The Butcher of Sinai

This story was rejected by what, do you think I’m going to tell you? LOL, so I decided I’d post it here. If you like it, I’ll be sure to share the anthology with you when it comes out because every single story in it is guaranteed to be even better than this[1]! Anyway, in the meantime, since they didn’t want to make money from it, everyone gets it for free.

Yes, both of you.


 

Miriam squinted at the Angel. The Angel had the grace – no pun intended – to look sheepish. Pun … possibly intended on that one, Miriam conceded to herself without breaking squint. It was a good squint and it’d be a shame to stop halfway.

“Look,” the Angel intoned, an irritating whine underlying her heraldic glory, “I’m just passing on the orders here.”

“If God didn’t want me to keep shooting messengers,” Miriam told her, “He’d come down and splatter me Himself. Or at least send a messenger telling me I’m fired,” she added in a mutter with a hopeful lift at the end. The Angel gave her flame-wreathed scrap of bramble a half-hearted shake, and Miriam sighed. Angels really were the most useless, wretched creatures in all creation. “Fine,” she said, “tell me again.”

“He Who Is Namèd ‑ ”

“Not like that.”

“Lo! ‑ ”

“You somehow made it worse.”

The Angel’s heartbreakingly beautiful countenance adopted an expression that suggested she was suffering from constipation. Heartbreakingly beautiful constipation, to be sure, but constipation nevertheless. “During your last debriefing, some of the civilians under your watch fell to worshipping … ” the brambles rustled and spat sparks as the Angel tried to avoid concluding the statement.

“You can say it,” Miriam encouraged. If her youngest brother had been here, he would have told the poor thing to stop beating around the bush. The Angels really didn’t know how good they had it.

“ … a – a sheep,” the Angel’s voice cracked, whether in trepidation or hysterical laughter was unclear. She went on in a firmer tone. “The graven image of a sheep, all in gold.”

“There’s no need to be coy,” Miriam said, “we’re not just talking about a very handsome sheep and a bit too much time spent out in the wilderness here, are we? We’re talking about a mad Kernian God-Sheep from the Infinite Crazy Whatever-the-Fuck, right? That’s what you said.”

The Angel closed her eyes. “Yes.”

“I know I’ve been gone a few hours, but there was this stupid insistence on classical retro stonework for the new regulations,” Miriam waved a hand at the tablets, just barely resisting the urge to turn the gesture into what her brothers called an unscheduled wrath of God event.

The Angel shrugged. “They got bored.”

“Maybe they’d be less bored back in Egypt,” Miriam growled, then waved her hand again when the Angel lowered her bramble and looked at her with ridiculously hurt eyes. “Never mind. Just – I want to be clear on this, okay? This time it isn’t one of God’s things where it’s Him going by another name, or it’s some boozy friend of His, or He’s testing this batch of civilians to make sure they’re ready to be His, whatever it was, the chosen control subspecies or ‑ ”

“Yea, all things are a test.”

“You’re not doing great things for your chances of getting out of here un-shot, you know.”

“It’s a proper enemy God moving in on His turf,” the Angel said quickly.

“And I’m not expected to actually square up to the mad ruminant?”

“Just deal with the briefware issue,” the Angel said. “Bring them the new regulations, discipline them for the violation, remind them of God’s love.”

“One reminder coming up,” Miriam said sourly. “And stop calling them briefware.”

“The mortals,” the Angel amended. Miriam squinted at her again. “The civilians.”

“Close enough,” Miriam sighed, and bent to pick up the new regulations.

“Lift with your legs,” the Angel suggested.

“Fuck off with your wings,” Miriam replied curtly.

† † †

She was Chief Domestic Theological Enforcer of an elite force known as the Faithful Fists, a force of which her brothers Aaron and Moses were also a part. She hadn’t chosen the name. She hadn’t chosen the role. In fact, she’d had about as little say in any of it as her youngest brother had when he’d been left to the mercy of a river shortly after being born.

Mind you, like with her brother and the river, things had generally turned out okay for Miriam so it didn’t pay to complain too much. Especially not once you knew how short-tempered God was.

She’d gone through the usual youthful phase of wondering why Aaron, four years her junior but by far the more politically-minded; or Moses, three years younger still but actually part of the ruling Egyptian dynasty, had not been given this charge instead of her. Moses suggested that while there was certainly some satisfying storyteller symbolism in the tribulations of the third and youngest child that appealed to the Powers that Be, she was the eldest and therefore the responsibility was hers.

Aaron theorised that Miriam just ‘had that kind of face’. Neither explanation was entirely without merit.

Ultimately, though, she didn’t know why she’d been chosen and she didn’t ask anymore. She didn’t need to ask, because she knew there was no reason. Not really. If not her, then someone else. Maybe somebody better, probably – she flattered herself – somebody worse. And if it was somebody worse, then that would be her fault for stepping aside.

It was easy at the start. At the individual level, cruelty and injustice were simple little things, and her youngest brother was in a position to expose a lot of it. All it took was one additional person to step in, to stand up. If that person could put the offending party through a thick masonry wall just by levelling a finger and saying Stop That, then so much the better. A person in need was saved, the resultant triangle of gravel and offal was tidied away by a suddenly-eager-to-pitch-in local community, and all but one person involved learned something.

Even at a communal level it wasn’t hard in principle. You could tell who needed help, who was being hurt and who was doing the hurting. Where it got difficult was when populations banded together and codified injustice, to keep those in need where they were. When what was wrong and what was illegal started to drift apart. When city-states and nations formed up and faced off. When cultures coalesced out of the seething sludge of confusion and anger that was the human condition.

Nations had armies, and made war on one another for reasons that always seemed so clear. They’re coming to take our food. They’re going to march into our homes and murder us in our beds. They’re going to make us wear those stupid pants. Madness, but simple madness. Armies went where they were told. Nobody had to like it … but nobody wanted to be the first to let go of the stick, either.

Cultures were more difficult. Every human had an army inside their own head. An army that went where it was told, perhaps, but one that made alliances in the most chaotic and inconvenient times and places imaginable.

So sometimes, just to keep everything from flying apart, God reached down and gave one of those quiet internal armies direct access to His divine power. A one-person holy war. A human weapon of mass destruction, capable of enforcing the will of Earth’s true landlord on its rowdy tenants. And sometimes that meant killing firstborn sons, and sometimes it meant punching a bunch of slave hunters in the face with a sea, and sometimes it meant climbing up mountains at close to ninety years of age and having annoying conversations with wingèd bureaucrats and then stumbling and sliding your old arse back down again with a bunch of bullshit beautifully carved on stone tablets for no satisfactory reason.

That was the job.

† † †

Aaron and Moses met her at the base of Sinai, on the outskirts of the ramshackle little community their people had settled into.

“Did you ask about the priesthood misunderstanding?” Aaron asked before Miriam even had a chance to slap the dust off the backside of her flowing enforcer uniform.

“It wasn’t a misunderstanding and you’re still in charge of the monkey parade,” Miriam informed him.

“Fuck.”

“I take it from your good mood that it wasn’t Gabriel you talked to,” Moses noted with a smile.

“No, just some flunky with a burning piece of underbrush again,” Miriam hefted the stone tablets. “Got some new regs.”

“Oh excellent,” Moses said. “They’re always good for a laugh. Did they specifically say stop killing each other this time?”

“I didn’t read them yet,” Miriam looked down at the top slab. “Oh look, yeah it’s right there. About halfway down, after all the stuff about how God’s really really important,” she looked back and forth from brother to brother. “Speaking of which, apparently we weren’t the only ones doing handicrafts today.”

Aaron rolled his eyes. “Some nitwit got it into their heads that you weren’t coming back,” he told her. “Announced that it was every man for himself and that the infinite marches of the great tunnel in the sky would give this exodus of ours a bit of epic grandeur.”

“And did the fact that there’s no fucking tunnel in the sky, and I was only gone for half the morning, have any impact on this delusion?” Miriam demanded without much hope.

Aaron shook his head. “Not when the Golden Sheep Itself appeared before them and announced that any who wished their souls to wander the tunnel for eternity would be baptised ‑ ”

Baap ‑ ” Moses began with a grin.

“We promised we weren’t going to do the sheep jokes,” Aaron said flatly.

“I don’t remember agreeing to that,” Moses replied. “Anyway, half of them are convinced you’ve been gone for years. Bad batch of the funny stuff. Remember that party we sent scouting, who came back saying they’d found a country full of giants? Turns out they were giant frunk dealers.”

Miriam grunted. “Apparently this is a top-level fuck-up between the Big Guy and the Kernian Pantheon,” she said, “but we’re the sandals on the ground. The mess down here is ours to clean up.”

