Category Archives: fantasy novel

Thoughts, questions and “OMG, Why did she do that?!”- Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 5

More a review than previous posts, but I’m saving some space for the wild-eyed rants at the end.

SPOILERS****SPOILERS****SPOILERS****SPOILERS*****

Okay, a slower-paced episode than last week, which could be like saying a 747 is slower than an SR-71.  Almost anything would feel slow after the Battle of the Loot Train, so it’s a relative thing.

At the same time, the narrative seemed, ironically, sort of rushed.  Look how many high points the story hits– the aftermath of the battle, Randyll and Dickon Tarly are executed (more about that later), Jon gets to pet Drogon, Jorah returns, the plan to snatch a wight and bring it south is hatched (more about that later, too), Gendry is found (after what appears to be a fifteen minute search), Jaime and Tyrion meet, Gendry meets Jon, Jon and company head north to connect up with Tormund, Beric, Thoros, and the Hound join the party, and they all head out into the north.  That’s leaving out Arya’s spying on Littlefinger (and his disinformation campaign against her) and the fact that bat-fuck crazy Cersei is going to be a mother again.  If I left anything out it’s because it all went by really fast.

Oh, yeah, Samwell missing the secret of Jon’s birth because he wasn’t listening closely enough to Gilly.  Listen, son, if you’re going to be in a long-term relationship with a woman, you need to work on your listening skills….

Basically, I have the sense that the writers felt they had to cram a lot of sausage into the casing of one episode, in order to set up the climax of this season, and to properly lay the groundwork for Season Eight, which will have to be about the Great War, lots of major characters going down for the count, and that bittersweet ending GRRM has been promising us.  Because this particular kielbasa link is tightly packed, we spent mere minutes on reunions, plans, spying, dragon-petting (don’t try this at home, folks), executions, plotting and Avengers assembling that could have occupied two or three or even more episodes in previous seasons.  It’s not nearly as satisfying presented in this warp-speed manner, but I can’t fault the writers too much.  They are running out of time (to be precise, scheduled air-time), and I suspect that they felt it necessary to cover this much ground quickly so as to make sure the climax of the season, and the beginning of Season Eight, work the way their supposed to.  Hopefully the remainder of the season, and the remainder of the show, will be better paced.

Re: the execution of Randyll and Dickon– I agree with Tyrion, Dany shouldn’t have done it.  At the very least Cersei will use it against her.  Serious political mistake.  More than that, though, it reminds us that Dany does have a dark side, a willful insistence on her way that sometimes leads to unnecessary deaths.  It doesn’t make her mad, it makes her a frail, fallible human being who sometimes does things out of frustration and spite.  Also, as I feared, she has arrived at the point of demanding fealty she has not earned.  “Bend the knee, or die” is a threat as heavy as chains.  As Varys put it, someone indeed needs to make her listen.

And then there’s the plan to capture a wight and bring it south to convince Cersei the threat from the Night King is real.  Leaving aside the fact that Cersei will use any truce to her advantage, and that she will see anything Dany and Jon come up with as some sort of trick, the whole thing just sounds cockamamie to me.  Capturing a wight, transporting a wight, displaying a wight– I’d almost say its a waste of time, considering how oblivious Cersei is to anything but the agenda spooling out in her head.  I love the idea of a desperate raid into the North, but couldn’t the writers have come up with a better mcguffin than this for its object– a wonderblatt horn of the First Men, perhaps, or a pool of magic volcanic fire that would make effective ammunition against the Night King’s army?  I do wonder, but then, I’ve never had to write for TV show, nor have I ever been under the kind of pressure the writers for GoT are under.  The whole world, and probably a significant portion of the heavenly host, are watching, so I hesitate to criticize them too much.

But, as much as I quibble, it was a pretty good episode, and got us, however imperfectly, to where we needed to go.  Along the way, I should mention that I like how the writers are handling Dany and Jon’s growing affection for one another– again, a piece of business that would best have been developed over a whole season, but, again, the clock is ticking.  Instead they are doing it by expressions and looks and a few words spoken in just the right way.  If you have only so much time to work in, this is the way to do it.

I think I can refine a few of my first predictions now–

  1. Jon and Dany will share one romantic kiss before Season Seven ends.
  2. The real hanky-panky will start after about the five minute mark of Season Eight.
  3. Then Jon’s true parentage will be revealed, and the two will break up with tears and heartbreak and disappointment.
  4. Jon will then die heroically saving the world of men,
  5. Just about the time Dany discovers she’s pregnant.
  6. At some point Arya will slice Littlefinger open like a seven-layer red velvet cake.
  7. And the Night King will end Season Seven by blowing up all three hundred miles of the Wall.  Now that will be a season cliffhanger.

Later.

Game of Thrones and the Worrisome, Awkward, No-Good Topic

If you’re a fan of the show, you know what I’m talking about…..

***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***

Okay, let’s tackle this puppy– Dany and Jon.  Such a cute couple.  I mean, these guys are obviously made for each other. Two dynamic leaders meeting after both have struggled and suffered and lost, and then triumphed, but who need each other.  Two youngsters with oodles and gobs of chemistry and probably lots of compatible psychological profile stuff and major inter-fertility and all the jazz that Make Relationships Work.

Except that she’s his aunt.

By most modern standards, we have entered serious no-no, uh-huh, hands off the girl-or-boy territory.  This is despite the fact that the Dany and Jon are about the same age, and have no idea, at least at this point in the show’s story arc, that they share anything other than leadership qualities and hormones.  In 21st Century American society we have been conditioned to consider anything that smacks of incest to be taboo, to be universally rejected and and even criminalized.  In my lifetime there has been a growing recognition of the terrible price incest and child-abuse exacts from its victims, and we rightly reject attempts to normalize it.

