Book Release: The Ingathering (Refuge Volume Two)

the ingatheringRefuge Volume Two: The Ingathering is now available from Amazon and Smashwords and will be available at many other outlets shortly. You can preview the book by scrolling down a bit.

Here’s the book description from the vendor sites:

Claire’s magic is so powerful it makes her mentally ill. Suffering symptoms of bipolar disorder caused by her undeveloped talent, she escapes a Droon murder squad and reluctantly seeks training from the Andol. But the enemy follows and launches a plot to destroy the Andol stronghold and kill everyone in it, including Claire.

Meanwhile, the war between the Droon and the Andol is heating up, as the Andol seek human allies with magical talent, while the Droon hunt human magicians down and kill them. It’s a race between the Andol rescue operations and the Droon murder squads. Who will win the race? Can Claire recover her sanity and develop her powers in time to save herself, her friends, and the Andol from certain death?

From now until the end of November, I’m also dropping the price of Refuge Volume One: The Order Master to 99 cents. It’s also available at Amazon and Smashwords, and the reduced price should be effective at other vendors within one to two weeks.

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A Preview of Refuge Volume Two: The Ingathering

the ingatheringRefuge Volume Two: The Ingathering will be published next week. Here’s a preview of the first few chapters. Read Chapter One here, and follow the links to the next few chapters.

This is the sequel to Refuge Volume One: The Order Master, which you can preview here. The Refuge series is about the conflict between two alien species, the Droon and the Andol, who have destroyed each other in a war and then, through magical arts, reincarnated as human beings, making the Earth their new battleground.

 

CHAPTER ONE

The Pike Place Market teemed with people, especially in the front part where the bronze pig kept watch and the fish merchants juggled salmon for the crowd. Claire bumped and weaved through the mob past the sea smell and the noise, making her way towards the fruit and vegetable sellers further back. Her Starbucks latte with soymilk felt warm tucked close to her body to avoid spilling. The sky was gray (as usual) but the rain fell in a light mist, which to a Seattleite wasn’t even Real Rain.

Claire had popped her meds that morning automatically, like a clockwork mechanism, and felt the drowsiness that sometimes followed, which the coffee helped to counter. She also felt the crowd around her as a threat of suffocation, depression looming on the edges of her mind, but knew something to do about that. Closing her eyes briefly and breathing rhythmically for a few seconds while the crowd eddied around her slim, short body, she opened her second sight and felt the minds of the people. As expected: annoyance at the crowds, amusement at the sights, concentration on the desired whatever or directionless browsing through the cacophony of goods, a flash of anger from a child kept from darting under a counter, smoldering pain from a woman whose husband was cheating on her, about what she expected in a crowd of shoppers and tourists.

She opened her eyes and saw the auras flashing and bumping and blending, multi-hued cues to personality, health, and mood, but Claire always got more just from feeling the minds around her than visually. The colors were pretty to look at, though.

As the magic at the base of her spine found an outlet, the threat of depression receded a little, but she knew it would come back. It always did, despite the medication, and using her magic only helped a little, enough to let her get through college, but not enough so far to make a relationship work for more than a month or two.

Still, a little help would do this morning. She pressed on through the crowd, which thinned as she came to the back portion of the Market where the shops she wanted stood. First the fruit and vegetable stand for a bag of apples and a couple of star fruit, then the tea shop where she picked up a sack of Earl Gray and popped it into the fruit bag, and finally her favorite bakery, where she scored a loaf of dense, nut-packed multi-grain yummy.

Loaded down with success, Claire wove her way through the crowds to the bus stop where she caught a bus to her Capitol Hill apartment. She had time to eat something, shower, and study for a bit before taking another bus to the University and her film class at two in the afternoon.

The time went quickly, and Claire jumped when the alarm sounded. She tossed Shakespeare to the side and threw her bag over her shoulder, zipped out her front door and locked it behind her, and had just turned towards the elevator door when it opened.

Four men stepped out of the elevator. One of them looked at her and smiled. She didn’t like the smile much. She didn’t recognize any of them, but the smiling guy seemed to know her. They were four white men, somewhere between their twenties and their forties, in good shape, not especially good looking or ugly, nothing remarkable about them, but —

The second sight came on her and she reeled. The aura that sprang to her view looked as if the men were surrounded by a spinning cloud of jagged, broken glass sparkling against a night-dark background. She could feel the malice of their minds. Only in her hallucinations and nightmares had she ever before sensed such pure, toxic evil. Claire’s breath caught. She backed away.

The lead man drew a knife. “You’re luckier than you know, girl,” he said. “We don’t dare take chances with the likes of you. That means you’ll die in seconds instead of years.”

Claire ran toward the stairs at the end of the hall. The men ran after.

