Friday, June 23, 2017

An Equation of Almost...There

My earlier post on An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity took the book out behind the woodshed, but in all fairness, J. Mulrooney writes like a boss.  My enjoyment was hampered by the central conceit of the book (i.e. personal politics and a cast of characters all trying to get one over on each other).  Which says nothing about how well written the book might be.

As Nathan has mentioned a few times, J. Mulrooney has a gift for turning impressive phrases.  He also manages to spend a few chapters setting up some great scenes.  His characterizations are deft as well.  Every character has their own specific personality that suffuses every scene.  Even relatively minor characters like the Indian mathematicians are presented as separate and distinct with their own goals and motivations. 

Oddly enough, I found myself enjoying this specifically Canadian novel.  The Canuckness of An Equation goes well beyond, "it's set in Canada, so...hockey I guess".  Their judging respect and contempt for Americans.  Cooper's iron-clad politeness, and even the relative amicableness of Julius in the face of Thisbe's constant hypergamy, ring true to many of the Canadians I've encountered (and as a Michigander that number is higher than for most Americans).  The weather, the governmental processes and the interplay between the local PD and the RCMP, they are all nice departures from the usual LA or NYC or NO setting of most literary type novels.

Speaking of great one liners, here's a few of my favorites:
  • To judge by the number of Holocaust movies, the world is now seventy-five percent Jewish.
  • It was as if the baby boomers, after a lifetime of careless destructions of all the good and lovely things in the world, finally admitted that Elvis Presley was only someone whom they had pretended to like because he annoyed their fathers.
  • And, although he did not know the Baltimore catechism as well as his father did, Maconachie nonetheless knew enough to disapprove of devils using hellfire to heat their homes.  At the least, there was a zoning violation.
Good stuff.  I'm actually looking forward to Mulrooney's next book based on the strength of his writing in An Equation...etc.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Professor Housley's Lectures - Geek Gab

Last week our very own Nathan Housley, Pulp Archivist and literary critic par excellent, was recently interviewed on Geek Gab: On the Books.  So full on insight are he and the injustice Gamer that one episode couldn't contain it all, and the clock ran long without anyone noticing.

Is he a man either wise beyond his years, or an old man full of youthful exuberance?  It's a mystery (appropriately enough, given the subject matter).  Listen, and decide for yourself!

 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Almost Infinite Complexity, Chapters 10-16

Cooper gets the job, and now has to produce. As he crams in as many odd actuarial equations into a spreadsheet in the hopes of reproducing the results of Gormley's book, he is given two quants to help him. He distracts them by making them build a computer database. They return, job finished, in awe of Cooper's methods. The math is trash, but it works as a predictive model, so it's awesome.

Old Nick Scratch fires Gormley, and bides his time. Cooper owes the devil a favor, but either Satan is playing the long game, or, as he puts it, humans are so inventive at damning themselves, so why work? Gormley lands on his feet and becomes yet another of Cooper's assistants

Thisbe fends off Gormley's wandering hands and Cooper's fumbling advance while she chases after Dean. She makes a complete hash of reading the situation and thinks Cooper is blackmailing Dean, so she starts needling Cooper. Eventually, she tries to sabotage him by proving his death record wrong.

Finally, someone breaks into Mr. Scratch's basement. The cops arrive, question Cooper, and leave, but not before the devil hints that there has been another death on his premises...

Folks familiar with Game will recognize Thisbe as the classic Alpha Widow, or the woman who was once loved by a high-status man and, now discarded, can't let him go. She does get another hit of her drug here, but her obsession with Dean distorts the lens through which she sees the world. If Dean is all that and a bag of chips, why would Cooper hold any blackmail against him? Dean also occupies a position at the pinnacle of the Game hierarchy, while Cooper's place is much lower but not yet pinned down. We'll know for certain when things go south on Cooper...

So far, Mulrooney is a master of exquisite sentence-smithing, with subtle constructions, negations, humor, and rhetoric, but, like a stick figure mosaic made of jeweled tiles, the parts are greater than the sum. It's a bit of a slog through modern literary fiction--good sentences, a leavening of SFF tropes, and all the unlikable characters you can shake a stick at. It might be time for another Reader's Manifesto...

Thursday, June 15, 2017

July's Puppy: Who Fears the Devil? by Manly Wade Wellman

Where I've been is places and what I've seen is things, and there’ve been times I’ve run off from seeing them, off to other places and things. I keep moving, me and this guitar with the silver strings to it, slung behind my shoulder. Sometimes I’ve got food with me and an extra shirt maybe, but most times just the guitar, and trust to God for what I need else.  
I don’t claim much. John’s my name, and about that I’ll only say I hope I’ve got some of the goodness of good men who’ve been named it. I’m no more than just a natural man; well, maybe taller than some. Sure enough, I fought in the war across the sea, but so does near about every man in war times. Now I go here and go there, and up and down, from place to place and from thing to thing, here in among the mountains.  
Up these heights and down these hollows you’d best go expecting anything. Maybe everything. What’s long time ago left off happening outside still goes on here, and the tales the mountain folks tell sound truer here than outside. About what I tell, if you believe it you might could get some good thing out of it. If you don’t believe it, well, I don’t have a gun out to you to make you stop and hark at it.
With these words, Manly Wade Wellman introduced John the Balladeer, also known as Silver John, and the strangeness of Carolina mountain hollows and Pennsylvania folk magic. With naught but his silver six-string, John walks the Appalachians in search of a good tune, encountering witch men and folk monsters along the way. Whether driving off a son of the Salem witches, challenging a Biblical giant, or escaping the snares of the house-like gardinel plant, John rises to the occasion with his command of folklore, music, and good old horse sense. After all, with a little homespun faith, a good song, and a jingle of silver in your pocket, Who Fears The Devil?

Please join the Puppy of the Month Club in July as we read Manly Wade Wellman's Who Fears the Devil?, exploring the works of one of America's celebrated fantasists.


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Almost Infinite Complexity, Chapters 5--9

Let's see, two chapters of how Thisbe followed the Approved Girl Power College Life Checklist into unhappiness before being swept up into a whirlwind romance that ends abruptly when her boyfriend sells his soul to the devil, a misspelling on a sign leads Cooper to try to free Keiter from the furnace of Scratch using hops-free beer, Old Nick himself hands Gormley's Death Note little black book of Death's appointments to Cooper in hopes of pushing him closer to the titular equation, and Cooper uses Death's book to bluff the insurance company even further, fending off Thisbe's attempts to scuttle his project. Finally, Cooper has dinner with Thisbe, where they recall old friends and old college-day embarrassments.

I fear that I've made this sound more amusing than it really is.

The air of the Hitchhiker's Guide has departed, leaving a rather dry ramble through flashbacks and history with an occasional step towards the delivery of the Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity. There's a few clever moments, but not enough to really enliven the read. And while Gormley does evoke Discworld's Death, he lacks the charm of the ONE WHO SPEAKS IN CAPS.

Perhaps this book is too subtle for me.

But I'm still waiting to see just how Cooper's lies fall apart on him

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Bad Puppy! Bad Puppy!

I feel a need to apologize for selecting An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity as this month's selection.  Of all the books we've read over the past year, it definitely ranks among my least favorite. 

