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Monthly Archives: May 2013

First Contact Cover

The cover for the short story First Contact.

Promise of Blood (The Powder Mage, #1)Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This new book bears some similarity to Brandon Sanderson’s books, which makes sense since he studied under that author. Personally, this book flowed well, but there were some parts that dragged a little. When not paying close attention, I sometimes got confused between two of the protagonists’ names, Tamas and Taniel, father and son. Props for having an old man as one of the protagonists, instead of just a young cast. In fact, another protagonist, Adamat, is middle aged. So males of different ages are represented well, but there’s not really any female voice (Except Nila, who only appears in a few scenes and doesn’t do much). The magic system could be explained better, as well. There are three types of magic users: Privileged, who are powerful but traditional sorcerers; Knacked, who have special attributes like perfect memory or going around without sleep; and Powder mages, who get high off gun powder, go into trances, and can control bullets and fire off gun powder, but the book doesn’t explain much about how they came about or why the privileged consider them abominations. The book starts out good, with the nobility all being executed for their corruption. It might have been better to show why they deserved execution, but it was easy enough to imagine. Unlike most fantasy, this setting is a bit more modern, somewhat victorian, with guns playing a big part. It is an interesting debut, I will be looking for further books when they come out, and hopefully some of my questions will be answered. Overall, a promising debut, with some pacing and length issues, but mostly enjoyable.

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Rockhound

Rockhound for sale. Good stock, fine hunter. Can feel out rabbits within 200 yards. 100 gold crowns. Inquire for Mr. Childs.

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One of the staples of many fantasy books is the way they can play with government and politics. Fantasies of epic scope have to involve the government somehow, even if the hero has nothing to do with it. Other fantasies focus on the more private aspect of the lives of leaders like kings and princes. At the very least, every fantasy world should have some sort of government set up. Many good stories will show how the government would react to events that are happening in the story. We can’t expect a government to leave its people alone, now can we?
The default government for fantasy stories is a monarchy. Why? Because of King Arthur and Lord of the Rings. These stories and others that came after have influenced generations of writers and movie makers. Because of them, fantasy is usually set with a medieval government, the king at the top, followed by other nobility. This can make interesting dynamics, as corruption can easily be explored, or the king could be a hero that saves everyone. But it’s not the only form of government a fantasy story can take.

Types of government
Monarchy is where there is one ruler. King, queen, emperor, patriarch, matriarch, high prince, they’re all titles for the head honcho. Other titles can apply, like president or prime minister, even if we don’t usually associate them with monarchy. It just depends on how powerful you make them. Dictators are usually monarchs. Generally, though, it’s the king. He might have pretty much unlimited power and can do whatever he feels like, or he might be limited by previous laws or customs, or he might even be a figurehead. Often hereditary. The difference between a kingdom and an empire is that an empire is not limited to a single geographic area. They usually acquire land through invasion and conquest. Story ideas for this can include rebelling against a tyrant or a good king sacrificing for his kingdom.
Aristocracy or oligarchy is where there are several high ranking people working. Supposedly they are the best at what they do, but in practice, it usually stays within family. So the noble class runs things, instead of a king. This is a good venue for commenting on the waste and debauchery of the super rich, or showing how educated leaders might make a change in the world.
Democracy is rule by the people. Athens was one of the first to practice it. Today, pure democracy isn’t practiced. Representational democracy is the current form. This type of democracy is where we vote for people to represent us in the government, at all levels, from mayor to governor to congressman to president. This was put in place and used because it is impossible for the population to get together all the time to debate and vote on issues. Ironically, we now live in an era where we could have a direct say in governing the country, through the internet, but no one is even mentioning the idea, and if they did, it would be fought against, to keep the status quo. Just as well, as trolls would take over the world. Democracy is rarely used in fantasy, especially medieval style fantasy, but it could be interesting.
Theocracy is rule from deity. In practice, it is rule of a religion. In fantasy, it could be an actual deity ruling. Although that would beg the question as to how to define a deity. A super powerful mage? A representation of a force of nature? The creator of the universe?
Other possible types of government could be rule of corporations, rule of bureaucracies, rule of machines, rule of another race. Pretty much anything is possible.

