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New Zealandian Gods

Doesn’t roll off the tongue in quite the same way as the title of that TV Series based on the epic novel by Neil Gaiman does it?

If you haven’t heard of American Gods by Neil Gaiman then here’s as brief a description as I can manage.  It’s about a war between the old gods of mythology and the shiny new gods of modern society.  It’s a road novel, a meditation on the art of the con, a critique of America and a paean to Americana.  At various points it’s also an anthology of stories about immigrants, a murder mystery and a slice of life drama.

It’s a bit of a mess to be honest and I haven’t even talked about the main character and the difficult relationship he has with his dead but un-departed wife.  Or the troubles that pagan gods face when they’ve lost most of their power due to lack of worshippers and have to get a job as say; a taxi driver to get by.  But while it’s not the most disciplined or fast paced novel in the world it’s still a great read and worth picking up, as much for the world building and curious asides as for the grand overarching story beats.  It’s actually a lot like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell in that respect.

When done right TV really suits this kind of story, because there’s so much material to dig into to make each individual episode unique and interesting.  One episode chronicles a high stakes game of wits between a man and a retired butcher who is also a god of darkness.  Another explores the bitter legacy of African Gods brought to the USA along with the cruelly enslaved humans who worshipped them.  With all this to draw on, American Gods the TV Series completely outshines the standard run of Urban Fantasy TV Shows.  (Maybe you’ve seen them; a Vampire, Wizard, Immortal, Zombie or even The Devil Himself have nothing better to do with their time than to help a detective of varying gender and level of grumpiness solve murders).  It’s cleverer, more original and a hell of a lot more stylish.

But American Gods is not the first TV Show to feature pagan gods having to survive in a modern world.  It’s not even the first show to focus on Norse Mythology and have Odin as a main character.  It’s not even the first show like this that’s set in a former British colony.

That prize goes to The Almighty Johnsons. In this show worship is less of a concern for gods but the members of the Norse Pantheon are still a mere shadow of their former glory; little more than mortals with a handful of supernatural tricks between them.  To make things worse they had to flee persecution by a secret organisation of fanatical god-hunters and have taken refuge in New Zealand.

There is no war between rival pantheons in The Almighy Johnsons, though there is a barbecue between rival pantheons which gets a bit shouty at one point.

So how does American Gods measure up to its predecessor?  Well it’s more literary, artier, bloodier and seemingly more self-aware, (not to mention its special effect budget must have been a whole lot bigger).

But it may be unfair to make the comparison at all.  Because although they draw on some of the same material the two shows present it in totally different ways.

American Gods is about stories.  Not just the story of Shadow Moon or Laura Moon or Wednesday, but the stories of all the different ethnic groups who came to America and made it what it is today.  It tells those tales in a gorgeous, dream-like and often disturbing way.

The Almighty Johnsons is about people, just one group of people really.  A raucous blend of sex, comedy, betrayal and the occasional murder; it’s basically a soap opera that just happens to pull plotlines from mythology. And like any other soap opera it’s ultimately about a family simultaneously growing together and falling apart.

The Almighty Johnsons doesn’t attempt to capture or explain the soul of New Zealand itself.  It isn’t about New Zealand.  Certainly you’ll learn a bit about Maori mythology if you watch Season 2 but there’s no attempt to link those stories to the nature of New Zealand as a country.

Wednesday would tell you that this is because Americans are the only people who worry about what their country is.

I think that the opposite is true in this case.  Neil Gaiman came to America himself from Britain.  It’s not surprising that he would write about the things that made his adopted country unique because such things are all the more mysterious and fascinating to an immigrant who hasn’t grown up with them.  If you aren’t from the USA then roadside attractions, televangelists and the American Dream are all as strange and fantastical in their way as leprechauns and revenants.

And someone who has put so much thought into his own journey to America is bound to find interest in stories of similar journeys, other perspectives, more ingredients in the rich and sometimes toxic stew of modern American culture.

For, James Griffin and Rachel Lang, the creators of The Almighty Johnsons, New Zealand holds no such mystery; it’s where they grew up, it’s situation normal.  What seems to have interested them was how these elements of magic; a fate that if not fulfilled will cause appalling devastation, the ability to turn anyone to your will, the curse of being unable to touch anyone without eventually killing them, tragic love affairs doomed to repeat themselves from generation to generation, would affect the behaviour of otherwise ordinary New Zealanders.

They also clearly wanted to have fun; cheerful, laddish, (or ladettish), fun.  I’m not sure that any scene in American Gods sets out to be fun.  Entertaining, beautiful, tragic, absorbing, yes; fun or light-hearted, not so much.

So there it is, if you want a new perspective to deepen your understanding of Norse Mythology after watching American Gods then I wouldn’t start with The Almighty Johnsons, though it certainly features a lot of Norse Gods that you’ve probably never heard of.  You’d be better off reading The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris or Neil Gaiman’s own Norse Mythology.  And if you want a series that’s like American Gods then you’re out of luck; it’s pretty unique.  Although you could try Preacher or the aforementioned Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

But if you want a lighter and sillier take on mythology as a change of pace then I’d heartily recommend tracking The Almighty Johnsons down, if you can.

 

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Richard Fixes the DCEU Part 2 ‘Man of Steel’

Ok.  So Man of Steel wasn’t actually that bad.  It was ok.  It had some nice ideas.  It was a bit bland, the fight scenes were understandably criticised for being over-long and underwhelming and the villains were dull.  I’m told some critics hated the score as well.  The relationship between Superman and Lois Lane didn’t exactly set the screen on fire either.  But unlike Batman V Superman it wasn’t awful.

It could be better though and it needs to fit into my ‘fixed’ version of the DCEU.

So what WAS good about MoS?

  • The bits on Krypton looked cool.
  • The fact that Superman had anger issues and Daddy issues to counterbalance his essential goody two-shoes nature was nice; it made him a more rounded character.
  • I liked the news feeds of people reacting to the alien invasion and the obvious destruction caused by superhumans fighting each other.
  • Henry Cavill has nice hair?

