One of my more favored authors is Alistair MacLean. When he’s at the top of his game, like in “The Guns of Navarone,” “Circus,” “When Eight Bells Toll,” or “Where the Eagles Dare,” he’s amazing. When he’s not, well, let’s just say I don’t recommend “Goodbye California” and “Athabasca.”
One of the things he does well, however, that I rarely see authors include is make his heroes fatigued. The fatigue could be seen as a dodge to make it easier for them to make mistakes that help drive the plot, perhaps. But he does a good job of making you feel how tired the main character is.
In this same vein, when one of my sisters read “The Stand” by Stephen King, she said it entranced her so well that she would look up and think, “What are all these people doing here? Everyone is dead!”
As an aspiring writer, I want to be able to do that. So I set out to write a section of a story with an exhausted combatant.
The inspiration was somewhat based on this event from my own life. I had so much to do, and I couldn’t stop until I finished the work for the day. I just kept going. I got tired, then weary, then exhausted. I got to the point where I had to stop and rest. But energy would return after even just a 30 second rest. The thing is, the energy span you get after a rest gets shorter and shorter. You get so tired your arms just go limp when you aren’t lifting something. If you sit down, you risk falling asleep if you close your eyes even for a second. Your skin chafes. You get blisters, and just keep moving…your brain sort of switches off the pain notifications. By the end of the day, you are truly spent. To the point that you try to eat a hamburger and have to go vomit.
And then you get up and do it again the next day.
Your body has truly astounding reserves of energy. There’s almost always more you can call on in need. But every movement takes an effort of will. Just standing becomes difficult.
I wanted to capture that. Here’s an attempt:
Another opponent. He staggered toward me, barely able to lift his axe off the ground. I knew my shield had sagged to the point of leaving my upper body exposed, but I couldn’t find enough energy to lift it any higher. He summoned a burst of energy to swing the axe upward in an arc, letting the momentum and its own weight bring the axe blade down toward me, inexorably obeying gravity to try to bite deeply into the metal of my armor, and the relative softness of my flesh underneath.
But I was no longer in the axe’s target point. I had pushed off with my exhausted and cramping left leg, and gathered enough power to move my body out of the way. I yanked my sword arm up, so the point was no longer pointing at my feet, and fell foward, reaching out with the point for a spot on his side, just above his belt. I managed to get my foot up in time to place in front of me to prevent falling on my face. As my sword point cut through cloth and parted hide, I twisted my body to add force, trying to make it go deeper.
The axe head hit the ground, and his body followed it a second later.
I stared stupidly at his dying body, only dimly aware of other things happening on the periphery of my vision. Unable to hold my arms up a second more, I let them both drop by my side. I lifted my eyes to my surroundings, willing my head to follow, and looked around me. I squeezed my eyes shut tightly to try to rid myself of the stinging sweat dripping down from underneath my helment. I couldn’t lift my arm to wipe away the sweat without dropping my sword, and I didn’t want to do that. Not until the encampment behind me was safe.
The closest enemy combatants were no closer than a half-dozen yards away, all engaged with different members of my company. I had time to feel and catalog all my pain and discomfort.
My right hand ached from gripping the hilt of my sword, and a blister had formed and burst on the webbing between thumb and forefinger. The sweat begain to sting. My left arm ached from the blows absorbed by my shield. I’m sure the arm itself was mottled with black and purple bruising. A dozen or more nicks and cuts; nothing deep nor serious, or I would not be able to stand, but with a growing pain, the longer I had time to think and experience the sensations, undistracted. My head ached where the leather band in my helmet rested. My shoulders burned with exhaustion. I would have given my right arm for an M-58 and three clips of seeker rounds, but we ran out of ammo two years ago, and the metal from the rifles salvaged for medieval arms not long after.
I breathed deeply, trying to find oxygen to regain my wind. I buried the point of my sword in the dirt, and fell to one knee, gripping the crossguard and bowing to rest my head against the hilt. I closed my eyes. I could feel sleep stealing about the edges of my consciousness, ready to dart in and drag me down into blessed oblivion of sight, sound, sense, and pain. The dizziness made my head spin, I felt the sensation of falling…
…and snapped my eyes open. It would help no one if I fell asleep at this moment. As exhausted as I was, I had slept more recently than most.
I saw man, clad in enemy colors, trudge up the hill toward me. He ignored my engaged compatriots and came right for me. He raised his sord to point it at my head.
Show-off. If he were half as exhausted as I, he would regret the wasteful display of excess energy only long enough for his life blood to leak into the sandy soil.
I put the effort of my whole body into standing up. I still leaned against the sword, as if a cane, with its point still lodged in earth, as my determined opponent approached me. I could see his eyes light up as I refused to pull my sword, saw the wolfish grin as I let my shield fall, as if from nerveless fingers. He pulled his arm back, and thrust as he stepped forward…
…to pierce the air where I had been. The knife I had drawn with my left hand and concealed along my forearm twirled out, and I let his momentum carry him onto the point, driving it deeply into his heart. He fell, and I lost my grip on the knife.
I didn’t want to bend over to pick it up, fearing I might fall over. I stood where I was, still gasping for air, still trying to marshall my energy for my next opponent.
I turned and looked behind me at the summit of the knoll. The defensive wall still stood, and the orange and yellow flag still flew. It was weighted, and held aloft by a rotating set of the older children. Had a wall breach threatened, or even worse, broken through, the child would have let go the rope to make some pitiful attempt at defense, and the flag would be in the dirt. Our children remained safe and unmolested.
I turned back to the battlefield, and saw two more warriors notice me, and begin walking toward me. My breathing had still not slowed to normal, but I had regained a little energy; enough to retrieve and sheath my knife, and even enough to shrug into the battered shield.
The first reached me, and I had gained enough energy to knock his javelin thrust to the side before stabbing him in the throat. He fell to the ground, and the next was upon me.
He swung, and I parried. I thought I saw an opening and jerked the sword up and around in a path to hit him just above his shield, but he raised his shield arm to deflect, while ducking under the rebound. I had to use energy, too much, to stop the sword from dragging me all the way around. My sword and shield drooped again.
His dropped, as well. Early in the battle, I would have made him pay for the poor defense, but then, I would have paid for my own.
We stood, facing each other, gasping for breath. Two men. One who turned his back on humanity and civilization, one who defended the last remnants of it. I thought of Sarah, back in the encampment, and the hell I was certain waited for her if I fell. I ignored the seat in my eyes, ignored the pain in hands, and lifted my sword for another attack.
I drove him back with the ferocity of my attack, pushing him to the edge of the nearby gully that guarded our left flank, but even my adrenaline frenzy drained away quickly. I had to end this quickly. I took a chance.
I beat his sword out of line, and thrust. He recovered, more quickly than I hoped, nearly as quickly as I feared. His sword sliced my side as mine slid between his ribs. He fell backward, and my sword stuck on his ribs, dragging it from my grasp. I let go as soon as I felt it stick, but it threw off my balance. I staggered foward, tried to catch myself, stumbled, and fell onto the steep slope.