I'm a huge fan of the unreliable narrator trope, particularly when it's used to present a point-of-view character who isn't nearly as smart as the reader.  One of my all time favorite books is Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al, that makes a tremendous amount of hay out of this idea.  Lardner makes it work by using a deft touch and a character who is actually and in point of fact dumb.  In An Equation, most of the characters are presented as smart in one way or another, and then behave in ways that don't fit with an actually intelligent person.  They ignore obvious social cues, never think to do obvious actions, and generally make a hash of everything.

Add to that the issue that all of major characters are unlikable, and most of the minor characters as well.  Every single one is so caught up in their own miserable lives they can't stop and think for a moment.  They use and abuse everyone around them in ways that make no sense.  They have inflated senses of self-import, they blunder through the plot, they all remind me of Ignatius P. Reilly of A Confederacy of Dunces, and I don't like spending time with any of them.  These are the sorts of people that I avoid like the plague in real life, and if it wasn't for my guilt for inflicting them on my fellow Contributors, I'd have - as Nathan so aptly puts it - walled this book a dozen chapters ago.

(I'm only three-quarters of the way through this book after three weeks of effort, and keep getting distracted by other things to read.  For example, there's this interesting book in my queue called Dangerous Gamers that I really want to get to soon.)

It's also strange how the fantastical parts of the story feel so bolted on.  It's the tale of Death losing his appointment calendar and the machinations of those who would use that knowledge for power and money.  Yet somehow, it feels like an Oprah style workplace drama novel.  It's frankly surprising to me that this wasn't a stronger contender for a Hugo, given how very much it feel like one of the novelettes that were nominated this year.

The last quarter of this books is going to take some time and effort for me to get through, but I'll soldier on and let our faithful readers know whether or not Mulrooney pulls a last minute save out of his hat.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Almost Infinite Complexity, Chapters 1-4

When an expected cash-out lawsuit falls through, Cooper finds himself without money, with mounting bills, and a ton of laywer's fees. At his lowest point, Mr. Scratch, as his next-door neighbor prefers to call himself, throws a party. The devil offers him a deal--a lucrative position as a creative actuary for the Seals Insurance Company. 

Cooper flubs the interview.


To save his prospects, he boasts that he can calculate to the very moment when an individual will die. By bluffing his way through with lies overheard from other actuaries, he cons his way into the job.


Now he has to deliver on his boasts. But events continue to distract Cooper, such as meeting the beautiful Thisbe, discovering that Death lives with Mr. Scratch, and finding that Mr. Keiter, a man Death killed at Mr. Scratch's party, now exists as a 12 inch spectre burning away in Mr. Scratch's furnace...


***

I'll admit, I'm not a literary type, and Vox Day, the editor of Castalia House, is far more enamored of literary fiction than most of us who blog for Castalia House. (He's also far more into gonzo. Check out Loki's Child by Fenris Wulf some time.) So I was a little hesitant to dig into An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity. However, the madcap idea of a dude bluffing his way through a job offer from the Devil by promising to create what amounts to a psychohistory of the individual caught my attention. You just know that a Faustian deal is around the corner.

But that deal is slow in coming. The Devil makes no coy attempts to hide who he is from Cooper, who seems to be living within a huge Somebody Else's Problem Field. Rather, we are treated to a rather droll party, where the height of amusement is watching Cooper trip over himself as he attempts to muster the courage to interact with Thisbe. Well, that and Mr. Keiter's death and discovery in the furnace below. It's a dry humor, trust me, like watching Arthur Dent bumble through the Hitchhiker's Guide universe, although An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity is spiritual fiction instead of science fiction.

The story is strange, outside my comfort zone, but has potential to develop in a myriad of ways. Let's see where it goes.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Vance and the supernatural

In "The Miracle Workers" Jack Vance plays with an odd philosophical experiment: a society where "magic" is rational, deductive, and logical (but not scientific) and what we know as science is seen as superstition. Some fantasy writers have attempted that, especially as a way to justify why in their worlds there doesn't seem to be any scientific progress, but I believe Vance is the only one who managed to pull it off. "Superstition" here doesn't just mean "we don't know how it works." The jinxmen (the "wizards") know perfectly well what empiricism (science) means and what they mean when they say that empiricism is superstition. 

In the preface of "Jack Vance's Treasury," Vance mentions that The Miracle Workers was sent to Astounding because "John Campbell, the editor, had a predilection for unusual ideas." And unusual it was. The jinxmen, with their hoodoo and mental magic, are, indeed, the "rational" ones in the story. When they say that their "magic" is deductive and rational, Vance isn't joking (well, at least, he is doing more than that,) or merely saying "here magic is science, because reasons." He has built a whole justification for that.

The jinxmen know the laws behind their magic, how it works, and why. They may not know the ultimate cause, but who cares really? They are not "superstitious" because they know when their magic is not going to work and why. The process has a deductive logic to it, whereas science is... just playing around until some "effect" is discovered.

But the limits of jinxmanship are what sets the story in motion; it's the appearance of an enemy they are unable to influence. But unlike other stories where this would have been used as an excuse to present the magic-users as mired in superstition, trying to work their useless magic again and again until the Science Man appears, here the jinxmen (from the start) admit that their Art isn't going to work with those aliens. And if they are reluctant to explain so is because the source of their Art —and, therefore, their power and status— depends (partially) on people believing in it (it's not simple placebo, though.) Their power is described as such:

"What happens when I hoodoo a man? First I must enter into his mind telepathically. There are three operational levels: the conscious, the unconscious, the cellular. The most effective jinxing is done if all three levels are influenced. I feel into my victim, I learn as much as possible, supplementing my previous knowledge of him, which is part of my stock in trade."

The jinxmen deal in irreducible qualities, emotions like fear, hate, rage, pain or bravery, which is why they describe their trade as "logical," because to a considerable degree it is. If the foundations are known, there is no need for "empirical speculation" like "from where do the demons come?"

Everything can be deduced from first principles. But what happens when you are trying to hoodoo a race of aliens with a collective mind which may not even have words for those feelings (or those feelings in the first place.) You cannot empathize with them, and at no level (conscious, unconscious, or cellular.)

From their point of view, science is some bumbling baboon playing with things he doesn't understand. Scientists, therefore, become "mystics," people who don't have answers but search for them anyway, who toy in their laboratories, mixing this with that, trying to see if something happens. That "empiricism," however, is what in the end (even if through sheer luck) ends up saving the humans.

"Undoubtedly the ancient were barbarians. They uses symbols to control entities they were unable to understand. We are methodical and rational; why can't we systematize and comprehend the ancient miracles?"

By "symbols," I presume, he means mathematics and scientific notation, and by entities, he means the laws of nature. That may seem like a preposterous way to define science, but compared to jinxmanship, the charge is not unfounded. Who understands gravity or quantum physics? We can control and manipulate physical phenomena, of course, but our "understanding" of them is unlike our immediate, irreducible, and unavoidable understanding of our own feelings. It makes sense that a society based on such magical performances would have problems understanding (or caring) about "Science." Hence, hoodoo is rational and logic, empiricists are miracle-workers and mystics who toy with strange mathematical entities and write down bizarre arcane formulas.

In the previous post, Nathan Housley says that he feels the story shrieks of message fiction. I can see how that may seem to be the case, but I don't think it is. The setting is purely speculative, and "progress" doesn't appear as the inevitable march of history against superstition (empiricism here IS superstition), but as a fortuitous stroke of luck against an enemy they can't understand. 