Except….

Well, here’s the deal.  We’re talking about a television show.  We’re talking about television show set in a fantasy world.  We’re talking about a television show set in a fantasy world with distinctly different rules about sexuality, consent and what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t.  That has to alter the way we talk about this.

Allow me to digress for a moment to talk about the show’s source material– George R. R. Martin’s five (and counting– c’mon, George, Rome was built faster than this) books of the A Song of Ice and Fire series.  Admittedly the show long ago diverged from the precise story- line of the books, but the universe Martin created, and the general story arc, remain its guidance system.  It is well known that Martin has drunk deeply from the well of history to inform his work, and particularly the history of Medieval Britain.  And part of that historical understanding is that the rules about sexuality, consent and incest that nowadays we think are set in stone were often very, very different in ancient or medieval societies.

Take, for example, age of consent.  In Martin’s universe, girls who have their first menses are immediately considered marriage material, which means thirteen year-olds are getting married.  In the books, Dany is, in fact, thirteen when she marries Khal Drogo (this was changed in the show to sixteen, for obvious legal reasons).   This attitude is distinctly at odds with modern sensibilities, but was actually common in previous eras, and is still prevalent in certain non-Western societies.  And the shift in Western attitudes is actually a comparatively recent phenomenon– the age of consent in Texas was ten– ten—  as recently as 1880, and that was not unusual among American states in that period.

Even what has been considered incest has varied from time to time and place to place.  Before the American Civil War it was legal in every state for first cousins to wed.  It still is in some states (e.g. California) while it is restricted in some and outright illegal in others (Texas– go figure).

Bear in mind, as well, the cross-cultural weirdness of how elites and nobles in different eras and cultures determined who could get hitched to who.  It’s well-known that the rulers of Ancient Egypt and Pre-Conquest Peru both permitted brothers and sisters of royal lineages to marry, to keep bloodlines “royal”.  Martin drew on this history directly when he created the Targaryens, whose kings often wed their own sisters.

And then there is the startling institution of “avunculate marriage“, which was a piece of history unknown to me before I started thinking about this subject.  Apparently this custom had a heyday among European royals in the Middle Ages and afterwards, in which uncles and nieces, and occasionally aunts and nephews (ding!) were wed to one another, again in the interest of keep bloodlines pure, and wealth and power in the family.  Unfortunately, it had the at least occasional effect of producing children with major mental and physical defects, such as Carlos II, the last Hapsburg king of Spain–

Rey_Carlos_II
Poor guy…not his fault his parents were uncle and niece….

Rather more startling, avunculate marriage is actually legal, sometimes with restrictions, in several modern countries, including Russia, Argentina, and the Netherlands.

Give me just a second– gotta slow down my brain’s RPMs.  Whew, that makes me dizzy….

Okay, so what does this all mean for Dany and Jon, two fictional characters in a fictional universe with way different rules about sex and marriage and such like?  And how wound up should we get that these two probably related characters may– and it’s still just potential at this point, folks– be doing the mambo sometime in the near future?

In all of this the saving grace is that there is no hint or suggestion of abuse, which, aside from genetic risks, is the most destructive aspect of sex between close kinsfolk.  Dany and Jon are consenting adults, even by American standards, and doubly so by Westerosi.  They have met as equals, however much Dany wants Jon to bend the knee, and the story-line so far gives every indication that their mutual respect and attraction will grow.  If Jon’s little secret never came out they would have nothing to cloud their budding relationship, aside, that is, from civil war, invasion, winter, the Night King and his hordes of White Walkers and undead.  You know, the little things that every couple has to put up with.

I think, in the final analysis, fans of the show (including me), whether pro-Dany-Jon or anti, all need to take a big calm pill and chill out.  This is fiction– moreover, it’s fiction about a time and place with its own rules.  We need to trust Martin and the showrunners Benioff and Weiss to take us where the story needs to go.

Of course, given that this is Game of Thrones, where heartbreak and disappointment are daily meat and drink, this may all be a lot of worrying about a whole lot of not much.  Westeros is not devoid of rules about incest– certainly Jaime and Cersei’s relationship is widely censured.  It may be that Dany and Jon will get really close, only to pull back with the aforementioned heartbreak and disappointment when Jon’s true heritage is revealed.  That’s one way this could go.  Another way, and maybe more likely, is that they establish a relationship, and then one of them (I’m betting Jon) dies heroically/tragically/spectacularly in the show’s finale, or close to it.  Either way, given the nature of this show and its willingness to impose suffering on its characters, the odds are way stacked against Dany and Jon walking hand-in-hand off into the sunset in the closing minutes of Season Eight, Episode Six.

And if, by chance, they do– well, I think I could deal with that.

So….everybody calm down (me, too).  Let the story unfold.  And brace yourself.

Later.

 

 

And now, on a completely different note, a few words about “The Horseman”

In case there’s anyone out there who cares, I missed last week’s installment of The Horseman, and I will probably miss this week’s.  The reason has to do with how I do first drafts.

I keep hearing about writers who outline everything about a story ahead of time, who know what’s going to happen to each character, who understand where each beat and turn of the the story will fall.  People for whom– allegedly– the writing of a story is merely a process of fleshing out the action.

That ain’t me.

My process is, quite simply, discovery of the story by writing it.  Usually, I have a general idea of the story’s action, some of the characters, and almost always how the story ends, but writing to get to that ending is typically a long process, often involving many doubts, much second-guessing, detours, re-routes and reboots.  Writer’s block is a familiar, if unwelcome, companion.  This is a major reason Princess of Stars has not progressed; I have been essentially stuck at one point in the narrative for about a year, until recently unable to understand how Kathy gets to a particular, but essential, change in attitude.  I may– may— have figured out in the last few days a way to finesse the problem.  We’ll see.

