Monthly Archives: May 2013

Book Review: Realmgolds by Mike Reeves-McMillan

Realmgolds-CoverDesign_1024h-196x300Realmgolds by Mike Reeves-McMillan is an other-world fantasy with original and unusual world-building. The title of the book comes from the title in the fictional culture for a head of state. A “gold” is a member of the wealthy elite (the society also has “silvers” and “coppers,” meaning exactly what one would expect), and some golds are government officials at various levels (Localgolds, Countygolds, etc. on up to the Realmgold). The society also includes an admixture of human and quasi-human persons: dwarves, gnomes, centaurs, and beastheads. The official policy is equality and tolerance, but a “human purity” movement exists that rejects the rights and equality of quasi-humans. The movement is associated with a rebellion against the existing authority in the nation of the main character, Determined, of which he is the Realmgold.

The story is a weaving of political intrigue, battle, social protest, and romance, with the interaction between Determined and Victory, the brusque, capable, no-nonsense Realmgold of his southern neighbor (a more centralized, wealthier, and more advanced nation) being at the heart of the plot.

All in all, it’s a great story idea and a wonderfully-crafted plot. The execution, unfortunately, left much to be desired from my perspective. The book could have been about twice as long, with more time given to character development and action alike, and even more so it could have — and I think should have — been written more intensely and with greater reader immersion. Much of the time, I felt like I was reading a newspaper account of great events after the fact, rather than living through them. The story deserved a greater intensity of feeling. Even though most of it was written from the point of view of Determined, the central character, and even though Determined went through a hurricane of change and turmoil, from budding romance to revolution and reconquest, his emotions seemed a bit washed out. This story deserved to be painted in day-glo. Instead, it comes across as pastel.

As I’ve seen in the past with Mike Reeves-McMillan, the technical quality is superb. This is one independent author who understands the importance of good editing and formatting. Errors are all but nonexistent. Other indie writers can use his work as a standard of excellence to strive for in that regard.

Despite which, I found Realmgolds disappointing after my enjoyment of The City of Masks by the same author. I hope that he takes this critique to heart and that future efforts on his part show greater depth and intensity, as the products of his fertile imagination deserve.

Realmgolds can be found and purchased on Amazon.

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A World With Magic, or Without — Which is Better?

magicImagine this. You are sitting at home one evening by yourself, reading or watching television or doing whatever passes the time, when a fairy pops into being and offers you a chance to change the world. She is dressed in a long robe that covers her whole body and stands the height of a mortal woman. A hood obscures her face except for her eyes, exceptionally bright and a vivid shade of green, and the tip of her long nose. You see no wings nor any aura of magic or trail of fairy-dust, and you know that she is a fairy only by the way your eyes open wide and your breath comes in fearful gasps and your heart pounds, and of course by the fact that she appeared suddenly from thin air.

The fairy carries a ball about the size of a tennis ball that glows with pale blue light. You reach out to touch it, entranced, but the fairy draws it back out of reach. “Ah, not yet!” she says. “If you touch this orb, you will change the world. I must tell you the nature of the change before you make that decision.”

“That’s – that’s nice of you,” you say around gulps.

The fairy shrugs. “Informed consent,” she says. “There are rules about these things. Anyway, if a mortal lays hand on the orb and wills it, the world will be infused with magic and many things now impossible will become possible.”

“Such as a fairy materializing in my living room,” you say.

“Precisely, and that is normally impossible.”

“So how did you manage it?”

“I got a special dispensation. You wouldn’t be able to make this choice otherwise. If you say no, the world will continue as it is, with little magic in it except the subtle kind and sorcerers (the real ones) operating under the radar. If you say yes, while grasping the orb, all of that changes.

“Some mortals, perhaps one in a thousand, have the aptitude to become great magicians. They will develop mighty powers, those of them that survive anyway. Magic is dangerous and will become more so if you choose to set it free. But those who survive to master the Art will have great powers to shape the course of fate, to sense and manipulate the minds of others, to bend time and space to their will, to heal the afflicted and afflict the healthy, to make powerful blessings and curses.”

“Will I be one of these people?” you ask.

“Sorry,” the fairy says. “I’m not required to tell you that. You must make the choice not knowing if the powers of magic will be yours to command.”