So let’s build on some of these strengths and cut out some of the crap. Let’s not have Supe’s earth-Dad die rather than let Supes use his powers to save him.  Mr Kent Senior is alive and well and telling his son to keep his head down throughout the film.  Clark Kent can be on the run because he did save his Dad and somebody saw him.

Let’s have Lois Lane, a star journalist, be involved in the news chatter which pops up throughout the film.

Let’s fill the soundtrack with a series of classic rock tracks because why not?  Or turn it into some glitzy, orchestral, Sci-Fi thing because this film is, after all, a reboot of a very old franchise about an alien spaceman who saves the planet.  (Clark A-Aa!).  Retro worked for Guardians of the Galaxy.

Now how do you make Zod and crew more interesting villains?  Besides making Zod look like the awesome picture in the Wikipedia article I linked in the previous sentence?

Despite the fact that they are aliens I would humanise them.  Give them PTSD.  Make the audience sympathise with them a little even as they attempt to trash our planet.

Because these villains have an absolutely excellent motivation.  Consider how much screen time has been dedicated to characters who have lost their parents, partners or children.  Zod and Co. have lost their entire planet and every last member of their species apart from themselves and they are trying desperately to regain what they lost.  They may be space-fascists who tried to overthrow their planet’s government but they still have feelings.

  • Make one of them have a breakdown and get locked in the brig.
  • Have another enjoy bringing destruction to Earth because she can’t block out her memories of Krypton’s death.
  • Have another be quite cheerful and upbeat in a nihilistic way; he thinks that he and his companions are basically walking ghosts so he’s just going to enjoy the sensations of life while he can. He might even wax poetical here and there.
  • Zod himself should contrast with his underlings by being completely emotionless. Whether it’s because he was already a psychopath or because he’s dealing with his trauma in his own way; he is utterly focused on his goal and won’t hesitate to do anything, including killing his own crew, to succeed.  That would give the moment when he loses his cool and accuses Kal-El of destroying his reason to exist, (rebuilding and protecting Krypton), more emotional weight.  As would the grief that the other Kryptonians demonstrated for their lost homeworld.
  • Alternatively Zod could present himself as a third father figure for Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman. Try to win him over with stories of Krypton and a chance to belong.  Fatherhood, (or son-hood) was a key and quite effective theme in the film after all.  That would also make their final confrontation more emotional.

Another other thing you could do is emphasise that Zod and Co. are highly trained military types who understand teamwork and tactics.  Zod actually points out that he has trained all his life to be a soldier.  As opposed to Superman who is a lone civilian that just happens to have spent years absorbing solar radiation and becoming incredibly powerful.  He can’t even have much experience of brawling because he wouldn’t be able to fight humans without revealing his powers and probably killing them into the bargain.

Yes he is far stronger and tougher than the other Kryptonians but they have cool battle-suits and spaceships and laser rifles and above all they have a plan.  So after Supes surprises and wipes the floor with Zod’s advance team the first time round they work out what he can do, lay a trap for him and kick his arse in the rematch.

You’d lose the bit where Superman gives himself up but that self-sacrifice can appear in more meaningful ways later on in the film.

Cue a bit of character development as Superman is rendered powerless, imprisoned on the Kryptonians’ ship and forced to watch as they carry out their plans to transform Earth into Krypton Mark Two.  This also gives him a chance to talk to and relate to the only people he has ever met who come from his home planet.  Have them try to recruit him, have them wax lyrical about Krypton.  Maybe have their version of what Krypton was like clash with what Jor-El’s hologram says about it.

Maybe Kal-El doesn’t immediately understand the scope of Zod’s plans.  Maybe he is tempted to help.

And then Lois Lane rescues Superman.

I don’t know or particularly care how she does it but this is the 21st Century and it’s time for Lois Lane to break out of the mould of damsel in distress and actually do something besides falling off buildings and getting into scrapes.  (She probably has done that already in the comics, I wouldn’t know, haven’t read all of them).  Maybe she finds something in the Fortress of Solitude and uses it to remotely access and mess up the Kryptonian ship.  Maybe she finds a crashes space-ship and leads a team of marines to invade the ship and rescue Superman.  Maybe she just gets someone to bounce a message off a satellite that scrambles the Kryptonian ship’s systems and/or reminds Superman that he needs to sort himself out and get on with saving the day already.

Now Kal-El has a chance to do the self-sacrifice thing and e.g. download his father’s hologram into the Kryptonian ship in order to crash it and stop Zod.

The ship is brought down and Kal-El survives but so does Zod and he still has some way to carry out his plans.  So we still get our final confrontation.

And let’s build on the destruction that Superman’s showdown with Zod unleashes.  Let’s have him looking guilty afterwards as he watches news footage of families being dragged from the wreckage, not snogging Lois in the ruins.  Let’s have him realise that he should have forced Zod to fight him somewhere less populated and swear to do better.  Maybe he even swears not to fight anyone ever again.  A pacifist, angst-riddled Superman would make for an interesting foil to the extremely violent Batman I presented in Part 1 of this Blog series.  Although it would also be interesting to show US governmental spin doctors already working to make Superman into an all-American hero to make the government that worked with him look good.

Speaking of Part 1 of this Blog series.  I pointed out in that post that SUPERMAN DOES NOT KILL PEOPLE.  (Except when he does).  So don’t make him kill Zod.  Have him lock Zod and Co. in the Fortress of Solitude.  They can get out in time for Man of Steel 2 or even 3 and summon Doomsday to get revenge on Superman and Earth.  Because Doomsday and the Death of Superman plot arc, (which is one Superman story I do know), is superb and deserves at least one film dedicated to it, not just the tail end of Superman V Batman and a justification for Justice League.   But I’m getting off track.

Going back to Man of Steel 1.  There’s one last thing to fix and I don’t know how to do it.  How to make the often criticised fight scenes better?  I consider myself to be pretty knowledgeable about stories and how to tell them but I don’t know much about cinematography.  I don’t know how to make the fight scenes in this film feel more real and less cartoony.

