the car or watching something cook. That's hard to do when the book is on your laptop. So, I had to schedule long blocks of time to read Masters and Slayers, usually at night.

Second, Masters and Slayers is closely intertwined with Davis' Starlighter, which I reviewed for the CSFF Blog Tour a few months ago. (For my commentary on Starlighter, go here, here, and here.) The stories take place in the same worlds and share many of the same characters. The two books could be mashed together into one, albeit very long, novel. The novels differ in their point of view characters. Masters and Slayers centers on Adrian Masters while Starlighter tells the story of Jason Masters, Adrian's younger brother. Also, I believe Davis intends Masters and Slayers for an older audience. Starlighter is marketed as a YA novel. Masters and Slayers has a slower pace than Starlighter with more time for complex character development and it answers a lot of the questions I had after reading Starlighter. The content is also grittier. For instance, there's some discussion of the breeding program the dragons have established to propagate slaves. You don't have to read Starlighter first to follow Masters and Slayers. Many parts of the early chapters are a retelling of the material from Starlighter from a different character's point of view. This made for a strange reading experience since I already knew what was going to happen in those scenes, as if I had looked at the writer's notes beforehand. If you have not read either novel and want to read both, I recommend reading Masters and Slayers, which provides more background material, before Starlighter.

Masters and Slayers takes place on two planets in the same solar system. (I like the names the dragon's use for the planets so I'll use them.) The dragon's home planet is Starlight while the humans native home is Darksphere. There are multiple portals between the two worlds but the existence and location of these is not well known by the residents of either planet. Approximately one hundred years ago, Magnar, a powerful dragon, crossed from Starlight to Darksphere. He captured some humans and took them back to the dragon planet to become slaves in the pheterone mines. Pheterone is a gas trapped beneath the surface that the dragons need to live healthy lives. It's similar to our natural gas. One of the humans--Uriel Blackstone--escapes, returns to Darksphere, and locks the portal. He tries to rally a force to rescue the humans still on Starlight but most dismiss his story as pure lunacy and the government works to suppress it. Some, however, have faith in Blackstone. Over time, an underground organization known as the Underground Gateway develops with the goal of freeing The Lost Ones, as the slaves are now known. Adrian's brother Frederick has succeeded in finding a portal and crossing over to Starlight and a dragon from Starlight has contacted the underground about acquiring pheterone from Darksphere. Masters and Slayers follows the journeys of three members of the group--Adrian, Marcelle, and Drexel--as they enter Starlight and attempt to return to Darksphere with at least a few freed slaves.

The plot of Masters and Slayers is complicated. Drexel enters via a different portal than Adrian and Marcelle, and Drexel does not know for certain if the other two are on Starlight. As one expects in a good story, many of the characters have ulterior motives which add to the plot's thickness. I could spend several pages covering its intricacies. Drexel, for instance, hopes to use the rescue of the Lost Ones to propel himself to high political office in Mesolantrum, the home country of the characters from Darksphere. The motives of Arxad, the dragon who wants to trade for pheterone, are equally complex as he appears torn between loyalty to the dragon species and disgust with the practice of slavery.

Forgive me for not providing a detailed plot summary. I would much rather discuss character and theme. The most interesting characters are not Adrian, Marcelle, and Drexel, but Cassabrie and Arxad. Adrian is an accomplished and admirable warrior. He has a solid sense of right and wrong and tends to act accordingly although he can exercise restraint and patience when needed and recognize the complexities of a situation. One could do well to emulate him. There's nothing wrong with Adrian. Therein lies the problem. Almost all his difficulties are external: trekking through the wilderness, finding the Lost Ones, fighting the dragons. He appears to have only one internal problem. Whom does he love more, Cassabrie or Marcelle? And if he must choose between them, will he choose based on his heart or will he sacrifice his own longings and act out of a sense of chivalry and loyalty. This choice is more complicated than it might first appear. Cassabrie is a disembodied spirit. She was executed by Magnar, who feared her powers to hypnotize dragons. Arxad values her talents; he salvaged and protected her spirit. Cassabrie can dwell within Adrian in a kind of "perfect union." Marcelle is Adrian's childhood friend and fellow warrior. On Darksphere, they appeared destined to someday be together. This inner conflict builds slowly through the story and doesn't reach its first fruition until the novel's climatic scenes.