From what I know of him, Vance seems to have had a distaste for intellectual blowhards, obscurantism, and certain brands of organized religion or theology (he pokes fun at lying priests and religious manipulators on many occasions.) However, I don't think this is a message/ideological work to attack such things because I believe the goal of this story was to play with an idea, something to which he was going to return again and again with his "magic system" in the Dying Earth setting, which apparently is some sort of highly advanced mathematics that works in many dimensions and levels at the same time or somesuch. I have noticed that Vance usually tries to "explain" the supernatural in his stories, how it works or how it may work assuming it was real.

That seems like a great feat of speculative fiction to me, to think "let's assume supernatural powers are real" and then work out a Universe whose laws would allow it, and then see what happens. This short story is an example of that, and he pretty much says that its Afterword (which appears in Jack Vance's Treasury.)

"Strange things happen. Almost everyone has had some sort of brush with the paranomal, even the most resistant and skeptical of persons. [...] In olden times angels and demons were held responsible; to date no one has produced a more reasonable explanation. Phenomena such as telepathy and poltergeist may well be manifestations of different and distinct principles; there may be two, three, four or more such realms of knowledge, each at least as rich and intricate as physics or astronomy. There is little systematic study. Conventional scientists shy away from the field because they are, in fact, conventional; because they fear to compromise their careers; because the subject is difficult to get a grip on; because scientists are as susceptible to awe and eeriness as anyone else. So: the mysteries persist; the lore acccumulates, and we know for sure no more than our remote ancestors, if as much... 'The Miracle Workers' [has a] definite psionic orientation, and [makes] at least a superficial inquiry into certain aspects and implications of telekinesis and demon-possession. I can't pretend to offer enlightenment; there isn't any to be had. The [story], in any event, [was] not conceived as [as] argumentative [vehicle], but simply [reflects] my own fascination with the vast and wonderful reaches of the unknow."
                   

                                                                                                       Jack Vance 1970.

[I have no idea why there are so many [ ] there]

I'll be honest, that text came a bit as a surprise to me even if I had sometimes suspected it as much. Vance's fascination with these subjects snf his constant attempts to mix science with "magical" elements always seemed too... methodical to me, always going to the extremes of building weird but detailed explanations and philosophical points to justify why such phenomena may occur or how they may work.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Miracle Workers

Sixteen hundred years after his ancestors hid from galactic war on the out-of-the-way planet Pangborn, Lord Faide is finally uniting the planet under one rule. His. Aided by master jinxmen, his men are fearless, his demons terrible, and the hoodoo at his command unbeatable, as Lord Ballant soon finds out. However, the First Folk have waited for the opportune time to sweep mankind out of Pangborn's forests and into space or the grave. As his once victorious army is smothered by foam and stung by venomous insects, Lord Faile fights a long retreat back to his keep. With his jinxmen rendered powerless by the aliens' minds, all hope relies on Sam Salazar, a failed apprentice jinxman with a talent toward experimentation and empiricism.

As the Frisky Pagan pointed out, this is an almost identical story to The Last Castle. Both worlds are rocked by unthinkable revolts of once pacified people. In each, human society is saved only by the actions of an unorthodox youngster who embodies one of the virtues of modern man.
The proud and the arrogant suffer in both The Miracle Workers and The Last Castle, while the humble and the unorthodox are exalted.Vance keeps the story fresh, not only by crafting a new world, but by varying the perspective. The Last Castle followed the unorthodox Xanten as he seeks to learn how to save his people. The Miracle Workers instead tell the story of Lord Faide and his jinxmen as they watch (and hurl abuse at) Sam Salazar. This allows Vance to examine the situation from both the unorthodox and the orthodox views, and he extracts different lessons from each.

Honestly, this shrieks of message fic. The jinxmen are set up originally to be technical wizards, at least in the realm of telepathy and psychology. This mental technology has been honed to a mature, even a plateau, level. But their hoodoo reeks of superstition, and therefore must give way to the completely immature empiricism of Sam Salazar. The appeal of the nascent physical sciences compared to the mature parapsychology hoodoo of the jinxmen is overstated, with the latter abandoned way to easily by people who have had a lifetime of evidence that hoodoo works. But, hey, science is modern, and therefore better. Right? At least The Last Castle was clear that the social ills that had to be abandoned for humanity's survival were the same ills that caused the Meks' revolt. The Miracle Workers lacks that consistency of cause and effect. At least Vance follows Harlan Ellison's maxim that says that a story must entertain before it can educate. Personally, give me instead Edgar Rice Burroughs' idea that entertainment is the sole purpose of fiction.

That said, The Miracle Workers shines with more life than many of today's works, refuting the claim by many that the works of the past 15 years are more accessible than their predecessors.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Last Castle

I won't lie; Vance has been by far the most challenging writer yet featured by the Puppy of the Month Club. I have repeatedly tried to start The Dragon Masters only to bounce off it. This is not because the quality of Vance's writing is poor. Rather, like Gene Wolfe or John Wright, the writing is erudite and requires a closer read than normal. In the case of The Dragon Masters, the introduction of a sacredote in his cell required a fair bit of concentration to fully appreciate, often more than I could bring to the work. Fortunately, the volume the Frisky Pagan selected this month has a trio of Vance's stories, and the planet-wide slave revolt and siege of  The Last Castle proved to be more accessible.

On an Earth far enough in the future to be depopulated and recolonized by the survivors from other worlds, nine castles are the sum total of civilization. Through technological marvels and a hierarchy of subordinate slave species, humanity rules its homeworld as feudal lords. Occasionally, the younger men would break from the unceasing pageantry of the castles to adventure among the Nomads, the indigenous survivors of Earth's fall. This decadence is bourne on the backs of the Meks, a humanoid species from another world who builds and maintains the technologies that fuel the castles' war and pleasure machines.

One day, the Meks leave. All of them, leaving the castles bereft of the technological support needed for civilization. The castles limp along, until their slaves return and besiege the castles. One by one, the citadels fall until only Castle Hagedorn remains. Finally, the Meks levy their full might against the surviving remnant of civilization.

In this short story, Vance poses two conflicts. The action conflict is simple: can Castle Hagedorn survive the siege? However, it is clear from the eight fallen citadels that the existing social order cannot win against the Meks. So the more important conflict is whether necessity will drive the humans to radically reorder their society or if the inertia of tradition will rule. And even if necessity wins, it might be too little too late to ensure the castle's survival.

The answer, of course, is for humanity to give up its slave races and abandon the castle, trapping the Meks inside. With the besiegers now the besieged, humanity's survival is assured. The Last Castle, with its aristocratic decadence, still falls, and every man now lives by the sweat of his own brow.

The characters are stock, but the worldbuilding shines. From the various slave races to naming conventions to the Nomad tribes, Vance brings to life a strange future Earth full of wonders. The setting enlivens the formula of a last stand forcing social change that will reappear in The Miracle Workers.

All in all, this made a more accessible introduction to Jack Vance than the other stories I tried this month. I wish I had started with this one at the beginning of the month.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Dragon Masters and their beasties.

In a previous entry, Jon Mollison mentioned the races in The Dragon Masters. He's correct, and the main weapon used in the conflict between the two human kingdoms and, later, between humans and the "Basic" (or Grephs) are living organism, selectively-bred from the original stock of their enemies. The humans use grephs, and the grephs use humans. 