I guess you could make them shorter in favour of a bit more character development like the imprisoned Superman scene I mentioned above.  And again you could emphasise that Zod is a far superior fighter with better technology so Superman has to win through sheer strength and heart. Or you could get a team consisting of a physicist, a martial artist and a pilot to work out how super-strong flying beings could fight each other effectively and ‘realistically’.  The only other thing I can suggest is having Kal-El and Zod act as though the blows they exchange are actually hurting each other.

Of course you could just have Zod fight Superman in a mecha suit because all films, (including any version of Pride and Prejudice), would be improved by a giant robot battle.

So that’s it for now.  Next time I blog about the DCEU I’ll be trying to fix Batman V Superman.  Wish me luck!

Richard Fixes the DCEU! Part 1

So I watch a lot of Superhero shows and films and I am also a writer.

Which means I am totally equipped to tell huge multinational corporations that employ professional screen-writers how to make their movie and TV franchises better!

For example.  The films presented as part of the DC Extended Universe so far have ranged from mediocre to psychotically bad.  So without going into too much detail or writing entire scripts this is how I would rewrite history to make the DCEU a better franchise.  (Not more profitable, just better).

Step One.  Start the shared universe with a Batman film, not Superman.  Do the Arrowverse thing and start out dark then get progressively weirder.

Now this is a tall order because The Dark Knight Trilogy was mostly built of awesome and had an excellent depiction of the character and his origin story, even if Bane’s voice in the third film is incredibly silly and non-threatening, (yeah I said it).  And since the MCU has been going for a good few years longer than the DCEU the audience for any new superhero film has probably sat through a lot of origin stories already.

So don’t write Batman’s origin story again.  Or at least find a new way into that story.

My suggestion would be to avoid telling the story from Batman’s point of view.  One of the most iconic and powerful aspects of Batman’s character, (at least when he’s played straight and isn’t messing around with Bat-Shark-Repellenttm), is that he is supposed to be scary; he terrifies the criminals of Gotham and quite a few of the ordinary citizens as well.

So make him frightening!  Don’t treat him like the hero of the film; treat him like the monster in a horror film.  For a good chunk of the movie you don’t know exactly what he is, what he can do or what his motivations are.  (Of course most everyone knows who Batman is but if you didn’t retell the story in the film then you might as well just put up a big sign saying ‘go read the comics’ and save the bother).

The film is called ‘The Batman’ to make him sound less human.  The protagonists in the film are a pair of young myth-busters style journalists, (or one journalist and one camera man/woman), who try to find out the truth behind urban legends.  They team up with a private detective in his late 30s or early 40s, a poorly educated self-made man who is intelligent and charismatic and determined to make up for a misspent youth.  This character is haunted by memories of a fateful shooting.

The journalists made their name by investigating the stories of alligators living in the Gotham sewers and discovering the existence of Killer Croc; who was living down there and occasionally nipping up to the surface to eat people.  The journalists found and printed enough evidence that even the famously corrupt Gotham Police Department had to start taking the story seriously.

But Killer Croc was only caught by the GPD when they found him unconscious in the sewers with a whole host of brutal injuries; fractured jawbone, slashed tendons, broken ribs and so on.

Croc claims to have been defeated by another inhuman creature, something which he calls ‘The Bat’.  His fight with the Bat is depicted in a dream-like sequence in which a dark and wraith-like figure with demonic horns beats him to a pulp.  (In the ‘fixed’ version of the DCEU this will be the only dream sequence, EVER).

Croc’s claims are dismissed as the ravings of a mad reptilian cannibal but rumours of The Bat persist in Gotham’s criminal underworld.  Croc plays no further part in the film and gets put into a box which can be opened again in time for Suicide Squad.

The detective contacts the journalists and tells them he has a lead of some sort on The Bat and/or convinces them to join him in a search for this strange being.

The trio have a tense meeting in a foggy and otherwise deserted location with local gang-bangers who supposedly know something about The Bat.  (The protagonists have started calling him ‘Bats’ for short).  These hardened and well-armed criminals are extremely jittery and reluctant to actually talk.  They do reveal that local crime-boss Oswald Cobblepot (the Penguin) has put a bounty on ‘The Bat’s’ head.  (Someone would probably make a joke about that).

Of course the Bat himself turns up and picks the gang-bangers off one by one; dragging them into the mist and seemingly making them disappear.  The frightened journalists try to flee and one of them hides inside a car.  An arm clad in spiked metal reaches in and drags the journalist out, he/she screams and a powerful light is shone in his/her face.  After a single dismissive grunt the Bat-thing shoves the journalist away before he/she gets a proper look at him and takes off.

The beaten but still alive bodies of the gangsters are found the next day.  They all have the same story; they were captured and interrogated by a black -clad monster who set them free so that they could let Cobblepot know that his time is coming to an end.

Shaken but undeterred the three investigators keep on trying to discover the Bat’s identity.  They somehow learn more about him e.g. that he is human but driven by a mysterious tragedy in his childhood to take revenge on criminals.  (In a major deviation from the comics Batman does not seem to be interested in justice or saving lives at this point; he just wants payback and he seems to blame the Penguin for whatever it is that set him on this path.  Killer Croc was just practice for taking on Gotham’s Underworld).  They also learn that the Bat or ‘Batman’ has been tracking the detective, presumably in retaliation for being investigated by him.

Due to Batman’s vengeance-fuelled shenanigans the Penguin finds his grip on the city slipping and attempts to blackmail the city government to prove his power.  Bolstered, (or frightened), by Batman’s exploits they call his bluff and he retaliates by publicly stating that he will commit a great atrocity so that the city remembers that they should be afraid of him and not ‘The Bat’.

The atrocity, (a bomb at a local hospital), is averted by the Bat when the journalists tip him off.  Of course Batman is only interested in catching the perpetrators so that they can reveal the Penguin’s whereabouts.  In the midst of doing so they also admit that the bomb was only a distraction.