“Oh.”

“And that’s only the beginning. If you touch the orb and make it so, the worlds of faerie and the mortal world will touch one another more closely. My kind will appear frequently to offer wonders and terrors, to beguile the hearts and minds of men and women, to trade in blood, to be bound by cold iron. Marvelous beasts and creatures of myth and legend will roam the wilderness and the streets. The Sphinx may return to ask her deadly riddles. Dragons will soar above the mountaintops, cruel and wise, benevolent and deadly. Great warriors will arise to do battle with monsters, heroes such as are never born today, and fairy children and the offspring of the gods will walk among mankind.”

“What about the dead?” you ask. “Will we see ghosts, vampires, zombies, those returned from the grave?”

“Of course!” says the fairy. “It’s all part of the package.”

“How about technology? Will that still work for us?”

“More or less. The rules of physics won’t be repealed, but they already ride the waves of probability. With powerful magic flowing through the world, the improbable will become commonplace and technology will become somewhat unreliable. It will still work when it works.”

“I don’t know,” you say. “It sounds like a dangerous world.”

“Oh, that it is,” the fairy says, “but the world is dangerous already. You are protected in the swaddling of civilization for the moment, but just over the horizon of tomorrow are dangers that will freeze your blood. Storms and famine and drought and flood come and the fabric of life itself is unraveled. Safety is an illusion. You will live to see what I mean, and your children (if you have any) will see more of it.”

“Only one person in a thousand can be a magician, you said?”

“That might be a liberal estimate,” the fairy says. “Perhaps that many, perhaps as few as one in ten thousand, will be able to wield the power in a great and artistic fashion. Of course, everyone will have their little spells.”

“Sounds like a world in which the powerful could dominate the rest of the people,” you say.

“Again,” the fairy says, “how is that different from the world as it is now? Don’t the powerful whistle the tune now and make the world’s governments and the world’s people dance to their will? Is money any less elitist than magic as a source of power? The wealthy and greedy will be replaced as ruling class by the sorcerous and enlightened. Will that be better than what you have now, or worse, or neither? That’s for you to decide.”

“We could find ourselves under the heel of Sauron or Emperor Palpatine or Lord Voldemort!”

“Yes. Of course, millions of people in the past century have found themselves under the heels of Hitler and Stalin and similar tyrants. Would they have been more dangerous with magic? Perhaps, but it’s difficult to see how, isn’t it? Magic might have been their undoing. Their enemies of good heart might have stopped them before their crimes could be committed.” The fairy holds the orb out to you. “Enough. You have been informed of the choice and of the consequences for the world, if not for yourself – that must remain a gamble and a choice of faith. Make your decision, mortal. Change the world or leave it unchanged. Touch the orb and will a new world to be, or bid me go.”

What would your choice be?

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Presenting the Weird

13897031_sFantasy storytelling is the art of presenting the weird in a way that feels real.

To some extent that’s true of most fiction. (The exceptions present the banal in a way that becomes interesting. I’ve never been good at that, though, nor inclined to become good at it.) It’s especially true of fantasy storytelling, though, more so than any other genre. Science fiction runs a close second, but even science fiction isn’t quite as weird as fantasy.

But here’s a curious thing. Sometimes fantasy storytelling of the past has become so successful in presenting the weird that, in the present, it has become not just real but commonplace. Hackneyed. Cliched. And hence pointless when it comes to telling a good fantasy story.

Keep in mind the etymology, original definition, and archaic meaning of the word “weird.” It can mean (and today often does mean) anything strange, unusual, or odd. Originally, though, the word “weird” had to do with fate or the Fates of Greek and Roman mythology. More recently, but still in the past, the word came to mean anything of an occult, magical, or uncanny nature, which of course makes it perfect to describe fantasy elements. By these older meanings of the word, fantasy is weird.

So the first step in presenting the weird is discovering it. How does one do that? It’s a matter of turning the imagination loose and not being satisfied with the world either as it is or, perhaps even worse, as someone else has already imagined it. At the same time, in order to be good fantasy, the weird one imagines needs to have mythic significance.

How does one discover the weird? There are two ways to do this. First one can imagine something that is wholly new and weird. This is quite difficult, however, and rare. Second, one can take something that has already been imagined and put it in a new context or give it a new twist or two. This is easier to attempt but less certain of success.

