Friday, April 1, 2011, and why you should care about it

Folks, it is with a proud and heavy heart that I announce the launch of my 1990s-era dream,!

Now, one thing you may notice is that (also accessible via and when I've tried it) is not hosted by Blogger/Blogspot. It's powered by Wordpress, which as I've mentioned before, I've been playing with for a few weeks now. is the culmination of that decision process.

Which isn't to say that I don't like Blogger/Blogspot. I do. I've gotten used to it, gotten accustomed to wrangling it. We've had some really good times. This week, the site reached over 1000 hits since its inception, which I honestly never thought I'd see. But I decided to go with Wordpress for one very simple and overwhelming reason:

I just like it better.

There's a whole host of factors that went into the decision, but on the whole, what Wordpress has given me is a cleaner, neater looking site that's easier for you to navigate and me to edit. So I think that we'll both be happier with

What this all means is that I'll no longer be updating this site. It won't go away entirely -- I wouldn't do that, I'm much too nostalgic. If you get lost, this update (the last and topmost) will be there to redirect you, since Blogger/Blogspot doesn't allow for 301 automatic redirecting.  (If that ever changes, I'll implement it gleefully.)  I'll even check back here semi-regularly to check out and reply to comments. I will look back on breaking the 1000-hit milestone with fondness. But all the new stuff's going to be on so that's where you should go for reviews and other musings. I'm excited.  Can you tell?  I think we're going to have a lot of fun with it.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

March Madness is nearly over ...

... and I'm not talking about basketball.

In the latter half of March, I turned a year older and got myself a job. No, it's not a cool, geeky job in IT -- which I am woefully underqualified for regardless -- or the comic book industry. But it's a good job working with good people and I was lucky to get it, and now I'll be able to do things like put gas in my car, take my girlfriend out to dinner, and buy books.

Sadly, while I've been training for that, the things I love doing -- namely working on Project: Oz, reading fantasy fiction, and blogging about the two -- have all come to a grinding halt. Happily, once my training period is over, that will change, and things will shift back towards something like the status quo of at least one update per week.

Looking forward, I'll soon be back to talking about things like:
  • Comparing and contrasting John Norman's Gor series with The Vagina Monologues et al., because I just happened to read them at approximately the same time and saw the humor in it;
  • A guest review of China Mieville's Kraken over at The Ranting Dragon;
  • Joe Abercrombie's The Heroes, because emotional literary masochism is good for us;
  • For completion's sake, Clementine, Cherie Priest's other entry in her Clockwork Century;
  • Felix Gilman's The Half-Made World;
  • Caitlin Kittredge's The Iron Thorn, which certainly took long enough to get to me from the library so I hope it's any good; and 
  • tackling the entirety of Tad Williams' Shadowmarch series.
These are, of course, just the book reviews that are coming up. Occasionally, other topics that pop into my mind -- musings on the writing process, my D&D game, etc. -- will get written down, too, just as I've been doing since I started this blog. And the book reviews that I've just mentioned (not necessarily in that order) are coming up soon-ish just because these are the books sitting on my coffee table or atop piles in my bedroom as I write this entry. Other reviews will come along pretty much in the order that I get the books in my hands.

And hopefully Friday I'll have a really exciting announcement about this blog that some of you have probably already guessed, you clever foxes, you.

I'm looking forward to it -- I hope you are, too!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Gorean teaser

The good folks at io9 profiled John Norman, the CUNY philosophy professor and author of the Gor series of novels, in an article you can read here.

I'll be talking in more detail about a few of the Gor novels later on (hopefully in April, possibly in May). I'm reading the seventh book in the series now.

The article actually reads sort of like Norman's Gor books: interesting, thoughtful, and densely worded -- so much so that I hesitate to blame anyone who applies the "TL:DR" label.

Even so, happy reading, because there will be a quiz on this later!

Friday, March 18, 2011

State of the Genre: Are we living in fantasy fiction's Bronze Age?

I don't remember who said what at Patrick Rothfuss's book signing last week, but somehow or another, the author got to talking about tropes, and how he enjoys playing with them. In his speech, Rothfuss said that he didn't want a goblin army tromping through The Kingkiller Chronicle -- not that there's anything wrong with goblin armies, but they've been done to death for goshsakes and it's time to move on. I won't try to repeat the eloquence with which Rothfuss likened his trope-play to playing with his infant son (it was a really great analogy), but suffice to say that it involves expectations: once you know what your audiences expectations are, you have a certain power over them. You can mix it up, throw them a curve ball, and keep them on the edge of their seats and wanting more.

After some reflection, I realized why that sounded familiar: it's the same tactic that comic book writers of the Bronze Age used. Which, naturally, led me to wonder whether or not we are living in the Bronze Age of fantasy fiction.

You see, first of all, comic books had what experts call the Golden Age, which began when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster introduced Superman in Action Comics #1 (DC, 1938). Other heroes came onto the scene soon: Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, etc., all in their flashy capes and tights, saving damsels or whole cities in distress from mobsters, mad scientists, and Nazis.  They respected authority and promoted patriotism, didn't sweat, didn't smoke, and helped little old ladies cross the street -- it's not for nothing that Superman is sometimes called the the "big blue Boy Scout".  Looking back now, we take for granted that a lot of these comic books, with their fairly simplistic art and story lines, are a little silly. But back then, this was explosive and dynamic stuff that captivated a nation and captured the imaginations of budding creative geniuses.

We don't have quite as big a milestone as Action Comics No. 1 to start off the fantasy genre's Golden Age. It began more slowly, with folks like Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft and others writing for the fiction magazines of the day, C.S. Lewis writing a series of otherworldly Christian allegories for his goddaughter. Arguably, the Golden Age ended when J.R.R. Tolkien published the granddaddy of them all, the epitome of Golden Age fantasy, The Lord of the Rings (Geo. Allen & Unwin, 1954-1955). Here, brave warriors, plucky children, and New Englanders fought eldritch horrors and saved whole kingdoms using swords or their wits (or both), aided by elves, dwarves, or friendly talking animals, saving the world from dragons, goblin armies, or monsters from another realm. As with comic books, these stories were largely considered fringe stuff for overweight basement-dwellers, who devoured them with voracity and dedication, and set about to create their own works.

(Okay, okay. Comic books really did begin before the beginning, and there's all sorts of examples of pre-Golden Age comic books out there. But it wasn't until the Golden Age that the medium really took off running. Likewise, fantasy fiction has its roots in mythology and heroic epics. But it wasn't really until the Golden Age that it became a genre all its own.)

The bottom line is that the Golden Age established the tropes that we've come to know and love in our comic books -- heroes in tights with silly names, fighting The Good Fight -- and in our fantasy fiction -- swords, spells, other races, other worlds.

If the Golden Age established the tropes, then the Silver Age perfected them. In the Silver Age of comics, which ran from approximately the late 1950's to the 1970's, the art and stories were slicker and more stylized. Older characters were revamped to be slightly less silly, and newer heroes -- the Fantastic Four, the X-Men -- were introduced. The morals were a little leaner: the characters fought The Good Fight, but sometimes wondered which side of it they were on. The comics were melodramatic and still sort of silly, but the Silver Age saw some of the great, classic story arcs and events that nerds like me still remember fondly, such as The Dark Phoenix Saga and the death of Gwen Stacy.