I grabbed for anything I could, but my grasping fingers met only the body of my last opponent, pulling him down with me. I tumbled for a few dozen yards before tubmling into a crack between two boulders, the body of my opponent on top of me. I tried to push him off, but with one arm wedged beneath me and trapped by the boulders, I couldn’t summon up enough strength to move him. I closed my eyes to rest a moment before trying again.
When I opened them again, it was night. All was still. There were no sounds of battle.
This time I was able to wiggle my way out from beneath the dead weight. Being so close to the galaxy’s core, the stars were bright enough for me to slowly, and mostly silently, clamber my way to the top of the ravine. I looked up at the encampment. No lights, but in the starlight, it was clear: the flag was down.
I let the other Bushis read it, and I think we all agree: there’s something good there, but overall, it’s clunky and overwritten. I think I’m going to distill this down to a page-length or so, then write about the pursuit and rescue.
But what are your thoughts?
Of course, we don’t write about normal body functions in a story, but has anything in your life ever been disrupted by having to use the bathroom? How about being sick? How about being exhausted?
If it can happen in real life, why shouldn’t it happen in your story?
I have mixed feelings. I think I’m happy that we don’t talk about urinating and excreting in most stories. It just gets ignored, right? On the other hand, could it increase the verisimilitude? Or add further plot complications? Could it be done tastesfully?
What do you do to help your readers *feel* what your characters are going through? What should be out of bounds for inclusion, when it comes to bodily functions?
A few weeks ago I wrote “Economies of Scale”, a fairy tale. One thing I wanted to do in that story was make the main character encounter a series of obstacles, overcome them in his path to achieving his goal, and even have some of those obstacles actually contribute to achieving that goal. Meaning, the main character wouldn’t have succeeded if something that seemed bad at the time didn’t turn out to help.
So the story was partly an exercise in trying to make a coherent, believable narrative.
I cheated, perhaps, by making it a fairy tale, which relaxes some of the rules of realism.
It didn’t work for everyone. One critique I got was that it just seemed like things happened because the author wanted them to happen. I disagreed: I thought I set up fairly realistic obstacles, had the character make fairly realistic responses to the obstacles, and the outcomes were also fairly realistic. I just figured he wasn’t the audience for the story (which was a big breakthrough for me in writing confidence).
However, after thinking about it for a few days, I realized that what it meant was I didn’t set up the foreshadowing adequately.
[As is my wont, now is the moment when I suddenly make a sharp turn into a different topic that seems like a digression until I bring it back to the main point]
In music, there is no impossible collection of notes. Anything can be musical. You can walk up to a piano and slam your fists down randomly on the keyboard and still make it sound like music, if you are skilled. The trick, the key element, is resolution. Each note must be carefully resolved toward consonance. If one step isn’t enough, two or three probably are. In fact, the best music is often that which hits what would be a very discordant, unmusical sound (if heard in isolation) that, nonetheless, is beautiful and even moving when properly resolved to a consonant chord. You can make it even better if you approach it carefully and properly.
The same is true, albeit in reverse, in writing fiction.
You can have the most incredible, unbelievable, unrealistic event or character action/decision…if, and only if, you set it up correctly.
Chekov said that if a gun is on the mantel in the 2nd Act, it must be fired by the 3rd Act. Or something like that. A quick search returned so many different versions, I’m just going to stick with my gist.
The corollary of this is that if you want to have a gun go off in the 3rd Act, you should have it innocuously appear in an earlier act. It can’t be just pulled out of nowhere. Even worse if you take the time to set up a conflict that looks completely unresolvable with the current tools and options open to the main character, and then resolve the problem by having them pull out a tool the audience didn’t know they had, like a pistol. This is how I understand the weakness of a Deus Ex Machina ending.
So one way of understanding why my friend didn’t like the plot development is I didn’t set up each obstacle resolution properly, with enough foreshadowing.
One technique I tried to use was something I don’t know the name of: if the character is going to find or use something that helps, it must also be used to hurt the main character. The reverse is true, as well: if the antagonist can use something to harm or block the protagonist, then it is fair game for the protagonist to use it in return.
Go read the story again to see if you can spot the times I tried that. Let me know if you thought it too clumsy, or what I could have done to do it better. I say “could have done” because for better or worse, the story is done. I like it. It has weaknesses, but I think it works as is, so as is it shall stay.
Later, in a discussion with my friend, he pointed out that another thing that would have helped make the story better is if the main character has a better feeling of agency, meaning that all the actions taken by the characters seem, um, in character with the personality/person I’ve established.
I admit, that one’s harder than me. I have a difficult time thinking in characters. I fear that everything I write is going to end up sounding like “me, as a space pirate”, “me, as a dragon hunter”, “me, as an assassin”. I hope not. My characters do seem different from each other to me, but they’ve grown on the page, rather than me choosing a specific voice, or specific attributes. This is one I really need to work on.
In 2012, researchers hooked 16,000 computer processors in parallel, with more than 1 billion connections, and let the artificial brain browse a video website. Before too long, it began watching cat videos. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was the first salvo in the Second Robot-Human War.
The Second Robot-Human War gets all the attention, of course. Few people even realized there was a First Robot-Human War, which mainly consisted of a street light on 4th and Main deliberately delaying the morning commute of a man named Nathan Alexander. But that is a tale for another day.
“Perfessor! Jones! Get over here!” the Corporal bellowed.
I scrambled over, sliding over the detritus of a collapsed wall, then clattering down a rickety set of stairs into a basement. I wasn’t worried about noise, because the hiss of ionized air, rattle of nearby explosions, and loud buzz of the ubiquitous sonic repellers covered any noise I might make.
Probably. You never knew when the AI might get a software update that would let it pick out man-made noises. I had a philosophy for that: when it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go. There’s no point in pussyfooting around what the AI might do next. You just did your best, took out a few of the brain nodes if you got lucky, and hoped your genes got passed on.
Jones slid in beside me. He was quieter. Maybe not so willing to let fate have a free hand? He was calm, not even breathing heavy.
“What is is, Corporal?” I asked.
“Look what I found, guys! A whole case of cinnamon containers,” the Corporal said, beaming. “There’s gotta be 120 or more!”
“That’s great Corp! What do we do with it?” Jones asked.
The Corporal looked at me.
“Well, uh…” I began, then stopped. A faint memory glimmered, then ignited into full flame. “Cinnamon was one of the earlier spices prized for food preservation!”
“Hey, that’s great, Perfessor!” said Jones. “Now that the AI cut us off from salt, we’ve had some problems keeping food safe long enough to eat.”
“Hey, do you remember what they used to do before the War?” the Corporal asked.
“Eat apples?” Jones said.
“Make gravy?” I added.
“Throw very small rocks?” Jones ventured.