This is, frankly, not a particularly rational process.  I feel my way through an unlit cavern to discover the shape of my story, and wrong turns are common.  I have at times gone five thousand, ten thousand, fifteen thousand words down a path, only to realize it’s not working– the action is wrong for the character, or it doesn’t make sense, or it negates something else I’ve already written, or intend to write and which feels essential.  I have novels for which I have thrown away nearly as much as I have kept.

This is where I am at with The Horseman.  In attempting to push on past Part Eight I realized that how I handled Parts Seven and Eight did not ring true.  If I were doing this first draft properly, in private far from the tender eyes of readers, I could quietly eighty-six the failed passages and redirect the narrative.  Since I am committing the sin of presenting raw story, the uglier aspects of the process are, of necessity, laid bare as well.  Basically, Parts Seven and Eight must be retconned.  I am working on the changes at this moment.  But it will be a little while before I can re-post the parts and resume my forward progress.  For the time-being, The Horseman is on hold.

The silver-lining on this, of course, is that out of all the problems facing the world at the moment, the delay of this story is just about Number 178,289,129,367.  It’s good to keep things in perspective.

Later.

 

Story Fragment– A Sleep of a Thousand Years

Here’s a fragment from a fantasy novel I started a few years back. The plot is something vague about a legendary princess and men on a desperate quest, but it never really gelled. Occasionally I come back and doodle on it. Perhaps someday I’ll figure it out….

This piece is a little cheesy, but I think it’s fun.

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
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“This is it,” Ethar said. His face shone with excitement. “It has to be!”

Soren had to agree. They had all labored up the slope from the camp– Soren, Ethar, with his bag of scrolls, Gis, with his old man’s panting, Yar stumping upward, his face set, Duro following him– and now, before the Great Doors, sunk into the cliff-face, Soren was sure that their journey was over. Or half-over…. “Can you get it open?” he asked Ethar.

Ethar pulled a scroll from his pouch. “Give me a moment.”

“Gods give me strength,” Duro muttered.

Ethar didn’t seem to hear him. He consulted a scroll with red tabs, then stepped up to the Doors. They loomed over him, thirty or more feet high. Into their face were carved dozens of runes and images– Elha at war, on the hunt, bowing before their Queen. Soren studied the graven face of Tirana, but the features were stylized, stilted; they told him nothing.

Yar stepped close to Soren. “Captain, remember our bargain. You’re here to speak to the Queen of the Elha, if you can find her. But I want the Spear of Souls for my sovereign.”

“I remember,” Soren said. “But we’re still a ways from either goal.”

“True enough– but I didn’t think we would get this far,” Yar said.

Ethar studied the carvings. “It’s not a riddle; it’s a sequence….” he muttered.

Reaching up, he touched the foot of one hunter, dragged his fingers along the form of a dying warrior. Then he pushed at the hub of a chariot wheel.

A harsh, thunderous boom shook the ground beneath their feet. Soren staggered, then stepped back as the Doors shuddered, boomed, and then slowly began to open. They pulled apart, revealing a dark space beyond.

“Oh, my,” breathed Gis.

They went in, cautiously, weapons ready. The sunlight shining through the newly opened doors was watery, and the chamber within was filled with suddenly disturbed dust. Soren coughed, and Ethar sneezed four times in a row. But after a few moments they began to make out their surroundings.

The chamber was vaulted, and seventy feet high. On either side stood huge statues on pedestals– frowning kings and unequally unsmiling queens. “Hasu,” Gis muttered, gazing up at them. “Kannu, Sianna, Leato– all Tirana’s ancestors.”

“Fun looking bunch,” Duro whispered.

“They don’t like intruders,” Yar said. He stroked his beard, as if to ward off evil. He looked as patchy as Soren felt.

In the middle of the chamber stood a plinth, on which sat a huge stone casket. Around the base of the plinth runes were inscribed into the stone, of an old mode that Soren could not read. Gis and Ethar, however, both bent down at once and began to examine them. On the floor about the plinth, covered with thick dust, were sections of columns and blocks of stone. They did not look as if they had fallen; they looked as if they had been new-cut pieces, intended for further construction, but left in place and never touched again, as if their builders had just never returned to their tasks.

As the two scholars exchanged learned whispers Yar cautiously explored the chamber beyond the plinth, as if to make sure there were no enemies lurking in the far corners. As he did, Duro came over to Soren. “If there is a weapon in that casket, you must remember your charge from the Queen…no matter what you’ve told the dwarf….”

“I haven’t forgotten it,” Soren said. “But my charge was to find the Queen of the Elha and enlist her help. Any alleged weapon is secondary to that.

“Come on, Soren,” Duro said. “Look at this place– this is a tomb. We’re only going to find bones and dust in that casket. The legend is just that.”

Soren scowled. “As may be– but I will hold off judgment until we know, Duro son of Eig.”

The two of them glared at each other; then Gis said, “We have it!”

“Have what?” Soren said, glad to have something to distract him. Yar came hurrying back to the others.

Gis stood. “The inscription says that Tirana, Queen of the Elha, in her grief over her brother, chose to sleep the Sleep of Forgetfulness. She took the venom of a shistaska, and became like one dead, and was lain here, until the time should be fulfilled for her revival.”

“‘Became like one dead’, or died?” Doru said. “Are you sure of your translation?”

“Fairly sure,” Ethar said, still bent over the runes. “Although the declension is ambiguous in some contexts….”