In fantasy, the Silver Age was the great age of Everything That Came After Tolkien, where everything old was new again and the tropes that were established earlier, were played till they bled. The stories were increasingly better written and less allegorical, the worlds bigger and more detailed, and the brave warriors and plucky children more closely resembled ourselves and the selves we wanted to be. The dragons they faced were bigger and more cunning, the goblin armies they faced were ... well, they were still goblins. This was the age of Michael Moorcock's Elric and Gene Wolfe's New Sun and John Norman's Gor, and a whole host of other heroes in other worlds. This was the age when a number of authors first got their chops writing original Conan stories, picking up where Robert E. Howard left off. This was the age when Dungeons and Dragons burst onto the scene and made fantasy something we, the fans, could live out rather than just read about, and with its success came a number of tie-in novels of varying quality, of which the Dragonlance universe is probably the most famous and successful. This was the age when James Oliver Rigney, Jr. sat down at his desk, came up with the pen name Robert Jordan, and began to craft his decades-long Wheel of Time saga (Tor, 1990-present).

As great as the Silver Age was, it had one inherent flaw: every story was exactly the same. Perhaps not exactly the same, but frightfully similar. The influence of Tolkien could not be escaped and, like a dark and shadowy demigod, loomed over all the great fantasy of this Second Age.

And out of that sameness ... came a new breed of fantasy ...

The Bronze Age didn't burst onto the scene like Nevermind amidst a sea of hair-glam pop. It's hard to say where it began. Rather, in both comic books and fantasy fiction, it crept up insidiously until it was there and we didn't realize that the new was newer, something was definitely different, and Goddamn did we ever like it. Because it didn't assume the same old tropes that we were used to. Instead, it thought about them, and when it could, turned them on its head.

The twenty years of the Bronze Age (c. 1970-1990) saw its usual cast of characters and the adventures they led turn dark, gritty, and more socially aware. Themes like racism and drug abuse affected heroes like the X-Men and Spider-Man, Green Lantern and Green Arrow. Questioning authority, heretofore verbotten in any mainstream comic, was suddenly the name of the game. There was sex, and there was violence, and both of those things had marked consequences. The flaws of our heroes were more pronounced, and in many ways served to make them more human, grounded, and easier to relate. True brilliance was met with critical and lasting acclaim: Alan Moore's anti-totalitarian classic V for Vendetta (Vertigo, 1982-1989) and his seminal Watchmen (DC, 1986-1987), which is the only comic on Time's list of the 100 greatest novels. At the same time, Frank Miller made a name for himself with The Dark Knight Returns (DC, 1986), the story of an older, angrier Batman and his conflicts with an evolving society and a Superman whose morals never changed while society's did. James O'Barr wrote the cathartic Crow (Caliber, 1989). Neil Gaiman's The Sandman (Vertigo, 1989-1996) defied labels and descriptions. You could say "Hell" and "damn" and it would be all right. The Good Fight was fought in our heroes' hearts.

Which leads me to the Bronze Age of fantasy fiction. It's harder for me to pin down, since this whole editorial is driven by the question over whether or not it exists -- has a new age been ushered in, or are we now at the apex of the Silver Age?

As with the Bronze Age of comics, fantasy fiction's current crop are dark, sexy, violent, and real. Authors such as George R.R. Martin, Terry Goodkind, Jacqueline Carey, Brandon Sanderson, and Patrick Rothfuss captivate us with new and original stories of heroes we care about and worlds we wish we lived in (or are glad we don't). The worlds are the biggest and the most detailed they've ever been, with politics as intricate and convoluted as those of our own world. The characters that populate them are the most familiar we've yet seen: brilliant yet ignorant, selfish yet brave. Heroes are no longer plucky orphans or handsome princes dreaming of renown but suffering everymen thrust into adventures and dangers beyond their ken. Warfare, once depicted as glorious, is now a violent bloodbath initiated by fools and executed by the desperate; swords are the symbols of both power and its abuse. Magic comes with a price -- possibly, the spellcaster's soul. The goblin army mentioned has vanished from the scene, replaced by barbarians, cold and brutal armies, or horrors from beyond the world. This is the age of the epic, where the fate of worlds hinges on the decisions of one poor sod.

Fueled by a widespread social angst of terrorist attacks, increasing government powers, global fiscal meltdowns, and natural disasters, the fantasy genre has fairly exploded within the past ten or fifteen years, until a fantasy novel sits pretty at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. The genre reaches out and caresses others: among the most successful mystery and romance titles on the market today are those that feature vampires, werewolves, and ancient magic.

Now, here's the kicker, folks: as with all good things, this, too, must end. The Bronze Age of comic books came to a close in the 1990's, when the industry sort of collapsed inward. This was due as much to poor management as with the creative minds putting out stories, but it still led to the Dark Age. A few glimmers of light stood out, such as Jeff Smith's Bone (self-published/Image, 1991-2004) and Marvel's epic Age of Apocalypse crossover, but the decade was largely overshadowed by crass commercialization. While the medium has largely rebounded, with excellent titles including but not limited to Bill Willingham's Fables (Vertigo, 2002-present) and the various works of Brian K. Vaughan, Brian Michael Bendis, and J. Michael Straczynski, there's also a lot of dribble nursing its hangover from the 90's.

So. Is fantasy fiction doomed to repeat the pattern of comic books? The book and comic industries have historically been structured and marketed very differently (less so, now, since the advent of the graphic novel), so it's possible that the same mistakes that imploded the one won't be made by the other. Still, the precedent is set, and is worrisome. While I've no doubt that the genre will continue to evolve -- perhaps the grand epics we cherish today will be considered unwieldy tomorrow -- whether it will continue to use the tropes we've come to know and love, change them further, or chuck them out entirely in favor of new, remains a question.

For now, I think it's best to enjoy the Bronze Age, if it exists, and make as much of it as we can. If nothing else, it'll be great to point at it twenty or thirty years from now and say to our children, "Those were the days!"

BlogSpot, WordPress, and Me

Folks, for a long time now, I've considered taking this blog to the next level. We've had some good times here -- but I've consistently wondered whether or not BlogSpot was really the right forum for what I have to say.

With that said, check this out.

The WordPress blog is an experiment -- I'm still working on the aesthetics -- but so far, I like what I've been able to do with it: it's neater, cleaner, and more organized. With it, I'm able to take a blog and turn it into basically a full-power website. A lot of people have said that they've had trouble leaving comments on this blog, and there's not a subscription feature for when I post something new; WordPress fixes both of those things. And while it may not mean anything for you, it's a lot more convenient for me to make minor changes and updates.

In short, BlogSpot's been good to me, but I wonder if WordPress would be great for me.

But what does this mean for me? you may ask yourself. Not a thing. Let me make that perfectly clear: NOTHING FOR YOU WILL CHANGE EXCEPT FOR THE URL to the same content you've enjoyed for a while, and I will leave notice on this blog redirecting you to the new site if you get lost. My Twitter -- probably the way you came to this site -- will remain the same, and I'll advertise my posts the same way I have been for months.

This is still all very hypothetical, so I'd appreciate your feedback. If you can leave a comment on here, great. If not, you can email me at

Thanks, everybody -- I can't wait to hear from y'all!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

All good things to those who wait, pt. 1: The Wise Man's Fear reviewed

If it seems like I've been written a lot of glowing reviews lately, then it's because I've had the good fortune to read a lot of really excellent books in the past few months. And also because I've just plain put down a few bad books without bothering to finish them for review. The latter reason seems like a journalistic failing to me, even though I don't in any way fancy myself a journalist; still, it's a bad habit that I'm trying to break. Rest assured that my next review (I'm already pretty certain) will not be so warm.

That said, it seems like 2011 is sort of the Year of the Books We've Been Waiting For, doesn't it? Perhaps most notable is the scheduled release of A Dance with Dragons (Bantam, TBR July 2011), the long-delayed fifth volume of George R.R. Martin's acclaimed Song of Ice and Fire series. Personally, I remain skeptical (I, like many of you, have been hurt too many times to be otherwise), but this time the promised release date is backed up by a statement from the author himself on his website, whereas apparently the other dates were just overly optimistic guesses.

