Monday, April 24, 2017

Souldancer - Dirty Thirties

It took half the book, but I think I've finally put my finger on why I struggle to follow the plot of Souldancer.  It all hinges on the motivations of the primary actors.

Say what you will about George Rape Rape Martin's Ice and Fire Omnibus, all of the characters have easy to follow motivations.  Team Evil wants the Iron Throne and will do anything to hold it.  Team Not Quite as Evil wants the same.  Team Chump wants to keep their family safe from the machinations of Team Evil.  Team Blonde wants her throne back, but needs to run around not-North-Africa gaining enough XP to earn enough gold for an army of henchmen and a dragon mount.  This makes it easy for the reader to constantly gauge the relative positions of the actors.

In Niemeier's other works - okay, the only other one I've read so far is Elegy for the Locust, his short story in Forbidden Thoughts - the protagonist is motivated by a desire to usurp his master.  He seeks out the dark arts, and succeeds beyond his wildest nightmares. 

Most of the protagonists and antagonists in Souldancer have motivations that are vague or hard to track.  Xander, thrust out of his tribe, is a wanderer who falls in with a group of adventurers.  Those adventurers want to look ruins for old tech, and its only later that we realize Thurif's real motive was to secure enough power to become death, destroyer of gods.  At the tail end of the dirty thirties we meet Gil and the crew of the broken down Serapis, who get shanghaied when Asltin and company bring Zan aboard.  Their sole motivation from that point on is staying alive - they are caught between the pirates and their former master who would have them killed for their failures.  But that leaves them as just more leafs-in-the-wind.

As another example, our adventuring party on the run from the bad guys, so they need a ship.  They get one, but that's a tertiary step.  I don't know what the plan is for after they have the ship.  It quickly becomes moot because once they have the ship they need to escape from pursuit, and an epic space battle occurs.  But if Zan gets away, that just means he can pick up his friends so they can...still not sure what the ultimate goal is here.

The antagonists are hard to track as well.  The Lawbringers work for Shaiel's Blade and Shaiel's Will, who obviously work for Shaiel, but work toward what?  The factions are clear. The conflict is clear. But it's never clear how close anyone is to achieving their goal.

Which can be fine - a roller coaster ride featuring a character bouncing through the pinball machine of life at the mercy of fate's bumpers can be a lot of fun.  It's how I've had to read this book, not thinking or anticipating, but just letting the plot wash over me and occasionally making connections that don't have any real meaning since they don't have any more bearing on the future than anything else in the book.  The stopper in this case is that there are so many different factions working with and betraying each other for short term gain, that I just can't follow the ultimate why of the book.

Other than survival.  Staying alive is always a priority, but there must be more to the Middle Stratum than this.


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Souldancer: Chapters 25-30

From their perch nearby the Kerioth, Astlin, Xander, Zan, Tefler, and Cook wait for a path to the ship to clear. When the guards leave, they make their way to the ship, but are interrupted by Irallel, the water souldancer. Irallel toys with Astlin, beating her up and don the ramp, threatening the rest of the group at the same time. Receiving some hard telepathic wisdom from Cook, Astlin admits defeats. Irallel leaves, pleased at her victory.

As the group navigates Kerioth's decks in the dark, Tefler reveals that he is a priest of Thera, a blasphemy that shocks Xander. Astlin interrupt when she finds the bridge and purges Thurif's flesh-crafted servitors. Since only a nexist can fly the ship. she must transfer her memories to Xander. In the process, she accidentally attempts to take her soul fragment back from Xander, overwhelming his memory and personality.

Zan and Astlin talk about the burdens and costs of being a souldancer.

Xander can fly the Kerioth, but needs additional lessons to activate its FTL drive. Fatigued by the wheel, he seeks a place to safely land. The Exarch attacks, shooting down the Kerioth.

Tefler awakes in Thera's presence. The goddess scolds him for lack of forethought and that he should have expected a spy. She says that Astlin does not have Shaiel inside of her, and that she, Thera, is all of the souldancers at once.

Xander pulls himself and Cook free from the wreck. Hazeroth greets him, taunting Xander with memories of the death of his family. Th demon prince sidesteps Cook's attack. Astlin arrives, freezes everything with her mind, tells Xander to leave, and challenges Hazeroth.

Hazeroth bests Astlin as her attacks find little purchase on him. He hacks off one of her arms. Zan and Xander join the fray, with Zan buying enough time for Xander to ram Astlin's molten metal arm into Hazeroth's gut. Then Sulaiman crests a dune, and crosses blades with Hazeroth. As the fight rolls away, Xander sits with the nearly dead Tefler and Cobb, and the bleeding out Astlin. Damus and Thurif find them, and offer a devil's bargain. Thurif will use his flesh-shaping abilities for a price.

