On Fictional History and Fictional Places

Fiction is fake, by definition. Otherwise it would be nonfiction, right? Any character you create doesn’t exist in the real world if you’re writing fiction, even if you’re writing about a historical figure. Still, a lot of fiction takes place in what we think of as the “real” world. What happens when the real world isn’t enough and you decide to create enclaves of pure fiction within it? Well, then things get interesting.

I had a chance to ponder this recently thanks to a couple of things I consumed that leaned heavily into fictional history and fictional places. Neither quite worked and I’m not sure if all that non-existent history or fake places weren’t part of the problem.

As for fake history, I finally had a chance to see Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, the latest Quentin Tarantino epic. I’m a fan of most of his stuff, and while I found a lot to admire about Once Upon a Time . . . (Brad Pitt, in particular, is as good as everybody said he was), there’s some interesting alternate history in it that didn’t really work for me.

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Sitting alongside the story of a TV star on the downside of his career (Leo DiCaprio) and his buddy/stunt man (Pitt) in 1969 Los Angeles is the story of Sharon Tate. Tate, as you’ll recall, was married to Roman Polanski at the time (hilariously portrayed as looking almost exactly like Austin Powers and not yet a rapist) and would be brutally murdered by members of the Manson Family that August. Spoiler alert, I guess – in the world Tarantino builds, that doesn’t happen. Instead, the would-be murderers go to the house next door, where Dicaprio’s character lives and Pitt’s is on acid, and are violently dispatched with a combination of the world’s best pit bull and a flame thrower (which somehow makes sense). The movie ends with everybody else getting on with their lives, the spirit of the 1960s not yet brutally ended.

The odd thing about all this is that it seems backwards. Usually when we’re talking alternate history the pivot point – where it diverges from our reality – is at or near the beginning of the story. The rest of it is exploring the “what if this happened?” question. For a timely example, the HBO adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America begins as Charles Lindberg runs for, and wins, the presidency in 1940 on an isolationist platform bolstered by anti-Semitism. What happens next is what we’re going to find out in the next few weeks.

The closer comparison with Once Upon a Time . . . is Tarantino’s prior bit of historical revisionism, Inglorious Basterds. In that one a group of Jewish American Army soldiers during World War II put Hitler down in a bloody, fiery way. It’s clearer wish fulfillment, in my opinion, since everybody knows Hitler was a monster. It also leans heavily on the speculative fiction trope of time travelling to kill Hitler, so it makes more intuitive sense. There’s certainly some wish fulfillment in Once Upon a Time . . . – of course it’s a better world where murder victims aren’t actually murdered and the would-be killers get instant justice – but the way it comes about makes less sense. There’s nothing explaining why the Manson kids go to the wrong house and neither the DiCaprio nor Pitt characters do anything other than react to a home invasion – they aren’t heroes who intentionally foil a plot. I just don’t get the point of the exercise.

It’s easier to see the point of using completely made up geography in fiction, but even that can be tricky. Full disclosure – I’ve done it myself (Moore Hollow is set in a fictional West Virginia county), so I’m not against the idea. It does honk me off a little bit when it comes out of nowhere, though.

One of my great finds of last year was Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, a darkly funny book about a guy trying to conquer death by bringing people back from it. In that book the titular hero (I use the term loosely) has to obtain 100 souls for Satan in order to win his own back, with the devil providing a nightmarish carnival train to aid in the process. As I said, it’s funny in a dark, sarcastic kind of way (in some ways it puts me in mind of a horror version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and, so far as I can remember, takes place entirely in our world. Not our real world, obviously (see, bringing people back from the dead, Satan, souls, etc.), but at least it looks like ours. It all happens in the UK, with Cabal’s family coming from Germany.

Imagine my surprise when I dove into the sequel, Johannes Cabal the Detective, and found out that it takes place entirely in a pair of made up countries somewhere in Europe (with a third thrown in for good political measure).

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I understand why the author did this – the story requires particular political and military maneuvers that don’t fit established history and it’s hard to manipulate real places to do your fictional building. Nonetheless, it’s kind of a shock to have these made up places thrown at you without warning. Had the first book mentioned them or been set in them it would have been different. That neither Cabal nor his sidekick have any connection to these places doesn’t help the story, but that’s a separate issue.

Of course, there are entire genres of fantasy that take place in worlds that have no relation to this one. The Water Road trilogy takes place on another world entirely (with no human beings!), as does Gods of the Empire and its sequels. But with those you know going in what you’re getting into. Changing the game midstream seems like a miscalculation to me. The question with everything, whether it’s fake history or made up locations, is what works best for the story? What best serves the character? Sometimes the answer to both is something completely new and unexpected. But sometimes it’s not.

Weekly Read: How Long ‘til Black Future Month?

