Water Road Wednesday: Gods and Beings In Altreria

One of the fun things about writing fantasy is that you get to build worlds from the ground up. Since you’re not playing with reality necessarily you can do just about anything you want. It also means you have to do a lot of background sketching to fill in your world. John Scalzi once wrote that he tried to go two questions deep on world building, which makes a lot of sense. It’s important that your world be well rounded (pardon the pun), even when it comes to things that don’t necessarily drive the narrative.

Which is to say that when I was building the world of The Water Road I had to decide what role religion played in it. Even though I’m an atheist, religion fascinates me and I think part of any well developed fictional world would be religion (unless the complete absence thereof was what you wanted to explore). In fact, one of the first things I wrote for The Water Road is the Altrerian creation myth. It’s not actually in any of the books, so this seems as good a place as any to let it see the light of day:

In the time before time, the Maker of Worlds saw a void in the firmament of the heavens.  She decided that it must be filled, lest the other stars and planets be drawn into the void and lost forever.

So the Maker of Worlds cupped her hands and dipped them into the Lake of Eternity.  She brought the water up in her hands and breathed on the waters while molding it into a ball.  When the swirling churning waters had been shaped into a perfect ball, the Maker hung the ball in the firmament and filled the void.

But when the Maker of Worlds looked at the ball of swirling water in the firmament, she was not pleased.  She plucked the young planet out of the heavens and set it in front of her.  The Maker thought for a moment and pondered what was missing from her new creation.

After a time, the Maker took the sharpest knife she could find.  She took the blade in her left hand and held her right palm out over the swirling waters.  In one quick motion, the Maker of Worlds sliced across her outstretched palm and the blood of the Maker fell into the churning, swirling, and empty oceans.

As the blood of the Maker of Worlds fell into the oceans, it began to become solid.  The more the Maker bled, the larger the stain on the oceans would become.  Before long, the spots of blood began to come together and form The Land.  As the land formed, the churning seas beat upon it, breaking off small parts which became The Islands.

The Maker of Worlds healed her wound and surveyed The Land.  With her breath, the Maker calmed the rough seas.  With her lips, the Maker gave the new world a kiss of life – to The Land, to The Islands, and to the seas.  Weakened by her work, the Maker hung the now living planet back in the firmament, where she forgot about it.

Eons passed before the Maker of Worlds remembered her watery creation with the one continent upon it.  In the time that had passed, The Land had become full of life.  Not only animals and plants, but intelligent beings, who lived together in communities and created a society.  The Land was rich and plentiful, but its inhabitants still found things to fight about.  They constantly warred, on upon the other, seemingly without end.  When the Maker saw what had become of her world, she was depressed.  And she was angry.

In her anger, the Maker of Worlds lashed out at her creation.  She drove a single finger into the soil on the east side of The Land.  Then, she drug it across the entire breadth of The Land, changing it forever.  In the wake of the Maker’s finger came Great Basin Lake and The Water Road.  To the south of the river, great mountains heaved up from the soil, all the way south to the cold southern seas.  To the north, The Land cracked and two great rivers were formed as water rushed into the fissures.  The far north, beyond the reach of the waters, became barren, dry, and inhospitable.  The people of The Land were likewise shattered, north and south, divided by the Water Road into Neldathi and Altrerian.  Many multitudes died.

When the Maker of Worlds realized what she had done, she howled in pain.  After all, she was a creator, not a destroyer.  He had lashed out in anger because her children had disappointed her.  Her anger saddened and disgusted her.  As she held back tears, the Maker of Worlds took the wounded world and gently placed it back in the firmament.  She vowed never to touch it again and let her children be.

And then, history began . . .

The Neldathi and the Altrerians were both polytheistic and shared the same pantheon of deities, but interacted with them in different ways. The Altrerians treated the gods as a group, beings that were all involved in the order of the universe. By contrast, each of the Neldathi clans had one god as a protector and venerated him or her over the others. The Maker of Worlds, in spite of the creation myth, wasn’t really part of the pantheon.

At the time The Water Road begins there’s been a seismic shift in the way the Altrerians think of the gods. Sometime in the semi-recent past, a Great Awakening swept across the nations of the Triumvirate. Only this wasn’t an awakening of religious fervor, but the emergence of a consensus that the gods actually didn’t exist. How people dealt with this varied – in the Guilds religious belief and observances disappeared in a generation, while the Telebrians hung on to the traditional cultural aspects of belief while largely proclaiming not to believe anymore.