This genetic arms race and its panoply of creatures may be a bit confusing. Jack Vace had a knack for descriptions, but there is a limit to what words can convey, not to mention that in this story Vance doesn't seem to have bothered giving detailed descriptions of the creatures (perhaps he knew someone was going to draw them?) Luckily, there's another way! 

The original story was published in Galaxy, August 1962, and it was supplemented by awesome drawings of the various creatures. I can understand why so many (now famous writers) young people mentioned this story as the reason they fell in love with Vance, but it wouldn't surprise me if the drawings by Jack Gaughan also helped a bit.

Use these sketches as a visual aid if you are reading (or rereading) The Dragon Masters.

-The Basics (or Grephs): Space-faring and technologically advanced. They look somewhat insectoid/reptilian and are gray or "pearl-pallid"



-The Spider: they serve as mounts for the humans.

"A few minutes later Joaz Banbeck appeared on Banbeck Verge riding a Spider caparisoned in gray and red velvet."


-The Striding Murderers: Described as the cousins of the Long-horned Murderers. In one sentence they are described as "silken." From the description of a battle,  they seem to have the function of "light cavalry."



-Long-horned Murderers: If the Striding Murderers were "light cavalry," these are clearly the equivalent of Heavy Cavalry.

"Long-horned Murderers, their fantastic chest-spikes tipped with steel.[...] steel-spiked and crested with steel prongs; [...] Banneck's long-horned Murderers came circling, struck from the flank into Carcolo's Striding Murderers, goring with steel-tipped horns, impaling on lances."




-Other beasties:

1. Jugger: They are massive, brutal, well-armored, and not very intelligent.

2.Blue Horror: Intelligent, massive, agile, quick, and good climbers.

3.Fiends:

"black-green [...] useless on the cliffs [...] low to the ground, immensely strong, tail tipped with a steel barbel [...] Flanking the Juggers marched the Fiends, carrying heavy cutlasses, flourishing their terminal steel balls as a scorpion carries his sting."



-Termagaunt: apparently, the most common "dragon."

"the rust-red Termagant [...] the fecund Termagant [...] Ervis Carcolo turned away, pretended to watch a pair of Termagants exercising with wooden scimitars. [...] small active dragons with rust-red scales, narrow darting heads, chisel-sharp fangs.

"A man pitted against a Termagant stood no chance, for the scales warded off bullets as well as any blow the man might have strength enough to deal"

Termagant is an odd word. According to wiktionary, it means:

1.A quarrelsomescolding woman, especially one who is old and shrewish
2.(obsolete) A boisterous, brawling, turbulent person, whether male or female. 

Perhaps it's another Vancian joke. 

In any event, Warhammer 40K fans might recognize the word because one of the Tyranid creatures is called Termagaunt. I suspect this is not a coincidence because the Tyranids use all sort of bio-weapons and also engage in some kind of genetic engineering (with themselves, though,) not to mention that this is how Vance's Termagant looks, compared to how W40K Termagaunts originally looked.






But the Basics (named like that by the humans because they are the basic template for all the other creatures*) also practiced their own form of selective breeding. In fact, they probably started it and it seems it's part of their species worldview or "political" ideology. Their goal seems to be to "integrate" the other species they encounter, to make them into slaves, weapons, and so on. Of course, the book only mentions their conflicts with the remaining humans, so we don't know what else are they doing out there, but I like the theory that they are doing this with all the intelligent species they encounter.




Really, after seeing these images, I think these creatures would be a great addition to any D&D campaign or, even, to some tabletop wargame. I mean, the Dragons are almost begging to be converted into miniatures.


*Ironically, the Greph probably see themselves as the Basic or original creature too, but for different reasons and with another meaning in mind.

Monday, May 15, 2017

June Puppy - An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity

The passage of the 2017 E. Pluribus Anus rules changes coupled with the Sad Puppies breaking the leash and wandering away from the Hugo yard means that there really aren't a whole lot of official Puppy options to choose from these days.  You probably noticed that already, given how the Club's selections run more toward the Appendix N end of the spectrum than the Puppy end.  Well, now you know why.

But that's an explanation, not an excuse, and there's really no excuse for not selecting the ONE best novel nomination by either camp.  Which means that J. Mulrooney's An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity, the Rabid Puppy selection for best novel, is now the Puppy of the Month selection for June.

This is one of those fun novels that I fully intend to dive into completely blind.  All I know is that if it's good enough for the Supreme Dark Lord, it's good enough for the Club.   

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Dragon Master Races

The second quarter of this book opens things up in the races department.  We've already been introduced to the default (point of view) race of which Joaz, Phade, and Ervis are members.  We've heard of the Basics and their human-slaves, who seem to be altered genetic through means either natural or foul.  We've seen the airy aloofness of the sacredotes.

It turns out the sacredotes are a sub-race of humans.  Cave dwellers who take vows of honestly answering any question posed to them, but forbidden from otherwise interfering in the affairs of man.

Do I have this right?  The dragons are the degenerate Basics, cross bred to serve the Valley People?  If so, that implies that there's a genetic war going on in which the Basics and the Humans steal each other's progeny to create the weapons used to fight the next cycle of war.  It's war by janissaries on both sides.

Either way, the limited geography of the story combined with the science fiction setting strongly reminds me of a Traveller post by Jeffro.  In an old issue of Space Gamer one of the grognards of Traveller explained how he turned Lieber's "A Pail of Air" into a full session adventure for a randomly rolled planet.  You could very easily use "Dragon Masters" in the same way.  The planet's denizens are stuck at the bottom of the gravity well, but they know all about the old interstellar empire.  They have their own aims and goals and squabbles, and no ability to leave their home world.  Which is not to say they aren't dangerous.  Which makes this the perfect sandbox for a sci-fi game.




If the players crash landed on the surface of this planet, and needed one of the sacerdotal prayer sculptures to repair a vital ship's component, a decent GM could milk that premise for weeks of playtime.  Just figuring out how the place works and discovering the hidden back story could fill up several sessions of play.

This neatly resolves one of the problems that always niggled at the back of my mind when it comes to exploratory sci-fi.  If interstellar travel is possible, how do ships like Enterprise constantly stumble onto planets that don't have space ships?  It's clear that most planets are inhabited by near-humans - why didn't those near-humans find the Enterprise?  We usually see this from the point of view of Kirk and Spock and Bones, and the rationale for why the Roddenberryverse works that way is generally glossed over.  Vance's inclusion of a possible Golden Age of Man to which the people of Aerilith aspire.

Jack Vance writes this story from the point of view of the planet-bound society, and that society is one that is incapable of, and largely uninterested in, space travel.  They know its up there.  They know its dangerous.  They know they need bolt holes, but with nothing particularly valuable for the star-farers but their own bodies, they figure they can just hide until the aliens get bored and leave.

