Don’t Be Alex Tesla

The second Secret World Chronicles book is World Divided, by Mercedes Lackey with Cody Martin, Dennis Lee, and Veronica Giguere. It picks up the story from last time and continues it. After all, the Invasion was a big sucker punch attack to the planet and everyone was scrambling to pick up the pieces in the aftermath. Consolidating power, claiming territory, all of that good stuff up until some people forgot that the invaders weren’t defeated. At all. They chose to strategically retreat after some very hefty reinforcements came to play. And they did start moving on to follow-up attacks targeting surviving threats and potential intelligence that could bite them in the ass.

But with all the various enemies, because the invaders sure weren’t the only threats in the first book, our heroes weren’t doing too much to be proactive. Oh sure, they were getting their feet under them once more, making alliances and friendships, but on a large scale they were still reacting. World Divided is where our key characters make the choice to start acting instead, forcing their opponents to react in turn to what they’re doing. Taking the initiative.

You can also see the core characters for the series really beginning to entrench themselves in what will be the roles they’re known for by the end. Not everything is settled, especially not when a twist shows something no one would have expected, but that’s what you like to see in a big story like this.

These books aren’t new. Well, the fifth is only a year old but that’s besides the point. Most of the series predates the 2016 presidential election and yet it’s disturbing how many parallels can be drawn between this world and our own real one. Which is also very sad. If there’s a crisis situation in our world – which there definitely is – it’s one we made for ourselves with our own actions. No outside forces have attacked us, no destruction corridors mar our cities, and yet so many people are hunkering down trying to weather the storm, just like in this series. There’s a line at one point about how just about every person, post-Invasion, has PTSD. And I would say that there seem to be a lot of people in today’s world who have similar issues just due to everything that’s been going on. And we’ve done this to ourselves.

In the books, the head of ECHO is Alex Tesla, great-nephew of the famous Nikola Tesla. He’s a likable enough and energetic young man before the Invasion. But that day broke him. He spends his time in World Divided dwelling on his failures, his inability to get help from the people who’ve backed him for years, and generally considering the world doomed. He even reflects on how he would have welcomed the opportunity to see ECHO shine against an opponent truly meant for the strength of the world’s largest metahuman organization. Also on how he’s viewed his employees as toy soldiers. In many ways, it’s been a game to him. Conflicts with criminals, board meetings, shareholders, etc. But now the reality that these are people’s lives has sunk in and he can’t deal with it. I also suspect that, because he spends most of his time around metahumans, he’s got something of an inferiority complex, leading him to believe that because he isn’t a meta himself, he can’t offer much to his company or even the world. I can understand the thought process, but Tesla is simply one of those people who can’t seem to stand up again after the Invasion knocked him on his ass.

Readers are meant to be upset with Tesla. He’s a leader who won’t lead. We’re meant to cheer for those who are willing to step up and fill the vacancy his actions have left. Well, some of those people. After all, the world is not as simple as you might want. Just because the invaders are still a threat doesn’t mean that everyone still alive is a good person or interested in helping others against the invaders. Capitalism is alive and well and a number of people are out there just to make money. Or to preserve their own hides. Or both.

It sucks fighting a war on two or more fronts, but our heroes don’t have much of a choice. The invaders absolutely need to be dealt with unless we want the planet turned into a flaming cinder. But if we keep the planet intact, we’d also like it to not be under the control of sociopaths or psychopaths. So, there’s that.

I’m reminded, as I go through, that there are good reasons why I traditionally reread series in full when I revisit them. There’s just so much going on – no surprise when these things average 500-600 pages apiece – and yet an incredible number of events are clearly foreshadowed. That’s part of why I love rereading books after I’ve finished the series: you can’t properly appreciate most of the foreshadowing until you know what it’s leading up to. And once you do know, you can see how beautifully it was done.

To my mind, if I read your book and know I will never, ever read it again, no matter how much I’ve enjoyed it, you have failed. I want your book to be something that I can reread again and again, finding a new appreciation for it every time I crack it open. If I never want to read it again, there’s no point in keeping it. There’s no point in recommending it. There might be reasons to remember it, but my memory will likely fade over time. And it’s unlikely I’ll go back and say “huh, I vaguely recall this, maybe I should reread it.” There are not many books I’ve disliked on a first reading, revisited, and changed my mind on. It’s definitely been weighted in the other direction, wherein I reread books I’ve not touched in years and realized that they were utter crap and not worth saving.

The Secret World Chronicles are not crap. They may be hard to read sometimes, because of my mood or reaction to current events, but they are good, solid books about people being heroes. And just because most of these people have superpowers doesn’t make them any better off than ordinary folks. In fact, it seems to come with a lot of mental and emotional baggage instead. And part of what makes these books so good is the time spent examining that baggage, and trying to deal with it.

What I’m saying is, we’re all Alex Tesla. Whatever’s happening in our lives may not be a planetwide invasion, but we each are given the opportunity to rise to the challenge presented or slip into a depressive funk. Every time that we choose to fight, whether it’s for our rights as living human beings, to get that better job, or just to get out of bed today, every time we fight we are the heroes of our own lives.

And we can do it. I believe that. I believe in you, just like I believe in me.

You can do it. I don’t know you, but I know you can do it.

Reflecting on Roleplay

Have you ever had a book pop into your head?  And you just can’t stop thinking about it?  Until you’re finally so obsessed in the moment that you simply have to reread it?  It happens to me every now and then, and so I find myself rereading Invasion, book one of the Secret World Chronicles by Mercedes Lackey, joined here by Steve Libbey, Cody Martin, and Dennis Lee.