At the stairway door she turned and kicked out at the lead man, the one with the knife drawn. Years of martial arts training came to her assistance and she tripped him. Her hand on his knife-arm shifted his motion enough to ram his head into the wall. He fell, dropping the knife. Claire picked it up.

But the others came right behind. One of them thrust another knife at her heart. She twisted to avoid it but the man moved so fast she could only deflect the blow slightly. It sliced into Claire’s side. She cried out and backed through the stairway door, closing it behind her. She jammed the knife into the hinge and broke off the handle, then turned and ran up the stairs. Why up? Why not down? The thought occurred to her after she’d already gone a floor, but by then it was too late; the knife blade in the door hinge wouldn’t hold back her pursuers long.

Out onto the roof. The breeze stirred her hair. Her side hurt. Her fingers felt sticky. She could smell the blood. She could also hear running footsteps in the stairwell. Where could she go?

She reached the edge of the building just as the door to the stairwell opened behind her and her three remaining pursuers emerged from it. Gasping, she looked over the roof edge. There was nothing below except an open dumpster full of garbage, three floors down.

The men ran towards her. She had nowhere else to go. Over the side and down, feet-first into the pile of refuse. She felt something twist in her leg. She blacked out momentarily.

Then she pulled herself out of the dumpster and limped away down the street with no idea where to go.

۞

Blood seeped between Claire’s fingers where she held onto her side. It oozed through her shirt and trickled down her skin and onto her pants. The breeze stirred her dark brown hair and she felt light-headed.

They were still following her, those men. She felt sure of it. They wanted to kill her. She had no idea why. She had never done any of them any harm. She had never seen any of them before! Who were they?

Claire moved as quickly as she could away from her apartment building. The day still hung heavy with dense Seattle clouds, although it wasn’t raining at the moment. She could feel her pursuers following her, delayed by her jump from the roof but not deterred. Where could she go? She was just one young Asian woman in a city full of them, one small figure winding through the streets and alleyways, easily lost, surely. Somehow, though, they came on, following her as if with radar.

They found her in an alley, not a cul-de-sac but she limped and clutched at her side. She couldn’t run. As they advanced, she fell to her knees. A trail of red ran down her side. She was weak from blood loss and seemed to have injured her leg jumping off the roof into the dumpster.

“Who are you guys?” she said, her eyes darting from one implacable face to another.

“Your death,” one of them said.

“Why? What did I do to you?”

“Nothing yet. But we’d like to keep it that way.” He drew his knife and stepped forward. “I’ll make this quick.”

A shot rang out. Blood burst from the man’s chest. He fell, an expression of surprise on his face, dropping his knife. Two more guns sang their songs and the other two pursuers also fell, groaning or silent. Five men stepped from the shadows. Four of them ran to the three fallen killers and made sure of them with knives. The fifth, tall, thin, and Hispanic, with dark hair long but well cut and a closely-trimmed mustache, squatted by Claire. “How bad is it?” he said.

“Richard?” Claire said.

“Yes. Let me look at that injury. It looks like it might be pretty bad.”

“Uh. Sure.” Claire moved her hand.

Richard pulled her bloody shirt away from the wound. “No arteries cut, but we’d best get you to a safe place and tend to it. I have some AB and sutures at home.”

“Maybe I should go to the hospital.”

“I don’t recommend that, Claire. Another hit team will be sent once the people who sent that one learn that it failed. You need to disappear from sight.”

“I don’t understand.”

Richard sighed. “No, of course you don’t. I’m afraid you’ve been found by a nightmare. They’re the whole planet’s nightmare, and we — these men and I, and others — are trying to stop them.”

Claire shook her head. “That’s crazy talk, Richard. I’m supposed to be the crazy one.”

“You aren’t crazy, Claire. It’s just your magic.”

“Richard, my magic is all that helps the craziness. Medication helps some, but without the magic I’d be completely zotty.”

Richard smiled. “Yes. That’s what I mean. The craziness happens because your magic needs more training. It was worse before you had any training at all, right? But that can wait, Claire. Let’s get you to a safe place, and then we can talk. There are so many things you don’t know, and it’s obvious now that you need to know.”

He scooped her up in his arms and stood, carrying her. The others followed him to a car, leaving the bodies of her would-be killers behind. They drove quietly away, no one noticing them as the sirens sounded behind.

۞

Sutured and drugged on pain-killers, resting in bed, Claire felt well enough to talk. She sipped miso soup that Richard made for her. She smiled. He was so nice. But then, he was also a killer, wasn’t he? That came as a surprise: her pharmacist leading a team that fought a battle to the death with mysterious assassins.

She ran slim, brown fingers through her hair. It felt dirty. She wanted a shower, but probably a sponge bath would make better sense, what with the bandages and all. Maybe she could wash her hair in a basin or something. Unless the bandages were waterproof. Were they?

“Richard,” she said.

“I know. You want some answers.”