Either way, once something has been done a few times, it’s no longer weird (because it’s become part of the established fantasy genre) and one must seek elsewhere for weirdness.

Consider the vampire. When Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, vampires were weird; although they had been around in legends and myths for millennia, they had not found their way into popular fiction (in English anyway) prior to Stoker’s (ahem) rather badly-written Victorian-era vampire tale. He was breaking new ground, and established some conventions: vampires are bad guys; they drink blood; they have superhuman strength and awesome magical powers; they have certain vulnerabilities (sunlight, crosses, garlic, fire); they can turn humans into vampires. Thereafter, vampire stories with the same details could be written only a few times before the vampire became cliche and was no longer weird.

Since then, if one wishes to write a vampire tale, one must twist and turn the creature about so as to break, or at least bend, one or more of these conventions. For example, Anne Rice wrote stories from the vampire’s own point of view, so that vampires ceased to be the bad guys (in the sense of being antagonists). Stephanie Meyer in Twilight made the vampire a romantic figure. Jim Butcher in The Dresden Files introduced several different types of vampire, most of them departing sharply from the Dracula motif, and made one of them the half-brother of the main protagonist.

To do a little self-evaluation, my own novels have featured:

  • Sorcerers living in the modern world, rising above and beyond the occult traditions through the effect of “deep-tier talismans,” and engaged in secret conspiracies to change the course of history, while struggling with one another over what direction that should take.
  • Gods and goddesses and faerie-folk all of whom were once human; the deities are highly promiscuous and seek to transform humanity by seducing large numbers of them and creating children who are “god-sired” and “goddess-born.”
  • Aliens that blew each other to extinction, and then used magic to reincarnate on Earth as human beings and continue their age-old struggle with our planet as the battleground.

The reader will have to  decide for himself or herself if any of that rises to the level of weird; I’m fairly satisfied myself.

Having discovered the weird, the next step is to present it in a way that feels real.

The weird does not feel weird to itself. Nor does it feel all that weird to those who are used to dealing with it. The ideal achievement is to create a story in which the reader is immersed in one of these two points of view and so finds that a part of the mind accepts the weirdness as ordinary and to be expected or even identified with, while another part in the background shrieks, marvels, gasps, or stands in awe of the truly bizarre and unexpected.

There’s another technique that’s sometimes used that I call the meathead perspective. This involves introducing a meathead, a person of fixed modern banal viewpoint who can serve as a foil and express disbelief, skepticism, denial, and downright blinkered stupidity in the face of the weird. You know the type: the dim-witted imagination-deprived dunderhead who insists, contrary to the evidence of his own senses, that there’s no such thing as magic or ghosts or vampires or gods or whatever; that the wardrobe can’t lead to another world; that those mental powers can’t be anything but primitive superstition; that the horde of zombies shambling in pursuit, immune to anything but a head shot, have to be just teenagers on drugs. The value of the meathead perspective is of course to say, in a rather hammer-handed way, that yes, it is real, and look where Stupid, Blind Skepticism gets people (captive of the White Witch, zapped and befuddled by mental powers, or horribly eaten alive). I can sympathize with the desire to portray meatheads in an unflattering light, but find myself uncomfortable with the meathead perspective and prefer to avoid it. Meatheads in my fantasy worlds may exist, but generally don’t come into the stories much. (The closest I ever got was Arnold Bittermint, Johnny’s lawyer in The Green Stone Tower, and although he was a meathead he didn’t play the usual meathead role.)

Rather, present the weird from its own point of view or that of those who accept its reality. Let the weirdness come through in description, dialogue, and action, shining in its own preternatural light, without having to tell the reader how weird it all is. If the job is done well, that should be obvious and require no elaboration.

Image credit: ateliersommerland / 123RF Stock Photo

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Musings on Various Things

musings

A fantasy story is about strength: about the potential we all have to rise above normal human limits, to confront realities that are beyond the norm, to wield power and knowledge denied to ordinary mortals.

At the same time, though, any story at all is about weakness: about the flaws in our nature, our capacity for self-destruction or the destruction of what we love.

Put the two of these together and you have a whole message. We have the capacity to become greater than we are. We also have the capacity to ruin all of this potential and turn our abilities to cruelty, vengeance, pettiness, greed, power-lust, vanity, and shame.

