Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Cities of Wonder, Trains of Irreality released!

This has been sneaking along beneath the surface for awhile now, but at last I can make it official.

This collection/chapbook of flash stories and poems is now available!


Going back over ten years, I began playing around with the idea of a narrative approach that combines Italo Calvino's arch fabulist descriptions of imaginary cities (and other places/ideas) with Lord Dunsany's languid and dreamy fantasy stories, such as "Idle Days on the Yann." Toss in a railroad and some metaphysical playfulness, and the first story of the series, "City of Games," was published. Others followed, expanding on the original but each its own story, playing with the ideas of meaning and language through the cities that line the fabled rails of Yahm. Some were longer, pushing into the short story range, and some were poems, but most fall right around 1,000 words. Perfect for a quick dip of a read between other time commitments.

For a long time I thought it'd be fun to have a chapbook collection of all those stories. So after weighing various options, I decided to release them now, in print form only. (I'll likely eventually re-format it for kindle and/or other e-versions.)

I'll put up a tab soon with the full table of contents. The collection is roughly half previously published and half completely new. The previous publications include flash fiction that appeared in Raven Electrick Ink's Sporty Spec and Cinema Spec as well as Kaleidotrope and the INDIEpendence anthology plus a poem that appeared in Strange Horizons.

So whether you're an Italo Calvino fan, a Lord Dunsany fan, or simply want to try out some of my writing in a short format (or maybe all three), order your copy of Cities of Wonder, Rails of Irreality today!

Monday, January 14, 2019

Hopepunk? Do we really need a label like that?

While I was traveling recently I happened to read the Vox think piece about "Hopepunk." The (genre-ish) label was coined by Alexandra Rowland, so I followed up later reading on Twitter some of her thoughts on it, her elaborations and explanations.

Hmm, what to make of it?

I both like and dislike the idea, but definitely like the discussions that the label leads to.

So first, what don't I like? Well...the main thing is that I wonder if it's necessary. Must we label and define every sub-category of literary approaches? It reminds me of the old discussion forums that Nightshade Books hosted long ago. I came along a few years too late for all the animated New Weird discussions, but the effects of those discussions still haunted portions of the site. Is this really something new and noteworthy? Can we just allow writers to write what intrigues them without trying to label and define it?

Now...I happened to like New Weird, and really I found that the discussions helped lead me to discover new works and new writers I enjoyed. But I sympathize with the idea that the act of labeling can put restrictions on the writers. If New Weird had devolved into Bugs 'n Drugs, as some dismissively called it, then it would have been a pointless distinction. (Instead it just...fffaded away, and now it's rare to find anyone willing to claim the label. Which is maybe better than a restricting label. But still...)

So I guess my dislike is the fear that "hopepunk" turns into some label for people to wrangle over, some sub-genre that turns its fans inward instead of outward. This work isn't hopepunk enough. That work isn't hopepunk at all, so I won't bother reading it. Mindless insularity and border policing, the very things I've resisted in the broader fields of fantasy, SF, literature in general.

But...that's simply a potential pitfall for now.

So what do I like about it?

I recognize what I've been trying to do in my writing for years, for one.

I never felt a strong draw toward grimdark. Some works that get labeled that have been good, but as a label, it doesn't excite me, and I never saw myself trying to make my name within its confines. It wasn't so much a dislike of the idea as simply a lack of any real connection to the themes.

Then noblebright came along, and...meh. Again, it wasn't so much that I was adamantly against anything that might be labeled that, but rather that I didn't feel any connection with the underlying push. Can a good story have a character inspired by ideals who isn't narratively punished for that? Sure. In fact, much that I've written would probably fit that very minimalist definition, but I've never felt like it was really noblebright.

