My Fantasy Confession

If you’re reading this, you probably know that as an author I primarily write fantasy stories. As I’ve said before, I love that fantasy basically has no rules and, so long as the world you build makes sense on the page, you can do anything you want. Given that, I figure it’s time that I came clean about my deep, dark secret as a fantasy writer:

I have never read a word by J.R.R. Tolkein.

It’s not that I have anything personal against ol’ JRR. I’ve seen all the movies! Not the super-extended versions that take entire years to watch, but all the ones as released in theaters. I enjoyed them, too (well, the actual Lord of the Rings ones). But if I’m honest, the Tolkien link that has the most meaning to me is the fact that Marillion was originally called Silmarillion, before changing their name early on to avoid any legal problems.

Nor was this a case of conscious avoidance of Tolkien’s work as a reader. I just never really was that interested in diving into it. When I was young and first encountered traditional fantasy books it was the first couple of Narnia books and, particularly, Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, which I really enjoyed. But once I finished those my tastes turned more towards science fiction.

I wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I really dug back into reading fantasy, thanks mostly to my wife, who introduced me to Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin. While both of them would, assuredly, note the influence of Tolkien on their work, their stuff (or at least the stuff that appealed to me) isn’t very Tolkienesque. Gaiman’s work like American Gods and the Sandman series showed me that “fantasy” was a much broader thing than stories about wizards and goblins and the like. A Song of Ice and Fire draws deep on Tolkien-style world building, but does so in the service of a story that’s more about political maneuvers and human failings than it is about grand quests.

That part of the fantasy world hasn’t appealed to me that much lately. I’ve got nothing against a good quest – I’ve got a quest story percolating I hope to write one day – but I was more drawn to weird worlds and things that didn’t require the explanation/technobabble of science fiction. That’s where I found my inspiration to tell stories in worlds that aren’t our own, but aren’t necessarily filled with magic.

Am I missing out on something? Possibly. Am I going to try and rectify that situation? Not necessarily. I read for pleasure and so I’m not likely to decide to read something as homework just because most others might. Hell, I write for pleasure, too (that others enjoy the end product is a bonus), so I can’t see taking the time to force feed any particular author’s work.

The bottom line is I know enough about Tolkien to understand the memes and spot the references in progressive rock songs. Right now, that’s all I need. Plus I got to play the first movement of this in high school:

Doesn’t that count for something?

2021 – My Year In Media

It always drives me nuts that when the start of December rolls around (sometimes even earlier!) we begin to see “best of . . .” lists for that year. As if nothing interesting ever happens in December. So, to buck the trend, I wait until January to talk about stuff I found interesting in the year prior. With that said, here’s what most interested me about media – books, music, TV, and movies – last year. Not all of these are 2021 releases, keep in mind. Sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake.

Books

In term of fiction, the only new-for-2021 book that really stuck with me was The Actual Star, by Monica Byrne (no relation, so far as I’m aware).

The story sprawls out across three separate timelines, each 1000 years apart (basically the far past, the present, and the distant future) and leans more heavily in to fantasy than sci-fi for me, but ultimately the label doesn’t matter. The stories playing out in the three eras tie together really well and there’s a lot of interesting ideas tossed around to chew on. Highly recommended.

In terms of endings, I have to give a shout out to Sex Criminals, by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky, the comic/graphic novel that wrapped up its run in late 2020 (I didn’t get the sixth and final volume until January of last year).

The series never really reached the heights of the first volume again – the pages (three-and-a-half of them!) where Suzie sings “Fat Bottomed Girls” in a bar, with all the words covered over with exposition explaining how expensive it is to quote song lyrics in a comic – still leaves me rolling. It touched on a lot of interesting things along the way and was never less than interesting. The ending worked, too.

As for things I got caught up on in 2021, a lot of it was historical, not fiction. I’ve recently written about The Invention of Murder and how interesting it was. Another bit of history I really enjoyed digging into was  The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom by James R. Green.

It covers the tumultuous history of labor organization in the WV coal fields, generally referred to as the Mine Wars. Very in depth, with lots of necessary background context, but also very readable.

I’d also  recommend  The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War—A Tragedy in Three Acts by Scott Anderson.

It’s probably the most tragic thing I read last year, given that it tracks how the initial enthusiasm for fighting Communism curdled into dictator-propping-up realpolitk cynicism. Oh well.

Oh, and I read an awful lot about the history of the beautiful game.

Music

2021 was a weird year, musically. Several of my favorite artists – Mogwai, Steven Wilson, St. Vincent, Resistor – released albums last year. All of them are good – I even like Wilson’s electro-pop driven The Future Bites better than most proggers – but none of them really grabbed me. Maybe they’ll grow on me in the future, but for now there wasn’t anything in 2021 really worth taking note of.