But first, to tide us over with a dark, prosaic dose, comes The Wise Man's Fear, Day Two of the Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss (DAW, 2011). And even if we, the collective fan base, haven't been waiting for it quite as long as we have for Dragons, we've been waiting for no less enthusiasm. As a reflection of that enthusiasm, The Wise Man's Fear debuted at the No. 1 (hardcover fiction) spot on The New York Times Bestseller List.

Which says that the thing was eagerly anticipated. But was it worth the wait?

In a word: Yes.

If you were a fan of The Name of the Wind (DAW, 2007) you won't be disappointed here. (If you weren't, why would you read the sequel?) Rothfuss brings the same haunting, lyrical prose and deft storytelling to The Wise Man's Fear that made us fall in love with the original.

If you haven't read The Name of the Wind, I recommend you do so now. It's okay. I'll wait.


I'll wait.

All done yet?

No, that's okay. Take your time.


All right, then.

Now, when I went to go see Mr. Rothfuss speak last week, the author expressed a strong desire to bottle up the spoilers, so please, no talking about the book, thank you. Having had the opportunity to read both this and The Name of the Wind with as little foreknowledge as I think possible, I can definitely see Rothfuss's point. Which leaves us with the question of how I'm supposed to talk about the book without, you know, talking about the bloody book.

Well, first I'll talk about the physical book itself: as with the last book I reviewed, The Wise Man's Fear is a monster, weighing in at just under one thousand pages. And not one page of that -- not one word -- is a disappointment. Not one word is filler. Indeed, one even gets the impression that this author trimmed the thing down of any excess, any fluff or fat, to give us the leanest, meanest fantasy epic he could.

The result is an epic tome that keeps your attention all the way through, with nary a boring moment in the whole thing. Hell, if you're anything like me, you'll read this book even when you should be doing other, more productive things. I bought this book Thursday night and finished it this (Tuesday) afternoon.

Like The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man's Fear is a story within a story: that of Kvothe, hero and legend in his own time reduced for unknown reasons to the post of a small-town innkeeper, telling his "true" story and setting the record straight. Here, Kvothe goes on adventures and ...

Wait, I can't tell you that.

No, not that, either.

Or that.


In the interest of not spoiling the book for you, as it was so graciously not spoiled for me, I'll tell you that Kvothe has adventures. Has the time of his life, even. Learns a thing or two. Grows up a little. I think I'm safe in saying that much.

As our narrator through both novels, Kvothe is obviously the most developed character; his narration makes for an interesting story dynamic as he explains what he experienced in his youth through the lens of a more educated and worldly grown-up. Other characters are seen through his eyes and processed through his (sometimes lack of) understanding. To that end, a few of the supports are fairly fleshed out and interesting, with their own stories to be unraveled, but many other minor cast members come off as a little flat -- there's the loyal friend, the dour mercenary, the kooky teacher, and so on.

That last is a little bit surprising.  The Kingkiller Chronicle is happily free of many of those classical tropes that, poorly tended, can make every epic fantasy novel feel like the same epic fantasy novel you just read last week.  Other tropes, he turns on their heads (or at least on their sides).  Rothfuss even spoke publicly to that effect -- that he didn't want to write the Same Old Story.  Still, as I've mentioned above, a few of the old standbys are present and accounted for.

Rothfuss clearly put a lot of thought and effort into shaping Kvothe's story-within-a-story journey, and no secrets are revealed before their time. I won't speak for the status of the major plot points in The Wise Man's Fear except to say that Rothfuss picks up all the threads from The Name of the Wind and carries them deftly. This is one of those few, rare cases where More Of The Same proves to be Exactly What We Need.

(Okay, I'll be honest: one or two subplots within The Wise Man's Fear were resolved perhaps a little hastily or too conveniently for my taste, such that I wonder as to their necessity. Still, they're not a waste of time, since they add to Kvothe's development and are entertaining.)

The storytelling itself is The Kingkiller Chronicle's ultimate strength. Rothfuss has an intricate, delicate, almost poetical form of narration that's easy to get swept into and hard to pull yourself out of. My own words fail me as I try to describe it. Suffice to say, it's some positively powerful prose, the likes of which there is tragically too little on the market right now. I'm eager to see what more wordplay this author has in store for us, both in The Kingkiller Chronicle's conclusion and in the continuance of Rothfuss's career.

I suppose you could say the eloquent narration stems from Kvothe's life as a musician, and at one stretch it's actually a plot point -- but I think it has more to do with Rothfuss's writing style than the development of this character.

With all that said, I would like to suggest something truly dangerous: Kvothe might actually be The Kingkiller Chronicle's weakest link. I don't mean that he's a bad protagonist, or even a bad character. He's not. Not at all. He's as resourceful and resilient, articulate and accessible a hero as you could possibly ask for. But that's also sort of the problem: even in his flaws, he's pretty much perfect. Of course, this is Kvothe's story in his "own" words, so a certain amount of leniency can be granted when Kvothe triumphs over and/or learns from adversity. But I get the feeling that Rothfuss, like many authors (J.K. Rowling and Stieg Larsson come to mind) is a little bit too in love with his own creation. It's a sadistic love, and Kvothe suffers on a Frodo-ian scale, but it gives me pause as I consider how Rothfuss will eventually resolve the Chronicle.

At the end of the day, a few quibbles aside, this is The Kingkiller Chronicle's Empire Strikes Back, a dark, heroic, mightily satisfying second act that was well worth the wait. Though it may be another five years before Kvothe finishes his journey and all our questions will be answered, The Wise Man's Fear leaves me with confidence that our patience will be rewarded.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Fanboy squee!!

Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Kingkiller Chronicle (that's The Name of the Wind [DAW, 2007] and The Wise Man's Fear [DAW, 2001]) came out to Books & Co. at The Greene in Beavercreek tonight, and despite the wicked weather, I drove out there to see him. The Name of the Wind actually brought tears to my eyes when I read it last year, and I wanted to meet the man who could write that prosaically.

While waiting for the event to begin, I began reading The Wise Man's Fear. I won't say anything about other than: if you weren't already, expect a review in the next few weeks.

Two bearded geeks: me (l) and Patrick Rothfuss (r). 
He said "Let's do 'tough.'"  He does it well; I look a little bloated, don't I?  Gosh.

Mr. Rothfuss, I'm happy to report, seems like a pretty nice, down-to-earth guy: early on, he established that he wanted to give everybody the sense that we were all chilling in somebody's house, rather than a stuffy, formal environment where he's A and you're B and the lines don't cross; he's a geek who clearly appreciates and takes part in geek culture; he's a fine storyteller (No, really? I hear your sarcastic mutterings) in spoken as well as written word, who seems to really enjoy spending time with an audience; and he's got a terrific beard.

I've met a few authors at signings in my day (most of them at Books & Co.'s two locations, come to that) and few have been quite as personable as Mr. Rothfuss. If you get the chance, go see him: it's worth the trip, even in snow like we had here tonight.

I won't pretend that I was slick when I met the guy -- anyone who knows me personally knows that this simply could not be the case. I handed him my book with something approaching awe. My tongue stumbled over my lips. He seemed pretty okay with that. And at the end, I handed him my business card (holy crap you guys, I handed Patrick Rothfuss my business card!) with a "Hey, this picture'll be on my blog," which he probably didn't care about, but took in stride. Because he's a geek and he knows how we roll.

So, hopefully in about five years or so, he'll be finished with The Kingkiller Chronicles and he'll swing back around this way, and I can get another fine piece of fantasy literature signed. Cross your fingers!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

It's good to be king: Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings reviewed

I believe in Brandon Sanderson.

I first heard his name when he was tapped to complete the late Robert Jordan's widely acclaimed Wheel of Time series (Tor Books, 1990-present). Even though I haven't yet taken on that particular fantasy behemoth (please hold your stunned gasps and calls for my head on a pike until the end, thank you), I'm told that Sanderson's work on the series has been an impressive tribute to Mr. Jordan.