What piqued my interest in hopepunk was the idea of resisting, of recognizing the awful things in the world and not letting that lead to despair. Of fighting against a darkness that will probably win in the end, but maybe not. No matter how the story ends up (in a Tolkien-style eucatastrophe--a surprising victory when failure seemed assured; a true failure; a bittersweet victory; a well earned triumph), it's in those moments of not knowing but continuing on that make a story compelling. Often my favorite stories to read are favorites for that very reason, for the beleaguered travelers who keep going, the doomed rebel soldiers who fight on, the underground resisters who know they're likely to end up arrested by the Nazis but who help hide the Jewish refugees even so.

Way back when Musa was publishing my Spire City serials, I wrote a guest blog about keeping the punk part of steampunk, about keeping the focus of the story on those who are being ground down by society. (That post later ended up, slightly modified, as the author intro to the collected Season Two: Pursued.) I think that fits well with the conversations around hopepunk and together they form a part of what I always try to touch on in my writing. In Spire City, it's a group of homeless people, poor and infected by a mad scientists' deadly serum. In The Silk Betrayal, the character who gives the novel its main arc isn't at first interested in that--Pavresh is mid-caste and comfortable and only wants to learn the performance magic Chaitan has discovered/invented. But in many ways it's the story of Pavresh becoming concerned with those things, becoming a part of the dreamers who want (and fight for) a better society. It's no coincidence that many of them come from a much lower position in society, and some do lose hope in the face of failure and betrayal. But that's a part of the arc of the story, and some fight on, no matter the cost.

I hope that hopepunk continues to be one lens to look at stories through. But not a genre label. I hope there are no anthologies of hopepunk, no raging battles over what is and isn't a member of the club. Not a definition to constrain how writers write their stories, but a way to look and see those stories after they're written. With everything going on in the world, stories of hope and even hopepunk have an important role so we don't give in to mindless fascism, greed, and despair.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

New story! "The Scapegoat Village" in Kaleidotrope

Starting off the year* with a new short story published in Kaleidotrope, my 5th story in that magazine (two back when it was a print zine and now three in the online version). "The Scapegoat Village" is a lyrical, stylish sort of fantasy—I was playing around with a particular narrative distance when I wrote it.

What else to say as background to the story? It was inspired in part by the origin of the word scapegoat, where a goat would be sent out from the village, symbolically carrying the villagers' sins/faults/failures, into the desert to be punished where that punishment wouldn't harm the people. What an awful thing for the poor goat, right? There's something evocative yet terrible about that image that always caught my attention.

I should also mention the Spanish headings to the story. They mean "The Disillusionment," "The Reaction," "The Idealism," and "The Wisdom." But there's more than just their English meanings to including them. The Spanish for disillusionment is one of those words I can remember precisely when and where I learned it—it was in discussing the decadence of what's called the Golden Age of Spanish literature and art (16th-17th century or so). One of the characteristics of the age was recognizing the falseness of their empire's glory, becoming disillusioned with it.

If you think about the word "disillusion," you can see it's basically "no longer believing the illusion," but I don't think most of us think it through that way entirely, in English at least. We just hear the word. For me, as a Spanish student, the connection to "engaƱo"—which I'd learned as deception, hoax, scam—made that meaning much clearer. Disillusionment isn't merely seeing the truth after not being aware of it, it's seeing the truth after being deliberately fooled by some outside force. It's The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" (which I'm not too proud to admit I first learned from the Van Halen version back in high school...).

So I always liked the Spanish word and felt it captured something that's missing or overlooked in the English word. The other headings were simply chosen to follow through on that, creating a progression from that moment of disillusionment, of un-hoaxing.

*(And yes, the way these first days of the year have gone with a new puppy in the house, this is still very much the start of the year...)

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Silk Betrayal: sneak peek, Roots of Betrayal

And now we have come to the end of this past month’s celebration of The Silk Betrayal. Thank you for joining with me in this series of posts, and be sure to get yourself a copy of the novel and a few more to share. Encourage your local library to purchase it. Review the book, mention it on social media, and all the rest. You have my thanks for any part of that you do.