As a result, last year was more about getting caught up in some things I’d overlooked – in some cases for a long long time.

Speaking of Steven Wilson, my history with his old (and new again!) band Porcupine Tree is that I preferred the “newer” stuff, from Stupid Dream on, to the older material. The Sky Moves Sideways just feel tedious to me, for instance. But poking around Bandcamp (my happy hunting ground) I found a recent rerelease of the band’s 1996 album, Signify.

That album really hits a sweet spot between the spacier stuff and the tighter, song-driven rock stuff. I also love the recurring samples that mostly touch on religious themes (the guy on “Idiot Prayer” switching from his LSD trip being nearly rapturous to just repeating “please help” does it for me every time).

I’ve given some time over the years to reevaluating music that was popular while I was growing up in the 1980s. Part of that is due to getting into electronic music, including the synthpop of my youth. Part of it is just maturing as a listener to realize that just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s crap (95% of it is, of course). So when I came across this article written by a professor who used pop culture to open discussions of how people felt during the Cold War I was inspired to go dive into some of the music, including the second Men At Work album, Cargo.

The singles are good and some of the deeper cuts are just as good. “No Sign of Yesterday,” which closes out side one is great. It’s fairly recognizable pop/new wave, but with just enough weirdness to distinguish it.

Finally, another pleasant discovery from Bandcamp was the album Prophecy by Solstice:

Solstice were part of the neo-prog scene of the early 1980s, but with definite folk and Celtic shadings. They only released one album back then, but have released a few more over the years, with Prophecy coming in 2013. It’s great melodic stuff. Wonderful find.

Television/Streaming

You don’t need me to tell you we’re living in the era of peak TV. There’s just so much good stuff out there that I couldn’t touch them all. So let’s focus on pleasant surprises  – things that I thought might be decent, but turned out to be really good.

The poster child for this approach is Landscapers.

On the one hand, it’s a true crime story of a married couple who murder the wife’s parents and bury them in the garden then go on the run for fifteen years. On the other, it’s a close study of a couple shut off in their own little world where reality only sometimes intrudes. It’s shot with a grab bag of styles related to classic cinema and includes a bravura scene where the police interrogation room is pulled apart to reveal a set while the scene resets. Brilliant? I’m not sure, but it wasn’t like anything else I saw last year.

I feel somewhat the same about Only Murders In the Building, in that I thought it might have potential, but didn’t think I’d enjoy it as much as I did.

The Martin Short/Steve Martin pairing is as good as ever and Selena Gomez slipped into the mix very well. I’m not sure the actual mystery made much sense, or that I really cared about it, but given the light-hearted nature of things, who cares?

Staged, on the other hand, I was relieved was as good as it was.

I missed the first season in 2020, even though David Tennant and Michael Sheen doing comedy should have drawn me in. That season chronicled their involvement with rehearsals of a play that never actually happened (delayed by COVID and then collapsing). Shot via Zoom (or some similar platform), with their significant others playing themselves it managed to be funny and thoughtful at the same time. The second season, from last year, expands a bit as an American remake is in the works – one which isn’t going to use either one of them as stars (since, apparently, we don’t like them over here). It’s more meta and sillier, but equally good.

Finally, I’m giving a provisional shout out to Yellowjackets.

The first season hasn’t even finished as a write this and it may go way off the rails in coming years (it’s allegedly going to run for five seasons) but so far it’s been engrossing.

Movies

I can’t say much about movies in 2021 since I didn’t set foot in a movie theater all year (the pandemic and all). I watched a few 2021 releases on streaming services, but nothing that really wowed me. As a result, I think the “movie” that stuck with me most from the year was Get Back, Peter Jackson’s epic excavation of The Beatles. I already wrote about that here.

That’s it – on to the new year!

Thoughts on Christmas Stories

A confession – I’ve never seen Die Hard. I’m not really an action movie guy, so it’s not really in my wheelhouse. I was kind of surprised when it started popping up described as a “Christmas movie,” but I suppose it takes place during the holiday, so why not? Then early this week I saw an interesting push back against that argument – basically that while the movie takes place at Christmas it doesn’t actually have anything to do with Christmas or what it means. That got me thinking about what makes a Christmas story and whether you can have a Christmas story that doesn’t even have Christmas in it.

I’m kind of into the “if it takes place at Christmas it’s a Christmas story” argument, because then I could force my wife to watch one my favorite movies, Brazil, under that rubric.

Make no mistake, Brazil is not at all what anyone would call a “Christmas movie.” It takes place at Christmas time, but aside from satirical asides on the consumer side of the holiday – one little girl asks Santa for a credit card, while there’s a running joke of people repeatedly gifting the kind of meaningless doodad gift you do when you’re forced to (everyone refers to it as “a gift for an executive,” so it says something about those folks, too) – the holiday doesn’t really enter into it. There’s certainly no “Christmas message” in it, given that it’s a dystopian nightmare in which the “happy ending” is the main character going insane.