On top of that, among the Neldathi there’s also a new strain of religious thinking. A movement led by a man named Goshen preaches that the gods are all actually different aspects of the one actual god – the Maker of Worlds. He and his beliefs will play an important role in The Water Road.


Another Reason Judicial Elections Are Dumb

This year, for the first time in West Virginia, our judicial elections will be “non-partisan,” meaning candidates won’t be designated as belonging to a political party. That’s a shame, because that’s at least a useful data point to consider, even if it’s not definitive.

I’ve never been a fan of electing judges. Judges are supposed to be impartial servants to the law, not popular opinion. There are times when they should do the exact opposite of what the Twitter-mob wants. Insulation from the political process (with the acknowledgment that complete insulation is impossible) is critical if we expect the “rule of law” to mean anything.

Beyond such philosophical issues, there’s another reason that judicial elections are just dumb, one that I’ve been particularly aware of here as we begin to see campaigns for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals get into full swing. People generally vote for politicians based on what they promise to do, either for particular groups of voters or the nation/state/county as a whole. It’s crass sometimes, but that’s how democracy works.

Here’s the problem when it comes to judicial elections – judges can’t make promises like that. For one thing, while the hoary right-wing chestnut that “judges don’t make law” is as silly as ever, courts are limited to issues brought before them in actual disputes between parties. No court has the power to simply issue an opinion on its own. For another, rules of judicial ethics prohibit candidates from promising to rule in particular ways on issues that may come before them. No judge can say if they’re elected they’ll rule a particular way on an issue or in favor of a particular party.

But if a judicial candidate can’t say “vote for me so I can do X,” what can they do? It comes down to a choice between meaningless fluff and vague non-sequitors.

In the current WV Supreme Court race the fluff angle belongs to Bill Wooten. His ads that I’ve seen (can’t find them online – how can a candidate for office in 2016 not have a web page?!?) all star his grandkids and highlight his role as a grandfather. Which is great (the kids are cute), but what does that have to do with his ability to be a justice? I realize that a big part of politics, at least locally, is name recognition, so the fluff accomplishes that (see also gubernatorial candidate Booth Goodwin’s ad about his WV birthmark), but it’s awfully thin gruel if you’re trying to figure out who to vote for.

At least fluff doesn’t promise anything more than that. This ad, from Beth Walker, promises something she can’t deliver:

Since when do Supreme Court justices decide to increase penalties for crimes? Putting to one side the foolishness of her plan (Really? We haven’t tried locking people in cages for selling drugs yet?), it’s just empty rhetoric. The cynic in me says all political rhetoric is empty – promises made are rarely kept, after all – but at least they’re plausible. The get tough promise is particularly odd in West Virginia, where sentencing is purely statutory and tied in with a parole system. Unlike the federal system, judges don’t have an awful lot of say on how long someone stays in prison.

That’s not to lay the blame at the feet of these, or any other, candidates. It’s not their ads that are dumb (although I disagree with Walker’s policy position), it’s the game they’re playing that is. They’re doing their best to convince people to vote for them in an election where they can’t promise to do anything if elected. It’s bound to lead to meaningless drivel in commercials. Which is kind of the point – is this any way to select the men and women who preside over the justice system?


Water Road Wednesday: The Neldathi of Kentucky?

I have a list of topics for these Water Road Wednesday posts. I sat down last December and wracked my brain to come up with everything I could talk about without going too far into what actually happens in the books. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d wind up with a post about the blue people of Kentucky.

Although the story began much earlier, it came to the attention of doctors in 1975 when a child in the hospital was being treated based on the blue color of his skin (“as Blue as Lake Louise”). Then, as:

a transfusion was being readied, the baby’s grandmother suggested to doctors that he looked like the ‘blue Fugates of Troublesome Creek.’ Relatives described the boy’s great-grandmother Luna Fugate as ‘blue all over,’ and ‘the bluest woman I ever saw.’

Turns out, genes were to blame:

The Fugate progeny had a genetic condition called methemoglobinemia, which was passed down through a recessive gene and blossomed through intermarriage.

* * *

Methemoglobinemia is a blood disorder in which an abnormal amount of methemoglobin — a form of hemoglobin — is produced, according to the National Institutes for Health. Hemoglobin is responsible for distributing oxygen to the body and without oxygen, the heart, brain and muscles can die.

In methemoglobinemia, the hemoglobin is unable to carry oxygen and it also makes it difficult for unaffected hemoglobin to release oxygen effectively to body tissues. Patients’ lips are purple, the skin looks blue and the blood is “chocolate colored” because it is not oxygenated . . ..

