Little Gods and Fishes

Posted by: on May 7, 2012 | No Comments

Walter de la Mare

There’s nothing like discovering a new author, especially an old one. I’ve always had a thing for “Edwardian” writers, “Edwardian” meaning “from the end of the Victorian until World War I”. Ambrose Bierce, Robert Chambers, Lord Dunsany, and the great William Hope Hodgson – these are the chaps that invented science fiction, fantasy and horror.

Of course, there were some real stinkers, too. My wife and I recently slogged through a mucky collection of mostly-Edwardian “cosmic horror”. Arthur Machen – fussy and cumbersome, with the shining exception of the story-within-a-story in “The White People”. M.P. Shiel – imaginative, but so garbled and chaotic as to be unreadable. And we really tried to like Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows”, but it dragged on and on and on.

So we reached the very last story, “Seaton’s Aunt” by Walter de la Mare, feeling jaded and weary. Imagine our delight – it was the best of the entire collection. The plot revolves around Withers, a fancy young Englishman, and his socially inept half-friend Seaton. The two pay a visit to Seaton’s aunt during a break from school, but it’s far from a jolly holiday. The character of the aunt is one of the most brilliantly realized villans I’ve ever encountered. And the dialog! Following is a little snippet of Seaton’s aunt raving over dinner:

“Mankind has simply become a tailless host of indistinctive animals. We should never have taken to Evolution, Mr. Withers. ‘Natural Selection!’ – little gods and fishes! – the deaf for the dumb.”

“Seaton’s Aunt” is about as close to perfect as a short story can be, and it made de la Mare’s novel “The Return” all the more disappointing. The junk-phrase “as it were” popped up at least three times on every page. Moreover, the writing was confusing – we literally couldn’t tell what was happening in any given scene, in part because the point of view was so undisciplined. A chapter would start out from the perspective of Lawford, the main character, only to jump to his wife in one paragraph and then to local vicar in the next.

But Seaton’s Aunt was so brilliant I’m hoping Return is an anomaly. De la Mare is primarily remembered as a children’s poet, after all, and his The Listeners truly is a thing of beauty. We’re going to have a go at another de la Mare novel, “Memoirs of a Midget”. Stay tuned.

A lovingly annotated PDF of Seaton’s Aunt is available right here. Happy reading!

Band of the Crow: The Map at the Back

Posted by: on Apr 2, 2012 | 5 Comments

One of my favorite things about fantasy novels is the map at the back of the book. There’s nothing like it to draw you into that other world. When I think about the sum total time I’ve spent on the map for The Band of the Crow – that’s my newly-minted fantasy novel, the first in a series – I weep. But oh well. It’s a learning process. I hope.

I began with Campaign Cartographer. If you’re a game master, I highly recommend this program. I spent a lot of time learning it, but I ended up throwing out the map I created because it just wasn’t what I wanted. In a weird way, Campaign Cartographer is best if you don’t have a clear idea of what your world looks like. I think that was my problem – CC filled in too many blanks. But don’t get me wrong! it’s a very powerful tool. Too powerful for me, maybe.

So I started over from scratch, drawing a map by hand and scanning it into Illustrator using the Live Trace function. Live Trace is worth the price of Illustrator all by itself. If you’re interested in art at all, take some time to learn it. There are lots of great tutorials floating around the Web, including official (and free!) Adobe training videos.

But.

I still had a problem, the same one I’ve discovered with a lot of fantasy maps – too big. How many times have you read a story with a sprawling map, only to find that the action takes place in a narrow sliver of that world? At some point, all of the nooks and crannies of the coastlines become meaningless, even ridiculous.

That’s another issue I have with a lot of fantasy maps – they’re too precise. They look like they were made with GIS software and global positioning satellites. It kills the mystery and wonder of the story.

So I’m keeping my big world map, but I’m not revealing it until the larger world becomes more important – which it will, in later books. For Band of the Crow I decided to stick to the story – because that’s the most important thing, right?

I made the map somewhat imprecise, because I wanted it to look like something produced by the people in my world. I decided to stick to black and white for that reason, too. Black and white will also look a lot better on e-readers. Not a bad thing!

And so, three years after I started, I’m finally ready to show the map to the world. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Midland Brigantia!

The typeface is “Brandywine”, from the utterly, utterly indispensable Scriptorium. The site is kind of a challenge to navigate, but it’s worth the slog. Brandywine has a great “old time ice cream parlor” look to it, and for some reason it felt perfect for this map.

For the mountains, the forests, the hills, the towns, I traced in my own simplified versions of the (very lovely) symbol sets included with Campaign Cartographer.

The map turned out better than I expected, if I do say so myself. And I do. I don’t know what the future holds for Band of the Crow, but the map reminds me the story is worth reading, at the very least. Hopefully the rest of the world will agree!

The story starts in the village of Alundil (AL-un-dill), in case you’re wondering.

The Atomic Number of Mithril

Posted by: on Mar 16, 2012 | 21 Comments

Stronger than dragon scale?

“Its worth was ten times that of gold, and now it is beyond price; for little is left above ground, and even the Orcs dare not delve here for it.”