That’s not a really good metric. Don’t you need some tie-in to actual Christmas and the holiday? Think of something like Gremlins, which, again, is more set at Christmastime than a “Christmas movie,” but at least you’ve got the horrible back story of Kate’s father, who died trying to pull a Santa to surprise the family. Still, there’s not really much of a message to that movie (aside from “don’t feed them after midnight,” of course). Let’s concluded, then, that we need at least “Christmas plus . . .” something, although I’m not sure what. That eliminates Brazil, but I can’t say if the same is true for Die Hard (this article makes a pretty good argument that the movie works as well as it does precisely because it’s merely “Christmas-adjacent”).

The “plus” is mostly going to be some kind of message, right? Lots of classic Christmas stories have some moral component, from A Christmas Carol (don’t be a dick to the poor at Christmas or the rest of the year) to The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (don’t be a dick to people celebrating Christmas). I like those. I’m particularly a sucker for variations on Carol, my favorite being Scrooged.

Any movie that puts Miles Davis and other jazz greats in a band of street musicians for a throwaway joke is OK by me. Of course there’s also the religious angle, probably pulled off best by A Charlie Brown Christmas, which I love even though I don’t buy into the theology. I suppose we can also ditch the messages altogether and just focus on nostalgia, as in A Christmas Story, which manages the impressive task of selling that nostalgia to an audience who largely are too young to wallow in it.

I feel much less favorable toward what I call “you’re doing Christmas wrong” movies, wherein somebody dares to celebrate the holiday in their own way, only to have their individualism squashed by some kind of hive-mind celebratory conformity. Seriously, is there any reason to look at how somebody else does (or does not!) celebrate a holiday and decide you need to fix them? Drive me up the fucking wall.

So if we agree that a real Christmas story is “Christmas plus” something else, what if we don’t have the Christmas part, at least technically?

My only real routine for the holiday season is to reread (relisten, in actuality) Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett.

The Hogfather is the Discworld’s equivalent of Santa Claus, basically. His holiday, Hogswatch, is a combination of Christmas and New Year’s Eve, combining the gift giving aspect with the midnight revelry.

I love Hogfather in a way I don’t with many things. It’s brilliantly funny throughout. Lots of characters from the other Discworld books show up to play their part in a really clever plot – someone hires the Guild of Assassins to kill (or “inhume,” as the head assassin prefers) the Hogfather as means of bringing some order to the universe. Turns out the human imagination is both a destabilizing thing – it makes folks to wacky things – but it also inspires us to grander things. Thus we have this truth from none other than Death himself (hence the all caps – he talks that way): “HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.”*

Death shows up in Hogfather to do the fat man’s job while he’s disposed, thus shoring up the role of belief in the universe. This allows Pratchett to do a lot of commentary on the holiday and what it means to different people. He shows up at a mall to give kids exactly what they want, even if they really can’t have them (he tries to give one kid a real sword, then announces to a little girl that there’s a pony in her kitchen). He butts in as a king tries to pass of his leftovers as an act of benevolent charity. He actually forgoes collecting the soul of the “little match girl,” concluding that it’s unfair for someone to die alone and cold on Hogswatch, even as his pixie henchman Albert (a fabulous character in his own right) explains that touching stories of that kind of death make other people feel better at Hogswatch. It’s through this relationship that Pratchett deals with the economic inequality of the world, which shines through during the holidays just as it does all year ‘round.

None of this message, commentary on what it means to knowingly celebrate a story you know not to be true, would land if the rest of the book wasn’t so funny, if the characters weren’t so sharp and memorable. But the Hogfather (much less Death!) isn’t Santa and Hogswatch isn’t Christmas, so does it count?

Here’s where I’ve come down on all this – if something’s a Christmas story to you, then that’s all that matters. We all find meaning in different places and different days. At no time is that more true than when all these competing winter celebrations are underway. However you celebrate, whether it’s with Die Hard or not – Happy Holidays (whatever your holiday may be)! See ya’ in the new year.

* The book’s loaded with great lines. Here’s another, from Death’s granddaughter, Susan, who’s the heroine of the story: “Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on.”

Weekly Read: The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled In Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime

Plus ca change
Plus c’est la meme chose
The more that things change
The more they stay the same
– Neal Peart, “Circumstances” from Hemispheres

Much has been written about how we’re living in an era obsessed with stories about crime. True crime podcasts and documentaries are everywhere. There’s something compelling about digging into an extended investigation of crimes and the people who commit them (the people against whom they’re committed usually get less attention). That’s true even for somebody who is knee deep in criminal law every workday. I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of more than a few of these cases.