The real atrocity is a truly hideous mixture of chemicals that Penguin’s men are going to dump in the city’s main water treatment plant; this will kill thousands of Gothamites and disfigure many more.

Batman races to catch the Penguin and is pursued by the detective who seems to have lost interest in the investigation in favour of talking to the Batman directly.

In the mean-time the journalists have found their way into the Bat-Cave and discovered that Batman had been tracking the detective for years and apparently hates him, (I’m thinking pictures of the detective with batarangs stuck in them but there’s probably a more subtle way to get the point across).

Batman catches Penguin and tells him that he knows it was Cobblepot’s orders that led to his parents’ deaths and that he is going to take the Penguin to a dark and remote place where he can reflect on this for the rest of his life.  The Penguin is bitterly amused, (“You came after me for that?  That wasn’t even supposed to be a hit”).  He also says that his men have orders to complete the atrocity if he disappears.  Batman gives a big bat-shrug and starts dragging the Penguin away.

The detective arrives and begs Batman to save the city instead.  Batman tells him that he of all people should not tell Batman to do the right thing.  Let’s switch to dialogue here.

Private Detective.  “You already know who I am?  How?”

Batman.  “I’ve been following your movements for years.  You are my one fear.”

PD. Breaking down into sobs. “You don’t have to be afraid of me.  I wouldn’t hurt you; I won’t hurt anyone ever again.”

B. “I’m not afraid of you. I’m afraid of what I would do to you.”

PD.  Properly crying now. “I know, I’m so sorry.  Please forgive me, I was just supposed to scare them, I never meant to shoot anyone, I never meant to kill a little boy’s parents in front of him.  I’ve spent every day since trying to atone for that.”

B.  “No.” Proceeds to beat the crap out of the detective.

At this point more of Penguin’s goons arrive and Batman is distracted trying to fight them off.  Penguin gets up and tries to pour the vat of chemicals into the water supply but the detective crawls over and grapples with him, then gets thrown into the vat.

Or Batman defeats his attackers and intervenes; knocking Penguin out for good but knocking the detective into the vat.  Either way it’s clearly Batman’s fault that the detective has a chemical bath.  (No prizes for guessing where this is going DC fans).

Stunned by the detective’s sacrifice Batman finds his conscience and stops the vat from pouring out and after some soul-searching uses some bit of Bat-tech to pull the detective’s limp body out.

Batman accepts that while he is not a killer himself; thousands of people nearly died because he was focused on revenge instead of helping them and that this makes him in some ways as bad as the killers he has hated and hunted all his adult life.  He vows, (perhaps to Captain, soon-to-be-Commissioner, Gordon when he hands over the Penguin to him), that from now on he will try to be a hero to the innocents of Gotham as well as a demon to the guilty.

Post Credits sequence.

The detective wakes up in hospital covered in bandages.  One of the journalists is with him and explains that he is recovering well but that there was some alteration to his body chemistry and he is being sedated to help with the pain.

A nurse arrives to check the bandages and the drip which is feeding painkillers into the detective.

The detective does not seem to be lucid and his voice is altered.  He demands that the needle in his arm be removed so that he can ‘feel everything’.  The nurse refuses.

The journalist tells him to get it together and explains that if they spin the story right the detective could be the hero of Gotham.

The detective says that that is a very funny joke.  He starts laughing.  He explains that he doesn’t need to be good anymore; his debt to the Batman is paid and now he is free.  He is free of everything.  Still laughing; he rips the needle out of his arm and stabs the nurse with it.

As the journalist starts to run the detective pulls the bandages off his face to reveal the still laughing face of the newly created Joker.  (What a shock that was).

As the credits resume we hear the Joker’s voice say.  “Be seeing you soon Bats!”

Well that’s how I’d reboot Batman.  Over the course of the film Batman transforms from terrifying urban legend to an all-too-human crime-fighter who reluctantly accepts his role as one of the good guys.  The Joker is set up for future films rather than being just an extra in Suicide Squad and there’s a nice link between Batman and him; they created each other and neither of them is entirely innocent.

And while it’s completely against the story of the comics I like the idea that the Joker’s last act before becoming the Joker was a selfless/redemptive one which set Batman on a better path.  It explains why Batman resists the urge to kill despite all provocation and particularly why he always spares the Joker; he feels responsible for him.  Considering all the stuff Joker gets up to in the comics that could lead to anime levels of angst for the Dark Knight in later films as he struggles with the consequences of repeatedly sparing a murderous supervillain.

Because, on an important side-note, Batman does not kill people.  I’m not sure how the creators of Batman V Superman failed to notice that because it is practically written on a huge sign over the gates of Superhero-town.

BATMAN DOES NOT KILL PEOPLE!  (Except when he does).

SUPERMAN ALSO DOES NOT KILL PEOPLE! (Anymore).

STOP MAKING THEM KILL PEOPLE!

Or at least make more of a thing of it.

Anyway.  In Part 2 of this rewrite of DCEU history I’ll address Man of Steel and in Part 3 I’ll look at Batman V Superman.  Though I think I might need an entire blog-post just to list everything wrong with Batman V Superman.  Depending on how much creative energy I have to spare from writing Inari I may even do a regular blog post in between!

Distractions and Such

Well the writing of my novel has slowed down again.  I’ve only done around 7,500 words since my last blog post.  It’s Netflix’s fault. Particularly the new Marvel series, (though it was crap). Also Riverdale (which is very entertaining), and the first three seasons of Grimm. I’d never properly watched Grimm before but I’m treating it as an excellent piece of ahem ‘research work’ to help me with creating an Urban Fantasy setting.  The Netflix Dirk Gently series was surprisingly good as well, despite their version of Dirk himself being pretty bland and forgettable.

Anyway, distractions aside I should have more creative energy to dedicate to Inari at the moment because I’ve mostly stopped running games at my local tabletop RPG Club for now.  That’s because I’m taking part in a long running D&D campaign of the Curse of Strahd.  I might talk more about that in later posts.

