Thursday, October 29, 2009

Real Life Disrupts - and Tells a Story

I work with kids -- that's no secret -- but some of them need more attention than others, either because of learning issues, Asperger's, or high intelligence with little creative outlet. Still others have mental or emotional needs that can disrupt everyone's calm, especially if medication has been switched or forgotten, or if their wills are thwarted. Thursday was such a day, and "Donny" was such a child.

When I am brought to the library (shown in the photo to the right, during a storytelling activity back in the spring), I see that he has crawled under the row of computers in the library, is curled up in the corner, and refuses to come out.

At this point, it's not about the fact that he mocked a six-year-old kid and made him cry; it's about his refusal to admit his wrong and own his actions, and about his refusal to follow staff instructions.

I say, "Fine. When he comes out from under there and does what he is asked, he can have his snacks. Otherwise, if I come back to the room and he hasn't done as instructed, I have no problem crawling under there."

Staff person nods and goes about her tasks with the other children.

I return a few minutes later to prepare for the next activity. Donny is still under the computers.

I crouch beside him. "Did you not believe what I said earlier?"

He crawls out. "But I'm not gonna 'pologize, 'cause I didn't do nothin' wrong."

"Actually, you are. Come with me."

"I don't want snacks."

"Nobody said you did."

We track down the boy he made fun of -- who, by the way, is new to the Club, is a shy kid with a great imagination (he's in the novel-writing club), and isn't too eager to get anywhere near Donny, who is twice his size and possesses a quick temper.

The boy backs up against me, and I take him by the shoulders to reassure him. He looks up at Donny.

Donny looks over our heads and refuses to shake hands.

I send the little boy away and conduct Donny into my office, where he shouts and calls me names -- I am, among other things, a blathering, stupid, freakin' loser. He starts flailing, and I grip his upper arms to hold him steady. No one's hurt at this point.

Then he hauls back and delivers a good kick to my knee.

"All right, then." (I confess: I really want to kick him back.) "I'll let you go when you calm down and talk to me."

More name calling. More attempts to kick me. More irrational craziness i.e. all girls are liars, everyone in the room was lying about him, he accuses me of choking him, his dad's gonna sue me, and there's no way he's ever going to apologize to some stupid freakin' loser.

"If that's the way you want it, we'll just stand here until your dad arrives."

"I'm gonna tell him what you did."

"Excellent! I would love the opportunity to describe for him exactly what happened. I'll show him the precise way I held you so you wouldn't flail around and hit me. I'll tell him how you kicked me, and called people names. I'll tell him about your refusing to follow staff instructions, and your disrespect of a fellow Club member--"


Now, that's an argument for ya.

"So, will all this kicking and flailing and name-calling get you what you want?"

"I don't wanna be here anyway!"

"Will it get you what you want? Will it put you in charge, and let you have your way?"

"I don't care!"

"Sure, you do. What will this get you?"

No answer. I don't let him go, and he never gets away. He just stands there and cries. And calls me names.

Finally, when the wailing becomes more of a whimper, I ask him again if he will talk to me.


"Was that a yes?"

He nods.

"All right. Look me in the eye."

He does, and we talk for about five minutes. He's exhausted.

"I have to go to the other room" -- it's been forty-five minutes since I was supposed to be leading a different activity in the library -- "but you can sit in that chair until I get back."

He sinks into the small student desk, folds his arms, and lays his head down, still sniffling.

I check in on the staff member who stepped into the breach for me. She's doing okay with the group, so I return to my office and stuff a couple Kleenexes up under Donny's arm. One hand scrabbles out and snags the tissues.

The father arrives. His shoulders sag as soon as he sees his son in my office; I'm like the vice principal at school -- the one stuck with most of the disciplinary measures. "What'd he do now?"

Truth to tell, though I know much of Donny's background (which I will not describe here), this is the first time I or any of the other Club workers have experienced one of his meltdowns. He's usually an involved, pleasant, well-behaved kid, and I tell his father as much. After some conversation among the three of us, his father sends Donny out of the office and reveals that Donny has recently performed a far worse -- and public -- demonstration directed toward his dad (again, I will not describe the details here).

Turns out, there are upheavals in the boy's routine: medication changes, and the threat of being returned to a "normal" school, but also several family issues, the most disturbing of which is the fact that, when he asked to go stay with her last week, Donny's mother told him she doesn't want him.

That explains the "all girls are liars" statement.

I am true to my word: I tell his father everything. Dad doesn't know what to do about Donny's situation. He can't, after all, make the mother's cruelty go away, and all he can ask from us is our patience and understanding. His own is being tested.

So the story ends. Sort of.

There is no rainbow here, no riding off into the sunset. Sure, father and son leave the office in a more subdued state than when either of them entered, but there is no peace. Just an uneasy calm. The heavy silence right before the storm breaks.

But there's hope. Father loves son. And son, though he refuses to admit it, knows it is true.

"For God so loved the world..." You know the rest.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Heroic Fantasy Quarterly - The Interview, Part 3

And so we conclude this interview with Dave Farney and Adrian Simmons, the editors of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, with a final round of questions and some interesting answers:

6) What's the greatest thing about wielding ultimate power
ahem editing and producing Heroic Fantasy Quarterly?

Adrian: As pedestrian as it sounds, I really enjoy finding great S&S stories and putting them out for people to read.