Along with the rise in true crime media has been concerns about what it says about society or how it may shape perceptions of crime. While those are legitimate things to worry about, if you get nothing else out of The Invention of Murder  it should be that our societal obsession with crime, and qualms about it, are nothing new.

Victorians didn’t actually invent murder, of course, but Judith Flanders presents some evidence that it wasn’t very prevalent before the 19th Century (or at least widely reported). What occurs in that period is a convergence of emerging mass media, organized police forces, and growing cities that created a kind of perfect storm of crime and reflection upon it.

For the most part, Flanders works through the century by covering the details of a specific case, then showing how it was discussed in the press and, eventually, popular entertainments (Charles Dickens shows up in these an awful lot). Along the way we see the shift from public to private executions – public ones could attract thousands of people. We also see that the public interest in the stories of murders – which are often different from the facts – became insatiable.

This format gets a little redundant at times, but it allows Flanders to show that whatever the details of any particular petty atrocity, the press and popular entertainment could always make it worse, more salacious, more interesting. These includes not just novels, but stage plays (lots of stage plays – copyright wasn’t much of a thing in that era) and even marionette shows. Famous murders became quick reference points for certain kinds of maliciousness. Cases crept into popular culture so much that famous killers lent their names to ships and racehorses.

That the facts of particular cases didn’t always match the public’s perception mirrors our world today. I was struck when Flanders described the mid-century panic over murder by poisoning, even though they were so uncommon as to be nearly non-existent. A better example of a moral panic it would be hard to find.

Other threads running through these cases would feel familiar to a 21st Century reader. The modern police force was formed in the early part of the century and, almost as quickly, the police were criticized not as protectors of the general public but as enforcers of social order. Almost immediately after the Metropolitan Police Force was organized in London one newspaper listed among the “Necessary Qualifications” to be a cop the ability “to perjure himself with a clear conscience,” which could lead to “speedy promotion.” Then there are the repeated instances where a murder defendant is othered in some way (as a Catholic or Jew or Eastern European – I think there was one where all three were used!), set apart from the wider society that was reading about them.

One of the ongoing dialogs in the press that Flanders recounts is the requisite navel gazing as to whether the press coverage and popular media fascination with murder actually leads to the commission of crime. Throw in “video games” or “social media” and you have the same dialog going on today. What’s interesting is where this leads – Jack the Ripper. Flanders doesn’t argue that Jack’s crimes were caused by the Victorian obsession with murder, but does suggest that it’s kind of the final step in that evolution. What Jack the Ripper became in the public imagination couldn’t have happened a century earlier. If you’ve read Alan Moore’s From Hell this is a kind of reverse of the theory that animates (so to speak) that book, that Jack’s crimes were actually the birth of the 20th Century and all the mayhem that would occur during it.The Invention of Murder isn’t a quick read. It’s fairly dense and comes with pages of notes and source citations in the back, so it’s a serious historical work. But it’s also really entertaining, if you have any interest in how societies process crime. Flanders brings just enough snark to proceedings the lighten things up here and there. Definitely recommended.

Weekly Watch: The Beatles: Get Back

I am not the biggest fan of The Beatles in the world. Sure, I have every album from Rubber Soul on, but if push came to shove and was forced to save my favorite albums from a fire or something I doubt they’d make the cut. Still, when it was announced that Peter Jackson had cobbled together a multi-part documentary from the infamous Let It Be sessions, I was excited. With a long Thanksgiving weekend, it only made sense to dive in whole hog (or turkey, as it were). I’m glad I did, but I can see where other folks might not be able to push through it all.

It’s a Lot

“Multi-part” doesn’t quite do justice to just how much there is to digest in TB:GB. Each of the three parts is feature-length in its own right and they clock in at almost eight hours altogether. There are reasons for that – there was nearly 50 hours of footage to work with (and three times the amount of audio). In addition, I’ve read that Jackson added some footage once Disney decided the Blu-Ray release wouldn’t have any bonus features and he didn’t want the footage to disappear back into a vault for another few decades. All fine and good, but is it worth it?

It depends on whether you one of two kinds of people – or a third kind with a foot in both camps. The first is diehard fans of The Beatles who will absolutely want to spend all the time picking up on the minutiae of proceedings. The second are people who are interested in the creative process and seeing how the musical sausage gets made. I’m in the third group – I’m most interested in the sausage making and like The Beatles enough to wade through all the music they make in the process (I’d watch a similar, but much more brief, doc on, say Taylor Swift, even though I don’t really like her stuff).

If you’re not in one of those groups, you’ve probably got a better way to spend eight hours. That’s partly because given the fly-on-the-wall approach of this you really have to pay attention to what’s going on. Occasionally there’s text on screen to transition between scenes, but there’s no narration, no talking heads to guide you through what’s going on. You either jump in with both feet or don’t, in other words.

