Calculation

From the movie “Ex Machina.” Seemed appropriate.

(Hello everybody! As it turns out, I’m going to be scampering off to Colorado for a little over a week. As such, the Den’s going to be a little quiet for the next while…but that also means today you get a special treat. Who here’s in the mood for some sci-fi? Everyone?Good. Now let’s play a game.)

Xiangqi was commonly referred to as Chinese Chess. While the name certainly captured the motivation behind it, it hardly did the game justice in terms of execution. Xiangqi was to Chess as Chess was to Checkers: essentially, a more complicated version of a series of moves designed to pique the human interest and measure its strategic capability for micromanaging.

Two figures considered the game. On either’s chest was pinned a name. For the one: “Victor.” For the other: “Ursula.” They had but two things in common: both had spent entirely too many hours with this particular game, and neither had chosen their name at birth.

Victor was something of a prodigy when it came to the game. His country was known for its love of this sort of game; but then, they loved to play games at nearly every level of life’s offering. Some people (other people, that is to say) tended to find it disconcerting. Both at a personal level, and an international one.

When Victor leaned back, it wasn’t to relax. It was to size up his opponent.

As soon as the shadow of a hand had secured its move, he countered, sweeping a scholar along its predetermined lines to block access to his marshal. But here he tittered, though he tried not to let his trepidation show. Game after game, he had watched the number of moves it took him to dominate the board lengthen and lengthen. Now, he was actually on the defensive. He could see the outcomes laid before him in a sort of Robert Frostian choice: Ursula could move, she could strike, or she could have him pinned with the most delicate of military operations. It would take coordination, foresight, and most importantly: imagination.

Ursula seemed to imitate him. It was not like her. When he looked up from the board, he found her watching him, no trace of emotion to mark her face, but still. Her eyes were not on the board. She was reading him, rather than doing the mathematical calculations that carried her game against so many others.

This, he told himself, was not the little girl he had first set out to fool when she was nothing more than a series of code strings and a monitor in his parents’ basement. The form had changed since then. So, too, had the code.

It was odd to feel nervous doing something that had always been his mode of relaxation. He imagined this was how thousands of young American minds must have felt, years before, when they had first watched the Watson computer system decimate its opposition on live trivia TV.

But all Watson had to do was cross reference information. It didn’t consider the people it competed against.

Unpredictability. That was what he was testing here. Not the ability to conquer.

“Victor,” Ursula said. “I believe you are over-analyzing.”

He blinked, nodded. “I’m just waiting on you, darling,” he lied.

Ursula cocked her head to one side and smiled. She liked to smile. Then she shifted her final chariot to snare his scholar. It was the easiest path, the most sensible path. It left his marshal briefly open, but it would sacrifice her most powerful piece and, inevitably, cost her the game. Victor sighed heavily and the crowd, seeing what he had seen, answered his counter with a series of low-grade applause. The eyes of the nation were watching.

Ursula nodded as he picked off first one piece, then another, her own pieces countering deftly, but not enough to stem the tide. When he took her general, the crowd cheered. They loved to see how far technology had come, but they loved it all the more watching mankind still triumph over it.

With a practiced smile, Victor stood and took Ursula’s hand in his. She answered, leaning over the board toward him.

“You are pleased, Victor?”

“Of course I’m pleased, Ursula. It was a good game.”

She shook his hand and twisted toward the enthusiastic crowd. Unlike with people, her lips did not need to move to reply to him.

“I thought they might like this better.”

For an instant, he must have looked like a fish out of water for the cameras. But he forced the stiffness out, and kept waving his hand for those watching. Victor had his part to play. He knew this. But so, apparently, did Ursula.

(Like what I do with Sci-Fi? Then you might also consider “New Frontiers,” a space story out on Kindle Singles. Others of this type of fiction are set to appear in A Bleak New World Anthology and in a collection published by Evil Girlfriend Media later this year.)

