Because crazy goals are the only kind worth having…

I’m a slow reader at the best of times. And let me tell you, brothers and sisters, 2016 was NOT the best of times. A chaotic move, a long-running series of home renovations, and other such personal upheavals didn’t exactly provide for a distraction-free reading environment.

So I’ve decided to set myself a goal for the coming year. In 2017, I’m planning to read 100 books. Granted, the idea didn’t come in a complete vacuum. I’ve seen other writers talk about doing the same thing in previous years, and pretty much all of them report that their own writing output enjoyed a massive boost as a result.

For me, this goal won’t be easy. Simple math dictates that I’ll have to finish an average of two books per week, and I think I’ve only read about ten or twelve over the course of the last two years.

But hey, a crazy goal half achieved is better than a minuscule one overshot.

With that in mind, the week before Christmas I started David Gemmell’s Troy trilogy. Gemmell was one of my all-time favorite authors. My short story “Pax Mechanica” is a direct nod to the kind of stories he used to tell, about desperate stands against impossible odds. His lean, direct writing style showed me it was possible to create vivid settings and memorable characters without fancy, florid descriptions.

The fact is, I’d be a very different writer without Gemmell’s influence.

Anyway, I’ve been saving these books for a special occasion. That’s partly because I have a soft spot for mythical re-tellings, and the Trojan war is one of my favorite myths. The other reason (a more sentimental one) is that these were the last books Gemmell wrote. He passed away before finishing the third volume, Fall of Kings, leaving it to be completed by his wife Stella. I always felt like there would be something sad about reaching the end of the last book. Gemmell’s wife found him slumped at his computer, presumably about to start the day’s work on the manuscript. Maybe I was always afraid that thought would overpower my enjoyment of the story.

I shouldn’t have worried. I’m on book three right now, having finished both Lord of the Silver Bow and Shield of Thunder over the holiday. Like the other two, it’s by turns exciting, powerful, and poignant. When I’m not actively reading it, Gemmell’s characters are needling around in the back of my mind, pestering me to hurry up and find out what happens next.

Lesson learned: a master storyteller is a master storyteller. Even if the real-world circumstances surrounding a book are tragic, nothing else matters when that storyteller is spinning his magic.

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Election season, and why you shouldn’t hate your neighbor with the (insert candidate) signs in his yard.

Look, America, I think it’s about time for a little pep-talk. So gather round:

Left, right, or center, I don’t believe the worst things everyone is saying about you. I don’t believe most Trump supporters are racists and bigots. I don’t believe most Clinton supporters are “sheeple” or “brainwashed.” I certainly don’t believe that third-party supporters are willfully throwing their votes away like spoiled children.

What I do believe is that, in an election surrounded by complex issues and no easy answers, most people are doing their best to vote with their conscience. I think everyone wants to make things better in this country. We just have different ideas about what that means, and what we’re willing to overlook to get it.

Of course, that doesn’t generate clicks. Hate, vitriol, and divisiveness generate clicks, so hate, vitriol, and divisiveness are what’s getting jammed into your news feed.

But you know what? That’s not most of us. Hell, I don’t even think it’s a significant minority of us.

Because despite the anger and insults flying around, what’s happening in this country is still civil discourse. I know it doesn’t seem like it, but trust me. I’ve had the fortune (or misfortune) to see this process at work in countries where civil discourse was long dead. We’re still taking our differences to the voting booth. As a country, we’re still talking about things rationally. Nobody is dropping mortar shells on the polling stations, IED-ing the roads to the election offices, or threatening to assassinate the election officials.

Yes, those are all real things, and yes, I’ve personally witnessed them. I’ve also seen much worse.

Yeah, the conversation is heated right now. But you know what? It’s still a conversation. The fact that it is should make you proud of this country and its people.

Get out there Tuesday. Take part in the conversation. And don’t feel ashamed of this country. Because the garbage clogging your news feed?

That’s not America.

“Pax Mechanica” and “Mistaken Identity” now available.

My steampunk short set in the Roman invasion of Britain is available now in Flame Tree Publishing’s Swords & Steam Short Stories. Among other talented writers, I’m sharing a table of contents with Robert E. Howard. This has me in enough of a giddy stupor that it warrants its own blog post, which will be coming shortly.

Also available is my superhero comedy short “Mistaken Identity.” Alex Shvartsman’s Unidentified Funny Objects series has been one of my favorite SFF projects ever since the first volume. Humor in science fiction and fantasy is an important subject for me, and I’m incredibly proud to be included in the lineup of volume five.