Short story collections are weird beasts. By definition they rise and fall on the strength of each individual story, which I think makes it a little easier to notice the flaws. A dull spot in an otherwise good novel is most likely to just slip down the memory hole at the end of the day. A story that doesn’t work sticks out a little bit more. Given the number of stories in N.K. Jemisin’s first collection you’d expect more than a few duds. As the song says, “not everything everybody does works all the time, son.”. What’s amazing about Jemisin’s collection is how often everything does work.

This is a lengthy collection, so I’m not going to mention every story in it, only a few of the highlights. The first, for me, was “The City Born Great,” in which a homeless kid becomes a kind of midwife to the entire city of New York as it’s “born.” The setup is interesting and the birthing process itself is wonderfully evocative.

“The Effluent Engine” is a kind of alternate history/steampunk hybrid, where Haiti becomes this hemisphere’s leader in the dirigible race, leading a spy (of sorts) to come to New Orleans seeking aid from a famous engineer. A romantic angle cropped up here that at first made me roll my eyes (not because it involved two women – it just seemed cliché), but Jemison turned it on its head in the end, much to my delight.

My favorite title, if not my favorite story, in the collection is “Cloud Dragon Skies” (sounds like a Steve Hill age song – and, yes, I’ve got a musical idea for it in my head). Set in a future where most of humanity has moved off the poisoned Earth, the sky is now red and the clouds have become kind of sentient. Those who left try to fix it, but it doesn’t help. An interesting narrative and point-of-view in this story.

“The Elevator Dancer” is just a great, really short story about the power, or the need, to ignore something that’s right in front of you. The dystopia in which the story is set reminds me a little of the one in Zappa’s Joe’s Garage where music has been declared illegal. There are some things so essential to our humanity that no oppressive force can quash.

Of the several stories that revolve around food, my favorite is “Cuisine des Memoires,” about a restaurant that can serve any meal from any time in history, from the famous to the personal. Naturally the main character can’t leave well enough alone and wanders into a meditation on magic and memory.

In her introduction, Jemisin talks about how she same to write short stories and about how she sometimes uses them to try out worlds she’s thinking of using for novels. That comes through in “Stone Hunger,” which is set in the world of her Hugo-winning Fifth Season trilogy and “The Narcomancer,” which does the same in the world of her Dreamblood duology. I enjoyed the later one more, since it was completely new to me. The other felt a little like a demo version of a song – interesting, but not quite up to the final product. If I’m not misreading, I think “The City Born Great” I mentioned above served this purpose for Jemisin’s new novel, The City We Became.

A couple stories left me scratching my head more than anything else. The lead off, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” is a direct consequence to the Ursula K Le Guin story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” about an apparent utopia that comes at a terrible cost. Jemisin’s story is also about a utopia maintained through a vigorous program of execution for anyone who steps out of line ideologically. It’s hard to tell whether this is an agreement with “Omelas” that utopia isn’t really possible, or if it’s arguing that it can be possible with a cost, so let the cost be borne by those who deserve it. I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Likewise “Henosis,” a dark tale about a prestigious literary award that leads to the winner’s death. I can’t decide if it’s a pitch perfect satire of writers’ desire for glory or such a silly idea that it’s nonsensical.

There are a few other stories that just didn’t work for me, although none of them are “bad” in a meaningful sense. Not because they aren’t cool ideas – “Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows” in particular is very cool – but because they feel rushed, almost like they’re half stories. “Non-Zero Probabilities” feels the same way, but I see that it was nominated for a Nebula and a Hugo when it was first published (several of these stories are available online – hence the all the links, all legit), so what do I know?

All in all, How Long ‘til Black Future Month continues the serious roll Jemisin has been on the past few years. Most of these stories are great and show a great deal of range in terms of style, tone, and subject. In the introduction, Jemisin explains that she started writing short fiction in order to improve her novel writing. Other writers can only hope our exercises bear such amazing fruit.

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Weekly Read – Quick Hits

While I was off doing NaNo and writing a book last month I was also consuming a few (that’s much easier). Here’s some thoughts about the ones I finished . . .

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

Leckie broke out in 2013 with Ancillary Justice, a Hugo-winning sci-fi epic that I really enjoyed. She takes odd approaches to characters and settings that make the stories more interesting. I wasn’t as thrilled with the sequel, Ancillary Sword, but when I heard she wrote a fantasy novel, I had to check it out. As I expected, it’s got quite a different feel to it – the main character is, honestly, a rock. OK, so it’s a god embodied in a rock, but still. The rock god stuff works better than the human story until the two begin to intertwine. The ending really knocked my socks off, even though I predicted it. My usual is to love the openings of books and be let down by the finish – this was just the opposite.

A word on the audio version – if  you sometimes listen and sometimes read, I’d definitely recommend reading this one. The narrator for the audiobook (who also did the Ancillary novels) is horrible, imposing difficult to understand dialects on just about every character and turning the main non-rock character into a whining child.