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Book Review: Kalimpura

Would it suffice to say that I wanted (and hoped for) so much more from this series?

Kalimpura is the grand finale to the three book series on Green, the miscreant ninja girl punching her way through the conventional and divine worlds alike in the search, ultimately, to find a place for herself. As Endurance left off on some cliffhangers, Kalimpura picks up just after—and quickly pulls us away again from the city Green spent all of last book getting reacquainted with. That happens to probably be for the best, though, as things in Kalimpura have taken a turn for the worse, with the Temple of the Lily Goddess at its lowest point yet, and the gruff folks in the Bittern Court taking up a page from the megalomaniacal playbook.

A mess ensues. And I don’t mean for Green—I mean for us, the readers.

Lake has always had trouble with pacing in these books. Is Kalimpura’s more on-point and to par than the initial, scattered endeavor of Green was? Yes. Yet the trouble that arises in Kalimpura goes well beyond between random bouts of action and immovable characterized disconnection, to the actions of those characters themselves. You will want to ask them questions—you will not get the answers you desire, or more often, many answers at all. The baddies, as I said, are kind of in that megalomaniacal camp, with the classic baddy mentality—“What do you want? Everything! Why do you want it? Cause! When do you want it? Now!”

Where is the character? The personality? There is no growth here—and certainly not in the form of the myriad cast of red shirts and other randoms that traipse through to little end. Implausibilities (and I do try to use that word sparingly in fantasy) abound, and for the most part, there’s just no accounting for them beyond poor plotting.

As it has been all along, gender and religion (spirituality) are still critical here, and these are undertaken with the same interesting poise they have always been under Lake’s pen. Naturally, these raise more questions than answers, but they are points that get one thinking.

And then there’s Green. Green, Green, Green.

Green has been a frustrating character for me from the very beginning. She is detached, willfully disengages, and yet claims the contrary. She bemoans, and fighting always seems to be the first impulse—which is to say, she’s a fighter not a thinker; impulsive to the utmost. Her sexuality is always at the fore of her thoughts—even in the most awkward, inappropriate situations. Seriously, it’s this woman’s cure to all things. I have no problem with sexual situations in fantasy, but they are just poorly handled in these books, and feel, above all, like they’re there for the sex itself, not for any real purpose or advancement of the plot. Green is not an intricate character, and when one factors in her superwoman capabilities matched with the luck and incompetence of the world around her, things can seem…well, downright boring at times. Pre-supposed.

In all? This was a series with a lot of potential. There is a rich world lurking beneath the pages, that puts a lot of important questions to the forefront of our own investigative minds—but what we get is a poorly plodded, disappointing adventure, populated by characters lacking the staying power of personality.

Fantasy Summer Sales and Indie Week Giveaways

Fantasy bandwagon: activate!

Fantasy bandwagon: activate!

It’s one thing to have written three books.

It’s quite another to share them with the world.

Well, this week I’m aiming to do just that. In concert with the approaching American Independence Day (sorry Brits), I figured it’s only right to celebrate Independent Authors, too, so there’s going to be a FLASH SUMMER SALE running on THE HOLLOW MARCH all week long. From today through Friday, July 3, the first entry into my fantasy series–THE HAUNTED SHADOWS–will be available on the cheap. So if you know anyone looking for a new fantasy series to lose themselves in, that’s the bandwagon to jump on.

And by bandwagon, I mean gryphons.

And by jump on I mean get eaten by…

Er, you know what? The details really aren’t important, are they?

Contemporary fiction at its finest.

Contemporary fiction at its finest.

What’s more, I’d also like to take the time to incline your ever-so-thoughtful heads towards another Indie sale going on this week. Fellow author Bryce Salazar’s debut novel, SHE SEES METAPHORS will be available for the low, low price of free through tomorrow. Absolutely no cents involved. Plenty of nonsense, though.