In thanks, then, I’d like to present to you a brief sneak peek at the sequel, the second book in The Arcist Chronicles. Fair warning, this has been smoothed out and cleaned up some, but it is still in a fundamental way a rough draft. I do not know when I will have the novel fully revised and ready to send to beta readers or my publisher Guardbridge Books. I do not know when it might be published.

The novel is tentatively titled The Roots of Betrayal, and one of the threads of the story is a growing doubt in the accepted story of the land’s past. The first few chapters would all require a spoiler warning for book 1, but chapter 5 introduces us to a new character—Harkala is a middle-aged scholar with a reputation for eccentricity. Her latest discovery could put her rivals to shame and prove her standing as one of the valley’s great scholars. Or may only lead to her own embarrassment.

So here is the opening scene of chapter 5. Enjoy!

***
Chapter 5 
The sea wind shook the paper in Harkala’s hands so she could scarcely read it. But no matter, she knew it by heart, the old words, the oddly structured description that no one had been able to decipher. No one until she had. 
Six hundred and fifty years ago, the first people of Eghsal had fled the Forgotten South. Had come to Eghsal. Even the name they’d given the valley was an old version of the word exile, if she was correct. They’d arrived in their boats here, not far from the mouth of the Eghsal River. 
Was it a thousand people who’d come through those terrible waters to land here? Two thousand? Most scholars placed it somewhere between those numbers. Shouldn’t it be even higher, though? By her calculations there must have been more than ten thousand, and even then those first settlers would have been extraordinarily fertile. 
And that meant, what, fifty huge ships at least. But a smaller ship might have made it through the rough seas more easily, from what she knew of modern fishing boats, anyway. So probably hundreds of ships arriving. 
Then where had so many ships ended up? They couldn’t have all been buried in the silt of the river mouth or turned into the first buildings of Jarnur. Somewhere there must be remains of the ships. 
The only clue was in a silk paper record from a century or more after the fact. No one had been able to figure out what it meant, though, not until she had the chance to study that scrap of ancient silk. 
She scrambled up a rise, pausing halfway to the top to examine the soil. She gestured to her student Nakhil, a would-be scholar from a low caste nefli family. 
“See this?” The rock had a characteristic white line rippling along its surface for a ways. “This was a riverbank once. The Eghsal River shifted from here to its current bed.” 
Nakhil bent down to see. “When, tisrah? Aren’t these rocks far older?” 
“Thousands of years, that’s what the other scholars say.” Harkala waved them away with her empty hand. “Is that what you were going to suggest? Well, what if it wasn’t so long ago? The salty sea wind ages everything faster, buildings and boats but soil and rock as well. The river flowed through here far more recently than anyone realizes.” 
But six hundred years ago? Seeing the rocks, Harkala felt a voice of doubt. What if it wasn’t the age of the rocks she should question but the time since the ancestors arrived. Add a thousand years to that, and the story required far fewer settlers, far fewer ships. No. She shook her head to clear the thought away. Now was not the time to stumble after some new errant idea, not when she was so close to proving herself as a true scholar. 
Nakhil straightened and studied the line of where the river must have gone down toward the sea. No one born to scholarship would have submitted to being mentored by such an eccentric teacher, so she often drew students who were outside the normal. In the case of Nakhil she’d lucked out. The young man was quick to listen and eager to follow her lead. Those were the key skills she required. He could think for himself, too, which was a pleasant bonus. 
“And if the river mouth was along here instead of its current location, then this description makes far more sense.” She waved the paper in her hand, her own copy of the scrap of silk. Knowing the ancient path of the river alone didn’t explain everything in the paper. She’d also had to translate an archaic measurement the settlers had used, and their compasses must have all been shifted slightly off true, perhaps by the iron of the mountains. 
She sighted her compass, making the adjustment for the ancient error, and set off along what had once been riverbank. 
Farming had altered the land, even after the river’s course changed. Rows of gourds and shell beans lined the ancient ridge, and grape vineyards stood closer to the current river, where the air was warmer. 
The ancestors would have brought the ships up the river this far, the paper suggested. 
Perhaps they wanted to salvage some of the timber or perhaps they hoped to protect them from the storms of the shoreline, as if they might find a way to go back into that unforgiving sea and return to the Forgotten South. Whatever the reason, the remains of the ships should be a short way in from where the banks had been. 
At least, she hoped to prove as much. Then let the other scholars laugh. 
“Right here,” she told Nakhil, scanning the ground ahead. The dirt was especially rich here, so that a fair-sized bowl of a valley, shallow but clearing lower than the surrounding land, grew an abundance of crops. “There would have been an oxbow of some kind, or other stagnant offshoot of water. You can see the shape of it in the fields themselves.” 
“Did they sink the ships, then? Do we have to dig beneath the fields?” 
Harkala shook her head. “Not if I read this scrap right. It seems to indicate that they pulled the ships out of the water and stored them in a protected...area of some kind. I can’t make that out. What do you see nearby?” 
Nakhil strode in among the mounds of carrots and cabbage and peered across. Harkala focused on a rougher patch of ground to the southeast of the fields. The remains of the ships could have stayed undiscovered there, as it looked like land that had never been excavated. It didn’t exactly match her recreation of the silk paper, but perhaps she’d misunderstood part of it. 
Nakhil pointed at a different location, a flat-topped ridge that marched down to the field. 
“If this looked like I imagine it did, wouldn’t that be a better, more protected space?” 
It did fit the description in the silk paper better. She looked down at her copy and back at the ridge. The location was a better fit, at least, but the ridge was much too small. “For the number of ships we’re talking, it had to be a bigger area.” Another glance between paper and ridge. “But we should check it out, at least. Let’s take a look straight across here first. If we get stuck, we’ll head over that way.” 
*** 
Stuck? Stuck was a mild word for the morass they found themselves in where Harkala had hoped to find her evidence. An early plow blade had been the first evidence that it was less pristine than she had hoped. Some early settlers had planted terraces around the massive boulders that surely hadn’t moved in thousands of years. Whether they’d managed to grow anything, Harkala doubted, unless the change in the river’s course had swept most of the fertile soil away. What soil remained blew away with a simply brush of the tools the servants carried. Beneath was only solid rock. 
No stray timber left behind by rotting ships. No indication at all that the ships had ever been anywhere near the area. 
The laughter of her fellow scholars echoed hollowly in her mind. She could already see the covered smiles of those who’d never liked her and the embarrassed way her few one-time allies turned away upon seeing her. 
No, there were more sections to examine. She mustn’t give in.

