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.

Friday, April 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Souldancer, the first half.

Souldancer is shorter than the fist book in the series, Nethereal, but it still presents the reader with a heavy, 510-pages (including glossaries, epilogues, and a preview) challenge. 

Given its size, I have decided to split my general impressions into two parts. This one, the first, will be for chapters 1-24, which are almost half the book. 

First things first: a comparison. How does this book (at least, the first half) hold up compared to the previous one? Well, I think I like Souldancer more, which is something uncommon for a sequel. And strange as that may sound, you can actually read this book without having read the previous one.

Sure, they are closely connected, and there is an encyclopedic level of world-building behind, but almost everything you need to know is explained, hinted, or suggested in one way or another, and sometimes not knowing the specific details (e.g. what caused the Cataclysm) makes the story more intriguing, mysterious, and -in my opinion- better. Speaking of which, burning almost all your fictional setting in a firestorm of divine retribution has some perks, which brings me to what I first noticed about Souldancer –the scope of the story.

Although the setting and the story are part of the same universe, Souldancer starts on a much smaller scale, something that makes the story and the characters more relatable and interesting. A problem, to me anyway, with the previous entry in the Soul Cycle saga was that the universe Brian Niemeier had created was too... crowded, almost ready to burst (it did actually burst, to be fair.) It was so crowded that the story proper started with the promise of finding new worlds but in another dimension (i.e. Hell.) For the same reasons, that made that Universe feel oddly small.

There is no reason to assume that has changed, but starting the story after a universal cataclysm, following the -at first- quite "low-level" adventures of a young exiled nomad from a tribal society, gives the setting some space to breath and that sense of mysterious wonder that too much exposition or a high-powered quest can easily shatter. After a few bizarre events and a close encounter with some shape-shifting freaks, we find the protagonists searching the ruins of a secret Guild base/lab, an episode that allows for a powerful contrast between the old and the new and scarred world. That part and similar others are also, I presume, what justified including Souldancer as a Horror Novel in the Dragon Awards (which it won, by the way,) although I probably wouldn't classify the book as "horror."

After that, the story quickly ramps up the action and its scope, but it still manages to be somewhat personal since, at least in this first half, it's hinted that the narrative will revolve around a love story. Sure, it's between two weirdos with the ability to alter reality at will (an even higher form of "magic" than the one we saw in Nethereal,) pitted against a Demon Prince and a power-crazy (and utterly ugly) "wizard" with God delusions, but eh... couples need shared hobbies, I guess. By the way, while I'm on it, I greatly enjoyed the "telepathic" episode. Usually, "it was a psychic dream all along" sequences fall flat or make me feel as if I have been cheated, but this one is finely crafted and, in retrospect, necessary to better appreciate the setting and the protagonists.

I cannot comment on how the story continues, but the plot already revealed (which involves the fragmented soul of a goddess whose return has dangerous eschatological implications,) and even the name of the next book in the series, tell me that the story will progressively become more vast and epic in scale. Nonetheless, I believe it was an intelligent decision to start small and new (with new protagonists.) 

Speaking of epicness, Nethereal's profulgently pyrotechnic descriptions of action and combat are still in this sequel, but I have noticed a somewhat more down-to-earth tone or style. It may be a trick of my memory, but Souldancer's action scenes seem a bit more... visceral, deadly, and straight to the point? The protagonists still have that anime hero ability to withstand extreme punishment, but it feels more subdued this time. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Souldancer: Chapters 5-8

Damus and Nahel approach the water shrine hoping to use Xander to book passage with his father's caravan, but are turned away by the acolytes. When a murder is reported, Damus trades Nahel's tracking services for a meeting with the Nesshin. While he waits, Damus encounters a Guild Master, Arcanadeus, who has a proposition for Damus. Meanwhile, out in the desert, Nahel tracks the murderer to a cave. Inside, he finds and kills a Gen shapeshifter.

Xander wakes inside the shrine, and is greeted by Damus, Nahel and the pontifex. They discuss the werewolf Gen, attempting to reason its origin. Arcanadeus interrupts, questioning Xander before offering the exile the opportunity to join the Guild - and a chance to prove himself as a man. Xander accepts, and, in the process, becomes a desert guide to Damus.

