Tag Archives: fantasy fiction

679. The Nightingale Sings Again

I’m not all the way back, although I will be eventually. Even while I am in covid-hiatus, I will have occasional cause to say something that won’t wait for better days, and this is such a case.

Two years ago, JM Williams produced a new take on an old Hans Christian Anderson story The Nightingale.  I reviewed it  positively at that time. Now he has published a cleaned up version of his novella. The changes in the text are insignificant, but the look of the work is vastly improved.

In the original, Williams said, “There are certain themes in the original story that still resonate . . .” and in the new version he says, “Certain themes in the original story still resonate . . .” In the original he says “ . . . the lie was an integral part of his plan.” and in the new version he says “ . . . the lie was an integral part of his plot.” Those are the kind of tiny changes a careful author makes if he is given a do-over. I know; I drive myself crazy with those kind of changes in my own work.

Such small changes aren’t reason enough to visit the story again, but in the first edition, the formatting got out of hand. Nothing was indented. In chapter three, it went from single space between paragraphs, to double, and then back again. Later the right margin slid to the middle of the page.

I’m sure that some of Williams’s readers must have given up along the way. If so, they really missed out.

Now all this has changed. The new version is a clean and professional as anything out of Doubleday. Nothing stands between the reader and the story, and it is a fine story.

This is what I said about The Nightingale two years ago, except this time I can give it the 5 stars the story deserves.

JM Williams retelling of the classic fairy tale sees the world from the ground up. King Gregor is about to name an heir but villainy is afoot, with two princes and a princess in contention, and magic tipping the scale. Royalty can’t help; instead, the son and daughter of the village blacksmith, with advice from a witch too old to act on his own, have to try to save the day. The characters are warm and relatable, and the action is believable. If you like a slash-em-up, this isn’t for you. If you like real people working to make their world better, give it a try.

While you are at Amazon picking up a copy of The Nightingale (be sure to get the one with the brightly colored bird on the cover) you might as well pick up a copy of Cyan. It’s going to be a long time before we once again complain that we don’t have enough time to read.

Stay well.

678. Taking a Break

I’m going to take a break

Yesterday, here in California, the Governor requested that all people over 65 self-isolate. That makes sense to me, and I passed that milestone seven years ago, so my wife and I are going to hunker down and become temporary hermits. That isn’t too much of a hardship since we live in the country and keep a well stocked larder anyway.

This change shouldn’t bother my blog, but it does. I’m not worried for my wife and myself, but worrying about the rest of the country and the world beyond weighs on me. It has also been getting harder lately to come up with new things to say, especially on subjects that don’t call for hours of research for a post that will be read in three minutes. This is post 678, after all.

So I am going to take a break. I have other things on my mind and I’m sure you do too.

I’ll be back. Whether in two weeks or two months, I can’t say. Meanwhile, I’m going to keep working on my novels, keep my wife company, and keep thinking about all the good people out there beyond my driveway.

Take care, folks. Stay safe.

666. The Beast Crawls Up

The Number of the Beast is a novel by Robert Heinlein. I have referred to it several times, most recently on the January 13th post when I said that the first hundred pages are “my favorite thing to re-read, but the rest of the book is kinderdrivel”. Yep, that pretty much covers it, but it is a fascinating book to talk about because it generates so much hatred. For example, David Langford said of it:

My (fairly) humble view is that the book says nothing and says it very badly.

I like that — brief and to the point, with nothing held back. I don’t fully agree with it, but I don’t fully disagree with it either. There will be more below, after we put things into some perspective.

There is a long history of science fiction works that treat Christianity as fact, and derive either positive or negative results from that assumption. On the positive side is one of my favorite books from high school, Starship Through Space by Lee Corey (aka G. Harry Stein). Ninety percent of the book details the building of the first starship and its maiden voyage to Alpha Centauri. It was a wonderful book until they arrived to find American Indians reading Genesis waiting to greet them. Dumb! Massively, unforgivably dumb to end a great novel on such a note.

Also from my high school library were the Perelandra books by C. S. Lewis which were a kind of space faring John Bunyan. Not good; I got through them and never looked back. They were allegory and they were tedious, but I could at least respect them.