Will she give in? Will she find the evidence of long lost ships from a distant land? What does her story have to do with the surviving characters from The Silk Betrayal? What is the connection to arcist magic? The answers are in the sequel, The Roots of Betrayal.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Silk Betrayal: minor characters

As I’ve mentioned before, there are many characters in The Silk Betrayal. I’m not going to go through and introduce every one of them. But I’d like to highlight a few here and introduce them to you:

Rashul

Rashul is pure charisma. He’s the Beto O’Rourke* of Romnai. The young dreamer who inspires those around him to dream of a new and different society. For several years he’s been coming to Chaitan’s house and building a following as he dreams of changing the world, of leaving the caste system behind entirely and of what society might look like after that. And it isn’t only the well educated dreamers who are drawn to him. He counts people among all levels of society as friends and supporters. His ideas are dangerous to the ruling caste, of course. When the novel begins he is not powerful enough for the princes to be worried about his little following.

Not yet...

Indima

Indima is a silk weaver and dancer. Among the castes and jatis, the silk weavers are highly revered, the equals of the princes and priests. Silk cannot be harvested in this northern valley, so the silks that the highest classes value are ancient, brought here (according to tradition) from the Forgotten South centuries ago. Silk does not naturally last so long, but through jati secrets that some claim are a form of magic, the silk weavers preserve the silks for the other high caste jatis.

