Must-Watch SFF: Orcs!

  • by Gitabushi

Orcs-2011

With my daughter home for the summer, I end up actually watching visual entertainment.  We browse Amazon Prime for movies that include topics I can use to highlight conservative principles and the values I want them to learn.

But we also encounter movies and television shows I’ve never heard of.

This one just looked stupid.  I had to watch the trailer to see just how stupid it was.

Surprise! It wasn’t stupid.

It was actually a very enjoyable movie, with a solid premise, good writing and decent acting.

It’s always hard for me to do a review without giving away spoilers, so I tend to focus on descriptions of what the author (or movie, in this case) does well, what it doesn’t do well, and my reaction to various extremely-generally-described elements.

I’m probably going to have to do that again. But bear with me. And see the movie, if you can (free on Amazon Prime).

The premise of this movie is that orcs are real, but they’ve been bottled up (suspended animation? Dimensional portal?) in a subterranean realm since mythical times.  They nearly obtained their release decades ago, but were stopped by chance.  Recent activities have opened their path to the surface Earth again, and the orcs are now making their best attempt to destroy or subjugate the human race.

What this movie is not:

A comedy, although the trailer makes it seem like one (the canoe seen isn’t as funny in context as it is in the trailer).  But it is funny at times.

A campy movie, although it has some camp.  The movie escalates in seriousness and in the stakes as it runs, as a good story should.

A professional movie, although the special effects were better than I would have expected.  But they were clearly on a tight budget to get things done.

A goad Bad movie.  Because it simply isn’t a Bad Movie.  Okay, okay, it could be seen as a bad movie due to its production values and lack of brand-name actors.  But if you can suspend your disbelief for the cheesier aspects, honestly: the stronger elements of the movie make it a good movie.  Not a great movie, but a good one.

What this movie is:

A very well-written, decently well-directed, decently-well acted movie.  It has a decent premise, and takes the premise seriously.  The actors over-act at times to fill space.  The moments they try to conceal their limited budget are obvious (“thousands” of orcs marching by seems likely to be a half-dozen running in a circle with obvious sound effects), but done as well as you can expect.  The overall impact is better than most of the fanfic movies I’ve seen on YouTube.  It drew me in, made me care about the outcome.  The climax battle wasn’t over as quickly as you might expect, heightening the sense of dread from the orcs’ overwhelming force.  The writing, plot, and acting made me care about the actors.  The characters had depth (the GS-9 rivalry was spot on), and the main character grew/changed throughout the story in a plausible manner.

A fairly good Pulp Revolution movie.

I’ve often run to IMDB to find out what other movies a set of actors have been in. This is the first movie I’ve ever watched that made me run to Twitter immediately after to find the main actors’ twitter handles to praise them.

Watch it as soon as possible, and leave your comments.

 

“No Real Plot” in ERB/REH Books

  • by gitabushi

Spoiler: Okay, that was too strong, and I withdraw the charge.  Sort of.

Don’t you love it when a writer starts off the story in the middle of the action, so you are immediately caught up in laser blasts and flying hand-axes?

So here’s the background.

There is a Pulp Resurgence going on.  As a hopeful writer who is hopefully on the verge of being able to complete my first novel, I noticed the trend and thought it might be something worth paying attention to. As in, maybe I might want to write a pulp story.

So I tried to re-read some pulp SFF I liked when I was in my teens.  And didn’t like it anymore.

The stereotype of pulp is that it is simplistic, juvenile, and immature.  Its fans disagree. And they have a point: the writings of Dashiell Hammett are considered by some to be literature worth studying.

hammett
Dashiell Hammett

I personally enjoy reading Louis L’Amour, and while he is definitely a pulp Western writer, he has some interesting characters, occasional fascinating character growth, and some fairly intricate plotting at times.

the-sackett-brand_LRG
…and boy, did L’Amour milk this brand!

But when it comes to SFF, I have to agree with the stereotype: it is immature writing that has been so surpassed by the state of the art that it doesn’t seem worth reading anymore.

So, of course, I had to say this on twitter, because that’s the Proper Location for Virtue Signalling.

Full disclosure: Twitter has changed me. It has helped me to mature and not be bothered by responses and attitudes that would have infuriated me not long ago.  On the other hand, I’ve gotten to enjoy mild trolling, so I’m not always as careful with precise critiques as I would have been in the past.

And PC Bushi and I have a long-running mild disagreement…we both love SFF, but our tastes seem to be diametrically opposed. What he loves, I dislike.  The only thing I love that I know he’s read is the Chronicles of Amber, but that’s enough to know that the reverse isn’t necessarily true. More data is needed.

Anyway, some people had been ripping on some authors PC Bushi liked, and we had a twitter conversation about it, as PC Bushi details here.

That led to me getting called out by a commenter here:

I am sorry but it just reads like nathan hasn’t read anything and is just using other people’s talking points. Couldn’t you describe Brust’s Taltos series as a guy just wandering around killing black elves?

(He later corrects himself note “black elves” is Cherryh’s construction, not Brust’s, but the Dragaereans are called elves, so his point is not undermined by the mistake)

Here is my response, in full:

Okay, I spent a little time thinking about plot, so your challenge actually did some good.

Maybe “no plot” is the wrong way to put it.
What is plot?
According to wikipedia, Plot is: the sequence of events inside a story which affect other events through the principle of cause and effect.

So from that point of view, yes, everything REH and ERB wrote have plots.

But I still don’t think they are very good ones.

Let’s take the first story in “The Coming of Conan”. (I have read most of the original REH Conan novels, but 30 years ago, so we’ll just look at this short story).

What is the plot? A man wants to be king, so plots against the king, who is Conan. He arranges for an assassination squad. Conan has a dream where a God gives him a magic weapon. Conan defeats the assassination squad, except the last one is read to kill him before a demon appears, then Conan kills it with the magic weapon.

So, yeah, there’s a plot, but it’s not a very good one.

Why do we care about Conan? Is he a good king? We don’t know.
Where is the conflict?
Does anything bad happen if Conan is replaced as king? Sure, he’d be killed, but we know nothing about the country, or the people. Why should we care?
Does he do anything difficult to stop the assassination? No, a demon appears.
Does he do anything difficult or special to stop the demon? No, a god gave him a magic sword.