My first personal encounter with Sanderson was his Mistborn trilogy (Tor, 2006-2008). Taken as a whole, this was unquestionably the second finest work I read in 2010 and the finest fantasy that I read that year. It's a bold, complex post-apocalyptic fantasy saga with a little bit of Hong Kong kung-fu action. Its world building is solid and detailed. Sanderson's grasp on his characters is truly excellent: in each of them, we see strength coupled with vulnerability played out in a thousand fascinating facets, and yet each of these characters are their own individual. By the time I finished the trilogy, I was genuinely sad; I felt as though I'd just said goodbye to dear friends.

Okay, so Warbreaker (Tor, 2009) wasn't excellent. But I knew that Sanderson was capable of great things, so I was enthusiastic about The Way of Kings, the first volume of his proposed Stormlight Archive.

The Stormlight Archive is an ambitious undertaking, and would be for any author. According to Sanderson's website, his original plan was for it to span ten whole volumes (no telling whether or not that plan has changed). This would put it in a league with such fantasy heavyweights as George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (Bantam, 1996-present), Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth (Tor, 1994-2007), and of course, the aforementioned Wheel of Time.

We're off to a fine start.

The best word to describe The Way of Kings is "epic." Everything about this book is done on a grand scale. As with Mistborn, there's a multinational plot whose roots trace back thousands of years, to a time when gods walked the land with men; a caste system whose strictures are threatened; magic, including what might as well by lightsabers; a continent of flora and fauna specially adapted to survive the harsh terrain; and a cast of fully realized and unique characters with whom you'll laugh and cry, struggle and despair and triumph.

That doesn't mean that Sanderson's delving into the same old territory as Mistborn. Though all of the skills that he perfected there are brought to bear here, Stormlight's world and characters are their own.

More immediately obvious than the book's internal elements is its outward physical size. It's positively titanic, weighing in at over one thousand pages. While this verbosity may be seen as a failure of some other authors who, as the old saw goes, were failed by their words and so used too many of them to overcompensate, let me hasten to assure you that this is not the case with Sanderson and The Way of Kings. This is a big book, but it's so packed with action and character development that there's nary a dull moment. Like a mighty river, this book flows smoothly and rapidly over rocky terrain; like a little inflatable raft on that river, Sanderson relentlessly carries us towards the waterfall finale.

This is the story of the soldier-slave Kaladin, who struggles to keep his team alive against impossible odds while discovering mysterious powers within himself. It's about the plotting scholar Shallan, whose quest for knowledge reveals secrets she never imagined. It's about Dalinar and Adolin, father and son aristocrat warlords who have to face an unknown enemy on the battlefield and unseen threats from their fellow nobles.

It's the story of Roshar, a continent continuously assaulted by sweeping killer storms and divided by nationality, ethnicity, and religion, and the looming threat, centuries-old, that hangs over the whole land.

Themes of leadership, integrity, self-assurance, and whether or not the means justify the ends, abound. Kaladin's quest to survive and lead his troops out of Hell's backyard incorporates an internal struggle against despair, powerlessness, self-doubt, and distrust of authority. Shallan's studies overtly court the discipline of ethics while she contemplates whether or not to betray her mentor's trust in order to help her family. Dalinar follows a strict code of ethics which dictate his every move, while around him people whisper that he's either grown too pompous and self-righteous, or mad, or both, to continue to lead; Dalinar wonders if they might be right. Perhaps more so than Mistborn (itself a cerebral trilogy), Stormlight promises to be a story of ideas.

While Kaladin is probably the "main" character of the book -- and he's a damn good one -- Shallan is the one I want to know more about. And it's worth noting that, while I didn't think much of Dalinar or his story arc in the beginning, by the end, I couldn't help but root for him.

Perhaps more intriguing are the secondary characters: Sadeas, who may or may not have good intentions while he does bad things; Szeth, the mournful assassin; Jasnah Kholin, who clearly isn't telling us everything; Wit, who definitely isn't telling us everything. Hopefully, their stories will be told in full as Stormlight unfolds.

While fairly self-contained, The Way of Kings sets the stage for a truly awe-inspiring fantasy epic that grips the reader's mind and heart. The Stormlight Archive has the potential to be truly monumental.

In Brandon Sanderson we trust.

Monday, March 7, 2011


A thing you're probably already aware of, but in case you're not: Suvudu's 2011 Cage Match is up and running! (and apparently has been since Friday. huh.)

In the presently running divisions, I'm voting for:

Arlen < Beowulf
Takeshi Kovacs < Jon Snow
Alvin Maker < Thomas Covenant
Gollum > Molly Millions
John Carter > Severian
Mandorallen < Zedd
Jacob Black > Eric Northman
Vin > Logen Ninefingers

I'm still deciding on the next two divisions, where Katniss, Paul Atreides, Martin the Warrior, and Percy Jackson all come out swinging.

The Cage Match is a nice diversion -- it kept me far more entertained than it should have last year, when I was chair-bound for a few weeks from my own battle wound -- and Rand al'Thor battled Jaime Lannister for the title. This year they've got a good line-up going, and I'll be interested to see how the voting goes.

(Personally, I want Vin to take it all. If you've read the Mistborn trilogy, you'll understand why.)

Friday, March 4, 2011

Ranting Dragon 2011 Locus Challenge

Before I call it quits for the week, one more thing:

You should totally participate in Ranting Dragon's 2011 Locus Challenge. Ranting Dragon is some good people, and I reckon they've got a good thing going here to promote excellence in science fiction and fantasy literature.

Me, I'll (hopefully) be doing a guest spot review for them, so be on the lookout for that in coming weeks.

If you're not on board already -- get on board! What are you waiting for?

"Write what you know"

The age-old advice that I've heard since I was a wee little Jeffling, is to write what you know.

Seems pretty sound. Don't you think?

It should go without saying (except that I'm saying it now) that experience enriches writing. You can know about a thing, study the subject all you like, observe it or watch it done, but unless you've actually gotten your hands dirty and gotten up close and personal with it -- if it's a verb, then, unless you've actually done it -- then it could be argued that you can't accurately impart the experience onto the reader.

For example, if you were a construction worker with literary aspirations, you could write pretty authoritatively about the trials and tribulations of construction workers. Your characters would be based on the people you knew. You can make the reader understand the full weight of your sledgehammer, the heat and the sweat, the long hours, the anger and frustration you feel over your corrupt boss and your weak union. You could fill your story with all the beautiful minutiae that we outside of the construction field might miss, that make a story real and true.

Okay, maybe you could risk a little extrapolation -- maybe you're a nurse but you know enough about doctors, or vice versa -- but the old adage "write what you know" taken in its purest and most literal form, pretty much limits us to writing our biographies. And, to paraphrase an old commercial, would you want to read a book about your life?

I don't like to be that restricted.

I don't want to write a book about, say, political and legal theory, small businesses, drives through Appalachia in a very small car, or over-brewed tea. Yet, by the literal definition of writing what I know, those and a handful of other minor misadventures are all I'm qualified to write.

Instead, what I'm writing, Project: Oz can loosely be described as a "fantasy western." There may be some over-brewed tea in there, but not much else that I've personally experienced.

Or is there?

The book has a theme, and that theme relates to that political theory that I mentioned above -- not in so many words, but the relationship is there. The book has characters; some of those characters are based directly on people I've known well, while others are composites. I've had to create a world that strongly resembles our own world in the Nineteenth Century, with a similar society and government, which relates to my backgrounds in political theory and also in history, a topic I've studied both formally and informally for years. Genre-wise, the book would obviously be found in the Science-Fiction Fantasy section of your local bookstore (or just plain fantasy if you've got a really good bookseller), and that's a genre in which I've read extensively for about as long as I've been able to read, so generously we could say that I'm more than passing familiar with its tropes.