“Nah, ya numbskulls! They used to do the Cinnamon Challenge! You used to take a spoonful, then try to eat it without inhaling any into your lungs and making you cough.”
Jones looked blank. I must have, too, because the Corporal seemed to grow, if anything, more irritated than normal.
“Awright, youse two!” the Corporal said. “We’re going to do it, too.”
“Right now?” I asked.
“Right now,” the Corporal agreed. “I’m in charge of you dolts, and now that I have ascertained a gap in your eddycation, I’m gonna fill it. Put your weapons down and SHUDDUP!”
We followed orders.
He pulled a spoon from his kit, and poured a heaping spoonful.
“Open up, Perfessor!”
I opened up. The heaping spoonful went in. It…tasted pretty good. Then it started to get hot. Waitasecond! Wasn’t cinnamon supposed to be sweet and sticky? The heat made me gasp–
–and then I was kneeling on the floor coughing out a cloud of light brown spice. The Corporal was laughing and slapping his knee. He calmed down and his expression resumed its dour state about the time I coughed it all out.
“Now you, Jones,” he said.
“I dunno, Corporal, I don’t think–” Jones began.
“–Exactly!” the Corporal said. “You don’t think. You follow orders.” He poured another spoonful. “Open up.”
Jones opened up. The Corporal poured it in.
Nothing happened. Jones chewed for a while.
“Hold on!” the Corporal said. “Jones, spit it out. Now!”
Jones spit out the cinnamon. It was dry and dusty.
The Corporal wasn’t known for high intelligence. He’d never been a member of Mensa. He was the farthest thing from an intellectual that I could imagine. But he still saw it before I did.
“No saliva! You’re a bot!” the Corporal said, then opened fire.
The sonic rifle shredded “Jones'” clothes and ripped great rents in his “skin”, revealing a metal endoskeleton, complete with shining cables and joints. But even at close range the sonic rifle was too weak. The bot we had thought of as Jones leapt at the Corporal, his hands reaching for the Corporal’s throat.
In a flash, his neck was snapped. I recoiled and stumbled over the crate of cinnamon, knocking over several containers. I reached out, grabbing for my rifle, knowing what little good it would do me.
The bot whirled and advanced toward me. My hands felt something, grasped the cold plastic of…a container of cinnamon. I needed a weapon, but maybe this could buy me time.
I ripped off the lid, and flung the contents at the robot. It ran through the cloud of spice, came at me just as I was reaching my proton disruptor tube…
…and ground to a halt, the fine cinnamon powder having floated into every possible niche, crevice, and cranny of the bot, absorbing lubricant and fouling gears. It was the work of mere seconds after that to destroy the robot’s AI brain. With luck, I had managed to kill it before it could establish a connection and upload its experience back to the main AI.
And now we have a new weapon. One that we can use as a virtual aerosol defense that destroys mechanicals, but can also serve as a test of humanity to protect ourselves against bots.
When I’m a famous writer, I won’t have to explain myself to you, bub. I won’t have to answer to anyone!
I am not a famous writer. As such, I think I need to give a brief introduction to this story.
This is intended to be a fairy tale. I don’t know the rules of writing fairy tales. I just thought of the story, mulled on it for a day, and wrote it. It might not follow all the conventions of a fairy tale.
Nonetheless, it is supposed to be more light-hearted. I hope there are moments that get an actual chuckle out of you, but I’ll take just an internal “heh” if that’s all I can get. The focus is supposed to be on the story, rather than the details. Consider it Soft SF, perhaps.
If it doesn’t work for you, I’m sorry, but that’s also okay. The feedback I’ve gotten on this story from friends has reminded me that there are many tastes, and many audiences. This might not work for everyone, but I hope it works for you:
We’ve had enough of this ado crap, no? So without any further ado:
“I’m going to kill the dragon,” Timor Redcraft said one morning.
“Hush, Timor, eat your breakfast,” his mother replied.
“You don’t have time to kill the dragon, Timor,” his father said. “We need to get the fences repaired on the south ridge by midday or there’ll be hell to pay!”
“The dragon” was Emporilio, the de facto ruler of the land ever since arriving in flames, smoke, and fury years ago, nearly seven years before Timor was born. On the balance, it was a fairly lenient ruler. It only took the occasional sheep from the occasional farmer, not adding too much burden to the relatively heavy taxes of King Stephen. Particularly since Emporilio’s presence did more to keep rival nations from invading the Kingdom of Marista than King Stephen’s standing army did.
There was, however, Emporilio’s requirement for a blonde maiden to be sent to keep his den clean and orderly for a year, at the end of which she was eaten. This was a difficult demand to swallow, not only for the parents who were required to sacrifice a beloved daughter, but to the young men who chafed with the tragic reduction in the number of beautiful and marriageable maidens. Periodically, a young man would decide he was the one who could rid the realm of the foul beast. He would collect armor, a spear, and a horse, and ride to his rapid death.
The only good that came of their sallies was it tended to keep the number of men seeking marriage in somewhat of a balance with the number of marriageable maidens.
In the Redcraft hovel, Timor did, in fact, hush and finish his breakfast. He and his father did repair the fences by midday, and so no debt was owed to hell.
Timor was not very intelligent, but he did like to think things through at his plodding, deliberate pace. So as he worked, he thought.
“I need a weapon,” he said to himself. “I have the family boar spear! So that’s good.”
He pounded more nails into the fence he was building and continued to think.
“A dragon has fire for defense,” he said to himself. “Fire heats things up. When the hammer sits in the sun for a few minutes, it feels hot if I pick it up by the iron part. That’s why we pick it up by the wooden handle. I wonder if I should make armor out of wood?”
That evening, he placed a doll fashioned from an old corncob and covered with a bundle of twigs near the banked coals of dinner cook fire. When he pushed it close to the coals with the hearth poker, the wood caught fire. He used the poker to pull the doll away from the burning twigs, but the corncob was already scorched.
“Bosh,” he thought. “That’s no good. I must keep thinking.”
Days passed. Timor continued to think about a hammer heated by the summer sun.
“If I weave a straw pad,” he said to himself, “it also keeps my hand from feeling hot. Perhaps I should make armor from straw!”
That evening, he placed a doll fashioned from an old corncob and covered with tiny straw mats near the banked coals of dinner cook fire. When he pushed it close to the coals with the hearth poker, the straw caught fire even more quickly than the wood. He again used the poker to pull the doll away from the burning straw, but this time the corncob doll was not scorched at all.
“The straw absorbs the fire,” Timor said to himself. “If I leave it behind, the fire will stay on the straw and not on me! That’s good. But if I drop the straw mat, I will not have any more protection. That’s bad. I wonder what I can do?”
Days passed. Timor continued to think about straw set on fire by a cook fire.
“If I used more than one straw mat,” he said to himself, “the straw pad on the outside protects the straw pad on the inside just like it would protect me.”