There was *one* bit of interesting development: Conan is nearly killed because he was shocked at the minstrel’s betrayal, and human emotion keeps him from striking the minstrel down immediately.

If anything, the most interesting person, the person who chooses and changes the most, is Thoth-Amon. He had power, lost it when a thief took his ring. He had to flee or be killed from the enemies he made when he had power. In disguise, he’s nearly killed by bandits, but his life is spared when he pledges to serve as a slave. Then his ring comes within his reach again…how does he react to the loss of power vs restoration of his power? That could be a fascinating glimpse into human nature. But he’s the bad guy, so we can’t care about him.

Now compare to Brust’s Jhereg (spoilers!):

Jhereg
An assassin is seduced by greed and ego to take a difficult job. He finds out the job isn’t as straightforward as he thought. If he doesn’t do the job, he’ll be killed. Then he finds out there’s a reason to hurry. If he doesn’t hurry, he’ll be killed. But if he hurries, he might be unprepared, and killed by the target. Then he discovers the target wants to die, but only a certain way. He finds out that if he does his job, his friend will be dishonored. Now, you may not care about the friend and his prized honor, but you can understand and sympathize with the assassin not wanting to force his friend to lose something important to him. Then we find out that the target is trying to destroy 3 of the 17 Houses of the Draegaera. Which the assassin would LOVE to have happen. Now isn’t that some some intriguing, major conflict to be resolved? The assassin has multiple reasons to want to stop the target’s plot, but also has multiple reasons to want the target’s plot to succeed. So he develops a plan, the one thing that could resolve all these conflicts safely. Then the plan goes wrong.

There is escalation of stakes throughout, which makes it a good plot.

Brust lets us get to know the characters, gives us some reason to care about the characters and what they want, makes even the target somewhat sympathetic, and then lets the struggles play out.

Now, to be fair, we’ve compared a short story to a novel. A novel will naturally be more complex, having more length.

So let’s bring in ERB’s The Land That Time Forgot.

The_Land_That_Time_Forgot

What’s the plot? A man is going to war. His boat is sank, he captures the submarine that did it. No way to run a submarine, unless you just happen to have experience piloting one…He just happens to make submarines for a living! He tries to get home, but gets lost. There is some conflict because there is a hidden traitor. He finds an unknown continent. No way to get in, unless you have a submarine. He just happens to have one! He gets inside, and there are dinosaurs inside. They are dangerous, and randomly grab someone. It just happens to not be the hero! Now they have food and water, but no fuel for the sub. Hey, they just happen to find oil! They still haven’t resolved the issue with the Germans, oh, hey, the Germans run off with the sub!

Oh, I forgot, there’s a girl. He loves her because she is beautiful. How do we know she’s beautiful? The author told us. She loves the hero, he loves her. He doesn’t trust her for a while. Oh, wait, he was wrong. She forgives him.

To be sure, there are some minor conflicts: the hidden traitor, the problem about the trust between the girl and the hero, how to deal with hostile prisoners.

But at no point is there much doubt about the outcome of any conflict. The hero is the leader because of course he is. He can command the sub because of course he can. When he needs to kill a dinosaur, of course he can. He can overcome the German commander one on one because of course he can.

Back to wikipedia:
A plot device is a means of advancing the plot in a story. It is often used to motivate characters, create urgency, or resolve a difficulty. This can be contrasted with moving a story forward with dramatic technique; that is, by making things happen because characters take action for well-developed reasons. An example of a plot device would be when the cavalry shows up at the last moment and saves the day in a battle. In contrast, an adversarial character who has been struggling with himself and saves the day due to a change of heart would be considered dramatic technique.

If I had to characterize The Land that Time Forgot, it would be that it is just a series of plot devices, rather than a plot. Or to the extent that it has a plot, it isn’t very good.

And it doesn’t get any better in the sequel, The People That Time Forgot. I set the book down when I got busy, and had zero desire to pick it back up again.

In its favor, there is a great What If aspect to the trilogy: What if there were a lost continent that had dinosaurs and primitive humans? Then what if the inhabitants recapitulated evolution as a personal development process?
Okay, the 2nd is way out there, and I don’t really see the reason for it, but at least there is a What If to explore.
These are milieu books: set up a world, then let the character explore the world, letting us see it through his eyes. The interest is in seeing how this world compares to ours, how the changes in the world cause changes in the humans, or in human society.

Except it really doesn’t. ERB gives us a series of snapshots, but the world never really becomes 3D.

Compare to Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky, where the question is “What if a bunch of young adults were stranded on a strange planet and had to create their own civilization?” Definitely a milieu story, but not *just* a milieu story. There is character growth and exploration of human nature and the nature of civilization.
Or compare to Larry Niven’s milieu stories, Destiny’s Road (what if people lived on a planet that lacked any natural source of a vital mineral?), the Smoke Ring duology (what if a society evolved in a weightless environment?). He tells a story with a plot, character that have goals and issues we care about, while *still* exploring a strange world. One of the interesting things about Niven is he wrote several novels about societies based on an Elite enslaving the Common People via monopoly over a scarce vital resource. He explores that theme over and over, in the two stories above, plus The Gift From Earth (human organs), World Out of Time (immortality), and probably more I can’t think of yet.

the-smoke-ring
Woah. Doesn’t this look like a world you want to see a writer explain, describe, and explore?  Hard SF for the win, baby.

Both you and I cited Cherryh.

To be fair, Cherryh has some books without any real plot. Her Fortress series is just a self-licking ice cream cone. As is the Rusalka series. Both do provide some insight into human nature, the nature of fear and love, and how those are exploited…but after finishing each of those, I felt like I do reading ERB and REH: why did I just read that? What was the *point* of the story? In REH and ERB, it’s because I don’t care much about the outcome because there wasn’t much escalation of stakes, too many plot devices, and the characters don’t earn my care. In those two Cherryh series, it’s because after all those words describing so much action, nothing really changes in the world. I guess you could say that in Rusalka there was finally a restoration of normality, but I just didn’t care that much.