“Yes.”

“All right, but I warn you, this is going to sound crazier than some of your nightmares.”

She laughed, hearing the edge of hysteria in her voice. “It already seems like that.”

“Okay. Well, where should I start?”

“Those men. Who were they? Why did they want to kill me?”

“I don’t know for certain why they wanted to kill you. As for who they were, they’re called Droon. They’re — well, they’re human, but they’re also aliens.”

“You mean, like, from another planet?”

“Yes.”

“I — I don’t understand. How can they be both human and aliens?”

Richard smiled. “This will take some time. It’s quite a story.”

“All right.”

An hour later, Claire’s head was spinning. Destroyed planets, migrating alien spirits, the Earth a battleground between two non-human species that had become human, and herself somehow caught right in the middle of it.

“Richard, this is a lot to take in. You sound crazier than I am.”

“I told you, you’re not mentally ill. You don’t have true bipolar disorder, which is a chemical imbalance in the brain. You have the symptoms, but not the real disease. You’re magical. That may be why the Droon tried to kill you, although I don’t know that for certain.”

“You killed those men.”

“They would have killed you if we hadn’t.”

“Are you magical, too?”

“Oh, yes. Our entire order is, although most of us haven’t received the kind of training that my chapter has.”

“Your order. What is that exactly?”

“We’re called the Scourge of God. And that’s another long story.”

Claire shook her head. “I have plenty of time. Go ahead. I’m ready for some more crazy.”

She got it in the form of Medieval Christian assassins, a sorcerous secret society, and a split in the ranks between old-style hard-liners like fundamentalists on crack, and modernizers who somehow still thought of themselves as part of the same group.

“You’re one of the modernizers.”

“Of course. That’s true in many ways. We’re a religious order, a Christian order.”

“I’m sort of a Buddhist myself.”

“I know that.” He smiled. “One of the more traditional Scourge members would think you were destined to Hell and would try to save your soul out of misguided compassion.”

She laughed. “Christians do tend to do that.”

“Yes. As you can imagine, there’s a sharp divide between the two sides of the order. We don’t even communicate much now. The hard-liners consider me a heretic.”

She nodded. “I can see why they would. How did you just happen to be there to rescue me, Richard?”

“That didn’t just happen, Claire. We’ve been watching those Droon. In the past month, they’ve killed three other people. We couldn’t see any connection between them, but now I’m wondering if they might all have been magically talented. I know for certain one of them was. Anyway, we were watching them, they gathered for another killing, and we decided to stop them. It happened to be you we saved, and I’m glad of that.”

“Me, too.”

“Claire, the Droon don’t give up easily. There were four of them in that group and one of them is still alive, unless you killed him.”

“No. I cracked his head on a wall but I don’t think it was fatal.”

“Well, then their failure will be reported and the Droon will investigate it, and they’ll keep trying to find you and kill you.”

“What can we do?”

“What I think we should do is get you to a safe place. But that won’t be easy. There’s only one place that’s truly safe from them. The Andol have a secret fortress that the Droon can’t break into. Mike Cambridge is there. He’s the Order Master of the modernist wing of the Scourge. So is Amanda, the Andol leader. It’s called the Birds’ Nest. If we can get you there, you’ll be safe, and the Andol can figure out what to do.”

“I’d have to quit school. But I guess I have to do that anyway. All right. Sounds good to me.”

“There’s only one problem. It’s in Wyoming. Getting there may not be easy, with you injured and the Droon out for your blood. But I think we have to try, not just for you, but because I have a suspicion about what the Droon are doing and the Andol need to know about it.”

“What do you think they’re doing?”

“The Andol have started reaching out to people with magical talent, trying to recruit humans into an army. See, their biggest problem is that they’re outnumbered. So the only way they can win this struggle —”

“Wait a minute. You haven’t explained why you’re on the side of the Andol.”

Richard nodded. “The Andol are good people. The Droon are horrible. If they win this struggle, the human race will be genetically engineered to be slaves. Any of us could be seized by any of them and tortured to death over a period of years. The Droon like to do that. So in a way, when Osgood called them demons, he was right. They do act like demons.”

Claire shuddered. “One of them said I was lucky, that they couldn’t take chances with me, so it would take me seconds to die instead of years. I guess that’s what he meant.”

“That’s what he meant.”

“All right, I guess I understand why you’re on the Andol’s side. The enemy of my enemy and all that.”

“Partly. As I was saying, I think the Droon may be targeting magically-talented humans for assassination. Any of you they kill is a potential recruit denied to the Andol. That will need to be countered, if it can be. And I sure hope it can.”

Claire nodded. “So we go to Wyoming?”

“Yes.”

“All right. Wyoming it is.”