Issues
Politics isn’t just about the type of government. It’s about the laws and social issues of the time and place. You can take positions on modern issues, boil them down to their timeless essence, and comment on them safely in fantasy while not actually talking about the issue itself. Example: gay marriage. Controversial subject right now. A whole story could be about gay marriage without having any gay characters. How? You could take the gay marriage debate as being about a minority being discriminated by the majority. The story could be about a small tribe trying to preserve its traditions and wanting to be accepted, but in the big city they are looked upon as strange or evil. That way, it is more universal than just pertaining to gays. Or you could take the other side, and talk about how a society that becomes too morally permissive will open itself to internal enemies that will cause its collapse, or having people practicing dark arts that end up controlling and consuming them. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo had to fight his addiction to the ring, and in the end, he couldn’t cast it off without help.

Court intrigue
A lot of people enjoy the medieval setting because of the intrigues that can go on between the nobility. Alliances can be made or broken through marriages or secret trysts, power obtained through assassinations or blackmail. Everyone presents a face of unity, but underneath that they are plotting, refusing to trust each other. Everyone is cheating on their spouse, but only the person exposed causes a scandal. A Game of Thrones is famous for this type of politicking. Now, this can obviously be transferred to other settings. Modern day senators can be bought with lobbying, affairs can ruin a political career, and lies are made to secure the votes. Or even more appealing for many, the gossip of celebrities: Justin Bieber broke up, Miley Cyrus has weird hair, Angelina Jolie got a double mastectomy, etc. They serve more as the noble class in our society than the actual government. The people that are supposedly worshipped, but have many admirers who are also jealous and would love to see them fall. Fantasy is a perfect venue for that, especially where power is split up and a fragile balance is the only thing that stops people from going to war.
Finally, stories can be used to express political opinions that would get you reprimanded at work for discussing, or get you into arguments with friends. Religion, politics, nothing’s taboo for writing, especially fantasy. Plus, it can be entertaining.

Princess Tiffany Blade

Portrait of King George’s daughter

I ate my breakfast, chewing more on my thoughts than my porridge. My mother watched me nervously, and whenever I glanced at her, she looked away. I would need to cover up my arm if I left the house. Too many questions would be bad.

In my room, dressing myself, I thought about Lancithar. He had told me that during the night soothing, I would be enlightened. I didn’t feel enlightened. Maybe the other night angels skipped over me because they didn’t want to teach me any magic. There were others, right? They sounded lazy.

Or maybe this was a test. Maybe they didn’t heal me because I could heal myself. That was the point of giving me magic, right? I wasn’t sure; I hadn’t understood it all. But I could try.

Staring at my scar, I pointed at it with my other hand. “Heal!” I whispered in frustration. Nothing happened.

“Go away!”

“Kazaam!”

“Pretty please, just go away!”

It didn’t seem like talking to my scar was going to heal it. Feeling stupid, I tried meditating. Closing my eyes, taking a deep breath, I started focusing on the scar, and nothing else. It felt ridiculous, but I kept at it. After all, it couldn’t be more absurd than a man appearing out of the shadows and giving me magic powers, or being healed every night. I wondered why we never questioned how it happened; we just expected it to happen. It was natural.

I started to remember fragments of my dreams last night. I saw Lancithar’s face, and two others. Then I was looking through their eyes at my body, so frail and young. Ugly in comparison to theirs. They looked down at the scar, looked into it. I saw that there was a difference between the light bouncing off my body, and the colorless fibers that truly made up my body. The fibers had been severed, but it didn’t go down deep. My body was already working on healing them. That was surprising, as I didn’t know my body could heal itself, aside from closing up after bleeding. Was it because of the magic, or did every body heal itself?

Yes, my body was being repaired, but it went oh so slow. It would be days, weeks, before the scar became invisible. I couldn’t wait that long. Surely it could be sped up. What if the blood only brought back the what could help replenish the body, instead of a little of everything? What if I could control that? I hadn’t even realized that that was what blood was for. I thought it was a punishment when someone was hurt or fighting.