“Okay,” Aaron straightened, and even Moses’s irrepressible mood sobered a little. “We’ll follow your lead, Chief.”

Over the blood-soaked years, Miriam had come to realise something about the power imposed upon her. When you could wave a hand and, if not fix everything, then at least fix everything aside from who was going to clean the carpets, it reduced each problem you faced to a simple question. A simple question that armies and their leaders asked – and answered – on far larger scales than the likes of the Faithful Fists.

What is the minimum number of people who need to die, in order for this issue to go away?

It wasn’t that having this power – or being a soldier in an army, Miriam supposed – made you less human. It made you more human. Too human. It took away the layers of illusion in which most people were permitted to wrap themselves.

Was that all Gods were? People to whom the answer to this question came as quickly and as effortlessly as its implementation?

This was the sort of thinking that Moses always told her would get her in trouble.

† † †

It gave her a certain satisfaction to march into the council pod and drop the set of regs, shattering the fancy stonework into several pieces with a resounding crash.

“Hey, what the fuck,” one of the appointed leaders – Miriam had never bothered to learn the civilian authorities’ names – said blearily. “I almost shat my robes.”

“Wake up,” Miriam roared in her best training-ground incantation voice. She reached back without looking, and Aaron put the staff in her hand. She grounded it hard, splitting the pod’s light composite flooring and one of its flexi windows with another deafening crack. The muddy-eyed idolaters yelped and stared at her with something approaching consciousness. She levelled the staff at the Golden Lamb. “Whose work is this? God is pissed.”

“Well maybe He shouldn’t have forsaken us,” one of the councillors had the audacity to mumble.

“You and the next nine generations of your frunk-fucked line are only going to exist because He hasn’t given up on your sorry arses yet,” Miriam promised direly, “even if the Fists are just about ready to. It doesn’t even look like a sheep,” she added. “It looks like a fucking cow.”

“We only had an Apis statue,” another councillor said. “We tried to make it look … woollier.”

“You failed,” Miriam said, “on every conceivable level. You’re lucky the God you were trying to convert to is mad. This probably would have just annoyed a sane God,” not that any of us would be likely to recognise a sane one, she added to herself.

“The Egyptians used to let us worship any God we,” the civilian leader gathered himself up in his nearly-beshitted robes enough to start, then wilted under Miriam’s glare, “chose to,” he concluded feebly.

“Was that the only freedom they gave you?” Aaron asked while Miriam was preoccupied with trying not to fling the man into Earth-adjacent deep space. The leader huddled deeper into his chair. “Then maybe you should shut your mouth before it attracts locusts.”

The civilian leader shut his mouth and looked queasy, as did everyone else in the pod with a couple of un-frunked brain cells to bang together. They knew, of course. They may not have seen it all, the Fists’ brutal march – their brutal wade – through Egypt, but they’d seen enough. They’d seen the aftermath, and they’d heard all the stories.

The Faithful Fists had clipped and guided and shaped the forces arrayed against them, from the highest authorities on down, turning a slave revolt into a nation on legs. They’d crushed and flattened and cast bodies and weapons aside like chaff in the wind, and they’d done it all with unspeakable efficiency and according to instructions from On High that nobody understood, or dared to question after a while.

Armies went where they were told. It was armies that fought wars, carried out campaigns. What the Chief Domestic Theological Enforcer and her team did, what they’d been doing since their activation … it hadn’t been a war. It wasn’t a genocide, or even the averting of a genocide.

It was topiary.

“What are you going to do to us?” one of the councillors quavered.

Miriam closed her eyes. She was suddenly as weary as if – she nearly laughed – as if she’d climbed up a mountain and then back down it carrying rocks.

“Nothing,” she said.

“Really?” Aaron asked in mild surprise.

Miriam tossed the staff back to her brother. “Tell them I did something,” she said to the councillors. “Make up something impressive,” she gestured at the Golden Whatever It Was. “Tell them I melted that down and made you drink it. I don’t care.”

“Wait – how would we be able to tell anyone that happened if ‑ ” one of the slightly less drug-addled councillors began.

Be convincing,” Miriam growled. “And I don’t want to have to come and visit you like this again.”

Outside the slumped frame of the council pod, Miriam stood under the baking sun and closed her eyes, sighing.

“Chief?” Moses stepped up beside her. “Miri?”

“I’m okay,” Miriam said. “Just … tired of not knowing what not to do until someone does it and I’m expected to wipe out their entire genetic lineage because of it.”

“Maybe if you didn’t throw away the documentation every time,” Aaron said glumly. “They’ll have to make more regs now.”

“Fine,” Miriam growled. “Have them make twenty regulations next time. Make a million. You really think it’s writing this shit down that makes people behave?” she opened her hand, felt the holy fire, heard her brothers step back smartly. “It’s this.”

“Well I hope you’ve got enough, sister,” Aaron said, “because for every ten that are impressed by the sight of an exploding dipshit, there’s a hundred that get angry. And there’s nothing in God’s creation more dangerous than an angry human.”

“I know,” Miriam said. She was thinking of Gabriel. Her friend. And the conversation they’d almost had, at least a dozen times over the years. The one where the irascible old Archangel finally admitted that smiting and brimstone and wrath weren’t getting the Big Guy anywhere with His infuriating primate project.

“We know you know, Miri,” Moses said, and she opened her eyes to see him smiling again. “But sometimes … ”

“Yeah,” Aaron said, also smiling. “Sometimes … ”

Miriam grinned and finished their informal little Faithful Fists motto. “Sometimes it’s just too much effort not to punch someone in the face with a sea.”

† † †

When God appeared to Miriam, she usually didn’t have to climb a hill beforehand or bring a bucket of water to pour on the underbrush afterwards. Usually, she didn’t even have time to wipe her arse or jump out of bed. She felt the power inside her curl, and then God reached out and took hold of her and put her down somewhere they could have a chat.

“‘Make up something impressive’,” God said with a vast chuckle. “I like that.”

Miriam knelt and bowed her head, because she wasn’t a fucking idiot. “Divine One.”

“You spared Me an … embarrassment today,” God told her. Miriam glanced up briefly, just long enough to catch a fleeting impression of musk and nectar, strange animal skins and musculature stupendous enough to make even a well-preserved damn-near-nonagenarian feel woefully inadequate. As brief as her look was, of course, God noted the question in it. “No, it was a real incursion, if a minor one. Not one of My games, as you think of them, but something of a testing of our defences. Sometimes when You poke an insane God, Your mortals pay the price for it.”

Miriam knew better than to deny God’s assessment of her opinion. “Thy will be done,” she said.

“Well?” God pressed. “You obviously want to say something to Me. Stop sending My Angels back up the stairs in tears, woman, and out with it. Or do you want Me to bring Aaron to do the talking for you, as usual?”

“The Faithful Fists … ” Miriam barely stumbled over the stupid name. “The Faithful Fists have been on assignment for a long time with this group. I’ve begun to question how much of our aid would be unnecessary without – without our interference in the first place.”

“Don’t bullshit Me, lass,” God said jovially.

Miriam shrugged to herself. Alright then. “You told me to go back with Aaron and Moses and free these people,” she said, “and then You tried to kill us when we were on our way there, just for a laugh as far as I can tell. Then you made the Egyptian leaders refuse to see reason, so You could use me to spank them. And now You’re just marching us around, handing down rules that You’re perfectly aware humans will never be able to follow, and then expecting them to mete out punishments on each other for breaking those rules. I’ve seen children play with dolls with more respect.”

Ah,” God said. “The dolls want respect, hmm?”

“You asked.”

God chuckled again. “I watch over all the humans of the Earth, lass. Yes, sometimes that requires some juggling, because humans hate unanimity even more than they hate humans with different-shaped beards. Or whatever it is this month. And sometimes … yes sometimes it requires a spanking.”

“The regulations ‑ ”

“I could stop them,” God went on inexorably. “I could take hold of their little strings and pull them up short. I could do that every time they start to go wrong, until the last spark in them goes out and we’re using your entire world to farm low-grade monkey meat. Gods have taken the battle out of mortals more times than you can ever know, and the bones of those mortals are now naught but stone.

“There is only one way for organisms to escape their primordial legacy, Miriam. The only way out is through. The only ones who can make it happen is them. In the meantime … well, let them blame Me for the things they do to one another. Let it motivate them.”

“But eventually it will end,” Miriam said, “won’t it? They’ll get better, they’ll get through, and they’ll stop.”

“They’ll stop, in time,” God agreed placidly. “One way or the other.”