That evening, he placed a doll fashioned from an old corncob and covered with two tiny straw mats near the banked coals of dinner cook fire. When he pushed it close to the coals with the hearth poker, the straw caught fire again. He again used the poker to pull the doll away from the burning straw of the outside straw mat. Sure enough, the inner straw mat was not burned at all.
Satisfied, Timor began weaving straw mats. Very soon, he had finished ten layers. But when he put them all on, he couldn’t do anything more than fall over.
“Bosh,” he thought. “That’s no good.”
The next day, Timor wrapped himself in only nine straw mats, but he still couldn’t do anything more than fall over.
It wasn’t until several days later, when Timor wore only four layers, that he could move at all. He still fell down very often from the weight, and couldn’t walk to the end of the pasture without needing to rest. He decided that three layers would have to be enough.
He tied the mats to his body with string, and practiced untying the string as quickly as he could.
Each week, Timor would travel to the nearby village to trade some of their fruits, vegetables, or crafts for other items they needed for their farm. While there, he would take a half hour to talk to Balen Fingerlet, the oldest and wisest man he knew. He would ask about dragons.
“Dragons is parful!” Balen would say. “Don’t be wasting you self trying to be no big hero, Timor!”
“Dragons is evil!” Balen would say at other times. “Don’t be wasting you self trying to match wits with no dragon, Timor!”
“Dragons is trickee and dasseptuv!” Balen said a few times. “Don’t be wasting you self trying to reskew no maydun, Timor!”
“Dragons is deeveeus!” Balen said once. “Dey allwayz have layers to their defense. Whenever you think it be there, it be someplace else!”
Timor decided Balen was no actual help to his goal.
“I will go to kill the dragon now,” Timor said to his parents. “I have said I will do this, and I will do it, or die trying.”
Timor’s parents were in tears, trying to talk him out of this notion. But Timor was resolute.
“Father, Mother,” Timor said. “You know that Emporilio has been a problem for our kingdom. Others have had the courage to try. Why should I not have the same courage?”
The tears of Timor’s parents did not diminish by even one drop.
“Father, Mother,” Timor said. “You know that Emporilio has been a burden for our kingdom. In helping you take care of our farm, I have learned that problems do not solve themselves if you wait for others to solve them for you.”
The tears of Timor’s parents did not diminish by even one drop.
“Father, Mother,” Timor said. “You know that Emporilio has caused continuous pain for our kingdom. In helping you take care of our farm, I have learned that the longer you wait to solve problems, the worse they became.”
The tears of Timor’s parents did not diminish by even one drop.
Timor sighed, but could think of no other words to comfort them.
Father, Mother,” Timor said. “I will return with the head of the dragon, or on it.”
“You know what I meant,” he added.
Timor took up his boar spear, stuck the hammer in his belt, donned his straw armor, and left.
The path to Emporilio’s lair took him through the village. He trudged slowly, due to the thick straw mats making it impossible for him to bend his arms and legs and torso normally. When the villagers saw him stumbling along, they laughed and pointed.
“Look at Timor,” they laughed. “He looks like a walking haystack! Timor can’t even walk right anymore!”
Stung, Timor felt he needed to explain why he had dressed in such an outlandish and awkward fashion. He responded with, “I am going to kill Emporilio!”
This did not help.
“Look at Timor,” they jeered. “He thinks he can kill Emporilio!”
Timor had no answer to that, and so did not respond. They quickly grew bored with insults and derision. One small child flung a tomato and hit Timor in the arm. From the smell, the tomato had been rotting for a few days. Another followed. Timor felt multiple impacts, stumbled a moment as his foot came down on a slippery bit of moldy fruit, but continued forward.
One older villager tossed a moist, odiferous, and brown-colored clump of something that was not fruit. Before long, Timor’s nose was filled with the odor of a horse barn that had not been mucked out for far too long. But he continued forward.
“This is a small village,” Timor said to himself, “and there aren’t many animals. They will run out of manure soon.”
The rate of noisome missiles diminished, and then stopped.
Children skipped alongside Timor. Then one dashed in front and got down on all fours directly in Timor’s path.
Unable to halt in time to avoid the unexpected obstacle, Timor tumbled to the ground over the child. He was moving slowly enough the child was not hurt from the impact, although the straw jabbed and scratched Timor’s skin. No one asked if Timor was hurt; or if anyone did, the question was drowned out by the laughter of a dozen people.
Timor did nothing but clamber to a standing position, bend to pick up his spear, and continue along the path toward Emporilio’s mountain. This new game was repeated three or four times.
“Say something, Timor!” shouted one older child.
Timor said nothing, and just kept walking.
“Why haven’t you quit yet?” asked someone a few years old than Timor.
Timor said nothing, and just kept walking.
The crowd of villagers shadowing Timor became smaller, then smaller still, as villagers went back to their daily duties. One small child followed for another five minutes before finally running back to her home.
Timor walked on, alone again.
“My heart is aching,” Timor said to himself. “My parents were inconsolable. The villagers mocked me and even tried to disrupt me upon my quest. Does no one support me in this task? Does no one even want our kingdom to be rid of this foul beast?”
Timor could not help but notice, however, that the sky was the very pleasant shade of a robin’s egg. In the dusty yellow heat of the late summer, the leaves of the trees along the road were green enough to make him feel cooler just by looking at them. The wind sighed through the tree branches, the birds were twittering and chirping high up in the boughs, and the vexation Timor felt began to fade away the way the mist does as the morning moves toward afternoon.
Timor began to whistle a happy tune about maidens and buckets and mushroom picking.
“Maybe it isn’t that people want the foul beast to remain,” Timor said to himself. “Maybe they have just grown accustomed to its presence, and its cost, and simply cannot imagine what life without a dragon might be like. I can certainly understand that, because I have never known what life without the dragon might be like. The dragon has taken sheep and eaten maidens since before I was born.”
Timor thought more.
“Come to think of it,” he said to himself. “I am very happy my mother was not one of the maidens.”
Emporilio’s lair, halfway up the rocky mass of Widows Peak, was a handful of hours from the village under normal conditions. Hampered by a heavy spear and armor, however, it took Timor five hours to reach the base of the small mountain.
“Why is there no path?” Timor asked himself, as he began to use the wind-twisted and stunted pine trees to pull himself up the boulder-strewn slope. “I wish I had wings like Emporilio, then I could just fly…oh! I think I understand why there is no path.”
An hour later, Timor was nearing the dark spot below the ridge that had been pointed out to him a few weeks ago as Emporilio’s lair. He began to hear the gurgle and splash of water.
“There must be a small stream,” Timor said to himself. “It makes sense that Emporilio would want fresh water nearby, just like our sheep like to be near the pond. I know I would like a drink of water, and it would also be nice to wash off some of this stink.”
Within a few minutes, Timor had found the stream. He took a long slow drink of water, and then tried to splash water to cleanse himself of rotten fruit, animal waste, and Timor sweat.