According to family tradition, Martin Fugate came to the area, in all his bluishness, in 1820. There he married a woman who carried a recessive gene for the condition. Four of their seven children were blue. Other families in the area showed signs of the condition, too, with one group being described as “bluer’n hell.” The Fugate family began to move away in the early 20th Century, as coal mining picked up in the area.

Although it’s a genetic condition (exacerbated by inbreeding), it can also be caused by exposure to certain chemicals. It’s one of those conditions that’s so rare no doctor ever sees it, but they all learn about it medical school.

Did the Fugates and their like really look like the Neldathi of The Water Road universe? Doubtful. But it’s kind of interesting that a clan-based group of mountain dwellers I pulled out of my imagination have a kind of real world equivalent. Truth, as they say, is never a match for fiction.

Weekly Read: The Mechanical & The Rising

It’s 1926, but not the 1926 we remember. There is no Lost Generation following the First World War, no Jazz Age, no impending economic collapse. Instead, the world, or at least the largest part of it, is ruled over by the Dutch. How have the Dutch managed this feat? Magic, of course.

Well, they call it alchemy, but it’s essentially magic, a combination of mysticism and technology that creates a horde of “clakkers” – mechanical creatures designed to do the bidding of their creators. With this technological marvel in their pocket, the Dutch rule the world, with only a rump New France holding on in what we would call Canada.

Regardless of the precise verbiage, Ian Tregillis has created a really interesting world with his Alchemy Wars trilogy, the third volume of which is due this fall or winter. It’s a world that allows readers to dive into to heady questions of philosophy and free will, all the while creating deed and interesting characters engaged in life or death struggles.

Depending on how you define “life,” of course. Or “death.” For one of the main characters in the series is Jax a clakker built to be a general servant and slave. When The Mechanical begins, Jax is present for the gruesome execution of a “rogue” clakker, one who has managed to slip the bounds of the “geas” that define his existence.

It’s not giving much away to say that Jax escapes all that, thanks to a sudden case of free will. At the same time, another character, a human, has his taken away. All the while the master of French spies (or former, as the case may be) is doing her best to try and understand the Dutch magic as a way of saving her kingdom. Their adventures aren’t for the faint of heart – Tregillis is a very descriptive writer and uses that skill to devastating effect when it comes to physical altercations – but they are exciting, occasionally funny, and ask some interesting questions.

Of the first two books in the trilogy, The Mechanical comes off slightly better. That’s largely down to the fact that it gets to introduce you to this new world and the sense of discovery is palpable. Furthermore, while both books are obviously parts of a larger whole, The Mechanical comes off as a better stand alone story than The Rising, which is clearly just setting up the pieces for the big finale in the third book.

Aside from that, there are couple of things that hold The Rising back. The Mechanical essentially has three main characters – Jax, the French spymaster, and one of her spies. All of them carry their weight (although the last one disappears once he gets “treated”) for the length of the book.

Jax and the spymaster return in The Rising, where the third leg of the stool is taken over by Longchamp, the captain of the guard in the last redoubt of New France. He was a minor character in The Mechanical, fleshed out briefly but well, and a world class blasphemer. He fit that role well. He doesn’t do so well with the promotion to main character, however. Oddly enough, with more time on the page he becomes less interesting and the blasphemous motivational speeches become tiring. Part of that is because his part of the story – a defense of the French capital from attacking clakkers – takes up entirely too much of the book.

The other disappointment about The Rising is that it pushes some of the philosophizing to the background in place of action. Nowhere is that more evident than when Jax finds a community of other rogue clakkers. There’s a great chance there to explore what free will really means – particularly in terms of evil and/or unethical behavior – because you have the community of beings who weren’t able to exercise it for so long. Unfortunately, it becomes little more than a side trip to allow Jax to grab a McGuffin and get back to the main plot. I really wish this had been stretched out some more.

While I have more nits to pick with The Rising than The Mechanical, that’s all they are. Tregillis has created a fascinating world populated by interesting people (and non-people) doing daring things. Can’t wait to see how he wraps things up later this year!


Water Road Wednesday: The Slaisal Islands

The world of The Water Road is dominated by the continent of Altreria. It’s where the titular river is, where the Neldathi and Triumvirate face off, and where most of the action in the trilogy happens. It’s not the only bit of real estate in this world, however.