Astlin wakes up, unarmored but not burning everything up. Tefler is present and offers to help her into her armor while the elemental Void protects everything from the Flame. Meanwhile, Xander visit's Thurif's bridge. Thurif wants to take the four souldancers to a nearby vault. Xander protests, but he will be force to remain on the Exarch to ensure Astlin's compliance.

****

Kelgrun... Now that's a name that has a lot to answer for, from the creation of Elena and the souldancers to the binding of Elathan into the Exodus.

Thurif appears to walking the same path that Vaun did in Nethereal, but there's a menace he lacks compared to his forebear.

It did not strike me until later to remember two important things about Thera's priesthood. First, a priest of Thera was present at the last battle of the Serapis. Second, Thera's priesthood is hereditary. Finally, Deim was Elena's lover prior to the madness of Elathan's hatching. Tefler doesn't yet realize just how strange his mommy issues are.

The nine souldancers each have a connection to a different stratum of space. Once again, Norse cosmology and its nine worlds compose some of the building blocks of the Soul Cycle's universe, with Mithgar, the home of the humans, being one of the more obvious tells, This Norse cosmology is mixed with the scala natura of Plato and the medievals, a hierarchy of being. In the alchemical realm, this being starts with earth, then water, air, fire, and then divine light. From Netheral, we known that the Fire Stratum is above Mithgar and closer to the White Well, while the Earth Stratum is below Mithgar and closer to the Void. It will be interesting to see how the beings and the Strata interact, as well as if the Chain of Being relationship will echo in the relationships between the souldancers. If so, Astlin as the fire souldancer will be the most powerful and a leader among the nine. We'll see, though. Irallel is a natural foil to Astlin, in personality and elemental affinity.

An Irminsul is a sacred tree-trunk pillar erected by the ancient Saxons. The name has some linguistic connection to Yggdrasil, the world tree that connects the nine worlds of the Norse. It is a fitting name for a giant tree on Mithgar's surface, as well as the site of upcoming divine hijinks.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Souldancer: Chapters 19-24

The group intends to use a Gate to escape Mithgar and the Night Gen pursuit. Astlin's presence creates tension between Damus and Xander, while Xander's killing of his mother Sarel in the past adds more between Szodrin and Xander. But when they cannot decide which safe harbor to flee to, Astlin suggest her home world of Keth. The gate, however, leaves them in Ostrith, as it has been sabotaged by Thurif. He coerces the group to follow him through the gate.

Szodrin awakens in the Nexus, likely dead...or about to be.

Xander wakes up in Astlin's care aboard an unknown ship. Damus enters, and attempts to convince Xander to resume the working relationship they once had with Thurif. Xander refuses, severing his relationship with Damus rather than letting Thurif control Astlin.

Damus conveys Xander's answer to Thurif. The rogue Steersman describes the souldancers as portals to other worlds and the cause of the Cataclysm. He intends to trade Astlin to those who might have use of her power. Thurif then guides the stolen Kerioth toward Irminsul, the Great Tree and home of Shaiel's navy, passing the Serapis in the process.

Sulaiman (and his hidden companion) arrives at the ruined Guild hall. He sees a form shadowing the nearby mountains.

Tefler peers into a water basin, and sees images of Xander and Astlin in its reflections. This vision is replaced by a void silhouette blotting out all the star - and all life. He then has a vision of a rose fog, a cable, and a feminine form. He is startled out of his trance by his friend Cook. Tefler must convey the news of Kerioth's arrival with a souldancer to Hazeroth himself.

Inside their cell, Xander and Astlin struggle to contain her Flame once again. Void priests of Shaiel enter, and rip Xander out of Astlin's arms.

Hazeroth meets with Thurif, who quickly offers offense. The demon prince murders him. But Thurif continues his conversation from another body. After a quick agreement on proper manners, Hazeroth reveals that he is attempting to free his lord from its prison inside a souldancer. When Thurif claims to have made all the souldancers, Hazeroth offers to trade one of his captured souldancers for Astlin.

Astlin is introduced to Hazeroth's souldancer servant, Zan, who leads her away from danger.

Xander is thrown into a cell with Damus. Tefler and Cook walk in and free Xander, but leave Damus on his own. Before Xander leaves, he crushed the blood vial that symbolizes the oath between him and Damus.