Nahel uses a Mystery to reanimate the wolf-Gen for questioning. After blaspheming for a bit, the Gen reveals himself to be Night Gen, under the thrall of Hazeroth, a prince of Hell. His Night Tribe has been promised Mithgar itself in return for finding Souldancers for Shaiel. Afterwards, Arcanadeus says that the means to oppose the Night Gen are at Teran Nazim.

The party leaves Medvia after Xander finds a way to cut their travel in half. To pass the time, Damus tells of the land of Vale and the Journey to Save All Souls, the yearly feeding of the unwanted to the last fire of the Cataclysm in Ostrith. Nahel reveals that he has met the charred from this ritual. The group arrives at Teran Nazim, going underground to enter the complex. Attacked by giant insects, Arcanadeus sets a working and the party runs away.

*****

Of interest is Nahel's statement that he used to work for Midras, but had to change jobs. Right now, little has been revealed of Midras's legends, or how the other gods relate to the creation gods of Zadok and Thera. In Nethereal, references to the creator and his murderous daughter peppered the setting for chapters before their legends were revealed. Midras appears to be in a similar position here in Souldancer.

Navkin has done well for herself since the Cataclysm, ruling the Light Gen kingdom of Avalon from its seat of Seele, which, even if it weren't located in Hell, still maintains its connotations to the soul and one of the most unsettling groups of Secret Kings in anime.

The Night Tribe's other name, isnashi, is the same as that for a legendary Brazilian cryptid more commonly known as the mapinguari.  This red-furred monster is known for its stench, its roar, killing cattle, and ripping out tongues, attributes and deeds assigned to the Night Gen shifter. These particular flaws are likely tied to Shaiel, as the uncorrupted shifters received their power from Faerda. And since Almeth has been trumpeted as an avatar of that goddess, I expect that he will have similar powers.

Nessh, the Nesshin, death worms, the desert, and reverence for water do resonate with the Fremen of Dune. This idea is also driven home by the illustration of a Souldancer that Brian Niemeier commissioned, as the bright blue eyes and the stillsuit-inspired armor evoke the book and the movie.

From his name (or is it a title?) alone, Arcanadeus reveals that he is of the Guild. However, which faction is he a part of? In Nethereal, we saw three different factions, the Guild proper, the Arcana Divines, and a group of secret kings pulling the strings of both. The Divines were the faction who created the Exodus by shackling the saragasso god Elathan and the nine souldancers used to recreated Thera. It's still early to know if the Arcana in his name points to a deeper mystery of the Divines or the kings, or if it only refers to the arcane workings of the Guild.

Finally, just when I got a little too comfortable with the tale of a misfit finding what are likely to be his teachers and father/brother figures, Damus remind us that this is a Soul Cycle book. The ritual that Jemai embarked on in chapter 4 is indeed the Journey to Save All Souls, and his willing sacrifice and impending scalding at the hands of the last ember of Cataclysm is more in line with the horrors of Nethereal than just a shapeshifting beast. Yet Brian is not profligate with his viewpoint characters in the way that Robert Jordan and other epic fantasists are. I'm not writing Jemai off yet.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Souldancer: Chapters 1-4

Xander Sykes is traveling by desert caravan to see his father, enduring abuse from his rival, Sem. The caravans meet prior to arrival at Medvia, where Nesshin youth prove themselves before the council. But Xander will not go there, nor will he be Nesshin, for his father exiles him from the tribe. Swept up by emotion, Xander flees into the desert and passes out.

He awakens in the middle of the night, abandoned by those who should have searched for him. A pack of caninids stalks then pursues him. At the end of the flight, Xander is saved by a green-cloaked stranger, but the exile's own strange power also slips its leash.

In Medvia, Gen artifact hunter Damus Greystone waits with his malakh guard, Nahel. He learns of a single Nesshin wandering into town from the desert and goes to investigate.

Xander wakes up in Medvia's Shrine of Water, treated by the local pontifex. A strange mark tattoos the exile's shoulder, one that neither priest nor boy recognizes. The pontifex expresses amazement at the news of Xander's exile, then dreams sweep him up once more.

Half a world away, an orphan is sent on a ritual pilgrimage in search of a pillar of fire. Jemai finds it in one of the ruined cities and closes in on the perilous Tower Graves... 


***

The Nesshin are a tribe of nomadic desert traders previously associated with the world of Tharis, as a quick search of Nethereal reveals. They are closely tied to the mysteries of Zadok and Thera. So what are they doing on post-ruin Mithgar?

