Monthly Archives: March 2013

There Can Never Be an Enchanted Blaster

English: How Sir Bedivere Cast the Sword Excal...

English: How Sir Bedivere Cast the Sword Excalibur into the Water. Illustration from: Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur. London: Dent, 1894. Français : How Sir Bedivere Cast the Sword Excalibur into the Water (littéralement « Comment Sir Bedivere jeta l’Epée Excalibur dans l’eau). Illustration tirée de Le Morte d’Arthur par Sir Thomas Malory, London: Dent, 1894. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been thinking some more about contemporary fantasy, and about what might be considered a science fiction-fantasy melange. Futuristic fantasy, we could call it: a fantasy story set in a future world, with projected advances in technology and speculation on the social and political changes that follow from them — along with fantasy elements. Classic fantasy, contemporary fantasy, futuristic fantasy — not a bad classification system!

How can futuristic fantasy work?

It’s been done to a degree, although to maintain a sense of consistency and realism magic becomes psychic power while gods and super-beings become anything from incredibly advanced alien races to psychic projections of the deep unconscious mind to personifications of cosmic principles. Which, of course, simply represents a changing of names for the same phenomena. Magic, gods, quasi-humans, and monsters can all be incorporated into a science fiction setting.

What about magical items, though?

Well, magical items can work, too, but one must recognize the implications of modern manufacturing techniques, which render some of the milieu surrounding the magical items of classic fantasy anachronistic.

Consider a magical weapon such as Excalibur. Excalibur was a marvelous sword gifted to King Arthur by the mysterious Lady of the Lake, a super-being or a goddess. The sword itself was a wonderful blade that would never break and could cut through heavy armor, but the scabbard was even more astounding, for as long as Arthur wore it he could lose no blood from any wound he took in battle. When Arthur was defeated, he returned the sword and scabbard to the Lady of the Lake (with some difficulty), who would keep it for the next champion, or for Arthur’s return.

This works fine in a classic fantasy context. From the time when people learned how to make steel until the gunpowder age, advances in military technology that made much difference in the way war was fought could be listed on a single sheet of paper. The stirrup and the longbow were significant, but despite this a match between a Roman legion (which had neither) and a fifteenth-century English army (with both) would be a difficult battle to call. Put either one up against a twenty-first century force with modern weapons, though, and the result would be a slaughter. If Arthur were to return today, bearing the wondrous Excalibur, he would be hopelessly outclassed.

In classical fantasy, a magical weapon that retains its usefulness for ages and can be preserved by mysterious entities, or lost in an ancient tomb, waiting for the hero to rediscover it and bear it to glory, makes some sense. In futuristic fantasy it makes none. Not only is the weapon sure to become obsolete in a few decades at most, but there’s also the change to the way things are manufactured in modern times and beyond. Modern weapons are mass-produced. There may be a lot of precision and care that goes into them; they may be finely-machined and expertly crafted; with nanotechnology or even highly computerized manufacturing they may even be individualized — but they are still made in large numbers for use by large numbers of warriors. But magic cannot be mass-produced. Bear in mind the meta-laws of magic: magic is an inborn talent, it requires training and education, it exacts a price, and it’s dangerous. If it doesn’t comply with these rules, then it isn’t magic. If it’s something the masses can make use of, it’s a form of technology instead.

For this reason, combined with the fact that in a high-tech world technology advances rapidly, there can never be an enchanted blaster. Oh, to be sure, a wielder of the magic arts could perform difficult and time-consuming rituals, risking life, blood, and soul by invoking dangerous cosmic powers, to create a high-tech weapon with enhanced accuracy, augmented destructive power, or an aura that instills unreasoning terror in foes, but what would be the point? Wouldn’t it make more sense to create an amulet with the same powers, which would then enhance one’s combat abilities with all weaponry — including the Mark IV blaster coming out from the labs next week, which is far superior to the Mark III currently in the enchanter’s possession?