This is not the first time I’ve revisited this series since starting this blog.  Last year the fifth and final volume of the series was released and I was so happy.  But I didn’t buy it.  I already had the other four books in mass market paperback and needed Avalanche in the same format.  That was released this past Tuesday and I’ve been looking forward to getting it for a month.  I could have started rereading the series earlier instead of anthologies and novelizations, but you never know when your mail is going to be unexpectedly delayed.  You know, if you rely on it being on time (or early, thank you regional UPS and USPS) then it’ll surely be late.  If you pay no attention at all, then it doesn’t matter in the end.

As a reminder, the titular Invasion is that of Nazis with powered armor, mechanized eagles, and flying Death Spheres.  It’s a series that reinforces the conceit that it is always acceptable to punch a Nazi – something I think our current world is seriously lacking.  Twenty-four hours before shit goes down, a Nazi metahuman turns himself in to ECHO, the world’s largest nonprofit metahuman organization.  It was during World War II that metahumans first appeared – first on the Axis side of the battlefield, then on the Allied side as if in reaction.  Thus the battles were largely decided by the armies whilst the metahumans battled each other one on one like gladiators.

This book is notable for being based on a roleplay in the online game City of Heroes.  As I’ve said before, this is the sort of thing you aren’t likely to see if a published and popular author isn’t a part of your group.  And even if the chapters didn’t include which authors were responsible, you can feel it as you switch from one roleplay to another.  Or at least, I can, as someone who’s been a part of stories this big before.  Which is where it’s important to remember that even those characters who are peripheral to the main story had players.  There’s one who is barely more than a mention in this particular book.  Her name is Einhorn.  She’s an ECHO in the medical unit, has a little horn on her head, does stuff with emotions if I recall, and is not considered the most useful of people.  She’s likely to freak out instead of buckling down and probably likes cotton candy, rainbows, and unicorns.  But some people like (or are in a mood) to play happy people without a care in the world who don’t know how to deal with bad things.  There’s enough to Einhorn to make me think that this was someone’s character, even if they didn’t often play with the main proponents of the storyline.  Or maybe they weren’t active that often, that’s also possible.  But it does make me curious about the countless roleplays that didn’t make it into the books.

Like I said, I’ve done a fair amount of roleplaying.  And I can keep track fairly well of what my characters and even my families are doing.  But there’s a point where it’s just too much.  You tell me this character is a great-grand-niece of mine?  I will believe you but I really have no idea who she is because I haven’t paid any attention to that branch of the family tree.  But I can play my character and see how they react to this unexpected relationship.  And while my plots may seem big and encompassing to me, to other people they’re just happening on the fringes of their own.  Or even something bigger, that affects all of the characters, not just one small group.

For example, there was a kingdom and the king and queen were grandparents.  Their grandson decided he was tired of waiting, killed them and his parents and took over.  There was a lot of stuff that happened during the two realtime years he was in charge and I was in the thick of it, but that doesn’t mean I read every single roleplay that followed.  Really just the ones I was involved in and a couple others that affected us all.  On a rough estimate, I think I personally helped write thirty or more roleplays, but I’m sure there were close to a hundred in that timeframe.  And these are estimates; I am not going and counting at the moment.

So, reading Invasion and its sequels is interesting to me.  Sometimes, and some things, I view more as a regular fantasy novel.  Others strike me as having come from roleplays.  Depending on my mood as I’m rereading, the same events may have been viewed through both lenses over time.  And why not?  There are some amazingly creative people out there.  And writing books is hard.  In my group, I am considered a good roleplayer.  Not just for using complete sentences, correct spelling, and proper grammar, but because I try to create interesting characters and scenarios.  I can even come up with plots and storylines that can take years to complete.  But writing an actual book?  Coming up with a real plot?  That I haven’t been able to do to my own satisfaction.  Roleplaying is far easier because the onus of coming up with ideas is shared between all the players.

And some of those roleplays are truly epic and impressive in scope, worthy of being transcribed into novels.  So it’s no surprise that, with Mercedes Lackey involved, a roleplay with all the foundations of a good story found its way into a major publisher’s hands. When the book was first published, I thought its origin was a detriment.  But now I’m starting to think it was a true gift to people who only looked to entertain themselves online.

One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received as a roleplayer is people telling me that they go out of their way to read what I’ve written.  That they care about my characters as much as I do.  That when I wrote a death scene in such a way that you can’t be certain what’s real and what’s not, they have their own (strong!) opinions on what it is.  I hope that Steve Libbey, Cody Martin, and Dennis Lee are happy to see their characters out in the world, garnering fans and opinions of their own.  It’s got to be weird, sharing the people you made up with the world.  But it’s also got to be so rewarding.  Maybe one day I’ll be able to do that.  Who knows, I could certainly try transcribing my own roleplays, especially the ones that are mostly my own characters.

But for the moment, there’s more to the series if I want to reread that last book so badly.

Adaptation Ahoy!

When I began taking notice of and even buying some novelizations, I never dreamed I might stumble upon one of my all time favorite movies.  I can’t rightly call any movie my favorite, anymore than I can do so with a book, because there’s just so many good ones and some appeal more than others depending on my mood at the moment.  But when I say this is one of my favorite movies, I mean that I can always watch it.  If I am flipping through channels and I spot it, even if it’s a mere ten minutes from the end, I will put it on and see the rest.  And that movie is Hook, starring the late, great Robin Williams.

I have loved Hook from the start, and remember watching it on every single TV my parents have ever owned.  There’s something truly wonderful about the magic and joy the movie shows, even if it does have some issues.  Yes, some of my appreciation has changed over the years as I’ve grown up, but I refuse to let go of the magic that is Hook, I refuse to grow up entirely on the inside.  (Although to be fair I still get mistaken for a highschool student periodically.)