In contrast, Cyteen drags you into the lives of a brilliant-but-evil woman who is cloned, and how her clone reacts to the attempts to recreate the evil woman’s brilliant skills by pushing her personality towards evil, in connection with interactions with the young, sympathetic man the evil old woman deliberately abused…this is conflict, in that the man wants nothing to do with the clone because of his memories of the old women, but the clone is fascinated by the young man and has the power to force his proximity. Lots of personal conflict, tough decisions, changing character, people under pressure, sacrificial decisions, etc. A fascinating exploration how conflict, struggle, and pain are the challenges that stimulate growth, and the ethics of using those tools deliberately to try to bring about that growth in others.

Let’s make this even more complex, and bring in ERB’s John Carter. It’s been a while since I’ve read any. I enjoyed them okay when I was 15. I tried re-reading Princess of Mars 5 years ago, and got bored before I finished.

I won’t run through all the things I consider plot inadequacies, but I’ll hit a few points:
– Yes, there’s loyalty, in that Carter saves Tarkas’ life, and Tarkas returns the favor…but to me, that pales in comparison to Vlad Taltos’ considering it better to let himself be killed rather than force his friend to go back on his promise that guests are safe. Of course, Vlad figures out how to resolve that conflict, but Vlad’s loyalty is more poignant to me than the “You save my life, so I save yours” exchange.
– Yes, there’s romance, but just like in the Land that Time Forgot, we are told that Dejah Thoris is the most beautiful woman ever, so John Carter loves her and is blessed to earn her love. Yay. I don’t find it convincing or compelling.

index
…for all we know, Dejah Thoris could look exactly like this.

There are some things in the Barsoom series favor:
– It is based somewhat on the science available at the time (canals!)
– If you want a hero with superhuman strength, it makes sense that it would be an alien that grew up on another planet with 3x the gravity. This is good What If science fiction.

But consider this: how much more poignant, how much more depth, how much more interesting would the whole Barsoom cycle be if John Carter had been torn away from a wife and child, or (worse!) a young, pregnant wife on Earth?

That would make his attraction to Thoris a conflict. That would make his return to earth after asphyxiation a mixed blessing. That would add emotion to his every success on Mars: it all came at the expense of an innocent woman and child back on Earth…and yet, it wasn’t of his own choosing, he is powerless to go back (so why shouldn’t he make their loss mean something good for Barsoom?)…and since his complete disappearance means she is also moving on with her life back on Earth…?

That one change would deeply alter the Barsoom series, making it a truly sublime exploration of the nature of love, and purpose, and dealing with loss.

 

Santa Claus is Coming…To Town…

  • short fiction by Gitabushi

Santa Claus died on December 25th in the early hours of the morning.  His death caused the Depression.  I know it sounds crazy, but I was there.

Of course, if you’re reading this, it means I’m dead.  I’ve set it up with my friend down at the Herald to fly up here and look for this if no one hears from me within a week.  I hope it works, because somebody needs to know.

For so many years I just thought it was a nightmare, maybe just some child’s method of explaining events that are beyond a child’s scope of understanding.  Everyone I told either laughed or got angry, so I learned to keep it to myself.  But too many bodies have been turning up lately.  It’s bad enough that it’s on the same night every year, but the fact that it’s all over the world is even more telling.  Of course, that same fact made it hard to see the trend, but now that I know, it was easy to track down.

If I just come out and say it, you won’t believe me, and you’ll perceive this writing as a spoof, or maybe a cruel-minded hoax.  But it’s vital that you believe, so I’ll give you the facts first.

You’ve been told in your history classes that the Great Depression started on November 10, 1929.  Wrong.  Yes, there was a market decline that started on that day.  But the despair, panic, and global economic devastation didn’t actually begin until December 25th, the day the world woke up and found that, for the first time ever, Santa didn’t bring anything.

Imagine the results of that discovery.  Try, if you will, to imagine a world in which Santa did bring presents every Christmas for generations, then suddenly stopped without warning.  It can be hard for children to learn that there is no Santa Claus, so imagine how hard it was on the adults.  Picture their pain at the sight of heart-broken children, distraught without presents to open on Christmas morn.

Think of it:  a betrayal greater than Nixon’s, a shock more jolting than Kennedy’s death.  It’s no wonder that nearly every adult lost faith in the world, so that a minor market dip escalated into a major financial catastrophe; that so many people committed suicide rather than face their disappointment; that so many suicides concealed the small slaughter; that no adult from that era will admit Santa ever existed, and even started buying presents themselves to perpetuate the Santa Claus “myth;”  that children from that time remember the mood of despair more vividly than they recall a lack of Christmas presents, but their first clue was a barren Christmas tree.

Have I convinced you yet that Santa didn’t come that 1929 Christmas Eve?  Because he actually did make it to some places that night, before he was…No, I think I’ll explain it another way.
I was three months shy of my fourth birthday, and was eagerly anticipating Santa’s visit.  I lay in bed, awake.  Gentle flakes had fallen earlier that evening, and the moon shone down on the fresh white snow so brightly that I didn’t need a candle as I slipped out of bed and down the stairs. No child could resist mysterious sounds on Christmas Eve.  It had to be Santa Claus, it had to be!

No!  It was a regular man, face pale in the moonlight, a dark cloak wrapped around him as if to ward off the winter chill.  He seemed weak, perhaps starving.  I remember that I almost spoke aloud, to offer him something to eat.  But some sense stopped me, and I really believe that saved my life.

At that moment a sound came from the roof, and the man froze.  I mean, he was already completely motionless, but there was a change, as if every sense sharpened.  He suddenly looked like my cat when it sees a bird fluttering with a broken wing.  Like a predator when it senses his prey.  Then he disappeared.

Yes, disappeared.  One second he was there, the next he had vanished from view, like the shadows had swallowed him in one silent gulp.

A large sack landed in our fireplace, accompanied by a small avalanche of snow, and then a large man was squeezing out of the hearth place.  He was huge, but moved quite rapidly for his bulk.  His motions were without haste, but within seconds the stockings were full and the presents were underneath the tree.  Santa paused to take a bite of the cookie I had left the night before, and then–

It’s hard to describe what happened next.  I guess Santa has to be able to move quickly, if he can travel to every house in the world in a single night.  That speed was all that kept him alive for those few minutes, but in the end, the pale man was faster.  As I’ve since learned in my research, beings such as this man can move inhumanly fast.  They wrestled desperately, but in complete silence.  It was obvious that it was to the death.  The last image I had was of Santa’s booted feet kicking in mid-air, then going limp.