David: Before we started HFQ, we used to joke about the editorial gig being our path to Supreme Being-ness. (You’ll have to supply your own sinister laugh.) But in the end, editing and producing HFQ
is everything I thought it would be: a ton of work. As Adrian said, discovering great new stories is easily the best thing about being the guys behind the curtain.

7) How has being an editor changed you as a writer? (Do you view it or approach it differently now? How do you apply what you've learned as an editor?)

Adrian: The value of those first few paragraphs can’t be emphasized enough. But that has to be balanced out by the cold hard fact that there is a lot more that goes into getting a “yes” than a good story well-told submitted to the right market. The longer I’m at this, the more I see luck being the lion’s share of the ingredients to success.

David: I’m not approaching my own writing any differently. In fact, I’m a little surprised that the stories we tend to like kind of contradict the things I’ve learned about submitting you know, where one’s manuscript should be grammatically correct, perfectly formatted and all that. For the most part, the stories having that sort of shiny curb appeal tend to be the most boring ones we receive.

8) For the benefit of the civilized masses — as opposed to the barbarians who believe every good story should involve swords and a good fight or three what's the appeal of heroic fantasy?

Adrian: The appeal is that it is fun to read. If done right, it is reading that you can experience, you can really feel it. And, like all good writing of any genre, if done really-really right, it sticks with you.

David: For me, it’s that heroic fantasy tends to be fast-paced with lots of outward focused characters. For some reason I think fantasy and adventure fantasy in particular works better when there’s not a lot of handwringing or personal inventory taking place. I don’t know what my disconnect is here, because I do enjoy those traits in contemporary or mainstream literature.

9) Is there a well-known piece of literature or a famous film that folks might not realize falls into the realm of heroic fantasy / sword-and-sorcery? (And, if they did know it, might elevate their opinion of the genre?)

Adrian: Most of the heroic fantasy/sword-and-sorcery fiction and movies are pretty distinctive because of the magic elements, so there really isn't anything I can think of that people won't realize falls into that category.

To come out swinging on the subject, though, I've got to say that in my experience, most people who don't like a great S&S movie like Conan the Barbarian don't understand it it goes over their heads. Or maybe I should say that, since they don't expect it to be anything other than mindless action, they miss the forest for the trees.

However, what many people don't realize is that heroic fantasy is just a kind of sub-category of heroic fiction, and a lot of great, socially acceptable, examples of that abound. I just watched The Maltese Falcon, and it (and a lot of film noir) could be considered heroic fiction. Road To Perdition, too. If you took out the Italians and the Tommy guns, and replace them with Danes and broadswords, that story is straight out of dark-age Ireland.

Three O’Clock High, which is a great, underrated, late-80s movie about an average high-school kid who has to fight a bully, is also cut from that same cloth. It is one of those movies that is a black comedy with an almost Nordic patina to it — the kid is just fated to do this. And, if you don't like all the noir then let me throw out something with a little more color: The Warriors.

David: Yeah if the book or movie has swords and fantastical elements like magic, and if the characters are larger than life or a bit over-the-top with dialogue, action, and bloodshed, then I agree most people will recognize the work as S&S or HF. Certainly all genre readers will.

While I agree with Adrian that heroic qualities are found in all kinds of disparate works, I still say there are traits distinctive to the adventure fantasy characters we like: an outward focus, a certain emotional coldness or callousness, big talk or grandiosity, and perhaps separatism. Movies examples are easy think of Bruce Willis in the Die Hard movies. If you take away the guns and skyscrapers and replace them with swords and ramparts, then you’ve got a perfect heroic fantasy character and story.

Same goes for most westerns. Just about any of the Akira Kurosawa samurai movies could be heroic fantasy if there were sorcery involved.

Stealth heroic books are harder to name, but I might suggest Cold Mountain (let me stress book, not movie the latter of which was a sappy mess) or Don Quixote or No Country For Old Men. If you enjoyed the main characters and narratives of any of these, you might enjoy reading sword-and-sorcery. And vice versa.

10) Lastly, a two-edged sword of a question: a) What single piece of advice would you give any writer wishing to submit something to HFQ, and b) What advice would you give to any writer in general?


a) Our guidelines are specific and pretty blunt, so read through them. We put all our cards on the table right there.

b) Although it is better to be lucky than good, you have to good enough to attract some luck.


a) I don’t really have anything to add. Just read our guidelines and then a story or two on the HFQ site before submitting.

b) I suggest that writers find a way to get feedback on their writing. Everybody needs an editor!


And that, my friends, is the end. Check out the adventure at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly
, and tell the guys what you think by posting a reply on any of the three interview segments here on the blog.

Happy Reading!

Glossary of Abbreviated Terms
HF -- heroic fantasy
HFQ -- Heroic Fantasy Quarterly
S&S -- sword and sorcery, a fantasy subgenre

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Heroic Fantasy Quarterly - The Interview, Part 2

I've been asking my friends Adrian and Dave, editors of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, a few things about themselves, their reasons for starting the magazine, and their vision. You can catch Part One here -- it covers only the first question, 'cause these guys can talk, but they're never boring -- but I've endeavored to cover a little more ground in this portion.

So, without further explanation or ado, we continue the interview:

2) HFQ is compact, publishing only five pieces per issue (so far, three stories and two poems per edition). How did you arrive at the decision to keep it so small?