In other news, Halloween is around the corner. Since we just moved to a new neighborhood, we have no idea how many trick-or-treaters to expect. I’m in the process of trying to convince my wife that we should definitely buy more bags of candy.

You know. For the kids. In case there’s a lot of them…

*hides Snickers wrapper behind the night stand*

 

Updates and New Story Announcements

Apologies for the long hiatus. The move and the home renovations that were supposed to be over months ago ended up getting extended, and my wife and I have been floating between two houses for the better part of a year. It’s been frustrating, it’s been exhausting, and what little writing time I’ve been able to eke out was better spent on stories than on blog posts.

All of that is finally coming to an end. The renovations are mostly finished, the move is more or less complete, and I should be able to get back to semi-regular blogging again shortly. I do have a full slate of projects ahead of me, though, so there’s some emphasis on the “semi.”

On a happier note, I made the trip to Kansas City for WorldCon this year. Several of my friends have been urging me to go for a while, and now I can see why. HOLY HELL, WAS IT AWESOME!!!! I met editors, I met writers, and I met agents. Some were old friends from Writers of the Future. Most were new faces. I learned some tricks of the trade, babbled incoherently to living legends of the genre, and did my level best to learn just how many hours a human can go with nothing but a half-dozen cups of coffee in his system.

While it’s tough to pick a single favorite moment out of a week jam-packed with them, if pressed I’d say it was geeking out about my favorite writers with other writers. The bottom line is, most of us got into this show because another author (or several) inspired us. Talking about those inspirations with friends, colleagues, and total strangers was a definite highlight for me, whether it was a barroom discussion on Robert E. Howard, a random hallway conversation about Matthew Stover, or a simple moment of mutual appreciation for Joe Haldeman between two veterans-turned-writers.

All in all, WorldCon was an awesome experience. I’ll probably talk about some of the specifics in future blog posts, but right now my brain is still a little mushy from trying to absorb it all.

Lastly, I sold two stories since the previous update. “Mistaken Identity,” a humorous superhero short, will appear in Alex Shvartsman’s Unidentified Funny Objects 5.  “Pax Mechanica,” an Iron Age steampunk adventure set in an alternate Roman-era Britain, will appear in Flame Tree Publishing’s Swords & Steam Short Stories.

That’s about everything for now. Watch this space for more.

New Story Announcement: “The God Emperor of Lassie Point”

So here’s some of that good news I mentioned a while back. I have a short story in Alien Artifacts, an anthology coming this August from Zombies Need Brains, LLC. The book is currently available for pre-order on the publisher’s web store.

Here’s the full table of contents:

Introduction by Patricia Bray
“Radio Silence” by Walter H. Hunt
“The Nightside” by Julie Novakova
“The Familiar” by David Farland
“Me and Alice” by Angela D. Penrose
“The Other Side” by S.C. SC Butler
“The Hunt” by Gail Martin & Larry N. Martin
“The Sphere” by Juliet E McKenna
“Shame the Devil” by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller
“The Captain’s Throne” by Andrija Popovic
“Weird is the New Normal” by Jacey Bedford
“And We Have No Words to Tell” by Sofie Bird
“Titan Descanso” by James Van Pelt
“Alien Epilogue” by Gini Koch
“The Haint of Sweetwater River” by Anthony Lowe
“Music of the Stars” by Jennifer Dunne
“The Night You Were a Comet” by Coral Moore
“The God Emperor of Lassie Point” by Daniel J. Davis
“Pandora” by C.S. Friedman
“Round and Round We Ride the Carousel of Time” by Seanan McGuire

Lots of Changes!

Sorry for the lack of updates lately. Things have been crazy (in a good way!). There have been lots of shakeups going on at home, not the least of which is that my wife and I have just bought a house.

We’re still in the process of moving, so it’ll be a bit longer before I get to do some regular updating again.

In the mean-time, more good news is forthcoming on the writing front. I can’t announce anything official yet, but check back for updates.

Random Encounters with Sword and Sorcery: Thieves’ House

In this week’s Random Encounters, we’re back on the mean streets of Lankhmar. Fritz Leiber’s roguish heroes, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, cross old enemies–and make a few new ones–in “Thieves’ House.”

So far I’ve enjoyed every story I’ve reviewed for this blog series. That said, each time the dice come up for another Leiber story, it’s a treat. His Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tales are a good reminder of just how much fun the sword and sorcery genre can be. It’s especially noticeable on the heels of Robert E. Howard’s grim and brutal writing. By comparison, there’s almost a sense of whimsy here.