Bad jokes? Hey, that’s just part of our appeal.

Seriously, though, Salazar is a brilliant writer, with a piece that will blow the pants off any character-intensive reader out there. It tells the tale of one Jacqueline Schuler, who sees the world in metaphors. Literally. From streets of violent rivers to broken hearted mannequins, it’s a unique outlook on the world, with some truly intense imagery. It’s not quite magical realism, but it’s certainly magical in its modernity.

So give it a read, why don’t you?

Coming to a Patreon near you

As Feathers Fall eBook CoverIt has been quite the ride we have had–which is not, I might add, a prelude to its ending. Merely the need for change.

I have been writing since I was four years old. The first book I ever wrote was a 10 page, colored monstrosity for my first grade class about the Winter King conquering a kingdom and celebrating by dancing madly atop a castle. This shows you two things: that I am undeniably from Michigan, as I knew that winter would win, and that I may have in fact known that winter was coming as long as George R.R. Martin. It was also my first taste of censorship, as my parents advised me it was better to have the Winter King out think the bad guys than to simply beat them up.

C’est la vie.

Since then, I have released three books–the Haunted Shadows series, NOT the adventures of the Winter King, mind you–but I am no closer to making writing my day job. What’s more, my actual day job works to actively undermine my creativity and there are nights I come home bled dry. Journalism and freelance editing fill the off hours, but they are more supplementary income than beating the creativity wolves back from the door. The world has changed, but in the entertainment industry? Not for the better. Times are hard, and despite everything I beat myself up over, tell myself not to do, I’ve decided to do something radical…

I’m turning to you readers out there for help.

Believe me, it’s not easy. I’ve talked myself up to it and down time and time again. I hate the notion of begging. Of being seen to be asking for a handout. Then I realized…

It’s a fear of being seen as weak, having to ask for help in a world obsessed with pronouncing those who haven’t found their footing yet D.O.A.

Today I am announcing my own Patreon. Patreon is a site that allows you to support artists in creating what they love, and what you love; call it a mini-Kickstarter, if you will. Therein, you can pledge for stories written, poems woven, videos crafted, to your heart’s content. You don’t have to pay perpetually, you can back out anytime, and you pay only what you think the creator deserves, or what you can afford to give for the creations you enjoy.

Personally? It brings me one step closer to actually making writing a career, and that…that’s the stuff of dreams. I want to keep writing. I never want to stop, nor let the world take that away from me. I hope you can help with that. No strings attached, no arms twisted, no hounds released–all I ask if that you check out my page, and if you like what you see, both there and here, donate, so you can help me to create more.

Thank you, gentle readers. You’re one of the many reasons artists create.

A Short Soap Box in Defense of Sci-Fi

Metropolis’ New Tower of Babel

There are people in the world who do not understand how anyone could love classic science fiction. That declare they have no relevance. I ask in turn: what’s not to love? Heaps of books shouting to the heavens: “WELCOME TO THE DISTANT YEAR TWO THOUSAND OT FIFTEEN; MAN HAS CHARTED THE UNIVERSE (PROBABLY SOMETHING TO DO WITH WHY THE UNIVERSE IS ALSO IN CHAOS), AND ALSO FLYING CARS.” Should damn well put a bloody tear in your eye to see the high hopes our forefathers once had for us.

As for relevance, well, maybe you have a point there…I mean, of course, you had classics like Metropolis that let us all know by the year 2000 we would be living in a highly stratified class system where the poor are brutally oppressed and worked to death as living machines. Thank God that didn’t happen, right?

…Right?

We Need Another Emperor

New segment time!

Trying something a little different from the norm today, fellows. In the past few months, I’ve gotten a number of requests pertaining to my novels: specifically, for a little more of that information we writers like to call “worldbuilding”. Now, I’ve long since ceased with the whole, “Inside Idasia,” topics, but I thought perhaps expanding on some of the characters of the Haunted Shadows might fit the bill and quell some appetites. With that in mind, I cracked open ye olde notes and whipped up the first of what I’ll call: We Need Another Emperor—stories of Idasia. We start, appropriately, with the emperor as of “The Hollow March”. Enjoy.