Stumbling onto the novelization of Hook at the bookstore on Saturday was utterly shocking.  I suppose I just don’t conceive of novelizations as being as common as they clearly are.  It wasn’t in the best of shape, but I’ve had more damaged books.  I had to buy it and see if the book could possibly live up to the love I have for the film.

When I pulled it off the shelf last night, I was a little concerned.  Not because of the damage and the difficulty I had getting it into my book cover, but because of the author.  If you didn’t know who Terry Brooks is, the cover tells you straightaway that he’s the author of the Shannara books.  And if you haven’t read this blog thoroughly I’ll tell you that I’ve read at least three of them.  I honestly don’t remember how many I got through, because I gave up on the series as being hopelessly boring and mundane.  I must’ve been thirteen to fifteen years old and I already saw through the same old tropes utilized in so very many other and better fantasy novels.  Shannara is crap.  I hoped desperately that Terry Brooks would not make the novelization a poor adaptation.

As per usual, I enjoyed that the book allowed me to see inside Peter’s head more than you can in a movie.  That was one of the best parts.  But on the negative side, we’ve also got extended scenes and, well, it’s a good thing the movie cut them down.  The play at the very beginning is far longer and I could not help cringing at Peter’s awful audience behavior throughout.  And then the office scene the next day was longer – and apparently after Peter left he came right back?  Ugh, no wonder that was cut out for the film.

The book progressed through the story and as Wendy Darling tried to explain to Peter who he truly was, I could not help envisioning the same scene as it played out onscreen.  Robin Williams did so much with posture, blocking, and expression that is not at all conveyed through the text.  The fact that he stood in the same hands-on-hips pose as the Peter in the book to examine what Wendy wanted him to look at – that just worked so well.  Not to mention that the text very rarely captures any of Williams’ manic energy in scenes where he’s excited.  Or the Lost Boys’ chanting…you get the idea.

And yet, when I got to the memory scene, where Peter returns to his old home and remembers everything…that scene gets me every single time and I am hooked.  Hook, line, and sinker I am invested at that moment and I love it in all its glory.  That scene is the heart of the story and I adore it.

I have to conclude that Hook the movie is far superior to Hook the novelization.  The book doesn’t necessarily suffer for having Terry Brooks at the wheel, but he didn’t really add anything to improve the story and those extra scenes generally detracted from it.  In the end I did enjoy myself reading this, but as I’ve said, I love this movie to death.  The big question is whether or not the book is worth keeping.

Most books I know the moment I finish them, if not sooner, if they’re being added to the library or not, and if so, I’ll scan them in as soon as I’m done.  Some books, like this, I am less certain of and so write my blog post first, leaving the ultimate decision for when I’ve said my piece.  Writing things out often helps me make that choice as I explore the pros and cons of the book.  But Hook?  I’m still not sure.

I suppose the question becomes “would I ever read this book again?”  Gods know I’ll watch the movie – it’s a classic.  I don’t feel the need to watch it tonight simply because I really do know it that well, like I do The Dark Crystal.  But The Dark Crystal novelization was only slightly edged out by the movie because those visuals are beautiful and the puppetry is incredible.  In this case, it’s pretty clear that the film wins all the competitions.

I think I’ve noticed that in most cases for novelizations, the movie is the preferred medium.  Whether because there are outstanding performances that text alone cannot capture, catchy music, gorgeous visuals, or more doesn’t matter.  Sometimes it’s just that the movie had more editing and more scenes cut to make the story tighter.  But the general rule seems to be that whichever came first is going to be the better production.

One weakness I’m seeing in a lot of these novelizations is that they seem to stick very strongly to the screenplay, instead of deviating in ways that would make the story stronger for a text-based medium.  I remember seeing the movie adaptation of Ready Player One wherein they changed all of the tasks for the keys, but still kept the story as a whole around those events.  In the end, they told the same tale, but in a way that worked much better onscreen than what had been done in the book.  I think that’s the sort of adaptation I’d like to see in these novelizations.  I want to read the same story, yes, but I want you to tell it in a way that works better for a book than a movie, so that I’m not left feeling like I was missing something, or that I wasted my time.

Having reflected on what I think novelizations should be, I think I will keep Hook.  Not because I’ve actually made up my mind, but because I’m still so torn and therefore I will hang onto it and revisit this decision when next I need to make room in my library for new books.  After all, when am I going to turn up another copy of this book?

Although if I do find another copy in better condition for a decent price, I just might buy it to replace this one.

Just Beyond The Page

Is it really a problem to read anthology after anthology so long as it’s something new?  I mean, I don’t have to read new books all the time, but given that my Pile is overflowing the two shelves devoted to it right now, I feel obligated to try getting through some of it and as previously mentioned, anthologies are generally an easy type to get through quickly.  Yesterday’s book was from my Memorial Day haul, but today’s I only picked up on Saturday, after a three hour drive out to Central Illinois.  We had such lovely landmarks as the highway going down to two lanes from three or more, crossing the Des Plaines River, a rest area, and driving past Peoria.

(On an unrelated note, I keep directing my attention out the window where the sky is turning fascinating colors while the sun sinks ever lower.  We did have a light yellow going on, now it’s definitely more orange and pink.  It is definitely the prelude to a serious storm.)

Today’s anthology was The Dimension Next Door from prolific editor Martin H. Greenberg partnered with Kerrie Hughes for this book.  These are stories of thin barriers between worlds, and secrets most wouldn’t suspect lurking just beneath the surface of the world we know.  Of the thirteen authors featured in this volume, only two were new to me and my database, which is fairly impressively weighted in favor of more familiar names.  And there were some stories well worth mentioning.