“Sorry I asked,” Duro said, rolling his eyes.

“How do we open the casket?” Soren said, determined to stay focused. He sheathed his sword.

“Ah,” Gis said, with a raised finger, as if Soren had raised an interesting point in a lecture. “If the honored Ethar is correct, he understands the sequence for opening the casket. It is another secret pattern, but one he has deciphered from the ancient Elha chronicles….”

“Spare us the description,” Duro growled, “and just do it.”

Gis scowled at Duro, then looked at Soren. “Please do,” Soren said. “Before we start chewing each other’s ears off.”

Gis nodded. “Very well. Ethar…?”

“One moment,” Ethar said. He stood. Appearing to ignore Duro’s huffing and muttering, he walked slowly around the plinth. Every other step he touched one or two of the runes; Soren, watching, believed he understood the pattern. Each of the runes corresponded to numbers in the Elha mathematical system; together they seemed to be numerical sequences that had mystical importance. But he was not sure; his command of ancient Elha mysticism was not a patch on Gis’ or Ethar’s.

Ethar finished his circuit of the plinth. He touched the last rune. Instantly there came a sharp snap. Everyone took a step back. The top face of the casket split length-ways down the middle; as they watched, the halves folded back and slid down out of sight. The casket, now an open box, silently rose a foot or more. It stopped, and the sides folded down.

Inside, lying on its back, was a body. It was a woman; she was clothed in a shining blue sark that reached from her shoulders to her white feet. She was Elha; her ears and the tilt of her eyes marked her. Her hair, nearly white, lay over her in two long braids, reached to her midriff. Her hands, small and fine, rested on her belly.

The men approached slowly. “By the high gods,” Gis said, in little more than a whisper. “It’s her. Tirana.”

Soren was willing to take his word for it. To him, the woman looked as if she had just lain down for a summer’s nap. He stepped up and examined the body closely. The form beneath the sark seemed more than pleasing, but there was no movement, no sign of breath. Without being obvious about it, Soren took a deep breath. No scent of decay came to him.

“She sleeps!” Ethar exclaimed. “Just as the old chronicles said!”

“That’s daft, even for you,” Duro said. “She’s dead. It’s obvious. The old Elha were masters of embalming, that’s all.”

“I don’t know….” Gis said, uncertain.

“Come on,” Duro said, “it’s been a thousand years!”

“Yes, it has,” Soren said.

Yar stepped up beside him. “Is this it? One dead Elha wench? Is there nothing else in the casket?”

“There doesn’t appear to be,” Soren said.

Yar looked as if he wanted to hit something– or someone. “My king will be displeased. No, actually, my king is going to gut me slowly and feed my manhood to starving wolves while it’s still attached. He wanted that Elha weapon.”

“Well, my mission’s a failure, too,” Soren said. “I have no capacity for speaking to the dead.”

“She’s not dead!” Ethar said. “I tell you, it’s in the chronicles! She merely sleeps!”

“A thousand year sleep,” Duro said sarcastically. “Of course. So, if she sleeps, you scroll-addled fool, how do you wake her up?”

“Um….” Ethar said.

Tentatively, Soren stepped closer to the plinth. He reached a hand and touched Tirana’s cheek. He blinked in surprise. The flesh was supple, smooth, and seemed no different from that of a living person.

“She’s not mummified at all,” he said.

“As I said,” Ethar said, his excitement returning.

Soren hesitated again. Then he leaned down over Tirana’s still face. Still no scent of decay. Very gently he pressed his lips to hers.

“Soren?!” Gis exclaimed.

Soren lifted his head, hiding his surprise. He had expected his kiss to meet hard coldness, and, most likely, to taste putrescence. Instead, Tirana’s lips were warm, and she tasted, not of rot or death, but of woman.

But she still did not move.

“Now, what did that accomplish?” Gis complained.

Soren looked up. The others gathered around the plinth started with expressions of surprise, disgust or confusion. Soren smiled, shrugged. “Well, it always works in the tales.”

Gis rolled his eyes and groaned; Yar laughed. “And I thought I was strange,” he said.

“Well, it also means I’m out of ideas,” Soren said, sighing.

“I suggest we give the problem a rest,” Gis said. “Perhaps we can think of something after we’ve eaten.”

There was a general murmur of agreement. “Well,” Duro said, sighing, “all right. I’ll get supper started. We’ve got that venison and the turnips. I’ve got a little garlic left. That should give the stew some flavor.”

Tirana sat up on the plinth. “Oh! I hate garlic!” she shrieked.

Yar yelled in surprise, lifting his axe and stumbling back. Gis fell backwards over one of the fallen pillars, his robes flying up and his spindly legs waving in the air. Ethar shouted, “Yah!” and dropped his scrolls, which rolled every which way across the floor. Duro turned and fled for the open chamber doors, wild-eyed with fright.

Soren instinctively retreated, and reached for Splitter. His hand was on its hilt when Tirana collapsed back on to the plinth.

“What in the name of the unholy demons of Lis was that?” Yar exclaimed, still in a battle-stance, as if preparing to receive a cavalry charge.

“I don’t know,” Soren said. He stepped cautiously back to the edge of the plinth. He kept a hand on Splitter. Tirana again lay on the plinth, but now her chest moved with breathing, her lips parted, and as Soren watched she stirred and moved her arms. She lifted one hand up to her mouth, then let it fall back.

“I think,” he said, wondering, “she’s waking up.”

Five fantasy books that have influenced me

Despite the fact that I have stopped posting chapters of Horse Tamer, I remain intent on writing the complete novel. Although it has to take a back-seat to finishing Princess of Fire, I’ve started re-orienting the existing text to my revised start-point and my grimmer vision of Mankin. I expect this will be as much a labor of love as the posted chapters were.