When I do GM I run Kerberos Club.  If you like Victoriana or Steampunk or you enjoyed Penny Dreadful or any form of the League of Extraordinary Gentleman then you might want to check out Kerberos Club.  It’s an RPG set in an alternative Victorian era filled with anachronistic technology, superpowers, faeries and magic.  The version I use is based on the Fate RPG system.

Weird as the original setting is I tend to push its boundaries when I run games in it.  When writing Inari I have to make my world-building internally consistent and serious enough that a willing reader can suspend their disbelief.  I also don’t want to steal other people’s ideas!

When running a one-off game for role-players I can make the plot as mad-cap as I like and no one cares if I cut out parts of other novels or settings and drop them wholesale into an adventure.  It’s quite refreshing to know that I can base a story around an invasion by White Martians or a trip to Yharnam to fight Lovecraftian Werewolves.  Since nothing is going to be published or even printed the only thing that matters is whether or not everyone has fun on the night.

Which does mean that these gaming sessions can really fall down the rabbit-hole into what kids these days would probably call #CrazyWeirdTown

One of my favourite moments so far has been when my players’ characters were trapped in Cowboy Hell and escaped by feeding the ghost of Bad, Bad Leroy Brown to an entity called The Soul Train.

But then I’d expected that that might happen.

I didn’t expect a different group of players to defeat Chun the Unavoidable by stealing the eyes from his cloak then confronting him with his own reflection in a pair of sunglasses.  They were supposed to have run around Alternate Victorian London looking for allies against Chun and making deals with, (possibly literal), devils in order to survive.

Instead they jumped through the portal that he came from and ended up on the Dying Earth.  So I had to imagine up a piece of the Dying Earth on the fly and help them find a way to defeat Chun on his home turf.  Sunglasses were their solution and one player convinced me to let them get away with this by continuously doing jazz-hands until she almost fell off her chair.

The more I write about Inari the more she is developing her own ideas and motivations.  There are things that she won’t do so I have to structure the plot of my novel around that.  But she is still my own character and writing her does not prepare me for players who insist on buying sunglasses in a fantasy setting or ignoring vital plot points because they’re boring or agreeing to the demands of a vampire who is clearly evil and untrustworthy.

I don’t know whether being a writer makes me a better GM.  But I think that dealing with the decisions that players have made in my games has made me a better writer.  I believe that anyone who writes fiction and is struggling to bring life into their characters should try letting a few other people run around in their stories and wreak a little havoc.  There is no substitute for having to make your narrative survive the random elements introduced by other human minds.

So thank you to everyone who has played in my games, for helping me to become a better story-teller.

Which is all very well.  But if you’re like most of the people in my local RPG Club, (or most people period), then you will probably be wondering who the hell Chun the Unavoidable is and what exactly the Dying Earth is.

Let me explain.

The Dying Earth setting was created by Jack Vance, a titan of old-school Fantasy and Sci-fi fiction.  He influenced countless SF&F writers and if you want to understand the DNA of either genre then you should try to track down his books.

Even if you aren’t worried about the history of fantastical fiction and just like reading a good adventure with pretty prose then the Dying Earth is a great world to get lost in. It’s colourful, grandiose, verbose and shot through with wry humour. It’s a world at the edge of time; when the sun is on the verge of going out and the nihilistic remnants of humanity are dwindling into extinction.  For all that darkness it’s still a fun place to visit.

There are no elves or dwarves or dark lords in the Dying Earth and the magic of its wizards may just be a more advanced kind of science than our own.

There are, however, carnivorous monsters that will use cunning arguments to try to convince you that it is in your best interests to let them eat you.  There are also little green men, they won’t try to abduct you though because they’re too busy riding around on dragonflies and trading secrets for salt.

The best characters of all are the humans of the Dying Earth, arrogant wizards like Rhialto the Marvellous and amoral rogues like Cugel the Clever.

This might not sound like an obvious precursor to modern fantasy but Vance’s legacy lives on in many ways beyond his own writing.  Particularly in Fantasy Roleplaying games.

  • Big name modern authors from George R. R. Martin to China Mieville cite him as an influence and/or rave about how much they love reading him if given the slightest provocation.
  • The standard magic system in Dungeons and Dragons is based on the magic of the Dying Earth, including the names of some of the spells such as the Excellent Prismatic Spray.
  • Roleplayers and Gamers alike may have heard of the wonderfully weird Numenera setting which has its own tabletop RPG system but was also featured in the recent indie computer game ‘Torment: Tides of Numenera’. Since it’s set in the Earth of the far future and features near magical technology and weird alien creatures; I would be very surprised if Vance’s books had not been an influence on Monte Cook’s creation of that world.
  • Vance was also name-checked as a big influence on the highly successful and wonderfully weird and dangerously addictive browser game Fallen London by Failbetter Games, (which I might talk about in another post).

You should read Jack Vance basically.

In other writing and reading news I’ve started posting on SFF Chronicles as Inari Writer and would definitely recommend it as a place for reviews, genre discussions and writing advice.  You might even see the odd extract from A Day in the Lies of Inari Meiwaku on there from time to time.

Next blog I’m not going to talk about my writing as such.  Instead I’m going to put all of my time spent watching Superhero films and TV shows to good use and lay out a foolproof plan to fix the DCEU!

Review: The Moonlight War by S.K.S. Perry

Always interesting to see how a self-published author makes out.

ventureadlaxre

Published by: self-published
ISBN: 1514847949
ISBN 13: 9781514847947
Published: July 2015
Pages: 315
Format reviewed: MS
Site: Author Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Three out of Five

This was read for the final round of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off 2016 hosted by Mark Lawrence, more of which can be read here. I have recently taken over for Bibliotropic for the final four novels – right at the end of this massive event – so I’m one of ten judges. This event is the same one that previously found ‘The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids‘ by Michael McClung as the winner – a book I adored.

I’ve always held an open mind to self-publishing – many friends through NaNoWriMo since 2004 onwards found mild-success this way; I was a reader of Michael J. Sullivan and on the same writing forum as he for a few…

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Blog Entry 2

And another post already!  It’s only been a month or so since the last one.  I am really getting the hang of this whole writing fast thing.  (Looks shifty).