At this moment, Souldancer has echoes of the typical shounen adventure. Represented by Naruto or My Hero Academia, these boy's adventures take a gifted young misfit, usually bullied by a rival, and through circumstance and adventure, force the little brat to grow up and find his place in a society that he will eventually save. If Nethereal is a guide, this process will mix supernatural horror, body horror, and other nightmares into Xander's bitter poison of maturity.

During the discussions of Nethereal, Brian Niemeier revealed the influence of the classic video game Final Fantasy VI on the story. At the time, I chose not to investigate too closely to avoid revealing spoilers, as not only did the climax of Nethereal bear many similarities to what would at first glance appear to be the finale to that video game's story, but Nethereal and Souldancer mimic a key feature of the game. A confrontation in the a land that is the source of magic for Final Fantasy VI creates a cataclysm that not only scatters the party, but ruins the world. This cataclysm divides the game into two stages, a World of Balance and a World of Ruin. And, after a time-skip of months and years, the story resumes, but with different perspective characters. Thera's rebirth at the end of Nethereal scatters the crew of the Shibboleth and ruins the worlds of the Soul Cycle. Now, twenty-five years later, the story starts again, this time with a Nesshin exile with hidden powers. And, like Celes in Final Fantasy VI, Xander is already gathering some familiar faces from the previous tale.

When last we saw Sulaiman, he had been body-swapped into Teg's body, and, thanks to a vile poison, transformed into an unthinking monster that only Khorne could love. That he now walks free and in his own mind is not only a shock, but due to the actions of unnamed liberators. Now he walks the deserts of Mithgar in search of a way to make Thera pay for his world's desecration. Fortunately, the green-cloaked priest of Midras has a chance to work out his mad on an ancient enemy about to cross his path, Hazeroth.

Damus serves a female liege from Avalon searching for word of her daughter. Is this Navkin?

Perhaps Jemai might become one of Xander's allies. Right now, though, his vision quest/fetch quest offers us the first sight at what is left of the cities of Mithgar. If my reading is correct, at least one skyscraper survived Thera's flames.

Souldancer - The Teens

Sole dancers, you see.
During the teen portions of Souldancer our Guildsman betrays the trio to a creepy pranadrinker, but meets his comeuppance when they survive thanks to Xander's mysterious powers.  They escape from the Isnashi hunters by using a magictech portal that drops Nahel and Damus off in a vast Guild space, but drops Xander off in the clutches of a terrifying nightmare...of sorts.

And thus we meet the souldancer herself.  Astlin, a girl who hap a portion of her soul ripped away from her by the Guild has been living in the ruins of a metropolis, eating the old and infirm, sacrificed to her for generations.  It isn't until Xander shows up and treats her with compassion and pity that she manages to control her desire to feed.

We are also introduced to Szodrin, a Night Gen who seems to be working for the Guild, but when we met him he was in Guild-jail, and it turns out he knew Xander's mother and his been looking for Xander for his own reasons.

Which is all a convoluted way of saying that Brain Neimeier might be crafting more detailed and intricate plots that any author working today.  His books are woven through with so many threads, it can be hard to keep track, and you often find yourself wondering about the significance of what you're reading.  There are moments where I have to remind myself to be patient - all will be revealed in due course.

When we realize that Astlin is a telepath who has lured Xander into a trap, I found myself wondering why we spent so long inside her imaginary world.  It seemed like a waste of words, until you realize that she isn't just another monster, but a key player in the story.  We needed to see her world, to get to know her, so that when she is revealed to be the vessel for a portion of Thera - a role she struggles with - we have a little compassion for her, and have a reason to root for her.

That sort of reveal takes time to set up, and Neimeier shows tremendous patience in laying all of the groundwork in order to maximize the power of the reveal.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Souldancer: Prologue

In the eternal realm of Kairos, Gen hero Almeth Elocine has been spurred to action, to intervene in history to mend its wrong course. He is confronted by an old friend, Cleolin, who stabs him when Almeth will not relent from his course. For his treachery, Kairos removes Cleolin, while Almeth falls down and waits...