It works.  And like so much of Vances work, it's worth filing away for potential use at your game table.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Idle Musings and Disjointed Thoughts on the Dragon Masters

I might be reading the wrong copy of this selection.  It doesn't look like the image Frisky used in his announcement.  Mine seems to contain nothing but The Dragon Masters itself, and looks like this:



Not to scale

As a man coming into this work having only read the Dying Earth series, the inclusion of a map surprised me.  I skipped it – the Kindle reader for small Android phones is not kind to graphics – thinking that it wouldn’t be necessary.  Jack’s a fine writer, and I trust him to bring me into the important parts of the geography as necessary.  This assumption proved out for the first quarter of the book, anyway.
Vance really is a master at the slow lead-in.  The first character on screen is a naked, hairy sacredote – a term not defined until Chapter Three, a full chapter after the first long term exposure to the odd religious/mystic hermits.  It’s not until the second chapter and the history of Happy Valley and the basics that we learn this isn’t a fantasy world, but a low-tech science fiction world.  Both happen at the same time as we see Vance’s gift for describing alien cultures.
The…’negotiation’ for lack of a better term…between Kergan Banbeck and the Weaponeer was delightful.  As a confusingly bizarre interaction between two alien minds, it’s one of the best I’ve encountered.  Kergan and his counterpart both use words that the other understands, but those words are the arms of blind men flailing for an elephant that might not even exist.  The introduction of the sacredote and his observation that they are talking past each other doesn’t help matters at all.  It just makes me wonder if the sacerdotes aren’t so wise after all.
The introduction of alien beings - the Basics - didn't really surprise me, despite coming into this story completely unaware.  Vance has a reputation for flouting genre conventions in this manner, and hanging out with well-read nerds has prepared me for just this sort of trick out of the great man.  It's still nice to read a story that so effortlessly bridges the gap between fantasy and sci-fi.
The confined nature of the setting makes it easy to see why Vance is required reading for RPG enthusiasts.  You have two major factions, separated by a ridge, a few hidey-holes, a vague and repeated existential threat to the world.  It’s everything you need for a tight little sandbox campaign, all tucked into the pages of a relatively short book.  It would be a trivial matter to grab the map from the first page, advance the clock by four generations and have Kergan Banbeck II warring with Neddry Carcolo, and hey look, it’s a brand new campaign complete with dungeons, dragons, and political intrigue.
Oddly enough, Vance’s gift for nomenclature rings off-key for me in this book. As a long-time (and sadly lapsed) college football fan, Happy Valley will always be home to the Nitanny Lions to me, and I cannot read Kergan’s name without thinking, “There can be only one.” The fault is entirely mine, but there it is.

Friday, May 5, 2017

A perambulatory commentary on Jack Vance and his epigones.

Jack (John Holbrook) Vance (San Francisco, August 28, 1916 - Oakland, May 26, 2013) is one of those authors whose influence is felt, but it's sometimes not admitted or openly spoken.

All influential artists have followers and detractors, but Vance is one of those few that have no open enemies or anyone trying to "subvert" them. There are anti-Conan characters or anti-Tolkien writers, but I don't know of anyone trying to improve, correct, or subvert Vance. Why would anyone do that if his successors and imitators are still attempting to write like him? For similar reasons, I have yet to find someone saying, "Vance? Yeah, I've read him. Meh, nothing especial, really. There are dime a dozen like him.

That cannot be because he is an unknown author. Sure, he isn't as popular as others, but he wasn't a two-bit writer either. During his life, he wrote around 60 books, received multiple awards, and those who knew him had only positive things to say about his work and style. My guess is that he is one of those hidden giants whose presence is an intimidating force. Something magnified by the fact that he always tried to stay out of the spotlight.

Although there are strong and passionate communities of Vancians, most sff fans probably know of him indirectly, through the influence he had on Dungeons & Dragons. Perhaps they have also heard about his Dying Earth books and their baroque language. 

In the famous AD&D Appendix N, Vance was one of the authors that had the "et al." abbreviation, meaning that Gygax believed all their works were important as a source of inspiration. But even that would downplay the importance Vance had for Gygax, as this article he wrote in 2001 shows:

"Need I say that I am not merely a Jack Vance fan, but that he is in my opinion the very best of all the authors of imaginative fiction? Well I am and he is!"

Gygax, mostly known as a game designer, was probably the most open and public about his awe and debt to Jack Vance,  but he wasn't the only one.

This excellent article, The Genre Artist, by Carlo Rotella, dedicated exclusively to Vance, also mentions many other Big Names who became immediate fans of Vance the first time they read him. These include Dan Simmons, Neil Gaiman, Tanith Lee, and even a young Ursula K. Le Guin is mentioned. And these are the ones who are open about it. Truth is, the fan letters sent to him were probably full of (now) famous rabid fans sending him their undergarments. 

To reiterate, when I say "fans," I don't mean just people who "like" him:

"Among them are authors who have gained the big paydays and the fame that Vance never enjoyed. Dan Simmons, the best-selling writer of horror and fantasy, described discovering Vance as 'a revelation for me, like coming to Proust or Henry James. Suddenly you’re in the deep end of the pool. He gives you glimpses of entire worlds with just perfectly turned language. If he’d been born south of the border, he’d be up for a Nobel Prize.' Michael Chabon, whose distinguished literary reputation allows him to employ popular formulas without being labeled a genre writer, told me: 'Jack Vance is the most painful case of all the writers I love who I feel don’t get the credit they deserve. If ‘The Last Castle’ or ‘The Dragon Masters’ [both are in this month's anthology] had the name Italo Calvino on it, or just a foreign name, it would be received as a profound meditation, but because he’s Jack Vance and published in Amazing Whatever, there’s this insurmountable barrier.'

Vance may not have been a proper pulp writer (his style is too unique, and his first published story, The World-Thinker, was written in 1946) but the curse of being considered a low-brow writer followed him, as it inevitably does to anyone who writes "fantasy" (writers of "magic realism", whatever that may be, are forgiven.) Not that he seemed to care, though. In fact, he probably liked it that way.

One of the most obvious traits of Vance's work was his distaste for fame, attention, and blowhards of all kinds. People who live in mental castles of their own creation are routinely mocked in his stories, perhaps because he knew he could have become one of them. From the Jack Vance's biographical sketch at the Vance Museum:

"'By the age of 15, I had read ten times the books an average person might read in a lifetime. [...]  
Vance entered high school at age 11 and graduated at 15.  He described himself at the latter age as bright, arrogant, introverted, and lacking in social skills. Then his grandfather died, the family was broke, and it was the bottom of the Great Depression.  College plans were set aside and, for the next several years, Vance ranged the state of California, working at a wide variety of jobs: fruit picking, canning, construction, surveying, bell-hopping.  He described this period as a metamorphosis: “Over a span of four or five years, I developed from an impractical little intellectual into a rather reckless young man, competent at many skills and crafts, and determined to try every phase of life.'”

I wouldn't describe that as "anti-intellectual" stance, since Vance stories have many deep intellectual themes, but these are seamlessly weaved into the story in such a way that many readers believe they are just enjoying a story of simple, pure, and unadulterated adventure. And that's probably one of the best compliments anyone could say about a SFF writer.

Monday, May 1, 2017

May's Puppy - "The Dragon Masters"

I don't know about you, but I'm excited to read this month's selection.  For decade's Jack Vance was an author whose name lurked only in dim rumors of serving as the inspiration for the D&D magic system.  Even as a regular at the used book stores, his works just never crossed my path.  It wasn't until a lucky find at the dawn of the digital publishing revolution that I stumbled on a Dying Earth omnibus.
That book really opened my eyes to new ways of looking at magic, and Vance's gentle touch showed me that Ring Lardner's dry and blink-and-you-miss it subtle humor could work in a fantasy settting.  To my chagrin, I've only lately been informed that my Vance exposure is drastically limited.  In fact, Dying Earth represents the only works of his I can say with any certainty that I have read.  (It's possible a few of his stories were included in collections, and I just didn't realize I was reading one of the masters at the time.)  I have no idea what to expect, only that it will be a pleasure to enjoy a few stories for a change of pace.  Given my recent forays into establishment fiction and a futile search for modern pulp, a little Vance is just what the literary doctor ordered.
 