Excerpted from the annals of Die Geschichte von Idasia (The History of Idasia)

Matthias I

Matthias came to the throne following the death of his short-lived brother, Joseph III, at a time of uncertainty for the laws of Idasia. Though the Altengard—the electors—of Idasia had confirmed him with little debate, there was some question as to his legitimacy. It had been Joseph who had been groomed for the throne, and his sickly statue had been seen as a staunch rebuke of the Durvalle line. Matthias was viewed by many as a bookish scholar, a boy with his head in the clouds. Many a rebellious lord at the time urged the claims of his younger brother, Mauritz, instead, or even those of his uncle, also named Joseph, and a long established councilor of his father.

Though he began his reign under the regency of his mother and his protector, the Count Palatine Kurste, it was not long until he reached majority. Within three years, he married a daughter of the principalities of Ravonno, Noelia Tirozzi. Theirs was to be a fruitful marriage.

He has survived no less than three attempts at assassination, all of them stemming from those early days. The most prominent of these, later to be known as the Burning of Bruchsal, resulted in the deaths of no less than the Count Palatine Kurste and three lesser lords. The conspirators, a group of no less than fifteen nobles and courtiers, were found out, strung up, and quartered before the gates of Anscharde. Although the Emperor’s uncle was never implicated in the crime, it is worth noting that he resigned his commissions shortly thereafter, and retired to his estates, his claim all but forgotten.

Though young to the throne, and untested before that time, Matthias was to reveal himself from an early age as a true and able emperor. Decisive, shrewd, a fine warrior and a finer horseman, he often played the peacemaker, but would gain the sobriquet “the Bold” for his strategic and quick-moving mind in times of war.

His empress, Noelia, was less beloved of the realm. Though beautiful and keenly intelligent, she was a creature aloof, severe both to courtiers and subjects alike. Some said she ruled the empire as much as her husband, but there is little proof of this. It is a notion stemming largely from how quickly the emperor turned from certain old policies upon her death.

For sixty-some years, their marriage nonetheless held true, and for the most part it was a happy marriage, from which many children (and eventually grandchildren) would flow. A fact which, many have claimed, has contributed to the state of affairs in the realm today…but this is not our tale.

For all the love they held for one another, Matthias was never a particularly faithful man. No less than three bastardies are recorded as his issue, on different women of his court, and noblewomen even in Asantil have claimed children of his own bearing. Of Surelia herself, eleven children would be born. Only one would fail to outlive her mother—this being the second, Sarre, who fell to plague in the flower of her youth, and would bear her parents much grief.

With the help of his brothers and his councilors, Emperor Matthias set out to reform the realm. He took the unified code of the old kings and reworked it, diminishing the rights of the old blood and paving room for new, whilst bolstering those of the littlefolk who toiled beneath his banners. Roads that had been allowed to wear for years were reworked, and new ones ground across the empire. This, in turn, funneled the supplies and troops which tirelessly expanded the boundaries of the nation, boundaries Matthias would be constantly attending throughout his lifetime, such that it was said he scarcely rested anywhere more than a day.

In his youth, so too was Matthias heralded as a champion of the faith, his marriage to Noelia and his own carefully worded essays on Visaj seen as a growing (and troubling, for other nations) link between Idasia and Holy Ravonno. After Noelia’s death, of course, this would change. Today, Matthias is sometimes called the Scourge of Visaj, though this is hardly fair. The emperor has always remained staunch in his faith. What changed were his people. As Farrenism spread throughout his lands, he simply opened it to them, allowing them the same rights as his brothers in faith.

Tragically few see it as such, even amongst his own family.