Almeth Elocine is mentioned twice in Nethereal. The first time, Jaren namedrops him when mentioning how strange it was to talk to Sulaiman, a priest of Midras and an adherent of a religion purged by the Guild. Since Almeth is Gen and the Gen were also purged, perhaps Midras-worship is a Gennish religion. The second time is during the gossip accompanying the Exodus's return from Hell, where rumors of Almeth Elocine's return spread. I suspect that a "king under the mountain" myth might surround Almeth, similar to how the twin stories of King Arthur and Francis Drake will return in England's time of direst need. But the Gen genocide and Cleolin stabbing him are arguments against that particular myth. What is certain is that Almeth Elocine will return to the Soul Cycle again.

Kairos as a name for an eternal realm is also a poignant choice. One of the two words ancient Greeks used for time, it is used for a multitude of meanings depending on context. These include "a period or season, a moment of indeterminate time in which an event of significance happens," and "a propitious moment for decision or action." In this latter sense, kairos has many of the same connotations as the idea of schwerpunkt. However, the term also has history in science fiction and fantasy as the name for the series of books by Madelene L'Engle that include A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet.  She would describe kairos as:
Real time, God’s time. That time which breaks through chronos with a shock of joy, that time we do not recognize while we are experiencing it, but only afterwards, because kairos has nothing to do with chronological time. In kairos, we are completely unselfconscious, and yet paradoxically far more real than we can ever be when we’re constantly checking our watches for chronological time. The saint in contemplation, lost to self in the mind of God is in kairos. The artist at work is in kairos. The child at play, totally thrown outside herself in the game, be it building a sand castle or making a daisy chain, is in kairos. In kairos we become what we are called to be as human beings, co-creators with God, touching on the wonder of creation. This calling should not be limited to artists, or saints, but it is a fearful calling.
And the books of her Kairos cycle all deal with the events of a time apart from time and how those affect chronological time. Likewise, the stabbing of Almeth is likely to have chronological ripples, although what those might be have yet to be seen.

May Brian forgive me, as I know that the Wheel of Time is not quite so beloved in Puppydom as it once was, but this prologue reminded me of the prologue of The Eye of the World, with the same sense of betrayal, broken friendship, and sorrow that introduced Lews Therin Telamon in that story.

(I know I started late, and started slow, but who doesn't love a challenge?)

Friday, April 7, 2017

Souldancer - The Early Chapters

Souldancers, you see.
This book is a beast.  Clocking in at 500 pages, and being behind on a lot of other lit-crit analysis, your old pal Jon just isn't going to be able to give you the measured doses of full analysis this month.  Instead, I'm going to play loosey-goosey and throw down my impressions as we roll along.

With that ado a-done, let's get to it.

Looks like Xander is our main character this time around, and he's a Nesshin.  The Nesshin are one of my favorite rarities in science-fiction - a desert nomad people who aren't just arabs with the serial numbers filed off.  There are certain necessities that all desert dwellers will share, such as a reverence for oases, but you don't often see a fully realized culture that feels as natural and yet un-earthlike as the Nesshin.

Our pal Xander gets booted from the clan by a loving father who thinks he's capable of so much more, and in his dream-quest to escape the desert he shows the reader that dear old dad might just be on to something.  He's got a bit of the

Sulaiman makes an appearance.  Wait.  Isn't that the guy from the first book?  Checking the archives reveals he was one of the living people Jaren encountered in Hell.  He was the priest who led the freehold and wound up stealing Teg's body before being killed by Vaun.  So this is a prequel.  Got it.

Damus Greystone, another Gen, and his wookie-pal, Nahel.  Actually a malakh, a half-man, half-wolf, are looking for an ancient artifact and think they know where to find it, but they need a guide, and Xander needs a job.  It's a match made in heaven.  All they need is a Guildman to -

Wait again.  I just spent the last book learning to hate the Guild, what is our adventuring party doing working with the Guildsman Arcanadeus.  Oh right, prequel.  They aren't so bad just yet.  From the sounds of things, they haven't obtained their monopoly yet, but they aren't well liked, either.  So we'll just have to keep an eye on this guy and make sure he stays loyal.

The Gen have been liquidated though, so we know Avalon is currently hiding out in Hell, and that makes Damus a rarity.  He and Nahel's first adventure is a little investigation into some demonic activity out at the farm, and after beating back an attack of shapeshifters, they drag a corpse back to town for a little speak with dead mono-a-mono, and we learn that the shapeshifter was a Night Tribe Gen working for a big bad voodoo man named Shaiel, who "is the Void".  They might have learned more if it wasn't for that meddling kid, Xander.

Okay, just writing all that out was a big help.  I think I might actually have this now.