Drawing from Cultures (pt. 1 intro)

When it comes to fantasy, I for one am fairly bored to pieces with the Middle-Earthian, orcs/elves/humans/dwarves cultures loosely based in Western Europe with rearranged geography. Not to belittle or otherwise disparage the cultures from which these classic Fantastical settings are derived, I just think it’s over done.

A slightly more modern example could be the Dragon Age games, where the majority of the stories take place in a realm known as Thedas, and since the first game (Origins, the only one I’ve played), the developers have certainly expanded on the setting, but there still remains the essence of the classic influences. Interesting spins are taken on dwarven and elven cultures, while a couple of countries in-game are clearly influenced by neighbors of England, namely France, Spain and Italy. Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with this, not really, I’m just tired of it.

I recall the Riftwar Saga as created by Raymond E. Feist, where there exists the classic European Fantasy setting with its elves and dwarves and things, but he wrote it well and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But then, things get really interesting when a portal opens to another world, and an entirely non-classical Euro-centric fantasy culture appears. This concept rings a bell of similar tone to my own stories, which is probably why I really like Feist’s work.

You see, in spite of my general antipathy toward “classic fantasy,” it’s important to have it as a benchmark for when one is attempting to really show a contrast. How could we know Feist’s Japanese/Pacific Islander-inspired warriors from the other world were so exotic, if they weren’t interacting with characters and cultures the likes of which we find so familiar? In other words, not only did he write the story of the recognizably “western” world well enough to hold its own, but its existence served to show excellent comparison when the New Guys arrived.

This is not a new trick, but it’s something that I think Feist did very well. I really have got to get to his next book.

So I bring this up because, in case I haven’t emphasized it enough on this blog, I’m a huge fan of diversity and multi-cultural/lingual/racial interactions, especially in fantasy. One of my favorite lines from Feist’s Magician: Master was (and I know I’m butchering it): “It seems that no matter what world you are from, merchant need you to buy something or their children will starve.”

Because that’s the whole point, isn’t it? With so much diversity and multiculturalism in our lives, let alone our fantasy, we discover the Godfather of All Cliches: That we’re really not all that different.

Next time I’ll write about a specific culture the likes of which I knew next-to-nothing about until fairly recently, which I currently find fascinating, to the point of making plans to actually go and visit there.

What of you, dear readers? I’m always curious to hear not only about what books influenced your tastes, but what cultures might influence your fiction as well.

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P.S.~ I’m aware I missed the last two blog post deadlines. If you weren’t aware of this, nevermind – but otherwise, a offer a humble apology to the interwebz gods.

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Be well and keep writing!

First Impressions: Republic of Thieves

Short Version: Read it. But read the others first.

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So it’s no huge secret that I’m a giant fan of Scott Lynch. When I first read The Lies of Locke Lamora I found myself instantly hooked, which is as typical as it gets, but something truly clicks with me and Lynch’s style of writing. There continues an air of mischievous humor even in the prose, and further research proved that hey, wouldn’t you know it, but I’ve found an author that I really admire who is in fact not dead from decades ago. By the time I got around to Dune, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, and a number of others, it came not as a shock, but a simple bout of disappointment.

Kinda like when Leslie Nielson died. I rather would have liked to have met him.

https://i.chzbgr.com/maxW500/4229161216/h10E32619/

Imagine my joy to find Scott Lynch avidly plying his trade, eagerly leading me to his sequels and even pondering the movie rights.

Anyway, I recently deigned to quit reading Lord of the Rings, and it was in fact in favor of Lynch’s Republic of Thieves, the third of the Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series. The adventures of Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen continue in another lovingly dialogued story that – as of this post – I’ve only gotten to about 1/3 into. I usually like to wait until after finishing books before talking about them, but gods this is a load of fun. Some longstanding questions are at last getting their answers, and so far the results do not fall short.

