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.


Monday, April 24, 2017

Souldancer: Chapters 31-34

Kerioth unloads supplies for Damus before he leads the four souldancers to the Guild vault. Astlin discerns that they are looking for a fifth souldancer - and Damus's lost daughter.

On the bridge of the Exarch, Xander joins Tefler and Cook as they try to seize the ship from Thurif. Xander takes control of the Wheel, and Thurif flees.

Sulaiman tags along as Damus leads his expedition through a canyon. All watch as Thurif falls like lightning from the Exarch.

Xander lands the ship near the expedition. He confronts Damus to kill him, but Astlin convinces him to stay his hand. Sulaiman tries to convince Xander to let him come with, for he knows which souldancer is imprisoned: a god smith. With it, Sulaiman can kill Thera. But before Xander can decide, Hazeroth returns, and the souldancers run into the vault.

As the fight outside rages nearer, the four souldancers channel their elements into a lock. But the device needs six elements, not four, so Tefler, as the priest of both Thera and Shaiel, channels prana and void into it. The door opens, revealing a Regulator, an armored metal giant tasked to destroy intruders. Xander, Tefler, and Cook run inside while the souldancers distract the giant. To beat it, Astlin telepathically links to her fellow souldancers and shares a plan. Using coordination and their powers, the quartet defeats the Regulator

Inside the vault, Xander, Tefler, and Cook find a pranaphage in restraints. While Xander attempts to remember how he beat the first one, the souldancers rush in. Swept up by emotion, Xander proposes to Astlin despite Irallel's mocking. Hazeroth interrupts, and offers his friendship to whoever kills Xader and Astlin. Irallel tries to kill Astlin. Xander kills Irallel. Hazeroth attacks Xander in turn.


*****

This was a quick set of chapters, covering the first half of the Guild vault fight. The teamwork used by the souldancers came straight from 80s and 90s anime series like Ronin Warriors and Sailor Moon, although the skill shown has the finesse of Avatar: the Last Airbender. Most anime team attacks charge up the mighty glass cannon, while in Avatar, and Souldancer, the team instead uses their attacks for synergistic effect. There's even a nod to the RPG roots of Souldancer, as Astlin, Zan, and Irallel inflicted status effects on the Regulator before Megido landed the killing blow.

I hate to see Irallel leave so soon. I've always enjoyed whenever the female protagonist must content with a sharp-tongued foil, and Irallel made her displeasure apparent with every word. But such a foil is best suited towards romantic comedy. There's no room in Astlin and Xander's relationship for a rival to exploit, not that Irallel showed any interest in anyone but herself. So the consequences for her sudden yet inevitable betrayal could be lethal However, in the Soul Cycle, death is not the final destination, but the beginning of an even stranger journey, so it would not surprise me if this ice queen showed up again in the series.

So, six elements and six souldancers. We've seen the souldancers of fire, air, water, earth, and void. So who is the souldancer of prana, what realms are the other three souldancers from, and which one is trapped inside the vault?

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.