Somehow, my will started influencing my blood. I couldn’t actually see it, but the area around my scar started heating up, and I could feel the blood rushing. My heart pounded faster and harder. It pounded my chest, so hard it almost hurt. Was it supposed to happen this way? This couldn’t be right. My scar became tender, the edges burning. I started to become light headed, and it became a chore to focus on the scar. I sat down on my bed, holding my head up with my other arm.

Somewhere in my mind, the thought came that this had to wrong, since I doubted this happened every night to everyone. The soothings must go much smoother. Sweat formed on my forehead. But something seemed to happen. My scar started to flake off, without blood flowing out to replace it. I peeked and saw pink skin forming.

Suddenly I realized I had done magic. Magic!

I fainted.

A hesitant knock on the door woke me up. My first reaction was to cover up the scar, but I realized it wasn’t there. Nearly fainting again, I whispered in response, then cleared my throat.

“Come in,” I said, allowing my former scar to show. Or not show.

My mother came in, a worried look on her face. Her eyes went straight to where my scar had been. A look of relief blossomed on her face. Then one of confusion.

“Didn’t you have a scar…?”

I looked at my arm, pretending to be surprised. “Oh, look, it’s gone. It must have been slow in disappearing this morning.”

“Yes, that must be it,” she murmured. Forcing a smile, she continued, “I want you to help pick some weeds in the garden today. No more going off to the forest edge, at least not today.”

I couldn’t believe it. No one would see me in the garden. She didn’t want anyone to think I was different. She obviously had come up with this before seeing my healed arm. So why did she want to hide me now?

Barely containing myself, I nodded slowly. She frowned, seeing my recognition of what she was trying, and left fairly quickly. I unclenched my fists and wiped the sweat off my forehead. I would obey her. If I didn’t, she would find out faster than a frog’s tongue catching a fly. There are few secrets in the village.

Besides, it would give me time to practice my magic.

I wore my old dress for the garden work, kneeling down in the dirt. People passed me, some waving hello, many pretending to ignore me. Those felt bad for me. Most knew I wanted to be at the edge of the forest. I was too busy for most of them.

The thought that burned in my mind was how to make myself more attractive. For Michael. My mother said I had a pretty face and a good figure, but I had seen my reflection. I might not be ugly, but neither was I all that pretty. My nose a bit too big, my eyes too far apart, my lips too thin. I wished I were thinner, as well. My mother tried to allay my fears, my father thought I was foolish for even thinking this way, but they’re my parents; of course they thought I was pretty.

Trying to regain the sense of myself I had when healing, I held still, focusing. The more I tried, though, it seemed the harder to grasp. It was there, taunting me, hiding just outside of my field of vision. It was frustrating. How had I done it before?

After about a quarter hour, I gave up. My eyes felt strained, even though I hadn’t been looking at anything in particular. I started to actually pick the weeds. If I sat down the whole time and didn’t have weeds to show at the end, my mother would be just as furious as if I had gone to the forest. Reluctantly, I started grabbing the weeds.

After picking out a few, the thought came to me that if the Night Angels healed others, then they must have powers over other people. Or objects. Could I do anything with the weeds I held? Make them flowers?

It was probably easier to change a living weed to a flower than a dead one. Besides, it wouldn’t do me any good if my mother saw a bunch of dead flowers with the weeds. So I chose a weed that didn’t look too ugly, a dandelion with its yellow petals still out, not gone to seed yet. I focused on it, imagining it was a yellow white rose instead. I tried to imagine the steps it would have to change, the petals extending and growing wider and upwards. The leaves would be smoother, the stalk higher. I poured my will into changing it. The dandelion wavered a bit.

I think it was the wind.

Breathing out in frustration, I pulled out the weed in vengeance. What was I doing wrong? Why couldn’t I change anything? What good was my magic? I flopped down on my back, looking up at the sky.

The clouds floated by. One group looked almost like a face. It reminded me of one time when I was a little girl. I had been looking at my reflection in the water when some leaves floated through it. It passed over my reflection’s chin, making it look like I had a beard. I giggled, wishing there was some way to capture the moment and share it with my dad.