New-to-me author Anton Strout opens the book with “The Fourteenth Virtue”.  If you’re more familiar with the late 1700s than I am, or Ben Franklin, you might automatically make the connection to his Thirteen Virtues.  But there’s another link that you probably would not have made without this story, and now I can’t stop thinking about it.

Jody Lynn Nye offers a frightful glimpse into our future in “Waiting for Evolution”.  Luckily the protagonist finds a way to avoid it, but I don’t think that solution will work for us, sadly.  Also, that ending went a different way than I had anticipated, given how things were being set up.

“The Trouble with the Truth” from Nina Kiriki Hoffman is a rather engaging tale of a young woman who sees ghosts.  Well, she sees, talks to, and helps them move on.  It’s not something that pays, but it does get the ghosts to stop hovering around her.  But it may not just be ghosts she can assist…

Given the title and the fact that I read an anthology called Gamer Fantastic recently, I had one assumption in my mind when I saw Chris Pierson’s tale entitled “AFK”.  And I wasn’t wrong.  But this story definitely didn’t go in the same direction as any of the stories in that earlier volume, which is no bad thing.  It was definitely an interesting read.

“Unreadable” by Steven E. Schend felt more typical in contrast to the other stories here.  Oh sure, it fits the anthology’s theme as well as any of the others, but it definitely felt like a premise I’ve seen in other fantasy stories before.  Not quite done this way, sure, but not that dissimilar.

I was intrigued before I even started “Not My Knot”.  Then again, I always get excited when I see Irene Radford as a contributor.  I’ve been reading her books for roughly twenty years and would never, ever purge any of them.  I never know what to expect from her short stories though, since they only rarely touch on the universes she’s created for her novels and seem to have different typing.  This one was certainly different from the books, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

It’s always funny when someone titles their story something like “www.karmassist.com” as Donald J. Bingle did.  It’s somewhat predictable, but not a bad story overall.

Then Lillian Stewart Carl, the other author I hadn’t read previously, contributes a slower, deeper story in “The Avalon Psalter”.  In hindsight, it reminds me of Patricia McKillip’s books, where they take you on a journey that isn’t really a story so much as a series of events leading you to the conclusion.  Not that Carl’s story has so diaphanous a plot, rather it feels like a spiral.  The reader is trying to figure out what’s going on as the author lets slip small hints every so often, leading us ever inward towards the answer like a trail of breadcrumbs.  And then, finally, once it all makes sense, the story ends.

“Shadows in the Mirrors” by Bradley P. Beaulieu, tries to mess with our black and white perceptions based on simple assumptions.  Then adds in a heartwrenching backstory and plot and a time limit of a sort to increase tension.  It certainly kept me reading.

This anthology came out in 2008.  Which is why it’s hilarious to discover that Paul Genesse’s story “God Pays” takes place in 2012.  Remember that whole end of the world schtick with the Mayan calendar?  Yeah, that’s what this is about.  Also endings, beginnings, and love.  One of my favorites out of this book.

“Jack of the High Hills” by Brenda Cooper is another story that draws on tropes I’ve seen before.  Not a bad thing, and not a bad story, just not the most original or revelatory work in this volume.

Fiona Patton is an author that I will always associate first and foremost with the Valdemar anthologies.  At this point in time I have nineteen different short stories by her (a shockingly high number for an author that I only own within group and theme collections, nothing of just her work) and eleven of them are from the Valdemar anthologies.  Still, she’s got skill as shown in “The Silver Path”.  I’m not sure I care for this story, but that might be a projection of my less-than-fondness for one of the main characters.

Closing out the volume is “Hear No Evil” by Alexander B. Potter and it is an excellent choice by far.  This is one of the best stories in the anthology.  It touches briefly and lightly on mental issues, but the centerpoint (and centerpiece) of the story is the relationship between the two main characters.  They are one of the most adorable gay couples I have read in quite some time and I could definitely be tempted to read another short story or two chronicling their further or past adventures.  Even the ex-boyfriend is entertaining and not awful.  I could see recommending this story alone to several friends as I think it beautifully shows what a relationship can be.

I would definitely rank The Dimension Next Door higher than the average anthology on the strength of some of my preferred stories.  Again, there’s nothing awful inside, with the worst stories being mediocre and average.  But there are some very good works and I’m very glad this is one of the books that caught my eye over the weekend.

To a Point

There’s something very exciting and somewhat embarrassing about having so very many anthologies I’ve never read before available to me in my own Pile.  Exciting because, well, new books that I’ve never read!  Embarrassing because I feel a bit bad for reading so many anthologies so close together, given that short stories are generally easier reads than novels.  Even a book full of short stories, because DAW anthologies average three hundred pages, and the novels I usually read start at about four hundred.  So that’s a noticeable difference in length and reading time.

I will freely admit that I could have finished this book last night.  I had a bit over a hundred pages left, easy enough.  But I chose to watch a movie because I did have enough time for that before bed – finishing the book would likely have taken about an hour, or a bit over.  And I’m not going to stay up late in order to watch a movie more than two hours long on a work night.  Which is why I finished Swordplay tonight.

Edited by Denise Little, Swordplay is an anthology celebrating our fascination with bladed weapons.  Published in 2009, it’s a modern fascination, not an older one.  So don’t be surprised at some of the references made in a story or two.  There’s seventeen in all, with authors I’ve read and some I haven’t, as per usual.  It always intrigues me when I update my short story database upon finishing an anthology and find that some of these authors are most prolific in my library through Valdemar.  Although in one case, it’s the first time I’ve read anything by the author alone, and his previous two contributions were from Bolo anthologies.  Well…”anthologies”.  At least one of those books has a whole two stories in it.  But that’s for another time, such as when I actually reread them.