Miriam felt the power stir, knew she was about to be returned to her post.

“What happens when they blame You enough, and are motivated enough, to do something about it?” she asked.

God grinned, bright and unbearably feral in the dark that gathered in the moments before Miriam’s unceremonious pick-up-and-drops.

“They know where I live,” He said.

 


[1] No, I’m not actually upset. It actually would have been weird if they did choose this story. It’s very specific to my literary urverse – and even within that context it’s pretty niche – it has no real plot or resolution or character arcs, and the anthology brief was “war, but make something about it different-y.” Which is arguably not what this is. This is just a snapshot of the “real” version of biblical events, and doesn’t have much of a story. Also I wrote it in about two hours. Mind you, the same went for my first published work, so what the heck.

So it’s all good, honestly. And the one person likely to comment has already read the story and been instrumental in its editing and revision, so thanks again Aaron! Screw it, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, right?

Posted in The Book of Pinian | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

What’s new, end of March edition

Hey there Hatstanders.

What’s up? We don’t talk anymore. I mean, except when we do. Just not on the blog, so it’s getting a bit ghost-towny. Here’s a quick catch-up on this Thursday afternoon.

I’m still reading, although round two of the #SPSFC is going slowly. I’m enjoying Iron Truth by S. A. Tholin, but don’t have a review ready yet. Turns out it’s a bloody enormous book and even though I’m really liking it, I’m going to be slow reading it because I don’t want to skim, and that might mean I run out of time. Still, that’s where I’m at there.

I’m still writing! I just finished part one (of three) of the third (of four) stories for my next collection, The Clown God. What the Hell does that mean?

Well, I finished A Railgun Brain, which clocked in at 29,923 words.

And I finished Grendel’s Grief, which ended up being 31,503 words.

Now, I have finished chapters I to VI of the story I’ve tentatively entitled The Shortcut, although I don’t know about that yet. Chapters VII to XII of that story will be a whole different narrative, and chapters XIII to XVIII will be a third, and the epilogue, chapter XIX, will be a (quite small) fourth. So technically it is one story, but in three-parts-and-an-epilogue. And chapters I to VI have already racked up 19,394 words. I’m not certain the second and third part of the story are going to be as big, but if they are, we’re looking at a ~57,000 word story. Which according to #SPSFC wisdom, actually counts as a novel. So.

I guess we’ll see how big it ends up being. The First Feast was also a bit of a beast in the novella kingdom, at 49,000 words. And that wound up in a modest-sized collection with three shorter stories. And I’m predicting the fourth story in The Clown God, as-yet untitled, will be another small one … but who knows?

On the other hand, the most recent anthology[1] I published was fucking massive so this one can very well be the same.

What else? Lauren Hough ended up in the Twitter news again, as near as I can tell this time it was because some other random author wrote a book about All The Y Chromosome People Vanishing, it was up for an award from an LGBT+ organisation (pointless edit because nobody cares: it may not have been up for an award; in fact Hough’s book was; -Ed), a bunch of people (including some trans activists?) said “well this story’s pretty familiar and gross but okay” and Hough … well, I’m not going to pass up an opportunity to say that she Houghed and she Poughed and she blew that first author’s (actually her own; -Ed) chance at winning that award right down, because the organisation took it out of the running on the basis of the fact that TERFy transphobic books probably don’t need to win LGBT+ facing awards (or actually TERFy-shit-defending abrasive authors don’t; -Ed). But I don’t actually know any more than that, and Author Twitter is a drama a minute. All I noticed was that my couple of bemused tweets from the last Lauren Hough drama were suddenly getting Likes again, and my post about it got a bunch of views a couple of days ago, for the same reason.

To paraphrase Doctor Who, is seventy-eight a lot? I don’t know, it depends what you’re talking about. Books about All The Men Suddenly Vanishing? Yes. Views on a blog? Not really. But I’ll take it.

Anyway, that’s the news.

 


[1] Fun fact: I recently learned that an anthology is a collection of stories from various authors, whereas a collection of stories from one author is, well, a collection. So I should not have been calling my Tales of the Final Fall of Man anthologies 1, 2 and 3 anthologies at all, but collections. But now it’s definitely too late to not call them anthologies, so I shall continue calling them anthologies and consider leaning into the idea that different parts of my personality write each story in them or something.

Posted in #SPSFC, Astro Tramp 400, Edpool, Oræl Rides To War, The Book of Pinian | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

ARvekt: A Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


Next up for SPSFC round two was ARvekt, Book 1 (of 1 so far) of the Instant Reality series, by Craig Lea Gordon.

Alrighty! This one started with a bang and a nice gory opening, which immediately drew me in and let me know how serious shit was, even though .. well look. In an artificial reality, the stakes are only as high as the storyteller’s ability to write in an edited version of reality where the protagonists get through. And I’m not saying the stakes weren’t high. They were super high. So was the storyteller’s ability. So was I. Everyone and everything involved in this story was just the highest. I kid, but that was the way I was left feeling, you know?

The over-arching question in this book was, “what even is real, man, like, okay, say if a dude gets shot in the face but then it turns out, you know, that the bullets were just an illusion and the blood-splatters on the floor were, like, drawn there, and also the guy’s face was a simulation and he didn’t know it – and so was the floor and also the gun probably … you know … what if … what was the question?”

ARvekt is a book that dares to ask that whole thing I just said.

I read Gordon’s Obey Defy before this one, which was a stand-alone novella in a similar setting. It could almost be the same world but the technology and history had played out somewhat differently. Still, if you’re into cyberpunk and questioning the nature of reality, both of these stories would definitely be your jam. And when it comes to combining the sanitised artificialness of a highly technological (but illusory) post-scarcity utopian world with entirely-gritty realism, Gordon’s your guy.

I was struck, in reading this book, how much I was letting the scenic cues and the visual descriptions wash over me. This was ultimately a psychedelic trip set to words, the cool shape-shifting weapons systems and the action-packed plot just sort of weaving through the bright and dizzying backgrounds to hold everything together. The grimy dystopian future of the opened lotus is captivating in its contrast, and the weaving-together of the overlapping worlds is really well done. In this story, setting is quite literally a character.

So, the world of the future is regulated by a benevolent AI overlord, people immersed in augmented reality layers (thanks to “ARvekt” implants directly inside their heads) to such an extent that the very nature of what is real and what isn’t has become beyond blurred. A nasty war between humans and AI had taken place, but right from the start it is clear that we’re being misled about something.  Probably everything.

Ix, our helpful AI presence, is simply too pervasive and omnipotent at times. In a world composed of data, a construct capable of wholesale manipulation of data would rule and the plucky rebels wouldn’t have a chance. I was left, at times, feeling like the odds were insurmountable and no matter what people did to cut away the layers of illusion, there was no way to know they had escaped. It was the classic “turns out we never stopped dreaming” trope and conundrum from a lot of immersed-in-simulation stories: how do any of the characters know when it’s really over?

The interweaving narratives were interesting to see, and never got to a point where I was annoyed to skip from one to the other, although they were active and episodic-cliffhanger enough that I was flipping pages good and fast.

Sex-o-meter

The sex-o-meter pinged in with a single raised eyebrow out of a possible “oo-er, don’t mind me nurse, I’ve had colder thermometers.” To be honest I don’t know what it’s on about but this was more about cyber-espionage and running gunfights and explosions through a hallucinogenic wasteland, so there wasn’t much room for sex.

Gore-o-meter

Plenty of gore here, both simulated and real (OR WAS IT???). I adored the old school battlemech suit that just up and creamed a whole bunch of guys, it was fucking hilarious. Three-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

ARvekt was almost entirely high-definition digitally enhanced WTF, cover to cover. It’s not my usually preferred brand of WTF, but it certainly hit the spot. Love a good poking and peel-back on the nature of shared experiences and communication, a story like this can effortlessly undermine what we as an information-sharing species hold dear – and we did it to ourselves! Any similarities to current issues we face with social media and misinformation can safely be disregarded as an accidental coincidence. I’m kidding, you should be deeply concerned. I give ARvekt a giant computer-generated Elmo with a singularity in its mouth and eyes made out of deep-sea mining drills, out of a possible HAL-9000.

My Final Verdict

Now look, augmented-reality cyber-noir action thrillers aren’t exactly my thing. But I enjoyed this book and if you’re a fan of the genre you’re likely to get even more out of it than I did. Three stars! But this is just, like, my opinion, man.

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The Cursèd Playground, a teaser

I’ve been busy.

I haven’t been busy doing this, but I did finish it off the other day and figured what the heck, might as well put it up on the blog to show you I am still crawling ahead with the last couple of books in my Phase Two.