Serapis is trapped in a Great Tree. Tefler and Cook lead Xander out onto its branches. The two sailors resent Hazeroth's claim to the Serapis, and remember Elathan's birth at the end of Nethereal, when the god bit into the ship and cast it down to the planet below. Serapis crashed into the tree, and was eventually recovered by Shaiel's navy from Cadrys. Zan brings Astlin to the priest sailors, who plot an escape. Shaiel must not be allowed to collect all the souldancers.

*****

Lightning Esper. 
In the Final Fantasy VI game, magic is rare, but your party members can equip stones containing the souls of Espers. This forms a telepathic bond between the Esper and the player character, allowing the player character to learn magic from the Esper. This is usually elementally themed, with fire spells coming from a fire Esper. We have seen that five of the nine souldancers have an elemental theme (earth, water, air, fire, and void). Furthermore, Xander has a telepathic bond with Astlin, the Fire Souldancer. It would not surprise me to see his nexism gain a fiery nature. Also, what powers are the other four souldancers attuned to? No common elemental scheme corresponds to a ninefold ordering of elements.

Souldancer is now tying into the events of Nethereal. Serapis was Malachi's vessel during the final chase of Jaren, and only ceased in its pursuit when the god Elathan broke free from the shell of the Exodus. Tefler, and Cook recall the two dead men that went from Hell to Exodus's crew to Serapis's. If this is correct, Thera's resssurection scrambled their memories so that they don't remember much before Elathan's release. And the rose fog, cable, and feminine form seen in the aquamantic scrying point to Elena, the vessel of Thera's resurrection in Nethereal.

Szodrin's appearance in the Nexus suggest that Thera did indeed patch around the soul trap of Hell when she revitalized the White Well. The souls of the dead were originally intended to do so, losing their personalities along the way in a manner more Eastern than Christian.

Did I really once say that Souldancer started with a resemblance to shounen manga tropes? How foolish I was. Not only has Xander not really made any allies beyond his souldancer squeeze, those who should have been his allies have betrayed him with clockwork regularity. Souldancer isn't shounen, it's what happens when shounen tropes are forced to play Diplomacy (the destroyer of friendships) with each other.

Souldancer - The Roaring Twenties

Chapter 25 is one heck of chapter right there, boy.  It should be a simple loot and scoot of the Kerioth.

It’s likely no coincidence that the events of Chapter 25 landed right at the midpoint of Souldancer.  This is one of those chapters that relentlessly hammers the reader.  You get the first inkling of what full blown souldancer on souldancer combat might look like.  You get another layer of souldancer power, clairaudience, shown in explicit detail.  You are shown what a great guy Cook really is.  And to top off that layer cake you get the frosting of the first overt acknowledgement of Xander’s love for Astlin coupled with Astlin’s first hint that she might be lovable.
Souldancer is definitely a book of monsters.  Some of the monsters are ugly on the inside and the outside.  Irallel, the waterdancer, looks like a drowned woman and has the spirit to match.  Some are only ugly on the inside – in my mind Hazeroth is as pretty as he is foul.  And some of the monsters are only ugly on the outside – Cook might look like a sack of potatoes that just lost a fight against the ugly stick, but he’s solid gold inside.  This constant refrain of larger-than-life characters really helps elevate Souldancer’s game.  It serves as a constant reminder that we’re treading on ground that is unlike the standard cut-and-paste genre fiction.

Of course, Neimeier doesn’t let up the pace in Chapter 26 either.  The relatively simple stealing of the Kerioth gives way to the first real showdown with Hazeroth, and what a showdown that was.  The combined might of two souldancers backed up by Xander’s formidable talent are barely enough to scratch the guy.  It’s only the timely intervention of Sulaiman that allows them to escape certain doom and get to the Steersman Vault.
And again, the threat level is ratcheted up when it takes all four souldancers to put down one left-over security guardbot.  That little fight reveals a little something about poor Irallel, but it also highlights that this universe is in many ways a shadow of what it once was.  Or perhaps it demonstrates how formidable the Guild was at the height of its power.  One basic warbot took the souldancers combining Voltron-like to defeat?
That really puts the events of Nethereal in perspective.  We knew the Guild was tough, but this raises the bar considerably.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Souldancer: Chapters 15-18

In Salorien, Astlin continues to offer the hospitality of her house to Xander. The outcast has nightmares, and although Astlin tries to comfort him,the couple manages to render mutual offense to each other. Soon after, Xander sneaks out, but runs into Inspector Culvert, who questions him about Astlin's father. Xander returns to Astlin, who is spooked by word of the inspector's presence.

