Tuesday, September 8, 2020

The Amazing Labor Day $0.99 Book Sale - Final day!

On the off chance you aren’t aware of it, or if you are aware of it and need a reminder, today is the final day of the Amazing Labor Day Book Sale. Organized by author Hans G. Schantz, the sale brings together more than eighty books at either $0.99 or free.

I won’t link to them directly because Hans is tracking the sale through links on the sale page, but here are a few that we’ve reviewed at Periapsis Press:

  • The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin - L. Jagi Lamplighter
  • How Black the Sky - T.J. Marquis
  • The Last Ancestor - Alexander Hellene
  • Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves - Fenton Wood
  • Combat Frame XSeed - Brian Niemeier
  • For Steam and Country - Jon Del Arroz

And my own novel Uriel’s Revenge is also on sale for $0.99, sporting a snazzy new cover.


So check out these books and more at the sale before it’s too late!

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Short Story Book Club: Mortu and Kyrus in the White City by Schuyler Hernstrom


The Eye of Sounnu by [Schuyler Hernstrom]
Recently, Alexandru Constantin announced the Short Story Book Club to advance robust discussion and criticism of fiction. I’ve been looking for an excuse to read, review, and blog more, so I thought I would join in. The story is Mortu and Kyrus in the White City by Schuyler Hernstrom, which is found in The Eye of Sounnu.

Disclaimer

I feel the need to start with a short disclaimer concerning PulpRev, since Alexandru has been promoting Short Story Book Club under that banner. I’ve enjoyed interacting with many PulpRev authors. And I largely agree with and strive for many of the ideals of PulpRev in my own work, as far as I understand them. But because I don’t want to portray myself as an expert in something or as influenced by something that I am not, and I generally dislike categories, I’ve decided not to promote my own fiction under PulpRev, at least for now. So I wouldn’t call myself a PulpRev author.

The reason I bring this up is that to my understanding, the story under review is heavily influenced by the traditions behind PulpRev, traditions that I am not particularly familiar with. So my analysis will try to focus on the story itself, not on how it’s drawing from that tradition, and definitely not on how it relates to my personal storytelling approach.

But enough about me. On to the story. Spoilers below.

Setting

I enjoyed this story quite a bit, and it left me with a lot to think about. The primary thing I admire about it is how developed its setting is given its length. The author does something effectively that I consider a hallmark of good worldbuilding, where he mentions many interesting details in passing (and I’m not talking about just tossing out fantasy-esque names for common things—I hate that) but does not exactly explain the worlds history or many general facts about it. The result is a world that feels very large, since the reader begins asking questions and filling in the blanks.

The details provided, however, are grounded and specific, and the world is easily imagined. One of my favorite images was how one of the nomad warriors wore shoulder armor made from pieces of the exoskeletons of giant centipedes that lived in the desert.

From various conversations, especially between the main characters Mortu (a muscular barbarian warrior) and Kyrus (a Christian monk who has been transformed into a monkey) the historic struggle of humans versus the alien Illilissy can be assembled. The aliens came to the world, interbred with humans creating the northern barbarian race (that Mortu is a member of), and eventually left after being defeated by them, leaving behind technology ranging from Road Warrior style motorcycles and trucks to entire cities with decidedly more advanced technology.

This legend left me with many questions. Were the Illilissy actually extraterrestrials or simply more technologically advanced humans? Did they create all of the technology, or is some of it a remnant from the human side of the war? Is the story set on a future Earth? I assume the answer to the last question is yes, given the fact that Kyrus’s order is specifically Christian, as well as some of the place names lake “Zantyum” (Byzantium?) and “Amerza” (America?).

I love these questions, however, and I’m happy that Hernstrom created them. I feel like a visited a real place, big enough to have mysteries and aspects of its history that are not clear-cut.

Two Moralities

I’m a sucker for setting, but the other notable aspect of the story is the back-and-forth between the pagan Mortu and the Christian Kyrus.

It’s always welcome to encounter explicitly Christian characters in works of fiction, especially in stories like this one. While Mortu always sees things as black and white and acts decisively, Kyrus argues for a nuanced Christian morality between boasts about his intellect.

The conflict reaches a climax when, after discovering the sinister and abusive actions of the citizens of the White City, Kyrus argues that they should get external forces involved, while Mortu decides that justice is best served by killing everyone himself. Of course, Mortu only kills a dozen or two before some actions they took earlier end up killing everyone else indirectly.

The problem is, I’m not sure what the purpose of this moral conflict was, since it seemed like the author portrayed both sides as correct in some way. I could see an argument that the author intended  Mortu’s pagan approach of relying on his personal conscience to determine right and wrong and how to deal with it as the correct morality. However, Kyrus is certainly a protagonist, and not an uncharitable caricature. And I think that the author intended him to be a likable character, especially since the narrator often takes his viewpoint.