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In other news, perhaps as a blatant attempt to fatten this post more than it has any right to be, my own writing has been progressing decently. Much of this I owe to those in my various circles, and I can’t stress enough the importance of having friends – digital or in meatspace – the likes of whom one can bounce off ideas or similarly have their ideas bounce off you. They aren’t hard to find either – the NaNoWriMo Facebook group has proven tremendously helpful in ameliorating a particular plot/story element that’s been bugging me for maybe a year now.

I’ll end the post for today with a track from a game known as Natural Selection 2. As with a lot of my music, I never played the game, but I can best describe this as a Tibetan Cyber Monk on the warpath.

Happy writing, dear readers!

 

What I’m Writing (and Why)

You’d think after 85+ posts I’d talk more about my own work.

Truth is, I often find myself hesitant to talk about it because for one, it’s difficult as hell to be concise. For two, there always remains a tickling paranoia of having my ideas stolen – but that’s no small degree of pomp, is it? I mean, that would first assume that my ideas are worth stealing, and more to the point having them listed somewhere public is actually a good way to stake one’s claim in whatever kind of legal issue that could (but won’t) arise. This isn’t exactly breaking news, but stating it outright might be helpful to someone else.

So here goes! Today’s post will shamelessly focus on me, and whatI write. I once vainly described my primary work as “If Dune and LotR had a child that was raised by gamer parents.”

It is fantasy (big surprise), set on worlds that are most assuredly not Earth, and the majority of time takes place in a post-medieval setting where guns are nonexistent and the plot escalates, gradually, from personal concerns to cosmic proportions. There are monsters, magic, mysteries, political plots, and perhaps most importantly, no shortage of swords.

I take a personal fascination with etymology and linguistics, mythology, psychology, history, politics, economics and good old-fashioned sword & sandals violence and adventure. There’s a mouthful for you.

The working title for the series is currently: The Dreadwar Saga.

The Setting (ancient history)

An undetermined number of millennia (somewhere in the ballpark of 15,000 + years) has passed since The Origin Exodus and the Scattering, an event in which the ardkin race were forced to leave their homeworld of Origin. The appearance of astral beings – celestial dragons, who saw the potential of the ardkin – offered a means of escape and redemption. A Janus Gate was erected on the planet, and through it much of the population was funneled out of the dying world.

But things went awry, for there exist agents of the Void, who also saw the potential of the ardkin and sought to destroy them. “If I can’t have them, than neither can the celestial dragons.” The Janus Gate was sabotaged, and the ardkin race was scattered across the cosmos, rather than funneled to a specific location as promised by the dragons. The celestial dragons have since undertaken the eternal quest of recovering the ardkin, wherever they may be, for the universe is vast. This is known as the Age of Letheon.

Many ardkin set foot on new, fertile worlds where they established civilizations and dynasties, whereas other, less fortunate pockets of people found themselves in harsh environments, ranging from inhospitable jungle worlds where they were eaten or destroyed outright, to barren, airless moons. Suffice it to say that many ardkin perished during the diaspora, and the celestial dragons (or at least some of them) have taken the responsibility personally. This is known as the Age of Wandering Memory.

Most of this history is lost to the descendents of the ardkin, and the generations go on living without any knowledge of the Exodus or the Scattering, most believing that they, and their world, is the only world in the cosmos.

Confession: This type of setting is in part meant to satisfy the question I’ve always had in fantasy:

“Why are there always humans (or humanoids) on these alien/fantasy worlds we see and read about?”

In my mythos, this is at last an answer to that.

The Setting (recent)

My books take place during the Age of Confluence, about one hundred and fifty years after the Janus Gates on several ardkin-settled worlds were reopened (after many millennia of dormancy). Each world has it’s own history and divergent evolution of the original ardkin settlers, the evolutions determined predominantly by the influence of magic (or utter lack thereof). I won’t get into racial descriptions here, as that’s a whole post unto itself, but suffice it to say that many of the races of the modern era were recognizably “once human,” whereas others would simply fall into the category of “monster.” There are some familiar faces when it comes to monster lore.