You can make some guesses about recurring themes and tropes in this book.  Excalibur and Arthurian lore make several appearances, as does Christian mythology.  The Norse show up a couple times too, as well as Greeks and Arabs (in multiple contexts.)  Although I don’t feel that I got quite as tired of the same old themes as I did with the Greek mythology in Mystery Date, which is no bad thing.  Probably because these stories did not have to have the same starting point (in that case, a blind date) and were therefore free to construct their narratives as best fit the tale being told.

The book opens with a bang as Kristine Kathryn Rusch contributes “The Japanese Sword”.  An utterly normal American housewife is going about her day.  Her husband is a professor and obsessed with all things Asian – especially Japanese.  Our protagonist finds her world collapsed around her one day and does what any normal woman would do in her position: go shopping.  She buys the titular weapon of course, and what happens next I wouldn’t dare spoil.

“A Sharp Twist to Destiny” by Mike Moscoe follows next and moves our viewpoint to the war in Iraq.  Leaving politics aside, the author acknowledges the tense political situation between U.S. troops and natives while weaving an intriguing tale around a strange dagger.

I found Phaedra M. Weldon’s “The Sword of Merit” particularly memorable.  Maybe it’s the setting – roaring twenties Hollywood.  Or maybe it’s the almost locked-door mystery air of a story that takes place almost entirely in a single room.  Maybe it’s the sword itself.  Either way, I do find myself thinking about it again and again.

Laura Resnick wrote “The Spear of Destiny”, concerning an item that I personally am familiar with only thanks to Neon Genesis Evangelion.  There it was called the Lance of Longinus.  It is the book’s World War II story, because it’s really starting to seem like a good chunk of the anthologies I read have a WWII or Holocaust story.  The story reminds me of S.P. Somtow’s “A Thief in the Night” out of Peter S. Beagle’s Immortal Unicorn: Volume 2 for reasons that are obvious if you’ve read both.

“Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One” by Loren L. Coleman is a humorous reimagining of one of the most popular stories in the western world.  You can easily see where it’s going from the start, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.

John Alvin Pitts’ “Black Blade Blues” struck a few chords in me.  It mentions the con scene, gets into some details of forging, and reflects on how times have changed.  It also has a lesbian protagonist and her girlfriend and a millenial’s workload.  Not to mention the sword itself, and it’s history…

“A Disappearance in Basra” by Janna Silverstein is another noteworthy story.  I found it…quiet…in comparison to other tales I’ve greatly enjoyed, but brimming with import and thought nonetheless.  It seems simple enough on the surface: a U.S. soldier is facing a Board of Inquiry concerning the disappearance of his superior officer.  Turns out the rest of the story is so very strange you have to read it to believe it.

The last story I want to mention is “Cold Winter’s Knight” by J. Steven York.  It plays with tropes and conventions, but also touches on the surface of substance abuse.  York doesn’t quite get into dealing with addiction, but he does offer a metaphorical fight against the urge and the hope of recovering some kind of life free from the substance.  Like I said, this stops short of say, the stories in Unlocking the Magic, but that’s possibly because this anthology is about swords, not addiction.

As usual, the book is fine.  There were several stories that I didn’t feel worth mentioning because they were average at best.  But I didn’t actively hate anything, which isn’t a bad result.  There were a couple really good tales, but nothing absolutely mindblowing.  So, a perfectly acceptable anthology.

Which leaves me with the usual question of what to read next.

Truly Noteworthy

So there’s a particular type of comic book I haven’t talked about before.  They’re from Marvel and they’re called True Believers.  Every single one I’ve ever seen is numbered 1, and they cost a dollar.  Unless the specific store is having a sale and reduces the price further or throws them in for free.  True Believers are reprintings of landmark (but usually relevant) comics.  Characters’ first appearances, big moments, strange what-ifs, you get the idea.

This month, all of the True Believers comics are Spiderman ones.  And I, having been a Spiderman fan for years, was waiting to pick them up.  Today just happened to work out, aside from the fact that there’s one more of these comics I want and it’s not out until Wednesday.

The first of these comics is the first appearance of Spiderman’s black suit in the comics.  Yes, the one that is actually a symbiote that would become Venom.  Spiderman was working with Daredevil on a murder case when he was whisked away into the Secret Wars event.  When he returned just as unexpectedly, he was wearing the black suit.  And, you know, the murder mystery was resolved.  It’s interesting to read an older comic (since I don’t usually touch anything more than ten or fifteen years old).  Scenes are far shorter, which enables the comic to contain more o them.  So while the individual bits feel truncated, you get more story within the pages, which I guess is a fair trade-off.

Next up, fittingly, is the issue where Spiderman realizes there’s something very wrong about his black suit and finally takes Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four up on his offer to examine it.  Reed is the one who figures out that it’s a symbiote, and uses a sonic gun to get it off of Peter.  He and the Human Torch then…lend Peter some clothing to get him home.  It’s kind of hilarious.  Oh, also Mary Jane is trying to get a handle on her life and her relationship to Peter in this issue.  Both of these are stories I’ve seen before, more than once, but the details have varied, especially because in most cases, they wanted the stories to be so Spiderman-centric that there were no crossovers permitted to introduce or remove the symbiote.

As nice as it’s been to read the originals, I don’t feel the need to retain either of these comics.  I did know the basic story shown in each previously, and I think they’re both tighter when you cut out Daredevil and Mr. Fantastic.  Plus, again, each issue was a dollar.  I’ve paid more for less.

And now back to selecting an actual book for the morrow.