So here is the prologue to the second book in my Tales of the Always Night duology, semi-solidly entitled The Cursèd Playground.

 


As if interstellar travel wasn’t long and boring enough, the Captain had started holding status meetings once a week.

Galana would actually approve of the idea – sometimes she felt like she was the only crewmember who really cared about AstroCorps procedure and practices – if it managed in any way to improve efficiency or make a useful record of their findings so far. But the ACS Conch was not a large ship, and the six of them – well, the seven of them at the moment … okay, eight if you counted the computer, and you more or less had to at this point – spent most of their time together, so they all knew everything that could be raised in a status meeting before the meeting even happened. And between the Captain and the Chief Engineer, and with the well-intentioned but hopeless assistance of the ship’s Medical and Comms Officers, and the borderline malicious playfulness of their Tactical Officer and their guest … what with all that, the meetings really didn’t achieve much.

Galana had originally wondered if it was some way of livening things up, but they had plenty of games and social events and the meetings themselves – tangents and diversions notwithstanding – never really degenerated into enjoyable unrelated business. Then she’d begun to wonder if maybe their Captain was getting old, and starting to forget things, and was holding meetings as a way of keeping on top of it all. Humans could get that way, she’d read. But Captain Basil Hartigan was as sharp as ever, even if his impressively coiffed hair and sleek, bushy moustache had as much grey as black in them these days.

“What ho, morning all,” the Captain greeted everyone as they shuffled into his quarters and through to the comfortable lounge area. The ceiling here opened into a large observation dome, but since they were at relative speed at that moment and all there was to see was the depressing grey emptiness of ten-thousand-times-light-speed soft-space, he kept it closed. “How are we? Sit down, sit down, let’s get cracking, what? I’m sure we all have things we’d rather be doing. Now then, what’s our status?”

“Well, my goodness,” Devlin Scrutarius, Blaran Chief Engineer, consulted the data pad that he brought to the meetings solely for use as a comedy prop. “Where do I start?”

“At the bally start, Dev,” Hartigan said with a dynamic slap of his armchair-arm. “At the bally start.”

“Well, it all started when our fearsome Executive Officer, Commander Fen here, made a bet with this desperately pompous Molran ambassador named Kotan,” Devlin said, “that an AstroCorps crew could fly around the galaxy on a basic exploration and research tour. If she wins, he agreed to stop being a tedious Fleet sourcat and put his support behind the barmy notion that the Six Species are a union of … what’s the word … ” he consulted his pad again dramatically, “ … equals? No, that can’t be right … ”

“We don’t need to start this far back, or be this sarcastic,” Galana said without much hope.

“If she loses, Kotan will most likely do his best to tank AstroCorps and restore the Five Species to its glorious and dignified past, and let the humans go back to the Wild Empire they were before,” Devlin continued with relish. “Even worse, she’ll probably have to agree to become a Blaran, even though that’s clearly a promotion for a Molran so there’s no real way for her to lose this one.”

“Hear hear,” Hartigan approved. “But we’re still going to jolly well win.”

“You’re damn right we are, Cap’n,” Devlin agreed. “Anyway, Commander Fen joined up with us – that is, with you and me and the ACS Conch – before leaving Grand Boënnia. We flew to The Warm and picked up the good Doctor Bonjamin Bont, who was right in the middle of a very interesting experiment I’ve definitely understood every time she’s tried to tell me about it, where she was going to talk to that big old alien artefact any century now … ”

“That’s too accurate to really be hurtful,” Bonty conceded with a smile. The elderly Bonshoon, one of Galana’s oldest friends and her companion through AstroCorps Academy training, was highly skilled in various veterinary practices and so had become the Conch’s medical officer, but her true area of interest was the vast semi-living alien thing that everyone called The Warm. The giant artefact had been settled for centuries, and was home and research subject rolled into a single package.

“So, while we were at The Warm we also dropped by a water-filled Worldship that was just getting ready to dock,” Devlin went on.

“Chief Engineer Scrutarius,” Galana sighed.

“That was where we found Wicked Mary, who was just so nice her fellow Fergunak had locked her up,” Devlin went on.

“I take exception to that nice,” the small, silvery robotic giela that was Wicked Mary’s eyes, ears, voice and hands in the non-aquatic world spoke up from its position squatting near the end of one of the couches. “Come down to the Aquarium deck and I will eat you immediately.”

“I believe you,” Devlin said comfortably, and resumed his pointlessly in-depth summary. “Once we got to Declivitorion-On-The-Rim where the bet was officially set to start, we joined up with Chillybin.”

“Why are you like this?” Galana asked.

“I think it’s funny,” Chillybin, massive in her refrigerated freezer-suit, was squatting in a similar pose to the tiny giela. She unfolded her helmet and dropped a little chunk of frozen flavour-ice into her huge tusked maw, before closing the suit again.

“Why thank you, Chilly. Then, full of hope, we set out,” Devlin swept his upper pair of arms wide, while also making a dynamic little fist-motion with his lowers. “No sooner had we departed Six Species space, of course, than we fell afoul of a horrible creature that was terrorising the gentle people of a world called Azabol. Then we met the Nyif Nyif – who were just too precious for words, by the way – and helped them to resettle on the moon they had fled some hundreds of generations previously, on account of the little fellows only living about five years each ‑ ”

“We didn’t resettle all of them,” Bonty pointed out.

W – what?” Scrutarius swung around and stared at the big, placidly smiling Bonshoon for a moment, then snapped his fingers. “Right right, of course, quite a lot of them wanted to stay behind on their big old generation ship, so we pointed it in the direction of a promising-looking clump of stars and just … ” he made a gentle pushing gesture with his lower hands, and waved with his upper left.

“Then what happened?” Chillybin asked.

“Chilly,” Galana protested.

“Well, then we had all kinds of adventures with singing stars, and some distant cousins of yours, Chillybin – and then some distant cousins of yours, Bloody Mary,” he nodded at the little robot. “On a quest for some kind of mystical relic, as I recall. But then we found a planet that had been scorched by a star serpent, and that was when we met the always impressive Captain Judderone Pelsworthy of the Boze, Space Adventurer.”

“Now you’re talking,” Captain Pelsworthy, slightly over knee-high to a Molran and slightly under waist-high to a human, amber-furred and blessed with an abundance of bushy tail and golden ornamentation on her shiny red Space Adventurer uniform, slapped the arm of her couch. It was a gesture almost identical to Captain Hartigan’s a few minutes earlier. “That was when your quest finally got a bit of class. A bit of direction.”

“Our direction has always been counter-clockwise around the outermost star-density arc of the galactic disc,” Galana was helpless to avoid objecting.

“Well either way, our esteemed ally Roney didn’t stay with us long,” Devlin went on with a grin. “We parted ways and it was some time before we saw her again.”

“She popped back in to criticise how slowly we were flying, though,” Basil put in mildly. “Every time she got into trouble, it almost seemed.”

“Oh, absolutely,” Scrutarius agreed. “She was always there when she needed us.”

“Now hold on,” Roney protested. Her huge furry ears, one of which had been lost in a recent adventure but then cunningly replaced by Bonty, swivelled accusingly. “I’m not sure I like the tenor of your comments, biggums me lad.”

“Be that as it may, we had some nasty encounters with long-lost Damorakind, and a bunch of giant dragons calling themselves the Fudzu,” Devlin went on. “That latter lot, incidentally, had the relic that those Fergunak – what were they called?”

“The Searching, Starving, Lost,” the Conch dutifully recited.

“That’s them,” Devlin nodded. “Turns out the Fudzu had it all along. That was exciting.”

“There’s no such thing as a Fudzu,” Roney scoffed.

“There jolly well is,” Hartigan retorted.

Roney gave a dismissive snort through her sharp, white-furred muzzle. “Ridiculous.”

“Wait until you find out about the mad inventor who almost turned us all into cakes,” Bonty said happily.

“You’ve told me about it eleven blasted times,” Roney exclaimed. “And I still don’t believe you.”

“We met a tribe of humans along the next leg of our journey,” Galana gave up trying to curb the relentless exposition and dedicated her energy to getting it over with as quickly and efficiently as possible instead.

“That’s true,” Devlin said. “You know, what with the humans and the Fergies and even that aki’Drednanth subspecies, not to mention the Damorakind … the only species we haven’t found out here in the big wide galaxy is a Molranoid one.”

“That’s probably because we have the good sense to stay where we’re supposed to,” Galana replied.

“Unless there’s a bet,” Bonty raised her hand.