Continue to Chapter Two

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Optimism

cityContinuing the series of posts on not-so-dark storytelling, I’m now going to deal with a subject that is the antithesis of darkness: optimism. A good story may include circumstances and events that are gruesome and appalling, challenges that seem insurmountable, and problems that cause the readers to shake their heads in grim certainty that they cannot be solved, but they are. Or most of them are. Or at any rate, things work out. Things get better. Good triumphs over evil, and They Live Happily Ever After.

I’ll divide the subject of optimism into two parts, as I did that of heroism, but I think they may both fit into a single post.

Optimism Is Realistic

Let’s start with an observation that, despite the proclamations of cynics, optimism is actually realistic. It’s borne out by the patterns of history and the flow of events up to now. Things haven’t gotten worse, nor have they remained intractably dire. Things have, for the most part, gotten better for most people over most of the world. Here is a partial list of major evils that either no longer happen, or happen rarely compared to the past.

Chattel slavery. There’s still a bit of slavery in the world, but for thousands of years, whole societies were founded on it, from the ancient Roman Empire to 18th and 19th century America. That’s gone. Sure, you’ll hear some people talk about wage slavery, but that’s a metaphor. Capitalism has few critics harsher than I am, but I’d much rather be a wage slave than a real slave.

Institutionalized racism and sexism. All right, we still have racism and sexism around, far too much of both, but in my childhood both of those were institutionalized in law and practice, from Jim Crow to laws against married women owning property to common practices in housing and employment. Most of that, and all of it on an overt level, is gone from the advanced world.

Great-power war. Yes, we still have wars. But they aren’t fought by great powers against each other, and that means the most destructive wars aren’t happening anymore. The last time that kind of thing was going on was 69 years ago (1945). The United States and the Soviet Union had a rivalry and military arms race from 1945 until 1991, when the Soviet Union fell. The two powers never once fought an actual war against each other. During the Cold War, conventional wisdom was that it would end eventually in a hot war, because that’s how such rivalries always had ended in the past. It didn’t, and that was so unprecedented as to be miraculous. A combination of nuclear standoff and economic interdependence made great power war unthinkable, and it still does.

These three evils — slavery, institutionalized racism and sexism, and great-power war — are things that were once viewed as part of the human condition, impossible to eliminate. That belief was wrong. Today, fewer people die from violence as a fraction of total deaths than ever before. Famine and epidemic have both declined as well. The general trend is that things have gotten better, and barring a collapse of civilization, we have every reason to expect that they will continue to get better.

Take someone from 500 years in the past, pop him into a time machine to the year 2014, and his first impression on seeing the world of today would be that he had found Utopia. He’d change his mind about that on better acquaintance, one imagines, but he’d certainly conclude that things had improved dramatically. Jump in a time machine and travel 500 years from the future, and you or I would, almost certainly, draw a similar conclusion about the world of the future.

Pessimism is historically counter-factual. Optimism is justified by the facts, past and present.

Optimism Makes a Good Story

A story takes the reader on a journey of the spirit. Through the imagination and the power of the word, a reader faces dangers and challenges, learns and grows, tries, fails, and ultimately succeeds, and is transformed. Into what? Into whatever the story’s protagonists become, following the trajectory of the themes and messages incorporated into the writing.

The experience of reading a story in which things get better and problems are solved, with great difficulty and danger, is uplifting and makes the reader feel good at the end. The harder the problems, the more dreadful the dangers and challenges facing the protagonists, the more satisfying it is when it all works out in the end. The worse the protagonists’ moral and personal shortcomings, the greater the triumph when they are overcome.

Optimism makes for a good story, provided of course that the happy outcome isn’t easily achieved and the obstacles are great and challenging for the characters. The contrast between the depths of trouble and the ultimate triumph is what creates the emotional tension, the wild ride of the spirit, that gives the reader a memorable experience and a smile when the story is finished.

In fact, there’s really only one reason why a reader would be unsatisfied with such a tale, and that’s if the reader’s own cynicism makes it impossible to believe in good outcomes (or to suspend disbelief). If the reader is personally convinced by pessimism, despite the facts of history that tell us pessimism is unrealistic, then an optimistic story can seem like a promise that can’t be fulfilled, an attempt to deceive, to sell the reader a bill of goods.

But where does that leave the author? If there can be no uplifting, positive outcome to the struggle, if things can’t get better, if all hopes, dreams, and aspirations are false, then where is the emotional contrast, the journey from depth and darkness to the illuminated heights, that makes for a gripping tale? It’s not impossible to make this work, but it’s difficult, and in the end the achievement is less memorable and much less satisfying, in this reader’s opinion at least.

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Heroes Part II: The Journey

10034764_sThis posts continues my meandering musing on the subject of heroism and other hopeful topics, especially as it involves fantasy storytelling. Last post dealt with heroes that are not the main protagonists of a story, but supporting characters. I now turn to the other category of hero: those that are the main protagonists of the story.