Magic items can certainly exist in a contemporary or futuristic fantasy, but for reasons like the above they will necessarily be different in some respects from the magic items of classic fantasy.

This is just one of the things to consider when mingling fantasy elements with a science-fiction world, or even with the modern world.

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Lessons in Storytelling From Doctor Who

The Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond

The Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently reactivated my Netflix account (getting another month free service) for the purpose of watching the BBC series Doctor Who. On one practical level this was a mistake. I started, and could not stop watching. I’ve fallen behind in a number of commitments, and haven’t done much work the past week on my new novel, Refuge. But now that I’ve come up for air (sometime in the middle of Season 5), I realize there are some wonderful lessons in how to tell a story available from the tales of the Doctor and his companions.

For those not familiar with it, Doctor Who is the wonderfully quirky BBC science fiction series about a time-traveling immortal alien. It originally aired from 1963 to 1989, and was revived in 2005. I’ve been watching only the new series; I may or may not try to find the original one. It features a main character called the Doctor. The Doctor is a Time Lord, a member of an alien race who travel about in time and space, are sensitive to any anomalies in time, have some limited telepathic abilities, possess incredibly encyclopedic scientific and historical knowledge, and potentially live forever. When the Doctor is mortally injured, he can regenerate and heal himself, taking on a new body in the process. (That last is of course a device used to incorporate new actors in the leading role seamlessly, but it works well.) He travels about in a time-space machine called the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space), which is good sized on the inside but on the outside looks like a British police phone box from the 1960s.

The Doctor is obsessed with humanity. (Especially with the British. Go figure.) The reason for his obsession is never explicitly stated, but we may easily deduce it from the fact that he has lost his entire species, along with the fact that humans strongly resemble the Time Lords in appearance and in some aspects of behavior. (Amy Pond: “But you look human!” The Doctor: “No, you look Time Lord. We came first.”) The series goes all over the place in space and time, but the Doctor does spend an abnormally high percentage of his efforts saving humanity. The Doctor is terribly lonely, and finds companionship mainly among humans.

That will do for an introduction. Now, let’s consider what we may learn as storytellers from the longest-running science-fiction television series of all time.

There is no such thing as too much danger.

In every episode, the Doctor, his companion, others under his protection, the human race and the planet earth, the universe, all of the universes, or up to all of the above are in mortal danger. (Rose Tyler: “Is it always this dangerous?” The Doctor (grinning happily): “Yes!”) The Doctor is a formidable figure, feared by mighty conquering races and demonic entities, yet he always seems to be in a horrible predicament and never in the series waltzes in and shrugs off the flea-bite threats of mere mortals.

Trouble and danger, danger and trouble: these are keys to storytelling. You can’t have too much of them. Put your main characters in mortal danger, make them suffer and fear, give them challenges that seem completely impossible. Your readers will not be frightened away, and in most cases they will readily suspend disbelief when your characters manage to overcome the danger after all (as they must, even when they sacrifice themselves in the end to do it). If you make the danger believable, if you get the heart racing and the adrenaline pumping, belief will follow.

Toning down the danger and challenges facing the characters for the sake of believability or of not scaring off readers is a common failing of beginning writers. It has been one of mine at times.

Creative solutions are more interesting.

The Doctor almost never carries a weapon. The only device he routinely carries with him is a tool called a “sonic screwdriver,” which is handy for opening and sealing doors, fiddling with computers and other devices, breaking ropes and chains, and similar uses. Confronted with terrible obstacles and impossible challenges, he improvises solutions from his amazing store of knowledge and what’s available, and even then the line of the plot is seldom straightforward.

This makes for a much better story. The protagonist must be faced with challenges that are outside his experience and which he cannot solve using solely the tools in his inventory. The reader should be puzzled, not seeing how the problem can be solved until the story presents it to them, or at least not easily. Simple and straightforward equal predictable equals a dull story.

One need not go to the extremes of Doctor Who and few plot situations allow for that level of lunacy, but when in doubt, make it trickier.

Passion makes a character appealing.