I must have fainted, because the next thing I remember is my mother shaking me awake, scolding me for trying to stay awake and catch Santa.  I thought it was just a nightmare until I found out that  many of  my friends did not get visited by Santa that year.  But no one believed me when I told my dream, even when I pointed out the cookie crumbs ground into the carpet.  And as I grew older, I realized that no one ever discovered a body, dressed in a red suit or not, so it must have been a bad dream.

But now I have finally realized to the truth:  Santa was killed by, and has become, a vampire.
I know that despite my careful building of my case, you don’t believe me.  You can’t, because it’s too strange, too far outside your known world.  So I challenge you to test it.  Investigate the three or four mysterious disappearances every Christmas.  Read accounts of the unusually high rate of suicides at Christmas during the Depression, and consider how a “fall” from a great height can help to conceal puncture marks and a general shortage of blood in a body.

Consider, if you will, how a vampire out-performs the average mortal, and then calculate the effect of augmentation on a man who already does not age, already can fly around the world, can already move incredibly fast and dexterously, already only comes out at night.  And thank whatever God you worship that Santa comes out only once a year.  Be grateful that he retains enough scraps of his generosity and compassion that he limits himself to just enough blood to sustain himself for another year, or he could depopulate the Earth in a twinkling.

And so, since I now know the truth, it falls to me to eliminate this monstrosity.  I may be over 70, but I have gotten myself in great shape.  Good enough to be taken seriously in my attempt to be the oldest person to make a solo visit to the North Pole.  And if I can find him in daylight, maybe I’ll have a chance.  If not, I hope they find my camp, and this laptop computer, and this account.  And I hope someone believes, before it’s too late.

Remember, he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake.
And he’s HUNGRY.

Glenn Carpentier
December 21, 1995

Trying to Write Part 4

Part I, Part II, Part III

11.

Nothing but mud and bones grew in the garden. It was an open air courtyard in the center of the keep surrounded by sheer stone walls, un-interrupted by windows or design of any kind. Single door was the only way in or out.  Crows swollen from feasting on corpses left to rot peered down from the their perches at the tops of the walls at their next meal chained to the lone wooden pillar in the garden. He yet breathed with head hung low dripping from the cold rain that beat against his body, mouth speaking words that only he could hear:

Weave and Spin

Hammer and Forge

My life your work

Crafted and shaped

Instrument of your hand

To live is to serve

Until upon your Mountain

I am born again

He finished his prayer and hung silently listening to the rhythm of the rain dancing on stone in the dark. The door to his prison opened and man stepped through, lantern in hand. He wore the armor of the guards, dual short swords hung at his sides. Orren raised his head to greet his new visitor.

“You must be the flayer. I’d tell you not to waste your time, that I have no knowledge that could aid you, but I doubt you’d listen. I imagine with a name like the flayer you probably enjoy your work too much to be dissuaded.”

“Keep quiet” he replied. “I am no flayer. That degenerate fetishizes his knives too much to be caught dead with them in the rain. I have come simply to ask you a question.”

“And what might that be?”

“Was it truth you spoke in the great hall? Have you power to vanquish the one that dwells beneath the mountains?” the man said.

“The power is not my own, but I am it’s conduit. Darkness flees at the name of my master. With who am I speaking?” Orren replied, confusion in his voice. Then he recognized the man as one of that stood guard upon dais of the master’s throne

“Does it matter who comes to free you?” The man said as he pulled a set of keys from his cloak. A moment later Orren was loose.

Orren rubbed his wrists and stood. “I suppose it does not, but should we die this night I’d like to know the name of the man for whom I will advocate at the gates of my Lord’s feasting hall.”

The man handed Orren one of the swords that hung at his side and spoke:

“Much blood will be shed this night, may it not be our own. My name is Berek. Follow me”

12.

Berek extinguished his lantern as soon as they entered the corridor that led to the garden and they raced along the damp stone, extinguishing every torch they passed that lit their way.

“I sent the guard on duty away on an important task, an important task that does not exist. He will realize my deception soon and alarms will be raised. We have little time.”

Berek navigated the labyrinth that made up the halls of keep without hesitation. Even had Orren freed himself of his bonds he would have been hopelessly trapped here in the winding hallways, a structure designed to confuse and disorient. They came to an abrupt halt by the a large wooden door flanked on either side by torches. Berek extinguished both of them, then he knocked.

“‘Berek, captain of Lord Zathen’s guard requires entrance. Official orders.” He shouted.

There was a rustling from within, the sliding of a deadbolt, and the door swung open. Orren stood in the shadows to the side of the doorway, sword in hand.

“Who is in charge here?” Berek barked, surveying the room before him. Swords and battle axes hung on walls next to shields and mail, they were nothing if not well armed. Three men sat at a round table playing cards, faces full of shock at seeing their captain unexpectedly.

“I…I am” said one of the men as he jumped up from his seat, spilling ale on the cards laid out on the table. “Forgive me, I did not know that you were coming.”

Berek frowned. “We will discuss playing cards on duty at another time. I’ve come to retrieve the armor and weapons confiscated from the prisoner. Our Lord wishes to study them.”

The guard squinted. “I was commanded not to release these arms to anyone, not unless the Master himself comes down here to retrieve them.”

“I catch you neglectful of your duty and now you are also calling me a liar? Perhaps you would like to see the flayer when he is done with our visitor?” Berek said moving his hand to the hilt of his sword.

“I mean no offense captain, but he will have my head without his direct order. My head is much more useful attached to my body.”

“That’s not what your wife told me” one of the men from the table interjected, causing the other guards to roar with drunken laughter. The head of the guard made an obscene gesture and threw his mug of ale at the offender, then turned back to Berek.

“I will go myself up to the throne and verify the orders. You can wait here with the other guards.” he smiled and started for the door. Before he could take two steps Berek drew his sword and removed head from shoulders in one swift movement. There was a moment of calm as the headless body crumpled to the floor. The blood streaked faces of the remaining two card players stared at their captain in disbelief, the head of the third player rolled with an almost comical wobble to their feet.

“Should have just given me what I came for.” Berek sighed.