George On an Island

The dynamics of the band as they work are the most fascinating part of TB:GB. For all their troubles at this point, Paul and John and still a unit and tend to drive things (Paul, in particular). They’re not really the songwriting team they once were, but they help shape each other’s material in any case. The other two, well, they’re kind of odd men out. Ringo copes with all this by being Ringo, the most laid back man on the planet. It’s not for nothing that initially at the movie studio in Twickenham he’s on a riser, up and apart from the other three, and then at Apple studios he’s behind a sound barrier with his drums. His ability to let the bullshit pass him by while doing his job really well definitely says something.

George, sadly, doesn’t have the same personality make up, or whatever, that allows Ringo to go along and get along. He seems to be having a serious crisis of confidence through most of the sessions. Early on he brings up Eric Clapton and admiringly talks of his work with Cream, clearly feeling insufficient as a player by comparison (almost anybody would, right?). Later on he has trouble generating enthusiasm from the others for some of his songs, including “All Things Must Pass,” which would wind up as the title track on his first solo album.

It may have ever been thus, but by the time these sessions start the various stresses of the band clearly leave George out on his own most of the time. Which leads to . . .

George Quits

As I said, I’m not the biggest fan, but I did know that Ringo quit for a bit during the making of The White Album. I had no idea George did the same during these sessions. I can’t say I blame him, but two things really stood out about that.

First, it happened without any of the kind of drama or hysterics you might expect. He did not fling his guitar down. He didn’t kick over an amp. He didn’t curse anybody out, yell, scream, or otherwise make an ass of himself. George simply announced that he was leaving and then did. If you were writing drama I don’t know that you’d have a character do it that way, but it almost hits harder for being so low key.

Second, what happens next is, dare I say it, very Spinal Tappish? In that classic mockumentary, lead guitarist and founding member Nigel Tufnel storms off stage and quits the band. Asked the next day about his leaving, co-founder David St. Hubbins downplays it, noting just how many people have been in the band over the years (all those hapless drummers!). When confronted that surely Nigel leaving is different, David eventually admits that he might feel different if he wasn’t sedated.

Part two of TB:GB begins with the band dealing with George’s absence and, at least initially, it’s no big deal. There’s no talk of the band being over. There’s no real talk, even, of stopping the sessions. Things are paused, somewhat, while George is talked back into the fold, but that’s about it. There’s talk of potential replacements, even! No wonder George walked out.

Sparks of Genius

One thing that really comes out of TB:GB is that, even for some of the most lauded songwriters of their generation, writing songs is hard work. There’s slog, there’s false starts, there’s struggle (as a recently departed genius wrote, “art isn’t easy”). As a creative person who often struggles with writing (and music making) it’s encouraging to see that even these guys have a hard time with it.

That said, there are some amazing moments where sparks of genius emerge from almost nothing. Most notably is the genesis of “Get Back” itself. A recurring theme of the Twickenham sessions is that John (with Yoko in tow) is almost always late, leaving the others to fart around waiting. On one of those mornings Paul is absent-mindedly strumming his bass when all of a sudden the opening riff of “Get Back” emerges. It takes hours of work (in documentary time) to actually get the final song out (at one point it takes a diversion into being a protest song about racism and xenophobia in the UK), but the nugget of it comes out of nowhere. It’s very cool to see those things happen.

The Life, Death, and Rebirth of the Live Show

The original plan for what became Let It Be was for the band to get together to write and rehearse new material (while being filmed for a documentary) which would be the basis for a new album and a live concert. The band hadn’t played live in a few years, so anticipation was high for that, at least outside the band. The band never seemed on board and one of the more amusing themes of TB:GB is how the live concert element continues to morph until it winds up with the famous concert on top of the Apple Corps building.

The plan that made the most sense was to build a set at the film studio and bring a live audience in, but nobody is really that interested in that (they’d done it before). One of the band’s handlers suggests doing the concert in an ancient amphitheater in Libya, but it would take a few more years for Pink Floyd to get there (basically). A sub idea of that was to bring the audience with them on cruise ships to that venue, which nobody in the band is up for. Apparently the only thing worse than being cooped up with their fellow Beatles would be being stuck on a boat with loads of fans. Given that various music cruises are a thing these days (or were, before COVID) I wonder what the artists involve really think of those.

What a Live Show!

Of course they did wind up putting on a show, on the roof of the Apple Corps building in downtown London. If I remember correctly, Paul actual floats this idea early on, but it’s waved away while they consider more traditional alternatives (Paul, in general, is the driving force to have all this wind up being something other than just an another album). We get all of it, which is both great and a little bit of a grind – they only do a few tracks and take multiple takes of most. That said, several of those takes are what make it onto Let It Be in the end, so it’s cool to get them in all their glory.