Szodrin has found Xander's life chord amidst nexism flashes caused by a higher order being. He follows it into a shattered high rise and runs into Damus in the process. He convinces the Day Gen to join his search for Xander. They find a pile of withered and scorched bodies, but Xander's is not among them. They ascend higher in search of the source of the corpses. A metallic being with brilliant blue eyes greets them. She is the Flame that must be quenched to Save All Souls. She begs them to leave.

Xander wakes from another nightmare and finds Szodrin in Salorien. Before he can grill the Night Gen, Inspector Culvert captures Astlin and a stand-off ensues. After the clash of nexism and guns ends, Szodrin points out the flaws in the world around Xander. The Nesshin exile sees through the illusion of Salorien. The real threat is Astlin, the illusion weaver. She seeks someone who will close the wound in her soul, from which the Fire can escape. She asks for Xander's help - and a piece of his soul. Astlin floods his mind wit visions of people ripping out part of her soul. Szodrin tries to get Xander to leave the Souldancer. Instead, Xander manages to bind up the wound in Astlin soul with his nexism and part of his own self.

Xander comes to, yet again, this tie in the ruins of the Tower Graves. He learns from Szodrin that the Night Gen deserter knew his mother and saved him because of that relationship. Before the two of them can sort out more details, including where the Night Gen forces have imprisoned Xander's father and his caravan, more isnashi werewolf Gen attack. Astlin meets them in battles and her Fire consumes them. The danger shifts from attacker to the Flame, which wants to burn even more. With an exertion of will, Astlain and Xander manage to force the Flame back inside the Souldancer's soul, and seal it within. Against Szodrin's judgment, Astlin joins the party.


Take a second look at the Souldancer from Final Fantasy VI, and compare it to Astlin's description. Xander's Souldancer is known for her red hair, brilliant eyes, and brass body, all colors and characteristics from the game sprite. As we've seen elsewhere, Brian is willing to alter the design to better fit his story, as Astlin's eyes are blue and she wears what looks like a black stillsuit. Soul Cycle is influenced by many sources, but synthesizes the influences into something new instead of rehashing and repeating them like many writers are wont to. (Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim omes to mind as such a rehash, of Ranma 1/2 and its 1990s fanfiction scene in particular.)

The discovery of Astlin as a souldancer attuned to fire upends the understanding of the epilogue from Nethereal. Instead of the fiery Cataclysm coming from Thera's rebirth and refilling of the White Well, it came from Astlin arriving in Ostrith somehow (possibly from the Guild prisons or labs?). It took nine sheered souls to create Elena's to revive Thera Souldancer, and one was Astlin's. Where are the other eight and what were they doing during Nethereal? Besides Vaun, that is.

RIP Jemai. He did not survive the Journey to Save All Souls. Fortunately, an outcast finally sated the Flame.

Soul traps are strangely common in the universe of the Soul Cycle, whether in rubies, Souldancer workings, or Hell itself.

Xander certainly wakes up in new in strange situations a lot...

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Souldancer: Chapters 9-14

Xander and the party regroup outside the tunnel. After binding up their wounds, they descend into a ravine, past a ruined chain-link fence, and back underground into an abandoned complex. While they explore the rusted halls, they find a room with a whirlpool in it. The room floods, and a monster attacks.

During the fight, Xander nearly downs. In that time between times, he manages to connect with the monster's thoughts, but is pulled back to life. He returns, wounding the monster with his gift. Damus kills the creature, another corrupted Gen known as a pranaphage. Xander reveals existence of his cursed gift, to the delight of Damus and Nahel. But Arcanadeus is missing, likely for sinister reasons...

The trio tracks Arcanadeus into a security vault. Inside, they find a misshapen...thing...in a glass cylinder. Arcanadeus confronts them, revealing himself to be a man known as Thurif. He seeks the Guild's nexism experiments for his own ends. Xander attempts to crush Thurif with his gift, but he resists. Damus attempts to bargain with Thurif, and a bright light carries the impostor steersman and the nightmare experiments away.

While Xander recovers, Damus identifies Xander as a nexist, and theorizes that a nexis-runner ship scooped the two monsters up. To escape this threat, they will need to travel using a Guild gate. Damus intends to seek refuge for Xander with Queen Navkin in Avalon. In gratitude, Xander swears a blood pact with Damus.

Aboard the Ashlam, Szodrin is called on the carpet before his captain for abandoning Sarel's son, a rare human nexist, in the desert. To redeem himself, Szodrin is charged to find the nexist and return him for conversion.