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The Terror by Dan Simmons

In high school when I started The Grapes of Wrath I had to take a break after the first chapter and go get a drink – Steinbeck’s description of the Dustbowl was so vivid I was literally parched. Long stretches of The Terror are like that, too, but with bitter cold in the place of thirst. Simmons takes the unknown fate of a doomed Arctic expedition and spins a tale that’s both historical fiction and bleak horror. Yes, there’s a monster involved, but the real evil lies in the hearts of men, naturally. It’s a little too long and doesn’t stick the landing (a hard right turn into native mythology), but there are some superbly vivid and disturbing set pieces along the way that make it worthwhile.

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The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. It’s got a great setup – in an alternate 1950s (Dewey really did defeat Truman, for some unexplained reason) a meteorite slams into the East Coast near D.C., killing millions and wrecking the economy. But it gets worse – the main character, a “calculator” at this world’s version of NASA figures out that the impact will cause climate issues that will render the planet uninhabitable. This jumpstarts the space program and leads to said main character becoming the first woman in space (this is not a spoiler – this is essentially a prequel to a short story written about this character years ago). The story is interesting enough, but it’s frustratingly narrow, since the POV is focused only on the main character. One suspects there’s so much else going on in this world as it comes to grips with the situation that would be interesting to explore. Also, while I thought it was great that the main character’s husband was perfectly loving and supportive, the repeated rocketry-punned sex stuff got really old really quick.

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The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

This is almost like the flip side of The Calculating Stars. In this book, the asteroid hasn’t hit Earth yet, but it’s coming and, as a result, everything’s gone to shit. The main character is a young cop in New Hampshire trying to convince anyone who will listen that the “hanger” found in a pirate McDonald’s bathroom is a real murder, not just yet another suicide. The investigation plays out against the background of impending calamity and what it does to society and the human psyche. That was by far the most interesting part of the book, which unfortunately was mostly pushed back in favor of a fairly lackluster mystery. As with The Calculating Stars, the POV being limited to the main character means we get fascinating glimpses of the wider world, but never really get to engage with it.

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I’d recommend any of these, depending on what kind of story tickles your particular fancy. Obviously I really liked the first two, while the others were just OK. Still, they’re both award winners, so who am I to say?

Fantasy Doesn’t Have to Be “Accurate,” It Just Has to Be Compelling

A while back I wrote about how research can be important, and idea-provoking, when it comes to writing fantasy. The gut reaction might be that writing fantasy means you can just make everything up as you go along. It’s not that simple, but one of the joys of writing fantasy is the freedom it gives you to mold the world your story is set in to the needs of the story itself. That’s why questions like this bug me:

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That’s from one of the fantasy author Facebook groups I’m in. I chimed in asking for more information about what kind of time period we’re talking about, since the kind of rigorous border regulation we know today is a fairly recent invention. But more than that, I asked what the writer’s story needed? After all, it’s fantasy, so why be bound to mundane reality?

I think that when it comes to worrying about research in fantasy it comes in two flavors. One is research for inspiration – you’re not looking to see how things are or were done in order to have your characters do the same thing, but you’re trying to spark your own creativity. The most obvious case of this is reading history, which is full of bizarre and compelling story fuel that can be molded to fit just about whatever world your telling your story in.

An example of this is one I’ve mentioned before – the basic arc of The Water Road trilogy was inspired by reading about Napoleon’s 100 Days and thinking about how he was handled – exiled only to return – sounded like something that would happen to the bad guy in a fantasy series. What actually takes place in The Water Road is very different, but the bones of it are still there.

The other situation is the one where I think people get hung up sometimes, that is doing research about the right or correct or “accurate” way to do something. That’s a situation where you need to have a character do something or have something happen to the character and you want to make sure it feels right. That kind of research is good and necessary – you can’t really write fantasy without any research (including as “research” here knowledge you’ve already obtained) – but it’s important not to let the reality overwhelm the story.

As an example, the world of Gods of the Empire includes steam-powered autocars (of course it does, it’s steampunk!), but they’re mostly toys of the rich. So as part of his travels Aton gets to ride in one and I wanted to have a scene where he observed the startup of one of these things, to capture the kind of Rube Goldberg beasts that they are. I did some scrounging and found a very good video of someone going through the startup for an restored Stanley Steamer, originally built around 1911:

Cool, huh? It provided some great details that I was able to put into that part of the book, but I didn’t just take down what the guy did in the video and transport it to the book. Why? For one, while providing a glimpse of the startup routine is a nice way of deepening the world building it’s a grace note on the overall story, not a subplot – I didn’t want to divert for that long. For another, the character in my book wasn’t starting a Stanley Steamer, but rather a similar vehicle in a different world with differing technologies. In other words, I was only concerned about being accurate to my world, not the real world.

Research while writing fantasy is kind of like the old saw about knowing the rules of writing (or any artistic endeavor). It’s not important to know the rules to slavishly follow them, but it is important to know them so that when you break them you can think of why you’re breaking them and to what effect.