Shock turned to rage on the faces of the living guards and swords were drawn. Berek was surrounded for a brief moment before Orren appeared in the doorway and ran his sword straight through the chest of the unfortunate fellow at the door. He kicked the now limp body off of his blade. It was now an even fight but not a fair one for drink had slowed the movements of the remaining guards. A few clashes of steel, screams of agony, and the fight was finished.

Berek walked over to the headless body and searched through the pockets. A moment later he produced a ring of keys and tossed them to Orren. He pointed to a chest in the back corner of the room.

“Put on your armor. More will be here soon and they aren’t likely to be drunk, just angry.”

13.

With armor donned and weapons in hand, Orren and Berek stepped out once more into the dark corridor. Berek had traded his short sword for a large double bladed axe. “We might have to hack our way out of here, this will help” he had said with a grin. Orren’s travelling bag was also recovered. His runic stones were all accounted for, but the flask was emptied of its contents. He would have to find a fresh water source when they escaped this wretched place.

They raced through the endless inky black, extinguishing all light as they passed. Darkness swallowed their path, there was no going back. Noises that no human could, or should, make could be heard behind some of the barred doors as they passed, they pressed on. Neither man spoke a word. Then Berek stopped suddenly. He remained silent for a moment then turned and spoke:

“Ahead is an entranceway to the keep. I thought it known only to myself and the master. Someone else has opened the door. I thought we had more time.”

Orren grinned. “The time for skulking in the shadows has ended it seems. Let us go to meet our fates beneath the light of the stars, the eyes of our ancestors.” Orren walked past Berek and out into the night. Berek hesitated for a moment in the black hall. He muttered to himself as he drew his sword and followed the foreigner out into the night, “At least it stopped raining.”

14.

They came out to a stretch of flat ground flanked by tall trees.  Across the clearing directly in the path of Orren and Berek stood was tall tussock grass swaying in the night breeze. Beyond that were the mountains. They were free.   

“Let’s go before we are seen” Berek said. The began their way across the clearing when Orren stopped. He reached down to the pouch that hung at his side a flipped open the flap. The four stones were aglow, pulsating slowly, blue light emanating from the bag.

“We are not alone.” Orren said with grim look upon his face.

“Indeed we are not. There in the grass.” Berek pointed the tip of his sword at the swaying tallgrass. A lone figure stood where the blade pointed, dressed in a long shredded shawl like that of a beggar. It stepped into the moonlight that illuminated the clearing and threw off the shawl. Orren’s grip tightening around his pike and he felt his jaw clench.

“Rather we’d have run into the entire barracks than him.” Berek said, spitting. Orren believed him.

Before them stood a man grinning madly wearing naught but a small cloth to cover his loins. He was lean and pale, almost sickly looking if not for the tight muscles that rippled beneath his skin, or at least what once was skin. His body was covered from head to toe in ancient script from the infernal language; words from the deepest of frozen hells, spoken only by the many tongued abominations that dwell there. Dark prophecies, blasphemies, horrific tales from the abyss had been carved into his flesh. His skin was but a monstrous scar, a walking testament of primeval malice.

In his hand was a dagger, a black blade attached to a gnarled wood handle. Orren could see it clearly in the moonlight, but no light reflected off of it. The blade was alive. He could feel its presence, and it could sense him.

“She was promised blood, she was.” The scarred man hissed. “I get to keep the skin but she takes the blood, your blood” He pointed at Orren. “Don’t put up too much of a fight and maybe we’ll kill you quick. Maybe. She always gets what she wants. It’s been too long since I’ve had to hunt my own prey.” He grinned, mouth full of teeth filed into razor-like points.

15.

“The blade…” Orren said. “I have seen its like before. It is not of man.”

“I’ve seen it before too, and I’d prefer to not be skinned by it. We have the advantage. Hurry before he calls for aid!” Berek shouted as he advanced quickly towards the scarred man.

Berek moved like a charging bull, an avalanche of steel and fury. He swung his blade at his foe but cut only the air. His opponent was quick, quicker than any human should be. His movements were almost arachnid in nature; limbs outstretched and dashing angularly from one point to the next. Before Berek could turn the abomination was behind him, a moment later and the stygian blade was brought across the armored shoulder before it. Metal and flesh split open like the seam of grainsack had been cut. Blood appeared for a moment…and then stopped. The wound was immediately blackened, as though a searing heat had cauterized it.

The ghoul jumped back a few steps before his now kneeling victim and held out the dagger. Not a trace of blood or flesh could be seen on it.

“Ohhhhh she likes you. Lots of fight. We will enjoy draining the life from you one cut at a time.”

He began to step forward with blade outstretched when the hook of Orren’s pike caught him from behind, hooking his right side. Orren pulled with all his strength, spinning the antagonist around to face him. A sound like metal scraping stone could be heard. The flayer glared at Orren, then reached down and unhooked the pike from his side. No mark from the blow could be seen. Any other man would have lost his innards from the force with which Orren had struck.

“She has remade me in her image. I am darkness incarnate. You can no more strike me down than you can the shadows that haunt your dreams. And you do dream don’t you? I’ve seen them. We’ve seen them.” He said ,curling his lips into a sneer. Then he charged, swinging his dagger. Orren was able to lift his shield in time and the black blade bounced off the woven strands, staggering its wielder. The flayer regained his footing and stared at the armored man across from him. His eyes narrowed and the grin he wore until now was no more. Uncertainty was now in his eyes, uncertainty and rage.

Orren slowly advanced. With shield raised he absorbed blow after blow from the demon blade, pushing that tattooed man back further and further. Orren left no opening for him, corralling him with pike and shield, always at his front. The flayer cursed and spit like a feral cat, blows harmlessly bouncing off the holy shield, ever retreating. They were now almost to where Berek kneeled. He was conscious, but his face was covered in sweat and pain. His eyes met Orren’s for a moment, and then he smiled. Berek grabbed his sword and lunged towards the legs of the assailant. At first glance it appeared to Orren that Berek had missed, the blade entering the space between the torturer’s legs. Then he jutted the handle of the blade forward, disrupting the cursed man’s balance.