So I’m currently reading an epic fantasy novel, the third in a series by Brian Stavely.

If you like brutal action, grimdark philosophy and tortured characters then I would recommend this series. It’s well written and explores complex themes of faith, rulership, war, family, psychology and the nature of divine beings. The bad guys are intelligent and so fiendishly manipulative that you will find yourself struggling with a creeping sense of paranoia as the series develops, wondering if every action the viewpoint characters take merely plays into their enemy’s hands.

The setting has some unusual elements that keep it from being a cookie-cutter fantasy setting as well.  There are no wizards or ‘magic-users’ as such; instead there are ‘leaches’ who wield magical or psychic powers like telekinesis and fuel their abilities by drawing arcane strength from something within the world such as fear or metal, (this is called a leach’s ‘well’).  They’re sort of fantasy X-Men really as they are born with their abilities and each leach has a different ‘well’.  The setting’s non-human race are interesting because they are different to humans in a profound way that has more to do with their minds than any physiological difference.

So there’s good stuff here.  And if you’ve run out of books by Steven Erikson, Ian C. Esslemont and Joe Abercrombie to read then this series would be a pretty good next step.

But read their stuff first.  In particular I consider Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen to one of the greatest fantasy series ever written.  Why not give it a look? https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/55399.Gardens_of_the_Moon

That being said; like many epic fantasy series Stavely’s work has begun to bloat so much that the hardback edition of the current book could be considered an offensive weapon.  I have to say that I’m struggling to finish it so that I can return it to the library and move on to some shorter, less epic but more original books.

Also, having established that this series is worth reading; I feel entitled to call shenanigans on one aspect of Stavely’s world-building.

So, the Annurian Empire which dominates this setting has an elite military unit called the Kettral.

Trigger Warning.  Spoilers below.

 

Here are all the advantages the Kettral have over other military forces in the setting.

  • They have the best training in fighting and tactics. They’re like modern Special Forces.  They are matched only by some death cultists and some sociopathic monks; neither group is political as such.  No other nation has soldiers as good as the Kettral.  The elite bodyguards of the Annurian Emperor are not as skilled as the Kettral.  Annurian legionaries are less skilled than a 12 year old Kettral cadet.
  • They are further enhanced to potentially superhuman levels by having drunk from the eggs of a monstrous species of predators called Slarn. (Charming).  This makes them faster and stronger with better reflexes and the ability to see in the dark.  I believe that their other senses are also enhanced.  No one else has access to any mutagens.
  • In a cheeky nod to the Malazan Book of the Fallen the Kettral have access to ‘munitions’ i.e. military explosives. No one else has explosives.  No one else has gunpowder.  Even the regular Annurian army does not seem to use explosives for siege warfare, (in contrast all Malazan forces use munitions).  So the Kettral have grenades and can undermine and blow up bridges and castles while other military units are lucky if they can field trebuchets or crossbowmen.
  • They ride huge flying predatory birds. No one else has flying mounts.  So they can outpace and outmanoeuvre, (not to mention mangle), everyone else.  Also this means that the Kettral can drop explosives on enemy ships, armies and fortifications more or less with impunity.
  • And remember those leaches I mentioned? Guess where all leaches in the Annurian Empire end up, (barring the ones that are executed for being leaches).  That’s right, the ranks of the Kettral.  Rogue leaches do exist but no other military unit revealed so far has access to fantasy X-Men or any other kind of magic.

So the Kettral are a Captain Planet style amalgamation of the powers of the SAS, Bridgeburners, Witchers, Convokers and to a lesser extent the X-Men.  That is a little OTT Mr Stavely.

(Anyone who knows what all of those groups are, please award yourself some kind of gold star for advanced geekdom.  Give yourself a silver star just for having heard of the Convokers).

I believe that there is some justification for this in the setting.  My memories of the first book are hazy now but I think the idea was that the Imperial Family concentrated all of the advantages they could get into a single unit so that that unit would be unstoppable.  This allowed them to dominate a large empire because no rebellious client-king or over-ambitious garrison commander would stand a chance against the Kettral.

This doesn’t explain why the Kettral haven’t just taken the Empire over themselves though.  IRL elite military units and castes had a habit of taking over the empires they served given half a chance.  The Roman army replaced quite a few Emperors.  Samurai ruled Japan for hundreds of years while keeping the Imperial Family as pets.  The Mamluks just made themselves sultans and kings in a lot of places and they started out as slave-soldiers.  None of those groups could have dropped bombs on their respective capitals or melted an Emperor’s face with their mind.

(I should point out that while Kettral characters feature heavily in this series there are other viewpoint characters and the series is not about the Kettral having everything their own way by a long chalk).

Rant ends.

Spoilers End.

 

Don’t be put off; it’s still a decent series.

Anyway.

Last time I promised, (threatened?), to talk about the TV series I’m looking forward to this year.

Number one on the list is Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.  While this isn’t a fantasy or sci-fi series as such I would absolutely recommend it to any geeks and to anyone who likes their humour a little surreal and off the wall.  It’s not a perfect series but it is a great series.

Kimmy Schmidt is an incredibly naïve and indomitably upbeat almost-30-something determined to build a new life for herself.  She doesn’t know much about the modern world because as a teenager she was kidnapped by a mad preacher and kept in a bunker for 15 years being told that the world had ended.  She moves in with a wildly over-dramatic and self-centred gay African American singer-actor called Titus Andromedon who initially works as an Iron Man impersonator.  Is this starting to sound weird yet?  It gets weirder.  It’s also brilliant.

Examples of just a few things which happen in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

  • Kimmy becomes convinced that ‘Troll the respawn Jeremy’ is the modern way to say goodbye.
  • Titus creates a one man show based around memories of his past life as a Geisha.
  • Two characters attempt to murder an experimental robot because it keeps outshining them.
  • Titus and Kimmy’s landlady Lillian handcuffs herself to a bulldozer to prevent gentrification.