The Doctor is an immortal character of immense age and vast knowledge, but he is far from a robot. He feels deeply and intensely about so many things: the destruction of his home world and of the Time Lords, the Daleks who were responsible for that, the human race, the people under his care, and above all his companions. Although he maintains a jaunty and sometimes preposterous demeanor, the passion underlying this exterior reveals itself frequently. (To Rose Tyler: “I could save the world but lose you.”)

Your main characters should never be wooden, passionless, highly efficient creatures. They must love, hate, desire, fear, burn with fury and ache with loss. This is what will make your readers identify with them and care about them; that which does not feel evokes no compassion or empathy.

Sexual tension makes great character interaction.

The Doctor’s companions (in the new series) are always young women of extraordinary courage, resourcefulness, and strength of will. With one exception, they are also always highly attractive young women. The Doctor himself is always a bit goofy-looking even in his handsomer incarnations, but he is mysterious and impressive enough to draw desire even so. Yet the Doctor never, never has sex with any companion.

One might plausibly suppose that the Doctor, being an alien despite his appearance, is not attracted to human females, but that isn’t the case. If it were, why would he invite one hot young babe after another to join him on his adventures? Also, one may see the suppressed desire in him on the rare occasions when the Doctor has kissed a companion. There is always an ostensible practical reason for the kiss (such as the kiss given to Rose Tyler at the end of the first season when he absorbed the TARDIS energy from her to save her life, or the one given to Martha Jones shortly after they first met to give her some alien DNA that would show up in a scan reading), but the Doctor could have achieved these purposes in some other way and the passion in the kisses is obvious.

The reason the Doctor avoids sex with his companions is because he is immortal and they are not. (The Doctor: “I’m 907 years old and I never age, I just change. This could never work out.” Amy Pond: “I wasn’t thinking of anything that long-term.”) He would like to have his companion as a lover (most of the time), and she would like that, too, but he can’t. And he isn’t the type not to think long-term.

Whatever the reason for it, though, sexual tension is a great thing to have between two characters. It draws them together and animates their interactions in a way that few other things can. It lends intensity and passion to everything else they do together. If you find two characters drawn to each other sexually, think carefully before you have them give in and consummate that desire. This will change the nature of their interaction completely, and make for a different story.

One final lesson is that yours truly is pretty damned creative in finding justification for obsessive behavior. I’m rather proud of myself. 🙂

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Is Fantasy Progressive? (With Special Thanks to David Brin)

progress

As noted in the title, I have to thank one of my favorite science fiction writers, David Brin, for the inspiration for this post. And that’s although (or perhaps because) I strongly disagree with what he’s saying, or, more accurately, believe he’s missed the point.

In token of thanks, I’ll begin with a quote from Brin’s blog, “Contrary Brin.” You can read his entire post here.

The trend toward feudal-romantic fantasy may seem harmless. Heck, I enjoy Tolkien and steam punk and some of the best fantasists. But dreaming wistfully about kings and lords and secretive, domineering wizards is a sugary path that leads ultimately to betrayal. Because kings and lords and wizards were never our friends! Indeed, for most of history they were the chief plague destroying hope for humankind.

I’ll also refer to a couple of essays that Brin co-wrote for Salon, one on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and the other on Star Wars, in which he denigrated the political implications of those two works of art. But the above paragraph captures the argument in a nutshell, and contains two implicit assumptions which underlie this argument and which are both false, one obviously, the other requiring a bit more thought to see through:

Assumption No. 1: Fantasy consists of “dreaming wistfully about kings and lords.” (I excise the “wizards” because I rather suspect Brin does not believe they actually existed. Certainly if they did exist, they were not on the same plane of  visibility as the kings and lords and tended to be burned at the stake.) Setting aside the “dreaming wistfully” business, this is obviously untrue because not all — these days, not even most — fantasy has any “kings and lords” to dream about, “wistfully” or otherwise. The biggest sub-genre of fantasy today is contemporary fantasy, which is set in the modern world, with its nations governed by democratic republics (what we see around us for the most part), not by monarchs.