The protagonist needs to be treated a little differently from the side-character. The protagonist isn’t a Champion, or if he is, then we see through the Champion’s aura of perfection from the beginning. The protagonist is someone we identify with. He or she is flawed, uncertain, and must over time and experience come either to develop the skills and powers needed to meet the story’s challenge, or to believe in himself, or to reform his character to become a hero.  Too perfect, too quickly, and we can’t identify with the protagonist or care about her. That change over the course of the story, in which the protagonist hero emerges into someone who can overcome obstacles and achieve goals, and we share in her growth as a hero and as a person, is the Journey. The Journey is the story, the character’s development and the plot weaving together like strands in a rope.

In the beginning, the protagonist isn’t up to the challenge that we soon learn he must face. One or more things is wrong or inadequate, and over the course of the Journey the problem is corrected, with the final change occurring in the course of meeting the climactic challenge and in its aftermath.

Weakness and Inexperience

The simplest way to chart the protagonist hero’s Journey is to make him weak, unschooled, unskilled, and hopelessly inadequate to defeat the Dark Lord, rule the kingdom, find the hidden magical treasure, rescue the captive princess, tame the flying horse, or whatever else the story’s quest may involve. The Journey, then, involves learning, development, and the acquisition of skills and powers. The protagonist is like Luke Skywalker, barely able to use the Force or wield a light-saber, hopelessly inadequate to face Darth Vader in combat; or like the boy Inigo Montoya, trying to fence with the six-fingered man after his father’s death and receiving scars on his cheeks for his trouble. This is the simplest form of Journey, in which the hero must learn, develop his skills, and face lesser challenges to build his confidence before he faces the big trial.

It’s also perhaps the least engaging and satisfying of the three, and is best used in combination with one or both of the others.

Lack of Confidence

A slightly more nuanced obstacle within the hero is when he doesn’t believe in himself. Raised in unexceptional circumstances, ignorant of her own potential, the hero sees herself as completely ordinary and everyday, a common peasant, an ordinary shop clerk, a simple college student. The main obstacle in the way of the hero accomplishing the great task and completing the Journey is that she doesn’t believe. The Journey, for such a hero, consists of trials that convince her, over time and through much struggle, that she is better, stronger, smarter, wiser than she thought, the right one to slay the enemy, rule the kingdom, or bring about peace in our time.

Moral Failure

The most complicated way to allow for the hero-protagonist to grow is to make him a jerk. There are, of course, a lot of ways to do this. Maybe instead of lack of confidence, he has too much, too soon. Maybe he’s arrogant. Maybe she’s a troubled teenager who pushes everyone away. Maybe he’s a dark wizard and must undergo a crisis of conscience and personal transformation. Maybe he’s a cruel, evil warrior and must confront personal loss to learn mercy. Maybe she has always used and abused others, and must face and overcome the reasons why when she becomes a mother.

Like the growth of skill and power or of self-confidence, a moral transformation is a part of the Journey. In making that transition, the hero-protagonist allows us to make it ourselves vicariously, and to explore what we would do if confronted with a similar task (which in a metaphorical sense we are).

The Sacrifice

In the course of the Journey, the hero must make sacrifices. He or she must give something up in order to secure victory or achieve the goal. Perhaps the hero must die. Perhaps he must accept that he’s not going to marry the woman he adores. Perhaps she must allow someone else to gain the throne or other position she desires. Perhaps she must lose a cherished possession, or even, most tragically of all, accept the death of another person that she loves.

In the course of the Journey, the hero becomes someone who can make this sacrifice, this painful choice in order to save the world (literally or figuratively).

 A Lesson For All of Us

Here’s the thing about the Journey, regardless of exactly how it’s constructed and what path the hero takes. It provides encouragement and inspiration for all of us reading the story, because while we aren’t all destined to defeat the Dark Lord, assume the throne, or solve the mystery of creation, we all have a Journey to make in our own lives, and something we would or should achieve, if we can overcome the obstacles that are in the way — external obstacles and, more importantly, internal ones.

And that’s the real value of the hero in fiction. He or she gives us a myth to live by, a model of who we can become and what we can aspire to be and achieve. To do that, the Journey must be two things: difficult and successful, the latter even if it’s also tragic. We should look at the hero as depicted in the story and feel a desire — not a selfish desire, but a higher ambition or purpose — to be like that, and to achieve something as fine, requiring as great an effort, and costing as dearly, as the hero does.

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Heroes Part I: The Champion

HeroA while back, I posted on the subject of dark fiction and expressed the hope that our collective obsession with it is coming to an end. One of the defining qualities of dark fiction is the absence of heroes. In a dark story, we find protagonists to identify with, and we care what happens to them if the story is told well, but we don’t admire them. All governments are corrupt, all religious authorities hypocritical, all warriors merciless killers, and at their best even basically decent people find themselves in situations where they have to act like monsters in order to survive or to protect those they care about. Or push comes to shove and all their values of honor and integrity and compassion go out the window in a storm of fury and rage. This is the lesson of the dark side: that under the skin, or when put to the test, we are all depraved horrors.