Adrian: Mostly it's a matter of practicality. HFQ is a two-man show.

And even with three months to do it, reading through the inbox to narrow down the tier-two submissions, and then reading through the entire manuscripts of those to get to the best of the best, and then to pick the ones we want to run, and edit them, all the while wrangling the artwork, fixing technical bugs, working day jobs, and keeping our own writing going, it takes a lot of time and energy.

On top of that, we have a limited amount of money powering this project, and we wanted to pay a respectable amount, so that was also a huge factor.

David: Right—publishing every three months just seemed like a manageable timeframe, both to go through submissions and to stay on readers’ radar. Time will tell on the latter.

So far, so good as far as the editorial/behind the scenes duties go, even if I sometimes wish there were four months between issues. But Heroic Fantasy Tri-annually doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.

3) Do I assume correctly that a smaller quantity means a higher quality?

Adrian: We like to think so. There is a lot of good, albeit amateur, writing that we just have to pass on, and since we're only doing five items, if we miss something in the editorial process, we really feel bothered by it.

David: As we state on the HFQ website, one of our goals is to elevate sword-and-sorcery to a rightful high place. So yeah, we think publishing a smaller number of items will allow us to spend more time working with writers—if need be—during the editorial process.

We’ve seen everything from grammatically perfect stories that were real snooze-fests, to stories with great ideas but wherein the author displayed a complete lack of competency in assembling words on the page. We reject both of these varieties; I think it is the latter that Adrian referred to as amateur.

4) A lot of online magazines keep a shorter schedule, publishing monthly, or updating their content weekly. Why did you decide to go with a quarterly schedule?

Adrian: I tend to think that a weekly schedule is too much for the reader, honestly. I mean, I don't read every story at Strange Horizons (love it!) even if I do remember to stop by every Monday. Monthly publishing is a little easier on the reader, but again I don't read every month's worth of Internet Review of Science Fiction or Revolution SF or even LOCUS, for crying out loud!

Furthermore, a lot of "updates" are really just blog entries, or book reviews or whatever and we wanted to make the focus of HFQ the fiction and poetry—not our views on the latest movies, or wringing our hands about the state of the publishing industry.

David: Agreed. Correct or not, I also think too much content can be counterproductive to fiction e-zines. On the Internet, we all suffer from some degree of ADD or restlessness. We want to get in and get out, and on to the next thing. Or maybe that’s just me!

More importantly, I think it’s better for writers if their stories can stay up on the front page for a longer period of time. This is secondary to why we publish on a quarterly schedule, but it is something that has occurred to me since we actually published our first issues.

5) Your submission guidelines are clear (and funny), and the genre is in the title -- heroic fantasy. However, I know from experience that magazines receive material that has no place in the publication i.e. the horror magazine for which I read receives straight-up fantasy and science fiction, or outright dramas that are not horrific in any way. Are there any HFQ submissions that seem to have landed from some other plane of the universe?

Adrian: Actually, can we clear something up regarding our guidelines? People! We never said Tunnels and Trolls was a bad game. What we said was that nobody played it. Which is doubly ironic in that one of its claims to fame is that it has solo-player rules. We know people who own the game, but neither of us has ever met a single person who has played it.

David: Right. A little brother of one of my old D&D buddies bought Tunnels & Trolls. But we never played the game with him. I also never inhaled.

Adrian: The vast majority of our submissions are in the heroic fantasy/S&S genres. But even those clearly-defined genres get kind of fuzzy around the edges, so we do get some stuff that straddles the line. We also get the occasional story that has no business at HFQ. But honestly, we knew going into this that would happen, so we reject them politely and professionally.

David: I might disagree a bit on the clear definition of what constitutes HF/S&S. It can be hard to describe, but we certainly know it when we see it.

That said, I’m sure it is a bit difficult for writers to be sure of exactly what we want, and there is indeed a fuzzy area where stories straddle a line between high fantasy and sword-and-sorcery.

As to the original question, yes, we get stories that could never fit into even the loosest definition of heroic fantasy, but I actually don’t remember many of these. I tend to remember the HF stories that were near misses. I say if a writer has any doubts about what may or may not fit with us, just go ahead and submit it. Our rejections are quite cordial.

Adrian: Not to get on a high horse here, but not only were we spurred into creating HFQ because of the shabby treatment of the S&S genre, but more broadly, we were spurred into creating HFQ because of the shabby treatment of genre writers in general. We want to be defined by what we enjoy and publish, not (by) what we hate.

David: Agreed, agreed. But neither do we want to serve up easy targets for genre (or subgenre!) haters.

--- to be continued ---

Glossary of Abbreviated Terms
ADD -- attention deficit disorder (but I think we pretty much know that one!)
D&D -- Dungeons & Dragons, a classic role-playing game
HF -- heroic fantasy
S&S -- sword and sorcery, a fantasy subgenre

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Heroic Fantasy Quarterly - The Interview, Part 1

So, as some of you may already know, Adrian Simmons and Dave Farney -- my friends and fellow writers -- edit the strong-outta-the-gate online magazine, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, now in its second issue.

I've been wanting to sit down and talk with them about this new endeavor for a long time (we haven't had a face-to-face conversation in more than a year), so I'm excited to be able to bring you an interview with these guys. When they answer a question, they really answer a question, so I've broken the interview into parts; for instance, this first entry only covers one question.