Taking a looser definition of the "write what you know" adage, I'd say we're off to a good start.

I've never ridden a horse, but I could just drive up the road and learn. I've never shot a gun, but I know someone who could teach me. I've never been to Texas, but I could hop on a plane tomorrow, survey the Hill Country, and eat some barbecue.

That's all well and good. But one of my main characters is a wizard. Not just a main character -- a point-of-view character. Which means that he's casting spells, using magic. He's using it a lot. He's talking about it. He's thinking about it. And during those portions of the book that he's narrating, you, the reader, are casting spells with him.

Which means that I, the writer, have to know what that's like.

As far as we know, magic of this sort does not exist in our real, mundane world. Okay, well, neither do dinosaurs, but Michael Crichton wrote Jurassic Park (Knopf, 1990). To prepare for Jurassic Park, I figure Crichton either built a time machine or researched the topic. I can't do the one thing, but I can do the other: I can read up on magical practices throughout history (there's that history thing again!), from prehistoric shamanism through Middle Age alchemy to modern neo-paganism, Simon Magus and Nicholas Flamel and Aleister Crowley. Fiction and myth are practically filthy with wizards from whose experiences I can learn: Circe, Merlin, Morgan le Fay, Prospero, Thoth-amon, Gandalf, Raistlin, Zed, and even Harry Potter are all fine role models.

Clearly, I can know about magic without ever practicing it myself, since that's impossible.

Or is it?

Enter my third-favorite game of all time, Dungeons & Dragons. Dungeons & Dragons, along with its myriad of technology-based followers (World of Warcraft, the increasingly inaccurately named Final Fantasy series, and Fable come to mind) allow one to swing a sword against an angry ogre, match wits with a devious archfiend, and sling fireballs at an evil god, all without ever leaving your chair.

As I realized on the drive home from my last D&D session, I had, through my character, Tym the gnomish sorcerer, used magic in a realistic, simulated problem-solving situation. Tym and I had done it with our staff in hand: engaged in combat, worked with a team, and completed a mission.

I couldn't know what it felt like to have the energy of the cosmos flow through me -- not without some pretty hefty drugs -- but through D&D I could test out the effects of sorcery in various situations.

While I already had a system of magic in place, it was all based on theory and explained how things worked the way they did, not how to implement them. I had, in essence, been doing it wrong. Well, maybe not wrong, but there were things I hadn't thought all the way through, and in doing so, I had made my wizard protagonist too powerful.

And that just doesn't fit: he's a flawed character, so shouldn't his magic be likewise flawed? Shouldn't his spells take time to cast? Shouldn't enemies present a dangerous and moving target while he conjures their arcane doom -- they didn't all graduate from the Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy, did they? And does his lightning bolt automatically hit its target? What happens when his aim is off and he winds up setting the room on fire?

These are questions that I'd been periodically asking myself for over a year now. But Dungeons & Dragons let me put the answers into practice. As a character, Tym may not be anything like my wizard protagonist, but the latter -- and the world he inhabits -- learns a lot from the former.

Hopefully, Project: Oz will be a lot better for it.

A word in edgewise

I'm going to try -- I'm going to try really hard -- to get a post in next week for you folks. Probably, it will be a book review, unless another topic just screams for my attention. So, cross your fingers and look for that.

Just in case I don't make it, though, I'm giving you good folks a double dose (technically a triple dose) of posts this week to tide you all over.

In the meantime, have some tea and talk amongst yourselves. ;)

Monday, February 28, 2011

This old house

I'm not going to talk about deep and abiding disappointment regarding last night's Academy Awards. We're not going to get into how Winter's Bone was completely and unjustifiably snubbed. I'm not going to mention how it vividly translates, via a surprising cast of relative unknowns, one of the finest pieces of Twenty-First Century American prose -- a haunting and vivid portrayal of unflagging courage and loyalty in a piece of unknown Americana that most of us would rightly be too afraid to experience for ourselves -- from page to screen.

Nope, I'm not going to talk about any of that.

Instead, I'm going to make a confession: I've been skipping ahead a bit in my reading list. I'm at the mercy of my public library; sometimes, books requested take months to get to me, and sometimes days. I was #23 for Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life (Doubleday, 2010) for weeks, and then all of a sudden it was on the hold shelf waiting for me. Worry not, dear reader, for I've got Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues (Villard, 1998) on my bedside table and will review that, along with some comparative and contrasting material, soon enough. But At Home is what I just finished, so At Home is what I'm going to briefly talk about.

I first heard of Bill Bryson through a friend who had read a few of his books, but they didn't interest me; though I'd made the pledge to myself to read more nonfiction, I had mostly stuck to memoirs about food and the people who prepare it, and Bryson's books all seemed to be travelogues. I later saw him on The Colbert Report, promoting At Home. It sounded a little interesting, like something you would continually mean to read, but never get around to. But then I saw it at the grocery store of all places, picked it up, thumbed through the pages, and decided that it was worth a go. I requested it from my library; eventually, it made its way to me.

The book is something of a surprise. Bryson, the most British of Americans, takes us on a tour of his house, a former rectory dating from the mid-Ninteenth Century, and through this tour explores the history and development of the everyday conveniences we take for granted, focused primarily on the past 250 years and almost exclusively on the Western Hemisphere. But if that sounds dreadfully tedious, let me hasten to assure you it's not.

If you're looking for a technical history, bogged down in the tiny facets of material evolution, look elsewhere. Bryson's history isn't very literal: his history of the fuse box, for example, isn't actually the history of that little gray box many of us have in our basements (my old apartment had it in the kitchen), but rather a more general history of home lighting. His history of the dining room isn't just the history of the dining room but the history of food. His history of the scullery is the history of servitude. His history of the cellar is the history of the building materials we use today and the reasons why we don't use others. His history of the bedroom is the history of sexual relations, and also of death and burial. There's the story of how sedentary civilizations appeared before organized agriculture (a phenomenon which has me convinced space aliens were somehow involved) and there's the story of the daring Brit who made my morning cup of tea viable.

At Home is jam-packed with the minor anecdotes and the epic sagas, humorous and terrible and salacious, surrounding the people who created, developed, fought over, stole, refined, perfected, manufactured, and marketed modern daily life. The story of things, it turns out, is really the story of humanity.

Bryson tends to ramble a bit, and sometimes strays a farther from the point than we might actually like before coming back to it. Nevertheless, it's usually a fascinating story, filled with some characters of whom you've heard and many others you haven't.

Actually, Bryson tends to ramble a lot; while occasionally irritating (you'll find yourself asking where he's going with this or how it relates to that), it's a part of his charm, the same charm that makes this book possible. Seriously. By a less accessible author, this book would be dry as dirt. I think that's part of why he wrote it, actually -- because the story of our homes is actually interesting, if presented in an interesting manner. Bryson's history isn't quite as deep or complete as a dry and dusty history text -- this is, as the subtitle notes, A Short History of Private Life (emphasis mine). At Home is more like a history novel.

So, if you're looking for pure facts, the book is full of them, but they're not laid out in a chronological manner, or even a logical manner. Instead, you'll have to let Bill get around to telling you what you want to know in his own course, for which you'll have to read the whole book. (For ease of reference, and for the extremely lazy and those pressed for time, there is a handy index in the back, along with a bibliography.) Luckily, due to Bryson's easy, friendly writing style, At Home is a surprisingly quick read, and consuming the whole thing is no hardship at all.

I give this book an A-. Take some time, enjoy yourself, and learn a thing or two along the way.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Be ye warned: here there be literature!

Just a trifling little thing: here's my partial reading list for 2011.