The Slaisal Islands are a chain of islands that lie off the continent’s northeast corner, curving away from the Badlands toward the northeast. Those who live there, called Islanders, are, naturally enough, sailors and fishers. In general, they stay out of the political squabble between the Triumvirate and the Neldathi. In short, if there’s a vacation spot in the world of The Water Road, this is it. I mean, consider the sunsets:



Not really the Slaisal Islands, obviously – they don’t even have cameras yet! But you get the idea. Photo of Lake Malawi in Tanzania, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Islanders are also traders, effectively controlling the commercial network at sea. Since they’re not part of the Triumvirate they aren’t bound by the alliance’s command to not do business with the Neldathi. In fact, there are four Islander cities along the Neldathi coast. They serve as way stations for Islander vessels, but also provide the only regular contact between the Neldathi and the outside world. There’s a similar Islander city on the northern coast, serving the same function with the Azkiri nomads who roam the Badlands.

In spite of their position on the periphery of events in Altreria, the Islanders are a key part of the story of The Water Road.

You Want Choices? You Got Choices!

The further we trudge down the path toward the presidential election, the sicker just about all of us are getting of the major candidates left in the race. Thankfully, there are so many more to burn through! Ed Brayton has surveyed some of the 1669 (you read that right) people who have filed to run for president and it is, let me tell you, an interesting bunch. Here’s a taste:

If you’re feeling a bit weird, you could try Sir TrippyCup aka Young Trippz aka The GOAT aka The Prophet aka Earl, if you’re not into the whole, ya know, brevity thing. And if you’re into the whole medieval fantasy thing, you could vote for Actual Literal Dragon. President Frederickson Asshat Kazoo does kind of roll of the tongue, doesn’t it?

There are lots of religious figures running. Jesus Christ himself is taking a shot at it. I can’t wait for the debate between him and The Antichrist. That just has to be moderated by Glenn Beck. And if you’re tired of voting for the lesser of two evils, you might cast your vote for Dr. Ourlordandsavior Cthulu (I can’t imagine how he found time to go to medical school with his busy schedule of devouring souls). I suspect Lesale Venomancer Deathbringer is just trying to get a cabinet position as Secretary of Defense. And for all the Satanists on your shopping list, there’s always Mrs. Luci Fer. She’s apparently running against her husband, His Royal Majesty Satan, Lord of the Underworld, Prince of Darkness. I doubt that guy will do anything about global warming. But I’m sure Abraham Israel will sacrifice whatever it takes to get the job done.

Every name has a link to the actual FEC filing for that candidate – he’s not making these up! Hell, I’m surprised these guys aren’t listed yet:


Those are candidates I could get behind!


I’m at Tamarack!

I’m at Tamarack!

Opened in 1996, Tamarack (just outside of Beckley) is a showcase for West Virginia artists of various kinds. According to its website, it was the first of its kind – a center devoted to the promotion of regional arts. In the 20 years since its opening more than 7 million people have visited.

Items sold at Tamarack have been juried and approved, which means getting into the collection there is something of an accomplishment. So I’m very pleased to report that my first novel, Moore Hollow, is now available there:


Cell phone picture – pardon the quality

I think Moore Hollow is a natural fit for Tamarack, given that it’s set largely in West Virginia. It also ties a little bit into the political history of the state and, I hope, might give people a reason to rethink their perceptions of small mountain towns and the people who live there.

Of course, Moore Hollow is also still available from Amazon, as well.

What Vinyl Can Learn From The Americans

Almost every piece of fiction is, in fact, about creating an alternate reality. No matter the verisimilitude of a story, not matter how “real” the characters feel, the simple truth is they aren’t. They’re creations of a writer who controls their every movement and word. Our world is not their world for the basic reason that they don’t exist in our world.

Alternate histories, of course, take this premise and run with it. What if the Allies lost World War II? What if the American Revolution never happened? Stories that ask such questions are all about messing with history. The only limits on the changes you make are whether they make some sense in relation to the big change.

Things are a little trickier when you’re telling a story set in the past that doesn’t have quite the same ambition. If you’re not really changing the past, how much of “history” as we know it can you play with? And how? Two current TV shows deal with this issue, one much more successfully.

Vinyl, on HBO, has a hell of a pedigree. The show, about the head of a struggling record company in the early-to-mid 1970s, boasts Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Terrence Winter (of The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire fame) among its creative forces. The company is on the brink, the main character is a coked-up killer, and, well, there are other complications. It’s gotten a fairly cool reception from critics, but has already been renewed for a second season. I’m not sure I’ll be on board for it.