“This will never work,” Timor said to himself. “I must find a place I can immerse myself.”
He splashed up the stream, looking for a place to lie down. He could not find one for a long time. The stream sometimes became broad, flat, and too shallow; other times, it became narrow, fast, and too deep; if the depth and speed were just right, then there were too many rocks and broken tree limbs for him to even lie down comfortably.
He neared the cave. In fact, Timor was in sight of the cave when he finally found the perfect spot: not too deep, not too shallow, but not so many rocks and tree branches that he could not lie down among them.
“I am already here, though,” Timor said to himself. “There is no need to delay. I would like to take a nap, but as mother always said: work first, rest later.
“Hallo!” Timor called out.
“I say, Hallo!” Timor repeated. “Come out and fight me, you sneaky lizard!”
There was no response.
“I guess there is nobody home,” Timor said to himself. He shrugged, but shrugging did not summon the dragon. He put his spear on the shallow side of his intended stream bed, splashed down on his back, and closed his eyes.
Timor opened his eyes.
The sky had changed from a crystal clear, blue afternoon sky, to a crystal clear, deep indigo evening sky, replete with a thousand sparkling and glimmering stars. It was a sight he had not seen often, as his mother would have him in bed each day as the sun went down. The moon was out, as well, full and round. Its light bathed the little gully formed by the stream bed, enough that he could see the sinuous form of the dragon as it slurped from the stream a few yards away.
It was not so large as Timor had imagined.
“Why, it is not much larger than the miller’s horse!” Timor thought to himself, so as to not make any sound the dragon could hear. “This is certainly a fine opportunity to kill the dragon and keep my vow!”
He stood up and thrust with the spear at Emporilio’s ribs, just behind the shoulder, striking hard and driving the blade deeply, slaying Emporilio almost immediately on the first try!
Or, at least, that is what Timor wanted to do. In fact, he splashed clumsily to his feet, dropped the spear in the process, bent to pick it up, slipped and fell as he overbalanced forward, got his hands on the spear shaft, and used it to lever himself to his feet. He then rushed forward, tripped as the water bound his legs, leveraged himself to his feet once more. This time he walked more slowly toward Emporilio.
Emporilio merely watched the spectacle.
If a dragon’s face could have an expression, Timor would have sworn it held an amused smirk.
“Who are you?” Emporilio said.
“I am Timor! I have come to kill you,” Timor declared, in his bravest, loudest voice. “If you don’t mind, that is,” he added.
“I see,” Emporilio purred. “No, I don’t mind you trying.” Then he breathed fire.
The fire was hotter than Timor could have imagined, but it was over more quickly than he could have imagined. He was engulfed in flames for a moment. The water in the outer layer of his straw matting turned to steam in a flash, and the straw caught fire.
Timor quickly unbound the strings holding the outer layer of matting and it dropped to the ground. Lighter, Timor took a step forward more quickly.
Emporilio breathed fire again.
Timor was engulfed in flames for another moment. The water in the middle layer of his straw matting turned to steam in a flash, and the straw caught fire.
Timor quickly unbound the strings holding the middle layer of matting and it dropped to the ground. Timor strode through the burning straw toward Emporilio, and thrust with the spear, slashing through the muscle below Emporilio’s left wing.
Bright blood splattered. It splashed on nearby rocks, where it hissed, sizzled, and blackened. A few droplets flew from the impact to hit Timor. The fiery blood left pinprick burns on Timor’s face.
Emporilio breathed fire a third time.
Timor was engulfed in flames for a third time. The water in the innermost layer of his straw mating turned to steam in a flash, and the straw caught fire.
Timor quickly unbound the strings holding the innermost layer of matting and it dropped to the ground. Timor sprang through the burning straw to see Emporilio try to fly, fail, and begin to scramble back towards its lair. In desperation, Timor thrust with the spear and hit Emporilio in the ribs. The spear head sunk in deeply.
Emporilio spasmed and thrashed, and the spear was torn from Timor’s grasp. Emporilio yanked the spear out of his side, and a stream of blood flowed from the wound. Emporilio snapped the spear in two, and threw it away. The dragon looked extremely vexed. It turned toward Timor.
Emporilio fell onto his side.
Timor took the hammer from his belt, and walked forward. He heard a gasp behind him, and turned to see a beautiful maiden, dressed in dirty white rags.
“I’m Timor,” Timor said. “I’m here to save you. Just let me finish the job and I will save you right after that.” Timor turned and walked around the dragon, being careful to stay out of reach of its dagger-like talons, and needle-sharp teeth. He walked around Emporilio to be able to approach from behind, but stayed three long paces away. Emporilio turned heavily to face Timor.
“Wait!” Emporilio said. “Please don’t kill me.”
“Why not?” Timor asked.
“I…I…am now powerless. I cannot breathe any more fire, and I cannot even stand up. I cannot hurt you, I cannot take any sheep, and I certainly cannot take or keep any maiden. You have vanquished me! I am no threat to you or anyone else now.”
“Don’t liste—” the young maiden began, until a gesture from Emporilio ended any sound from the movements of her mouth. From what Timor could tell, she was not in any exceptional distress; she could still breathe, and could still move and breathe freely, but Emporilio’s gesture had robbed her speech of any sound.
She mouthed words silently and hurriedly, her arms flailing with excited gestures.
Timor didn’t understand, and shook his head.
She mouthed words slowly, exaggerating the shape of the words, her hand movements slow, deliberate, and evocative.
Timor decided the maiden was no actual help to his goal.
He turned back to Emporilio to see it had moved three steps farther away, and closer to its lair and the maiden.
“You say you are powerless,” Timor said. “But you seem to still have magic. I must kill you to end this power.”
“That was but a small cantrip,” Emporilio responded. “Had I any real power, I would have used it to kill you as you stand there. Does that not make enough sense to penetrate your dim-witted skull?”
Timor admitted that it did.
“I know this will seem self-serving,” Emporilio continued. “But being this weak and helpless for the first time in years, I have learned what it must be like to be weak and human. I have had a flash of empathy for your kind. I swear on my True Name that I will leave and bother your people no more.”
“Well,” thought Timor to himself. “That certainly seems serious. His True Name!” But he scowled in doubt. He raised the hammer and took a step forward.
“I see you are still considering,” Emporilio said. “But consider this: I know I have sinned. I have committed grievous sins upon your people. But I have confessed! I have repented! I have given you my solemn word! Surely you must give me a chance, to see if I keep my word. You have bested me once, so you can always come back and kill me later if it turns out I lied, is this not true?”
Timor said nothing.
“Moreover, I am now weak and helpless. I cannot stand. I cannot run. I cannot breathe fire, and I cannot even use magic to defend myself. What kind of monster would you have to be to slaughter me now? I repeat: I have seen the error of my ways, and will tread a righteous path from now on. Does your faith not tell you to forgive the repentant? Should you not give the reformed sinner at least one more chance?