Note: In the discussion below, KB refers, of course, to me.

artwork c. Norimichi Tanaka

1) Who are you, and why are you here? No, seriously, tell us a little about yourselves, how you met, and why you've collaborated to give the world this dandy little magazine known as Heroic Fantasy Quarterly?

Adrian Simmons: Hobbies include backpacking, writing, taekwondo, traveling. Fantasy devotee. Science fiction enthusiast. Train aficionado. Fan of the Irish whiskey. Sometimes, while traveling by train, I'll work on writing while enjoying the Irish whiskey. Fifteen minutes of fame on the Internet. Not above italicizing.

David Farney: I enjoy writing, and my reading tastes are much like my musical tastes: all over the board. I’ve taken a recent interest in speculative poetry. I’ve decided that Copenhagen pouches go with red wine as tastily as smoked cheese and crackers. My mom thinks I’m a hick. My wife still thinks I’m cool.

Adrian: How we met is a bit of a funny story. There is this writing conference in Oklahoma— OWFI—it is mostly older women writing prairie romance. My second year there, I'm in the book room and I see another thirty-something male. He looks a little lost among all the estrogen. We fall to talking and I ask what he writes, and he kind of quietly says that he's working on a fantasy novel.

I press the attack: About what? He sheepishly asks if I know anything about the end of the world in Norse mythology. Not only do I know it, I know the gods who survive it.

I've never seen a guy look so relieved! A kindred spirit! We hung around off-and-on for the weekend, and kept in touch ever since.

David: I don’t have much to add to the “how we met” part except to say that OWFI was my very first writer’s conference, so this along with the preponderance of quilters and cowboy writers left me feeling doubly lost. And young! But Adrian found me, and then we found the three or four other young people there—

KB (in an aside): I was there, and I remember how cool it was to find a fellow fantasy enthusiast!

David: —and we ended up having a good time. In addition to discussing Norse myth, I’m pretty sure Adrian and I talked a little Conan or Robert E. Howard at that conference. Kindred spirits indeed!

KB (in another aside): I recall eating lunch with you two at a Korean restaurant, Conan on the big screen TV in the corner. Fun times.

David: Which kind of ties in to the present and why we’re doing HFQ. Some six years later, I’ve turned 40. But I discovered fantasy fiction in seventh grade and for the next few years read as much Howard, Moorcock, and (to a slightly less extent) Tolkien as I could lay my hands on. I was blown away. In the years since, I’ve had real trouble finding any fantasy I enjoyed as much. The “wow” factor simply wasn’t there. So, for me, founding HFQ is about a couple of things:

First, I’m sure it involves mid-life issues and re-capturing my youth or something; indeed, I’m happy to report I have re-experienced that fantasy “wow” factor by reading and publishing stories at HFQ. Even some of the stories we didn’t publish scratched that itch.

Adrian: We put together HFQ because we love the genre and got tired of seeing S&S [sword-and-sorcery] be the whipping-boy of the genre-writing world.

We wanted to bring back a little adventure, a little action, a little enjoyment of a tale well told and the shameless visceral thrill where the good guy gets the bad guy within arm's distance and messes him up good!

We felt there was something wrong with the world if there wasn't a market paying three digits for S&S that came out more than once a year. Plus, a quarterly S&S e-zine was the only set of criteria we could agree to work on together.

David: Adrian touched on the second motivating factor: a market need for adventure fantasy. There’s tons of good fantasy out there—both online and in print—and there seems to be no shortage of its various subgenres: urban, dark, high/traditional, etc. But particularly online, the subgenre of heroic fantasy (adventure/sword & sorcery) is underrepresented.

I worry that adventure fantasy stands at the brink of extinction. But I also sense there are plenty of us out there who may have discovered heroic fantasy by playing Dungeons & Dragons when it first came out, and I think this effect isn’t likely to happen in future generations.

So I hope we’re not only preserving but creating new interest in heroic fantasy, and providing a different variety of fantasy in the short form department—something we can hopefully introduce to our nieces and nephews and kids and grandkids who sure as hell aren’t going to discover adventure fantasy by playing D&D and finding a list of authors in Appendix N like we did. Nope–their imaginations are atrophying away in front of game consoles.

I’m pretty sure Adrian would agree with all that.

--- to be continued ---

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Haunt of Jackals - Day 3

Welcome to the final day of the CSFF Blog Tour featuring Haunt of Jackals by Eric Wilson, sequel to Field of Blood in the speculative Jerusalem's Undead trilogy.

I admire the fact that Wilson has tackled ideas that might be controversial. In the realm of Christian fiction -- a term with which I am growing more and more discontented, because it seems to imply sermons in fictional form -- are more and more attempts to portray the darker side. Aside from the dreadful tracts by Chick, my first experience with such literature was This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti. It caused quite a debate in the churches my family attended. I expect Wilson's work will do the same.

And that's not a bad thing. People need to be stirred on occasion, challenged in their thinking and their beliefs. It is the Christian unafraid of the challenge who is strong in what he believes. He's not unsettled when called upon to examine his faith or his point of view. He can look at matters head-on and not run away or sidestep. He can admit when he's in error, and can extend grace to those who do not have clear understanding. I say all that to say this: Simply because a piece of fiction -- written by a Christian -- incorporates such creatures as vampires does not mean the story is somehow evil.