The dynamic of the band through the sessions really comes into sharp relief up on the roof. John and Paul come alive on stage and are having a blast. George is more subdued, like rocking out on a cold, windy rooftop isn’t the best idea. Ringo just does what he does, unflappable behind the drums.

A word here about the fifth Beatle for this show, keyboardist Billy Preston. He’d met the band way back in their Hamburg days and dropped in the sessions in London just to say “hi.” He wound up drafted in to playing electric piano and organ (and goofing around with a Stylophone!), fleshing out the band’s sound, dedicated as they were to doing it all live. It’s after he arrives that things really get more focused and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to suggest that he’s the real hero here.

Another word about the baddies of the piece – the cops who come to shut everything down. If, like me, you’ve ever wondered if Monty Python sketches were too hard on British cops and authority figures, exaggerating for comedic effect, this footage convinced me they weren’t. The cops couldn’t have been more wet blankets if they had been played by John Cleese and Graham Chapman. There’s even a pepper pot who complains on the street! Life imitating art (or vice versa) and all that.

It Just Ends

This is an odd thing to say about an eight-hour long documentary, but it really just ends, without wrapping up stuff very well. After the concert on the roof there’s some brief footage of folks listening back to the recordings the film rolls credits, over which some more footage of the last of the studio recording takes place. It’s an odd choice that, among other things, leaves us without a full take of “Let It Be.”

Beyond that, given that the film is about the creation of these songs, it’s odd not to have a post-script about the actual release of the album. Or about how they went back into the studio almost immediately to work on what became Abbey Road (several songs from that album pop up during these sessions). Or about how Phil Spector got a hold of Let It Be and glooped his production onto it. Or . . ..

I get it – you got to stop sometime and that’s when the footage ran out. Still, given that there’s a little “how we got here” prologue for the band’s history a similar epilogue would have made sense.

Get Back, Jo

As I said, if you’re a Beatles fan or interested in seeing music get made, from the ground up, this is well worth your time. Otherwise, probably not. I’m glad it’s here and I’m glad I had the time to work through it. I don’t think I’ll add the Blu-Ray to my collection, though.

Widows of the Empire: A Second Excerpt

One more week until Widows of the Empire comes out! Here’s a second excerpt, in which Belwyn, stuck in exile in Annanais, finally receives a particularly stubborn caller.

That the Temple of Rend meant something to Belwyn didn’t mean she had an idea of what this particular acolyte wanted with her. She’d made the gesture to rebuild the temple in Cye after the explosion that led her to Cotber and started her examination of Port Ambs. Hagan had made all the arrangements and Belwyn hadn’t given it much thought. It had been a spur-of-the-moment thing, a decision made in the wake of sorrow washing over her for people who had lost a place where they could worship. Just because she didn’t need such a space didn’t mean she couldn’t appreciate the loss.

She wracked her brain, trying to remember if the temple had reached out to her. Maybe they had contact with Hagan, but she couldn’t conjure any memory of meeting with them. She hadn’t expected to, but why not? It would have been impolite not to acknowledge their benefactor. What if they didn’t know? Belwyn couldn’t remember telling Hagan to make the donation anonymously, but she might have. If that was the case, how would any acolyte know about her role?

She was sitting in the courtyard, after lunch, when Neven approached.

“It’s time, Lady,” Neven said, gesturing toward the formal receiving room.

Belwyn followed, pushing down a lump in her throat. A guard, one of Brixton’s men, opened the door for them. Neven waved Belwyn through, then followed behind her.

There were three people waiting for them in the room. Two were Brixton’s guards, who were making a display of their rifles, holding them in their hands, ready for action. They looked menacing, not the generally easygoing men who rarely did anything with their guns but sling them over their shoulders. In between them stood a man in a long, grey robe, complete with a hood that partially hid his face. Belwyn could see just a scrap of a beard poking out from underneath. He was hunched and looked frail, particularly between the two guards.

“Is this necessary?” she asked Neven, while gesturing toward the guards. “This is a man of the gods, after all. Can we not treat him with some dignity?”

Neven gave a signal and the two guards shouldered their rifles and left the room. “It was merely a precaution, Lady.”

After the guards left, Belwyn gestured for the man to sit on one of the stuffed chairs by the window, which he did slowly, shuffling with short steps. Belwyn sat down across from him while Neven took up her place a few feet away. Either she, or one of her underlings, had to be close enough during meetings to make sure no one told Belwyn something inappropriate.

“Lady Belwyn,” the acolyte said with a slight bow, his voice rough and low.

“You have me at a disadvantage, sir, since I do not know your name,” she said.

“You may call me Gendil, Lady, if it pleases.”

She smiled. “I once had a horse named Gendil. I was very fond of him.”