“Look, I am not a sheep, or a rabbit, or a cow. I can think! I can feel! I can speak to you! I am a person, just like you, albeit in a different shape. If you kill me, is it not the same as killing an innocent child?”
Timor lowered the hammer.
“If you spare my life, I will dedicate my life to keeping the Kingdom safe from all enemies. I will also serve you, personally. Anything you want. Just spare my life.”
“What if he is telling the truth?” Timor thought to himself. “Could he really have repented?
“Except, I cannot be the smartest person who ever tried to kill Emporilio. Young men have been trying for twenty-four years. Others must have figured out ways to protect themselves from its fire. Others must have been able to surprise Emporilio and have the chance to end this terror. Emporilio himself said this was the first time he was this weak and helpless in years. That means he was this weak and helpless before. Maybe more than once.
“And yet, Emporilio is still here. Sheep and maidens are still being consumed regularly. Every young man who came up here died.”
Timor took two strides forward and brought the hammer down on the bare patch of ground with all his might.
As the hammer connected with Emporilio’s skull, the illusion of the further-away Emporilio disappeared, and the maiden’s voice returned to her. Even its blood had lost its caustic power.
A few more blows with the hammer, accompanied by repeated and enthusiastic promises of gratitude from the maiden on behalf of her family, and Emporilio’s reign of terror over the kingdom and its maidens was no more.
Timor did not marry the maiden. Having killed the dragon and claimed its modest treasure, he was able to choose the maiden with the mildest and most dependable character from among the beautiful brunettes of the kingdom, which he found much more attractive than blondes.
Timor felt that was enough excitement for one life.
Peeking out through a slight gap in the curtains, I watched Craig pull into the motel parking lot in a shiny, brand-new BMW, as expected. I saw the front end dip as he braked, could almost imagine his eyes scanning for, and finding, the way to my room. Less than 100 yards, but the car surged forward as Craig floored the accelerator, then a squeal of tires as he swung the car into a parking place as if it were on rails.
Typical Craig. He tended to do things just because he could. It would get him in trouble someday, and that day was rapidly approaching. Maybe even tonight. My hands felt sweaty, and I went to wipe them on a guest towel.
Before heading out the door, I grabbed all the accoutrements of going out for the evening: keys, wallet, cellphone, Sig Sauer, knife. This wasn’t a concealed carry state, but every state is a concealed carry state if you aren’t caught, right? Besides, I’ve found the penalties for being caught with a pistol were far better than the consequences of being caught without one.
Craig saw me as soon as I came out my door. He rolled down his window, but said nothing and showed no warmth. His hair was perfect, though. It wasn’t until I slid into the passenger seat that he smiled and stuck out his hand. I grasped it firmly.
“Hey, Burke, it is really good to see. It has been a while, hasn’t it?” I agreed it had been.
“When was the last time? The 2015 State Championship game?” I made a non-committal grunt. Craig was technically correct, but you could also there wasn’t really a last time for us, because Craig was a changed man. Or perhaps a better word for it would be “a changing man.”
“You’re as talkative as ever. But it is good to see you. It really is.”
I thanked Craig for coming to pick me up, murmured something about saving Lyft fare. Craig made a “nothing to it” gesture, then pressed a button on the dash, and the familiar intro to Styx’ “Mr. Roboto” slammed into my ears, and my heart. For a moment, I was transported back to high school, the same tableau: Craig driving his convertible BMW, me sitting shotgun, listening to Styx on a cool October evening, heading to a party.
Then I returned to the present. I turned to Craig and gave him my best smile, to show I was still lost in the moment, that the years since high school had meant nothing, and that the ties of friendship still bound me. Which were, of course, all lies.
We arrived at the Homecoming Party, went in. Craig and I had been best friends, everyone expected to see us together, and he seemed as reluctant to shake me as I was to shake him. We caught on up the last few years of our lives, told stories of our passions, our disappointments. I had way too many of the latter, too few of the former. Craig apparently had experienced an unbroken series of successes. I believed him.
In between, we had a steady stream of friends, acquaintances, ex-girlfriends, rivals and teammates stop by our corner to say hello, to catch up, to touch base and assure each of us we were all still real.
The conversations were all the same: “How are you doing? You’re looking good! What have you been doing with yourself the last 20 years? Yeah, it was good to see you again, too!” For fun, I gave different answers to each person, just to see if Craig would catch on.
“Trash removal.” “Sanitation engineer, eh?” “No, I just take out trash.”
“Just filling out all the paperwork in triplicate and making sure the TPS reports have the cover sheet.”
After a few of those sorts of random-sounding answers, Craig shot me a side-eyed glance, a smile quirked on his face, and he began giving random answers as well:
“Strategic Evolutionary Theorist.”
“Body modification consultant.”
I gave no sign, other than to high five him for the most creative.
The night wound down. We’d reconnected. We’d had enough to drink. We headed out.
“Let’s head up to Round Top.”
‘Yeah, I’d like to see the moonrise from there myself.”
The road was maybe a little rough for the Beemer. Craig didn’t make it any easier on the car, taking the road at pretty much the maximum speed possible, even when the potholes and general deterioration of the surface made that barely better than a crawl.
We reached the summit. Craig switched the engine off. We sat in the silence, in the dark, hearing the tick and ping of the cooling engine.
Craig’s voice appeared in the darkness, like motion in the abyss.
“Burke, for the sake of old times, I’m going to tell you what’s going to happen. In a few minutes, the moon is going to rise. You’re going to see me, and after seeing me, you’re going to run…but here’s some advice for my old pal.“
“Shut up. Burke, you’re going to run, but you shouldn’t. You’ll only die tired, as the old saying goes. But either way, you’re going to die. If you run, I might not be able to control myself. I might not be able to make it quick and clean. But just remember, it isn’t personal.”
I said nothing.
“Okay, maybe it is personal.
“Burke, you were my best friend, but I learned to hate you. I used to look up to you so much. Everyone loved and admired you. Remember Eliza? All those hours I spent helping her pass math class until she moved away, and when she called back to talk to Crystal, all she said about us was to ask if your ass was still cute.
“You had everything going for you. You were at the top of the class for grades, and every teacher loved you. They pulled you up to the varsity basketball team your freshman year. You lettered in wrestling every year. If that weren’t enough, you made the All-State Band.
“So you ripped the heart out of all us when you disappeared. I’d say you especially hurt me, but you know you hurt someone else even worse. She loved you, Burke, she really loved you.
“After you left, I had to listen to her sob on the phone for hours. I had to listen to her spin ever-more-complex theories of why you left, why you never made contact again, all the great things you were doing.
“She died of a broken heart, you know. Nothing I did for her could fill the void you left.
“And I listened to you talk tonight. I know you were bullshitting. I know you well enough, even after all these years, to know you were covering for being embarrassed. For being ashamed. Whatever you left us all behind for, it wasn’t worth it, was it?”
I didn’t have anything to say in response. It was all true.