Writing Horse Tamer got me to thinking about my fantasy influences, and I realized that some of the best deserve to be called out and honored, especially as younger readers might not be familiar with some of them. Considering how picky I am with my genre reading, it’s also worth noting the books I go back to, over and over again, for inspiration, or which influenced me at an early age.

In no particular order, here are five of my favorite fantasy books–

The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien– naturally. This is the ur-work of modern fantasy. Both fantasy and sword and sorcery existed before Tolkien– William Morris’ The Well at the World’s End was published in 1896, and Robert E. Howard created Conan the Barbarian twenty years before Tolkien completed LOTR. Tolkien’s work, however, has defined the genre for the last two generations.

I definitely fall into the camp of those who assert that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is, taken together (as it was originally meant to be), the most influential novel of the Twentieth Century. It powerfully encapsulates our culture’s growing realization that modern society was not the paradise its propagandists said it was– and suggests a remedy– not a bucolic retreat into medievalism, of which some critics accuse the trilogy, but a regaining of a sense of our dependent inter-relationship, both with each other and with nature. In one sense, the Lord of the Rings is the first ecological cautionary tale, published years before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In another, it was a vanguard of the counter-culture. In yet another, it is a profound anti-war tale.

The Blue Hawk, by Peter Dickinson — an example of a rare type of fantasy I admire and aspire to write. These are fantasy stories with little or no magic. Other examples would probably include the Gormenghast trilogy, Watership Down, and Shardik. Personally, I dislike magic– to me, it’s a cop-out, and usually takes me away from the kind of setting I really enjoy– the sort that focuses on human relationships and struggles, while set in partly or wholly imaginary worlds. There is considerable debate whether these sort of stories are actually mannerpunk, steampunk or sci-fi; for me the debate is almost meaningless, precisely because genre boundaries on the whole are growing increasingly meaningless.

In the book Dickinson creates a world that is refreshingly not medieval, but rather a re-working of Egyptian or Sumerian culture and history. The young priest Tron intervenes in a ceremony and becomes entangled in a political struggle that at first appears to be merely between the kingdom’s priestly caste and the nobility, who want to break out the strait-jacket the priests have placed on the kingdom– but which in the end is revealed to be a story of gods and their purposes. I love the story, and the atmosphere Dickinson creates, of desert temples, winding rivers, highland peasants, shadowed struggles between priestly and royal factions, and of a place and time far removed from ours. More fantasy needs to be written like this.

The Doomfarers of Coramonde, by Brian Daley. Another story that blurs the boundary between sci-fi and fantasy, it revolves around the discovery of a portal leading from the mundane Earth to a fantasy world. The first half of the story involves a US Army armored cavalry APC in Vietnam that is pulled into the fantasy universe to help defeat a dragon. Inevitably, complications ensue. The second half involves the APC commander, who returns to Coramonde to help the rightful prince Springbuck regain his throne.

This book captured my imagination in large part because I read it while I was still in the Army, in an actual armored cavalry regiment, so I was immediately able to relate to the APC crew, their weapons and attitudes, and their profound sense of dislocation at finding themselves in a different world. Brian Daley was a Vietnam veteran, and he brought a great deal of authenticity to the story. The book was an important milestone for me, in terms of how it presented realistic characters and dialogue, even in a fantastic setting.

Unfortunately, Daley passed away in 1996 from cancer, far too soon.

The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold. This story has become one of my personal favorites, the sort where you read the book until it falls apart. Set in a fantasy world modeled on Reconquista Iberia, it tells the tale of the breaking of a curse that has haunted the royal house of Chalion. Its protagonist, Lupe dy Cazaril, is a rare example of a good character– honorable, honest and dedicated to those he serves– who is not boring. Bujold redeems Cazaril’s straight-arrow qualities by presenting him also as deeply-wounded, humble, self-deprecating and sometimes blundering. I’m the sort who needs characters I can root for in his books and movies, and Cazaril is just the sort of sympathetic character I latch on to.

Bujold also does something else in this book I deeply appreciate– instead of utilizing magic, she has constructed a detailed theology revolving around five deities who, to the characters in the story, are not theoretical at all, but participants in the action, with their own agendas (what the gods want, in fact, is a major plot-point). This allows Bujold to talk about a number of issues– faith, surrender to God, duty, miracles– that might be difficult to handle otherwise.

A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin (aka, Game of Thrones, which is technically the title of only the first book in the series). Since these books are still being written, the jury is not yet completely in as to just how effective the story will be as a whole when it is finished. For one thing, I am personally scratching my head as to how Martin is supposed to wrap up everything in just two more books– there are so many threads and loose-ends, it feels to me as if he needs three or four. Of course, that may be the difference between me and a literary genius.

Because, despite the incomplete nature of the series, it’s clear to me that A Song of Ice and Fire is a work of genius. It has re-defined the fantasy genre, away from the Lord of the Rings template toward something dark, gritty and more sensual. In fact, A Song of Ice and Fire is seen by some as the prime and most successful example of the “grimdark” sub-genre, which is itself a reaction to Tolkien’s work. Of course, as was the case with Tolkien, most of Martin’s imitators cannot match his power.

The power of Martin’s writing lies largely in his refusal to flinch away from the hard realities of life, and particularly life in a medieval setting. It’s often hard to read his work, but for me that resonates– it reads like history, and anyone who reads history knows the first requirement of a historian is a strong stomach. There is no idealization of the human condition in Martin’s work– he fully comprehends the basic fact that people are selfish, false, treacherous, violent and power-hungry. They use power to hurt, and rape as a weapon of war. Good people die for no reason, and too often the wrong prospers. Westeros is the power-obsessed Middle Ages re-written in a modern idiom.