The Christian fiction I remember from childhood seemed to be all light, and as a result was light, in that it often had very little depth. Nothing truly terrible happened to anyone, justice was always served, and almost everyone "got saved" at the end. It's not news that I loved the work of Lewis and Tolkien, and Peretti was a welcome though spiritually challenging addition. They wrote of a darkness that must be overcome, and of a light that would shame the dark.

How can the light be seen unless there is darkness? What is a candle in the sunlight?

In Field of Blood and Haunt of Jackals, humans do one another harm, the vampiric Akeldama Collectors do much more harm, and they even create a gruesome gallery of sins: the Six, No Seven Things that God hates, taken from the book of Proverbs. They enslave, feed upon, and kill humans who are lead about by their own lusts and anger and willfulness.

I posted this yesterday as a comment on Becky Miller's blog:
I can understand why some Christian readers may not "click" with a story involving vampires. After all -- to my mind -- there's no mythical creature who so resembles Satan as does a vampire: the mind-control, the sucking away of life, the attraction of immortality that blinds one to the repulsive nature of one's existence after accepting that form of immortality.
Definitely not the source of a cozy story to read before bedtime.

But where's God in all this evil and darkness? Aside from a glance or two toward prayer, and several mentions of the Nazarene and His blood, God doesn't seem to be a major player in the story. I understand Wilson not wanting to bludgeon his readers with a sermon or excessive scripture, but the Collectors seem to have more faith in God as their enemy than the humans have faith in God as their friend. (For a clear discourse on the presence or absence of the salvation message in Haunt of Jackals, click here to read the entry on Rachel Starr Thomson's blog.)

Off that topic and onto something else that bugged me: the uncomfortable level of apparent flirtation between Gina and Cal, daughter and father. Yeah, before she knew who he really was, she wondered about him as a possible romantic problem, especially since she was married to Jed and still kept remembering Teo, a childhood sweetheart. Such thoughts were excusable in the first book, but in the second? Things just got a little too weird for me. I never really did buy the secrecy -- why Cal couldn't tell Gina sooner that he was her father -- so instead of thinking it funny when he gets up in Teo's face at the hostel and defends Gina's honor, I cringed. And cringed again when she just assumes a stranger at the museum is hitting on her, and he responds in kind, but it turns out to be Cal in disguise. That just felt "off".

Also, there are some continuity issues that might not have bothered other readers but kinda skritched at the back of my brain. For instance, after escaping Collectors, Gina goes to a hotel where the Tomorrow's Hope orphans and their chaperones are expected to arrive. Would a busload of frightened orphans keep to their schedule even though one of their number has just been brutally killed, and another has gone missing with the bus driver after fending off a fearsome attack? And what about Gina showing up at Bran Castle after fighting off a demon-possessed boar? No coat's gonna cover the bloody mess, the tangled hair, or the stench of boar, especially after the critter nigh swallowed her arm.

Despite my less-than-stellar review of the Jerusalem's Undead series so far, I'm glad it's out there, being read and causing discussion. I'm glad Wilson had the guts to write it, and that Nelson had the guts to publish it. I hope unexpected good things happen as a result.

And that's all I have to say about that.

For other points of view, click here for a list of the remaining stops on the blog tour.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Haunt of Jackals - Day 2

We return to this month's CSFF Blog Tour feature, speculative novel Haunt of Jackals, sequel to Field of Blood in the Jerusalem's Undead trilogy by Eric Wilson. Because the two books are so intertwined in my thoughts, and since Jackals follows immediately on Blood's heels (no pun intended), I'll be discussing them together.

As one raised to love a good story, the Good Book, and a good many bits of obscure yet interesting information, I came to this series prepared to enjoy it. If a novel keeps me glued to my seat or stretched out on the couch for hours, that's a good story. Haunt of Jackals (HoJ) received a quicker read than its predecessor, Field of Blood (FoB), which remained on the bedside table for two weeks, about one-quarter read, before I picked it up again. Granted, a great book can still languish -- not because I don't like it, but because I'm either 1) mulling its depths, as when I first encountered Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, or 2) dealing with its emotional effects, as I did after my brother gave me a copy of Rora by James Byron Huggins.

With Field of Blood and Haunt of Jackals -- though HoJ is more rapidly paced than FoB -- I had the persistent thought that the story would have been better served by being condensed: FoB could have been Part 1 of the book, and the bulk of HoJ could have been the rest. Maybe that's the editor in me, always looking to advance the story down the most efficient path.

Wilson skilfully keeps the story clear despite its complications and numerous characters. I like his use of chess as a recurring motif, and his adeptness at weaving Christian and Judaic tradition, Scripture, modern events, geography, vampire mythology, and history into intriguing, believable fiction. Who knows but that there really are Collectors and Concealed Ones among us?

Rasputin, by the way, was an interesting and unexpected addition.

About the Collectors: I never quite bought into all their behaviors, speech patterns, and thought processes. This could just be me again, but they seemed to have too much modernity and sameness. And, though readers are expected to be concerned for the welfare of protagonists in any given story, I never actually felt any real tension until late in FoB, when a Collector approached Gina at her job then later joined forces with a bomber. Not good for Gina; great for the story.