So Indima’s presence among Rashul’s followers at Chaitan’s house is as an outlier. Rashul’s dreams would take away her own status. What draws her there, though, is the dancing. Her own training is as a sacred dancer, performing the proscribed dances in the temples. At Chaitan’s house a different kind of dancing is performed. Combining songs unlike the temple music with Chaitan’s (and his acolytes’) arcist magic along with dance sequences that are free of the temples’ strict requirements, this new dancing draws Indima in. And it is through dancing that she meets her lower-caste lover, the fisherman (and dancer) Ekana.

Bhadrik

Unlike the other characters here, Bhadrik has no connection to Chaitan’s house. He is a soldier, one of the wolf jati soldiers, which means he lives most of the time far from the cities, patrolling the mountains to keep an eye on the valley’s original inhabitants, the pale-skinned mumblers. Like many of the soldiers, he belongs to the mystery religion, in which the participants challenge the fire itself and strive to be its master. Bhadrik is sure that he will be one of the few to not only equal the fire but to fully master it through the secret rites.

Bhadrik is trained with the sword (in particular the ceremonial sacred sword that is his right as a member of the wolf jati) and the sling, which is a useful weapon in the mountains where the errant winds drive arrows off target, making archery nearly useless. Certain of his own strength and his place within the jati, he is in no way prepared for the events to come.

*yes, this post was originally written right around the election when Beto was all people were talking about (all of these posts were planned out and drafted back in November); feel free to substitute any politician who captures a momentary, progressive-ish zeitgeist, regardless of specific real-world issues...

Friday, December 28, 2018

Silk Betrayal: religions

The Religions of Eghsal Valley


I’m part of several different online fantasy writing communities. One topic that comes up periodically in worldbuilding discussions is how to handle religion in our imaginary worlds. I’ve always answered that I’m not the least bit interested in any sort of divine reality behind the stories—keep the story focused on the human characters, not whatever gods/goddesses there might be behind the scenes. And leave that unresolved, behind a veil of uncertainty. What does interest me, though, and is part of making a believable world is what the characters within it believe and how that affects the actions they take.

If you look over all my writing, you’d see a wide range of religious ideas and a wide range of character interactions to those ideas (from largely ignoring them to them being a character’s driving force).

Among the people of Eghsal Valley there are three main religions, all three of which place fire as the central source of reality.

The most powerful of these is the pantheonic religion with its powerful, high-caste priests and its temples. This is the state religion, as much as there is one. While it views the fire of reality as central and all powerful, its primary focus is on the gods and goddesses who influence how the fire affects the world as humans know it. There are many deities, some particular to a geographical feature or location, but here are some of the main ones:

Gods

  • Tiespetre - son of fire, god of physical laws of the cosmos
  • Ryo -  step brother of Tiespetre, god of customs, social laws, marriage, healing
  • Perkwom - son of Tiespetre, thunderer, god of protection and just war; stubborn, strong
  • Tiessen - twin sons of Tiespietre so alike they share a name; one is god of horses, one of cattle; guides of sailors, farmers, wanderers, dancers, rescuers
  • Kwomnep - son of Tiespetre, god of water (not the sea) offending this god leads to flooding
  • Shemo and Humo - brothers, sons of Perkwom; Shemo is lord of death since he was sacrificed to save the world from the sea; Humo performed the rite, making him the first priest
  • Paxu -  son of Ryo, god of drinks (wine, mate, fire liquor) & music & wild spaces

Goddesses

  • Kwona - horse goddess (wild); also the sea sometimes
  • Gouwind -  cow goddess (tame)
  • Aoso -   dawn; ambiguous--neither light nor dark; order
  • Saeldagtre -  Tiespetre's daughter, conducts sun through the sky
  • Deni -   river goddess (specific to the Eghsal River)
  • Little Fire -  hearth goddess--proves ownership; associated with the circle
  • Deghmedre - Tiespetre's wife; earth goddess
  • Koly -   goddess of death (itself, not the afterlife)
  • Torjid, Lokjid, Paljid - goddesses of mountains (each a specific peak, together of all peaks)
  • Brilith -   goddess of the sea
  • Teja, Kiela, Maela - goddesses of lava beds, chaos
Gauran - human hero who led the first settlers to Eghsal Valley (not a god, but the story of his interactions with the deities form a part of the religious stories)

The priests of this religion exert their influence over the whole valley, well beyond their numbers.