The worlds, together known as the Conglomerate, are loosely held together and ruled by a powerful trade corporation known as the Aztherium, whose power is rooted in its unquestioned control of the Janus Gates (and therefore all trade/personal passage between worlds), and in this setting, that power means a lot. For nearly 150 years, the Aztherium has reigned as the single strongest entity of the worlds, though it rarely interferes with the politics of individual nations unless it pertains to the Conglomerate as a whole. The Awakening of the gates brought about an era of cultural exchange, enlightenment and prosperity unprecedented in history.

The Story (Book 1)

The first installment of the series has a working title of “Act 1 – Saudade.” The year is 179 C.E. (Confluence Era), several years after the conclusion of a twenty-year conflict that toppled the power of the Aztherium and nearly brought about the ruin of an entire civilization. The nations are on the path to recovery from the war, and the Aztherium seeks to take measures of prevention from an event known as the Absence Crisis from ever recurring.

The story follows the perspectives of three primary characters: Radh the war veteran, Jacquel the counter-terrorist investigator, and Zayne the ex-con merchant. Each of them have been affected by the war and other global events, and are more closely connected than they could know – for none have ever met one other.

Yet.

The theme of this novel, while I rarely dwell on such things, dawned on me only recently: identity, memory, diversity. Saudade is a Portuguese word that can roughly translate to “nostalgia for something/someone that we know can never be.” Each of the characters has a past that occupies their identity, and over the course of the novel they each must overcome this and come to grips with who they really are, all while uncovering something deeper and darker than the shadows of revolution and the horror of civil war.

Oh yes, big fish swim beneath the surface of this tepid sea.

Notes on Magic, Race, etc.

So magic is a thing, but only under specific circumstances. According to Brandon Sanderson’s Laws of Magic, there’s both a little hard magic and a little soft magic. On one world, for example, there exists a magical ‘field’ where things happen, and exposure to certain substances can drastically change someone’s day (for better or worse), whether through accidental amplification, manifestation, or outright irresponsibility. On another world, the rules are clearer; symbiont spirits are used to perform tasks or enhance one’s own abilities, with very clear limitations. Then, on the other hand, there exists a world (where the majority of the populations reside), where magic is dampened, to the point that most folk there discount the idea of magic as “lotus-induced hallucinations of those foreign off-worlders.”

During this time of the Age of Confluence, clockwork is pretty widespread, but it’s a recent innovation, and the era is showing signs of emerging into a Steampunk age, but not quite there yet. Think Final Fantasy IV.

The races are diverse yet relateable – another big theme/interest of my writing is how people of various cultural and racial backgrounds can band together to form an effective team. You’ll see that from time to time throughout the adventures and circumstances characters find themselves in. But this post is lengthy enough as it is, so perhaps I should end it there and pick up the whole race-thing another day.

 

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So that was a mouthful. I know there will be details that I think up later and will use to amend this, and if parts of it seemed really vague, that’s only because some things (have been) subject to change and/or development. Not laziness, heh.

I’ll end today’s post with a nifty bit in honor of the rainy weather happening outside my window as I write this. Happy writing, dear readers!

 

 

Why I Stopped Reading Tolkien

So it wasn’t really that long ago that I’d announced I began reading the Lord of the Rings. Turns out I’m setting it down again.

“But Jesse! Lord of the Rings! It’s like the bible of fantasists!”

Or conversely:

“Ahh, most understandable, Jesse. What’re you reading instead?”

This time around, I’ve at least made it as far as approximately 50% into it; the chapter The Taming of Smeagol, to be precise. The sad truth is that listening to LotR has become much less of an interest so much as a chore. I felt more compelled to read it not because I genuinely wanted to learn what happens (and I am thoroughly aware that had I never seen the movies, there might be a little more intrigue, but seriously, come on now), but rather because it felt as though it was something that I ought to be expected to do as a fantasy writer. Personally I’m not really big on doing what people expect.

Turns out there’s quite the community of anti-fans of LotR, some of whom are downright ornery about it, too. The most outspoken of whom that I’ve yet discovered goes by the name of China Miéville, and I feel I cannot put what he’s said better. I believe his thoughts are, while strong, well thought-out, and I believe he makes solid points. I’m inclined to say I subscribe to these ideas.