Games in Books

Well, that mostly worked out. Yes, I’ve been busy, but I have managed to finish the anthology I was reading. This one I didn’t have huge expectations for, despite it being yet another Fantastic anthology. I mean, what haven’t I seen with gaming? And this is Gamer Fantastic, edited by Martin H. Greenberg (yet again) and Kerrie Hughes.

As I picked it up to stick the book cover on it, I noted that there was an additional introduction from Margaret Weis, who was gaming guest of honor at Capricon a couple years ago. I knew why, of course, she was one of the two authors who wrote the (original) Dragonlance books alongside AD&D (2nd Edition). And though they slotted her into some organized games in the game room, she said that wasn’t really her thing. I think they mostly ended up as people sitting around a table and talking. Regardless, she’s a very nice woman.

The other thing to note is that this book came to be, in part, because of Gary Gygax and his death. I remember when he died back in 2008, even though I was just getting into a new level of gaming at the time, and how the geek world mourned. This anthology, published in 2009, was just one form of tribute. Not that every game here is D&D or that his passing was the only reason behind the book.

The last thing I noted as I began reading is that these authors are gamers. There is a lot of love for the content and material in every story and I can feel it. Sometimes too much of it. Which is, frankly, typical. But let’s get in to the stories.

Chris Pierson’s “Escapism” opens the volume and I figured out the main catch early on. Which is real, the child’s room or the resistance against Earth’s alien invaders? Still, it kept me engaged throughout the whole story.

“Gaming Circle” by Donald J. Bingle was convoluted and nonsensical and frankly, unenjoyable. Nor did I particularly care for Ed Greenwood’s “Rescuing the Elf Princess Again”. Though his eulogy for Gary Gygax closes the book and it’s fine.

Jody Lynn Nye took things in a less expected direction in “Roles We Play”, mixing her genres slightly. I certainly appreciated the differences and found it an amusing story with some good points.

I truly appreciate Jim C. Hines setting his “Mightier Than the Sword” in a convention, though he doesn’t get into it that much. The basic premise is not original, but the way he deals with it is much more so. Also Smoke is adorable in a burny way.

“Griefer Madness” by Richard Lee Byers really struck a chord with me. There’s just something about these truly obnoxious players who have nothing better to do than pick on others that makes me tense in hatred even through text. I got some flashbacks to Matt Vancil’s Pwned, but it’s not really the same system at all, which is for the best.

S.L. Farrell aka Stephen Leigh, caught my eye with the title “The Gods of Every Other Wednesday Night” and I could immediately make some guesses. Then the author/narrator starts the story by addressing me and my guesses directly. Color me even more intrigued. Then he takes us into the fantasy world in the aftermath of one of these Wednesday nights. We’re introduced to the fantasy world as it knows itself and it gets interesting…and then he breaks in again, talking to the reader some more. This happens constantly and it becomes more annoying and obnoxious with every paragraph breaking the fourth wall. What was a cute and intriguing premise becomes bogged down by useless paragraphs accomplishing nothing, taking away from the story and potentially likable characters that we never get to know in enough detail because of this, and reminding me of rules lawyer players. Maybe he was trying for a William Goldman vibe ala The Princess Bride, but it falls so incredibly flat. Dude, I am not here for your multiverse fan theories, I am here for a story and you have only barely provided one. This is exactly why I hate fandoms – people get so caught up in someone else’s world that they discuss the mechanics and physics of it to death and I get so damned bored while they suck the magic out of everything. Probably the worst story in the book.

“The War on Two Fronts” by Jean Rabe also plays against the backdrop of a convention, this one meant to evoke GenCon and other major gaming conventions. The sort where you need to used prepaid tickets to sit down and play games. Let’s just say, not my kind of philosophy on principle. But cons seem like a good environment to hide a bit of magic and Rabe certainly delivers.

One of the best things about games is that they can be built around any theme. Seriously, the concepts for board games alone can be utterly insane. It’s more than just getting from start to finish, or having the most money or points. There’s building your kingdom, outmaneuvering your opponents, and the German postal system. No, I am not making that up, I have a copy of Thurn and Taxis which is literally inspired by families competing for postal routes in Germany. There’s a whole page about it in the rulebook. So when David D. Levine chose to take his story in a slightly more military direction, there’s nothing at all wrong with that. Just remember that the people creating these games are very intelligent and it’s probably best not to piss them off or back them into a corner, as you can see in “Aggro Radius”. (Which is also one of the geekiest titles in the book.)

“Game Testing” from Kristine Kathryn Rusch is probably my favorite story in the anthology, and not just because its set in Illinois. (I forgive her for her insults to my state.) This story has strong gaming elements, but the fantasy is just as strong, if not stronger, which makes it far more enjoyable to me. Don’t get me wrong, I am a gamer and love it, but I don’t do a lot of video gaming, I will not touch MMORPGs, and it’s been years since I was in a steady tabletop campaign. So not all of these stories really resonate with my personal interests and they win or lose my interest based on the story itself, not the gaming aspect. This one is great and an excellent choice to end the collection.

Overall, the good stories do outweigh the bad significantly. There were some others not worth mentioning due to mediocrity and unoriginality but at least they weren’t actively bad and causing me to rant about them. As I said at the start, I did not have high expectations for this anthology simply because there’s a few tropes for stories about gamers and we did see those throughout this book. But there were some truly fascinating and engaging tales that managed to stand out from the crowd. For those stories, I’m happy to keep the book. For the others…I may just skip them on rereads.

Unless if I resort to comic books – and I do have a few lying around still – I am unlikely to put up a post tomorrow. If these past two days were busy, and they were, tomorrow’s an all day affair. Sunday is still up in the air and may depend on how I feel after tomorrow, so there’s no telling how long it will take me to read the next book…whatever it ends up being. I am not making a choice tonight, but we’ll see what the morning brings.