Then it hit me. I hadn’t worn a beard then, but my reflection had. A bystander, not looking at me, might think I did have a beard. Well, if he had bad vision. Like my grandpapa. Maybe I couldn’t change my body, at least not yet. But I could make myself appear different to other people. Isn’t that what makeup was for?

Was there some way to change the way people saw me, without actually changing me? Perhaps not the ideal solution, but better than waiting for years while I try to figure out this magic thing and let Michael slip away. I had already alienated him. Lily would be able to pluck him like a rose if I did nothing.

Concentrating on the appearance of the dandelion, I willed it to bloom in the light. A few minutes passed without any success. I kept telling myself that I had healed myself, I could do this. Tired, I was ready to stop and turn away. As I moved my head, out of the corner of my eye, the dandelion seemed to transform. Quickly, I looked back, but it was still just a dandelion.

I moved to go again, and the same thing happened. I looked at it and it went back to being normal, but this time it took longer. There was definitely something going on.

Breathing out, I stopped concentrating on it so hard, but still held the image of how I wanted it to look like in the back of my mind. Slowly, oh so slowly, the dandelion was overlaid with the image of a marigold. At first it appeared like the reflection of clouds on water, and I could still see the dandelion beneath, but the more I focused without focusing, the more it solidified. Soon enough, there was no trace of the dandelion.

I propped my chin on my hands and stared at it, smiling. The illusion didn’t give. I even touched it. I could feel the marigold beneath, but the marigold didn’t ripple away, as I feared.

A few moments later, my mother came out and found me looking at it. “Really, Eva, you need to…When did we get a marigold?”

I suppressed my smile. It wasn’t just me imagining things. My mother saw it as well. “I just found it here, it must have sprung up recently.”

“That’s strange, I don’t remember seeing it. Anyway, Eva, you should get back to work.” Her voice trembled a bit. I felt a pang of guilt. In some way, I was shattering my mother’s reality. Like a glass breaking, but much slower. I don’t know if telling her what happened would fix things or would accelerate the cracking.

I went back to picking the weeds. Or at least my body did. My mind was busy crafting my new face and body. I couldn’t implement it yet, but would try before talking to Michael. It had to look like me, but be better. Picturing myself was difficult, but I managed to bring up my face in my mind. I glanced at the marigold. Still there.

About a quarter hour after changing the dandelion, I had come up with most of the details for how to change my face. I looked back at the marigold. But there was none. It was back to being a dandelion. I started to panic. I would need more time than that for things to work with Michael. We would just barely be saying hello. I willed the dandelion to turn back. Strangely enough, it did, although I felt some energy draining from me. Still, it was a relief. I would be able to renew this transformation. I just had to time it right.

Finally, I finished my punishment for waking up with a scar. The only weed left looked like a real flower. My mother reluctantly let me have some free time. Before letting me go, though, she gave me a hug. It felt kind of strange, after what had been going on. Almost like an apology. Until I felt her hand subtly feeling my arm, where the scar had been. She was looking to see if I had just put something on to color it the same as my skin. I grew cold and pulled away. She looked down and told me to be back in time for supper.

I went down to the river. It flowed so slowly it was practically still. Kneeling down on an overhang to see my reflection, like I did when I was a child, I saw my face. The face that, until now, I didn’t particularly like, but felt that it was permanent. Now that I knew I could change it, temporarily at first, perhaps permanently later on, I found myself hating every flaw. This ugly face would no longer torment me or prevent me from getting what I wanted.

I had to make sure my face was still recognizable. I wanted Michael to know it was me. So the changes had to be subtle. Clear away the freckles and pimples. That would be simple enough. The size of the nose and lips shouldn’t be too difficult. Changing the position of the eyes would be a bit tricky. Then I would want to change my hair. Make it more voluminous, silky, and luxurious. But part of that would be more mundane than this magic I had: I would wash it with some oils. It would cost some money, but I should be able to gain it back easily enough once I mastered this magic.

I had brought some parchment and a charcoal stick, so I set out drawing what I saw in the river. Although I wasn’t the perfect artist, I had received some praise before. Drawing was always a good way to process my thoughts, in a way that differed from pulling weeds.