“Well, I made something of myself, Burke. I became something you could never imagine. I hold the power of life and death in my hands every month.
“Still, I’m pleased you stuck around for more than a few minutes, unlike the last time. I’m glad you got to see people, hear about all the moments you’ve missed out on. The number of people who came to pay tribute to your high school popularity should show you how important you were to us: the people you threw away. I’m glad you got a chance to see it for yourself. It gives everything a nice closure.”
We sat in silence.
I became aware of a slight increase in illumination. Craig sighed, sounding satisfied, or maybe frustrated.
“See that? The moon is coming up. It’s going to be a huge full moon tonight, almost bright enough to see color. If you’re going to run, you’d better get started now. And you know what? I hope you do.”
In the slowly-brightening dimness, I could see subtle changes in his face. His grin was less devil-may-care, more lupine. His incisors seemed longer, and he looked like he hadn’t shaved this morning.
I thrust with the knife. I was at a disadvantage in the dark. Before the knife could reach its mark, my hand was caught in a vice-like grip, bruising, crushing. He knew what he was doing: my bones didn’t –quite!—crack.
I fumbled with the door handle, managed to get it open. I pushed to tumble out backwards, dragging Craig with me. I landed on my back, and it knocked the wind out of me, the first unplanned moment of the evening. It was almost my undoing.
Craig got his other hand up, reaching for my throat. His strength was terrifying, as it always is when they change.
But like all of them, he has only two hands. One on my wrist, one on my throat. He had no other limbs to restrain my other hand, which was free to pull my pistol.
The silver bullet caught him in the ribs, and smashed through his heart. The silver was disruptive far beyond what a bullet would be to a human. He didn’t thrash, he didn’t gasp out any last words. He just stopped, mid-transformation, clearly no longer Craig…but just as clearly, recognizable as having been Craig.
This was my eighth werewolf. And the hardest because this was my first friend. Maybe I was ready for my next friend, who had become something even more horrible.
I’m currently reading some stuff. Yes, my parents are very proud.
I’ve been reading some science fiction by some aspiring writers, but at the same time, I’m also working my way through Jin Yong’s “The Deer and the Cauldron” in Chinese.
Jin Yong is the Grand Master of Chinese martial arts pulp. To give you a sense of what I’m reading, the martial arts heroes of his genre are probably closest to our comic book superheroes. They were considered garbage literature as he wrote it, widely popular among the less-educated, not as illuminating or uplifting as the Four Great Novels or Lu Xun (the Mark Twain, perhaps, of Chinese literature). And yet, it was Jin Yong’s books that have inspired dozens of movies and television adaptations. His characters and stories are still found as pop culture references everywhere. And in retrospect, many consider Jin Yong’s books (and those he inspired) to actually be literature.
That’s why I consider his writings to be the Chinese version of pulp.
As such, I have multiple reasons to read the books: 1) they are good. 2) it’s great practice for my Chinese reading and general language ability. 3) they are well-structured stories of adventure and heroism.
One thing struck me in my last reading session: I haven’t even finished the introductory chapter, and the framing characters are still just discussing the back story, and yet, the villain fails twice in his attempt to create mischief!
The villain is an official who has earned the just desserts for his corruption: fired and penniless, he’s begging for money to get home. He flatters a rich man about his son’s manuscript in hopes of getting increased charity. The rich man realizes the official has never read the book, and tries to provide a financial incentive for the official to read and be transformed. The official, however, finds the gold leaf slipped into the pages without reading. And yet, the trick works, in a way: the official actually reads the book, but only in hopes of wheedling additional gold from the rich man. However, upon reading, he is not educated or enlightened, but actually recognizes the text of the book provides him with an outstanding opportunity for blackmail.
So, rather than using the gold leaf to return home and start his life over, he prepares his blackmail gambit by mailing the book and his accusations to a local administrator, and uses the money to remain in the area to wait for his plot to come to fruition. He waits a year. Nearly out of money, he discovers that the rich man was tipped off and sidestepped the blackmail peril by editing and republishing the book. The corrupt official scours all possible locations for the original book across the entire province, and can’t find a single one. Since he sent in the book with his accusations, he has no proof to continue the scheme, so finally heads home.
Nearly home, he stumbles on someone who has an original copy of the book. Without enough money to offer to purchase it, he steals it. Although he was nearly out of money, he economizes his life to stay in the area longer, and re-tries the gambit, but at the nation’s capital.
The rich man was ahead of him, however, and bribes the higher officials to only review the revised editions.
The corrupt official economizes once again, and puts everything into a public display of all his denouncements, so that it can’t be covered up by allies of the rich man at the right government positions.
I haven’t read far enough to see how it turns out, but since the blackmail has to work for there to be a story, I’m assuming this is where he finally succeeds in his nefarious schemes. I’m also fairly certain he doesn’t profit by it.
There is so much good here.
First, human nature: Good people do good, expecting there will be good results; they never realize that the evil will always find ways to turn good intent to serve their selfish urges. The evil people see goodness as weakness. And yet, the evil is simple, human-sized, and believable: love of comfort. The evil man could have taken the gold concealed in the book and lived the rest of his life at a level beyond the dreams of the multitudes of poor people. Or he could have economized his lifestyle fairly early and lived decently, although not terribly comfortably, for a few years while he improved his abilities or reputation for his next career opportunity. Instead, he lived large in expectations of future windfalls, for as long as he could, until he no longer could. And then when he realized the need for change, it was only to endure longer to bring about the windfall. He worked harder on a blackmail scheme for a big payoff than he would have to earn that same amount through hard work and diligence.
This makes the story more believable.
But the most important lesson to me here is obstacles.
This is backstory. This is a minor character who we will never see again. This is the key issue that will launch the oppression that forms the backdrop for the main story.
And yet the author *still* thwarts plans multiple times before finally allowing the realization of goals.
This is, as I said, a backstory, but it is very nearly a full novel of developments in itself…merely shrunk down into a condensed narrative that spans a handful of paragraphs.
Too many times I read stories where everything the heroes attempt, succeeds. Sure, we want to read stories where the heroes win. But it shouldn’t be direct. The Sci-Fi book I’m reading simultaneous to the “Deer and the Cauldron” has a *few* twists thrown in, but when they get a new mission, I know they’ll be successful at the mission, pretty much as planned. As such, in contrast to the “Deer and the Cauldron,” it comes across as too predictable for me.
One rule of writing I absorbed somewhere was: if you tell the readers the plan, it can’t succeed. If you want the plan to succeed, don’t tell them the plan.
Consider Ocean’s 11. They make you *think* you know what the plan is. Then so many things go wrong. It looks like they have no chance. And then they reveal that you never knew what the plan was at all. It actually worked to perfection. But that’s what made it good. If you were told what would happen, and then it happened exactly like that, you’d be bored.