One day, perhaps I will jump back into the world of Middle-Earth and subject myself to the remainder of the story, if even just to say I did it. But that’s no reason to read a book, is it? I don’t know about you, but I tend to read books because I like the writing, or the characters, or dig the story or the setting. Tolkien has much of this, but there’re too many … obstacles.

China Miéville:

“When people dis fantasy—mainstream readers and SF readers alike—they are almost always talking about one sub-genre of fantastic literature. They are talking about Tolkien, and Tolkien’s innumerable heirs. Call it ‘epic’, or ‘high’, or ‘genre’ fantasy, this is what fantasy has come to mean. Which is misleading as well as unfortunate.

Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature. His oeuvre is massive and contagious—you can’t ignore it, so don’t even try. The best you can do is consciously try to lance the boil. And there’s a lot to dislike—his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. Tolkien’s clichés—elves ‘n’ dwarfs ‘n’ magic rings—have spread like viruses. He wrote that the function of fantasy was ‘consolation’, thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.

That is a revolting idea, and one, thankfully, that plenty of fantasists have ignored. From the Surrealists through the pulps—via Mervyn Peake and Mikhael Bulgakov and Stefan Grabiński and Bruno Schulz and Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison and I could go on—the best writers have used the fantastic aesthetic precisely to challenge, to alienate, to subvert and undermine expectations.

Of course I’m not saying that any fan of Tolkien is no friend of mine—that would cut my social circle considerably. Nor would I claim that it’s impossible to write a good fantasy book with elves and dwarfs in it—Michael Swanwick’s superb Iron Dragon’s Daughter gives the lie to that. But given that the pleasure of fantasy is supposed to be in its limitless creativity, why not try to come up with some different themes, as well as unconventional monsters? Why not use fantasy to challenge social and aesthetic lies?

Thankfully, the alternative tradition of fantasy has never died. And it’s getting stronger. Chris Wooding, Michael Swanwick, Mary Gentle, Paul di Filippo, Jeff VanderMeer, and many others, are all producing works based on fantasy’s radicalism. Where traditional fantasy has been rural and bucolic, this is often urban, and frequently brutal. Characters are more than cardboard cutouts, and they’re not defined by race or sex. Things are gritty and tricky, just as in real life. This is fantasy not as comfort-food, but as challenge.

The critic Gabe Chouinard has said that we’re entering a new period, a renaissance in the creative radicalism of fantasy that hasn’t been seen since the New Wave of the sixties and seventies, and in echo of which he has christened the Next Wave. I don’t know if he’s right, but I’m excited. This is a radical literature. It’s the literature we most deserve.”

What are your thoughts, dear readers? Agree or disagree with the above statement?

You’re In All Your Characters

I have heard, on more than one occasion, that the writer imbues some aspect of themselves into every character they create. Considering this is likely said by a multitude of sources, as opposed to some ur-writer who came up with the idea, one could say this is obvious. If someone knows the original quoter of this, I’d love to know.

But I feel it worth repeating. Conversely, one ought not judge the artist by the art, as they say (though to this day you’ll have a hard time convincing me of that regarding Orson Scott Card, at least his earlier opinions). When it really comes down to it, if someone has an issue with something that happens in your writing – to the point of them judging you as a writer, and, more to the point, actually going out of their way to inform you of their opinion – that means you’ve either succeeded tremendously or failed miserably.

To clarify: Success as in creating characters or plot situations that invest the readers so very much that they’re astounded such things could happen or be described. Failure in that the writer apparently did not try very hard to hide their own agenda – and one’s agenda is always controversial, so it comes off as preachy.

At any rate, I believe that it is worthwhile to exercise discretion when “judging” the creatives of society. This is a hard thing for people to argue, yet there will always be exceptions (I mean heck, even I have a few), and I also believe we’ve all heard this before. That’s why the focus of this post is not to leap upon the proverbial soap box and shout through a cone made up of digital html, but rather to encourage everyone to accept that, in some small way, every character one writes is in part the writer his/herself. And then move on.