Say, for example, you want to have a two-feet-tall sprite in your story wield a long steel broadsword. Physics tell you that in the real world (assume a real world with sprites, people) that wouldn’t work – the sword is too big and too heavy for the sprite to pick up, much less wield. Does that mean it can’t happen because it would not be “accurate.” No! This is fantasy – anything can happen, if you want it to, but you need to figure out how, in your world, such a thing is possible. Maybe the sword is enchanted and can be wielded by anyone who is worthy? Maybe sprites are supernaturally for some cool reason in your world? It doesn’t matter, so long as you realize that some fanstaticking is going to have to happen.

Which, after all, is the point, right? One different between science fiction and fantasy is that fantasy is really only limited by your imagination. Sci-fi, at least in theory, is tethered to the realities of the real world, however much one can extrapolate from them. Fantasy not only lets you think outside the box, but blow up the box completely. It’s a great power to have, being able to mold the world to fit your story – why shouldn’t you use it every chance you get?

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All Stories Are About Characters

There’s this scrappy little independent film out in theaters now, Avengers: Endgame, that you might have heard about. Without going deeply into spoilers, let’s just say that it involves what the Doctor might call some “timey wimey” nonsense. Thus I was kind of pleased when I saw this article by Michal Schick pop through my Google stream:

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I figured this would be a good reminder of what I call the MST3K philosophy: “repeat to yourself this is just a [movie], you should really just relax.” After all, there’s been considerable ink spilled on what the time travel stuff in Endgame means for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whether it “works,” and all that kind of stuff. It’s interesting, but there’s a certain amount of diminishing returns the further you dive in.

So imagine my surprise when Schick went a different direction:

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This is a good and overlooked point when it comes to superhero stuff. Many superheroes tend to have a sheen of the scientific about them, an explanation for why they have superpowers – Spider Man is who he is because he was bitten by a radioactive spider, Superman is who he is because he’s from another planet and the rays of our sun give him powers. But let’s be honest – that’s all bullshit. It’s not as if the scientific explanations really hold up to scrutiny or are based on extrapolations of known science. They sound cool and that’s enough.

With that recognition, however, we’re clearly in the realm of fantasy rather than science fiction. That means that when there’s time travel in Endgame it’s not trying to be scientifically rigorous. Instead, it’s a kind of “just so” setup, something you have to just accept as part of that world. It may be internally inconsistent and that’s worth criticizing, but bagging on the film for not getting time travel in general “right” is missing the point.

After agreeing with the article up to this point, I took a hard turn into disagreement. After noting, correctly, that often the quick and dirty classification of things as fantasy or sci-fi depends on what they look like (the good example they use is “blasters and ray guns” equal sci-fi, while “magic wands” doing basically the same thing equal fantasy), it goes all wrong:

Far, far more important to genre are the interests and values of the story itself.

Does the story prioritize character (fantasy) or does it highlight and interrogate plot and concept (science fiction)? Do the story’s values live in the realm of emotion and experience (F), or intellect and ideology (SF)? Is the creator working with the primary interests of fantasy or science fiction, not to design their world, but to define it?

No, no, no. “Emotion and experience” are part and parcel of any story, regardless of the genre. Science fiction may be particularly susceptible to stories where the tech is more important than the people using it, but if there’s no emotional connection to those characters you might as well just read a technical manual. I’ve written about this before, but I think it does sci-fi a disservice to think it’s not about characters.

To me, the admittedly hazy line between sci-fi and fantasy comes from how the author treats the world in which the story is being told, not the characters. Worlds that look more like ours and where the element of the fantastic has some real connection to ours fall on the sci-fi side of the line, while a world whose differences from ours just are tends to fall under the fantasy umbrella. Neither classification is a marker of quality, much less determinative of how the characters are developed and how readers connect with them.

That’s the most important part of telling a story, regardless of genre. People want to care about characters. They want “emotion and experience.”

One Man’s Second Book Problem . . .

One person’s trash is another’s treasure, as the saying goes. I think the literary version of that might be that one person’s second book problem is another person’s interesting, deep dive into character lives.

Remember last year when I blogged about the second book problem – the tendency for middle books in trilogies to sag a little bit given their place in the middle of the overall narrative? At the time I was laboring under the assumption that most people would agree on when second books were problematic or not. A recent experience has convinced me otherwise.

A Gathering of Shadows is the second book in V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy.

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It’s set in a kind of alternate history world during the 19th century where there are actually four Londons existing in parallel worlds with different levels of magic (ours is “grey” London, which about sums up the magical nature of it). The first book in the series, A Darker Shade of Magic, has a lot of hopping between worlds as it spirals towards a universe-altering conclusion.

The second book, by contrast, is a lot more sedate. It takes place mostly in red London, where magic is like air and just about everybody makes use of it in some way or another. A kind of World Cup of magic called the Element Games brings together the two main characters, Kel and Lilah, who were separated at the end of book one. We get deep into the tournament and what it means politically in the world of red London. All the while, occasionally, we pop over to black London (where a magical incident years before basically turned it into a burned over hellscape) and see that something bigger is brewing.