Assumption No. 2: The important thing that fantasy has to say involves politics. This requires a bit more thought — one can’t see the fallacy here merely by glancing at the fantasy offerings at Amazon — but it’s equally wrong. It’s a perfectly understandable mistake coming from a science fiction writer, because the important thing that science fiction has to say often does involve politics. But that isn’t true of fantasy. Politics in fantasy is part of world-building, which is to say, part of the background; it’s no more thematic than a description of the clothes people wear or the kind of liquor they drink or those cute maps of the fantasy world that fantasy authors have enjoyed putting into their books ever since Tolkien did it. If a story is set in a primitive, medieval or ancient setting, then naturally the government is going to consist of “kings and lords,” and to depict it otherwise would be unrealistic (barring some fantasy explanation, which would then need to be gone into). If a story is set in the modern world, though, those same kings and lords would be equally unrealistic and out of place. Either way, the point the story is making has nothing to do with kings and lords, or with elected officials either. Those elements, which would be central to a science fiction story, are peripheral in fantasy.

To answer my title question, fantasy can be, but need not necessarily be progressive, and whether it is or not, its progressivity (or lack thereof) is peripheral to what the story is trying to say. The theme of good, serious fantasy is spiritual, not political. It may be moral, it may be about personal growth and development, it may be about facing our own demons and the potential for evil within, it may be about the temptations of power or wealth and what they can do to a person and the need to rise above them, it may be about mystical transformation and apotheosis. These are things that are sometimes fatuously referred to as “timeless verities.” They are not verities. They are timeless questions, questions that cannot be answered by reference to scientific method, and whose answers, once discovered, cannot be communicated except by the medium of metaphor and myth — which, of course, is what fantasy is. In the end, each of us must discover these truths for ourselves, and at best myth can provide some helpful guideposts on the way.

(Come to think of it, the political questions that lie at the heart of the best science fiction can’t be answered through scientific method, either, although they come a little closer. For example, science can tell us — as a matter of fact — that a heavy industrial hand applied to an ecosystem risks extinguishing species whose evolutionary descendants may someday be uplifted to fly starships. What it cannot tell us is whether this predictable outcome is a good or bad thing. We must make that judgment ourselves through extra-rational means.)

Now, what I’m going to do is go into the two fantasy works that Brin chose to write about in those Salon articles, The Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars movies. (The latter, despite the trappings, are fantasy, not science fiction. For one thing, their “science” is pathetic. Rather more to the point, their central themes are clearly spiritual, not political.)

Let’s begin with Tolkien’s magnum opus. I’m going to quote a paragraph from Brin’s Salon essay, not because he would probably recognize it as central (unlike the one above), but because I see it as embodying the main error he’s making:

Wouldn’t life seem richer, finer if we still had kings? If the guardians of wisdom kept their wonders locked up in high wizard towers, instead of rushing onto PBS the way our unseemly “scientists” do today? Weren’t miracles more exciting when they were doled out by a precious few, instead of being commercialized, bottled and marketed to the masses for $1.95?

Is it not obvious where this attempt to set up the lure of fantasy preparatory to knocking it down in favor of a modern, scientific, and enlightened approach fails? All of the above paragraph is written from the perspective of an ordinary person. But fantasy is not written from the perspective of an ordinary person. It’s written from the perspective of a king, or at least a prince or princess; of a wizard; of someone who used to be an ordinary person but is propelled by circumstances into becoming something more. (Incidentally, for all his protestations, that’s equally true of Brin’s fiction. His characters may not be feudal nobility or royalty, but they are all a cut above the average. Indeed, it would be hard to write a good story about a truly average person.)

Remember, the political and social organization of a fantasy story is not central, not thematic, it’s just world-building background. The lure is not “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could live in a pre-scientific world,” but rather, “If we were confronted with these challenges, what would we do?” One can set such a story in any background, and as already noted, much fantasy nowadays is set in our own world, not in the primitive past.