While I drew how I looked and how I wanted to look, I idly thought about Miri and Jaz. Should I tell them my secret? Probably. But not yet. The most I had to show for it was a scar that wasn’t there. My new face might be evidence, but the changes were supposed to be so subtle that it wouldn’t look like magic. Besides, I was still trying to process Lancithar. It seemed there were more of these angels, watching over us. That was both breathtaking and creepy at the same time.

Eventually I came up with a sketch of how my new face would look. Staring into the water, I molded my face to look like the sketch. It took a lot more relaxed concentration than the marigold, and longer to get it right. On the first try, my face didn’t even look human. But after an hour or two of sweating concentration, I found something I was happy with, and memorized it so I could become that way quickly. Once I used magic in some way the first time, it was easier to duplicate it the second, but still required effort.

Looking at the sun in the sky, I saw that it wouldn’t be too long before Michael came home from the woods. I would need to look my best. I stopped by the market on the way home and bought the oils, as well as some clothes and a necklace. My mother wasn’t going to be happy when she found out what I’d done.

I got home, hid my illegal items, and ate supper with my mother and brothers. My father would be coming home later, so my mother kept the stew heating on the coals. The supper was quieter than usual, although my brothers jabbered like normal. My mother and I would look at each other until getting caught by the other and looked away quickly. An admission of guilt on both our parts, but no attempt to bridge it by talking. I tried to eat quickly without making myself sick. The nervousness from my mother’s looks and the anticipation of seeing Michael again was twisting my stomach. Good thing I wasn’t suffering from monthly pains.

Finishing my stew, I left with barely a word, shutting myself into my room. I then started the transformation, the mundane first, like the clothing and the hair, and when that was finished, the face. Halfway through, my mother knocked on the door, asking if I was fine. I looked at myself in my little handheld mirror and truthfully told her I was. She left me alone after that.

I had on a red dress with lacy frills. The dress showed more leg than I had expected, but I suppose Michael would not mind. It came with a shawl that looped under my arm and over my shoulder, covering the long neckline.

When done, I hardly recognized myself, not so much for the face as for the clothes and hair. My magic made my lips a sweet red, I had powder highlighting my eyes, and I had a small ribbon in my hair. This was a look only princesses in the stories would wear. And now I had joined their ranks. My mirror showed my looking as red as an apple.

I almost vomited with uneasiness.

Slipping out the window, so my mother wouldn’t see me, I looked at the sky. Red dusk. Michael would be stretching his muscles walking home after working all day. He’ll have just eaten. Now I just needed to find him.

Image So normally this blog is for things dealing with fantasy. Of all the superheroes, Batman and Iron Man are the most plausible, relying on technology more than superpowers. But they are still fantastic (as in related to fantasy, not necessarily wonderful). Heck, Iron Man was with the Avengers, which includes Thor, the Norse God of thunder, and they fought aliens. Of course this is fantasy. And the enemies in Iron Man 3 were more fantasy based than previous entries, even if they were still supposedly based on technology.

I saw it yesterday when it came out, being a fan of most comic book movies, and liked the first two. This one doesn’t disappoint. I don’t want to get too critical on this, since there are going to be a wide range of opinions on the movie, whether it was better or worse than the previous two. I think it is about the same, maybe a little better. The last fight was certainly more climatic than Iron Man 2, where fighting Vanko in the end went really quick. This time, the villain just refuses to die. There are some interesting twists, although it does feel like on one plot point, they give away too much near the beginning. But another twist with the Mandarin really changes things. Seeing Tony Stark use his head to solve things like in the cave of the first movie is nice, although a little prolonged. For supposedly being more focused on the relationship with Pepper Potts, she seems to be absent for large parts of the film. The movie is dark, but Tony lightens it up with his humor. My biggest complaint would be that the first third of the film feels disjointed, especially the messages from the Mandarin, which don’t seem to relate to the rest of what we’ve seen so far. Overall, though, these issues don’t bog it down, and it is enjoyable. It might even be my favorite of the three. I’d give it 3.5 stars out of 4.

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