Naturally unless there’s a bet,” Galana conceded with a faint smile. “There were some ancient carvings of Molranoids in the Riddlespawn’s temple, however, suggesting we may still run into some of our kind out here somewhere.”

“That was when I was back with you,” Roney pointed out. “Ah, good times.”

“Again, you needed our help with the Pirate Queen and the Seven Sisters and all that lot,” Hartigan accused. “And you never did tell us anything more about them.”

“I was only worried that telling you about them might make you go mad with terror,” Roney objected. “It’s a long way back around the galaxy when you’re mad with terror, you know.”

“It’s a long way back around the galaxy while completely sane, too,” Galana pointed out.

“I don’t think any of us need to worry about that,” Devlin said.

Hartigan laughed. “Speaking of mad, it was right after the Riddlespawn that we bumped into that Time Destroyer named Praxulon ‑ ”

“Praxulon the Mad,” Wicked Mary amended helpfully.

“Praxulon the Mad, indeed,” Basil said, then frowned. One of his hands came up and touched the hair above his little round human ears, hair that was now almost completely white. Galana knew he was remembering the events following their encounter with Praxulon the Mad. Events that had cost them precious decades. Maddening for a Molran, aki’Drednanth, Bonshoon or Blaran. For a human or a Fergunakil, potentially disastrous.

“But then,” she said in an attempt to distract him, “we arrived at High Elonath on the far side of the galaxy, our journey half-finished and our bet halfway to won.”

“That’s true,” Basil brightened. “And we found the Last Alicorn of myth and bally fable, didn’t we, Fen? Right there in High Elonath.”

“We certainly did, Captain.”

“And … so, just for the record, that meant I was right,” the Captain went on. “What? Didn’t it mean I was right all along, and not crazy like everyone said back home?”

“You can be both,” Devlin said placidly.

“You’re definitely both, biggums,” Roney agreed.

“Still,” Basil insisted, “I believe a good hearty ‘I told you so’ should be entered in the meeting log, don’t you agree old girl?”

“Duly entered, Captain,” the Conch said, with a hint of warm amusement. “Like every other status meeting we’ve held since leaving High Elonath.”

“Wait,” Galana felt her ears drop. “Is that why we’re having these meetings every week?”

“You’d think I’d be tired of it by now,” Basil said cheerfully, “but do you know, I’m not?”

“Can we also note on the log that the Last Alicorn was in fact named Sparklebutt Glitterpoops Whimsyfart Flutterfloof the Third,” Devlin said while Galana was still staring at the Captain, “and it stuck its horn through me?”

“I log that every week as well, Chief Engineer Scrutarius,” the Conch replied. “Along with your special commendation for bravery.”

“And a posthumous medal for your main pectoral tendon-cluster,” Bonty put in, “which we had to replace.”

“Don’t remind me,” Devlin said. “I’m still breaking the new one in and it twangs every time I turn around too fast.”

“I still think we should have taken Sparkles with us,” Basil remarked. “Good old Sparkles.”

“Good old Sparkles would have head-butted a hole in your ship by now,” Roney told him.

“Oh, surely now … ”

Galana sat and listened to her crewmates argue and rib each other. Her friends.

She still fell into the trap of considering herself the normal one. The baseline. Molren were like that, despite her best efforts to rise above her species’ flaws. A human? Just a mildly insane Molran with a round furry head and only two arms. A Bonshoon? A big bouncy Molran. A Blaran? A Molran who practiced body modification and didn’t give much of a hoot about law and order. An aki’Drednanth? A giant shaggy two-armed Molran who lived in the cold, spoke in riddles and allegedly lived forever thanks to a deep-freeze telepathic afterlife. A Fergunakil? Well, a Fergunakil was just a Molran that was a great big bally shark, as Captain Hartigan might say.

But in the – Galana calculated swiftly – in the nearly thirty-eight years since they’d begun this preposterous journey, she had come to realise that there was no normal. Not really. And if there was, it certainly wasn’t her.

Friendship was perhaps the strangest thing she’d encountered so far on her trip around the galaxy … but she knew that if she said that out loud, she’d never hear the end of it.

She became aware that Captain Hartigan was studying her.

“Captain?”

“What’s on your mind, Fen?” he asked her, his bright little eyes squinting intelligently.

That you and Wicked Mary might die of old age before we make it back to Six Species space, she thought. That we might all die at the next place we stop. That we are hopelessly out of our depth in a galaxy we know nothing about, and our only guide is a Boze who might just be crazier than any creature we’ve encountered out here. That I’ve gotten us all killed over my stupid pride, my inability to just ignore an insufferable ass like Kotan. That even if we get home, even with all our samples and data, there’s a good chance they won’t believe us anyway. They might not believe us because of our samples and data. That all this was for nothing and we’re only halfway there.

“I was just thinking,” she said, “that we will be emerging from soft-space at our next stop before we have another chance to hold a status meeting. And how very fortunate that is.”

Hartigan laughed.

“That’s our Fen,” he said affectionately.

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Zero Day Threat: A Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


Next on our semi-finals slate is Zero Day Threat, Book 1 of the Ungovernable series, by R. M. Olson.

After a little puzzlement, I have to conclude that the title of the book makes sense and is actually memorably clever, since a zero day threat (as explained to my ignorant arse at the front of the book) is a threat that exploits a previously-unknown weakness in a system. Which is a fancy way to frame a heist that does quite a lot of that. And while I wasn’t super-gripped by the initial hook here, I would urge readers to give it a chance because this one’ll sneak up on you.

Our classic mixed bag of colourful characters with haunted pasts and a big old buttload of baggage full of secrets are assembled by a mysterious puppeteer[1], Masha, to pull off a caper. The caper in question? The legendary warship The Ungovernable, or at least the fancy schmancy technology thereof. The shifting points of view in the story are done really nicely, each character having a distinct voice of their own and a compelling story. I make light of the baggage and the secrets, but that sort of stuff is the bread and butter of the motley crew space heist found family subgenre and Olson does it well.

The main protagonist, or at least the one we meet first, is the sassy and super-skilled Jez. A shady pilot who’s just lost her ship and is in debt to a mobster as a result, Jez has hit rock bottom and is ripe for recruitment into a shenanigan or two. Also involved in the heist are a guy who may or may not have an unforeseen and everything-changing connection to the heistee, to say nothing of the dude apparently responsible for Jez losing her ship in the first place, as well as a woman out for revenge (or specifically already a criminal for achieving the revenge) for the murder of her wife and son … and the bloke who [okay I’ll redact the spoilers on this].

It is, as you may imagine, a recipe for tension and excitement and twists, and one has to wonder how much the mysterious Masha really knows – and what her end game is. Because it sure doesn’t seem to be anything as simple as pulling off this extremely difficult and dangerous heist, let me tell you.

While elements of this story felt a teensy little bit contrived and overblown (indeed, it reminded me a little of NBC’s The Blacklist, just without a series of delightful Reddington anecdotes, but that may have just been the fact that the head of the enterprise was named Masha), that’s part of the charm of the whole thing and it was really quite enjoyable (kind of like NBC’s The Blacklist, at least the early seasons thereof before it just got too silly, but everyone has their own threshold for “too silly” and this is not a review of NBC’s The Blacklist). The interlocking of skill sets and the manipulation of secrets is top-notch and nothing is what it seems in this high-stakes action adventure. Should I add a “swashbuckling” in there? Damn it, you only live once. I’m doing it. This high-swashbuckling-stakes action adventure. That’s not quite right but we’re already moving on.

I greatly enjoyed the brief but very colourful take on the “jungle planet where everything wants to kill you” trope, and while some of the heist elements and challenges and methods of defeating said challenges were a bit questionable, overall I loved it. I will say that the scene where a criminal arms dealer minion was showing Lev around and Ysbel was planting explosives, that was totally sus and the minion really wasn’t on the ball. But not for nothing is this story billed as an Ocean’s Eleven adventure in space!

Sex-o-meter

There’s a lot of flirting and sass going on here, and a certain amount of cautious pairing up towards the end, but no sex to speak of. This is first and foremost a crew-assembly story where our heroes find their dysfunctional new family and learn to work together despite being lone wolves and allathat. No time to boink the packmates. Let’s give Zero Day Threat an ugly Christmas sweater out of a possible Wolf Shirt™.

Gore-o-meter

We are treated to a high-stakes game of robbers ‘n’ robbers (and also some cops are around), with plenty lot of threats and descriptions of things, but no real here-and-now gore. The arguably worst atrocity in the story was – well I won’t spoil it, but read to the end on that one. We have a bit of a body-count and the alien jungle had some gross stuff in it, but all in all it was more action adventure than action violence. And that fits, given what the story is. The gore-o-meter gives us one flesh-gobbet out of a possible five, and I can’t argue with that.