Perhaps contributing to to this interpretation is the fact that the character Nathia’s role in the White City’s abuse is ignored. While she revealed the problem to the protagonists, she evidently did nothing about it for twenty years, and she furthered the abuse by helping new children into the city via the caravan. One could argue that she was forced to do these things against her will, but she did defy orders in the story to warn the protagonists. Why didn’t she rebel earlier? In the end, Nathia is forgiven Mortu’s wrath because she had a change of heart and because she is a beautiful young woman. A more objective morality would not let her off the hook so easily.

Another possibility is that the author is using Kyrus’s ramblings to depict and argue against an overly-philosophized, stunted morality, while Mortu has the law written on his heart.

Complicating things, I didn’t discern any growth or change in either Mortu or Kyrus’ views. I have no problem with flat-arc characters, but if there’s no development and ambiguous interpretation, the moral conflict seems to serve little purpose other than the occasional joke.

At a higher level, if we take Alexandru Constantin’s view (from his original blog post) that this story is a “direct assault on the moral degeneracy of mainstream science fiction and fantasy,” it’s unclear to me on what basis that assault is being made. With God-revealed morality from Christianity? With philosophy? With arguments from conscience or what is natural? All of the above? Let me know what you think!

Even though this aspect of the story left me dissatisfied, it provoked interesting analysis.

Other Criticisms

In addition to the above points, I have a couple of smaller criticisms, but these are mainly based on personal preference.

I think the story would have been stronger with a single viewpoint character. This might have clarified which side of the moral conflict between Mortu and Kyrus the author intended the reader to take (if he did intend a correct side).

Also, descriptions tend to get in the way of the pacing of the story. As I mentioned above, specific details like the centipede armor really flesh out the world. But more generic observations, like the colors of everyone’s hair and clothing or the appearance of sunlight or starlight in a specific instances, often interrupt the story’s drive and diffuse tension.

Final Thoughts

Mortu and Kyrus in the White City is a great story on many levels. If the other stories in The Eye of Sounnu are half as good, it’s well worth picking up for fans of sci-fi and fantasy. It also provides a lot of material for discussion! I’m looking forward to reading what the other #ShortStoryBookClub bloggers have to say about it.

I’ll update the links section below as more reviews are written.

Review Links



For more exciting action and moral conflict, check out my new book The Fountain Mechanism, a follow-up to Uriel's Revenge.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Why I Love Lovecraft

A few weeks ago, a flurry of discussion sprang up on Twitter as the various factions aired their opinions about H.P. Lovecraft. These discussions always end up touching on racism, cosmic horror, fear of the other, and whether the concepts can be disentangled. Then people debate whether Lovecraft actually told good stories, whether he was the first to do what he is famous for, etc etc.

I love Lovecraft’s stories. And the main reason that I love them has nothing to do with the racism / cosmic horror discussion. In fact, as a Christian, I find Lovecraft’s themes of humanity being alone in an amoral universe pretty disturbing and offensive, since I believe that the universe is subject to the sovereignty of a personal God who has described law and morality and loves his people. So why do I love Lovecraft?

Setting.

I often say that the thing I enjoy the most about fiction of any form is the experience of being taken to a place. When I read Lovecraft for the first time in high school (I think the first thing of his I read was The Nameless City), I discovered the archetypal examples of many settings from different stories I loved as a child. A couple I can think of off the top of my head are the dark swamps and dripping caves from The Rescuers. Another trope that I enjoyed a lot as a kid, a lost technology-rich ancient civilization, is a common feature of Lovecraft’s settings.

In contrast to fantastical elements, I appreciate how Lovecraft drew from what he knew to build the “grounded” parts of his settings. Last September, my wife and I spent a week in Providence and Massachusetts visiting both literal and inspirational sites for Lovecraft’s stories. Especially in Massachusetts near the setting of my favorite Lovecraft story The Dunwhich Horror, the close similarity of the actual landscape to what he described struck me. I always assumed his descriptions of steep, tree-covered mountains with bare peaks were a bit of an exaggeration, but there they were.


"As the hills draw nearer, one heeds their
wooded sides more than their stone-crowned tops."

Creating evocative settings, whether creepy, mystical, or grounded, is one of my main goals in writing. And Lovecraft is a primary inspirations.


If you like sci-fi adventure / space opera with a dose of Lovecraft, check out my novel Uriel’s Revenge.

Monday, February 10, 2020

A Tale of Two Writing Books

I don’t read many writing craft books, but vacation days between Christmas and the new year are a good time to break with my usual routine and read one or two. At the end of 2018, I read On Writing by Stephen King, and it inspired me to try something different with my second novel, which I’m now editing.