Marcelle is a skilled fighter but acts impulsively. She is strident, sees the world in black and white terms and acts accordingly without considering circumstances or the ramifications of her actions. When she and Adrian go to a work camp for children, Marcelle, against Adrian's advice, rashly attacks a dragon who whips a child. Adrian comes to her aid to kill the dragon. The consequences of this event soon spiral out of control in ways Adrian and Marcelle never imagined. In another scene, Magnar commands some slaves to subdue Marcelle, threatening to burn their children alive if they don't comply. Marcelle rebukes them: "'If all it takes is a verbal threat to your little ones to turn your backbones into butter, then you can just die and rot here! A real man would fight!'" (p. 400) Marcelle fails to consider the context. She is one warrior against many dragons and the slaves know that Magnar will not hesitate to carry out his threat. Prudence suggests the slaves should save their children and live to fight another day when the odds are better.

Drexel is one of the leaders of the Underground Gateway. He lacks great skill as a warrior but does have a talent for planning and manipulating situations to achieve his goals. Unfortunately, his ambitions for political power have crushed his moral compass and he behaves in such a reprehensible manner that the reader feels no sympathy for him.

Cassabrie and Arxad are mysterious. We never see the story from their viewpoint; their motives are never clear. As stated above, Cassabrie owes a great debt to Arxad for her current state of existence. Arxad appears to feel great sympathy for the plight of the slaves but must act carefully to avoid raising the other dragon's suspicions of his loyalty. Arxad takes care to transport the spirits of "promoted" slaves to the Northlands. Arxad defends the slaves in legal proceedings and insists that laws be followed. And when Adrian's execution is imminent Arxad offers to let Adrian kill him so that Adrian can escape. Arxad is bound by law to stop a condemned prisoner from escaping. Adrian considers accepting Arxad's offer but Cassabrie counsels him against it. The slaves are far better off with Arxad in place to check Magnar's power than with him dead. Cassabrie recognizes Arxad's importance to the slaves and the precarious nature of his position. Both Cassabrie and Arxad are pulled in opposite directions, their loyalties divided. When Cassabrie first dwells within Adrian, experiencing the sensations of again having a body, she tells him that "I am to be your guide, not your mistress" (p. 181). Can we believe her? The phrase is repeated multiple times. As Cassabrie's love for Adrian grows, we recognize that the balance between guide and mistress subtly shifts. Arxad warns Adrian to beware of Cassabrie mesmerizing abilities and Adrian wisely heeds the advice.

Before closing out this review, I want to touch on a few themes. Davis depicts a stark contrast between Adrian and Drexel regarding means versus ends. Drexel reveals that he will exercise any means, including sending children to certain death, to achieve his ends which are inherently selfish. For Drexel, saving the Lost Ones is merely a precondition for seizing power though he convinces himself that all he does, all the sacrifices of other lives, is for the greater good. Adrian could not be more different. Saving the Lost Ones is his goal, but he refuses to permit others to die without his intervention to save them, even if such actions ultimately put his goal in jeopardy. For instance, he could have remained hidden at the cattle camp and allowed the dragon to kill several of the children in payment for the death of the dragon that he and Marcelle killed. Such a strategy would have allowed he and Marcelle to continue their efforts. Instead, Adrian offers himself in the place of the children.

In many ways, the dragon society on Starlight mirrors the human society on Darksphere. A corrupt governor rules Mesolantrum and the society is divided between nobles and peasants. The leaders work to suppress anyone or anything that might foment discontent. Talk of rescuing the Lost Ones is forbidden and the Code, an ancient book of wisdom, has been banned. A few citizens, such as Adrian and his father, oppose the government and strive to live according to the Code. On Starlight, Magnar is the counterpart to Mesolantrum's governor while the dragons and slaves mirror the nobles and peasants divide. Like Adrian, Arxad works to restore law and justice to his society.