Perhaps I’m not really explaining this very well.  Perhaps you should watch this trailer instead to get a better idea of what the show is about.  https://youtu.be/mNKEKlXY3Z4

Kimmy Schmidt is made by Netflix.  I don’t consider the selection of shows and films available on Netflix in the UK to be worth paying for every month.  But when Kimmy Schmidt Season 3 comes out in May I’ll be buying at least a month’s subscription.

Also looking forward to Iron Fist on Netflix and American Gods on Amazon.

I’ve already gone on too long so I won’t talk about my sources of inspiration, or other cool TV series or any of the other books I’ve been reading in this post.  Judging by how many pages this post has taken up those topics could easily stretch to another half-dozen posts.

I do have a bit of writing news to share before I go though.

I’ve hit the 50, 000 word mark for the first draft of A Day in the Lies of Inari Meiwaku!

Hurray!

If you know what I look like then please imagine me doing the Happy Dance.

If you don’t know what I look like please imagine Inari doing the Happy Dance.

If you don’t know what Inari looks like please check out the drafts of my first couple of chapters on Inkshares.  https://www.inkshares.com/books/a-day-in-the-lies-of-inari-meiwaku/book_segments/chapter-1-6f4b3e  (See how good I’m getting at the soft-sell?  I’m cunning like an immortal fox-spirit).

Bye for now.

So it begins …

Well.

Hello world.

Welcome to the first ever post of my blog about writing fantasy fiction and my continuing quest to live in as many different imaginary worlds at the same time as humanly possible.

As I write this; my first book, a London based Urban Fantasy novel called A Day in the Lies of Inari Meiwaku, is nowhere near finished and definitely not published yet.  Inari herself would tell you that it will be the greatest book ever written.  But she is an immortal Fox Spirit and a self-professed liar so you probably shouldn’t take her word for it.

Still, why not have a look and see if any of the following things appeal to you?

  • Fantasy
  • Myths
  • London
  • Kitsune
  • Unreliable narrators
  • Paranormal spy agencies
  • Invincible undead warriors
  • Immortals and their intrigues
  • Ghost ships sailing up the Thames
  • Swords and shotguns
  • The byzantine courts of the Buried Dead
  • The Black Swine of Hampstead Heath
  • The use of lifts as offensive weapons
  • Vikings! Kind of

If something on that list sparked your interest then you should check out my book.  You can find extracts from the first couple of chapters of the first draft over on Inkshares and on Wattpad so please enjoy those and comment on them here or there.

https://www.inkshares.com/books/a-day-in-the-lies-of-inari-meiwaku/book_segments/chapter-1-6f4b3e

https://www.wattpad.com/324759418-a-day-in-the-lies-of-inari-meiwaku-chapter-1

I should warn you that this blog will probably end up being about all the things that distract me from writing at least as much as the writing itself.  So expect me to talk about the fantasy books I’ve read, the ones I’m still reading and the ones I’m waiting for.  Also stuff on video games, tabletop rpgs, TV shows and perhaps the occasional film.  Then there are the things that get stuck in my head like nonsensical song lyrics and idle thoughts about fantasy and horror in general.

Real life might poke its head around the door from time to time too, because I can’t hide from real life all the time.  Not until someone successfully Kickstarts a real ‘Better Than Life’ machine anyway.  And while this is not a political blog at all I am finding it very difficult to ignore the rise of modern Fascism in Europe and the USA.  So there might be the occasional rant or snide remark.  E.g. thousands of Americans believe that they have been the victims of alien abduction; why couldn’t the little green slackers kidnap Trump or Pence?

Most of my political rants are confined to Facebook and Twitter for now though.  So if you don’t mind a lot of left wing, liberal and feminist politics mixed in with your fantasy and writing news then you might want to check out my Twitter page.  https://twitter.com/rmarpole

Speaking of real life and politics.  Here is a disclaimer.  I have a day-job as a Library Manager.  Part of the job description for that job is to be ‘the face of the Library in the local community’.  At work I promote my library online and IRL.  This blog has nothing to do with that job.  This blog is about me being a writer.  So I won’t talk about my colleagues, though they are fantastic, and I won’t talk about my customers, though they are lovely.  I won’t promote the Library Service I work for and that Service is in no way responsible for or associated with anything I say on this page.  Even if I say something really divisive like “The first Hunger Games book sounds to me like a rip-off of Battle Royale”.

Right then, 2017.  Worldwide it’s probably going to be pretty eventful.  For me it’s probably going to be pretty quiet.  Because you know, writing a novel.  Which means a lot of staying indoors inventing adventures and very little going out and having them.  That’s ok; I’ve had some IRL geeky adventures in the last few years.  Last year I went to Nantes to see their Steampunk theme park and ride on the back of a giant mechanical elephant.  The Grand Elephant is one of the most amazing examples of outright geekery that I have ever seen; three stories high, beautifully decorated and housed next to a steel tree made as a home for mechanical birds.  The park/exhibit itself is not very big but is definitely unique.  If you’d like to visit or just see the things I’m wittering on about then here is a link for you.  http://www.lesmachines-nantes.fr/en/   (Most pages on the site do have an English version).

For my part I’m happy to let Inari have all the fun for a while.  (Fun meaning risking her life and nearly getting eaten by deathless Nordic warlords).

In the mean-time I’m waiting avidly for some proper authors to finish their latest books so that I can get my hands on them and distract myself even more from my own writing.  Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor is the one I’m most looking forward to at the moment.  It’s about a librarian.  There is also a blue-skinned goddess and a man called God-Slayer.  There is a lost city, weird beasts and something called ‘blood-candy’.  Moths are involved, though it is not at all clear how or why.  I want to read it very badly.  Here’s a link to a more official and coherent blurb for the book.  https://www.fantasticfiction.com/t/laini-taylor/strange-the-dreamer.htm   By the way, Fantastic Fiction is a great website for finding out what books have been published in the UK or are due to come out in the next few months.  Despite the name they cover all genres.

I’ll talk about the books I’m currently reading in my next post.  If you can all stand to wait that long.