Most of the SF that sees religion in a negative light concentrates on the practitioners and leaves God himself out of the argument. A Canticle for Leibowitz comes to mind. That’s also what I’ve typically done.

The ones that take on God himself tend to be serious and usually angry. James Blish rewrites the outcome of the Revelation in his After Such Knowledge trilogy. (Doctor Mirabilis, Black Easter and The Day After Judgment.) Arthur C. Clarke’s The Star is disturbing and sad, but his The Nine Billion Names of God simply ends all creation in a mild and matter-of-fact way when Buddhist prophesy comes true.

Heinlein does it all differently. In The Number of the Beast he turns Revelation’s beast into an alien species and turns science fiction into a romp. Or a travesty in the eyes of many reviewers. I’ve read everything RAH wrote, save his first two juveniles, and I can attest that no other work is so completely lacking in seriousness.

For those who see him as a guru or a devil, this must be completely infuriating.

For me, I read the whole thing once and I’m glad I did. I’ve read the first hundred pages several times since, not because it is particularly good, but because it is a silly game, an unexpected vacation with old friends. Who? The Heinlein character, in four variations, making love to its/his/her/their self. If you can read between the lines, I’ll skip the “m” word. Since I’m a classy guy, I’ll just say inner directed and very self-admiring.

I grew up spending endless hours listening to my father and two of his brothers sitting around the kitchen table telling tales out of their childhoods, trying to outdo each other in hyperbole, and having a wonderful time laughing together. Heinlein, to me, is like another uncle. I love to listen to his stories because I love the way he tells them.

What else is there to like? His world building? Yes, if you look at his pre-war short stories, but the world building in his novels typically amounts to one or two pithy sentences per book. His characters? He only has one. His philosophy? Discounting solipsism as his joke on the world, he is a realist totally undercut by his own sentimentality. His political ideas? There are enough so that everyone can find something to hate.

David Langford, quoted above, spent a lot of ink taking The Number of the Beast apart at the seams, which totally missed the point. The Number of the Beast isn’t a novel; it’s post-Heinlein Heinlein. It’s the old man reminiscing about all the books he read as a kid, and all the books he wrote as a man (starring himself) in a relatively clever stroll down memory lane. And we get to go with him, which is why I liked it when I read it. But there is no meat, which is why I haven’t gone back.

If you hate it, you’re right. Heinlein doesn’t care. He’s having a wonderful time.

664. Whose Number is This Anyway?

Post number 666 is coming soon, and there is no way I can ignore it. It stirs things up, three posts worth in fact, so I have to start talking about it today.

Perhaps I should explain the number 666, because many people who read this blog do not live in overwhelmingly Christian countries.

666 is a number that appears in the Christian Bible, in the Revelation, which is its last book. Revelation purports to be prophesy of the last days and the end of the world. Serious Christians spend a lot of time thinking about that and not so serious Christians are fully aware of it. Smart ass kids joke about it; serious kids get freaked out by it. Writers of fantasy use it for inspiration, atmosphere, and images. If you take the time to read Revelation (get the King James version for the full smell of brimstone) you will find that it makes Stephen King sound like Little Lord Fauntleroy. The heavy metal band Iron Maiden rode to fame on it. Nobody ignores it.

Just to make my own position clear, I used to be a Christian and now I’m not. I have a tenuous relations with Christianity since almost all my friends are Christian, many deeply so, and I would not want to offend them. Still . . .

Here is the quotation in question, from Revelation 13:16-18, King James Version:

[16] And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:

[17] And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.

[18] Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.

The beast carried the number 666 in his forehead and all his followers were required to do the same. This quotation is just about the number itself. The rest of the chapter is about the beast, and it is terrifying.

The Revelation’s picture of the last days was deeply disturbing to a twelve year old kid sitting in the back pew of a small Baptist Church, deep in Oklahoma, well into the night service, surrounded by the moist heat of August, with darkness outside and the sweat-soaked preacher thundering from the pulpit as his hour of hellfire preaching reached its crescendo. And it wasn’t an isolated sermon. My church served up hellfire three times a week, and the Revelation was the text for the feast several times a month.

It still gives me a chill, and it makes me understand the almost superstitious revulsion many people have for the number 666.

