Water Road Wednesday: “The Missing Legion”

The Water Road is the first part of the trilogy, of course, and the first thing I wrote in this universe. It’s not the first to see the light of day, however.

At some point in the past, I decided I wanted to write a ghost story. October was coming up, it was something I hadn’t done before, and I thought it would be fun. I was in the middle of revising The Water Road at the time, so I decided to set it in that world. I quickly settled on a story about a hunter (in pursuit of one of the cryptid beasts that stalk Alteria) who gets lost in the woods and gets more than he bargained for.

I knew I didn’t want to set it during the time of The Water Road, so I set it much earlier, even before the First Neldathi Uprising and the forming of the Triumvirate. Indeed, it’s a time when two great cities in the Arbor are at war.

As for the ghost story itself, it’s influenced heavily by a section of Akira Kurosawa’s 1990 film Dreams that you can read about here. Or, you can just read “The Missing Legion,” which is part of my short story collection The Last Ereph and Other Stories. Here’s a snippet:

The corporal turned away and motioned for Taiman to get back on his horse. “You’re heading into the woods, you say?”

“Yes,” Taiman said.

“Are you sure you want to do that?”

“Absolutely,” Taiman said. “I’ve been chasing that beast for five days. If I can corner it in the woods, perhaps I can catch it alive.”

“Will that be worth it, you think?” the corporal asked.

“Of course,” Taiman said. “Why?  You’re not going to try and keep me from going, are you? Thought men in the Arbor valued free movement more than anything.”

“We will not stop you,” the corporal said. “But I would advise against going in, particularly if you don’t know the area. It’s very easy to get lost. Plus, they say things happen in those woods at night. Strange things, when the moons are full.”

Taiman chuckled and sighed. “Thank you for the warning.  Someday, the enlightenment that has come to the Guildlands will filter down to the Arbor as well. We no longer believe in superstitious nonsense. There are no strange things, only things that we do not understand. Besides, I am capable of handling any creature or person I might encounter. Now, if I may be on my way?”

The corporal told him how to best make his way around the camp and Taiman set off. He cursed the delay, but knew it had not spoiled his hunt. The beast had outrun him the day before, vanished from sight, but Taiman had held onto the trail. Barely.

His hopes rekindled when he spotted the beast through a telescope as it loped out of the trees in search of water. Once again he had a target to pursue. Taiman spurred his horse and charged off down river.

The Last Ereph and Other Stories is available at Amazon, including Kindle Unlimited, which means you can read it for free, essentially. Why wait?

Final Cover Idea (KDP)

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Water Road Wednesday: Cover & Release Date!

I’ve spilled quite a bit of virtual ink over the past weeks (this is the 20th edition of Water Road Wednesday, by the way) talking about the world of The Water Road, some of the things that happen there and, most importantly, some of the people who inhabit it. Now’s the time to put something a little more concrete with all that.

I’m very pleased to reveal the cover for The Water Road:

TWR Cover (540x810)

It’s by Deranged Doctor Design, who will be doing the covers for The Endless Hills and The Water Road, too.

With a cover I can also announce that The Water Road will be released on June 22 – that’s right, on Water Road Wednesday! It will be available as an eBook exclusively from Amazon. Paperback will follow shortly thereafter (it’s harder to coordinate that).

Of course, there will be more info on the entire Water Road Trilogy as the year rolls on!

Guest Post: Flutterby Girl by Suz Korb

A guest post from Suz Korb about her new project.

Hello, I’m Suz Korb and my new book project is titled: Flutterby Girl. Welcome to this cover reveal blog post, with a twist. And here’s the cover…

The twist is that this book hasn’t been written yet. I’m going to write it live on Patreon. I’ve written a novel live before, chapter by chapter, on my blog. And now I’m doing it again with Flutterby Girl!
I got the idea for Flutterby Girl, then I thought up a title, then I got the cover, and now I’m writing the story. It will go up on Patreon chapter by chapter, daily. You can read each chapter if you become my patron. I’m new at Patreon, so if problems arise I hope I can deal with them quick! It should be easy enough though.
I’ve decided to write my two most recent books live because it pushes me, and it makes my imagination flow more deeply.