Game-wise I’m switching between Dark Souls 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition at the moment and enjoying both.

I still wish that the developers of Dragon Age had picked a less evil title for the organisation that you end up controlling in their game.  Ok there aren’t many positive words for a militant religious movement and you do get the chance to cast judgement on your enemies but I can’t shake the idea that I’m playing the bad-guys.

You don’t actually inquisit very much in Dragon Age: Inquisition either.  You don’t interrogate suspected heretics or uncover hidden pockets of Protestantism.  You don’t have to find out who is loyal to the Church and who is experimenting with dangerously modern ideas like astronomy.  The only questions you really need to answer by the end of the game are.

  1. Why are there holes in the sky with green lightning coming out of them?
  2. How can we close the green-lightning spewing holes in the sky and stop them coming back?

I guess that ‘Dragon Age: Sky-Patchers’ doesn’t have the same ring to it.

It’s weird to flip between Dragon Age; where you are the leader of an army, have dozens of powers and can pause mid-combat to pick specific targets.  And Dark Souls; where you are a lone nobody surrounded by people who are manifestly more competent than you, most of whom want to kill you.  And you can’t pause.

I do think that playing through both games is a good way to keep your self-esteem at a healthy level though.

Dragon Age showers you with compliments and constantly tells you how special and great you are.  NPCs fall over themselves to thank you for completing quests that you just blundered into, you shape the fate of nations and you are showered with titles, presents and followers as you go.  Also, a startling number of male and female NPCs will start flirting with you at you the slightest provocation; even when you are playing an eight-foot tall, grey-skinned, yellow-eyed brute with a lumpy forehead and the horns of a bull.

Just as you hit the peak of that high you decide to play a bit of Dark Souls.

Dark Souls greets you with a spiked club in its hands and says.  “If you’re so great and all-powerful then you won’t mind blocking this attack with your face.”

And Dark Souls takes the club and beats you to death with it.  Then it resurrects you and beats you again and again until you learn to roll out of the way, whereupon it sets you on fire.  It only does this because it loves you of course.

My experiences with Dark Souls 3 so far include;

Stumbling through a poisonous swamp being hunted by shambling monstrosities that I never got a good look at because I was too busy running away from them.  (Which must be what playing Amnesia is like).

Having just one of the armoured knight enemies consistently cut me to pieces every time I met him, as if to prove that I will never be better at sword-fighting than a computer sprite.

Shamelessly bullying some small mud-crabs for a while until a giant mud-crab ran out of the trees and snipped me in half.

Before depression sets in too heavily I usually sneak back to Dragon Age for some TLC and remedial empire-building.

“So how’s the actual writing going Richard?”  You ask.

Umm, yeah.  Pretty slowly.  I’m inching my way towards the 50, 000 word mark for the first draft.  Writing takes energy and I don’t have much left to spare at the end of the working day.  (Translation; I am lazy and all I want to do when I get home from work is watch Youtube, read, watch TV or play videogames).

And it looks like I might have to radically increase my planned word count as there’s definitely more than 35, 000 words worth of plotting that I still need to fit in.

Trigger warning.  Minor plot and character spoilers for A Day in the Lies of Inari Meiwaku follow this message.

 

I’ve got some plans to deal with the wordcount issues though.

I’ve already admitted to myself that I am most likely going to have to cut out at least one character for now and have them feature in a later book.  Namely Jacques Forger; a greasy little Boggart that Inari first met in the trenches of the First World War.  One of the things I love about writing Inari is the chance to flesh out over a thousand years of backstory that encompasses many different eras, lands and Otherworlds.  But I know that if I wallow in her past too much I’m going to detract from what’s happening in the present.  I had fun writing her meeting with Jacques in the scuzzy garage he calls home.  But I haven’t been able to find a useful way to weave him into the current plotline so I’m planning to take him out of it.  He will return someday though.

Don’t worry, there’s still room for plenty of other supernatural characters for Inari to interact with in the first book.

There’s Rymer; a fellow immortal and inveterate schemer.  And there’s Aria; a fellow shapeshifter who is naïve but quite lethal.  There are other supernatural beings in the book but let’s look a little closer at these two for now.

Here’s a little insight into how Inari views Rymer.

“Many people believe that a man who can only speak the truth is a man to be trusted.  Rymer tends to eat people like that alive, (not literally, he actually has very civilised tastes when it comes to food).  There is nothing preventing Rymer from tricking people; from telling them a misleading truth or leaving out some vital piece of information.”

Here’s a quote that gives you a glimpse of Aria.

“Most of her body was hidden by her wings.  That was fine by me; they were a marvel all to themselves, as beautiful and intricately detailed as a woodblock print.  The upper portions were a mottled brown that was just a little bit lighter than the feathers on her head.  Beneath this was a slim band of black and grey.  The lower area was a deep yellow, almost gold, with little licks of black here and there to give the impression of stripes.  The very edges of her wings were tipped with black.”

Both of these quotes are from the first draft and are subject to change or deletion of course.  But let me know if they sound interesting.  (Or if they don’t).

Right now I’m writing a scene where Inari meets Rymer and engages in some verbal sparring.  I’m a little stuck though.  Inari wants something from Rymer and he is going to oblige.  I just haven’t worked out what he’s going to ask for in return.  Perhaps you’d like to tell me what you think an immortal would want?

I’m also contemplating how involved I want Inari’s colleagues from the secretive government agency that employs her to be in the main plot.  They definitely kick things off but Inari’s instinct after that is to ditch them and fall back on more Otherworldly allies.  The question for me is whether I let her get away with that.  At the moment I think not.  I think that needing to safeguard the ill-informed humans she works with is a great way to force Inari into situations that she would otherwise weasel, (or fox), her way out of.

But more of that another time.

Spoilers end. 

Join me next time for more writing updates and some very insightful waffling about my sources of inspiration.  And to watch me talk about GMing the Fate version of Kerberos Club, philosophise about the fantasy books I’m currently reading and get overexcited about some of the TV series coming our way later in the year.