First, in order, books you can expect to hear more about in the coming weeks:
(EDIT: A strikeout indicates that a book has been completed, not removed from the list.)

  1. The Vagina Monologues, by Eve Ensler (Villard, 2007). I'm not a fan of feminist philosophy and gender studies, but my girlfriend is, and she wanted me to read this. I actually enjoyed the last book she asked me to read, so I'm going to keep an open mind. I'm getting her back by making her read The Hobbit.)
  2. Captive of Gor, by John Norman (Ballantine, 1972 -- this is the edition I have; it has since been reprinted by The seventh in Norman's pulpy Chronicles of Counter-Earth science fiction series.
  3. The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson (Tor Books, 2010). His Mistborn trilogy was some of the flat-out, hands down best fantasy that I've ever read, and yes, if you're reading this blog and you haven't read them yet, you owe it to yourself to do so. I will be very interested to see what he does with this, the first book in his proposed fantasy epic.
  4. The Shadowmarch series, by Tad Williams (DAW, 2004-2010). I've read the first two books in the series, but it's been years; I intend to start the series from the beginning again.

    And then, slightly less orderly ...
    • At Home: A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, 2010). I saw Bryson on The Colbert Report and thought the book sounded good; a friend of mine recommended a few of his other books.
    • A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah E. Harkness (Viking, 2011). I think I read about this in the local paper.
    • The Skewed Throne, by Joshua Palmatier (DAW, 2006).
    • The Iron Thorn, by Caitlin Kittredge (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2011). The past decade or so has seen some surprisingly good young adult fantasy, so I'm not thrown off by that label; let the material stand or fall for itself, I say. I was directed to this by Cherie Priest's Twitter (she retweeted it from someone else).
    • The Wise Man's Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss (DAW, to be released March 1, 2011). The second book of Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicles, the first volume of which has had its praises sung widely. I will say that I actually teared up during one scene in The Name of the Wind (DAW, 2007) -- another that you absolutely owe yourself to read if you haven't already.
    • The Big Country, by Donald Hamilton (Dell, 1958). The source material for the fantastic film, which I also recommend for stellar performances from Gregory Peck and Burl Ives, and one of the best fight scenes ever choreographed (between Peck and Charleton Heston).
    • The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade Books, 2010).
    • Naamah's Blessing, by Jacqueline Carey (Grand Central Publishing, to be released June 29, 2011). The conclusion to the latest trilogy by one of my favorite authors.
    • The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, by Stephen Hunt (Tor Books, 2009). The sequel to Hunt's The Court of the Air (Tor Books, 2008), a strange, captivating book.
    • Vamped, by David Sosnowski (Free Press, 2004).
    • Clementine, by Cherie Priest (Subterranean, 2010). The other book in Priest's Clockwork Century series, about which I've previously raved. Luckily, my library has a copy of this one.
    • Prince of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence (Ace, to be released August 2, 2011).
    • The Heroes, by Joe Abercrombie (Orbit, 2011). Abercrombie writes some really great, gritty, grisly fantasy with flawed heroes and unhappy (realistic) endings, so much that reading his work is akin to emotional masochism. Still, like an addiction, you just keep coming back because you can't resist ...
    • The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, by Mark Hodder (Pyr, 2010).
    • The Son of Neptune, by Rick Riordan (Hyperion, to be published October 11, 2011). Again, the young adult label doesn't bother me; Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series (Hyperion, 2005-2010) was top-notch, whether you're a young reader or old, and The Lost Hero (Hyperion, 2010) kept up the mantle of quality I've come to expect from this author.
    • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit, 2010). Ranting Dragon's review of this made it actually sound good (which was, in fact, the whole point of the review).
    • I, Claudius, by Robert Graves (Arthur Barker, 1934).  This was recommended to me by a friend, who loved it, after I'd watched Caligula (1979 -- one of Malcolm McDowell's best performances).
    • No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy (Knopf, 2005).  The source material for the Coen Bro's. Oscar-winning existential western; I'm told that the book is even better.  I've thought before about reading The Road (Knopf, 2006), which I'm also led to understand is excellent (and in fact once nearly bought it on the strength of its description, knowing nothing more about it), but I've never felt the need to be that depressed.

    Whew! So, that ought to get me through to about July. You can expect reviews of some, if not most, of the unnumbered books, too, assuming they make an impact.

    If you've got other recommendations, send them my way! Leave a comment here, hit me up on Twitter, or send me an email.

    Friday, February 18, 2011

    A Steampunk Double Feature Review: Dreadnought and The Buntline Special

    Recently, two steampunk novels have crossed my path, that are definitely worth a mention. The first is Cherie Priest's Dreadnought (Tor Books, 2010), the latest entry in her Clockwork Century series. The second is The Buntline Special (Pyr, 2010), by Mike Resnick, which promises to be the first in an upcoming serial, The Weird West.

    I came across Dreadnought's precursor, Boneshaker (Tor Books, 2009), quite by accident a little over a year ago, and I'll admit that I was a little iffy over it. For one thing, it bore the SciFi Essential Book seal of approval, and the SciFi Channel (now SyFy) has produced some questionable content on its own. For another, steampunk, in my personal experience, tends to be a very hit-or-miss subgenre when it comes to literature -- the good stuff is really, really good, and the bad stuff is hurtfully disappointing. It's a very visual subgenre: brassy bits and leather and boiler-powered everything, all of which is easier to depict through a more visual medium, such as painting or illustration. (Not that those are "easy"!)

    Luckily, my fears were unfounded, and Boneshaker, the story of a worried mother out to find her lost son in a world of airships and zombies, turned out to be a real treat. So I eagerly looked forward to Dreadnought, the latest book set in Priest's Clockwork Century.

    (Dreadnought isn't strictly a sequel, though it is somewhat of a spiritual successor, to Boneshaker. So you don't really have to read Boneshaker to understand Dreadnought, though it might help. According to the official website for the Clockwork Century, Priest has written another novel, Clementine (Subterranean Press, 2010), and a novelette, Tanglefoot (Subterranean Press, 2009). Clementine is sort of ludicrously expensive according to, but Tanglefoot is available for to read free from Subterranean Press's website.)

    Dreadnought introduces us to Mercy Lynch, put-upon Confederate war nurse and widow. Having but recently lost her husband, Mercy is rather coincidentally called upon to travel across the length of a war-torn America to visit her estranged father, the last family she has left. To get there, she'll have to survive the Civil War at top speed and deal with some truly ornery train passengers.

    Dreadnought isn't better or worse than Boneshaker, but it's a worthy heir. Priest flexes muscles that she only tantalized at having in her previous entry, by taking the world that she built and exploring it more fully. It's one hell of a world, where the Civil War has raged for almost twenty years while Texas remains an independent nation with its own interests. To escape the realities of war, soldiers take drugs that turn them from men into monsters -- literally. Mechanical walkers lifted straight out of classic science fiction roam the front lines. And a steam engine, the titular Dreadnought (who knew that steam engines had names?) transports a mysterious cargo and a mad scientist who guards it zealously.

    Is it a perfect book? No, but it's pretty good. The beginning of the book is slightly problematic. In the space of too short a time, Mercy Lynch receives word that her husband has died on the front line and that her estranged father is dying. So, isn't it rather convenient that her single tie to anywhere has evaporated, just as she's asked to make a dangerous cross-country journey? While it's not unknown for tragedies of this nature to happen back-to-back in real life, here, it feels a little contrived. I'm willing to forgive the taste that particular plot development left in my mouth, however, as it's all over with rather quickly and gives Lynch the freedom and impetus to make the trip and get on with the story.