Which does not, however, describe The Lord of the Rings, so let’s return to that.

In The Lord of the Rings, a sub-plot involves the failure of the royal line of Gondor and the rise of one of the main characters, Aragorn, to assume Gondor’s throne. This ascension, along with the fall of Sauron, brings about a golden age. One might be excused for thinking this makes LotR a paean to monarchy, especially if one knows that the author had leanings that way. One would, however, be wrong, because the main plot line and the theme of the story is something completely different having nothing to do with kings.

Actually, in Tolkien’s fantasy world, unlike the real one, a decent argument in favor of hereditary power can be made; Aragorn is not altogether human, being descended from the daughter of an Elf and a minor deity. He really is superior by birth. But that’s neither here nor there, because the whole true-king business is peripheral to the actual story, which involves the lure of power.

Also, for all the fact that Tolkien himself in his real life was a critic of industrial modernity, we should remind ourselves that Sauron was not a new thing in his fantasy world, and therefore hardly an emblem of modernity or enlightenment. He was an ancient evil that turned up long before human beings — or even Elves — existed. Part of the transition that takes place in the course of the book is the end of these ancient things. Sauron gets his butt kicked, and the Elves disappear into the West. It’s time for the Dominion of Men. But again, this is world-building backdrop, not central to the story.

The story is about the One Ring. This is a marvelous mythical device on so many levels. Let’s start with how it came to be made, which is background to the story.

Sauron, way back in the Second Age, wanted to rule the world. He especially wanted to rule the Elves. His scheme to do this involved giving them the magical equivalent of software with a programming back door that he could exploit. He went in disguise among the most powerful and capable of the Elves and taught them cool stuff. With the knowledge that Sauron gave them, the Elves made the Rings of Power.

Then Sauron pulled his fast one. He made a Ring of his own, designed to dominate and control all of the other Rings and their users. The scheme didn’t work, because the Elves got wise to it and took off their Rings and stopped using them. All it did was to ruin relations between them and Sauron, which had been going well up to that point.

Here’s the first lesson. Sauron could have had all kinds of influence with the Elves and benefit from his relationship with them. He gave them useful knowledge and they were grateful. But by trying to exercise absolute power over them instead, he lost everything he could have gained.

Now fast forward to the final war against Sauron. The unthinkable happens: he loses the One Ring! Not only does this mess up his big scheme, but it also chops his own power down to size and sets things up for the story told in Tolkien’s main narrative. The Ring is found later on by Gollum, then accidentally passed on to Bilbo, and from Bilbo to Frodo, and the plan takes shape to destroy it and end Sauron’s power forever.

The Ring is power. It’s a great temptation. It was made by Sauron for his own use, but it can be used by anyone with a very strong will, who is prepared to devote himself to exercising power over others. Resistance to the power of the Ring and ultimately giving it up and destroying it are the story here, not anything to do with kings or wizards, except insofar as those kings and wizards resist (or fail to resist) the lure of the Ring. The story is Gandalf, Aragorn, Faramir, and Galadriel all refusing to take the Ring; Saruman, Boromir, and Denethor falling to its influence; Frodo struggling to carry it to its destruction and ultimately failing so that only a power beyond himself can bring about the events that lead to victory.

The Lord of the Rings does not call upon us to fantasize and romanticize about medieval life. Nor does it call upon us to rise above it and embrace modernity. It has nothing to do with the central political struggle of the past few centuries in our own real world. It takes no sides in that struggle, but deals instead with something else altogether: the lure and danger of personal power. We do not put ourselves in the place of some peasant of Rohan cowed into obedience to King Theoden and his nobles, because they hardly come into the story. Instead, we put ourselves into the place of the main characters, and in doing so we neither make nor think about any simplistic one-to-one comparison between the political and social institutions in the story and our own. Because that has nothing to do with what the story is about. We make a mythic connection not with the literal story elements (I think it’s safe to say that none of us will be tasked with the near-impossible destruction of an artifact of power made by the Dark Lord), but with the broader implications regarding facing the temptation of power, which, in one form or another, faces people in all worlds and in all settings.