*        *        *

Thinking about all this brought up a fairly frivolous question — since phone codes are three digit, is there an area code 666? Apparently not, although my authority is the internet, so let’s treat this as hearsay. Apparently the number 666 is “currently not assigned” which means that it is one of those area code numbers reserved for growth. It also means that it could be assigned at any time. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

My wandering through the internet in search of more bits about 666 revealed a lot of facts which may not be so factual. It is said that area code 666 was once assigned to an area in Louisiana and that local Christians petitioned successfully to have it changed. It sounds like something that could have happened, but stories that good are often invented.

There was one Q&A which I can’t resist repeating.

In what state is area code 666 located? Hellsavania.

That’s enough for one post about the infamous number, but the issues have barely been touched on. There’s more. Stand by.

635. That Many?

It’s hard for me to believe that I am two months into the fifth year of this site. On the other hand, it’s hard to believe that I’ve done this much writing in only four plus years.

According to WordPress, this will make 1289 posts. Some were longer, some shorter, a few quite short like this one, and others were quite long. They probably average roughly 700 words. I’ve made a few repeats, so by a rough estimate that’s about 800,000 words.

To be fair, about half of that was material in the form of old stories from my long and checkered past, mostly presented in Serial. Let’s call the rest a bit more than 400,000 new words.

No, I didn’t believe it either, so I checked my figures twice.

That’s the equivalent of three or four modern novels, or about seven novels the length they were when I started writing. Truthfully, it’s easier to write a post than the equivalent number of words from a novel, but still . . .

Oh, by the way, during that time I also spent a lot of effort playing editorial ping-pong getting Cyan into print, and wrote two new novels, The Cost of Empire and Like Clockwork, and to date about twenty percent of the novel Dreamsinger.

Retirement from teaching middle school has been fun, but not relaxing.

All this cogitation came about as I was considering a novel I didn’t write (yet) which I plan to tell you something about on Wednesday.

629. Lord Darcy

First a note for those who got here following the tag steampunk
this isn’t exactly steampunk, but it tastes a lot like it.

It was in the Jokake room, Westercon 70, in Tempe, Arizona. Science and Technology vs. Magic was the name of the panel, and it seemed to falter from the beginning. Some panels are like that. They look good on paper, but in real life they are too cute to live.

I was a panelist, and I was puzzled by what I wasn’t hearing, so I asked, “Doesn’t anybody remember Lord Darcy?”

Some did, and said, “Oh, yeah, I read those.” Most of the audience had never heard of him.

Although the Lord Darcy series was somewhat successful — it got a Hugo nomination — it was too unique, too “in-between”, and it fell into the crack between the sub-genres. It was exactly what the panel planners had in mind, a set of stories based on magic as something that was studied, understood, and put to work by magicians who were trained in its laws — laws which had been meticulously discovered by scientific study.

The Darcy stories were also gloriously filled with in-jokes, with references to popular literature, and most of all they were great fun.

The series is set in modern times (the 60s and 70s, actually) in an alternate universe where King Richard did not die, John did not gain the throne of England, and magic took the place of science. I could say more, but I’m trying to avoid running this up to novella length.

Randall Garrett, the author, was a supreme practitioner of the punster’s art. If he had been writing about a magical object lost at a circus, he would certainly have called it The Adventure of the Rube’s Cube. He didn’t (sadly) write that, but I will dissect one of his real titles below.

Lord Darcy and his colleague Master Sean O’Lochlainn are often described as a kind of Holmes and Watson. That’s relatively fair, but it only scratches the surface. Darcy was of the aristocracy, tall, lean but strong, able with sword and pistol, brilliant of mind, lovely of body — the pluperfect hero. If that sound like Superman in need of a little kryptonite, forget it. You can be that heroic if the stories have an strong undercurrent of humor. Call him James Bond with a brain.

Master Sean, on the other hand, is no Watson. He is as competent in his own realm as Darcy is in his.

Darcy is chief investigator for Normandy, although he is sometimes called to England itself; he finds things out if they depend on actions, motives, and deception. Master Sean is a forensic sorcerer; he finds things out if they depend on magic. They work together seamlessly to solve murders and political crises for (modern day) Prince Richard and occasionally, King John IV.