Orren saw his opening and lept forward, bowling the flayer over onto his back. He landed atop the foe and pinned the evil weapon beneath the shield. The demon’s free hand raked across Orren’s face. Blood poured down and stung his eyes, yet he remained firm in his positioning. With his pike Orren slashed at the flailing limb, but he could only fend off strikes. No lasting damage could be done to anywhere the text of damnation was written. Berek saw the struggle and crawled over to aid. He managed to pin the other hand of the ghoul and for a moment all was quiet. Then the flayer began to laugh, a cackle straight from the bowels of the demon serpent itself.

“You going to hold me here forever? Why don’t you tell me a story while we wait? HMMM? Tell me of your family foreigner. How are they doing? Would you like me to tell you?” The flayer howled with evil glee, teeth glinting in the moonlight.

Teeth….teeth. There is no writing on the teeth.

Orren lifted his pike and with the butt of the handle began to slam it on the open jaw of  his captive. Teeth splintered and broke beneath the onslaught, howls of laughter turned to howls of pain and the sound of gargled blood. Then Orren reached down into the pouch at his side and pulled out one of the stones, still pulsating with light, and shoved it into the bloody maw of the flayer. The flayer began to choke and tried to spit, but orren held his mouth shut with his knee and his nostrils closed with his mailed fist. He swallowed and the stone was gone.

The flayer’s eyes opened wide and his face became twisted with agony. He opened his mouth and coughed up smoke and black tar like substance.

“We should probably get clear” Orren said to Berek. He stood up quickly and dragged his companion away . As soon as they released the hands of their captive he sprang to his feet, both hands raised to his throat, dagger lying in the grass beside him.

“WHAT DID YOU PUT IN ME?!? WHAT DID YOU DO!?” he screamed through coughs of smoke. “GET IT OUT!”

He shrieked in pain and began to claw at his stomach to no avail. Then he saw the dagger in the grass. He picked it up and plunged it into his abdomen up to the hilt, then dragged it clean across the width of his body. Black liquid poured out as he shoved a hand inside the gaping wound. He dug through his bowels as Orren and Berek looked on in horror, and then produced the small stone, still glowing.

“I’ve got it…I’ve…got it.” He said in a voice barely above a whisper. He looked at the two men before him and smiled, then crumpled to the ground.

Berek and Orren sat in silence for a moment staring at the carnage before them. The words carved into the flesh of the now dead man began fade before their eyes, and then disappeared. The black knife was gone.

“Did you know that making him eat that rock would do…that?” Berek asked, still staring at the corpse in front of him.

Orren shook his head “No…but…I knew he wouldn’t like it very much.” He walked over to the dead man and pried the stone from his crooked fingers. He wiped some black gunk off of it in the grass and placed it back in his pouch. They were no longer glowing.

“We should go. Can you walk?” Orren looked at Berek.

Berek stood slowly, wincing in pain. Then he smiled, “I’ve had worse.”

Untitled Novel, Teaser

  • by Gitabushi

The McCoy’s Story, Chapter 1: Beverly

Beverly woke, feeling groggy, not sure where she was for a moment.  Her bleary eyes blinked the world into focus.  Metal, glass, tile.  People hurrying past.  Voices over an intercom: “Flight 262 to Washington Dulles International, now boarding Zone 3.”

Beverly pressed the palms of her hands against her eyes.  Zone 3?  That was her boarding group.  She stretched, picked up her backpack and purse, stifled a yawn and stood up.  She shuffled over to the line, then fished her boarding pass out of her purse.  Another yawn rose, and this one would not be denied.  She covered her mouth, but despite her best efforts, this one was audible.

The man in front of him turned around at the sound.  “Tired, huh?  Well, you’ll get some sleep on this red-eye, as long as there are no infants near you.”

“Yeah, I just flew in from China.  I’ve already been traveling for 22 hours.  I couldn’t sleep on the plane earlier, but I just caught a nap there in the waiting area.  I think it made me feel worse.”  The line moved forward a step.

“Wow, long trip!  Where are you headed?”

“DC is my last stop.  Good thing.  I feel like a zombie or something.”  A few more steps forward.

“You’re not sick, are you?”  The man looked like he wanted to sidle away.

“No, I loaded up on vitamin C before the trip.  I’m just tired.”

They reached the flight attendant, and the conversation died.  As he was looking at Beverly’s boarding pass, she heard some yelling down the foyer, maybe 10 Gates away.  The flight attendant glanced past her shoulder, a puzzled look on his face.  The sound of commotion increased, and Beverly turned to look.  She couldn’t see anything at this angle, and she wasn’t willing to step out of line to see better.  The attendant motioned her to go on, and she smiled faintly at him as she walked past.  Just as she entered the jetwalk, she heard what sounded like a scream, and a loud report like a firecracker.

A gunshot?

No way.  Beverly shook her head.  Guns aren’t allowed in airports.

20 minutes later they were in the air, and Beverly was fast asleep.

***

She woke again as they were making the final approach into Dulles, then dozed until they pulled up to the gate.  Lack of sleep and disruptions to all the normal biological cycles made her feel groggy even after she gathered her purse (no carry-on, for the win!) and staggered off the plane and up the walkway.

Her luggage would be arriving at the very last turnstile.  Before walking down there, she stopped off in the Ladies Restroom.  She sat in the stall, staring at nothing, trying to will herself fully awake.

She heard someone stagger in, then stumble over and push at her door.

“Taken!  Try the next one.”

More pushing at the door.  The groans sounded a little urgent.

“Hey!  Taken!”

Whoever it was seemed to take the message, and stumbled into the stall next to hers.  She could see the woman’s feet, rather large in tennis shoes, in the 12-inch gap.  She saw a hand reach through and paw in her direction.

“Out of toilet paper?  Okay, hold on a second.”  Beverly unwound a big wad, reached down and held it out.  The other person knocked it from her hand.  Fine, I don’t care, Beverly thought.  Some people just have no gratitude.

She closed her eyes and put her head in her hands, took several deep breaths.  She pulled out her cellphone and held the button until it began to turn on.  She stood up and had just gotten the door open when she felt her foot grabbed.  She looked down in time to see a man’s head stuck through the gap between the floor and the stall divider, and saw him sink his teeth into her ankle.

blinding pain–

“SON OF A BITCH!” Beverly yelled, and dropped her phone as she yanked her foot free.  She aimed a kick directly at the side of his face, heard his head bounce off the base of the toilet.  She opened the door and ran out with her purse.  She heard the man struggling to get out of the stall behind her.