Chapter 1 of Flutterby Girl is up on Patreon now and I hope you will join me in this young adult journey.

Author Suz Korb
Suz Korb Patreon
suzkorb.com
Twitter @SuzKorb
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Water Road Wednesday: Goshen the Holy

A couple of weeks ago I talked about religion in the world of The Water Road. While it’s largely background for the story of The Water Road trilogy, there’s one character who brings the matter to the forefront and plays a key role.

Goshen, known at the time the story starts as Goshen the Holy, is, somewhat like Antrey, a person without a country. He has a clan heritage, but he was born and raised in one of the Islander cities, which gives him a completely different perspective on the world.

Primarily, Goshen has no clan. The Islander cities all have a small, permanent Neldathi population, some of whom stay with others of their own clan. But most of the urban Neldathi mix with those from other clans, at least occasionally. As a result, there are those, like Goshen, who are born and raised without any kind of loyalty to a clan and without the animosity that engenders to other clans.

In addition, because he wasn’t constantly on the move, he was able to learn to read and had access to books brought in by Islander traders. At an early age, he was drawn to the stories of the gods (and other mythological figures) that had been compiled by Altrerian anthropologists before the First Neldathi Uprising. What started as simple fascination turned into serious study and, eventually, a calling.

Goshen first realized that the gods worshipped by the Neldathi and those worshipped by the Altrerians before the Great Awakening were one and the same. The Neldathi interacted with them in a very different way, but their names and essences were the same. Going further, he discovered more and more similarities between how the various gods interacted with the world. This led him to a conclusion as bold and world shattering for a Neldathi as the Great Awakening had been for an Altrerian – the gods were all actually separate aspects of one, real, god.

Goshen’s digging brought him to the creation story of the Maker of Worlds, which solidified his beliefs. If one god made the world, why would She then leave it to be overseen by others? No, Goshen concluded, the Maker of Worlds is the only god and She interacts with her creation via the different gods of Neldathi mythology.

He realized that wasn’t going to be a popular opinion amongst the Neldathi, who valued their clan identities, of which their individual protector gods were a large part. Nonetheless, he went out among them without the colored stripes in his hair to signify his clan membership. Part of all the clans, but part of none, he wanted to bring them together.

Sooner than he’d thought possible, he’d have his chance.

Weekly Read: The Heart Goes Last

My brother used to have a saying – an aphorism, I suppose – taped to his wall. It was attributed to Skippy the Lizard God and went like this:

Sex is like pizza – when it’s good, it’s really good. Even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.

The same is true of albums by great bands, movies by great directors, or books by great authors – even their lesser efforts are generally worth your time. That’s a long way of saying that while The Heart Goes Last is far from Margaret Atwood’s best work, it’s still worth a read.

The Heart Goes Last has a deliciously absurd premise. A husband and wife, Stan and Charmaine, are living in their car in a depressed, near-future New England dystopia (there’s some suggesting things are better in the rest of the US). They’re not exactly happy, but they’re getting by. They find out about a quasi-utopian project called Consilience that promises work, happiness, and safety, but with a catch – people in the town live one month in their home and then one month in prison (where they’re used as cheap labor). Stan and Charmaine move in. It’s wrong to say “wackiness ensues,” but what transpires is pretty fucked up.

Without going too deep into spoiler country, Stan and Charmaine get caught up in a grand scheme that could bring down the whole operation, one that detours through murder and organ harvesting, Elvis impersonators, romantic imprinting gone awry, and Dutch-designed sex robots.*

There are some wonderfully dark and funny bits in all of this. In one instance, Stan finds what he thinks is a love note between the two “alternates” who share his and Charmaine’s house (occupants switch each month – one set in the house, one set in the big house). It’s lusty and sexy in a way Charmaine simply isn’t, which makes Stan determined to find and bed the other woman (contact between alternates is strictly forbidden). He spins out an R-rated, Technicolor fantasy that covers not only his attempted seduction but the surely violent reaction from her muscled, bald, and tattooed husband. It’s all completely inane, made all the more so when we learn the truth about the note.