There might have been more tension and suspense if the story started later, and if the conflicts, secrets, and revelations provoked action rather then brooding and angst. Gina's attitude wearied me. Once, when she dwelt one more time on the troubles between her and her mother, I actually said out loud, "Enough already!" She ponders it again in HoJ when she considers trying to bleed away her adopted son's tragic memories. By this time, however, she's been through her own tragedies, and she's matured.

Though surrounded by other characters who sometimes carry the story, Gina is the heroine. As such, she is expected to grab the audience's sympathies so they'll be on her side throughout the story. Due to her commission and her true identity, I wanted her to succeed; as a person, though, she made little connection with me. The same with Cal, her father.

Dov, the teenage boy with the horrific past and a burdened future, and Teo, Gina's childhood sweetheart who still loves her yet who betrays her, are the two most realistic characters in Haunt of Jackals. I believe them. Maybe that's because I've been the teenager who's seen and experienced terrible things, and I've been the one who carried a secret affection, know it would never be returned in quite the same manner. But, more than that, perhaps Wilson believed them, too, and so wrote them -- whether he intended to or not -- with more tension, understatement, and realism.

Speaking of realism, I like the fact that Wilson set part of the story in the Pacific Northwest. I spent most of my first fourteen years in Oregon (that's OR-reh-ghen, not or-i-GON), know about OMSI, used to visit family in Portland, and still have relatives in the Willamette Valley (will-AM-et, not william-ET). It's always a kick for me to encounter stories set in Oregon and Washington.

Maybe that's why I enjoyed watching "Frazier" when it was on the air. Anyhoo. Moving on.

One thing I enjoyed about HoJ is the way the story ranges all over the world. Since childhood, I've been fascinated by atlases, globes, and maps of all kinds -- probably something to do with the influence of Treasure Island -- but I've only traveled the United States and Honduras, so if a story can transport me to exotic places, I'll hang on for the ride.

And if the story explores the dark while still shedding light, better still. HoJ is about light shining in darkness, and though the dark may close in, it never overcomes.

This has been a mixed and rambling review; I'll try for a little more cohesion tomorrow. Meantime, for other opinions of Haunt of Jackals, click here for a list of other blogs on the tour.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Haunt of Jackals - Day 1

This month's CSFF Blog Tour features Haunt of Jackals, sequel to Field of Blood in the Jerusalem's Undead trilogy by Eric Wilson.

In this series, Wilson presents a fresh imagining of vampire mythology: Collectors and Concealed Ones, Those Who Hunt and Those Who Resist. Collectors need bodies to inhabit in order to prey upon humanity; Concealed Ones are chosen humans, marked by God, immortal, and commissioned with the protection of humanity. They recruit and work with Those Who Resist, people who follow the Nazarene and oppose the Master Collector.

It is a complicated tale Wilson endeavors; although readers might pick up everything they need in "What Came Before" at the beginning of Haunt of Jackals, I recommend they first read Field of Blood. Although FoB is not the focus of the tour, I will -- for the sake of continuity -- discuss both books.

Aside from a few interesting twists on the old material, and all the roles blood (divine and human) plays in the story, as well as the inclusion of Talmudic and Biblical tradition, I found the first book plodding until about Chapter 39, nearly 300 pages in -- not exactly a good sign that I'd find the next book any more exciting.

However, the foundation having been well established in Field of Blood, Haunt of Jackals takes off with plenty of action, beginning on the heels of the climactic fight that ended the previous book. The characters also start acting their parts. Well, the Collectors (vampires) acted their parts in the first book, too, even more so than the protagonists, who seemed to do a lot of talking and thinking and angsty brooding before they finally started kicking vampiric butt near the end.

In Haunt of Jackals, Wilson has the protagonists on the move -- chasing, fleeing, hiding, calling out Collectors, fighting -- and the good guys take down a few vampires and get the Akeldama Cluster in a bit of a twist.

But there's been a vampire missing since the Akeldama Collectors rejuvenated the bodies of two long-dead families, the Houses of Eros and Ariston: the Collector who inhabits the body of Natira, the globetrotting son of the twice-dead Ariston, massive, strong, and the true leader of the house. He's looking for Concealed Ones, and planning a massive strike that will take them all down at once. He's found twenty; only sixteen to go.

There is an intriguing blend of historical fact, Scripture, legend, and modern culture, all mixed together with imagination and intelligence. Over the next two days, I will discuss that mix, as well as some of the questions that arose while I read.

A list of the other stops on the tour -- which means other opinions and insights on the novel -- will be posted as soon as it is made available.

CSFF Blog Tour Links -- Haunt of Jackals

And here are the links, as promised in the post above:

Brandon Barr
Wayne Thomas Batson
Jennifer Bogart
Justin Boyer
Keanan Brand
Amy Browning
Karri Compton
Amy Cruson
CSFF Blog Tour
Stacey Dale
D. G. D. Davidson
Jeff Draper
April Erwin
Karina Fabian
Beth Goddard
Todd Michael Greene
Timothy Hicks
Becky Jesse
Cris Jesse
Carol Keen
Dawn King
Rebecca LuElla Miller
John W. Otte
James Somers
Speculative Faith
Rachel Starr Thomson
Robert Treskillard
Steve Trower
Fred Warren
Phyllis Wheeler
Jill Williamson
KM Wilsher

The goal of the Christian Science Fiction & Fantasy Blog Tour is to promote books and reading. Each tour, some of us love the book, some of us could live without it, and some are undecided, so if a book looks interesting, or there's a debate about it, check out what everyone's saying. And leave a comment or two, to let the tour sites know you visited.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

What's in the Works

I'm working on a interview with the guys behind Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, and hope to have that posted in the next week or so.