WTF-o-meter

Well, Zero Day Threat doesn’t leave us with much WTF to sit in and splash happily either. What you see is what you get, aside from the obligatory twists in the plot – and they don’t count as true pure-grade WTF. The Ungovernable itself, the ship, was very neat – I wasn’t quite certain why it was so amazing and who the genius was who made it, even though it was explained in the story it left me sort of baffled. It could have been more of a thing, making that inventor into an unseen character. Still, I’m sure there is more to learn about the strange ship and its origins and abilities in later books, so that’s kicked a little spark of responsiveness out of the WTF-o-meter. We’re still only registering an Ocean’s Two and a Half starring Charlie Sheen out of a possible Ocean’s Fourteen: A Hunka Hunka Burning Oceans. This is a very low-scoring affair on all the meters, but still wound up being a good story. Who knew?

My Final Verdict

An enjoyable page-turning space heist with some great characters and gorgeous scenery, well deserving of an SPSFC semi-finalist placing. Three stars!

 


[1] Figurative puppeteer. Which is a mild shame since an actual puppeteer would make a hilarious and wonderfully surreal ringleader for this thing, but I’ll let it pass. Still, an idea for the future there?

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The Rings of Power

Okay so I guess we’re talking about this.

There is a new piece of the Lord of the Rings saga being adapted for the screen. After the functionally-impossible-to-top trilogy of the early 2000s and the well-meaning prequel trilogy of the twenty-teens, Amazon Prime Video has stepped in and forked out a few hundred million bucks to make a TV series of a prequel to that.

“Evil is not capable of creating anything new, it can only distort and destroy what has been invented or made by the forces of good.” – apparently the only thing anyone is allowed to say about the trailer.

So, because it’s 2022 and we’re not allowed to have TV shows without culture war drama, there have been Opinions about this new show. In fact, let’s just say it straight-out: never has the YouTuber phrase “trailer breakdown” been more accurate on more levels.

There’s no way I will be able to take an original un-swung swing at this, no way my take will be anything but room-temperature, but let’s list some facts about Amazon Prime Video’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

Fact the first: They have cast new, younger actors in the roles of Elrond and Galadriel.

Fact the second: They have cast some people of colour in the show, including what seems to be an Elf male and a Dwarf female[1].

Fact the third: There looks like there’s some action in it, including a sword-slinging Galadriel and some explosions.

Fact the fourth: In the Second Age, basically everything was made of C4 and being a blacksmith was really really dangerous.

Anyway, the show appears to be set in the distant past and deals with the setup of – well, it’s in the name. It’s about Annatar (spoilers: Sauron) and the nine rings of the Men, the three rings of the Elves, and the seven rings for the Dwarves.

I’m not super jazzed by the whole show, mainly because I’m way more interested in seeing the First Age or some of the more exciting stuff from the Silmarillion. If you’re going to throw half a billion dollars at a show, why not have a fuck-off enormous spider eating the Two Trees, and an army of motherfucking Balrogs?

My vague feelings of meh have been pushed over into French Foreign Legion grade ennui, however, by the now-traditional fandom division surrounding the whole thing. Some of the complaints I have seen so far include:

  • Elves don’t have short hair!
  • Dwarf females have beards!
  • Galadriel isn’t an action hero!
  • Galadriel and Elrond were already ancient in the Second Age, they would not have changed between this show and The Fellowship of the Ring!
  • Progressive diversity casting is pandering to woke!

There’s probably more, but I’m so tired.

Okay, so let’s carry on with the room temperature take here: the complaints aren’t wrong. Not exactly.

Yes. The Elves we’ve seen are all very classical and spectral, all big sleeves and long silky hair with the temple parts looped back all fancy-like.

You know the sort.

There’s something to be said for this look being essentially timeless – Elves aren’t known for their embrace of change, and even in battle the Elves of Lothlórien[2] were otherworldly like this. Legolas kicked arse, took names, and rode shields like skateboards while his golden hair hung like a shimmering curtain. That doesn’t preclude the idea that a grittier Gil-galadesque Last Alliance-type Elf might exist, and have a haircut. Still, sure, it’s visually jarring (also he’s not white; don’t worry we’ll get to that).

Yes. There is some evidence for Dwarves being secretive and their females only appearing before other races in guises indistinguishable from males. They could have put in some effort on a fierce and glorious bearded Dwarven Queen. Some fucking idiots might have then cried about woke trans agenda something or other, but who honestly cares? So, sure, that’s an unexpected aesthetic choice too (also she’s not white; don’t worry we’ll get to that).

Ye – ehhh, okay, you can argue that she was powerful and politically ambitious rather than an actual fighter, if you take a deep dive into her role in the Sundering of the Ñoldor. Imma disagree with you though. This was a more brutal time for the Elves and they butchered each other to get to Middle Earth where they could be big fish in a small pond (and Galadriel stayed to the bitter end rather than accept forgiveness and return to the Undying Lands, basically giving the Valar the finger and saying “I didn’t do shit”), so there’s as much justification for her being a badass … but okay, call it another artistic / storytelling decision. You know, to put in a female character with some agency, because Tolkien didn’t have too many of them[3].

Yes. Technically the Elves should not have changed and they should have cast Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving again because Galadriel and Elrond would not look any younger in the Second Age. We all know why they didn’t do that though, right? It’s because Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving are actually human beings (or “Men”), they are mortal and have in fact aged in the real world. So it would be the weird of Orlando Bloom in the Hobbit movies, compounded by Blanchett and Weaving being older than Bloom to start with and another ten years having gone by in the meantime. But sure. Technically true. Recasting takes some getting used to. But from here, we get into practical issues rather than canonical ones.

Also yes. The casting choices here are indicative of the real world in which this show is being made. You can call that cancel woke cuck pandering soyjak whatever, but for Amazon it’s a matter of practicality. They do not care about our progressive ideologies. They’re in it for the money. This drama generated huge buzz and endless clicks for them that they didn’t have to pay a cent for, but even that wasn’t the reason. The reason was, it is 2022 and we do more than just white people things now.

Now as far as the Lord of the Rings mythos goes, casting people of colour poses a challenge. I mean, it doesn’t really, because it’s an adaptation and they can cast anyone they want without it changing a single word in the books that – I cannot stress this enough – continue to exist.

However, in-adaptation continuity and the over-arching intent behind Tolkien’s work are considerations. There wasn’t a whole lot of diversity in the original Jackson trilogy. Tolkien’s writings were an intended origin / prehistory myth for the British Isles. It’s not Tolkien’s fault (well, mostly not his fault) that Britain has been so expansionist and colonisation-happy over the centuries that a celebration of their “culture” is going to by necessity include a whole ton of places where there are non-white people. It may not have been how things started out, but it’s the legacy of the Empire. Where did the Hobbits get their pipe weed from again? But I digress.

There is an argument that “forcing” people of colour into unsuitable parts of the history of Middle Earth is the same as forcing white actors into Asian or African stories. To which I say, have you seen movies? Dumb argument, quit while you’re ahead because whitey is well overdue to have some scales balanced on that one.

No, the easiest way they could have provided a diverse cast of characters and kept the non-racist Tolkien fans happy (I am not willing to agree that the Venn diagram of complainers here is a circle, but nor is it by any means two circles) would have been to Sackville-Baggins up and make an adaptation of some other part of the lore. It’s been said several times by online pundits but Mrs. Hatboy also wisely pointed this out, the Haradrim are right there. And they have a mostly-untold and fascinating story just ripe for reimagining. I mean, if Amazon really wanted to be woke, or even mildly interesting, then reframing the Dúnedain of Gondor (the Men from the Sea, anyone?) as oppressors would do nicely.

But we don’t have that. We don’t have anything new or even partly new. We don’t get Melkor tearing down the Two Lamps and destroying Almaren. We don’t get Ungoliant laying waste to Telperion and Laurelin.

We get what we’re given, because that’s how the commoditisation of art works. If this particular commoditisation allows a wider audience to enjoy it, however, then tish and pish to the moaning gatekeepers.

“The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot forever fence it out.”

– J R R Tolkien

 


[1] I am using the incel-soiled “male” and “female” terminology here because in Tolkien’s work, Men are a species. Saying “Elf man” would be inaccurate, unless I was talking about Elrond. And I’m not. Can we get on with this?

[2] In the movie version of Helm’s Deep. Not the book version, the Battle of the Hornburg. It’s important to note that an awful lot of these visual cues are the movies’ legacy, not the books’.