Not an End

As I had theorized, The Dawn Star follows close on the heels of The Misted Cliffs.  Well, a year later, but that’s a distinctly smaller interval than eighteen years.  Mel and her husband Cobalt have spent this time mostly in Shazire, overseeing that and Blueshire, the kingdoms Cobalt won through his invasion.  And then…King Stonebreaker of the Misted Cliffs dies, leaving Cobalt ruler of three countries now.

And on top of that, there’s Drummer.  He made no appearances in the last book, but readers should remember him from The Charmed Sphere.  The youngest of Chime’s brothers, Drummer is the one whose dreams sent Muller racing towards the north and Varquelle of Harsdown’s invading army.  Now a man grown, he’s a feckless minstrel most of the year, returning to his family’s orchards to help with the harvest.

Which apparently makes him a prime kidnapping target.

It’s not the worst idea in the world.  Drummer is no royalty, despite being brother to one queen and uncle to another.  Yet he does have those blood ties which might theoretically keep Cobalt from attacking.  Theoretically.  After all, The Misted Cliffs made it clear that the warfare and bloodshed was not over.  There were still two more countries, Jazid and Taka Mal, which hadn’t become staunch allies or part of the new empire.  So it’s easy to guess that Drummer’s been taken to one of the two.

In many ways, The Dawn Star really reminds me that this book is supposed to have romance.  Because there are times when I feel the plot being bent into a shape that allows us to have a new romance just for this volume.  After all, how can it be romantic to revisit previously established couples when we can make a new one?  It does work out in the end though.

Let’s make it clear.  These books are not a trilogy.  The epilogue makes it obvious.  We end showing two newborn babies, one male and one female.  It is very clear to me that one day these two are going to marry and unite the whole continent (island? whatever) under their rule.  I’m sure there’s going to be some sort of conflict or other to resolve, but I didn’t pick up this series because I thought I’d get that many surprises.  I picked it up because I enjoyed Asaro’s writing and unique magic system.

Speaking of, we see more magic used alongside battle in this volume, though it’s a bit different than before.  We see magic mixed with music, something very different, and magic conjuring lightning.  Which made me sit back and reflect how Asaro’s system has very little physical in it.  Sure, you can make things warm and even start fires, or you can heal wounds of the flesh if you’re powerful enough, but that’s really it.  Magic here makes light, detects and eases moods, that kind of thing.  There’s no telekinesis or acts of creation.

Now, I’ve mentioned the babies as part of the foundation for a future book or more.  But there’s another hint.  This is the second time it’s been mentioned that long ago, a powerful mage laid a spell that prevents ships from coming to these lands from across the sea.  As Mel looks out over the waves, she thinks on how it was said that the spell would become more powerful as time passed, until the lands we’ve seen were completely isolated.  How powerful a mage must that have been…and have we been introduced to any mages powerful enough to break it?  I don’t think any of the characters thus far have shown any real interest in breaking that enchantment, but I don’t doubt it’s an idea for the future.

It is also notable that we have some incredibly powerful mages alive at this point.  Green mages are fairly uncommon and blue mages are rare, but we know of both indigo and violet mages alive at the end of this book.  So I’m sure some uber-powerful mage is upcoming.

There is also a question as to whether there are other magics that are not recognized as such.  Some people think that Cobalt has a magic of war, allowing him to move and react faster in combat than any ordinary person.  It’s possible, though there’s not much evidence for or against the assertion.  Likely this is another thread to be explored in the future.

I shall definitely have to keep collecting the series.  If I’m lucky, there’ll be copies at the used bookstore on Saturday.  If not, well, at some point I’ll give in and pay for shipping on amazon it seems.  That’s what I’ve done for these books up until now, but I don’t regret the extra expense.  After all, there’s no telling how long I might have to search otherwise.

I’m not certain what I’m reading next.  I’m leaning towards something short just based on the time I expect to (not) have available in the next several days.  Although I could go for short fiction with an anthology – gods all know I still have more of those from my Memorial Day haul.  So, we’ll see what meets my requirements and peaks my interest next.

Some Time Later

In The Charmed Sphere Catherine Asaro introduced readers to her world of shapemages. Mostly Aronsdale, the kingdom of mages, but also its neighbor and aggressor Harsdown. However, those weren’t the only countries on the map, and the sequel takes us to The Misted Cliffs. Beyond Harsdown, as one travels from Aronsdale, the Misted Cliffs are on the western coast, protected from the interior countries by tall mountains. Of course, what people are more likely to fear is the Misted Cliffs’ army, reputed to be some six thousand strong. Given that the clashing armies in The Charmed Sphere may have had a thousand each all told (bringing significantly fewer to the battle), it’s almost an order of magnitude larger.

What’s also noteworthy is that the former king of Harsdown was married to the only child of the king of the Misted Cliffs. This makes Cobalt, the child of that marriage, technical heir to two thrones. Although with Harsdown now an annex of Arsondale, ruled by Muller and Chime, the current heir to the Jaguar throne is Melody Dawnfield.

When Mel is offered a choice to marry Prince Cobalt or see her home invaded by him at the head of his grandfather’s army, it’s no choice at all. A wedding at metaphorical sword’s point, or even a glove wedding. (That’s something I learned about thanks to Mercedes Lackey. A bridge could be wedded to a glove that represented a groom she’d never met, before being brought home to her new husband.) Mel is brought to Cobalt’s home where she realizes how blessed she’s been to grow up wild and free in the busom of a loving family.

Of course, now outside of Aronsdale, people don’t truly understand mages; what they do or how, and many don’t even believe she has power. As far as Mel’s concerned, she’s only just begun to have more success at controlling and mastering her power, and none too soon as events start to escalate.