Episode 11 of Thieves' Honor has an opening scene, but nothing more. Work and life have conspired to usurp my time this week, but I'm hoping to clear the decks for the weekend, and be able to write without interruptions other than my own wandering attention. Previous episodes of the serial can be caught at Ray Gun Revival, a fantabulous magazine dedicated to space opera, a branch of science fiction -- and no spindly little twig of a branch, either, but a hefty limb. Might even be its own tree.

Also, I've been tinkering with other manuscripts, adding a scene here or there. If I ever finish them all, I could potentially have ten books published in short order. Finish is the operative word.


If you're looking for writing advice -- or you just enjoy reading the rants of other writers -- check out A Word's Worth blog. The most recent entry is The "F" Word: Flashback.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Weekend, Writing Advice, and Space Pirates

This weekend, a friend and fellow writer visited, and we discussed and worked on current manuscripts -- short stories and novels. Much progress was made.

I've learned that I can accomplish more with a one-on-one conversation than by trying to glean useful help from the writers group.

As I've mentioned in the past, I've ceased sharing my work with the group, and have recruited a small pool of readers whose comments have been far more valuable than those of the writers. If a new writer is out looking for guidance, I'd say he or she should latch on to one or two solid writers whose advice is trustworthy, but then collect a select ensemble of readers who can be relied upon to tell when a story works and when a story is best used as birdcage liner.

Sometimes, I'm the one who's so dissatisfied with the end result that I pick the work apart until it bleeds. The readers, though, may look at me like I'm crazy. Or maybe they'll split up, a few keeping me distracted while the others flank me and remove the red pen / computer keyboard / pair of scissors from my grasp.

Just as we should know what needs cutting, we also need to recognize when to leave well enough alone.

Back to this weekend's results: I scribbled out the basic plot arcs for Seasons 2 and 3 of Thieves' Honor, as well as what should happen in the next two episodes, the projected enders for Season 1. (For the uninitiated, Thieves' Honor is the space pirates serial I'm writing for Ray Gun Revival.) This method of writing -- one episode a/k/a chapter at a time -- has been a great experience. I'm not allowed to sweat the future; I just need to produce the next episode.

Yeah, there is a future to consider, because what I write now will affect what happens later in the story, but whatever corners I write myself into, I must also write myself out of, and that means no whining, and no quitting. I don't get to second-guess myself too much, or to keep talking about some nebulous someday when the (cough, cough, ahem) masterpiece is complete. Nope. Butt must meet chair, and work must be done.

I cringe to recall what a whiny "artiste" I was when starting my first novel. Everything had to be perfect. When others told me to "just write," I considered them unimaginative cretins who could not possibly understand the cerebral power one must employ in order to produce high art.


Somewhere along the plodding journey, I fell out of love with my own words and gained a greater appreciation for the overall story, and worked to achieve THAT goal: the one of telling a story someone wanted to read.

I don't know how well I'm doing now, but that's almost not the point. Any craftsman should strive to do better. Always improve the craft.

To that end, I'm planning big things for upcoming TH episodes. Stay tuned for more adventures of the crew of the Martina Vega.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Opening Salvos - 4: Field of Blood

Read previous Opening Salvos here:
1 - In a Dark Wood by Michael Cadnum,
2 - Old Man's War by John Scalzi, and
3 - The Queen of Bedlam by Robert McCammon.

It's been a while since the last installment in the Opening Salvos series, and all the stories have had an air of the fantastic about them: a retelling of the Robin Hood legend from the Sheriff of Nottingham's point of view, a science fiction tale in which the aged receive new bodies and new leases on life, and a colonial mystery with a strong element of the strange. The latest installment features the first in the Jerusalem's Undead trilogy by Eric Wilson, Field of Blood.

What happens when an ancient family tomb is opened, and the blood of a dying man awakens the dead? This is not some holy salvation, but the unleashing of evil that has been waiting since the day a traitor hanged himself, and the blood money he was paid for his betrayal was used to purchase a field that came to be called Akeldema (also, Aceldema), "the field of blood":

AD 30--City of Jerusalem, Israel

The Man from Kerioth dangled over hard earth. His breath was ragged, his fingers grasping at the noose that clung to a gnarled olive tree. His larynx, nearly crushed by the short plunge, worked against the rope.

Air. One gulp, that's all he needed. Just one.

Despite this struggle for oxygen, he could not quell the whispers in his head: There is a way back, even still . . .


The sun rose orange and pregnant over the Mount of Olives, giving birth to purple shadows. His lungs heaved. He kicked in desperation, and his body twisted on the rope, providing him a glimpse of the city walls along the opposing ridge.

Those walls, they were were infested with Roman swine. He’d longed— oh, how he had longed—to join an uprising that would restore this city to the Jews. He had even aligned himself with a band of dagger-men, the Sacarii, but when their zealotry floundered amid internal rivalries, he’d hedged his bets instead on the aspirations of a Nazarene.