The second religion is the Enshi religion. It is looked down on by the priests and their followers as heretical, as it values the fire itself but has no use for any deities between the world and the fire. In the capital city of Romnai, where the priests are strong and the temple powerful, the Enshi religion is especially discriminated against. To the west, especially among the fishing families of Jarnur, it is much more accepted, and those of the two religions live at peace. The followers of the Enshi religion have no temples or priests but take a more mystical view of the fire. Using their cord-like belts and a series of ritualized movements, they attempt to be united with the fire.

The third religion is a mystery religion of the soldiers, especially the wolf jati soldiers who wander the valley far from the cities to keep the people safe. For them the fire is central, but not as something to be venerated. Instead, the fire is their rival. They challenge themselves, measure themselves against the fire in feats of strength. They worship those who triumph within their sacred rites. And when they succeed, they worship themselves.

The characters of The Silk Betrayal come from all of these religions. Some are deeply influenced by their beliefs in how to approach the fire of reality. Some are largely indifferent. But these three religions and the interactions among them form a significant part of the backdrop to the novel’s story.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Silk Betrayal character: Jasfer

The third principal character I'd like to introduce is Prince Jasfer Talai, one of the Thirty Princes who rule the valley. That makes him one of the thirty most powerful people in the entire known world...but that responsibility rests light on him—for now.

It’s worth pulling back a moment to explain how the rulers of Eghsal are chosen. Within the castes of Eghsal are smaller groupings, called jatis. One particular jati of the highest caste is the princely caste. It isn’t a huge jati, by any means (the other principal jatis of the highest caste are the priestly jati and the silk weavers, each of which is roughly similar in size), but still it numbers in the low thousands of adult members. They are the aristocracy, the noble families. In theory any adult from their ranks can be chosen to rule, depending on whatever whims of the current High Prince.

The High Prince himself (up until this point it has always been a male, though...that may change, perhaps even within the timeframe of this series), becomes the ruler by claiming the mantle in one particular room within the High Assembly and defending that claim (and room) for a full day-and-night. Coups are rarely successful without broad support from other princes. At that point, the High Prince chooses 29 others to help rule.

While the High Prince could choose from those thousands of adults, traditionally the ruling title is largely a family title, the positions inherited within a much smaller circle of families.

And this is how Jasfer was raised to the position of a ruling prince—his father died, at a relatively young age, and he was named to take his father’s role. His father likewise was a relatively forgettable prince, ruling a seat that had periodically been a part of his family for many generations. What made him stand out was his daughter Jaritta, burned and banished from the princely jati.

Jasfer has no doubt that the shame his parents felt for their daughter/his sister was part of what led to their early deaths. And now he is a ruler too, but feels more free to help his sister when he can—still in secret, but without the same kind of shame and distrust his father had to endure. He passes what money and food he dares to her, helps her find a place to live when he can.

As for his appearance, like his sister, there is little doubt he comes from the highest caste. He has the deep brown skin and fine, strong features of the valley’s rulers. He wears the silks of his caste and accepts his role within the caste system as simply the way things are meant to be. What happened to his sister was unfair, and he mistrusts the priests ever since, but it’s not a cause for doubt about the system as a whole.

When the novel begins he is still learning what it means to be a ruling prince, working hard to read a room and notice the unspoken things that come into play in all the intrigues and counter plans of the various factions among the princes. Events among the princes will quickly thrust him into much greater responsibility...and danger.