Brin’s error in regard to Star Wars is a bit more complicated. He has a problem with the whole idea of the Force, it would seem, not on a scientific level (we suspend disbelief, of course) but because it elevates an elite with superhuman powers, whether those powers are employed with compassion (as the Jedi) or ruthlessness (as the Sith). He has a more specific (and well-taken) objection to some of the philosophy expressed by Yoda, to the effect that human emotions such as fear and anger lead inevitably to evil, even when the anger is directed against evil itself, and to the way the story absolves Darth Vader so easily after all his crimes merely because he rediscovers love and does not betray it in the end. (In view of the fact that Vader dies in the final movie, we may reasonably question whether or not he is “absolved” and in what way.)

When evaluating fiction — especially when the story is told in film, which is an especially visual medium — it’s sometimes important to get past what the characters say and look at what is shown. In the first three episodes, the Jedi Order is dominant in the Republic and follows the philosophy that Yoda expresses to Luke in the later/earlier films (and which Yoda also expresses in the first three episodes).

This philosophy destroys the Jedi Order.

The Jedi are called upon to suppress their humanity. They are not allowed normal human emotions. Critically for the story line, the Jedi are a celibate order. Anakin Skywalker, by falling in love with Padme Amidala, marrying her, and getting her pregnant, breaks Jedi rules. His pathological fear of losing her is the lever that Palpatine uses to turn him to the Dark Side. But this only works because he cannot go to his Jedi mentors for advice and help! He cannot ask Obi-Wan or Yoda how to deal with his fears, at least not with any specificity, because he must keep his relationship with Padme a secret. His only recourse is Chancellor Palpatine. Because of this, he turns to the Dark Side and becomes Darth Vader, and the Jedi are destroyed.

Regardless of anything Yoda says, that is what the movies show. Yoda’s philosophy is the fatal flaw that ruins the Jedi and brings about the Empire.

Consider the prophecy about Anakin, “A prophecy that misinterpreted may have been,” as Yoda says — and he is right. Anakin, the “chosen one,” is supposed to “bring balance to the Force.” It’s an interesting choice of words. The Jedi assumed it meant that the “chosen one” would bring them total victory over the Sith, and the end of the Dark Side, but that’s because they could not see their own fatal flaws. In the course of the movies, the prophecy comes true but in an unexpected way. Anakin first destroys the (unbalanced) Jedi, and then, years later, destroys the (equally unbalanced) Sith by killing the Emperor and dying himself. This leaves his son, Luke, free to rebuild the Jedi, hopefully without repeating the same mistakes.

What is the lesson here? It is that spirituality divorced from humanity becomes diabolical. We have an implicit recognition that the philosophy Yoda expresses is flawed.

Fantasy is not inherently anti-progressive. It isn’t even inherently medieval or ancient in setting. In fact, none of my own fantasy books has a medieval setting. The Star Mages is contemporary/futuristic, and A Tale of Two Worlds is (partially) set in an early-modern society in the course of making the transition from ancient/medieval governing structures to modernity. In Goddess-Born, the Kingdom of Grandlock undergoes a democratic revolution, the monarchy is overthrown and a republic created (with some magic-borne hiccups along the way). But that is not the theme of Goddess-Born, it’s just a part of the backdrop that emerges logically from any early-modern society governed by a monarchy.

Depending on the setting, fantasy can describe anything from a completely primitive, pre-civilized, hunter-gatherer society, to a futuristic science-fiction type setting. It can also go off completely into fantasy-land and describe something that is utterly unlike any human society in history or our likely future (as Shakespeare did in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Regardless of what world it depicts, however, the theme of fantasy is almost always spiritual rather than political, personal rather than collective, and neither progressive nor regressive but timeless.

