Greetings and Salutations!

Welcome to the longest-running* yet least-read** blog on the internet! Here you'll find me writing about all the things that I write about, which strikes me, just now, as somewhat recursive. In any case, enjoy :)

* not true ** probably true

Monday, December 29, 2014

Mad January Sale

You like a good deal, right? Of course you do. Everybody likes a good deal.

Never once in my life have I heard someone say "I refuse to buy this [insert item of interest] at a reduced price. No sirree Bob, it's full price for me or I walk. In fact, I would prefer it if you charged me more for [insert item of interest]!"

Well, it just so happens that on January 1st, 2015, there will be 47 items of interest available for the reduced price of 99 cents. One of those items will be my own Pulled Spat Knocked - the omnibus collection of the first three Amra Thetys books.

Since I didn't get you anything for Christmas, I thought maybe a New Year's Day deal could be a thing.

You can find out more at Patty Jansen's Science Fiction & Fantasy Mad January Sale page.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Known World: Western Sulamel

One thing about fantasy, an awesome map can enrich a reader's appreciation of the story. This, unfortunately, is not an awesome map. But it does cover much of what Amra and Holgren have been to or mentioned, and a lot more besides. (Click to embiggen.)

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Amra Book 4 Excerpt

The first draft  of the next installment in the Amra series is coming along nicely, so I thought I'd share the first chapter. Remember, this is only the first draft. Anything and everything is subject to change before publication, including the current working title, which is The thief Who Wasn't There.

That said, I'm fairly happy with this, and with what comes after. Enjoy!



“There's a bunch of soldiers downstairs,” the boy, Keel, announced. I ignored him. Insinuating my own intangible, extemporaneously fashioned command key into the Telemarch's wards was a finicky, delicate business. It would have been impossible were he still alive. It required intense concentration, and it wasn't the safest magic I'd ever attempted, but if I could co-opt the deadly cobweb of defenses the Telemarch had laced into the stones of the Citadel, I wouldn't have to worry about anybody interfering with or interrupting my true work.

The mesh of commands woven about and through the tower was so dense and multi-hued, it was difficult to see through it to the physical world. Thank the dead gods I didn't need two eyes to see in three dimensions while working with the Art.

Gently, gently, I pushed with my will against the node I was virtually certain commanded the wards, and perhaps much more. If I was right, well and good. If I was wrong—

Well. Being wrong about it would not be healthy.

I could have set up my own wards, nearly as puissant as the Telemarch's, given time. I did not have time. Every day, every hour that passed might mean Amra's death. But the time for haste had passed, and all my hurrying over the past week hadn't brought her back.

“Uh, Magister Holgren? Magus?”

“Just call me Holgren,” I told the boy, not for the first time. “What do they want?”

“They wanted to see the Telemarch. I told them he'd karked it. Then they said they wanted to see whoever was living here now.”

“How do they know anybody is living here now?” I said, not really paying attention. I'd almost got the command key to be accepted by the Telemarch's wards. How much more it would afford me access to, I didn't yet know.

“I don't know. Probably all the weird lights and, and stuff.”

Some of the spells I'd tried to locate Amra with had been rather flashy. Others had been incredibly loud. None of them had given me what I wanted.

“Magus? They said if you don't come down, they're going to come up.”

With a mental and mostly imaginary click, the key finally punctured the disturbingly elastic membrane of the node and slotted perfectly, as far as I could sense, into the mesh of the Telemarch's commands. It was enough for now. Later I could explore just what I did and did not have access to, beyond the outer wards. For now I had to deal with the locals.

They probably wanted their Citadel back. They weren't going to get it until I was finished with it. Messengers had come over the last few days, petitioning the Telemarch to take sides in the civil war that was burning sullenly through the city's streets. I'd given Keel instructions to ignore them.

Soldiers, however, were a different matter.

I stood up, stretched, then with a swipe of my hand broke the circle of dust and blood I'd laid down for the work I'd just completed. I followed the boy downstairs to talk to the soldiers.

“What faction?” I asked him as we descended.

“Council. Steyner's men.” Two of the Council of Three had survived the chaos, madness, magic and rioting that had engulfed Bellarius since the night of Amra's disappearance. Both of them believed they should be the next Syndic. The third faction, the Just Men, wanted to set up a democracy, Nine Cities-style. While I was rooting for the rebels in an abstract sort of way, I didn't have time for politics. The city of Bellarius and all the rest of Bellaria could have any style of government it wanted, or none at all, as far as I was concerned. Just so long as the various factions stayed out of my way and left me to my work.

“Uh, Magister?” Keel said as we approached the main door.

“What is it, Keel?”

“Did you maybe want to put on your eye patch?”