This year, I read two craft books: Adam Lane Smith’s book Write Like a Beast and Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Write Like a Beast

Disclosure: Adam is a friend of mine, but I bought his book myself, and I’ll try to make my review as unbiased as possible.

This book is a quick read; it gets to the point and never changes focus. It’s no surprise that a non-fiction book by an author of pulp fiction that doesn’t waste your time is written in a similarly direct way.

In an early chapter on plot, Adam gives an excellent overview of three-act structure with clear examples. I could see this being especially helpful for a new writer who’s excited to write something but hasn’t internalized three-act structure (or any other plot patterns) yet.

The main reason I wanted to read Write Like a Beast was that I wanted to learn about a step in Adam’s writing process he calls “choreographing”. I won’t go into much detail here—you should read the book yourself—but basically, by choreographing, Adam means writing an extremely detailed outline to be constantly referenced during drafting. I often make small outlines before a writing session (this has been useful when writing by dictation) but nothing as detailed as he describes. Choreographing is something that I look forward to trying in future writing projects.

I was also able to ask Adam on Twitter how much time he spends choreographing compared to writing:



If you’re interested in this book, one important thing to note about it is that it is written from the perspective of someone who measures success in writing in New Pub terms: success is writing good books quickly to make money.

This definition bothers me a little. Whenever I’m told how to do something and the prescription makes me uncomfortable, I like to think about assumptions behind what is being prescribed, and I think it’s important to do that here. (I’m not arguing that these New Pub definitions of success are bad. I often think of Chris Fox’s videos where he challenges the assumption that writing a book faster means that it is worse.)

I have different goals and a different measure of success. I want to get to the point where I’m better at focusing and be able to make efficient use of my time, but I don’t want to spend a solid ten hour chunk once a week in addition to writing here and there and put out a book every two weeks to a month. My natural writing pace, even as I’ve improved, is much slower than Adam’s. And I’m not in a position where I’m trying to make a living with writing. Writing is a serious hobby, but still just a side project for me.

But it’s good to be challenged to evaluate perspectives and assumptions that underlie goals. This book provided helpful food for thought as I wrapped up one year and planned goals for the next.

Steering the Craft

I’ve been wanting to read this book for awhile. While I haven’t read much of Le Guin, her story The Dowry of the Angyar is a favorite of mine. But first impressions were not good. I nearly put it down near the beginning, due to abstract early chapters about “beautiful writing” and some mean-spirited jabs at pro-life people and pulp writers.

However, I’m glad I stuck with it. Some later chapters about voice and point of view offered many insights, and got me thinking about adding projects in different POVs to my backlog.

The book also provided new ideas via its overarching theme about the definition of story. Le Guin defines story simply as narrative that moves in a direction. So story should not be equated with plot, which is about action or conflict. Instead, it could be any kind of motion in the narrative, even in a single character’s internal thoughts or observations.

This new definition of story provides a useful contextualization for writing advice (perhaps contrary to PulpRev wisdom but interesting nonetheless.) For example, a common command is “avoid expository lumps.” But maybe the story is more than just characters acting. Maybe the story is narrative about the world and how it works. In this case, large pieces of exposition can indeed serve the story.

A lot of my writing is about characters discovering a previously unknown side of the world, so I should keep this function of exposition in mind and look for opportunities to make it work for the story, instead of assuming that it has to be eliminated because it doesn’t serve the plot.

Conclusion

I recommend both of these books. Both have the potential to help writers at any stage of their journey. Check them out here:

Saturday, January 4, 2020

New Blog!

For the last several months, the social media platform that I’ve found most useful and I’ve been most active on has been Twitter. It’s enabled me to find likeminded authors (and people in general) and sell a few books. Twitter has encouraged me to keep creating and striving to improve.

However, in the last couple days, there’s been some discussion in the new pub circles about the ongoing relevance of blogs. I found that this coincided with a growing desire to share thoughts and discuss projects in a longer form that just isn’t possible on Twitter.

So here's my blog! Some topics:
  • The history and lore of the Cliptic, the fictional world that my books are set in.
  • Writing process, goals, and upcoming releases.
  • A deeper look into projects related to my writing. In addition to writing books, for the past few years I’ve been developing software tools for worldbuilding, writing, and publishing.
  • Book reviews.
  • Other subjects of ongoing personal learning, such as software engineering, music, math, machine learning, and Christian theology and philosophy.
In the future, I may move to a different platform. (I enjoy creating the tools I use, and I have lots of ideas about building my own blog software). But I figured I shouldn’t wait for the optimal tool to get started.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more content coming soon.


Blood-spattered snow, artifacts of subtle and terrible power, and a primeval entity lurking in a hillside cave.

My free short story Fall of Aulus is a great place to begin exploring the world of the Cliptic.