There is a pattern to the stories. Typically, everybody is running around, wringing their hands and calling the latest crime an act of black magic. Darcy and Sean arrive on the scene; Sean investigates the magic at hand and passes the actual facts on to Darcy; Darcy sees the connections that no one else saw and shows how the murder was committed by purely physical means.

Master Sean explains Darcy’s technique like this:

“Like all great detectives, my lord, you have the ability to leap from an unjustified assumption to a foregone conclusion without passing through the distance between. Then you back up and fill in.”
                    from A Matter of Gravity,
                   but also repeated in several other stories

The only novel, Too Many Magicians, is particularly full of pop culture references of the day, including appearances by Nero Wolfe and Archie disguised as the Marquis de London and his assistant Lord Bontriomphe.

My favorite story title is The Muddle of the Woad. If it doesn’t strike you funny at first, say it fast three times. Woad is the blue dye used by the Picts when they went into battle. A double agent for the King, investigating a cult seemingly devoted to regicide, is found dead in another man’s coffin, stark naked and dyed blue. A warning from the cult? Everybody thinks so but Darcy.

The only thing wrong with these stories is that there are not enough of them. I first read them in the paperback collections Lord Darcy Investigates (which contains A Matter of Gravity, The Ipswich Phial, The Sixteen Keys, and The Napoli Express) and Murder and Magic (which contains The Eyes Have It, A Case of Identity, The Muddle of the Woad, and A Stretch of the Imagination). I read the only novel Too Many Magicians in the Gregg Press version with the excellent preface by Sandra Meisel.

If I had to replace my copies, I would opt for the 2002 edition of Lord Darcy, edited by Eric Flint, because it also contains the two otherwise uncollected stories The Bitter End and The Spell of War.

All these are out of print, but that is what used bookstores and — dare I say it? — Amazon are for.

As it was with Holmes, there were further adventures after Garrett’s death, written by Michael Kurland. They are on my to-read list.

628. It Isn’t Working

Please note that today’s eyecatcher
is a busted clock. Thanks wikihow.

“Comp,” he said, “if I don’t cancel this order within one del, notify Yorki 00247 of everything that has happened in the last dur.”

Yikes, this isn’t working. I’ve really had fun with the idea of decimal time, and I think it is something that these people would actually use. If someone on Home Station were reading what I’ve written so far, they would understand it completely, but I can’t seem to make it work for readers who live on Earth.

It isn’t for lack of trying. There are a dozen little tricks, like saying “later” or “earlier” or using a vague time like “in a while” to avoid the decimal time terms. I made sure that Antrim spends his off hours reading old Earth novels so he is constantly translating into hours and minutes, even though the people around him don’t use our time terms any more. It still doesn’t work. I never realized until this experiment how many times in one novel a time phrase like “wait a minute” is used. My best guess now is about a million.

The other thing from the example at the top, computer names, is working out fine. The reader, just like the people of Home Station, keys in on the first name and ignores the number completely. I could screw this up for myself by using both Lafel 18273 and Lafel 19581, but I’m not masochistic. I don’t even try to remember the numbers. They have a logic — the lower the number the older the person — but I simply have everybody listed on a separate file. Most of the time I just use the first name, and if I need the number, I cut and paste.

It’s not that easy with time terms. Just five minutes ago I had Antrim checking out the computer records on some people he was about to interact with and I needed to make note of their ages. I couldn’t just say “she was a year younger than Antrim and the other two were about two years older.” I could say —

She was about a third of a kilo-det younger than Antrim and the others were nearly a kilo-det older, which told Antrim that she was a year younger and the other two were about two years older.

Arf, snarf, and boogles! That doesn’t even work once, and I seem to need something like that twice a page.

What I actually said when I got to that point was — “I give up”.

From now on, I’ll do what I do in fantasy fiction. In Menhir, Tidac and Cinnabar speak the language of the Inner Kingdom, but I write it in English.

I might make a note in passing that Home Station uses decimal time, but I’m going to write the novel in English. I’m going back to hours and minutes and years.

Ahhhhhhh! Man, that feels better.

I just went back to the paragraph preceding the age snarl and changed it to read, “It was a five minute walk to his destination.”  It didn’t take me twenty minutes (1.2 durs) to figure out how to say three dins (five minutes, more or less) is a way that a reader on Earth would understand.

Much better — but the experiment was still fun.