“Ah. Yes. Thanks.” I'd taken it off when I'd started work that morning. It was still new, and distracting. I hadn't wanted to be distracted. Well, no more distracted than losing an eye the week before made me. I pulled the thing out of my pocket and slipped it on.

“Maybe a little more to the right, magus,” Keel commented. I gave him a glare. And adjusted it.
He nodded in satisfaction and opened the door. Gray, cheerless light dribbled in out of a gray, cheerless sky. Outside were twenty halberdiers in Steyner's maroon and yellow. They were led by a captain in half-plate.

“You are the mage who has taken up residence here?” the captain asked, after looking me over.

“I am.”

“You are required to vacate the Citadel immediately, by order of Syndic-Elect Gabul Steyner.”

“That's not going to happen,” I said.

“Then we will be forced to remove you.”

“You'll be forced to try. I warn you, captain, it won't go well for you or your men.” With a mental whisper I activated the Citadel's base wards, the primary layer of protections the Telemarch had built into the tower using the Art. The ones meant to repel physical threats.

The captain stepped to the side and ordered his men to enter and evict me. I stood inside the threshold and watched, arms folded. I was curious as to what the Telemarch had wrought. I knew this layer of wards' purpose, but not how it would be made manifest. I hadn't had the time to study the wards in detail.

The first pair of halberdiers tried to enter, and were rebuffed, as if they had encountered an invisible wall. They tried again, with the same results.

“Hack at it,” their captain told them.

“Oh, yes, do,” I said. One of the halberdiers glared at me. The other wore an expression that suggested he wasn't getting paid enough. He stepped back to give his compatriot room to swing.
The first hauled back with his overgrown axe and brought it down with not-inconsiderable force on the doorway's invisible ward. The halberd was immediately ripped out of his hands. It flew, spinning and with impressive speed, out and away from the Citadel, the haft cracking the halberdier in the face along the way. The man fell down in a moaning, bleeding heap. The halberd fell somewhere in the Girdle. I hoped that it hadn't split somebody's head open. In any case, it would likely end up in the hands of the rebels, so all in all I was not unsatisfied with the outcome.

“Right then,” I said to the captain. “If you're done wasting my time, I have work to do.”

“The Citadel is the rightful possession of the ruler of Bellaria!” he said in a tone that was verging on a whine.

“Yes, well. When he or she shows up, perhaps I'll be more accommodating,” I replied. “Meanwhile, if you bother me again, I'll turn you into a pink mist.”

I closed the door in his flushed face.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Not Poughkeepsie, No; Nor Elfland Either

In 1973 Ursula Le Guin published an essay on the importance of writing style in fantasy. That piece was titled “From Elfland To Poughkeepsie” and it has been oft-quoted and remarked upon by those who care about such things. I, too, care about such things, though I did not realize I cared about them until I bought a paperback copy of “The Wind's Four Quarters” at the age of seventeen and read what she had to say in that essay.

It starts like this:

Elfland is what Lord Dunsany called the place. It is also called [...] by many other names.

Let us consider Elfland as a great national park, a vast and beautiful place where a person goes by himself, on foot, to get in touch with reality in a special, private, profound fashion. But what happens when it is considered merely as a place to “get away to”?

What happens, according to Le Guin, is what happens at all national parks. People drive in in their air-conditioned mobile homes, bringing all their real-world accoutrements with them, and never really experience the place for what it is.

At first it seems as if she's talking about readers of fantasy, but we soon come to understand that she's talking about modern day (yes, I still consider those writing in 1973 to be 'modern day') fantasy writers. She then goes on to humiliate author Katherine Kerr for writing a passage in one of her books that, by changing only four words, could have been taken from a modern political thriller.

Le Guin takes great pains to explain why this approach is very wrong:

Seen thus, as art, not spontaneous play, [fantasy's] affinity is not with daydream, but with dream. It is a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence. It is not antirational but pararational; not realistic but surrealistic, superrealistic, a heightening of reality.

No pressure there.

She takes no pains whatsoever, on the other hand, in separating out what we would today, by and large, term sword & sorcery, and what she calls heroic fantasy, as unworthy of discussion:

There would be no use at all in talking about what is generally passed off as “heroic fantasy,” all the endless Barbarians with names like Barp and Klod, and the Tarnsmen and the Klansmen and all the rest of them—there would be nothing whatever to say. (Not in terms of art, that is [...])

Le Guin goes on, of course, and gives many examples of what she considers the true fantasy writing style, from the past masters of the genre.

It's taken me 26 years to realize just what bothered me so profoundly about “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.” It isn't that Le Guin had (and still has) such fixed ideas about art or the genre. Everyone is allowed those, and Le Guin far more than others, considering her iconic status and undeniable talent.