***

Religious people get into quarrels when they focus on peripherals rather than essentials. They become sidetracked; if they did not, no quarrel would ensue. For example, consider the conflict between Muslims and Baha’is. The main point of dispute involves whether Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, was a prophet in the same sense as Muhammad or Jesus. He claimed to be and Baha’is believe he was; Muslims insist that Muhammad was the last prophet and there can be no more. This disagreement has resulted in the persecution and official murder of many Baha’is by Muslims and the governments of Muslim countries (especially Iran), but the correct answer is that it doesn’t matter. The teachings of Bahá’u’lláh as recorded in his writings must be judged for themselves, neither accepted nor rejected unquestioningly. If one is not able to make that judgment, neither is one able to understand a prophet’s words, which makes following those words useless. Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings (or those of Muhammad or Jesus or the Buddha or any other such person) are the proper subject of study. Focusing on his credentials is getting sidetracked.

The Baha’is themselves are often not much better. The Universal House of Justice engaged in, of all things, a copyright lawsuit alleging that a Baha’i sect that broke away from the main organizational line represented by the UHJ had no right to use the name or religious symbols of the faith. Is that petty or is that petty?

Organized religion is the bane of spirituality. It creates a structure for the exertion of power, and inevitably elevates people interested in power and status to positions of respect. One may ask, paraphrasing the words of Jesus, whether it is harder for a rich man or a powerful one to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The Baha’i Faith isn’t even supposed to have clergy! Obviously, that change in nomenclature is not proof against corruption.

The goal of genuine spirituality is for the seeker to become a prophet (or avatar or enlightened one or whatever term you prefer). A seeker who proclaims himself a follower of a prophet has at best announced he has not found what he seeks, and at worst that he has abandoned the quest, especially if he thinks the prophet has some special divinely-granted status that can’t be achieved by other people.

The Kingdom of Heaven will be realized on Earth when everyone is a prophet and no prophet is honored in particular.

***

In my current work in progress, Refuge, some of the protagonists are centuries old. At the same time, however, they started life as part of an advanced alien species living in a far more progressive society than anything on Earth. They have the advantage of many years of experience and accumulated wisdom, but are protected from the ailment that too often accompanies the old: fossilization and inability to adapt to change. The combination of the two is fun to play with, and I also think it suggests something about our situation. We are confronted with material circumstances that change daily, driven by advances in technology. As our circumstances change, so must our moral values, religious conceptions, and laws and institutions.

In a world like that, greater wisdom (or at least greater insight) is sometimes shown by the young than the old, because the old have preconceptions and rutted thought-patterns that block their ability to adapt. At the same time, the young are still foolish in all of the ways that young people have always been foolish. What’s the solution?

The only solution I can see is for people to maintain open minds and retain flexibility of thought and behavior into advanced years. Abandon the idea of “growing up.” Growing is good, but growing up implies an end to the process and if that happens one has become a fossil. Anything that puts the mind into a cage should be resisted. Fixed doctrine is the death of progress and, in a rapidly-changing world, a death sentence for civilization itself. And so again, organized religion reveals itself as a great evil.

***

I was a Pagan when Paganism was a loose community of seekers. I abandoned it when it started to look like an organized religion.

All Words are sacred and all prophets are true, until they reach the ears of the unenlightened and then they become false — indeed, typically they become the opposite of themselves. A prophet’s words from his mouth are living water. The same words coming from an organized religion, with convenient interpretations, are a cage made of the prophet’s stripped bones.

A prophet’s words have the power to move the heart. That power remains when the prophet is no longer alive to wield it, and it is taken up by the power-hungry who use it to secure their own positions and influence.

Once a prophet is dead, read his words only in secret. Never take advice from anyone claiming to be his follower. These are not guides. They are carrion-fowl.

***

We (by which I mean the human race) face a challenge to our survival created by our own inability to evolve. But in a way, this is a good thing, because our survival as a species is only of value to the extent that we are a good people, a blessing for the Earth and not a bane, happy and enlightened.

If we survive, that is what we will become. If we don’t, we will destroy ourselves and the universe will try again. Eventually someone will get it right.

Optimism is always possible if one takes a long view.

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