Then there’s the blue teddy bears. I don’t think anybody has gotten such mileage out of an ordinary inanimate object since Tom Hanks (Castaway link).

Which is all amusing for a bit, but it doesn’t really coalesce into anything substantive in the end. Part of that’s due to Stan and Charmaine, who are our only POV characters. Since they’re essentially pawns in the game, we never get a solid idea of what the game is, who’s playing it, and why (even at the end). In addition, neither one are what you’d call bright. Stan is mostly a slave to his baser urges, while Charmaine is so chirpy and positive (even when dispatching souls in her prison job) that it’s hard to sympathize with her very much. I agree with this bit from the NPR review:

The Heart Goes Last’s deepest investment isn’t in Consilience’s hideous secrets. It isn’t even in Stan and Charmaine’s inner lives — both characters have interior monologues like repetitive tape loops. The book is mostly interested in their sexual obsessions, and the way they fetishize each other only once they’re separated. But their predictability doesn’t do much to ground an unpredictable narrative, or give readers a worthy point of view. As other people plot against Consilience, the protagonists become hapless bystanders in everything from their marriage to the larger story.

It doesn’t help matters that the endgame, as it plays out between this two, has a confusing, Rube Goldberg quality. Which could be fun, if we had some idea of what the people setting up the scheme were trying to accomplish.

As I said, all that makes The Heart Goes Last frustrating and I certainly wouldn’t suggest it as a starting point for someone who’s never read Atwood before. But she’s too talented a writer to not score some points along the way, so I’d definitely say it’s worth it (it’s pretty brief, all things considered). Nobody succeeds every time, but few of us are lucky enough to stumble as interestingly as Atwood.

Also, if I ever meet Grandma Win in person, I’ll punch her dentures down her throat.

* Indeed, it’s kind of odd how many parallels there are with The Mechanical and The Rising that I reviewed recently. Dutch robots? Check. Reprogrammed humans? Check. Ruminations on the nature of free will? Check. Done in completely different ways, of course. The sex bots also remind me of Zappa, naturally.

Book Review The Heart Goes Last

Water Road Wednesday: Second Excerpt from The Water Road

In this scene, Strefer has run to the Triumvirate compound because of a buzz of rumors that something big has gone down there – very big. Sentinels are standing guard outside the Grand Council building as a crowd swells. She needs to get inside and find out what’s going on, but they’re not supposed to let anyone in.

Strefer stepped up and looked the Sentinel in the eyes.

“Who are you?” he asked, his voice a mixture of vigilance and weariness. He was tall and forceful, with fine light-green skin, most likely a Guilder. That was a stroke of luck, Strefer thought. His pikti was slung loosely across his back. The way he carried himself suggested he had been here a while.

Strefer opened the hand in which she had clutched her identifications and handed them to him. “My name is Strefer Quants. I’m with the Daily Register.”

He took the cards, gave them a quick glance, and handed them back to her. “Why should I care? You don’t think I’m going to let you in just because you work for some newspaper, do you?”

“Why not?” Strefer asked, slipping the cards back into her pouch. “Is there something in there you don’t want people to know about?”

The Sentinel shot back at her with a wry smile. “I am afraid I cannot comment,” he said, with affected formality.

“Do you see a notebook in my hand?” Strefer said, keeping the game going. It was one she would surely win. “I’m not asking you for any comment. I’m just asking if there is something going on up there that you’re trying to keep from the public.” She gestured towards the doors at the top of the marble steps.

“Perhaps I wasn’t clear, missus,” he said, the smile replaced by a glower as he stared down at her. “I have nothing to say about whether anything is happening inside here. Much less to the likes of you, notebook in hand or not.”

“Fair enough,” Strefer said in concession. She decided to try another approach. “But you’ll let me by so I can make my appointment, at least.”

“Appointment?” he asked, confusion sliding across his face like the shadow of clouds moving across the sky. “Appointment with who? And don’t say one of the Grand Council members. They would be in session now. And, at any rate, they don’t greet visitors.”