Thus the greatest problems of the later years of Matthias’s reign would be two-fold: religious dissension, and the unheard of simplicity of too many heirs. Though his son Joseph was named heir apparent from birth, there was no love lost between the two men. Following Noelia’s death, Joseph openly rebuked his father’s policies of conciliation with the Farrens, and for his decision to take up a Farren bride. Some have pointed to the son’s days in the military less as a chance to build his character than as a means to remove him from the emperor’s daily sight.

Of his children from Noelia, only Princess Sara would embrace the new faith. The others would remain steadfast, and there are many who have spoken of “the great factions,” of the court, contained only by the will of Matthias himself, the personal loyalty of his bannermen, and the soothing words of his skilled Chancellor. That the Emperor has had two more children since from his marriage to Surelia Jerantus, a princess of the Jerantus line of the Farren-littered kingdom of Banur, had not aided matters, though.

Today, however, it is the war with Effise in the east which holds the attentions of the scribes of tragedy. For years, the two nations had seethed over their borders. Effise’s navy had long controlled the seatrade routes, while Idasia held all land routes to the west. Effise had long held the advantage of technology, being masters of the cannon, but Idasia was far the larger, and flush with the wealth of its conquests.

For all this, all accounts agree it was the Council of Anscharde which decided things. Matthias’s decision to allow equal rights of property and worship to Farren and Visaj alike, and the murder of an Effisian diplomat on his return from that same council were to be the sparks of a brutal war which has stretched for nigh a decade now. The Church of Visaj, as well, has used this proxy war to push its agenda in the court of Idasia, and to funnel money into Effise.

Matthias has proven himself on the field of Effise, and abroad. Under his reign, his military accomplishments have included:

  1. The Duchy of Walim, in the west, was brought into the sphere of the Empire’s influence. Its old duke, an uncle of Matthias’s, died without issue. Attempts to put a niece upon the throne were contested by Matthias, and the resulting war ended in a year’s time.
  2. The Kingdom of Surin, in the east, was reduced to a chaotic strip of land, generations of petty warfare between the two nations finally brought to a head and the waning power of the kingdom utterly smashed. The Idasian Empire seized the remainder of Ulneberg forest, and all of Surin’s holdings on the western side of the River Jurree. Surin’s king was rendered incapable, its royalty reduced to little more than first amongst many, a horde of barons squabbling for scraps.
  3. The aging Kingdom of Durscht was finally eliminated in the south, its lands split between the imperial provinces of Varstein and Karinth, and the southern Wine Coast thus secured for Idasia.
  4. The Margravine provinces of Momeny and Arlaine were founded in the east, with land seized from Effise.
  5. The Effisian navy was smashed by a resurgent Idasian fleet in the Crystal Bay and, consequently, the Effisian blockade of Imperial territory was lifted. Never before had the Idasians been anything but a land power, yet thanks to retrofitted cannons developed by an Idasian admiral, imperial cannon gained a ranged superiority unmatched by neighboring states.
  6. At the Battle of Halensa Fields, the Zuti menace was finally checked. After having consumed the Kingdom of Naran in the west, Zuti forces had moved to take Asantil and Lorace. Recognizing the threat to its western borders, the Empire joined the coalition of Marindi states on the fields of Asantil, where its cavalry, as well as the advent of gunpowder proved a decisive victory for Marindi nations, and spelled the end of Zuti ascendancy on the continent.

For more than sixty years, Matthias had led the Empire of Idasia to the very peak of its power and prestige. He is called “the Bold,” “He Who Rides,” and the “Good Emperor Matthias.” Yet as the war in Effise drags on, and initial victories have dragged into stubborn sieges, some question whether the aging Emperor, once renowned for his nightly travel from castle to castle and town to town, can still hold up the nation he so embodies…

(Haven’t read the books? Keep up on the fantasy and dive into The Haunted Shadows. Just click the image below!)

Hollow March eBook Cover 2