No, what bothered me about Le Guin's Elfland was in the little things she said that betray a larger issue in her perceptions of what fantasy should and should not be. When berating Kerr for her not-sufficiently-fantasy fantasy novel, she makes this comment about one of the characters who says “I could have told you that at Cardosa”:

Speech expresses character. It does so whether the speaker or the author knows it or not. When I hear a man say “I could have told you that at Cardosa,” or at Poughkeepsie, or wherever, I think I know something about that man. He is the kind who says, “I told you so.”

Nobody who says, “I told you so” has ever been, or will ever be, a hero.

The Lords of Elfland are true lords, the only true lords, the kind that do not exist on this earth: their lordship is the outward sign or symbol of real inward greatness.

There, in those 101 words, Le Guin betrays her own character as a writer, whether she knows it or not; her own prejudices and presuppositions emerge. First, that a fantasy hero cannot/would not use pedestrian language (and to be fair, the whole essay is trying, in part, to make that point) and second, in an unstated, perhaps unintended, but quite direct way, that the heroes of Elfland must also be the Lords of Elfland.

It is inferred, this idea that a hero must be nobility, a ruler, one of the elite (though in a twisted sort of way it makes sense, since the nobility of Elfland can presumably afford diction and rhetoric tutors, thus ensuring that they will never speak such pedestrian, unheroic sentences as “I could have told you that at Cardosa.”)

But I wondered at seventeen, and still wonder today, why someone like me would ever want to visit somewhere like Le Guin's Elfland, a place where common speech precludes you from being heroic, where, if you are not a Lord, you are a spear carrier, unworthy of your words being set down, however much they might mean to you personally.

In Le Guin's Elfland, one is not allowed to merely ask for a cold leg of rabbit, oh no. One cannot merely say, “I am hungry; share your food, won't you?” One must ask for it heroically:

Detestable to me, truly, is loathsome hunger; abominable an insufficiency of food upon a journey. Mournful, I declare to you, is such a fate as this, to one of my lineage and nurture!”

Heroic, or bombastic? I think you can guess what my opinion is.

The entire point of “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” is, ostensibly, that the would-be writer of fantasy must tread a very narrow path, sanctified by the stylists of the past. It is that, more than anything, which bothered me at age seventeen, though I could not at the time phrase it in such a concise, rational way. 

Ultimately, Le Guin's Elfland is an incredibly elitist place. It is not a national park. It is a game preserve for some great lord, with stiff penalties for trespassing, and even stiffer ones for poaching.

But the truth is, Elfland did not suddenly spring into being when Lord Dunsany first whipped out his pen. It is a far older, far more wild place, and it is inhabited not only by lords and those creatures that give them the opportunity to be heroic. Its roots, the life that makes it “superrealistic” can be found in all the old fairy tales, from Snow White to The Three Ivans. Elfland was breathed into life, literally, by peasants and commoners and passed down orally from generation to generation by those who had no notion of what fantasy style “ought to be.”

Yes, there is something that makes Elfland a special, dangerous place. But I'm terribly sorry to say it isn't whether an ostensible hero of Elfland ever utters the phrase “I could have told you that at Cardosa.” And when we move away from the idea that the lords are automatically the heroes, so too will we move out of the game preserve and into the wider, wilder expanses of Elfland which, as G.K. Chesterton once said, 'is a world at once of wonder and of war.'

Le Guin rails against pedestrian language in a genre that should, by rights, be something special, something magical. I agree whole-heartedly with the special and magical part. But I believe she missed her mark in “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.” She mistook special for exclusive. Worse, she mistook form for content. After all, when have heroic words ever made a satisfying substitute for heroic deeds?

We, as readers, and hopefully as humans, judge a hero by their actions, not by their lineage or the way they use second person singular. We judge writers of fantasy by the sense of wonder they engender in us, and by the depth of engagement and immersion the world they have devised affords us. We may well turn to fantasy for the “distancing from the ordinary” that Le Guin assumes, but I'm completely certain such a distancing does not require the load of stylistic prescription that Le Guin tells us it does. Most fantasy readers want a good story, well-told, that transports them to Elfland. That's all they want, and they aren't terribly concerned about whether they go on foot, on dragon's back, or in a minivan. The destination is the journey.

I could have told thee that at Poughkeepsie, Ursula.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ahem. Tap-tap. Is this thing on?

Just a brief couple of announcements:

Item One: The first two books in the Amra Thetys series are currently free, as in gratis, no money down, no payments for 9,999 months:

Kobo: Not available because Kobo is weird & glitchy & the book just disappeared one day & I've been too busy writing to bother to sort it out.

Item the second: It may interest you to know that the third installment in the series is currently being edited, and is now available for pre-order. It'll ship on December 10th, 2014, but you could order it, like, today. You know, if you want to make sure you get yours before they run out on the release day. Christmas season and all. Only so many electrons in the universe.

Right. I think that about covers it. I now return you to your regularly scheduled internet skiving.