So it is with great pleasure that I open the floor for discussions about The Dragon Masters.  If you want to join in the read-along, pick up a copy today, we'll be here all month.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Souldancer: Chapters 49-52 and Epilogue

Thera revives Xander, and, with much grace, suffers Xander's insults. She has awakened him to rescue Tefler from the Fire Stratum, and then to take Tefler into Kairos before it winds down. She sends Xander with a gift, an eye replaced with rose crystal.

Cook investigates a hull breach that opened on the bridge of the Serapis. Xander appears and tells Cook of his mission, and his plans to have Zadok restore Astlin. They go to the auxiliary bridge, where Queen Navkin of Avalon has assumed her station at the Wheel. She hands over a Guild Regulator to help locate Tefler in the Fire Stratum.

Xander flies a nexus runner into the Fire Stratum. He recovers Tefler, but angers a host of fire elements that attack the ship. The imp Th'ix grabs Xander, and teaches him the needed Working to escape the Fire Stratum.

Navkin introduces herself to Tefler, her grandson. After talking him out of killing his mother, Navkin tries to correct Xander's misunderstanding of Thera, before changing his plan to serve her own purposes.

Xander and Tefler walk the halls of Kairos in search of Vaun Mordechai's sword. They raid his quarters on the Exodus, back before the Cataclysm. They use it to sever Zan's life cord, and then consider using it to end Astlin's suffering. But rather than lose his love, Xander would confront Zadok and have him return Astlin to him.

As Kairos runs down, Tefler and Xander are confronted by Szodrin, who reveals himself to be known by other names: Faerda, Teth, and Zadok. Overwhelmed by meeting his god, Xander begs zadok to give back Astlin. Zadok judges her instead. Thera appears, releasing Shaiel into Kairos. Zadok would judge all creation, and tries to force Thera and Shaiel into their assigned tasks. The divine siblings rebel and assault Szodrin. While they distract Szodrin, Xander rams Vaun's sword into Szodrin's chest.

The last gears of Kairos grind to a stop.

Zadok arises and pronounces his judgment.

*****

In the epilogue, Fallon tries to convince Zebel, Navkin's parent, to take Shaiel's side in the conflict between Shaiel and the Zadokim. But Zebel seeks now to be master, instead of a servant...

*****

As Souldancer closes, a few questions linger. Are the rest of the nine souldancers going to join Vaun, Elena, and Astlin in the pantheon? And what connection does Almeth Elocine have to Zadok and now the Zadokim? What connection does Zadok-Teth have with Teth, the Void equivalent of prana?

Rose light  accompanies Thera's powers, gold light with Shaiel's, and now blue light with the Zadokim's. While it brings to mind cyan-yellow-magenta coloring, where any color can be created by mixing the three colors, perhaps the white light of the Nexus might be prisimed into more colors and factions.

If I had one issue with Souldancer, it is in the constant face-heel turns. Not that there were so many, but there wasn't time to let each switch from villain to hero to villain linger long enough to fully register and see the consequences or origins before the next hit. It was a bit like car crash TV, and by the end,  was getting whiplash keeping track of who was on what side.

As mentioned earlier this month, Souldancer is more accessible than Nethereal, but that comes at the expense of some of the uniqueness of its prequel. I have not read anything like Nethereal. Sure, I recognize some of the ingredients, but the arrangement defies categorization. Souldancer can be more easily slotted into the premade boxes of genre as a metaphysical fantasy splashed with a gloss of science fiction. And, as a metaphysical fantasy, it delivers what The Wheel of Time promised but never truly realized: a story that shook the pillars of Creation and left it transformed. Most attempts at such fail because they marry grand shakings in the spiritual realm to world-wide conflicts and geopolitical movements. A fatigue sets in, because the author has to order the chaos on earth and in the heavens. Souldancer limits the scope of the earthly realm's conflict to Xander's pursuit of Astlin. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy shakes the pillars of heaven to get her back. Those stakes are personal, and relatable to the reader in a way that Rand Al'thor's never were.

*****

Check out this preview of The Secret Kings, where we find out what Teg Cross was up to in the years since the Cataclysm before he runs into another familiar face.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Souldancer: Chapters 43-48

Tefler and Cook are captured in the melee. Tefler managed to send instructions telepathically to Zan, who purges a fuel line from Serapis into Tefler's captors.

Astlin is chased by Shaiel's Lawbringers, who have Nesshin abilities that counter her flame. She relies on Xander's power, but realizes she is absorbing his soul every time she does so. But Thurif must be stopped, especially now that Mirai's nexus forging is complete.


Sulaiman convinces the Lawbringers to surrender, by superior swordsmanship and threats of dismemberment. After imprisoning them in Serapis, he, Cook, and a scalded Tefler leave to find Astlin. Meanwhile, Master Malachi uses Zan's affections towards Astlin to teach him of the world before the Cataclysm.

Hazeroth attacks Astlin from behind, wounding her. Xander offers the use of his gift to beat him, but Astlin refuses, unwilling to lose him. But with no other way to keep Mirai out of Hazeroth's hands, she opens her soul's connection to the Fire Stratum, and relies on Xander's gift to help close it. However, the Flame overwhelms Astlin, consuming her body. Hazeroth relishes his success, until a rose-tinged elemental of prana-infused fire burns him out of the sky.

Sulaiman, Cook, and Tefler find the dead Hazeroth and a now non-metal bodied Astlin. During the fight, she reclaimed her soul from Xander, perfecting her connection to the Fire Stratum - and killing her fiancĂ© once more. The loss weighs heavily upon her, but Tefler talks her into continuing onward. For, according to Thera herself, Astlin can save everyone if she faces whatever Mirai is working on. They reach the Kerioth, where Mirai's workshop is located, and discover the fate of Thurif. But Mirai has been busy, and has raised Thurif's murderer to the godhood, for he is the souldancer of Kairos. Sulaiman recognizes the power and intends to use Mirai to go back in time and kill Elena, Thera's mortal shell prior to the Cataclysm.

As Sulaiman makes his preparations to go back in time, he is attacked by a masked kost, wielding a blade of bluish light and cold. It pierces Sulaiman's heart, and the shades of the dead rush into him. Tefler and Cook remove the blade and drag him to safety, while Astlin confronts the kost, Shaiel's Will - revealed to be her sister Neriad. The kost exhibits her mastery over Astlin's powers, and asks for the fire souldancer to follow her to Cadrys. Mirai ambushes the kost from the deck below. As the fight continues, the ship rises higher into Mithgar's atmosphere, and containers fly through the hold. On reflex, Astlin manages to space Shaiel's Will.

Astlin awakes in the ship's galley, where Cook teaches her a little about cookery and a little about life.

Sulaiman tries to enter Kairos to kill Thera, but is confronted in turn by Th'ix, Tefler, and Navkin before he has a chance to trade swords with Almeth Elocine. With all the obstacles now gone, he makes his was to the Exodus to kill Elena.