Xander awakens in an opera house under the care of Neriad, an older red-haired woman. After the show, she takes him through the city on her way home. He meets her family, including her younger sister Astlin. Xander and Astlin navigate each other's strange customs, and Xander learns that not only is he not on Mithgar, the Cataclysm has yet to happen.

Damus and Nahel search for Xander in Ostrith, triggering Guild defenses and a Night Gen pack in the process. As the isnashi close in, Nahel covers Damus's escape. A Night Gen shaman binds Nahel in the names of Elathan, Thera, and Shaiel, allowing its pack to kill the malakh. Damus escapes after killing a pursuing Night Gen, and follows a strange perfume deeper into the Tower Graves.

Szodrin traces Xander's life chord, but runs into Ruthven, the captain of the rival ship Kerioth, who is searching for Xander and a Gen ship. Szodrin manipulates Ruthven into opening a Guild gate and then double-crosses him.

*****

Compared to the alien and exotic Nethereal, the scenes and the settings of Souldancer are far more familiar. Ruined chain-link fences, rust-clogged industrial complexes, and abandoned cities can be seen today, whether in that one abandoned lot downtown or by watching shows like Life Without People. This anchors Xander's adventure in a reality most tangible to the reader. It also makes the intrusions of the weird more vivid by contrast, such as the monsters, whirlpools, and Night Gen werewolves.

Per Nethereal, nexism is tied to natural processes in the world of the Soul Cycle. The soul trap that is Hell was built to interfere with this process. Hell still exists, but when Elena became Thera and rejuvenated the universe, did she route the flows from the White Well around the soul trap? Nexism is also a third magic, distinct from White Well prana workings and the magic of the Void.

Sarel's heterodox views of the gods now make sense, as she is somehow connected to the Gen and the Shaiel faction. Was she part of yet another breeding program designed to created nexism users such as her son, Xander? One thing is certain; she is held in high esteem by both Nesshin and the space travelers of the Ashlam. And it is out of that respect that Xander was not harvested as raw materials for whatever scheme is in play.


Part of the fun of the Puppy of the Month club is that the authors tend to stop by and add to the discussion. In addition to commenting here, Brian Niemeier has been going further in depth over at his own site, Kairos. One of the secrets that he let slip is the connection between the bestiary of Final Fantasy VI and the souldancers of the Soul Cycle. This makes me curious to what other creatures might be "palette-swapped" from the game. It's hard to say; Brian is economical with his descriptions, relying instead on one or two quick details that supply just enough information for readers to fill in the rest of the picture. This indirect approach has been championed by horror and weird writers, since no description on the page can match the mind's eye image in the reader's head.

Speaking of Final Fantasy, the opera house is one of the set piece scenes in FFVI. Seeing a nod to it here brought a smile to my face, especially since I view Xander as a nod to Celes. He fits the same role of the World of Ruin magic user and perspective character as Celes, and both have been found in opera houses. Fortunately, we are spared his attempts to sing.

Another red-haired potential love interest? Heinlein's curse strikes again.

Nahel might be dead, but that does not mean that we won't see him again. As I mentioned earlier, the soul trap of Hell is still in place...

Finally, a mentally/magically-superpowered mutated being in a glass tube is a moldy-oldy of anime, somewhat out of favor now since the medium has shifted away from space opera and and science-fiction. Seeing one in the middle of a technology lab made sense and adds to the aforementioned familiarity of Souldancer compared to its predecessor.

Friday, April 14, 2017

May's Puppy of the Month Book is...

"They saw beetles tall as dogs, with heavy saw-toothed pincers attacking objects resembling horses; pens of insects even larger, long, narrow, segmented, with dozens of heavy legs and nightmare heads. All of these creatures [...] it was plain that the First Folk had been practicing selective breeding for many years, perhaps centuries."

Who's Jack Vance, you ask? Well, that's a nuncupatory question if I have ever heard one.

Most of you probably know him already for his Dying Earth stories, but he was a very prolific author whose work spanned decades and multiple genres, and some of his tales might now be more obscure.

Cugel's Saga, the Demon Princes, Planet of Adventure? Sure, those are known and recommended, but what about The Miracle Workers or The Last Castle? They may not be the most well-known (or the best) Vance, but they are still Vance (as you will quickly see once you start reading these stories.) Therefore, from the master who seamlessly shifted and mixed fantasy and science fiction, I present you The Dragon Masters and Other Stories, a collection of three stories (two of them Hugo winners) about scientific voodoo, mystical science and vinegar, a genetic-engineering arms race, knights driving cars, astronauts, foppish and decadent aristocrats, slave rebellions, and an alien threat with very human weapons. And dragons, of course.