But of course, that’s not the only (or in my opinion, the best) type of story to tell, and while it expresses a partial truth, there are other truths to be told involving hope, compassion, and the achievement of something better than the ordinary. In a story like that, a special part is played by heroes: people we look up to and admire, people that save the day, people that sacrifice themselves for a greater good, and people who, by imitating their virtues, we use as springboards to make us better people.

A hero can be, but isn’t necessarily, a main protagonist. A protagonist hero has a little different dynamic in the story than one that is not a protagonist. The protagonist is a viewpoint character (whether the story is told in first or third person) and so the reader becomes intimately aware of his or her flaws, limits, and doubts. That doesn’t have to be the case with a non-protagonist (although there’s no particular reason it can’t be), and that means a non-protagonist hero can be (apparently, from the protagonist’s perspective) pure, fearless, invincible, and glorious. All of this means that the non-protagonist hero — let’s call him the Champion — calls for a little different treatment than the protagonist hero.

The Champion

A Champion is someone that the protagonist looks up to. He may be a great warrior, a powerful and wise magician, a cunning thief or spy, a noble and enlightened ruler, a spiritual teacher or leader, the protagonist’s parent or guardian, or really anyone in a position to help, support, advise, or protect the protagonist. During scenes when the protagonist and the Champion interact, the protagonist obtains important lessons on how to be a hero, on right action, and on virtues such as courage and self control. The Champion may also impart important practical skills — magic, use of the Force, how to sword fight, how to fly a space fighter, how to pick locks and scale walls — and serve as a fulcrum for the protagonist’s character development and setting  up the story’s main theme and conflicts.

Having this sort of figure in the story gives the protagonist a model to emulate and someone to believe in, but of course you don’t want the protagonist to be too secure and comfortable. It can’t be possible for the protagonist to rely on the Champion entirely; he must strive with his own efforts, suffer through his crises, and deal with the consequences of his decisions. There are several ways to accomplish this.

The Champion is gone when most needed. One device to put the protagonist on his own is to simply remove the Champion from the picture at a crucial juncture. Perhaps he’s called away for some vital task that takes precedence over helping the protagonist out. Perhaps he’s overcome by truly awful foes and killed or held prisoner. Perhaps the protagonist becomes annoyed with the Champion casting such a long shadow and strikes out on his own without telling anyone.

The foe is too much for the Champion alone. In this variant, the Champion doesn’t really disappear, but the enemy is so powerful or the challenge so great that it’s beyond even the Champion’s awe-inspiring abilities. Unless the protagonist steps up to the plate and applies crucial skills and insights and courage at the right moment, all is lost.

The Champion doesn’t believe the protagonist’s warning. Another way to remove the Champion’s protection is to give him a stubborn streak, a flaw in his character that keeps him from taking the protagonist seriously. The protagonist knows that something is amiss, but the Champion refuses to believe it, and so the protagonist must face the problem without the Champion’s protection and guidance, either because it must be faced now and there is no one around to do it, or because the protagonist wants to prove to the Champion that he’s someone to take seriously.

The Champion becomes the antagonist. A third, somewhat darker way to remove the Champion is to turn him into an antagonist. This can happen by many different roads. Perhaps the Champion was always corrupt, and the protagonist comes to see this over time and turns against him. Perhaps the problem is higher up, in persons or institutions to whom the Champion has pledged loyalty, and when the protagonist struggles against those persons or institutions the Champion sees the protagonist as a traitor. Perhaps the Champion was grooming the protagonist for some sinister purpose, and the protagonist figures this out. Perhaps the Champion began sincerely, but the habit of power and honor has turned him callous and arrogant.

Whether the Champion becomes the antagonist or just isn’t there when needed, the protagonist has to face the main challenge of the story without that protection and help — maybe even up against it.

A fine line needs to be drawn here, because before that happens the protagonist must learn enough from the Champion, from companions, and from facing lesser challenges that he will be up to the challenge of facing the big threat alone. In all cases, though, the Champion presents for the reader an image of what a hero should be and what we should all strive to become. Even when the Champion turns out to be flawed or becomes an enemy, that very flaw illustrates the ideal, as something the Champion fell short of, requiring the protagonist to do better.

Copyright: Prometeus / 123RF Stock Photo

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Book Review: Quest For the Simurgh by Marva Dasef (Faizah’s Destiny Book One)

QuestSimurghGenre: Young Adult Fantasy (Other World)

Blurb: The village magician, Wafai, has gone missing. His star pupil Faizah thinks he has left a clue for her on a page of the Magicalis Bestialis. With the page open and marked with an X, she believes Wafai is telling them to seek out the Simurgh, the mythical birds who possess all the knowledge of the universe. She convinces her three classmates that they must seek the help of the Simurgh to find their teacher.