All for naught.
I've had this book for about a month, and there are still have a few chapters to go (125 pages). These opening paragraphs pulled me in to the story, and there have been chapters since that aroused my interest, but large chunks of the novel just don't grab me. I don't know if that's a result of my distracting schedule during this past month, or just disinterest in particular parts of the story. However, the opening lines did their job and, like Jerusalem's Undead, lured me down the path.

The sequel, Haunt of Jackals, is the focus of the October CSFF Blog Tour, so I reckon I'd better hurry up and finish the first book!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Review of HFQ's Second Issue, and a Very Small Tale

Jeff Draper beat me to it: He's already posted a review of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly's second issue, and so has James Lecky, but I'm gonna give it a shot, anyway.

My first reaction as I read "The Hand of Afaz" by Euan Harvey was Wow. It is well told, tightly written, and it held my attention from the opening scene to the last.
Farid found the murderer huddled close to a small fire at the base of a scrawny tree. Firelight winked through the reeds, and Farid poled his raft in slowly, silent as a gar gliding through the water below.
For whatever reason, when I read "silent as a gar", I knew this was going to be good. Harvey handles his words skillfully, and his hero goes through a journey of conscience that many in the real world fail because they lose sight of truth. There is a price to pay for each choice we make. Awesome story.

The next piece is "Monster in the Mountains" by William Gerke. There is more than one monster in the mountains, but not all look monstrous. As with the previous story, right and wrong lie in the choices the characters make; evil circumstances are no excuse for evil behavior. But, evil aside, I knew I was going to like this tale when the dogs arrived:

On foot he would have been lost and devoured by the elements — if it weren’t for the dogs.

They came to him in the wilderness, as they had many times before. A greyhound pressed against Gowther’s right thigh; always the first to appear, with its yellow eyes and graceful stride, it had drawn close even as the pace of the storm quickened. On his left stalked a huge wolfhound, its thick, coarse fur matted and tangled. He had never seen it before but did not question its appearance. The greyhound had appeared with many different pack mates in the years since it first came to him.

Some of our family dogs came to us in similar fashion, showing up from nowhere, sometimes bringing friends.

In Gerke's story are fights and beasts, mystery and myth. An all-around solid tale.

Joshua Hampton's The Lay of Cuthred King is an homage to Anglo-Saxon poetry:

Now told is the tale of
Cuthred King of Keenland,
East away, across field, fen and whale-road,
where none dare pass in these grim years.
From his castle keep, all timbered tall
of aged oak and elm,
he ruled with wit and wisdom
bolstered by his cruel-edged axe,
and loved was he
by lords and laborers the same.

The emphasis in such poetry is not rhyme but alliteration, rhythm, imagery and, of course, story. This tale reads like legend -- there was a King Cuthred who fought the Welsh in the 700s -- but it also brings to mind the Biblical story of Aaron and Hur holding up the arms of Moses (as long as they did so, Joshua and the Israelites gained against the Amalakites; let his arms drop, though, and the enemy gained). "The Lay of Cuthred" is a tale of loyalty and sacrifice and mystery, and could have been told a thousand years ago. Well done.

"Courage" by Teel James Glenn is another poem in the epic vein, but is more a prayer than a story. Though it employs a certain rhythm and vocabulary that lend it an ancient air, there's a modern structure to it that is visually annoying (single-word lines, and each line beginning with a capital letter), and "Give me half of a chance" is more modern language than perhaps is fitting for such a poem. If I were rating this the way we rate submissions to the magazine for which I work, I'd give it 7 bones out of 10 -- not overwhelming applause, but still a good round of clapping.

And, lastly, "The Waking of Angantyr" by Marie Brennan:

Hervor splashed through the cold surf onto the rocks of the beach, resisting the urge to look over her shoulder. By now the ship would be underway again, putting out to sea as fast as it could. How she would get off the island was a problem for later, assuming they hadn’t just put her off at random. She pushed such thoughts out of her mind. She was lucky to have come through so much already.

A piece of heroic fantasy starring a woman is a nice surprise; this one is also a ghost story. As with "The Hand of Afaz", a weighty choice lies at the core of the action, and the reader is left with a story that is only just beginning, and is yet complete. Well done.

The quality of the work in HFQ proves something in a recent post -- "Craft and the Editor" -- over at A Word's Worth blog:
Don’t just be good enough. Be excellent.

At Adam Callaway's blog, The Weirdside, he recently hosted an interesting little contest that I entered on a whim: Write a strange story, but it can't be longer than three sentences. Well, I contemplated that for a second or two, and in about five minutes composed an entry that -- I thought -- wasn't really all that strange, but it was sideways.

Turns out that it narrowly squeaked ahead of the other entries, and won me a copy of The Alchemaster's Apprentice by Walter Moers. Never read Moers, so I'm looking forward to it.

Oh, yeah, here's the crazy little tale:
Dinner drips from my fingers, grease mingling with the blood on my boots, and I am weary from the hunt, but the cook has ruined his last meal; despite his weeping protestations, despite my wife's admonition not to bite the hands that feed us, I will have new meat for roasting.

Resigned, she sends one of the servants with a cauldron to capture the fat for rendering, and wonders aloud if the skewer will bend to breaking with such a load as it now bears.

"It's his own fault"—I kick aside his apron and bloody clothes—"for letting that annoying miniature Englishman up the beanstalk."
And th-th-th-that's all, folks.