To be honest, the brewing seemed like it was part of another book. I was really grooving on the tournament, the way it allowed us to get more into the heads of Lilah and Kel (and his brother, Rhyl), not to mention a couple of new characters. It seemed like the perfect use of a second book, to deepen both the world in which the story takes place and the people in it whom we are supposed to care about. Then the tournament wraps up a little early and the black London stuff comes crashing down on our heroes. It all happens so fast that I think it would have worked better as an expanded second part of the book or as a short, brutal epilogue to setup the final book in the series. Still, overall, a good read and I’m definitely on board for the conclusion of the trilogy.

And, don’t get me wrong, lots of people love this book (and the series). But there were more than a few super pissed fans of the first book who thought A Gathering of Shadows was just boring filler – until the very end, when the black London stuff comes calling. In other words, they felt just the opposite of the way I did about it (one reader said it was “is majorly afflicted with the infamous 2nd book syndrome”). One person even suggested that all the important things that happen in this book could be collapsed into the first chapter of the final volume of the trilogy.

Are those folks wrong? Yes and no. I think they’re wrong because books (or stories of any kind) do more than simply push the major plot along and there’s a lot of other stuff going on for most of A Gathering of Shadows, stuff that I happen to enjoy (a lot of books, beginnings of them, get described as “slow,” but I love the time spent settling into a place or getting to know characters). On the other hand, it isn’t wrong to say that by the end of A Gathering of Shadows not a lot has happened on the grand “fate of the worlds” scale on which the first book operated. I can understand the frustration, even if I don’t share it.

While this is another in a long line of examples of why all are is personal, it’s also an example of people wanting different things from extended works. A trilogy or series, by definition, invites readers in and lets them spend more time in a world than a single story. It’s not surprising that a writer might take that time to do things other than move the plot along. But it’s also no surprise that fans brought back to the world by a quick-paced first book might find a second one slow if it can’t match that pace.

Neither set of readers is wrong in their expectations (or their permissions), but neither is a writer “wrong” for taking one path over the other. It’s worth thinking about what people said about the first book before deciding to slow things down in the second. Maybe that’s the best way to tell the entire story you mean to tell, or maybe it’s a second-book trap you’re falling into. As with most things about writing, a little forethought can head off some disappointment down the road.

Favorite Reads of 2018

Since it’s getting down to the wire – I’m not down with “Best of” lists that show up in October – I figured now was the time to give a shout out to my favorite books from 2018. Two important notes: (1) these are favorites, not necessarily bests or whatever; I just loved them, and (2) the key phrase is “that I read in 2018,” so it includes books from before 2018. With that said, here we go (in no particular order) . . .

Nemesis Games (2015)

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I’ve basically been keeping one book ahead of where the TV version of The Expanse is, but with the next season on Amazon taking parts from both the fourth (Cibola Burn) and fifth (this one) books, I figured I had to get a little more down the road with this series. I read Cibola Burn this year, too, and while I got the criticisms some people had with it, I didn’t think it was this bad. In comparison to Nemesis Games, however, it was a wet patch on the road. To say “things change” in Nemesis Games is to severely undersell it. That the writing hive mind that is James S.A. Corey managed to explode the cast, sending them off in different directions before pulling them back together, is no small feat, either.

Saga, Vol. 9 (2018)

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Oh, boy, that last twist. The good news is that after nine volumes Saga continues to be inventive, thrilling, thoughtful, and capable of numerous gut punches. The bad news is that writer Bryan K. Vaughn and artist Fiona Staples are taking “at least” a year off from the series before getting back to work on it. Part of me thinks that’s a good idea, but part of me worries if this shunts Saga into the realm of great, unfinished stories. Given the way this one ended, I sure hope not.

If you’re not reading Saga yet, here’s why I think you should.

The Field of Blood: Violence In Congress and the Road to Civil War (2018)

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Many people know that, in the run up to the Civil War, Senator Charles Sumner was beaten by one of his Southern colleagues with a cane, providing the perfect metaphor for the turmoil that would soon rip the nation apart. What most folks don’t know is that, while Sumner’s beating stood out for its brutality, it was merely different in degree, rather than in kind, from numerous other incidents of Congressional violence. One Congressman even died in a duel (not on the House floor, to be fair). Not just a colorful “you were there” history, The Field of Blood looks back at another time when the political norms broke down and things sound frighteningly familiar to modern ears.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer (2009)

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Pure fun. Well, pure darkly humorous fun, at the very least. Johannes Cabal sold his soul to the devil. To get it back, he’s have to deal in bulk, gathering 100 souls for the devil to replace his own, all while running a demonic travelling circus right out of the darker portions of Ray Bradbury’s psyche. This was probably the most fun I had with a book this year, partly because of what I’d just read before (see below), but also because there’s a sharp, dark wit that runs all the way through it.