The saving grace in all this darkness is a handful of characters- Brienne of Tarth, Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, Davos Seaworth, Daenerys Targaryen, among others– who you come to root for, because they preserve in themselves some aspect of hope and integrity. None of them are perfect– Tyrion, for example, is a completely mixed bag of lust and square-dealing– and you have to steel yourself for the possibility that someone you love is going to get it, as Martin has no compunction about killing off characters. But that just illustrates his narrative honesty.

Martin’s ability to create nuanced characters is another major contributor to his power. Good, bad, in-between, they are all three-dimensional and believable. I find myself liking amoral self-servers like Bronn the sellsword, because he has a pragmatic honesty and a sense of humor, and even Cersei Lannister is revealed, beneath her vicious exterior, as a fearful and wounded woman who loves her children. How Martin manages this while creating a cast that may dwarf that of War and Peace is an opaque mystery to me.

I hope that Martin can, in the end, wrap up his epic in a way that resolves all the threads. Writing a genuinely epic fantasy is tough, but resolving it in a satisfactory manner is probably the toughest part of all. Off the top of my head about the only author I can think of who actually accomplished the feat was Tolkien. But among modern authors, Martin is probably the one person who can do it.

It suddenly seems almost sacrilegious to mention my faltering and simple-minded effort with Horse Tamer in the same breath with these works. What inspires you frequently also creates a sense of futility– I know my stories will never match the grace and power of these books. But the inspiration also creates the desire to honor your sources with your own effort. Sometime after I complete Princess of Fire and before I start Princess of Stars, I intend to finish Horse Tamer.

And then I guess we’ll just see what happens.

Dialogue, the bane of my existence

I have been reading Stephen King’s On Writing, which is, of a surety, destined to land on my bookshelf as one of the handful of writing books I actually find useful. Someone has called it “tough love for writers” and I do not dispute that at all.

One point King makes in the book is that loners are generally lousy dialogue writers, however good they may be in general, and this insight struck home for me. In fact, I think it drew blood. I am, to put it simply, a solitary misanthropic curmudgeon, who has only grown more solitary and anti-social as I’ve gotten older. And I think this does show up in my dialogue, just as King suggests. I particularly flail about trying to write dialogue for my fantasy stories; in stories with contemporary settings I can better hear how people are supposed to sound, but in a wholly made-up universe the rhythm and sound of dialogue often escapes me.

Now that I have pulled it from the blog, I have been doodling with re-arranging some sections of Horse Tamer, seeing what I should get rid of and what I should keep, and I came to a certain exchange between Mankin and his crusty old sergeant, Denetoi. Reading it left me in a state of despair– the conversation seemed to clunk and thud and verge over toward the maudlin.

Then I remembered that this was, and still is, a first draft, and I decided to try a revision. The second version may now be a little too light-hearted, considering the seriousness of the topic, but I think it works a little better as believable dialogue. What do you think? I would welcome anybody’s opinion on these pieces, whether the original is as bad as I think it is, and whether the revision gets the job done.

Setting– Mankin and Denetoi are down by the wharves of Venia, where Mankin has just had his first seafood lunch, and Denetoi tries to give his friend and former commander some advice.

************************************
Original—

“Good looking, but not a patch on the girls uptown,” Denetoi sighed, watching the two walk away.

“I’ll take your word for it,” Mankin said.

Denetoi frowned into his cup. “Cap’n, there’s something I’ve been meaning to say.”

Mankin frowned in turn, looking at Denetoi. “And when have you ever hesitated to speak your mind?”

“Some things, it’s best to ask first.” Denetoi hesitated another moment before going on. “Cap’n, I’m worried about you.”

Mankin snorted. “What are you now, sergeant, an old mother hen? Are you going to tell me to stay out of the rain? How are you worried about me?”

Denetoi met his look. “I worry when a young man I respect wants to feed himself to lions.”

Mankin sighed. “I’m past that, Denetoi.” I think.

“But you’re still unhappy,” the older man said. “I know something about what war can do to men, Cap’n– and losing people you care about. Some men just go to pieces, some men turn into tyrants, some men drink themselves to death.” Denetoi pointed a finger at Mankin. “You had one moment when you were ready to die, but since then you’ve bottled everything up. That sort thing will burst on you at some point, Cap’n. I promise you. You’re alive, but you’re not living.”

“Now we need to leave this be,” Mankin muttered.

“Let me finish my say, and then you can cuss me as you like. I know you have to grieve, Cap’n, and that’s the decent thing to do, but at some point– some point soon– you’ll need to figure out why you’re living.”

Mankin gritted his teeth. “And you think a whore will fix that up?”

“I could think of worse things.”

“We’re done talking about this,” Mankin said.

Denetoi shrugged, looked away. “I probably shouldn’t have said anything.”

They finished their meal in silence. “We should be getting back,” Mankin said.

“As you say, Cap’n.” Denetoi’s face was closed.

Revision—

“Good looking, but not a patch on the girls uptown,” Denetoi sighed, watching the two walk away.

“I’ll take your word for it,” Mankin said.

Denetoi frowned into his cup. “Cap’n, I never told you…I was real sorry when I heard about your wife and your little one. “

Mankin said nothing for a moment. “Thank you.”

Denetoi seemed to think about what he was going to say next. “I’m worried about you, Cap’n.”

Mankin snorted. “What are you now, sergeant, my mother? Are you going to tell me to stay out of the rain? How are you worried about me?”