[3] He did have a few, but not in the stories the studios have decided it’s safe to make (we’ll get to that too). Which leaves us with Galadriel, Eowyn, and a ‘roided-up Arwen. By all means let’s smudge things a bit and fit some more in.

Posted in Hatboy's Movie Extravaganza, Hatboy's Nuggets of Crispy-Fried Wisdom | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

A Touch of Death: A Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


I’m launching into the semi-finals of the SPSFC with gusto, and I started with A Touch of Death, Book 1 of the Outlands Pentalogy, by Rebecca Crunden.

Crunden made it to the semi-finals but you know what didn’t? The Oxford comma. Hee hee, I’m sorry but I couldn’t resist. Anyway moving on.

A Touch of Death is the first book in the Outlands Pentalogy. Which is great to see. Love a pentalogy. The story introduces us to the Kingdom, a dystopian post-apocalyptic dictatorship where mind-boggling luxury and technology conceal a multitude of scars. Literally and socioculturally. Freedom and history are explicitly banned by royal decree, and the waning human population (those who survived to crawl out from underground and begin to reclaim the surface world after “the Devastation”) is shored up by grotesque authoritarianism and breeding incentives that more than border on atrocity.

Still, you’ve got to laugh, am I right? Tag yourself, I’m Muntenia.

We’re treated to a harrowing but very nicely-constructed hook at the start, an insight into the fate of dissidents and the existence of decent and empathetic people amidst the broken sheep of the Kingdom’s population, all wrapped up in a tight two-and-a-half-character prologue that we circle back to very satisfyingly by the end of the book. Prison life, the brutality of it and the realities of one law for the rich and another for the poor, the overall political and geographic setup, is done well and served to draw me into the story.

This was good because I have to say, I was unconvinced by our main protagonists Nate and Catherine. However! The prologue served its purpose and by the time that magic started to wear off, our heroes’ plight had taken up the slack and I was back on board. Nate and Catherine flail off into the main body of the story, sniping at one another all the while and bouncing from one fuck-up to the next like a pair of pinballs where all the bumpers and paddles are fuck-ups, and it’s great.

My immediate theory, that Nate was definitely the king’s bastard son and that he and Catherine were taking part in a novel-length Only One Bed trope, didn’t quite pan out at least in this book, but I’m ultimately going to have to stand by it. Their “infection” seemed mega contrived and I had a really hard time relating or getting behind it, or any of their actions or motivations. Fortunately, Crunden avoided the bear traps and turned the setup into an … I won’t say satisfying ending, but an ending that made sense and encouraged me to sleep on it. Yes, I went to sleep mad, but I’m glad I slept.

Look, I’m making this seem really bad. It absolutely wasn’t bad, it was good. If I’m mad, it’s because a) I personally prefer a setting-and-action based story to a character-and-situation based one (at least within this story-type), and b) the characters and situation here were at once infuriating, and so well written. I’m just going to say this and let the chips fall where they may, but Crunden is better than Robin Hobb[1] at this. And judging by the reviews I read of the next four books in the pentalogy (as I tried to figure out whether I wanted to read on), it seems like she improves still further and does something truly great here. And I could not be more happy about that.

It’s just that, for me, and this is my review … I will need to know way more details about what happens in the next books before I read them. Like, way more. Because a story that has a female protagonist forced into a gross arranged marriage to save the lives of her friends? That story needs to end on a fucking killing spree, or I’m out. And this book … didn’t end on a killing spree. Simple as.

What else? Oh yeah, Thom isn’t dead and I was annoyed that any of the characters thought he was. Part of my problem was that I didn’t buy Catherine’s naïveté. I get that her belief in the official propaganda that Thom was dead, her rash remarks about why nobody’s managed to kill the king if he’s so evil (how hard can it be?), and her stubborn refusal to admit that a relationship where you’re constantly challenged and enraged and stressed is better than one where you’re in love and at peace (Jesus fucking Christ are you serious), are probably meant to be a sign of her childlike blindness … but I’ve got to say the only one of her traits I really saw as naïve was that first one. She was simply too strongly written, too bright and fierce and wonderful, for me to believe even for a second that there was a trace of sheep in her. Her belief in the broadcast read, to me, like the only way to get her moving on the rest of the quest – because if she hadn’t believed it, as in my opinion her character demands, then she would have stayed in Anais and tried to rescue him. The author had to get her out of there, and this was the solution. I’m sorry but that’s how I read it – and I am fine with that. Some readers might grumble about narrative convenience taking them out of a story – not me. It’s a story. And a good one.

But sure, let’s say that she was supposed to have some simplistic notions and she learned and grew as the story progressed. Good. Excellent. It doesn’t explain why Nate, certain of Thom’s survival, also didn’t seem to want to save him, but let’s chalk that up to a combination of not knowing where to start, feeling it was absolutely futile (and he would know, unlike Catherine), and wanting to bang Catherine. And no, I will not say that in a more dignified way. I just plain did not particularly care for these protagonists. And that’s all to the good, really it is. That’s some complex shit right there.

I loved the worldbuilding and the backstory. I want to know the full and real story of the apparent divergence of humanity that led to the emerged-from-underground “humans” and the above-ground-all-along “mutants”. Because we’re not being told everything, not by a long shot. Catherine’s story of her first kiss was unbearably cute and I adored it, an absolute highlight. The technology and culture on display was fascinating. Really well done. I was unable to shake the Victorian feel of it, and yet there was stunning technology at every turn to show us what sort of world we were really visiting. And I liked it.

Just … needed a killing spree. Sorry.

Sex-o-meter

Beyond some fairly distasteful allusions to rape, forced breeding with a lesbian character, and a lot of spreading warmth that made me squint at my kindle every time Catherine and Nate touched, this was a relatively sexless affair. Zero children out of a possible certificate of nobility and a free house.

Gore-o-meter

Some nasty flaying of backs in the prison flogging scene, a bit of up-close and personal cutting and bleeding, and a whole lot of social violence and executions and such. Add to that a downright prison-camp-experiment sequence of doctor’s notes about wartime testing and mutilation, and the burns that Nate and Catherine experienced on the regular as a symptom of their malady, and you end up with quite the grotesque offering. Four flesh-gobbets out of a possible five for A Touch of Death. Man, if only there’d been some sort of … spree at the end, it might have made it to a perfect five. Oh well.

WTF-o-meter

There’s a lot more going on here, with the worldbuilding and the politics, than meets the eye. Not for nothing is freedom and history outlawed in the Kingdom. We get tantalising little glimpses of larger mysteries, but all in all I wouldn’t call this a WTF-heavy outing. Let’s give it a Bart Simpson holding out his hand with thumb and pinkie extended, going “nyaaaaaaa…” out of a possible actual touch of death.

My Final Verdict

It really feels like I came down hard on this book when that absolutely wasn’t my intention. It made me feel things that I generally don’t want when I read a book, but a lot of people are going to love it for exactly that reason. The very fact that I’m even thinking about reading the next four books in the pentalogy means it hit what is, for me subjectively and specifically, a really small target from a considerable distance. Four stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale. Thanks for a good read!

 


[1] Okay, so I guess we’re going to talk about Hobb.

Robin Hobb is an outstanding author. You don’t need my take on this: she is immensely popular and successful and you will find a half-dozen people willing to sing her praises right here on this blog (I mean they’re unlikely to speak up, but they are here; I’ve seen them subscribe). Read her books and make up your own mind.

I, however, read the Farseer trilogy at a really low point in my life when I was already cataclysmically unhappy, and the relentless mistreatment of the main character and the seeming shitting-on-him-for-the-sake-of-shitting-on-him of it was not only life-draining, it felt artless and tacky. I will never like those books, I will never read any more of Hobb’s work no matter how many people whose opinions I trust assure me it gets better (and many have tried), and Hobb’s very name is usually enough to take me instantly back to that dark place where a shitty thing a person wrote in three shitty books made me want to kill myself. So no. Fuck those books and fuck any book that makes me feel that way ever again. Fuck it utterly and methodically and categorically.

This is, it goes without saying, my own personal opinion and should be taken as the opinion of one reader under very specific and difficult circumstances and with lingering and ongoing trauma, and not as a recommendation of any sort. I am not a psychiatrist and so cannot even warn people with depression to avoid these books. They may find them uplifting. Many, many people do. All I can really say is that if you are me, don’t go there. And you’re not me. I am. And I’m already exercising my own damage control. This is just to explain my own mental landscape a little, so you know where I’m coming from when I compare an author to Hobb. It may or may not mean that I hate them, but it definitely means that they’re really, really good. Probably. If they can grow the fuck out of the “burning dolls with a magnifying glass while masturbating” phase of authorial teenagerhood. And now I’ve used up all of my diplomatic words and am going to end this sidebar before I start saying what I really think.