She leads the boys on a difficult journey into the mountains in search of the elusive birds. A strange little man becomes their guide. However, they do not know he is a spirit leading them toward a battle between good and evil. Spirits, gods, and demons confront the four friends, who are being set up by the otherworldly forces for a much larger task than finding their teacher. The students were chosen to take sides in the battle which might spell the end of the world: a battle between the demons and the spirits.

 

Disclaimer: As with most of the books I review, I know the author somewhat on social media.

Quest For the Simurgh is the first volume of Marva Dasef’s YA fantasy series Faizah’s Destiny, in which we are introduced to Faizah and other characters. Faizah is a plucky, spunky heroine introducing a bit of feminist precociousness into a primitive world where it’s not particularly welcome, a not uncommon element in YA fantasy. She’s the daughter of a family that eventually intends to marry her off to someone boring, but in this story she breaks her family ties almost inadvertently and without actually recognizing the deed.

The goal of finding the mysterious Simurgh arises when Faizah and her friend discover their teacher’s disordered house and evidence of his abduction, and an apparent note in one of his books that they interpret as a message from him to seek the Simurgh in order to find the missing Wafai. The kids fall for it, despite holes in their reasoning one could drive a camel caravan through, and a series of arrangements and manipulations follows that lets each of the four escape their families and embark on the quest.

They’re being manipulated themselves, though, and end up caught in a struggle between War and Peace (not exactly Good and Evil as the blurb suggests, but close enough), with the gods maneuvering them into taking sides. The original problems are ultimately resolved, but not before the protagonists wind their way through the divine squaring off.

This book is quite well written, and the quality of the writing drew me in immediately. The characters are also nicely drawn, particularly Faizah herself, who is engaging and easy to identify with. On the basis of superior characterization and writing, Quest For the Simurgh merits four stars.

The one area where I felt it could use improvement is in the plot and story line, which was a bit difficult to follow at times and on occasion broke immersion for me. The protagonists were led on a snipe hunt, essentially, with the gods and the guide they encountered on the road leading them in a completely different direction than they originally intended. That’s not a problem in itself, but there were occasions when any character as intelligent as Faizah should have stopped to say, “Wait a minute. Why are we going this way? We should be going that way instead. What are you up to?” I felt this could have been better constructed so as to give the journey greater verisimilitude and make the fast one pulled by the gods and spirits a bit more believable.

Aside from that, this is a good read for young readers, and the stage is set for sequels, which apparently are in the works. I’ll add that the technical quality is quite high. The book is well edited, the cover is nice, and the blurb succinct and catching. Always nice to see an indie author who does that sort of thing right.

Quest For the Simurgh is available for $2.99 from Amazon Kindle Store and also available in print for $6.99.

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Dark Fantasy, Dystopia, Optimism, and Generational Shifts

villainFor some time now — although I believe (and hope) that the trend is reversing — science fiction and fantasy storytelling have trended towards darkness. Dystopia, post-apocalyptic visions, and fantasy featuring anti-heroes and non-heroes have predominated. These stories run the gamut in terms of subject matter and science fictional or fantasy elements, but all of them have something in common, and that’s the fact that no characters are to be wholly admired. That’s especially true if the character is an authority figure or someone who, in conventional thinking, is supposed to be admirable. Another common element is that pessimism is universal and optimism decried. A vision of the future must be bleak, with matters getting steadily worse, and any progress made either illusory or a temporary reprieve of the overall slide into awfulness. This is regarded as “realism” (never mind that, in view of actual history, it is completely counter-factual).

Dark fiction features no sharp moral lines. There are no good guys and either there are no bad guys or everyone is a bad guy. The best such stories have protagonists who at least have some redeeming features, but we are offered no one who could serve as a role model, no one whom we can admire without reservation, or only with the reservation that everyone has at least some flaws. There can be (and usually are) double-died villains, but the “heroes” must be no better, or only marginally better, so that the reader is inclined to say, “They’re awful, but the alternative is even worse.” This is fiction for cynics, for those who have believed in someone or something in the past, been disillusioned, and reached a determination never to get fooled again.

And in so doing, they fool themselves. But never mind that; fiction isn’t necessarily supposed to reflect the real world. But it does give us what we imagine that we want.

If I were to define “dark fiction,” I would say that it is fiction characterized by three essential characteristics:

1. Pessimism. The world inhabited by the characters in a dark story (whether fantasy or non-fantasy) is one that is bad and likely to get worse. Whatever social problems characterize it — income gaps and class differences, corrupt government, racism, environmental callousness, declining liberty, whatever — they cannot be solved and they’re going to get worse in the future, or at least never get better. The characters’ own personal problems may be solvable (although at least in part they’ll be just as intractable), but the world is plain screwed.