Whether intentional or not, Davis presents strong, capable warriors in a positive light while those who do not possess fighting skills tend to be victims or scheming villains, usually tainted with a touch of cowardice. The contrast between Adrian and Drexel demonstrates the dichotomy. I find this troubling because not everyone has the physical talents to be a great warrior. Some people are better suited to develop strategy and use cunning to defeat an enemy. Is that sort of talent inherently bad? Drexel uses his skills for ill but might someone use those same skills to achieve positive ends? As we've seen in the case of Marcelle, a little more thinking might go a long way.

I received an advance copy of Masters and Slayers from the publisher through NetGalley.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Short Stuff: Take 5

"The Captain and His Squire," by Matthew Wuertz in Mindflights.

"The Captain and His Squire" is the second story in Wuertz's Cole of Arkessler trilogy. (See my review of the first story here.) A scholar for Salincia's royal academy, Cole again finds himself on the road traveling to a distant city to record a knight's life story. His subject for this trip is Sir Borodin, the captain of the knights in Kartev. Unlike Sir Chahan, who behaved like an oaf much of the time, Cole finds Sir Borodin to be intelligent and affable. They also share an interest in darivs--a mysterious race of humanoids living in the forests--and Borodin has collected books that mention them. Like Cole, Borodin's interest dates from the action against the darivs near Donevsk recorded in "Regarding Sir Chahan." An alarm bell interrupts their conversation. Cole follows Borodin to Aukland Bridge, where two guards and a dariv lie dead. Lord Thamair, the lord of Kartev, orders a retaliatory attack on the darivs. The next morning, a force of knights and squires led by Thamair and Borodin leave the city. At Borodin's invitation, Cole accompanies them. The battle with the darivs in Arsdale Forest goes badly. Borodin falls and Harris, his squire, flees the battlefield. Cole and the survivors from Kartev are magically rendered blind then captured and forced into a tunnel. A magician recognizes the difference in Cole's clothing from the others and upon finding that Cole is a scholar, restores his sight. The magician wants Cole to record the recent events. Cole learns from the magician that the darivs serve the magician's brother and that the recent attacks are in retaliation for "stealing" Mydrianna from them. The darivs are known for devouring the corpses of fallen enemies but no one knows what becomes of live captives. When the darivs leave them unguarded, Harris returns to free them. He tells them that he left the field under Borodin's dying orders to prepare the city for defense. Harris leads the blind, wounded fighters back to Kartev where they must rally any able-bodied citizens to mount a defense against an impending attack. "The Captain and His Squire" is a transition story. We learn more about the darivs and their motives, but this story lacks some of the punch of the previous one as Cole does not undergo any great change to his character or beliefs. "The Captain and His Squire" and "Regarding Sir Chahan" share a similar structure. In both stories, Cole ventures far from home to interview a knight who then dies in battle with darivs. One has to wonder if knights will be leery of telling Cole their life stories in the future since the stories end shortly thereafter.

"In Hot Water: A Dragonson Vignette," by Walter G. Esselman in Residential Aliens.

"In Hot Water" is a quirky tale with a serious side. The Lords of Bon Su Pear have asked two water nymphs--Regent and Brianna--to retrieve a mysterious box from a sunken ship. The Lords insist the box contains a bottle of cognac. Brianna brings along her playful spell otter, named SOS, whose fur glows blue. They retrieve the box with little trouble, but as they're leaving the ship, an adolescent sea monster--part bull, mostly fish--swallows SOS. Brianna wants to chase down the massive animal but Regent convinces her they need reinforcements. Brianna creates a diversion in the water, allowing Regent and Brianna to avoid their otter's fate but barely. The monster, properly called a Camahueto, isn't done yet. (They never are.) It lunges out of the water to attack the water nymphs and Lords. Regent manages to wound the beast but Brianna takes her revenge with some watergolems who hack it to a bloody, gooey mess. An argument over the box's contents ensues and the Lords reluctantly admit it contains a cure for Wailing Flu. According to tradition, the Lords must anonymously do something to help the people of the city each year, thus the secrecy about the box. Esselman mixes the strange, mundane, and dangerous for comic effect. The nymphs nearly die retrieving what they think is a bottle of booze. High officials asking others to risk their necks to further the interests of the officials is nothing new, and the innocent otter suffers more than anyone but not as much as you think. You'll have to read the story to find out what really happened to that furry, blue critter.