Score one for her, Strefer thought. She knew from talking with Tevis that interviews with members of the Grand Council were possible. Cutting them off completely meant something important had happened inside. “Of course it’s not with one of the Council members, who do I look like? No, it’s with,” she paused for a moment, grasping for a name. “Keretki,” she finally said, forced to pull a name out of thin air.

“Who?”

“Keretki,” Strefer said, knowing this was her hook. “You know, the policy coordinator for the Arborians? I have an appointment to meet with him to discuss some trade matters he has been dealing with during the session. I’m sure you’ve seen him around here.” She threw the last line in to dig a little at her adversary.

“No, missus, I don’t know him,” the Sentinel said. “But this isn’t my regular patrol.” Another useful bit of information. “Regardless, I can’t let you into the building right now.”

Strefer turned from amused to angry in a flash. “Now look here. My boss spent weeks setting up this interview, all right? The publisher back in Sermont even had to get involved. This interview will be the centerpiece of our coverage of the Council session for the next week or so. It’s very important. Not just to me, either, but Keretki, too. You know the Arborians, always sniping at each other over the smallest things. He has them all together on the same page for once and wants the public to know about it. Do you really want to be responsible for pissing off all those people?”

The Sentinel stood in silence, reaching for an answer that was not coming.

“It’ll be worth your trouble, I promise,” Strefer said. “Have you ever heard of Olrey, the publisher of the Daily Register? He has a reputation for airing his feuds in the press. He could make things very difficult for the Sentinels, the Grand Council, the…”

Exasperated, the Sentinel put up his hands. “All right, all right, fine. You win.”

“Thank you,” Strefer said, suddenly buoyant. “You’re a very reasonable man.”

But before Strefer could make it up the stairs, he put his hand on her chest to stop her. “Hold on a second. You get to go in, but there are two conditions. First, none of this conversation we’ve had here is going to show up in your paper, all right? I don’t…”

“Agreed,” she said, cutting him off. “Say no more. What’s the other one?”

“Second, the Grand Council chamber is off limits. Got it?”

“Absolutely,” she said. “Kerekti’s office is on the other side of the building, I think. I won’t be anywhere near the Grand Council chamber.”

With that, the Sentinel stood aside and let Strefer proceed up the stairs. There were another pair of Sentinels stationed by the front door, but they did nothing to halt her progress. Once inside, she made sure that neither of them were watching her, then she went to look for the Grand Council chamber.

Weekly Read: The Master of Confessions

As I said once before, my wife and I spent a couple of weeks in Cambodia last year as a belated honeymoon. It’s a country of stunning geographical beauty, fascinating history, and warm, friendly people. But it’s also a place that still dealing with the deep scars of its recent past. Specifically, the impact of the overspill of the Vietnam War and the eventual rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s and the horrors that it brought.

Although the regime fell to a Vietnamese invasion in 1979 (some groups hung on until the 1990s), the country is still dealing with trying to bring to justice those responsible for an era that killed up to 2 million people. The first of those brought to trial was Kaing Guek Eav, known more widely as Duch. Duch spent most of the Khmer Rouge years in charge of the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, in which thousands of people were tortured and killed. In fact, there were only 7 survivors of S-21. S-21 is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which is a horrifying place.

The Master of Confessions, by French journalist Thierry Cruvellier, is about Duch and his crimes, but it’s not a straight biography. Nor is it a typical history of the Khmer Rouge. Instead, it’s the relations and observations of Duch’s 8-month trial before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. While it certainly goes into the history, it’s all done at arm’s length, allowing Cruvellier to effectively comment on not just what’s happened, but the trial itself and the very idea of seeking justice for such massive crimes (Cruvellier has also written about the Rwandan genocide trials – sadly, that book doesn’t appear to be available in English).

I already noted one example, when Cruvellier brings up the dynamic of confessions and their role in the justice system, something which is familiar to defense lawyers from Phnom Penh to West Virginia. Another is where he details how the mood of the trial changes the longer it goes on:

Five months into the trial, the quality of the silence in the courtroom has changed. No longer is it that breathless and dumbstruck silence that knows it is watching history being written, nor is it the solemn quiet of a legal drama. The silence that fills the courtroom now is that of fatigue, of weariness, of exhaustion with both the trial and Duch’s words. His performance has lost its shine. Now he sounds like he’s rambling endlessly.