2. A dearth of heroes. The characters in a dark story aren’t just flawed (all good characters in any fiction have flaws), but they’re so flawed that we can’t admire them much, even when we identify with them. If the Star Wars story were rewritten as dark fantasy, Yoda and Obi-Wan would be revealed as opportunistic posers, self-seeking con artists, or self-righteous and judgmental pricks, as bad as the Emperor and Darth Vader (or at least nearly so). Dark fiction can have completely villainous and evil characters (although it need not do so and the best examples arguably don’t), but it can never have characters that the reader wants to admire, emulate, and feel confident about. Nobody wears a white hat. The protagonists are, at best, clad in gray.

3. Moral ambiguity. This may need some explanation, because moral ambiguity can take a number of forms and not all of these are properly considered “dark.” Confusion about the right action to take, or moral convictions on the part of characters that reflect poor vision and understanding or dogmatic thinking, are not in themselves “dark” qualities. The type of moral ambiguity that characterizes dark fiction is not just moral uncertainty on the part of the characters, but a situation in which there really is no clear moral difference between choices, so that characters can act on selfish and self-centered impulses without remorse, and never end up feeling good about themselves, no matter what they do.

I tend not to write dark fantasy at all, and although I have put out one dark science fiction novella (Robin), it’s not my preference. Dystopia serves a purpose in that it highlights a danger that may be arising and so gives us an opportunity to prevent it from happening, but there’s a difference between a story that says, “Watch out, we’re in danger of something bad happening if we don’t reverse course,” and one that says, “We’re just plain fucked and all we can do is survive.” There’s a difference between stories with realistic characters suffering from the usual array of human flaws, and one in which nobody is admirable at all. There’s a difference between stories in which the protagonists are faced with difficult moral choices calling for sacrifice on their part, and stories in which they are never called upon to do the right thing, because there is no right thing. I can enjoy a story like that once in a blue moon, but it will never make my favorites list. In this, I differ from some other readers, particularly those somewhat — but not too much — younger than myself.

What’s occurred to me recently is that the trend toward and away from dark fantasy may be driven by generations. Specifically, the rise in dark fantasy’s popularity is driven by Generation X, and the decline in dark fiction recently (as one can see from a perusal of the Amazon Kindle Store’s fantasy and science fiction best sellers, most of which are at this point not dark) to the maturation into their main reading years of the Millennial generation. Earlier periods in which dark fiction rose to prominence and then declined (because the current phenomenon is certainly not the first time it’s happened) were, I believe, possibly driven by the emergence of previous Reactive generations followed by Civic generations (according to the generational cycle theory presented by the late William Strauss and Neil Howe in their books GenerationsThe Fourth Turning13th Gen, and Millennials Rising).

My personal experience as an author reflects this. I’ve received my worst reviews from Xers and my best ones from Millennials. (As noted, most of my writing is distinctly non-dark.) Mostly, when I’m taken to task in a really serious way, and always when it’s in a way that annoys me, it’s because my writing is distinctly non-dark. There’s plenty of conflict, but it’s optimistic. The protagonists in my stories, at least some of them, are genuine heroes, people the reader is expected to admire and look up to. And moral choices are often clear. One person recently expressed a “sinking feeling” that the Andol (the “good guy” aliens in my Refuge series) won’t be revealed as secretly nasty and evil in future books. Now, I’m not going to give spoilers, so I won’t say whether he’s factually right about that, but I will say that if this causes a “sinking feeling,” then perhaps he’s not really in my target audience.

This sort of critique, in which I’m taken to task for writing stories that are exactly what I intended to write, infuriates me. I don’t mind legitimate criticism, and Gods know my work is not without flaws. I have written stories with too many characters that confused the reader. My dialogue, although I think it’s generally good, sometimes drifts away from believable speech into dissertations. I have trouble depicting romantic relationships that are deep and credible. I know all of this and deeply appreciate any critical help in improving all of these and other genuine problems in my writing, because that will help me to make it better — and I want to be the best I can.

But that my fiction isn’t dark fiction is not a flaw. When someone tells me that I need to write dark fiction as if that were the only kind of fiction that is any good, my answer is to simply say, “No. I won’t. I don’t want to, and I don’t have to, and that’s that.” If that means I’m writing for Millennials more than for Xers — so be it.

Now, I’m not saying that anyone who likes dark fantasy or any other dark fiction should’t read that stuff, or that people who want to write it shouldn’t be writing it. I’m against arbitrary limits on the arts — that’s the main point of this post, after all.

I’m just saying that we shouldn’t see darkness as synonymous with quality. And that consequently, the decline in the dark fantasy fad is a good thing.

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