In the end, can Mel save her husband from being torn apart by the powerful figures in his life?

I’ve said that “Moonglow” is a stronger story than The Charmed Sphere. But there’s no place for a sequel to “Moonglow”, whereas The Charmed Sphere invites it. Not with sequel bait, per se, but the easy sense that if Asaro wanted to tell more story, she could. Which, obviously, she did. Taking place eighteen years after the first book, The Misted Cliffs brings us into the new generation with Mel, and even Cobalt, although he’s close to twice her age. His inexperience dealing with people outside of his mother, grandfather, servants, or soldiers makes him seem younger than he is.

We get to see a bit of what our heroes from the first book have done with the intervening time, mostly as background to the current story. Although this new tale will have far wider repercussions. Where The Charmed Sphere‘s influence was limited to Harsdown and Aronsdale, The Misted Cliffs has touched on far more, with reverberations across the whole continent. (Island? Mel reflects on how some mage cast a spell long ago making “the island” difficult to find so it could be that these countries are the island. Although the map only shows a coastline for the Misted Cliffs and the other three directions just kind of go out of frame, making it impossible to truly judge anything.)

I feel that Asaro wants us to think the best of her characters. Most of them. There’s abuse, physical and verbal, for some of them. Now, I don’t have a huge experience with such things, but I do wonder if Asaro is optimistic about how quickly or easily victims can recover. It seems a very romance novel move – that love can heal even this and soon. I can’t complain too much though because she does take the topic seriously and doesn’t simply skim past it. I only ask questions about time and hope that all abuse victims are able to find as much love and joy as these do in the end.

The Charmed Sphere told a complete story that stands alone as needed. But The Misted Cliffs definitely feels like a middle book in comparison, with a story half-finished. And that’s why I’ve been rereading these. The next book is waiting for me as I type. And I’m going to wrap up and dive in.

Fantastical Romance

“I’ve come to the conclusion that I like romances,” a friend told me. “But I also like fantasy. And you read a lot of fantasy. So maybe you can suggest some fantasy romances for me?”

I asked my friend if they knew Luna. They did not.

Luna was an imprint of Harlequin Books, fantasy stories that had romance at the core. It didn’t last too long, but I’ve read several of their books over the years. Michelle Sagara West’s Chronicles of Elantra started with Luna, Gail Dayton’s polyamory books began there as well, and it produced Mercedes Lackey’s Five Hundred Kingdoms series. Although it looks like Lackey ditched the series after the imprint folded. To be fair, it genuinely felt like she was running out of ideas and that there was less to each book as the series went on.

Catherine Asaro’s shapemages also came from Luna books. And after the intensity I’m still reeling from, I felt the need for some fluff. Because really, that’s what most Luna books are to me. Don’t get me wrong, most of what I’ve read is good fluff. But that doesn’t make it any less fluff for all that.

Today I returned to The Charmed Sphere. As a reminder, I was originally exposed to the world through “Moonglow”, Asaro’s novella in Charmed Destinies. That book was in and of itself a way to introduce readers to upcoming books and series from Luna. And it is the same story that was expanded into The Charmed Sphere. Mostly.

I said last time that I preferred “Moonglow” to The Charmed Sphere because I felt it was a tighter story, where nothing extraneous was included but everything necessary was explored as needed. It told the story of Iris Larkspur and Jarid Dawnfield, how both felt out of place and isolated, but found each other and mutual love and affection.

If “Moonglow” is mostly Iris’ story, with a bit of Jarid, then The Charmed Sphere is mostly Chime’s story, with a bit of Muller and sometimes other characters for added dimension. Yes, the two cover many of the same events, but usually from different angles. For example, Iris and Jarid’s wedding. “Moonglow” shows us Iris’ perspective, but The Charmed Sphere watches from Chime’s viewpoint. So while there are so many scenes in common, they are shown from different angles than before. Which is truly impressive when you consider it. I do not remember any instances of changed dialogue, but this means that Asaro did not simply reuse anything, instead rewriting each scene from another perspective. That is no small amount of work or dedication and I will never stop being impressed by it.

It’s even more impressive when you take those scenes in both and realize that The Charmed Sphere includes extended versions, taking into account the fact that Harsdown is glowering over Aronsdale’s northern border, hoping to finally conquer the peaceful mage kingdom. Suddenly it’s not just guards concerned about allowing their new king and queen out into the night alone, it’s the fact that there’s been an attempt on someone’s life already and tensions between the two countries have been on the rise since King Daron’s death. And that’s just one example of how expanded these scenes have been.

I suppose it’s also an expression of how much more complicated things are for Chime and Muller as compared to Iris and Jarid. The Dawnfield kings marry the most powerful mage of their generation. Both Iris and Jarid are attracted to the outdoors and unconcerned with frivolous things. But Chime and Muller are less certain of themselves. Muller would have been king – though he didn’t want it – and Chime was thought to be the most powerful mage of her generation, despite her difficulties learning. Both are flawed in ways that don’t necessarily show at a glance, and so it takes them more time to not only accept their flaws, but learn to allow others to accept them as well.

At the end of the night, The Charmed Sphere is an enjoyable read. Yes, at the heart it’s about two pairs of young people falling in love with each other, but it’s also about so much more. You’ve got some tactics and strategy with military maneuvers, politics, interpersonal relationships, and some hints at abuse and the effects thereof. A lot of typical fantasy novel subject matter, really, where there’s as much to read into it as you care to look for. It’s not surprising that the cover touts Asaro as a Nebula award winner, even if it wasn’t for this.

It’s even less surprising what book I’m reading tomorrow.