Mirai informs Tefler that Sulaiman has failed his assigned task.

Zan attempts to comforts Astlin, before asking if she would die for him. Master Malachi possesses the souldancer and tries to shanghai the crew so he can raze Hell. To save the crew, Astlin opens her Fire Gate once more. Zan withstands the onslaught. But before Master Malachi can accomplish his schemes, Th'ix appears and kills the souldancer with a worked knife.


*****

Fallon was the kost that hired Jaren's crew prior to the Cataclysm to recover a tribute of lost Gen souls. He, or should I now say "she," has been one of the secret movers coordinating the events that have led to the souldancers' marring, Thera's rebirth, and the post-Cataclysm atrocities. Like Kelgrun, she has a lot of dead bodies to answer for. And if the hypothesis that the souldancers were betrayed by family is correct, as it appears to be with Astlin and Zan, this is but the first clash between Neriad/Fallon and Astlin.

I've been sitting on the similarities between Xander and Zan for a while, but it strikes me that the better point of comparison is Zan and Deim. Both men were stricken with bad cases of puppy love for their ladies, and both got manipulated by outside forces of the Void for it. Xander loved and dared to lose, and gained his Astlin in the process. The closest either of the infatuated puppy dogs got was a one night stand and soul destroying Void lessons.

The Lawgivers were using Nesshin skills to counter Astlin's flame, similar to Xander's nexism.. Human nexism is supposed to be rare, though. Were these kinsmen to Xander's tribe, or were these skills drawing upon Nesshin souls? I admit keeping track of who is Gen, human, and Nesshin is a bit daunting, especially when I'm also trying to keep track of the various face-heel turns happening as Souldancer speeds towards its finale.

Cook' s chicken soul of the soul scene amused me, but if the lessons he handed out while he was cutting mirepoix with Astlin are anything like his culinary lessons, the fire souldancer would do well to heed his advice. I've written a smidgen of trunk-novel culinary fiction, and, yes, you do use a knife in the manner that Cook says.

At this point, all four elemental souldancers are off the board, with the five others in unknown states.

Up to this point, Souldancer was pretty much self-contained, and could be read as a stand-alone without prior knowledge of the events of Nethereal. With Sulaiman's time-hopping adventure, however, knowledge of Elena and the Exodus is needed to keep track of exactly what is happening. Some of the terminology from here forward, such as the term for Wheel-induced fatigue, is also explained in Nethereal, not Souldancer. As Souldancer has been suggested to be a more natural entry point into the Soul Cycle, it would interest me to know just how confused a reader that has yet to read Nethereal might be here.

An interesting resonance from earlier. Sulaiman, a priest of Midrs, walks the roads of Kairos to go back in time to stop a massacre, only to stopped by Almeth Elocine, a Gen hero who was/will be stopped by a priest of Midras as he sought/seeks to prevent another massacre. In both cases, the quest is forcibly left unfinished. In Sulaiman's case, it explains how he managed to get about the Exodus after he swapped bodies with Teg. Sulaiman did cheat death in Hell, but survived far longer than the crew of the Exodus originally thought.

Souldancer: The second half.

Well, that's it. The end is here.

As I suspected, the second half of Souldancer ramps up the action and the story's reach. Although the book already started hinting at bigger threads and plot elements, the first half was a tighter story. I'm perfectly fine with that, by the way. I think it makes great storytelling.

At the same time, I feel I have to correct something I said in my piece about the first half. Now, I can't remember my exact wording, but I may have implied the story was complex, which carries the connotation of "difficult to understand or complicated." I don't think that's exactly accurate because, broken down into its components, the basic plot is pretty linear and straightforward (notwithstanding more esoteric interpretations of the book.) Sure, you may forget who this guy is or what is that thing doing there or what was the difference between the Serapis and the Exodus, but that's pretty much it. I kept reading it even when I momentarily forgot or missed a key reference and, in the end, it didn't make much of a difference.

There is, it's true, a superabundance of names and references, but if you are reading it on Kindle, ctrl + f and the Glossary are your friends. Speaking of which, I believe the Glossary should have a few entries more. At least two, one for Nesshin and another for Shaiel. Both of them are presented to the reader in a somewhat abrupt manner, especially Shaiel, a name that doesn't turn up in Nethereal but here appears as the "Ruler of the Void" —not a minor title. I believe that the confusion some readers may have expressed may be due to the undisclosed or obscured relationship between the triad of gods that is the cornerstone of Souldancer: Zadok, Thera, and Shaiel. On the other hand, in Nethereal, the relation was dyadic (with hints to a third party, though) —Zadok and Thera, as in:

"[Malachi] remembered the suns' namesakes in Nesshin myth: father and daughter eternally annihilating and returning into each other."
Nethereal, page 13.

Still, as I have said, I understood it in the end anyway, so no biggie.

About the plot, well, you'd probably want to follow Nathan Housley's posts, but I think I can deal with the story's ending.

My theology may be a bit rusty, but I think I got the important references. Neimeier, if he wants to chime in, will comment and tell me how wrong I am.
I
I cannot but think the ending represent the intervention of our world's theology in the Soul Cycle's universe. And I'm talking about Christianity here.

For those who haven't read the last chapters, this is the gist of it: Xander and Tefler find themselves before the Zadok, the All-God (or something that looks like that,) in a place known as Kairos. Kairos was one of the Ancient Greek words for Time, but not in the sense of a physical quantity but "opportune moment" or "the proper time for [something to happen]" In Souldancer, Kairos is described as "time as the gods know it," and pay attention to the wording: gods, not God (Xander is one of the few characters that uses the word God, more about that later.) A few hundred pages later, Smith the Clockboy describes it as "sacred time that touches eternity." Not eternity per se, but touches it.

So Xander is in Kairos, trying to save Astlin, and... well, he kills God, with a sword named Elohim. Now, killing God seems difficult, and, in fact, once Zadok/Szodrin is "killed" (he returns, though,) he is not named God anymore but god. And what drove Xander to such blasphemous actions? He seemed a bit possessed, somehow, and by a force from outside the world.

Xander hears the words like thunder that heralds rain.
 "There is another way. Even the White Well is a shadow that cannot conquer the darkness. Allow true light to shine upon this world."

Now, that's no way to speak to a god! In any event, Zadok seems shocked, but answers:

"How shall this light above all known good enter our shadow play?"
Xander: "'Its bearers wait for you to admit them," Xander says, his heart swelling with a conviction he can't explain.

And later:

Beyond his own mind; in the upper darkness where Zadok once reigned, Xander sees a new light descending. [...]
The blue star falls like desert rain, finally quenching Xander's lifelong thirst for the sublime.

"Szodrin's [Zadok's] death made an opening to the world beyond the world," Thera says to Tefler. "Astlin escaped and brought the true light back with her."

And in the epilogue:

"Honestly, does haruspicy even work anymore? The gods are gone."

and

"so has the Righteous One brought forth the Zadokim."

And what are the Zadokim? 

"Souls who [...] have returned from the light beyond the cosmos."

As I said, my theology is rusty, but I recognize a deicide when I see one, especially one that allows the Light to enter a world whose creator (Zadok, now demoted to "god") describes it as a "shadow play." A light that quenches a thirst for the "sublime" and can actually vanquish evil, unlike the White Well.