Shattered Earth trilogy (2015-2017)

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N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy – The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky – made history early this year when it won the Hugo Award for best novel three years in a row, an unprecedented achievement. Is it that good? Absolutely. The Fifth Season, in particular, is a structural high-wire act that shouldn’t work, but completely does and leaves the reader knowing precisely why it was done. The other two books don’t quite reach that level, but the overall arc of the story and the characters that drive it is brilliant. Pretty heavy (I needed Johannes Cabal . . . to brighten me up a bit), but completely worth it.

I’ve written before about these books here and here.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist (2018)

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I wrote a review of this one here, so I won’t say much more. If you want to get really pissed off about what “justice” looks like in this country (and you should), this is the book for you.

Neuromancer  (1984)

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Yeah, I know, very late to the party on this one. My college roommate read it and, for some reason, I let it get away from me. Does it hold up? Pretty much, although it’s clearly a product of its time. As a foundational text for cyberpunk it’s something every sci-fi fan and writer should check out. That it continues to tell a gripping story while introducing a lot of ideas we now take for granted is icing on the cake.

Children of Time (2015)

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I gushed about this one right after I read it, so check out the details here. Suffice to say, any book that can make you care about the macro evolutionary development of sentient spiders is an achievement.

Weekly Read: How to Stop Time

Every time I finish reading a book or watching a movie I have a routine I call “doing my due diligence.” I hop on the Web and read up on what I’ve just finished, looking for critical reviews, viewer feedback, and any interesting interviews/analyses I can find. Rarely do I find a review headline that so completely nailed my feeling about book during this due diligence as I did after I finished How to Stop Time. As the Irish Times put it:

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I mean, it can’t get much better for a writer than for a critic to say “the only thing wrong is there’s not more of it,” right? Always leave them wanting more, as the saying goes.

It’s not quite that clear cut when it comes to How to Stop Time, but it does get pretty close.

The central conceit of the book is a reverse of progeroid syndromes, actual conditions where people age rapidly, usually dying young. The main character here, Tom Hazard, has just the opposite problem – he only ages one year for every 14 that pass. He’s not immortal, but long lived and robustly healthy. Needless to say, it causes issues.

The book bounces back between “now,” where Tom is trying to lead a normal life as a history teacher (makes sense), and various points in his past. Thus we see (in the 16th century) Tom do the one thing that all nearly immortal souls make – falling in love. The scars of that love run deep, reaching into the “now” world as Tom tries to overcome them. Along the way he rubs elbows with some famous folks – works for Shakespeare, sails with Captain Cook, hangs out with Fitzgerald and Zelda – but mostly drifts kind of aimlessly.

Trying to give some structure to things, and help those like Tom stay off the radar (because there are others), is the Albatross Society, so named because the birds have long life spans. Hendrich, the leader of this group of “Albers” who’s been around so long he actually looks old, dictates the parameters of Tom’s life as a mean of protection, he says, although it’s never really clear if there’s much of a threat.

Which is part of the problem with How to Stop Time. While the flashbacks are all interesting and dive deep into Tom’s character, the actual story doesn’t really get going very far until well past the book’s midpoint, at which is careens into motion so fast that it’s hard to keep up. In truth, this seems like about half a book, rather than a full novel. Is the threat Hendrich repeatedly intones real? Could Tom really find love with a regular woman in the modern world? What about his daughter with that long-dead love, a woman who has the same condition as he? So many areas go unexplored as the book barrels to its finish.

So it’s not so much that How to Stop Time is so great from beginning to end that you just want more of the good stuff; it’s more that it feels incomplete. Which is a shame, because the run up is really good and the basic idea is executed really well. Still highly recommended, even if you might wind up saying “is that all?” when you’re done.

HowtoStopTime

“Killer Queen” – A Short Story

Once again, author Eric Douglas has invited other writers to do some short fiction for Halloween. Once again there’s no word limit or target, so naturally my entry this year is twice as long as last year’s. You can read that one here, as well as my two prior 100-word entries here and here. And, as always, head over to Eric’s place to check out stories from all the other folks.

Now, without ado – “Killer Queen”


Sanchez wasn’t surprised that there was a crush of onlookers and paparazzi when she arrived. A bloody murder at the Calabria Club was just the kind of thing that got social media in an uproar. She whipped out her badge and used it to cut a swath through the gawkers.

“Evening, detective,” said a young officer. “Quite a scene.”

“Nothing like what’s inside, from what I’ve heard,” Sanchez said, slipping under the crime scene tape.

“It ain’t pretty.”

She already knew the basics. They didn’t make any sense, so she did her best to put them out of her mind. She wanted to view the crime scene with the freshest eyes possible.

The Calabria Club was the kind of small, hip club Sanchez could never hope to get into. She imagined it was usually all dim lights and pulsing music. Now it was deadly quiet except for the muffled talk of cops and lit as brightly as the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. It was like when you see the person you took home the night before for the first time in the cold light of morning. Never a pretty picture.