Denetoi looked up. “I worry when a young man I respect wants to feed himself to lions.”

“I’m past that.” I think.

“Maybe,” the older man said. “But—beggin’ your pardon, Cap’n, but you’re still not right.”

Mankin said nothing. He couldn’t deny it.

“You’re all bottled up,” Denetoi said. “You can’t go on forever like that.”

“Not sure what else I can do,” Mankin muttered.

Denetoi started to say something, then closed his mouth. “Well,” he said, “the truth is I don’t have an answer, either. I was going to tell you to get yourself a woman, but that’s not your way.”

“No.” No, it’s not.

“But one way or another,” Denetoi said, “at some point, Cap’n, you’re going to need to figure out why you’re living.”

Mankin looked at the sergeant. “Does anybody ever that figure that out? Have you?”

“Ah, well, I keep things simple,” Denetoi said, smiling. “Beer, women, crab-stew—that’s what keeps me going.”

“I guess.” Mankin smiled, too. “And here I thought you mostly just knew about horses.”

“Men and horses,” Denetoi said, “not a lot of difference between them, when you think about it.”

They finished their meal and drank another pot of ale each. “We should be getting back,” Mankin said.

“Not sure I can walk uphill too quick,” Denetoi said. He picked his teeth with fingernail. “Damn good stew.”

“We can take our time,” Mankin said.

************************************

One thing about this revision– it incorporates the biggest insight I’ve gained in the last few years about writing around emotions– less is definitely more. A heavy hand in laying out what a character is feeling is the kiss of death. It’s just sad it took me this long to figure that out.

So, opinions? Any and all input is welcome. And I thank you beforehand.

Horse Tamer– time to end the pain….

I’ve been struggling with this for a little while now, but I’ve decided to pull the trigger. From this point on I will post no further chapters of Horse Tamer here, and I will soon remove the chapters I have already published. I have a number of reasons for doing so (not in exact order of importance)–

1. Posting the draft chapter by chapter on my blog seems to have inflamed my already undisciplined style of creating a first draft, to the point that, after more than 60,000 words, I am nowhere near getting even to the middle of the story and bringing all my characters on-stage, never mind introducing the main plot-line. The open-ended nature of blogging has allowed me to blather on, piling prose upon prose, and essentially getting nowhere.

2. I think the basic indecency of posting a draft for all to see has finally caught up with me. I really shouldn’t be doing this in public. Children might be reading this.

3. As often happens with my drafts, I’ve gotten a ways into the story and realized that there is a better way to do it. I have already whinged at length about poor Crisonia, and wrung my hands over poor, lost Ana, but now I’ve realized that Mankin himself needs to be retconned. I’ve written him too bland and safe, for all my attempts to portray him as a suffering soul; I need to bring him back closer to my original conception. So, instead of massive retcons for all, I intend to start again. Call it First Draft 1.1. And I will not be posting it online, but doing it in private, where it belongs, until it’s ready.

That’s the silver lining in all this– the time and energy I expended on Horse Tamer is not going to go to waste. I’m convinced the Venian Empire and its world are the setting Mankin needs to take off and fly. Now that I am into the second draft of Princess of Fire, I can at least get Horse Tamer 1.1 (working title, don’t worry) started, while I also work on stories for traditional publication.

Yes, I’m going to be busy. And that feels really, really good right now.

A hasty note on my works in progress, quickly done, without any sort of delay or obfuscation…really, right now…I mean it…

As I push ahead with Princess of Fire, I am probably going to be putting Horse Tamer on something of a hiatus, and likewise with most flash fiction (well, I might do one or two now and then, if the inspiration really strikes). I want to focus as much as I can on PoF.

I have another reason to hold off for the moment on Horse Tamer, however. Like a wave building off-shore, I can feel a retcon coming. And it’s big one.

I have to change Crisonia– not so much her motivation, but her status and her position, her relationship with certain other characters in the cast, and, most particularly, the means at her disposal for accomplishing what is supposed to be her devoutly desired revenge. I’ve mentioned before that I knew I had left the young woman in an impoverished box, out of which she was having difficulty climbing. This impoverishment made sense in one way in the story, but it’s made other aspects difficult. I could have some third party intervene, but then Crisonia would not be the independent actor she needs to be to move the story along. I think it’s better for her to have resources and connections at hand she can use, or manipulate. Figuring out what those should be, and how to place them in the story, however, will take a little time.

And this is in addition to the fact that I have a burning need to get Ana back into the narrative. I am even less sure what I should do with her, but it’s evident that it needs to happen. Yet more writerly-noodling will be required to sort this out.

In addition to Crisonia and Ana, I may take the opportunity to adjust some of the other characters, as well, although I am not looking to make this into a general re-write of the whole novel, especially considering the novel is far from complete. But all of this reveals a truth about my writing process.

I don’t know if this holds true for very many other writers, but for me the creation of the first draft is usually the place where I not only get to know the characters– particularly if they’re new– it’s also where I often, substantially, figure out the story itself. If that sounds bass-ackward to you, well, then, you’re probably a plotter. As a pantser, when I plunge into a new novel, I will generally have an idea of the chief characters, some idea of the action, some specific scenes in mind, and, almost always, a pretty clear picture of how the novel ends. For example, I know exactly how the entire Divine Lotus series is going to end, right down to the last line of dialogue (what is it? Nope, not going to tell you…). Otherwise, I am often totally making it up as I go, with major character motivations, plot points and narrative logic actually emerging in the process of writing the story. That’s why my first drafts are often unholy messes, with major elements shifting and changing from one chapter to another.