Image credit: rolffimages / 123RF Stock Photo

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Book Review: Bellica by Katje Van Loon

Bellica

It’s not often that I give a five-star review. My criteria for this hinge on three things: plot and action, characterization, and writer’s voice and verbalization. At least two of these have to stand out as well above standard. In the case of Bellica, both the story and the characterization are so superior that I can’t give the book less than the highest rating.

The story is set in a society that seems to be a technologically devolved human colony on a distant planet — although the people living in it have no concept of space travel. Certainly more advanced ages occurred in the past, and some relics of the past still exist to be exploited even if they are unreliable. There is also a native race, the Magi, that are described and presented and characterized in just enough detail to make them believable and fun, without turning the book into a history or biology text. The society has some very curious cultural elements that are not fully explained and perhaps not fully understood by its own citizens, or taken for granted. It is a matriarchy in just about every respect, down to the modes of address, courtesy gestures, and religion (polytheistic goddess-worship with barely the recognition that a “god” is even a possible concept), as well as the government. The main story involves the succession to the throne. The Empress has died before her heir is of age (at 30). The heir is universally loathed, and is one of twin sisters, with the other twin being universally admired. The heir’s twin serves as a “bellica” — a military commander of a regiment (female of course) — and is regarded as the best warrior in the empire. A plot develops to overthrow the heir (Zardria) and replace her with her bellica twin-sister (Yarrow). The conspiracy involves other important characters, and the story winds through mazes of intrigue, deception, setbacks, magical surprises, strange discoveries, and bizarre twists to a conclusion that I at least did not anticipate until near the end. There is lots of exciting action, plenty of romance, devious plotting, and wondrous magic.

The characters are splendid. Yarrow, her “Major” (second-in-command, for some reason usually male), Zardria, Yarrow’s friend and fellow-bellica Anala, Anala’s Major Ano, all of these are memorable, but the character that enchanted me completely was the young healer Ghia. Part-Magi (don’t ask me how that was possible; I don’t know and neither did they) with extraordinary powers, Ghia combines a magnificent heart, a sharp mind, a degree of self-destructive hubris, incredible and sometimes foolish courage, emotional blindness, and the silliness of the very young in a way I found irresistible. If she were before me right now, I’d make a pass at her and then pay her way through college (regardless of how she responded).

For these two reasons, extraordinary story and extraordinary characters, five stars.

I don’t mean to suggest that Bellica is without flaws. The writing quality is only a little above average in terms of word-smithing and the song of prose. I felt the whole book could use another pass through of proofreading and copy editing. The central tragic flaw in Empress Zardria was not entirely believable, or was not presented sufficiently early in the book to make it so. I also felt the story ended a bit too abruptly after the climax and a little more could have been added to wind down and tie off loose ends.

But no book is without flaws. This one still gets the highest rating I can give it.

Available at Amazon

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Unfolding an Idea

unfold

I’m in the  middle of first draft work on a new novel these days, which means, unfortunately, that I’ve slowed down on writing content for this blog. So I sat and thought about what to put up for this week (I’m already a day behind on my self-imposed once a week deadline, my apologies) and the hell with it — let’s kill two birds with one stone. I can share some of what I go through in the course of generating a story, help myself to work out some of the kinks, and create a blog post all at once. It’s a neat trick.

The premise of Refuge is that two alien species, living far away in another galaxy or maybe an alternate universe, blow each other up with weapons of mass destruction and then use magic to reincarnate on Earth as human beings, continuing their war in secret. The Droon are nasty buggers. Their society was utterly vicious. They altered their own genome to produce a master class, and this master class owned all of the Droon hoi-polloi. Their favorite pastime was to corral a lower-class victim or three for long, drawn-out, excruciating torture sessions and other imaginative games. They had conquered and absorbed several alien races before they encountered the Andol, and reduced them to slaves and torture-dolls, too.

The Andol are much nicer. They also altered their own genome, but did so in an egalitarian fashion, so that all of the Andol were highly intelligent, healthy, and inclined to happiness and peaceful behavior. Both they and the Droon have magical powers and skills in addition to their advanced technology (which is what makes Refuge a fantasy instead of science fiction, or in addition to science fiction).

