Strange Wordings

Thoughts on fantasy, science fiction and genre writing in general . . . stuff that's strange.

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Location: Fredericksburg, Virginia

These Blogs are largely about the process of coercing words out of my head (at times I convince myself that I am a novelist). Thoughts about current reading and/or fantasy literature and writing in general may disgorge at random.

Friday, September 29, 2006

It's official

I'm insane. Already working on outlining Ghost, Ghoul, Goblin, Witch and Devil, Demon, Dragon, Warlock, (I've now fixed on the overall title of The Witch and the Warlock, so it would be GGGW: Volume I of TWATW, DDDW: Volume II). So, there's plenty to do. Each volume is composed of four 'books' of ten chapters each. That's 80 chapters to outline. Then comes the writing. All on top of pimping my first manuscript, Rose|Thorn (which, btw, is still with the agent).

So, why am I insane? Is that not enough? Yeah, well, I've also started drafting--yes actually drafting--my fourth novel and third that I'm writing concurrently. I know, I know. But the idea is so fucking exciting. I mean this one is good, very, very, very fucking good. The first chapter is done and it is, forget humility, freaking awesome. (Any of my lame friends who want to read it just send me an e-mail). The first chapter is mind-blowingly better than anything I've written in the past.

So there, are we agreed? I'm insane? Yes.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Quite out of nowhere

into my mind this morning popped a full-fledged idea for a story, rather like the Birth of Athena in reverse. Ouch. Novella length, I think, the story is essentially a murder mystery in a steam-punk, Mieville-esque fantasy setting. It begins with the somewhat mysterious death of the autocratic leader of a nation, a relatively minor nation. A dagger to the chest, it seems, and no longer does the autocrat's heart beat. Hmm, strangely though, it is the autocrat's own dagger and he is the only one with access to the death chamber--all locked tight from the inside--and there is no sign of entry. Oh, and there's also the phalanx of guards that were on duty. You see, because there are seven nations in this world, and this is the fifth leader of such nations to die in the past few weeks. Strange. And though each death was apparently a suicide, (and each also had no direct heir) it cannot be a coincidence, right? Ergo the guards after the first four mysterious deaths. Yet, despite the guard and the triple locked doors, warded with magic, the autocrat lies cold.

This dude, you see, or dame whatever, was the autocrat's chief of security and naturally takes on the blame for the death. He or she is forced out by longtime rivals taking advantage of the crisis, a few of the autocrat's nieces and nephews begin an espionage-and-assassination war for the succession. In the midst of chaos the dude, or dame, starts to poke around a bit, investigating the first five deaths.

The investigation leads to, well, really what is now a fairy tale about an ancient evil creature, I think probably a lich, that tried to take over the world, etc. At that point the various peoples of the world banded together to defeat the lich, and there were seven leaders of these peoples that finally threw down the walls of the black fortress and killed the lich. That is how the seven nations were founded according to this fairy tale.

Well, unknwon to anyone, the lich was defeated but not destroyed. Just as the seven burst into its inner sanctum it cast a spell, splitting its spirit into seven parts, sending one into each of the seven leaders. The spirit then passed down through the ages, through the bloodlines of the rulers of the seven nations until a time when each bloodline would finally come to an end. Then each of the spirits would overcome its host, cause the host to commit suicide. Upon the death of the last of the seven the pieces of the lich's spirit would reuinte and be reborn to once agina imperil the world. Muhahaha!

Well, so anyhow our hero, or heroine, chases this knowledge down as the leader of the sixth nation kills herself. He, or she, then must somehow get to the seventh leader, themost powerful and reclusive person on the face of the world, and somehow convince that person of what is really going on. Ha ha! But he, or she, fails the seventh leader dies by its own hand (maybe even by accident, oh the irony) and the lich is reborn.

Now our hero/ine must confront the lich, a powerful creature of ancient evil and malice, that sort of thing. And yes, the lich is defeated. Huzzah! But ... umm ... how dow we know that the lich didn't pull the same bullshit and now its spirit lives on in the bloodline of our hero/ine?

I envision a sort of Conan-Doyle meets Verne meet Mieville flavor. Oh and there's no humans at all. Each of the seven nations is a different version of an animal-human amalgamation. Zebra centaurs, pan-like goat men, gorilla men, hyena-dog men, crocodile men, a cross between an elephant and a rhinoceros (no human element) and lion men. Except the lich, and his long dead minions, were men. Cool, neh?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Nothing quite so profound to say,

but I just finished Ursula Le Guin's The Tombs of Atuan, and can I say that one day I hope to be able to tell a story this 'effortlessly.'

Addendum: okay, so here are a few words of (un)wisdom. If A Wizard of Earthsea is about personal responsibility, and the pain and sacrifice that it takes to be really true to oneself, then The Tombs of Atuan is about personal freedom. I mean not in the sense of rugged individualism or libertine excess, but rather the freedom that comes from the choice of conscience. I mean the freedom not to be inhuman. Le Guin makes a point here, albeit in a story so effortlessly enjoyable as pure story that one is forgiven for not seeing the meta-text, that true freedom is the freedom to serve humanity, not to serve oneself.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Hal Duncan's Vellum, my strange thoughts

Having just concluded reading Hal Duncan’s Vellum I immediately sat at my computer to begin composing my comments, for I knew that I had to review this book. But then, I stopped. I stopped and thought, because that’s what Vellum makes you do; or it should, because if you are not thinking about this book then you haven’t really done more than skim the surface. You need some friction upstairs, to warm up the grey cells, to really appreciate just what this book is all about.