Out of the restroom, she picked out a security guard a few dozen yards away.  She ran up to him.

“A man just assaulted me in the ladies restroom!”  She pointed back the way she had come.  She had to repeat it again before he understood.  He looked grim and began to walk in that direction, lifting his radio to his mouth as he went.

Beverly hesitated a moment.  She didn’t really want to wait around and see the guy.  Just thinking of him gave her the creeps.  There was something funny about his eyes.

She also didn’t want to wait around to repeat her story a dozen times to the police.  She knew that she should do her part to get a jerk like that off the streets…but she was exhausted, and just wanted to go home.  At least she could pick up her luggage first.  That would also give her more distance from the bathroom.

She walked another couple hundred yards to the luggage turnstile, which was already turning with a few pieces forlornly waiting for owners.  Hers was already there, too.  She grabbed her suitcase, then heard a scream and turned to look back at the bathroom entrance.

A struggle was ensuing between two security guards and the guy.  It looked like one of the security guards was down with the guy on top of him, and the second security guard trying to pull him off.  As she watched, the second guard pulled the assailant off of his buddy.  The guard on the floor wasn’t moving at all.  The creep turned in the second guard’s grasp.  It was hard to tell from the distance, but it looked like the guy was winning!

Beverly felt a bolt of terror in her heart.  She turned and hurried toward the exit.  She looked back as she reached the door, saw the guard fall to the ground and saw the man stagger in her direction.  She pushed out the doors as fast as she could, scrambled out onto the sidewalk.

She looked for the economy parking lot bus stop.  There!  And her lot color was already there.  As she ran toward it, dragging her suitcase, it started to pull away.

Then the driver must have seen her, because it stopped and the doors opened.  She clambered on board, yelled, “Go!” and collapsed into a chair.  She looked back at the baggage claim door but didn’t see her assailant emerge.

Her ankle throbbed.  She pulled her foot up to the seat, looked her ankle over.  She winced as she pressed and explored the bite area.  Was the skin broken?  No blood, at least.  That seemed impossible with as bad as the bite hurt, but maybe her jeans got in the way?  The way it hurt, she was going to have one hell of a bruise.

When the bus reached her stop, Beverly raced to her car, jumped in, and locked all the doors. She sat, shivering with reaction, for about 15 minutes.  She transitioned directly from panic to exhaustion, however, and woke herself when her head lolled forward.
She shook her head to clear it, glanced at her watch, and estimated she had lost only about 20 minutes dozing.
“Better I get back home as soon as possible and crawl into bed for some good sleep,” she said out loud, trying to wake herself up.  “I just hope I don’t nod off on the road home.”
Not many cars were on the road.

At one point, she saw someone walking across the freeway ahead of her.  She slowed slightly, until she saw that he would pass safely across before she reached him.

Within about 40 minutes, she was turning the key of her Eckington neighborhood townhome.  Three levels, 4 bedrooms, all hers.  Well, after another 27 or so years of mortgage payments, as she liked to say to friends.

She stripped her clothes and showered as rapidly as she could.  She checked out her ankle, rubbed some soap on it, but no sting of an open would.  Sure enough, though, it was already turning purple. The sky was just beginning to lighten as she stumbled into her bedroom and slipped into bed.  And then out of bed again to close the heavier curtains, to make sure sunlight drifting in between the slats of the blinds after daybreak didn’t wake her.

She set the alarm for a little over 6 hours later, pulled the covers up to her chin, and waited to fall asleep immediately.

35 minutes later (as confirmed by the bedside clock), she was still waiting.  She started the self-hypnosis technique she had learned back in college, and before the second set (backwards from fifty), felt that curious falling sensation that accompanied entering sleep when completely exhausted.

***

The secret formula of Kells

Some months ago I watched the Secret of Kells (2009) on Netflix and meant to share some thoughts about it. Actually I was hoping to pester Kaiju into making one of his rare appearances to talk about it (he being more qualified to opine on religious symbolism and whatnot than I), but alas.

Animated by Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, the Secret of Kells is a Christian fantasy story crafted around the abbey at Kells, in Ireland, during the 9th century. Although I wasn’t initially impressed by stills I had seen of the movie, it’s actually quite beautifully animated in a style that reminded me of Samurai Jack.

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Kells incorporates many of the themes and elements that I and others have waxed about of late, regarding the shift in fantasy storytelling. The film weaves Christian history, dogma, and myth together with pagan Celtic legend in a thoughtful and effective manner. I won’t go into detailed analysis of the plot right now, but suffice it to say the setting – a secluded abbey surrounded by mysterious, magical woods, during the fearful age of the viking raids into England, is the perfect backdrop for the exciting, moving tale told here.

A young boy being raised by his uncle, the abbot of Kells, finds himself drawn to literary illumination and the legendary Book of Kells. Meanwhile the abbot is consumed with a burning drive to erect a great wall around the monastery to protect the monks and refugees from death at the hands of the invaders from across the sea.

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Aside from some breathtaking art and music, one of the things that impressed me most about Kells was the amount of research and thought that must have gone into the story and that was so skillfully incorporated without feeling forced.

For instance, the story involves a certain artifact belonging to St. Columba, the founder of Kells and at least in the film the originator of the Book. So far as I can tell, there wasn’t actually a myth about such an artifact, but Columba was the subject of other legend. St. Columba is credited with having spread Christianity to Scotland, and was said to have banished a great water monster to the depths of River Ness.

The abbey at Kells and its namesake book are real, the later currently residing in Dublin, and at some points the film shows us some animated versions of actual illuminations from the tome.

The observant watcher will also note the name of the dark Celtic god Crom, which was likely the inspiration for Robert E Howard’s Conan deity. There’s also some interesting imagery to be observed, including that of the ouroboros.

Perhaps my favorite “Easter Egg” or whatever you might call it, is a feline character belonging to one of the monks. The cat is named Pangur Ban, and was inspired by an actual 9th century poem written by a monk about his pet cat.

There’s an excellent song at one point in the film, where the character Aisling uses magic to enlist the help of the small animal. The Gealic lyrics of her singing invoke James 4:14. One theme of the story seems to be the giving way of the pagan powers to the Christian God, as perhaps reflected in Aisling’s song.