    Mercy Lynch reminds me an awful lot of Briar Wilkes, the heroine of Boneshaker. They're not identical, but there's enough overlap to raise an eyebrow. And a second point of view, as in Boneshaker, might have been appreciated. Still, Briar was busy in Seattle and couldn't make the trip cross-country. This Briar-Mercy character is a good and interesting one, and Priest seems to have a firm grasp on her, so I won't think too hard about this.

    In spite of all that, this really is steampunk at its best. The Clockwork Century is a world that's both familiar and yet terrifyingly different, and Priest has clearly put some thought into it -- not just the fun parts, like zombies and air piracy, but the hauntingly simple parts, like the dearth of educated men in a country fighting a war of attrition where every able-bodied man is sent to the front lines. And all of it is wrapped up in a clear, crisp writing style that drives the story cleanly and compellingly, like a locomotive, towards the story's inevitable and climactic confrontation.

    More random was my encounter with The Buntline Special; I just happened to find it at the bookstore and thought it looked good. Plus, it was written by Mike Resnick, a trusted name in science fiction.

    Like Dreadnought, The Buntline Special features a United States where westward expansion has slowed to a trickle: in this case, by unbeatable Native American magic rather than by a pesky, distracting Civil War. In the interest of expanding its borders across the North American continent, the United States has sent Thomas Edison to the remote western town of Tombstone to come up with a way to counteract the shamans' magic ... with science! Aiding Edison in the science department is Ned Buntline, here, inventor to the stars, able to invent anything Edison dreams up. And aiding the two of them with guns and muscle are the Earp Brothers -- Virgil, Morgan, and Wyatt -- and their friends Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday.

    Of course, it's 1881, and if it's 1881 in Tombstone, then you know what's about to happen.

    Resnick presents an alternative to the events surrounding the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Geronimo and Hook Nose conspire with the local criminal element to kill Edison before he can find a way to counter their powers; for more firepower, they resurrect Johnny Ringo, gunslinger, egotist, and classicist. Cursed into a monstrosity, Bat Masterson slowly goes mad. Kate Elder employs whores both human and robotic, by-products of the scientific juggernaut of Edison and Buntline. And through it all, Wyatt Earp seeks a glory that will ensure his place in history after success has eluded him, and John Henry Holliday just wants to drink and gamble in peace while he waits to die.

    The Buntline Special, like Bram Stoker's Dracula, presents a rather classic case of great idea, lackluster execution. Where Priest presented the tropes of her steampunk seamlessly, Resnick seems to bludgeon us over the head with his horseless carriages (it's only 1881), electric lights (here, common in Tombstone but unknown back East), super-hard brass that defies conventional physics, and robotic whores. The pacing plods in the first half of the book. The characters are all a little flat: Virgil Earp is dour and dutiful, Wyatt is sort of a lovable loser, and Kate Elder is bold as the Arizona desert.

    The only exception is that of Holliday, on whom Resnick spends the most attention; here, he is fatalistic and humorous, loyal yet stand-offish, erudite and alcoholic. (Although, did we need reminders of Holliday's consumptive state every other page?) I would've appreciated more of this kind of attention to some of the other characters, which would have rounded out the novel a bit better.

    Resnick has clearly done his homework with regards to the real events surrounding the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral -- as evidenced, if nothing else, by the bibliography he helpfully includes. The history of the Old West is filled with larger-than-life characters, and even if Resnick doesn't do them justice, it's clear that he knew who and what he was talking about.

    I think my biggest problem with all of this is that Mike Resnick is one of science fiction's most celebrated authors. From someone less famous, less decorated, and less experiences, I think I could forgive a lot more. But from Resnick, the faults in this book are thrown into more sharp relief.

    So, it's not a great work. But if all you know of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday is Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer (or Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid), then you owe it to yourself to learn more about them. And then you might want to come back to this book to check out what might have happened.

    Thursday, February 17, 2011

    Border troubles

    I'd read a while back that Borders, the US's second-largest bookseller, was having some financial trouble during this time when everybody else is, too. So it didn't really surprise me yesterday to learn that the chain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, nor did it surprise me that President and CEO Mike Edwards had sent (or commissioned) a mass email reassuring everyone that Borders is "open for business" both in meatspace and online and that, while a few underperforming stores were shutting down, everything would proceed as normal, please keep shopping here, keep calm and carry on.

    I really hope that the company pulls through. Yes, they're a big-box business, the plague of mom-and-pop shops and surely the plague of all life on Earth. But back when I worked in DC, I spent almost every night after work at the 18th and L St. store while waiting for the bus home. I spent lazy Saturdays at the Friendship Heights, Pentagon City, and Bailey's Crossroads stores, sometimes with friends and sometimes on my own. I read whole books there that the local libraries didn't have, and nobody ever bothered me that I wasn't, you know, buying the book first. I ate their carrot cake; it was delicious. While the chain isn't nearly as prolific in my corner of Ohio, I still shop at every so often. So, while I don't normally root for big business, this isn't just a faceless corporation for me: it's my old haunt, and I'm guessing that (due to sheer proximity to one another) at least one of the four stores that I've mentioned above will be going out of business soon.

    Call it the tempores and mores if you want. Say that bookstores should see or should've seen this coming from miles away. Say that the industry is changing, that e-readers are the wave of the future, and that pulp paper books are going the way of the dinosaurs. SAy that this is karmic justice. I don't care. Borders' financial upheaval puts several hundred or several thousand jobs in jeopardy during a time when too many people are unemployed or underemployed. But more to the point: they sell books. They make literature available to the masses for a nominal fee. Sure, Ohio's got an absolutely stellar library system and I can get most of my reading material for free. But not all of it! And not everyone can say the same about their library. And if (like me) you don't have an e-reader? Suddenly, the world of literature is shut off to you.

    What then?

    So, I really hope that the chain restructures and rebounds. I hope that Chapter 11 works for them, because it would be a tragedy if the whole chain went under -- not only for its thousands of employees and investors, but for the country as a whole.


    DISCLAIMER: Jeffrey W. Dern is not an economist. In fact, Econ 190 was his worst class in college. So this is purely a personal reaction and should not be taken as a doom-and-gloom prediction of economic volatility. For that, he refers you to the words of J.P. Morgan when asked to predict the stock market's next move: "It will fluctuate."

    Sunday, February 13, 2011

    I < 3 my geek

    I took my girlfriend out to an early Valentine's date last night. On the way to the film (Tangled, which was actually surprisingly decent if you're not looking for anything terribly original), my girlfriend expounded upon the many and legion Ways That The Harry Potter Movies Got It Wrong.

    Amidst a barrage of arguments both purely opinion-based and those founded upon immutable, empirical fact, one point shone through all the rest:

    I'm dating That Fangirl, the passionate one, the argumentative one, the one who puts a lot of time and effort into the creation of lists such as this.

    And that is awesome.


    In case you're wondering, a substantive post about the dichotomy of what I've been reading lately, will probably appear tomorrow.

    Monday, February 7, 2011


    I was going to write about what I've been reading of late, but this isn't the day for that. Today is a day of losses.

    First of all, my deepest sympathies are with the Outzs and Jasper families for their losses, and my thoughts and prayers are with them during these difficult times.

    One of my favorite authors from back when I was a kid, Brian Jacques died today. He was 71 years old. My sympathies likewise go to his family and friends.

    I first picked up Redwall (1986) when I was in the fifth grade and got that "coming home" feeling that you get from a really good book. I read the subsequent series voraciously after that, and while not all of the books were winners, several others gave me that same feeling. I read several of them time after time; after The Hobbit, Redwall is my most-read book, with twelve readings to date.

    I met Mr. Jacques once, in 1998 or '99, at an author signing at Books & Co.'s original location in Dayton, OH. (I wouldn't normally mention the location like this, but this is a local bookstore I strongly support. They do good stuff.) When he asked for a copy of Redwall to read aloud from, dozens and scores of copies were held up high in offering ... but he chose mine. And when you're thirteen years old and a fanboy like that, having your property touched by one of your idols is a Big Deal.