“A favorable coincidence, Lady.”

The was an uncomfortable silence. “What is it I can do for you, Gendil? I understand you come from the Temple of Rend in Cye. Is that right?”

“That is why I am here, Lady,” he said, “but I am not from the temple in Cye.” He paused, glancing over at Neven.

Belwyn followed his gaze, sensing an opportunity. “Is there a problem with Neven?”

“I’ve spoken with her many times,” Gendil said, “but what I have to say is only for your ears, Lady.”

Belwyn turned to Neven. “I think you can see that there is no risk or danger here, Neven. Can you leave us alone for five minutes?”

“You know I can’t, Lady,” Neven said.

“Your people have made exceptions before,” Belwyn said. It wasn’t strictly true. She’d managed to get her handlers out of the room for moments here and there, but never this blatantly. She hoped the thought would throw Neven off her guard just enough.

“Not with my permission,” she said.

Belwyn shrugged. “Regardless, nothing untoward has come of it. You can keep Britxon’s men on the other side of the door, for all I care, but surely five minutes to indulge this gentleman isn’t too much to ask.”

Gendil shifted in his seat toward Neven, like the effort of doing so was almost too much for him to bear. “Madam, if I may. What I wish to discuss with Lady Belwyn is of a sacred nature. The rules of my order emphasize confidentiality in personal interactions. I understand if you must be present, but do know that it will be an imposition upon my faith.”

Belwyn looked at Neven with pleading eyes. Gendil’s evocation of religious dogma made her skin crawl, but the idea that he wanted to talk to her alone was intriguing. Not to mention, the sooner Neven left the room, the sooner she could be done with this. After all, the man had appeared for two weeks straight and was unlikely to take “no” for an answer. “Five minutes?”

Neven looked like she was going to fire off a cable to Chakat about this, to try and get out of this assignment. But Belwyn had seen that look before, a look of resignation. “Very well. I wouldn’t want to interfere with a religious exercise. I’ll be back in three minutes.”

Belwyn waited for the door to be securely shut behind Neven before saying, “Thank you for coming to see me, Gendil, but I have to warn you, I’ve never had much use for the gods.”

Gendil straightened and pulled back the hood of his robe. “How could I ever forget that, Lady.”

It took her a moment, but once she studied the eyes, she knew. Belwyn put her hands over her mouth to contain the scream of excitement that welled inside her. She took a deep breath, then whispered, “Hagan!”

He nodded. “Yes, Lady.”

Widows of the Empire
Out November 10
Preorder now for Kindle or other eBook formats

Happy Halloween! Have Some Free Stories!

For several of the past few years I’ve written some spooky short fiction for Halloween (originally at the urging of fellow West Virginia author Eric Douglas). I was planning to do the same this year, but preparing Widows of the Empire for release on November 10 has really kept me from getting it started. So, here in once place, are links to the stories I’ve written before. Grab a drink, turn off the lights and set a candle ablaze and (in the words of Count Floyd) prepare to have the pants scared right off of your legs . . . or wherever you wear them!

“Shift Change” (2020)

Last year, the year of the plague, was hard on everybody, demons included. Picture something like the opening of an episode of Hill Street Blues, but not quite, and you’ll have the right idea. Everybody’s got a job to do.

“The Invited Guest” (2017)

Devil summoning is a an old trope, but I thought I’d have some fun with it. This arose, if I’m remembering it right, from a factoid I learned about raising the devil by tossing a heel of bread over your shoulder into a fire. Probably won’t work (playing a tri-tone while you do won’t help). The title is a riff on a Marillion song, naturally.

“All the Wishes” (2016)

This is the second of two stories that Eric mandated be precisely 100 words long – not up to 100, exactly 100. It’s a fun, if frustrating, exercise. This story is about wishing well (or not).

“Quotas” (2015)

The first of the 100-word stories, it shares some thematic connection with “Shift Change.” Apparently I’m interested in how demons make a living.

Happy Halloween everybody!

Have some Rush in your plastic jack-o-lantern for the walk home.

Widows of the Empire: The Southern Islands

As we continue hurtling toward release day for Widows of the Empire, I wanted to return to the issue of geography that we touched on a couple of weeks ago. In that post I talked about the geography of the Unari Empire itself, but this time I want to journey a little further afield.

Gods of the Empire all took place on the single, large continent that dominates much of Oiwa’s northern hemisphere. Aside from that one, across which the Empire sprawls, there are two other smaller continents to the west, sort of Australia sized. The nations there have formed the Western Alliance in the years since the Port Ambs bombing and Chakat’s becoming Emperor, as a way to check his global reach.