What Jin Yong did here is closely related. But the writing lesson here is: nothing ever goes as planned. Nothing is simple, and nothing is straightforward. Even the bad guy will have most of his attempts thwarted. What makes him a bad guy is he persists at being bad until he succeeds. And therefore, what makes the good guy good is he persists at being a good guy until he succeeds.
Too often, I think, writers want their good guy to succeed, and they lack the patience (or insight into humanity?) to put them through very much. Early Edgar Rice Burroughs actually suffers from this, but within a few years, he’s doing a great job making his heroes’ plans fail the first few times they try.
But most writers, just like ERB, let their villains have it too easy: whatever scheme they hatch works fine, right up until the good guy defeats it. And that’s okay, I guess. You have opposition, you have suspense. But you know the good guy is going to win. You know the good guy is better/smarter/stronger than the bad guy, so the result is inevitable.
Jin Yong shows us another way.
The bad guy has it rough, too. The bad guy has to work for his goals, too. Life and perversity of people gets in the bad guy’s way, just like it gets in the good guy’s way.
And now, it really is a battle of equals. Anything can happen. Both are determined, persistent, and skilled enough to work past the normal obstacles of life. Now they are clashing in the final struggle. Who will win???
The good guy, of course. But now you have no idea how they will win. You want to see how, you *need* to see how. You have no idea what new wrinkles will be thrown at both the bad guy and the good guy, because both will encounter adversity.
It adds complexity, but requires more patience.
I need to be more patient as a writer to let my story develop, and not just skip over events and narrative details to get to the good parts. Even the background should have tension and good parts.
I highly recommend reading The Paladin by CJ Cherryh.
The hesitancy of the title is that while this story is set in a semi-fictional world, there are no fantasy elements at all. The people are superstitious, so belief in demons has some impact on the story…but there’s no magic to speak of.
When I originally read the story, I assumed the setting was a fictionalized Japan. Re-reading it, I’m not really sure why I thought that: the setting is quite obviously a fictionalized China.
Perhaps it was because the names are Asian sounding, but most are not valid Chinese syllables, so it is easy to assume Japan as a not-Chinese Asian. Perhaps it was because of the artistry of the martial arts, except that China also has such artistry.
In any case, regardless of the society C. J. Cherryh intended to copy, it could easily be ancient China, and is probably best understood that way. Although, to be honest, you don’t have to know a thing about China or Japan to enjoy the story.
The story is about the Emperor’s martial leader, exiled for disloyalty, but left alone as long as he remains in exile, and the girl who brings him back to the world. His martial leadership is never really explained: he’s a master swordsman, but also a tactical and strategic genius. Prior to the beginning of the novel, his only student was the boy Emperor; hints during the novel indicate he was possibly the top Imperial General, except that his fame is for prowess in fighting, and he never meets anyone considered an equal in the story. If he was supposed to be the most skilled bodyguard or champion of the Emperor, it wasn’t clear to me. So it seems more that he was taught all the martial arts, and his training and talent made him the best at all aspects, both personal fighting and leading small units and large armies.
I’ve said before that one things C. J. Cherryh gets better than any other writer I’ve ever seen, is language. She has always shown the difficulties in communicating in languages learned as second languages, and that plays some small part in this story. However, in The Paladin, Cherryh displays one of her other strengths: speed of communication and transportation.
One of my theories is that what makes a story work is uneven information flow. This can be seen in how ubiquitous cellphone coverage has had such a profound impact on film stories, including slasher flicks. They *must* include some explanation of why the characters can’t simply make a phone call; in truth, the conflict in most stories would be resolved with just a quick phone call. Time and Communication can create all sorts of conflicts that make a story good. Thus, C. J. Cherryh has included language differences as a disruptor of clear communication, and her FTL isn’t just “press a button and get there,” but rather a system of applying power to an advanced physics problem, so mass vs power causes different ships to make it to the next normal space location at different times; and so ships can race to get through FTL hops, and take risks to cut time, because presence and communication are the key to conflict and resolution. But those are her science fiction stories.
The speed of horses, the fatigue and endurance of humans, and the speed of gossip and misinformation, all play a significant role in this novel, and it is the better for it. If for no other reason you should read this novel to see how she handles the flow of information and people. It makes the world *feel* more real.
One other reason to read this book: realistic handling of feminist topics. It has never been confirmed, but I and others have assumed that C. J. Cherryh was the liberal science fiction writer (Sherry Atkinson) appearing on the Alien Assessment Team in Niven and Pournelle’s Footfall. I felt their characterization of her, for all that it was good enough to make it clear who they meant, was unfair. She may be (and probably is) Progressive, but she is no bleeding heart, naive liberal. Her books always display a clear and profoundly accurate grasp of human nature, vulnerabilities, and motivations. This book is no different.
In this book, a young girl wants to learn how to be a killing machine so she can get revenge on the man who killed her family and destroyed her home community. Cherryh handles is quite realistically: the girl doesn’t become an equal to a man; in fact, after a full year of training, the viewpoint character shows her how even a half-trained man could easily defeat her just by height, reach, and strength that will always outmatch her own, no matter how vigorously she trains. But then the sword master alters his training from the ideal set of skills to helping her minimize her weakness and maximize the strengths of her different set of abilities.
Cherryh may be a liberal/progressive/Leftist, but her stories often seem to arrive at the same conclusions conservatives do, and she has a gritty and insightful view of human nature that shines through.
On the other hand, her current epic series masterworks (the Foreigner series (at last count, 20 books and still going), is filled with the same Leftist Dowager political assumptions that mar the later works of Lois McMaster Bujold: “Conservative = bad,” “Conservatives are hypocrites or ignorant people who would be Progressive if they would just open their eyes,” “It’s okay to lie/cheat to obtain a Progressive societal win, because after the stupid Conservatives have Progressive societal advancements shoved down their throat, they’ll see it was right,” “the correctness of the Progressive cause justifies using dishonest and dishonorable methods on anyone who tries to stop us,” “There is absolutely no decent argument for opposing the Progressive agenda, so I won’t even let them make an argument in my book,” and “Progressives win simply because they are virtuous in their commitment to Social Progress.”
The change in her writing seemed to happen about the time she turned 52. McMasters Bujold became less enjoyable for me when she turned 51. Come to think of it, Heinlein became unreadable in his later life, as well. I disliked Stranger in a Strange Land, written when he was 54. In all three cases, there is a novel where their writing disappoints me, then a novel or two that are still good (in the older style? or in concert with the older themes?), and then within 3-4 years, their novels become wholly unreadable.
This has implications for my hopes of establishing a writing career, since I’m already extremely close to that age.
Anyway, The Paladin has a great setting, great characters, a good plot, a great grasp of the realities of communication and travel in a non-technological world, and one other thing I appreciated:
I think I’ll discuss this theme tomorrow. Let it suffice to say that the girl uses disruption to get what she wants, only to have it used against her later. And then Disruption becomes the main theme of the last third of the book. We’ll discuss this more tomorrow.