Having just concluded thinking about Hal Duncan’s Vellum I tentatively sat at my computer to puzzle through my jumbled thoughts and emotions. And now I know that I’m not writing a review at all, because what I really want to talk about is not the plot, or the characterization, or whether the world of Vellum is “fully realized.” And I really do not want to talk—much—about the unique, even exciting, style that Duncan employs in the first 440 or so pages*; others have done better at that than I could Here and Here. No, what I really want to talk about is the last chapter, the last 15 or twenty pages, the epilogue where the shite hits the fan.

You see, Vellum is a deeply, profoundly subversive, humanistic book, a book that challenges the heart of what it is to be human in the world that we have created. It hits you, dear reader, with all of this brash challenge between the eyes in the last twenty pages, paradoxically, with a gentle and tender ending, a moment between two lovers.

Why? How? Well, “here be spoilers,” I suppose I should say at this point. If you’ve not gotten through to the end of Vellum, then read on at your peril. And if you’ve not read Vellum, then much of what I am going to say will make no sense to you. But then, that’s also a good point. This is not a book that can be readily explained to you. This is not a book that can be readily digested by a skim-through. To really get why Vellum is a great book—and it is—then you’ve got to read and think, and then think some more. In fact, if you’ve not read Vellum then you’ve probably wasted your time thus far, reading this, and would only waste more by reading any further. Go here, you know what to do.

Okay, now to the epilogue and why Vellum is so intensely subversive. Subversive with a capital S, italicized, capitalized, subversive in cursive underlined twice. In the epilogue are three characters: Tom, Jack and the rag-and-bones man (let’s shorten that to the Rag Man). But who are they? Tom and Jack represent humanity, humankind, you, me, and every man and woman that ever was, and is, and ever will be. Fearful, uncertain, needful Tom represents the humanity that was and is; he’s us now, you and me. Fearless, bold, detached Jack is humanity as it will be, or rather as it could be. But who is the Rag Man, whose skin is made of souls, whose burden is saving everyone in Endhaven, whose function is reckoning, judging?

The Rag Man is the savior, The Savior. He’s Jesus Christ, Messiah, Buddha, whoever, whatever it is in us that tells us, convinces us, that our souls need saving from something. Saving from what? From damnation, from eternity, from the unknown, from whatever it is that our fear and needfulness convinces us that we need saving from. The Rag Man is the savior whose price is our souls. The society of Endhaven is built on the Rag Man’s contract (and another word for that would be a covenant) and the price he charges for safety and sustenance are the souls of the inmates. Sound familiar?

So what happens? The Rag Man judges Tom and finds him worthless. Even worse, he judges Tom a sinner. Yet he offers Tom a deal: betray Jack and live, or be cast out into the Evenfall, the fearsome darkness, the storm of shadow. Betray what you could be, turn away from that, the Rag Man offers, and I'll give you a starveling, hand to mouth existence under my rules, but safe and secure. Tom turns down the deal, however, calling the Rag Man’s bluff. And Tom’s soul is not cast out but cast free; the Rag Man’s rule over him is broken and the fearsome darkness is revealed as a beautiful, starlit night.

So, what is Duncan saying here? Well, in a nutshell, he’s saying that humanity needs no savior, that our souls do not need to be saved, they need to be set free. He’s saying that all of the gods and angels, demons and devils that we’ve invented, that we’ve given life to, are nothing more than the embodiment of our fears. He's saying that all of the myths and superstitions that we've given power over us are just stories. He’s saying that we need to call our own bluff, to move beyond our fears and our need for salvation.

How well does Vellum work at this subversion seems a fair question. It worked for me, but then I’m an areligious, profane humanist myself and I’m predisposed to think highly of this message. More importantly, however, this subversive message works very well in the context of Vellum as literature. It rationalizes and ties together what is sometimes a manic, almost incohesive style. As a reader the ending makes sense of much that seemed merely stylistic. In retrospect, for example, the message makes clear why it is that Finnan says that humanity will be the cause of the downfall of the gods. It's the last twenty pages that make Vellum a great book, rather than an interesting experiment. It works quite exceptionally well, if you get it. Unfortunately, I suspect that few people will put in the work that it takes to get that far.

Addendum: All of the reviews of Vellum, that I have been able to find, cast the story as a 'war between Heaven and Hell, with humanity in the crossfire.' Engendered are images of angels and demons blasting each other as people flee in terror, or die by the thousands. Huh-uh. Nope. I suppose that the reviewers have taken their cues from the publisher's promotional materials, designed to drive sales; but no, Vellum is more a story of the war between Heaven/Hell and humanity. If the reader expects a big, blood-drenched showdown ending between armies of angels and devils, uhh, then you'd better be prepared for a letdown. Vellum ends with Tom (humanity-as-it-is) embracing Jack (humanity-as-it-could-be), with us having the courage to love ourselves. I, for one, like that ending.

*A note on style. Much has been said on Duncan’s style of writing in Vellum, including the author’s essay on “Style is Substance” here. I found Duncan’s style reminiscent of one of my favorite non-genre writers, J.P. Donleavy, so it worked well for me. If you don't know Donleavy then, well, jeez I guess this entire thing has been a waste of time for you. Sorry about that.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

A rant of mine at Lotus Lyceum

We don't need no stinking badges!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

poetry pet peeve

Why do so many fantasy writers seem compelled to wedge awful poetry into the text of their prose? Because Tolkien did it? Ugh, so tedious. The only one who has done it well recently, in my experience, has been Alison Croggon. But then, she was first a poet.

That having been said, here's a poem that is going to appear in RoseThorn! Hey, can you say hypocrit?

Golden Leaf

I saw a golden leaf fall,
it took eternity and no time at all.
For the leaf all the time that was and ever will be,
but a breath, but a heart beat for me.
I saw a golden leaf fall,
it took eternity and no time at all.

(at least it has the virtue of brevity)