That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of violence and action. It’s just that Leiber’s handling of it is very, very, different.

“Theives’ House” opens with a scheme. Krovas, master of the Lankhmar Thieves’ Guild, wants a valuable set of relics returned to him. Those relics are the jewel-encrusted skull and skeletal hands of Ohmphal, the legendary Master Thief and lord of the guild in ancient times.

The skull and hands are secured in the vault of a cursed temple, stolen ages ago by the priests of Votishal. A great beast guards them, according to the legend, and the lock on the vault is said to be unpickable.

Krovas knows that no man in the Thieves’ Guild will ever reach them. But there are two men outside of the guild who might: the northern barbarian Fafhrd, and his companion the Gray Mouser.

As it happens, the guild has a score to settle with the two heroes, over a previous conflict in which they killed the guild’s sorcerer. Krovas reasons that he can make use of their skills before disposing of them. He assigns Fissif, the “smoothest of the double crossers,” for the job.

Leiber doesn’t show us the adventure in which our heroes (and villain) recover the jeweled bones. In the hands of a lesser writer, it might feel like a cheat. But Leiber has us off and running again when he picks up the events weeks later.

Fissif is fleeing for his life, relics in hand, back to the guild headquarters known as the Thieves’ House. Behind him–giving chase–are Fafhrd and the Mouser. Fissif ducks inside, warning the unseen sentries of the pursuit.   Then our heroes arrive, pausing outside just long enough to wonder at the likelihood of a trap. They also allude to their previous dealings with the guild.

It’s a reference that doesn’t slow down the story at all, but for readers familiar with Leiber’s “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” it serves to deepen the conflict. The personal score that Krovas referenced in the beginning is bitterly felt on this side, too. And a chance at some extra payback against the guild while recovering the skull is a chance too good to pass up.

They enter the Thieves’ House, making short work of the sentries, and begin winding their way towards Krovas’ chambers for a confrontation. But there are more players in the game than anyone realizes. Thieves’ House is ancient, and even the guild members don’t know what every room and chamber holds…

“Thieves’ House” is a classic Leiber story. I’ve always felt that Fafhrd and the Mouser work better in the urban setting of Lankhmar than they do exploring the farther reaches of Nehwon. The characters just feel much more at home for me when they’re stalking the smoky alleyways and the dim shadows of the city. The interplay between Fafhrd and the Mouser is top notch, and once again you get a sense for the camaraderie and brotherhood they share with one another.

Leiber’s lighthearted take on the material gives the action a rousing, swashbuckling feel. The extended chase and escape through the corridors of the Theives’ House, for example, would have been a bloody massacre in the hands of Robert E. Howard, with passages describing split skulls and dashed brains. Leiber has no interest in dwelling on the gorier bits, though. He prefers to follow the dancing swords and sharp wit of the heroes. And he isn’t afraid to show us some of their pratfalls in the process, as Fafhrd repeatedly knocks himself senseless against low hanging arches and doorways.

That said, the proceedings aren’t without touches of darkness. After Fafhrd falls into the hands of the guild, an anonymous message is delivered to the Mouser at the arranged meeting spot. It contains a gruesome threat:

If you do not bring the jeweled skull by next midnight, we will begin to kill the northerner.”

 

It’s a deliciously worded passage, and it’s much more effective than spelling out a bunch of slow and deliberate tortures would have been. Like many good sword and sorcery authors, Leiber had a sizeable output of horror fiction. He knew how to add creepy touches without overdoing it.

Likewise, Leiber shows a skilled hand when he plays with the tropes of the genre. The “northern barbarian” has been a fantasy cliché since Conan, and most writers do very little to set theirs apart from the crowd. Leiber does, though, and it’s on evidence here when Fafhrd uses his training as a storyteller and singing skald to stall his execution.

It’s a small moment, yes. But it’s a genuine one, drawing on Fafhrd’s background as a character. And it shows that Leiber saw him as more than just a muscle man with a sword.

I can’t say much about Mouser’s plan to rescue his friend in the later half of the story without spoiling some genuinely delightful scenes, so I won’t. Lets just say that the mental picture I had of the Mouser’s disguise was enough to make me laugh.

While it’s not necessary, I do recommend reading “Ill Met in Lankhmar” before this one. In fact, I’d recommend reading “Ill Met in Lankhmar” anyway. It’s just that good.