    I remember that Mr. Jacques talked about Good versus Evil, and how Good must and does necessarily triumph over Evil, or else the Hitlers and Stalins and Cluny the Scourges of the world would already have won. Even though I'm older now and embrace the very human moral ambiguity that has come with modern fantasy ... after watching the news and hearing about all the bad that's happening, the inevitable triumph of Good is a comforting notion.

    Though he'd sold millions of copies worldwide and had an army of avid followers, Mr. Jacques seemed like a really nice guy who enjoyed what he did and who really liked his audience. I hope I'm that lucky someday.

    I first heard of Mr. Jacques in an interview I read in 1994, where he encouraged young writers to describe everything as though you were trying to tell the story to a blind person. While years later, I learned to be sparing with adjectives and adverbs, lest they clutter your prose, I think there's still some merit in Mr. Jacques's advice, and his own success speaks for itself.

    Though several other factors contributed, I'm willing to submit that I probably wouldn't be writing today if not for Brian Jacques. I don't know what it was, but somehow, reading his books -- and reading them when I did -- gave me the gumption that said I could create my own world, I could fill it with dynamic characters and epic adventure, and that I could, though trial and error, make my visions come to life. Thank you, Mr. Jacques, for that initial inspiration.

    Requiescat in pace.

    Before all that ...

    Before I get into my actual post, just two minor spots of housekeeping:

    I'm going to make the effort to update this blog at least once a week, preferably on Monday.

    I'm strongly considering taking this blog to LiveJournal. There are pros and cons to that system versus Blogger/Blogspot here -- the biggest pro to LiveJournal being that I'm intimately familiar with it, having used it for a private journal for several years now. Wherever this blog eventually winds up, it will still be open to the public, so no worries about losing me completely!

    Right. Now on to actual substance ...

    Thursday, February 3, 2011

    Live in your world, play in Gary and Dave's

    When I was a child, I spake as a child, thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things. But I got them out again when the occasion arose.

    To wit, this past Saturday my girlfriend introduced me to her Dungeons & Dragons group, and we rolled me up a gnomish sorcerer so that I could join.

    (His name is Tymanthaler Tam, but there are some who call him ... Tym.)

    It was the first time since March of 2000 that I'd rolled a d20. The rules of the game have changed in almost eleven years (twice, actually -- it was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 2nd Ed. back then; now we're on to Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Ed.) and the advent of both home computers and MMORPGs have clearly had their effect.

    But it's still the same old nerdy game that I fell in love with, the granddaddy of them all. It's still the one with the multi-sided dice and the rules for every possible event. It's still the one that steals ideas from Arthur and Elric with equal gusto. It's still the one that a few damaged individuals periodically take to extremes and bring unwanted and unwarranted media attention and Middle American excoriation as The Devil's Own Game down upon.

    I'm glad to be back.

    This new group is different, too. Back when I first played, I played with other guys my age (that is, junior high and high school). We were young, we were immature, and we were dysfunctional. The people I played with on Saturday range in age between 25 and 40, have at least one college degree apiece and work experience in various fields, and some are married and have kids; there's still a little immaturity, naturally, but I think that's what it takes to be a gamer.

    Everyone takes the game seriously ... but not too seriously. Which, I think, probably makes the biggest difference.

    I can't wait to play again.

    I <3 my nerdy gamer girlfriend, for introducing me to this group and for a thousand other reasons. I win. I win so hard.

    Monday, January 31, 2011


    "I just think it’s better to have ideas. I mean, you can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier. People die for it, people kill for it."
    - Rufus (Chris Rock), Dogma, 1999

    "I have scars bigger than you."
    - Male protagonist, c.2000-present, Project Oz

    The first glimmer came in the summer of 1995, when I heard The Eagles' Hell Freezes Over album in my mom's car. From a song, I had a vision that would remain with me for the rest of my life to date and has influenced me in countless ways. But the real root -- the first images, even a few lines of dialogue -- of what would, years later, become Project: Oz took hold in 2000 or 2001 when I became aware of such a thing as the Model 61 Skorpion machine pistol and thought: "Holy shit, a machine gun that fits into a pistol holster! What if somebody -- a loner, a stranger, a mercenary and drifter and Man With No Name -- brought that to an Old West-style gunfight?"

    Coupling that thesis with the idea of damaged souls partnered against a cold and uncaring world, I had the primary colors with which I would paint my masterpiece.

    Dear reader, it is now the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Eleven. Do you think that what was true fifteen and a half years ago, is necessarily true now? Think about where you were back then. (Were some of you even born yet? God I feel old.) If you have the kind of consistency in your life where things are the same now as they were then, I'm not sure whether to congratulate or pity you.

    The world is not the same now as it was in 1995 or 2000-2001. Neither am I, and neither are my ideas.

    I don't listen to The Eagles anymore (not regularly, at any rate). As I type this, I'm listening to old-school Metallica. I'm not as fascinated now as I once was by automatic weapons (not as much, at any rate).

    In approximately ten years, I've tried to write Project: Oz half a dozen times.  I've gone from something strongly resembling the merger between a 1990s comic book (the sort with which I grew up) and a 2nd Ed. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign (the sort with which I was immersed at the time), to high fantasy, dark fantasy, steampunk fantasy, steampunk western, and some sort of unnamed hybrid thing that is all of the above and none.

    The world-building process (and the research that has gone along with it) has been extreme and almost nightmarish. I've gone 'round and 'round with myself: Do I want magical, non-human races like dwarfs and elves? (The original idea with the Skorpion included dwarf merchant princes producing gunpowder in mass quantities.) What sort of technology and standard of living do the common people enjoy? Is magic common, rare, or nearly unheard-of? Do I want magic to be common or rare? Do I want fantasy, historical near-reality, steampunk, or even science fiction levels of strangeness? Is this book geared towards children, young adults/teenagers, or mature audiences?

    I've contemplated such topics as dresses and dirigibles, tattoos and Tomes of Eldritch Horror.

    There have been times when I've torn out my hair: what the hell is this thing I'm writing??!!

    What's my point with all this?

    That it's all fluid, to a certain extent.

    As I grow, as I gain in experience, so does my work grow and gain. While I wonder sometimes just how different I really am, I know that I've seen things and done things that have fundamentally changed the outcome of my work. For the better, I hope.

    "Hm. I think this ending I have planned needs to be a little more bittersweet."

    "Perhaps my heroine ought to be younger and less worldly. Also, more of a masochist. That way, she can better serve as a foil for my hero, and the dynamic of her relationship with the antagonist is shifted towards the more intense."

    "Speaking of my hero: I think he ought to be super-skinny. Jesus-skinny, '60s rock star-skinny. And also more of a prick to start out with while he's working through his own inner demons, so that he can change into more of a ... well, a hero. A skinny hero."

    Over the years, my heroine has been based upon a number of models, both physically and spiritually. I based her upon a character from a movie, to start out with. Over the years, she's taken on the aspects of friends and lovers no longer in my life. As I think about her now, I think my girlfriend has rubbed off a bit on her, which leads to the possibility for even more depth and realism.

    Every day that I work on this project, I think of something I hadn't thought of before. And that's really neat, folks.

    But the roots that once planted themselves in my brain from their unlikely sources, are still there. The theme of two unlikely heroes saving the world while saving themselves and each other is very much alive, although I understand it now far better than I did at the age of ten. The idea of a powerful weapon in the hands of a stranger still finds itself at the center of my work, but the weapon has changed and so has its meaning.

    But those kernels remain. Those are the belief system, around which the ideas of Project: Oz can grow and evolve, try and fail and try again.

    Until I get them right.