The vic was on the floor next to the bar. She was a young woman of indeterminate ethnicity, with long black hair and a short, sparkly silver dress. She lay on her back, hair spread around her head like ink spilled from a well.

Most of her face was gone.

Sanchez leaned down. “Holy shit.”

Doc Forbes, the medical examiner on call, stepped over. “Never seen anything like it.” She pointed to the vic’s throat. “Ripped clear out. I mean, somebody went in with bare hands and literally tore this woman’s throat apart. I’ve seen mob killings, dismemberments, you know? Where they’re sending a message? Never anything like this.” She shivered and walked away.

Sanchez had never seen anything like it, either. The vic’s face was a mess of blood and torn flesh. In a couple of spots Sanchez could even see bone. The vic’s throat was nothing more than a dark, damp chasm where her windpipe had been.

Sanchez shook her head. There was another officer nearby. “There’s a perp, I understand?”

He nodded to a back room.

Sanchez thanked him and headed behind the bar, toward the back office. She knocked and let herself in.

“I don’t believe it,” was the only thing Sanchez could say. “Twitter was right.”

Stina Blomgren, the up and coming model and social media star, sat slumped in a chair, flanked by a pair of officers. Her hands, caked with blood up past the wrist, lay limp on her lap. Her dress had once been electric blue, but now it was a symphony of arterial red streaks and splashes that would have made Pollock proud. A red smear streaked across her face from her lips, mixing with slowly flowing tears. She was mumbling something Sanchez couldn’t quite make out.

Sanchez tapped Cal Cooney, her partner, on the shoulder. “What happened?”

“We’re getting security footage now,” Cooney whispered, all the while keeping an eye on Stina, “but the witnesses all say that she just went nuts and attacked that girl.”

“Is she a friend? A rival?” Sanchez had a hard time figuring out what could make somebody do that to another human being.

“That we don’t know. She’s not being very helpful, saying ‘something just came over me.’ Over and over, that’s it.” Cooney said. He nodded back over his shoulder. “Stina’s purse is in the next room. Take a look through it, see if there’s anything interesting.”

Sanchez nodded and backed out of the room. In a collection of coats and bags she found a small clutch that matched the dress Stina was wearing. She cleared a spot on the table and dumped the contents out. Out came a state ID card and a couple of credit cards with Stina’s name on them. It was definitely hers. No phone. Maybe somebody in the crowd nicked it. The only other thing of interest was a tube of lipstick.

Sanchez picked it up. The tube was plain white plastic, without any of the design elements she was used to. The only thing on it was a small sticker on the bottom. “Killer Queen,” it said, along with “PINTURA,” the cosmetics company.

“Ooh,” she said. Pintura was so hot these days stores could barely keep it on the shelves. Not that it mattered to Sanchez. This would probably go for at least a sixty, seventy bucks a tube, well out of her reach on a detective’s salary. She popped the top. It was a bright, fiery red, more dazzling than any Sanchez had ever seen, sharp and forceful. It was probably a prototype of some kind, given the plain white tube. One thing was certain – Stina wasn’t going to need it where she was going. It was a shame that it would just wind up rotting in an evidence back somewhere.

Sanchez looked around for moment and, convinced she wasn’t seen, slipped the tube into her pocket. One of the perks of the job.

~~~~~

While the Calabria Club Cat Fight, as the press had dubbed it, was bloody and sensational, it was an easy case to put down. The murder had been filmed by multiple security cameras from beginning to end, with a few cell phone videos managing to capture the bloody conclusion. It was just as the witnesses had said – Stina jumped on the victim without provocation and ripped her apart. They didn’t know each other and had barely interacted at the club. Sanchez’s job was to figure out what happened – that was obvious. She’d let the ADAs and their shrinks try to figure out the why. That was above her pay grade, so she moved on to more pleasant things.

Sanchez grabbed her phone and texted Teo, a guy she met on a dating app a couple of weeks back. They’d met once in person, for afternoon coffee, just to check each other out and make sure they weren’t serial killers. He was cute and had been as nervous as she was, so she decided he was okay. She’d also run his name through the databases at the station. Sure, it was against the rules, maybe even illegal, but this wasn’t the kind of thing you took chances with. She was satisfied that Teo wasn’t a criminal, so it was time to push things to the next level.

They agreed to meet for dinner that evening at a small bistro in Sanchez’s neighborhood. She put on her best little black dress, the one that let her show off the curves she had to pretend she didn’t have at work, and grabbed the lipstick she’d taken from Stina’s bag.

She’d gone to the Pintura website to look up the color, but couldn’t find anything called “Killer Queen” in their lineup. That meant it had to be a prototype or early edition. It went on more smoothly than any lipstick she’d ever used. It was as bright red as she’d imagined, like the paint job on a Ferrari. It glistened just a bit, enough to add a thin shine to her lips. She wondered if there was something else in it, as it burned just a bit on her lips. It was like one of those Aztec chocolates that warms up the back of your mouth just as the chocolate flavor dies off. It wasn’t painful, just odd.