Mithril, the ultra-light, ultra-strong and ultra-rare metal of Middle Earth, has always fascinated me. When I first read Lord of the Rings I assumed it was magical, but I re-read the descriptions of it, and guess what – mithril is never explicitly described as such. It’s just very rare. “Magical” in the poetic sense, like gold.

If mithril is a “real” metal, not a magical or fictitious one, what could it be? I have an inkling, and it’s both prosaic and surprising. Let’s go through all the known properties of the stuff:

• Very malleable; that is, able to be shaped without breaking or cracking.
• Very lightweight.
• Harder than steel.
• Similar in appearance to silver.
• Resistant to tarnish and corrosion.
• Very, very rare.

There is only one metal that fits all of these characteristics perfectly: Aluminum.

Yes, Aluminum. Aluminium is very malleable – check. That’s why it’s so easy to produce as cooking foil. Aluminum is very lightweight and much stronger than steel – check. In fact, jet airplanes couldn’t fly without aluminium. Similar in appearance to silver – check, and resistant to tarnish and corrosion – check, thanks to the phenomenon of passivation.

“But wait a minute, Mr. Smart Guy”, you say. “Aluminium is about as rare as dirt”. Ah-hah. Yes, that’s true – now. But, before the late 1800s, no one knew how to extract the metal from its ore. The big secret, apparently, was zapping the ore with electricity at a the right time during the smelting process. Before people figured that out, aluminum was literally rarer than platinum. So rare emperors served their most important dinner guests on aluminum, while everyone else had to make due with plain-old gold.

There is still the question of “ithildin”, the magical stuff that could only be seen in moonlight, which the Elves made from mithril. My guess is ithildin is probably mithril with some kind of enchantment worked into it – how or why the enchantment worked, and why it only worked on mithril, I have no idea.

But it seems pretty clear aluminum is a strong potential candidate for mithril, at the very least. And I don’t think it cheapens or “takes the magic out of” mithril; just the opposite, in fact. If Tolkien really did mean for aluminum to be the secret identity of mithril, he was making a pretty powerful statement about how much perceptions and scarcity shape reality. Something we take so utterly for granted was, a thousand years ago, the most priceless stuff on Earth.

Think about that the next you toss a soda can into a recycling bin! The atomic number of mithril is 13.

Gene Wolfe, Godfather of the Pringle

Posted by: on Mar 5, 2012 | 3 Comments

If you haven’t read Gene Wolfe, you should at least give him a try. His Book of the New Sun is set in the distant future, an indeterminate time after a cataclysm – not a nuclear war, but something far worse – throws humanity into a state of semi-feudal barbarity.

Wolfe never explicitly tells you THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED in the story. One of my favorite things about his writing is that he lets you figure things out with your own mental horsepower. He doesn’t treat you like an idiot.

A little instance of such: Wolfe describes moonlight as “green”. Green? It’s left to you to piece together that at some point the moon must have been terraformed. Every page of The New Sun bursts with that kind of creativity and cleverness. It’s almost too much.

Wolfe also reminds me of Clark Ashton Smith in that he likes to use a lot of Big Words. Normally, I find “vocab bombing” really irritating – what the hell is a “peltast”, a “lazaret”? – but as with Smith, Wolfe does it for a reason. The weird SAT words force you to plunge into the world he’s created.

Color me gobsmacked when I learned Wolfe is also an industrial engineer, that he “helped develop” the machines that make Pringles™. True fact, swear to God, at least according to this interview. I also have the sense Wolfe gets irritated by suggestions he is the sole inventor of Pringles, that he gets irritated by Pringles questions in general, so if you run into him, don’t ask.

But still, a man of many talents. Think about that as you’re flipping through a dictionary, trying to decipher a page of the New Sun!

Novel is Finished – Off to the Longships

Posted by: on Feb 21, 2012 | 12 Comments

So metal.

The initial spark for The Band of the Crow, my newly-finished fantasy novel, came to me in 2006. I was really getting into metal music at the time, especially the doom, death and black varieties.

Ah, black metal. So much to be admired, so much to be despised. It occurred to me Christianity isn’t really a “foreign” influence on Scandinavian culture. At least, not any more. You could no more eviscerate Jesus from Norway than you could chop off your own head and expect to survive for very long. And no amount of church burnings is going to accomplish that end in the first place. Sorry, Varg. That idea, and The Sword‘s debut album were really inspirational to me. Something just sort of clicked.

Buy this album. Buy it now.

Giddy with excitement, I set about fleshing out my world – the cultures, the languages, the history, the religions… until finally, five and a half years later, I realized I hadn’t written a single word of the actual story. I gave myself a year to write it. A year and a half later, I was done.

Now the scary part begins. It’s easy to sit around and dream about the wonderful story you’re going to write. Actually writing it, facing up to your own deficiencies, is when the going gets tough. Harder still is shoving it out into the cruel, cruel world, for everyone to rip to shreds. I’d like to say I don’t care about rejection, or negative reviews, or indifference, but I do care. A lot. If I didn’t, I’d have to find another line of work.

I’ll post updates on my quixotic quest right here, of course, so stay tuned. Whatever happens, I know Band of the Crow is the absolute best storytelling I’m capable of, and that, in itself, feels like a victory. Thanks to my brothers, my wife, my parents and of course Ben for all of their support and their terrific comments.