The point here, I presume, is that Zadok had the function of a Demiurge, and then is stabbed by a sword conveniently named Elohim, a Hebrew word for (among other things) God. And that happens in a place named Kairos, which means the correct/opportune time for... ¿God?

After stabbing him, Xander actually outsmarts Zadok in a debate, even though he has no idea from where his words come from. Then Zadok allows a Light from "beyond this world" to enter his creation, a light that transcends kairos (which touched eternity, but wasn't eternity) and infuses Xander (the only proper monotheist in a world full of heathens) with a desire to save as many souls as possible.

That theological upturning, which causes a Götterdammerung of sorts, changes the nature of Souldancer's setting. Before that moment (before "kairos"), the setting had been somewhat "broken," Manichean, and closed, with good and evil having substance and fighting in an apparent eternal and protracted fight. Now that the unnamed light from "beyond the world" has entered, the old gods are gone, Zadok and Thera stand aside, a Good that is superior to "all known good" enters, and the "test" (Creation) is corrected; the judgment of Zadok is averted, the test of souls fixed, Good restored to its proper place, and evil goes to the Void, literally and metaphorically I think.

Really, that's pretty much the "divine invasion" of Christianity, I believe. Now, I do not know if I'm tripping balls here, or if what I'm writing here about the plot is common knowledge or an esoteric easter egg or something, but I doubt everything I have pointed out is a coincidence. 

Friday, April 28, 2017

Souldancer - Forties on the Curb

Man alive, a lot of characters die in the last fifth of this book.  Some of them don't even let that stop them.

Don't be confused by the
cheap knock-offs!
Finishing Brian Niemeier’s works always leave me feeling like I’ve just finished watching a David Lynch film.  A little tired, a little confused, but ultimately satisfied.  Most of what I just experienced doesn’t have a full explanation, but it all fits together and makes a certain diaphanous sense.

For my money, Xander winging up with Astlin, who has been essentially cured of her alien-ness and forgiven for the sins committed during her demi-god chrysalis phase puts a neat little bow on the end of Souldancer.  The final confrontation between the All-Father and his naughty, squabbling grandchildren, influenced as it was by Tefler and Xander, really made a lot of what had happened earlier snap into place for me.  It explained why Xander and Tefler could (and pretty much had to) go through death and rebirth.
For one specific example of this feeling, done in miniature, look at how Sulaiman obtained the sacred blade Xander uses to kill Szodrin and free Zadok.  That happens when we return to Kairos after forty-seven chapters, meet a stranger with a glowing white scimitar, and it’s only after he exits that we learn the stranger was Almeth Elocine – last seen in the prologue.  You’ve got to be paying pretty close attention to follow along with that level of subtlety, or at least willing to go back and reread sections.
Again, that's not a complaint.  These books will be going in my re-read pile, because seeing the destination has already opened my eyes to a lot of things that went on along the path to get there.
As a reminder, for anyone who has read Souldancer, and just can't get enough of what the man is laying down, he is one third of the three-headed giant known as Geek Gab. Well worth a listen for fans of fantasy and sci-fi tabletop, video games, books, and film.  This particular episode includes some talk about Souldancer and is highly recommended for fans of this work.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Souldancer: Chapters 35-42

Xander lays dying, exsanguinated by Hazeroth. Astlin tries to avenge him, but Damus interrupts. In the name of his lost daughter, he brings out a worked flute. As Megido grabs Hazeroth with earth and flesh, Damus pulls the trigger, and all three vanish in a flash of light. 

Astlin mourns Xander's passing, but Sulaiman is more concerned with the pranaphage, who is revealed to be a souldancer. He frees Mirai, who moves in an ever-shifting grind of clockwork.

Astlin buries Xander in a cave. The Exarch has left, so the group must climb out of the canyon. Thurif greets them with the Kerioth, and negotiates with Mirai, the souldancer of Kairos. Mirai would listen to the madman, so Kerioth picks his up. The rest of the survivors are doomed to fall. Thurif tries to convince Mirai to make him a god. 

The survivors regroup on the canyon floor. To stop Thurif, they must rely on Sulaiman's imp, Th'ix, to translate them through the ether to Irminsul.

Hazeroth is judged by Shaiel's Will, who is en route to Mithgar. 

An ether warp over Ostirith bars Th'ix's path. They decide to step out of the warp and cross the city in the natural realm.

Xander awakens and finds himself inside Astlin's mind. After convincing Astlin that he is not a new lie from an old Flame, he worries that he has become a kost, a type of disembodied spirit that preys on wounded souls.

Shaiel's Will arrives on the Irminsul with Hazeroth in tow. The Will demands a report from what is left of the local chapter, and wonders how one Steersman could inflict more losses than combat.

Sulaiman, Astlin, and the other survivors cut through the woods. Xander tries to comfort Astlin about her clumsiness in the brush. What appears to be isnashi surround them, but the shifters are Dawn Gen, not Night Gen. The survivors find themselves on trial, with the Dawn Gen barring Astlin and others from the Irminsul. Between Sulaiman's reason and Astlin's sincerity, they discover a loophole in Faedra's laws. Astlin confesses her misdeeds and consecrates herself to defeat the god about to be born on the Irminsul.

In whatever nexic realm Szodrin inhabits, he encounters and kills Thurif. Mirai confronts him about ruining his masterpiece. Szodrin offers to take Thurif's place.

Serapis lands on the Irminsul. As Astlin, Sulaiman, and their crew disembarks, they are confronted by the guards. A running battle breaks out.


Indiana Jones has been in my mind while I've been reading this part of Souldancer. Crashing airships, treasures hidden inside desert canyons, repeated face-heel turns, and supernatural mysteries all bring to mind The Last Crusade. I don't know if this was intentional, but high adventure certainly rings from these pages.

In some ways, Souldancer has been easier to peg in terms of genre than Nethereal. or, at the least, easier to divide into its component parts of post-apocalyptic fiction, fantasy, and space opera. It is a more familiar story and setting than Nethereal. While many people have said that Souldancer is more accessible as a result, it isn't quite as unique as its prequel. Perhaps Souldancer should be read first; the barrier to entry is nowhere near as difficult as Nethereal's. But, since I'm more a rocketship type of guy than a fantasy questor, I'm more partial to Nethereal. Some people just prefer rocky road to chocolate.

Mirai is an interesting name for one tied to the timelessness of Kairos. In Japanese, it means future, and in Basque, it means miracle. Both certainly are apt descriptions for a god smith. Perhaps he was first of the nine, as Souldancer implies that he was involved in the creation of the others. What is certain is that Mirai had a hand in the recreation of Thera. But is that the only known god he would recreate? Szodrin wants the godhood to so he can judge all things, a role reserved for Zadok, Thera's father...

It is curious that the two souldancers that are elementally closest to the Void, Irallel of Water and Megido of Earth, are both now dead. (Or, given Brian's comment from the last blog, if not truly dead, at least indistinguishable from dead for those walking on Mithgar.) For a metaphysical fantasy such as Souldancer, I have to wonder if reality is manifesting itself in its characterization. The souldancers are personifications of the nine Strata, after all. In Astlin's case, purified fire has a sort of divine spark, and, through adversity, love, and confession, she has been purified...

A blindfolded demon prince named Hazeroth? Perhaps I played too much World of Warcraft in my misspent adulthood, but I could not help but think of Illidan Stormrage of Azeroth, at least in design.