That being said, I’m not going to touch the whole Mary Sue concept. The blog would quickly deteriorate into a bubbling mass of spiny, toothy vehemence if we were to address that.

More often than not, I think writers hesitate to write about heinous murderers or the thought process of a rapist for fear of readers pointing at the writer and saying “And how would you know so much about this?” The real question is whether or not fear of such a repercussion will stop you from trying. It hasn’t stopped Stephen King, I’ll tell you that much.

But it need not concern merely the negatives of character traits, certainly not. We can apply this to the positives as well, and to say nothing of the immaturities, the dreams, the doubts, the fears and the hopes.

I demonstrate now.

Recently, while driving – as this is my ideal time of creative thinking – a line of dialogue struck me. I knew, the moment I formed the words in my mind, that the line would add a new level of depth to an otherwise not-so-deep character of mine. With but a small exchange, and perhaps a few hints leading up to that point, the character (who up to this point is seen as a hardened soldier) shows hesitation of making physical contact with anyone. Even (or especially) with a person with whom there is mutual, clear attraction.

This idea is something I’ve seen in another story, Berserk by Kentaro Miura. It is not hard to imagine rape victims hesitant to be intimate, or people who’ve been betrayed to trust another person again, or for someone whose had something valuable stolen to expect others to give anything without a catch. We see this all the time in stories. The difference is that writing from experience, or even from the close experience of others we know (if you must), breathes life into our characters, for we are all in our characters.

After all, as Stephen King once said, it’s people who make stories, not the circumstances they find themselves in.

Happy writing, dear writers! Today’s track comes from a painfully neglected source, Cirque du Soleil, and was brought to my attention by an enthusiast.

Sound Off: Spectrums of Mana

Today will be a post not about writing itself, but rather a shout-out to some inspiration fuel I’ve recently discovered.

People familiar with my earlier posts might have gleaned hints of my gaming background – particularly my soft spot for a number of SNES-era 16-bit RPG’s. I’m painfully aware of the nostalgia factor in regards to many of them, but among the things that has stood against the test of time would be the soundtracks to a number of these beauties.

Secret of Mana is no exception. An earlier Square (not Square-Enix!) game from 1993 – a year earlier than some of the world’s most renowned titles in gaming. The composer for Secret of Mana was one Hiroki Kikuta, who has been thankfully busy, and this humble blogger would not be alone in praising his music. Numerous Overclocked ReMixes can be found, and not all of them are from Secret of Mana.

However, Spectrums of Mana, another arranged ReMix album of the Secret of Mana soundtrack, does not fly the OCReMix Banner, but was in fact brought to my attention by OCReMix itself. Twitter is a lovely tool.

So Spectrums is divided by three discs, and is free for download. I wish I had known of this project earlier, but better a couple months late than never. Each disc is divided by theme, or mood, which really is up my alley as a mood-listener. Disc 1, War, comprised of the fighting and conflict tracks, features heavy rock and powermetal influences. Disc 2, Peace, features the tracks that brought the mood of mystical settings and the wilderness, featuring slower, orchestral tempos. The final Disc, Spirit, is comprised of tracks that bring zest to this game – the upbeat tunes from towns, action scenes, and rather important story moments.

Perhaps having a pre-existing attachment to the original game and/or soundtrack creates a bond stronger than the average listener, but if you’re a fan of melody, this is something for you. I recommend it for anyone – especially writers – in search of an independent album made up of indie artists and musicians who, evidently, poured sweat and blood into their passion to make this.

It would be unfair of me to pick a favorite track, but I already did. It’s called Solum from Disc 2, a remix of arguably my favorite videogame theme.

And trust me, there are a lot.

This is a slower piece, for a scene in the game that is nothing short of sacred.

Happy writing, dear readers! Are there any mood-setting music you prefer for when you’re writing? I’d love to hear about them.