Duch was rambling because, alone amongst the few charged by the ECCC, he pleaded guilty and spent most of his time trying to lessen his culpability, rather than deny it completely. That being said, as Cruvellier points out, Duch was rarely willing to extend his testimony beyond those areas that were already widely documented. It’s a cunning, if empty, strategy – admit what they can prove you did, stall on everything else. It would also be frustrating as fuck.

That frustration came to a head during closing arguments when one of the Cambodian lawyers representing Duch kneecapped his French superior and suddenly claimed that Duch shouldn’t be convicted at all. The argument is cowardly, but kind of compelling – not only was Duch not in the top echelon of the Khmer Rouge, but some of those who were are still free and, indeed, still part of the Cambodian government today. It was a bold, weird gambit that, as expected, fell completely flat.

Cruvellier’s approach also allows him some interesting digressions from Duch himself and the trial. In one instance he treks to the northern part of Cambodia, the rugged mountainous area near the Thai border where the remnants of the Khmer Rouge (including Pol Pot) held on until the 1990s. He explores the growing industry of genocide tourism, as various people try to monetize everything from gravesites of Khmer Rouge leaders to spots where their homes once stood. It was an uncomfortable bit to read, given that my wife and I travelled halfway around the world partly to see S-21 and the killings fields at Choeung Ek. I like to think that we’re both students of history, engaging in some empathy for the victims of the regime. But maybe we were just gawkers, scraping the surface of something we can never really hope to understand.

At the heart of Cruvellier’s observations is the same question most people ask about someone like Duch – how does someone do such horrible things on such a scale? It’s not really a question courts are designed to answer – they’re more interested in the what of someone’s actions, rather than the why (issues of intent aside). At the end there aren’t any good answers. Duch, for all his evil deeds, is not a mustache twiddling villain. He’s a man who glommed on to several ideologies in his life, each with equal vigor, whether it was the Khmer Rouge’s particularly brutal form of Communism or, in his later life, Christianity. At least he recognizes that flaws in his past ideologies. Duch doesn’t make the argument that Communism was failed, rather than conceded that it failed the Cambodian people spectacularly.

My only real beef with the book is the Cruvellier gives short shrift to the actual outcome of the trial. Duch was convicted (naturally) and initially sentenced to 30 years, a term that was increased to life in prison on appeal. Cruvellier dashes that off in a few lines at the end of the book. I wish he’d been able to get into the considerations at play in that appeal, particularly since increasing a sentence on appeal is almost unheard of in American law.

One of the reviews on Amazon faults Cruvellier’s approach because it:

is tainted by the author’s utter contempt for the institutions that conduct international criminal trials . . ..

It’s certainly true that Cruvellier has a jaundiced view of tribunals like the ECCC, but I’m not so sure it rises to the level of “utter contempt.” If anything, he seems to be disappointed at how tribunals that theoretically should aim for answering bigger questions of why ultimately wind up bound down by legal procedural minutiae. For what it’s worth, the couple of conversations we had with Cambodians about the ECCC showed a real ambivalence toward it. They seemed to think that justice was something that was never really going to happen and that the main purpose of the ECCC was to show the international community that something was happening and keep foreign investment flowing. Cynicism, more than contempt, but well earned, it seems to me.

Maybe I have less of an issue with Cruvellier’s point of view because, deep down, I’m a cynic, too, especially when it comes to international law. I found his reporting to be sober, nuanced, and tinged with the sadness that when humanity is at its most brutal it often can’t rise to the occasion when it comes time to do justice. It’s not as depressing a read as it sounds, but it’s not one that will leave you walking away with a song in your heart. Maybe that’s a good thing.

There’s a good interview with Cruvellier here, if you’re interested in more about him and the book (and how to actually pronounce Duch correctly).

MasterofConfessions