Although I have several issues with the show, the one that really drives me nuts (and prompted this post) involves how the fictional record label interacts with real world stars. Already this season we’ve seen our heroes interact with Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, and Elvis. While there’s a chance to play that for fun, or verisimilitude boosting background, the show doesn’t go that route. Instead, we’re shown multiple instances of the fictional record label trying to do business with these luminaries that we know won’t because we’re still in the “real” world. Whatever conversations you might dream up for Alice Cooper to say in your version of 1973, you’re not going so far as to have him sign with a fictional record label. It drains these incidents of any tension or drama, regardless of how well they’re executed.

Compare that approach with the one taken by FX’s The Americans. It’s got considerably higher fictional stakes – telling the story of a pair of Soviet spies posing as a suburban American family during height of the Cold War 1980s. They should bump into historical biggies every week, yet they don’t. In fact, the only major historical fact in play in the series is the one that hangs over the whole thing like a specter – we know that these folks play for the losing team.


Yet, the drama of the series still works because our “heroes” aren’t interacting with bigger specific historical events that have happened around them. They never try to assassinate Reagan, for example (although I suppose you could conspiracy theory that one into real history), or engage in some epic act of sabotage that didn’t happen in the real world. As a result, we’re more caught up in the tension of their existence because we’re unsure how their small part of the larger story is going to play out.

Vinyl lacks that. Whatever the fate of American Century Records will turn out to be it has fuck all to do with hitching its star to David Bowie or Elvis. It’s a much better show when it’s playing with its fictional artists, people in whom viewers can invest some real emotion.

It’s fun to play around with history. But I think you have to have a solid idea of why you’re doing it and how your fictional characters are going to fit into that history. Are they swept along with the tide we all know or are they changing it into something entirely different? It’s a fine line and easy to wind up on the wrong side of it.

Water Road Wednesday: Oberton

I’ve talked a little bit about the great walled cities of the Arbor, the large city-states that formed the Confederation. While they dominate the dense wooded area, they aren’t the only thing there. Smaller cities and towns pop up in various clearings. One of them, even, takes a slightly different route.

Oberton isn’t quite a mythical city, but it’s a city with a lot of mythology around it. That’s pretty much par for the course when you build a city in the trees. Here’s Rurek, introducing Strefer to the mythos of Oberton:

“Oberton is a city in the Arbor…” he said, before Strefer interrupted with a wave of her hand.

“Hang on. I thought the names of all the cities in the Arbor ended the same way: Tomondala, Kerkondala, whateverdala,” she said, emphasizing the last two syllables before trailing off.

“Sort of,” Rurek said. “In the ancient tongue, ‘dala’ literally meant ‘walled city.’ So ‘Tomondala’ literally means ‘Walled City of Tomon.’ The seven city-states that make up the Confederation are all walled cities, so their names all end the same way. But there are lots of other cities and towns in the Arbor, Strefer. You didn’t think there were only the seven, did you?” he asked with the kind of grin that said he hoped she did, so he could hold it over her in the future.

“Pfft,” she said, waving off his accusation, “of course not.” She wasn’t so drunk to concede that she had never actually given the matter any thought.

“Oberton is a city that’s almost right in the center of the Arbor, somewhere between Maladondala and Vertidala,” he said.

“Somewhere?” Strefer asked.

“Nobody is quite sure where it is, to tell the truth,” he said.

“Wait, are you sure it really exists at all?” Strefer asked. “It sounds a little fishy.”

Rurek rolled his eyes, as if the existence of Oberton was a settled fact where he came from. “It’s not like the other cities in the Arbor, Strefer. It’s up in the trees, built along the tops of the massive trunks that have grown up there. They say you could be standing right underneath the town square and never know it.”

Strefer was not quite buying this, but he might as well continue, anyway. “Sorry to interrupt.”

Rurek took a drink and continued his explanation. “It’s renowned as a city of learning and history. Sort of like your people, Strefer, when the awakening came and the priests and monks of the various orders there put aside the gods and became scholars of history. They say Oberton has a great library that holds many ancient texts and great secrets. In Oberton, they treasure learning and truth above all else.” [/quote]

Hmm. A mysterious city in the trees where truth is valued above all else. A woman who needs to get the truth out whatever it takes. Wonder if those things might play well with each other?

NOTE: As it happens, the theme for this week’s edition of One Line Wednesday on Twitter is “up.” Look for more blurb about Oberton there using #1lineWed.