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SPSFC: Meet your Team Space Lasagna semi-finalists

Today each of the ten teams for the Self-Published Science Fiction Contest announced their three top books. That means 27 shiny new top-tier books will be finding their way to me for reading and reviewing in coming weeks (or, you know, top-tier according to the other judging teams).

In the meantime, here are the three semi-finalists from Team Space Lasagna: Duckett & Dyer: Dicks for Hire, A Star Named Vega and The Dinosaur Four.

I couldn’t be more pleased with these three choices, although I am sorry on behalf of our team for the other authors whose entries have joined what will ultimately be the 299. Inevitable and unavoidable disappointment, which hopefully our humble efforts at spreading the word has helped to soften.

To celebrate our three semi-finalists, I made the foolish promise to create patented Hatboy Bad Fan Art of the main characters of each of the books. For A Star Named Vega, I did Aster and Isaac.

The Dinosaur Four was a little more challenging, as there were considerably more than four characters (not even counting the dinosaurs!), and I didn’t want to spoil anything. In the end I merged Hank and Callie, and did three characters.

Finally, of course, Duckett and Dyer themselves shambled onto the page thusly:

That’s it for now! Stay tuned for round two.

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Bloodlines: A Review

As a fun and intriguing close-out to my 2021 and opening to my 2022, I read Bloodlines: An Empire City Special Crimes Novel (The Guardian of Empire City, book one), by Peter Hartog. Hartog is another author I have been delighted to make the acquaintance of through the SPSFC, although I am not technically judging Bloodlines at this point it is in the contest, it seems, so if it makes it through to the next round I will be a book ahead of the game, and if it doesn’t make it then what the fuck, I did a review of it anyway because he put the e-books on sale and I one-click purchased. No guts, no glory.

Anyway here is my usual intro to the whole SPSFC thing and an explanation of my judging style, in the form of a practice review, and here is my actual review!

The year is two thousand tickity twelve, okay I don’t know for certain what year it is but there are sci-fi-ey transit pods and Gen Xers are still pulling a paycheque, so sometime around that era. Nuclear war has bombed the Earth halfway into the next genre in this thriller mystery where the coffee-slinging and grizzled detective with the haunted past and the strange gifts has to solve a ghastly murder and blow the lid off a shadow conspiracy that goes all the way to the top. Or, you know, all the way somewhere pretty high. I won’t spoil it. Also there’s another dimension where magic creatures come from so it might go all the way to the top over there. Have to read more to find out.

Bloodlines has a beyond-ambitious sub-genre mashup checklist that reads like Meredith Brooks lyrics. It’s a noir. It’s a Bladerunner. It’s a grizzled lone wolf cop buddy journey. It’s an urban fantasy. It’s a sci-fi neovampire horror. It’s a corporate espiothriller. It’s a Prophesied Reborn Chosen One Battle Through The Ages backflip with surreal pike. And since the main character is nicknamed Doc Holliday, it’s also slightly a Western somehow. It was so much.

Still, with such an ambitious and crowded framework, the story itself keeps rolling along and the action and assorted character-driven scenes work nicely. You can tell when an author has just made up a dumb world and gone “yeah, it’s like this movie and this movie and this book and this comic, all mixed together,” and then tried to make a story in it. And you can tell when an author knows the world and is just showing you a bit of it. Hartog’s that second one.

The pages turn good and easy. A murder mystery stretched over worldbuilding of this scale is a joy to read, pure and simple. As I’ve said before, I’m the sort of reader who would just happily meander through five hundred pages of normal detective procedural through the streets of Fae York (not the city’s real name but it should have been) without needing any sort of plot to keep him entertained, so the plot here was just gravy.

Yeah. Good action, distinctive characters, great scenery and interaction. I could see the city. The dialogue was a bit cheesy but that cheese felt more like Hartog was leaning into the cop drama trope and quite intentionally giving Holliday and his equally grizzled former beat-Paladin Deacon a very distinct and familiar set of gruff, no-bullshit conversational cues. It was a little difficult to trace where exactly their relationship stood at any given time because, although they did come to trust and even like each other more and more in true buddy cop style through the story, each scene had to be taken separately and they could be exchanging quips or snarling at each other like junkyard dogs depending on how grumpy Deacon was or when Holliday had last had a coffee. Again, this felt intentional more than accidental, and if it was jarring or grating occasionally I feel it’s no more than a reader deserves when they know the sort of story they’ve picked up. Oh, they were almost friends in the last scene and now they’re at each other’s throats again? What’re you gonna do? Cry? You gonna cry?

Ahem.

So as I was saying, Holliday was very old school noir detective, if you like that sort of thing. He didn’t quite narrate to us that he knew the Vellan in the makeup was bad news the second she walked in, but he could have said it and I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid.

As to the plot itself … well, I’ll just go back to my default it was so much. The twists and turns were dizzying, but from scene to scene and revelation to revelation it all sort of hangs together. The whole thing becomes almost impossibly complex as the world Hartog has created weaves itself into the case and vice versa, making it convoluted beyond belief, but then he pulls a thread and it unfolds into a remarkably simple outcome. Just ride it through to the end, is my advice. It is a noir detective whodunnit in the end, but getting there is a fucking journey.

Sex-o-meter

Holliday and Besim almost have a thing at some point there but it may just be an over-interpretation of the careful tabs Holliday keeps on her hair and makeup and overall looks. To be fair, her whole deal is sort of extraordinary and that, too, is justified by the end. All in all, our characters have more important things to worry about than getting nasty, which is fine – there’s no obligation or requirement as far as I’m concerned. Not in a gritty-dystopian-cyber-noir-fae-futurist-murder-mystery. By the time you’ve said the name of the sub-genre, it’s time for a cigarette. Bloodlines gets a Twilight series out of a possible Fifty Shades of Grey series on the sex-o-meter.

Gore-o-meter

Two-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five here. There’s a certain amount of violence, some excellent hand-to-hand fights and shoot-outs, and of course the grisly murder that starts it all off and the additional murders that keep it rolling along. They’re not super gory or upsetting, but we do also have some really nice and visceral surrealist second-layer body horror and stuff going on with Holliday’s Insight that I feel elevates the story from a mob drama procedural with exsanguination to something a bit more special.

WTF-o-meter

Since I’ve already rhapsodised about the sub-genre and worldbuilding extensively here, and mentioned some of the more surreal elements of character and plot, I guess it’s a foregone conclusion that this book scores quite admirably on the WTF-o-meter. I’m looking at the dial and seeing that it’s clocked in at somewhere in the region of a hard-boiled flatfoot out of a possible delicately-sautéed Proudfoot. But that’s still somehow a quite high rating. Go figure.

My Final Verdict

I had a lot of fun reading this even though it took me a surprisingly long time. There was, and I say it again, just so much. And that can be hard work to get through. Detective pulp, easy. Urban fantasy cheese, no problem. Dystopian cyberpunk schlock, give me a challenge next time. Putting it all together gave my eyeballs indigestion. Four stars, for the sheer balls of it. A star for each ball. Bloodlines has disturbingly crowded pants and sits funny on barstools. Don’t stare, it’s rude.

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So long, 2021

Here comes 2022, and it’ll hopefully be a mild improvement even though the virus is still apparently fucking us over and we’ll be getting booster shots until everybody becomes anti-vaxxers and we all die or whatever.

And 2022’s roster of public holidays mostly fall on weekends again so there are basically no days off work. At least we get vacations over here in Finland, although by “over here in Finland” I mean “doesn’t look like we’re going to be allowed to travel anywhere without spending weeks in quarantine and that places global travel firmly back in the list of things only the monstrously wealthy elite get to do but maybe that’s okay because it’s really bad for the environment.”

And that doesn’t matter either because the poors can be denied air travel for the rest of time and the climate will still collapse because we (specifically big industrial governments, mega corporations, and the 0.0001%, but basically us too, all of us) suuu-uuuu-uu-uuuu-ck.

Fuck it. I made an updated Phases Plan to fix a couple of short story titles and stuff. And yes, instead of working on the last couple of books in Phase 2 I did suddenly realise something that was going to happen in Phase 5 and start obsessing over it. That’s how this fucking works.

Happy New Year. I know we’re still a couple of days out but I’m calling time of death on 2021 now and will just sit around watching TV for the next couple of days. You know, as well as working full time.

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