The Andol and the Droon did not get along well, needless to say. Refuge doesn’t go into a lot of detail about the non-military conflict between them, but the Andol were on the verge of winning when the Droon decided to upset the playing board. They launched a massive attack using weapons of mass destruction, the Andol counter-attacked, and both species were rendered extinct, their respective planets shattered ruins.

But the Droon had an escape planned. They used their magic to enable the master class, or much of it anyway, to travel out-of-body to another world where they would be born into the bodies of the intelligent species that lived there (us). This would allow them to rebuild their nasty culture by guiding human social evolution towards something resembling it.

The Andol had no such plan, but as the missiles (or whatever) were en route, put one into action on an emergency basis, and some of them managed to escape the destruction in the same way — and found themselves on the same world as the Droon. Outnumbered about twenty-five to one. In the fourteenth century.

Flash forward from the Middle Ages to modern times. The human genome has been mapped. It won’t be all that long before the technological capacity to repeat the achievement of either the Droon or the Andol will be part of human science. The Andol, who have been in hiding for centuries, have now emerged (cautiously) and are seeking human allies, because that’s the only way they can counter the Droon numbers. The story is told from their perspective, that of humans who are chosen as possible allies, and that of the Droon.

So — what are some of the ramifications here?

The Andol and Droon are effectively immortal until one or the other side wins. Until then, when one of them (in a human body, of course) dies, he or she reincarnates in a newborn baby with full memories of his or her initial alien life and all of the human ones in between. That means no Andol can (permanently) kill a Droon or vice versa, but of course it takes a while for a newborn reincarnation to reach maturity, so death is still a setback.

Each alien has memories from between ten and fifteen human lives as well as one alien life. That means each one speaks a lot of different human languages. (Although some of them will be archaic. A Droon or Andol whose first life was in England and who has never since been an English speaker would speak Middle English like a contemporary of Chaucer.)

Each alien also has some dozen lifetimes worth of skills and knowledge, but as with the languages, some of these would be archaic and out of date. Each alien is no longer an alien, having more human than alien memories. Each has a human sex drive, which creates interesting possibilities between the Andol and humans (and, much less pleasantly, between the Droon and humans, too). How much Andol is left in the main Andol characters? How does it color the type of human being each of them is? A romantic interest between Amanda, the leader of the Andol, and Michael, an important main character human? Not yet — let the sexual tension build and I’ll think about whether to release it before the end of the book or not.

There’s the question of their magic, too. It needs to be powerful, but not too powerful — let’s not leave the humans totally outclassed here. They can see auras (and identify the Droon on sight that way), and do feats of healing and telepathy and mind-control. I don’t want to add too much or the plot gets upended.

Do either of the two races (well, it would have to be both of them if it’s one) have a stash of reconstructed home-world technology hidden away somewhere, like a cavern complex or in the middle of a desert? I haven’t decided that yet. Of course they couldn’t bring anything with them except knowledge, and anything they rebuild would have to be within the capabilities of human manufacturing.

What would happen if the Droon captured an important Andol? Would they dare keep him/her alive? Would they subject the Andol to torture, or consider this prisoner too important to use for sport? Got to have some grisly death scenes in the course of the book and plenty of scary stuff.

Will the Droon have any human allies? Mind-controlled or bought off ones, sure! Corrupt, dastardly weasels. Bankers and corporate heads, most likely.

I want to leave an opening for a sequel, so I can’t resolve the whole struggle by the end, but there should be some massive violence and near-disasters in this one.

Well, as you can see, I still have a lot of things to figure out, and this is the kind of thing that happens when I work on a new novel. I started Refuge with the overall concept and two main characters, and am unfolding it like a flower, or putting the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle when I’m lacking the picture of what it’s supposed to look like in the end.

Hopefully it will all turn out well, and I’ll keep you posted.

Image credit: rgbspace / 123RF Stock Photo

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