The Secret of Kells is a wonderful movie, though I wouldn’t show it to young children due to some emotionally intense scenes. It’s uplifting to observe that though many mainstream entertainment media shy away from Christian SFF storytelling these days, there are smaller outlets that do not, and they’re capable of some fantastic work.

-Bushi

bushi

Three Thoughts on Three Hearts and Three Lions

I finished up my second Anderson novel over the weekend. While I don’t think I’d rank Three Hearts and Three Lions among my favorite fantasy stories, I continue to be astounded at the state of the genre in relation to these older writings. Maybe it’s mostly due to the constant flow of new works and the pace of writers like R.A. Salvatore and Kevin J. Anderson, who seem to be putting out a new book every few months. But reading Poul Anderson and his seminal tales like Three Hearts leaves little doubt as to the towering influence he’s had not only on fantasy literature, but throughout the many spheres of nerdom. Why are we not seeing republications of this guy?

I’ve got three major thoughts I’d like to explore here. *Minor spoilers follow.*

 

1. Origin of the species

Jeffro wrote a great analysis of Three Hearts a couple years ago and the part it played in inspiring, in particular, the Paladin class, the concept of the troll, and the alignment system in D&D.

I’ve written before about the paladins and their origins, and I was pleased to see that Anderson drew upon the Matter of France in his own development of the Holger character. I feel like the Carolingian legends have never enjoyed the same degree of popularity as the Matters of Britain and Rome (the Arthurian and Ancient Greek and Roman myths, respectively), and yet there is so much to draw from the tales of Charlemagne and his knights. I must admit I was surprised to learn that “Cortana” is the name of another powerful sword forged by the legendary blacksmith Wayland (who is sometimes credited with having forged Durandal and even Excalibur). And here I had never given any thought to from whence Microsoft may have taken the name.

As for the Paladin, Jeffro notes:

Of course, a number of people are going to be reading and recommending this book because it is the literary antecedent of the paladin class from the first edition AD&D Player Handbook. Certainly, the laying on of hands, the warhorse, and the “Holy Sword” are all here.

There are a number of other fantasy traditions established or reinforced by Anderson here, but I’d like to focus for a moment on the concept of “Law vs Chaos.” Although those familiar with his works may credit Moorcock and his Eternal Champion saga for the trope, Anderson’s employment of it predates that of Moorcock. And indeed, in Elric of Melnibone‘s acknowledgement Moorcock gave a shout-out to Anderson as one of his inspirations.

Law vs Chaos has been done in different ways; sometimes it’s just a slightly more ambiguous label for Good vs Evil. Sometimes there is more nuance. But especially in the gaming scene, it’s certainly become a popular system for fleshing out alignments or dividing factions.

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The fact that Anderson and Three Hearts put so much of this subsequently widely-adopted material out there may actually be its biggest weakness in the eyes of modern readers. I’m by no means saying that the story is a let-down or unworthy of a read, but some people may perhaps be bored by what they see as yet another serving up of common fantasy tropes.

 

2. Talking the talk; walking the walk

As Rawle Nyanzi recently observed in his own first reading of Three Hearts:

Anderson also shows that he knows the old folktales on a very deep level, interweaving them into crucial plot points throughout the entire novel — it made the tale feel deep and full. It was nothing at all like the fantasy stuff I was used to, where a legendary figure’s name would be used without capturing any of that character’s substance. It did not treat European folklore as a grab-bag of powers and names to use simply because they sounded cool; I could tell that this story came from the pen of someone who truly loved these tales.

That rang true as I read through the story, as well. Although I wouldn’t describe the plot as seamless (certain parts of the story did feel a bit jerky or disjointed to me), I thought Anderson did a masterful job incorporating elements of older fantasy and fairytale, Christian mythology, and real history to color this rich yarn. I especially enjoyed the attention he put into characterizing his fey folk, and the tradition he drew upon in the process. Elf Hill, for example, was probably a Fairy Mound of the Celtic sort.

He was also up on the works of his contemporaries – in a nod to Tolkien, Anderson included mentions of wargs and Mirkwood. I also noted that there was a minor character in the book named Frodoart, and wondered whether Tolkien may have liked the name poached a part of it for LoTR (Three Hearts predated Lord of the Rings). Or maybe it was pure coincidence.

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I also credit Anderson with putting a lot of work into his characters’ dialogue. Like in the High Crusade, the people in Three Hearts speak in a way reminiscent of older times. Hugi the dwarf and Alianora the swan-may speak with Scottish accents (dwarf trope, anyone?), Holger the Dane at times uses flawed “ESL” English, and the denizens of the fantasy setting all make use of older, more archaic language. This adds a little bit to the effort required in following dialogue, but not so much as to require intensive labor on the part of the reader. I imagine Anderson must have studied quite a bit to pick up the right words and phrases for this kind of endeavor.

 

3. The old ways

We’ve already talked about Fantasy’s shift away from Christianity, and greater critics than I have analyzed the trend. In light of that movement, there’s something satisfying and almost fresh (old is new again) about fey folk who cannot stand the touch of iron and who are vulnerable to the cross and the invocation of the Lord’s name. Rather than brute force, the Middle Worlders must rely on cunning and guile. At one point the Three Hearts protagonist reflects that given their weaknesses, the fey can really only harm or ensnare those who wish to be taken. Given how many times they get the drop on him, though, I’d probably amend that theory to venture that a properly prepared Christian Man in his proper frame of mind can withstand the eldritch powers of the Middle World.

Incidentally, I noted that Anderson’s tale equated Pan with the Devil. One of the characters exposits upon the original fall of Chaos to Jesus Christ and mentions the death of Pan. Rather than a mostly harmless imp, the hircine pagan god is depicted as a much more sinister being. I only raise this point because I know it has been another topic of discussion within critical circles.

Further reading:

In addition to checking out Jeffro and Rawle’s (linked above) takes on Three Hearts and Three Lions, there’s also a worthwhile post-read analysis over at Tor.com.

 

Next:

I’ve now gotten to work on the first of Zelazny’s Amber books, and having already enjoyed one of his (mostly) fantasy tales, I’ll also be sampling one of Dickson’s scifi stories. I really should jot down some thoughts on the Dragon and the George before memory fades and a revisitation becomes necessary. We’ll see!

-Bushi

bushi