But (sputters the plotting writer), why don’t I just plot this all out ahead of time and spare myself the pain of having to go back and fix so much of my first draft? Well, the answer is pretty simple.

The stories won’t let me.

I mean, I have tried at different times to plot things out, but the outlines I develop always– always— melt away when they come into actual contact with the page. Time and again I’ve had the experience of typing along and suddenly a piece of action or a character will come out of nowhere and demand inclusion in the tale. My prime example of this in the Divine Lotus series is the character of Wolfson, aka Drusa, aka Amar. When I started Princess of Wonders he did not exist; in no way, shape or form was he part of my original concept. But suddenly, about four chapters in, there he was, demanding his page time– and his arrival, all at once, kicked the narrative up to a higher level. The story needed Wolfson, and it imposed him on me.

(What’s Wolfson’s importance to the story? Oh, you need to read the novels for that… 🙂 )

And so it is with Horse Tamer— I am discovering things about the story I did not know when I started it– and yes, the new bits will, and do, demand revisions. Sometimes painful revisions, detailed reworkings– but I have generally found this process very worthwhile. Quite aside from the fact that I have no choice….

Another self-critique of “Horse Tamer”

Horse Tamer is now at about 60,000 words. If this were a normal novel, or even a normal first draft of a novel, I would be deep into the main action of the story at this point. As I’ve previously noted, however, this is not a normal first draft, and it’s getting weirder by the chapter. I have, most incontinently and without a trace of proper narrative discipline, allowed myself to luxuriate in the process of building out the world and my cast of characters, using an inordinate amount of time to do what would, in a finished novel, take perhaps one-third the number of words. I have one or two important characters I haven’t even introduced yet. And poor Ana, who is to be (I mean it) a major player in the overall story, hasn’t even been seen in the last nine chapters! If I were to present this mess to an editor, they would not only be justified in rejecting it, but in having me shot at dawn. Without a blindfold.

Fortunately, the saving grace here is that this is a blog, on which no one has to pay to read my ramblings. The freedom the blog has given me to take my time constructing my narrative has, however, allowed me to indulge a very bad habit– blathering on without regard to pacing. Complaints have, in previous times, been lodged against certain other of my novels with regard to their pacing. With Horse Tamer, so far it appears that pacing is standing out in the snow, shivering and holding a tin cup. Obviously, if I were ever to submit this for actual publication, that issue would have to be rectified.

In terms of specific issues, I continue to worry that I am not conveying Mankin’s emotional conflict adequately. However, more than just trying to find a balance in portraying his grief, it belatedly occurs to me that I should be giving him more emotional colors, so to speak. Grief comes in many shades– sadness, rage, depression, addiction, promiscuity, violence. Aside from his initial attempt to turn himself into kitty-chow, Mankin showed a bit of rage toward his grandfather in Chapter Two. Since then, however, he has been distressingly monochromatic. I need to think about how to fix that.

In addition, I don’t think I have very adequately conveyed the fact that Mankin has more going on in his noggin than just the loss of Alektl and their daughter. He’s experiencing a certain amount of PTSD, but more than that, I’ve had it in mind that Mankin is haunted by one thing in particular that happened in battle. So far, however, I haven’t dropped more than one or two hints about it. Ideally, all of this should be going on at the same time, so it doesn’t feel as if I’m tacking on issues. This would be a problem for a second-draft correction.

I’ve already mentioned Ana being AWOL. That absence will be rectified soon (I hope). The one other issue I will mention at this point is that I have a growing sense I have spent too much time telling about, rather than showing, the internal conflicts between parties and classes in Venia. There is, indeed, yet more to show, and I need to think about how best to do it. In story terms, showing, as opposed to telling, is a matter relaying the information as an aspect of character and action, rather than just having someone blathering about it. I took a tentative step in this direction when I introduced Tacitus Plenor a few chapters back, but I need to do more.

Hopefully the reader will find some entertainment value in all this, despite its desperately unfinished state. This is, essentially, an experiment in the creation of a first draft, done in public, with on-going critiques as it happens. Certainly, I’ve never done anything like this before. Having said that, I confess I have been enjoying writing this story and finally seeing Mankin and all the other characters I’ve had in my head for so long come to life, however imperfectly. In and of itself, that’s worth something.

Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” – an exceedingly quick review of a short novel

This past week I read Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane

http://www.amazon.com/Ocean-End-Lane-Novel/dp/0062255665/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1421777954&sr=8-3&keywords=Neil+Gaiman

I live in awe of Neil Gaiman as an author. That’s despite the fact I am not heavily into much of his work. Mostly this is because I don’t like horror in general. My favorite works of Gaiman’s are more in the line of Neverwhere, American Gods, and Anansi Boys, which is probably some sort of pattern. Oh, and Good Omens, his collaboration with Terry Pratchett, actually made this former Southern Baptist laugh about the Apocalypse, no mean feat. In whatever genre he’s writing, though, the plain fact is that Gaiman is one of the best writers of imaginative literature alive today.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is nothing short of brilliant. It is a short novel revolving around a middle-aged man, who returns to the scene of an epic struggle to save the universe, in which he was a major player at the age of seven. I do not want to say more than that, because in no way, shape or form do I want to spoil this book for anyone.

Gaiman’s writing in this book is some of the most powerful I have read recently. With absolute economy he sets up an epic battle that keeps you turning the pages, wondering what’s going to happen next. He creates, with complete authenticity, the world of a seven year old boy who finds himself thrown into dangers beyond imagination– and then he creates a world beyond our mundane existence as full of wonder as it is horror. I’ve gotten very picky in my old age about what I read, but this book just kept pulling me onward.

This book joins my list of favorites from Gaiman’s works. Highly recommended.