~~~~~

She and Teo sat at the bar and had a drink while they waited for their table to be ready, making small talk. He knew she was a cop, but not yet that she worked homicide. It was too early for her to tell stories of blood, bullets, and ripped apart families. Someday she hoped to have someone she could share those burdens with, but for now she kept him entertained with stories from her days as a beat cop. Amusingly insistent drunks, drag queens on bath salts, and neighbors engaged in the most intense disputes over the most mundane things, by contrast, made for good conversation.

Teo laughed at all the right places and showed some compassion when expected.

Teo didn’t have any amusing work stories. He was an office manager for a law firm that handled “boring business stuff,” as he put it. That made for steady work, but wasn’t particularly exciting. He came to life, though, when he talked about music and photography and his rec league basketball team which, he insisted, was the oldest in New York City.

Sanchez nodded and smiled, then did that flirty thing with her hair that was pretty much reflex when she was feeling like this. She liked Teo and could see something worth building here. She was also getting warm, like she already had an entire bottle of whiskey in her. Part of that was the flush of arousal and excitement at how well this date was going, but it was more intense than she’d ever felt before.

They were shown to their table in the corner. They kept talking over an appetizer and salads, but Sanchez increasingly found herself with less to say. Teo picked up the slack, but she started to feel like her mind was slowing down, keeping her from contributing much to the conversation. The warmth that had begun in her belly had risen and become even fiercer. Although it was winter and she knew the restaurant wasn’t hot, she found herself sweating. She became intensely aware of her own breathing.

She finished another glass of wine.

Were all of Teo’s stories this boring? She started noticing that he wasn’t really able to string two coherent thoughts together, like he was just vomiting up a stream of conscious. Was it her? She wiped her forehead, which was hot and damp. She chugged an entire glass of water in one go.

“Are you all right?” Teo asked. He cocked his head a bit, like he was genuinely curious. He touched her hand on the table, but she pulled away.

“Fine,” she said, shaking her head. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. It felt like her insides were on fire, like electricity was coursing up and down her body. She started breathing fast, like she was running a race. Her heart pounded in her ears, driving on and on like a thumping dance beat. Even after the water and wine her throat was parched. Whatever she did she couldn’t get herself to settle down.

“Melissa,” Teo said. “Are you all right? Can I get you something?”

The table, bare wood without a cloth, was softer than she imagined. Her fingers dug into it while she tried to calm herself. She looked up at Teo. The rest of the restaurant was a blur, but he remained in perfect focus. His look of concern sickened her. Who was he to care about her, anyway? What was his real motivation in all this? That little smile, that smirk he’d worn all night. Something had to be done.

“Melissa?” he asked again. “What’s wrong?”

Sanchez bolted up in her chair, overturning the table and driving Teo to the floor. He yelled something, but the screams that boiled up from inside her, then erupted from her, drowned out his pathetic cries. She went for the face first, slashing and grabbing chunks of dull flesh. Blood flowed, staining her hands, but she didn’t care. She had to keep going.

~~~~~

It wouldn’t have been Cooney’s case anyway – not in his precinct – but it surely would have been taken from him given that his partner was the suspect. Not suspect, killer. A room full of diners saw her do it.

He weaved his way through the onlookers and found the primary, an old friend of his from the academy. Cooney looked at the scene and had flashbacks from the Calabria Club.

“She still here?” he asked.

“In the back,” the primary said. “You look like you’ve seen this before.”

“I don’t know.” Cooney shook his head. “I just don’t know at this point.”

Cooney went to the back room, where Sanchez was sitting in a chair, flanked by a pair of uniformed officers. It gave him a strong sense of déjà vu – blank expression, blood all over her hands and dress, and she kept repeating something over and over. Cooney knelt down beside her.

“Jesus, Michelle, what did you do?” He looked for some kind of understanding in her eyes, but they were blank and empty, like windows of a house where everyone had moved out.

“Something just came over me,” she mumbled. “Something just came over me. Something came over me.”

~~~~~

Pintura Won’t Proceed With “Killer” Line

By Hope Williams, Beauty Business Daily

Cosmetics giant Pintura (NYSE: PNT) quietly announced that it was stopping development on a new line of products that was to be marketed under the “Killer” brand. The press release merely stated that initial reports from beta testers had not been as strong as the company hoped for and, in charting its course for the future, resources were better allocated elsewhere.

The “Killer” line was first announced 18 months ago and received some pushback because of the name’s violent connotations. The company had touted that the products, infused with proprietary compounds developed exclusively for Pintura, would have helped create a bold new look for the modern woman.

Social media has been abuzz with talk of incidents involving some of the “Killer” prototypes. Last month model and Pintura endorser Stina Blomgren was charged with murder after a violent outburst in a New York club, but there is no evidence that she was one of the “Killer” beta testers.

A Pintura spokesperson would not respond to our requests to comment.


Of course, I’m aware of the musical reference (you thought that was a coincidence?).

Happy Halloween!

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