The southern hemisphere of Oiwa is an entirely different kettle of fish, as it’s composed entirely of islands. A couple of them are largish, but nothing so grand as to earn the label “continent.” As a result, the Southern Islands (as they’re generally referred to when lumped together) are wildly diverse and independent, without any of the kind of trans-national alliances you find up north. That’s allowed Chakat to roll in with ships and Imperial Marines and cause more than a little havoc in these islands without any real consequences.

Like Ruttara Key, not much more than a speck on the map in the far southern part of the hemisphere. Sure, it would be a perfect place for some of the Port Ambs plotters to hide out, but it was also home to hundreds of ordinary people just trying to live their lives. They saw their fishing boats sunk, their villages burned, and people indiscriminately shot for doing nothing at all. At one point no one on Oiwa had heard of the place. Not so any more.

The closest you get to an alliance to rival the Western Alliances is the Relevan League, based around the city of Releva. A commercial and shipping up in the northeastern part of the islands, it’s kind of the jumping off point for travelers from the north. It’s as large as Cye, but spread up and down the coastline instead of packed into a grid of urban streets and with clear skies, given the lack of industries. Of course, everything smells of fish which, as one observer notes, is “overwhelming.”

The Southern Islands are also full of small islands, not much more than rocks jutting out of the water, that hold unknown treasures, such as ancient lost cities. Or places like the Grim Islands, so named because there’s nary any vegetation or life on them, but they do provide a good hiding place for pirates and other rabble rousers.

Given that there are thousands of islands in the south, it’s not possible to chart all of them. That’s created a fertile territory for explorers, seeking to make their name and their fortune. One of the most famous is Stanley Glass, who has won renown for several discoveries in the Southern Islands. His finds are so spectacular that they let most people overlook the horrible toll his expeditions typically take on his crew. Long-term employment isn’t in the cards when you sail with Glass – so why is Aton so willing to sign on?

Widows of the Empire
Out November 10
Wherever fine ebooks are sold

Widows of the Empire: Excerpt

Continuing on with some posts about the upcoming Widows of the Empire, here’s an excerpt from the book in which Aton goes to meet a persistent potential new client and gets quite the shock:

Aton realized that he never really liked The Ferry. It was conveniently located in Cye, a good place to get business or meet someone, but it wasn’t the kind of place he liked to hang out. Aside from slamming down a drink after a job was over, he rarely came here just for the sake of it. Now, finally, he knew why.

The place was crowded. Not because there were so many people here, but because of how the room was laid out. The long, curving bar was enormous. Tables in the middle of the room were arranged haphazardly. In addition, the bare wood interior amplified every voice in the place. Even though there were only a handful of people here, the din was distracting. He was amazed he was ever able to conduct business here. He maneuvered the obstacle course of tables and chairs to make it to his old spot in the back corner.

While he didn’t miss The Ferry, Aton could admit to himself that he missed being downtown. The new house was lovely and bucolic, but it was also quiet and isolated. He’d grown up in Cye and was used to the noise, the crowds, and the occasional stench. It’s why he’d toyed with the idea of finding a small office somewhere nearby in case he needed to handle anything that came up in the city. Truth was, however, the only business he would do was with Laffargue, and that happened at the Voisine. An empty office was an expense that didn’t make any sense.

He had arrived half an hour early, supposing that Vesper wouldn’t show until their arranged meeting time. Whatever his talents, Vesper didn’t strike Aton as one who thought of worst-case scenarios and alternatives. Like a dog with a bone, he was relentless and driven, but not particularly creative. Being early allowed Aton to control the terrain, like a general pushing his troops to secure high ground before a battle. Maybe he was overthinking it, but better to be over prepared.

He passed the time scanning the crowd. It was like any skill, one he had to practice for it to be sharp when it was needed. There was part of him that wanted to find Okun there, although he had no idea what he’d say to him. He was here for work, after all, and maybe Okun would be, too. There would be no reason for them to just have a drink together. The issue never came up, as the big, bald man never made an appearance.

Aton was just about to start clock watching when he saw Vesper slip in the front door. He looked around a few times, less like he was trying to find Aton than like he was getting the lay of the land. After a moment he held the door open and a person walked in the door. Shorter than Vesper, shorter even that Aton, the individual was wearing a deep blue floor-length cloak with the hood drawn up around the face. Aton thought it was a tad dramatic, but everyone had their quirks.

Vesper led his client through the room, slamming his leg into a chair about halfway through.

Aton suppressed a laugh.

He reached Aton’s table and tipped his cap. “Mr. Askins, glad to see you here.”

“I made a deal, didn’t I?” Aton said. He waved at Vesper to stand aside. “So who is this mystery client?”The figure behind Vesper stepped forward and lowered the hood of the cloak.

“Oh, shit,” Aton said, deflating. “Ethyna.”

Widows of the Empire
Out November 10
Wherever fine ebooks are sold