Once-a-Book Word: Sanguine

Like Mr. Miyagi teaching ‘the crane’ to Daniel-san, I will now teach you your own ‘special move’—a once-a-book word that will awe and befuddle your readers. I beg of you: Use it sparingly!

Sanguine: You have to love this adjective. Depending on your context, it can mean either cheerful or murderous. Who among us hasn’t been to a family reunion that starts off sanguine and ends up sanguine?

I just read: Twelve Kings in Sharakhai

twelve-kings-of-sharakhai-final-sm2This book didn’t really grab me until the midway point. I loved the idea of the Arabian setting, which was not the standard Medieval European backdrop that we see in so many Epic Fantasy books, but the main character, Ceda, is a pretty standard protagonist, who checks off on a lot of the typical Fantasy tropes:

– Orphan with a mysterious past
– Obsessed with revenge/redemption
– Ceda is pretty much a Mary Sue (She’s a world-class gladiator who beats men twice her size, and a world-class spy/courier. Add to that a knowledge of magical pharmaceuticals. Also, she’s gorgeous enough to catch the eye of royalty)
– And, of course, she eventually realizes that she is innately, magically ‘Special.’ She’s the only person in the realm perfectly suited to defeat her home city’s twelve evil kings. Jeez, she might as well have a lightning bolt scar on her forehead!

We spend the first half of the book rolling around in these tropes. Then, finally, Ceda finds a way to infiltrate the palace’s all-girl death squad, and that’s when the book gets interesting. I’m a sucker for a good spy story, or a ‘palace intrigue’ story, and that’s what we get here.

The best part of this book were the titular villains. Ceda is on a mission to kill the nearly-immortal Twelve Kings. Each king has a singular magical speciality, and a unique secret weakness that Ceda must find and exploit. It’s a conceit straight out of an old Kung Fu movie, or a boss-battle video game. Awesome.

I wish more of the book had focused on Ceda as a traitor in the midst of these kings, and there had been more on her discovering and solving the riddles that reveal their weaknesses. It’s hard to keep track of the twelve kings’ names and their specialties (also the names of all of their female bodyguards, and the deities that start to show up), but that was a minor quibble. A ‘palace intrigue’ story should be complex, with a lot of characters to follow.

A bigger problem I had was how ‘laissez faire’ the villains are with Ceda, once she joins up with them. Most of the palace guard don’t trust her, as a mysterious newcomer; in fact a few of them try to kill her (acting against the kings’ wishes). But then she’s also allowed to escape the palace during an attack (and to return without being punished), and then she’s allowed an apparent conjugal visit with the men who are conspiring with her. This kind of erodes the earlier tone of the book, where the palace-guard is presented as this super-efficient, super-ruthless operation. As soon as Ceda joins up, she is easily outmaneuvering her targets at every turn.

But still, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in Book 2. In fact, I almost wonder if a reader would enjoy the series more if they skipped the set-up in Book 1 and went straight to the additional king-slaying that will hopefully occur in Book 2.

I just read: Habibi

img_1514 Habibi is easily the thickest graphic novel I’ve ever read. The blurbs on the back of this 670-page hardcover do a pretty good job summarizing some of my impressions. A ‘Orientalist fairy tale.’ ‘A modern Dickensian saga.’ ‘A parable about the divide between the first and third worlds.’ If any of that sounds interesting to you I’d say Habibi might be worth trying.

Here are some of my other thoughts:

Despite the book’s length, it is not a dense or a difficult read. In fact the story flies by, flitting between time jumps and Biblical allegories. If anything, I lingered on pages to savor the beautiful art. Craig Thompson fills each page with sinuous, flowing inks or intricately tight hand-drawn patterns. On an art level, the book is truly a black-and-white masterpiece.

img_1515Mostly, we’re following the story of a beautiful young Arabian woman, Dodola, and a younger African slave, Zam, that she takes in and cares for. Both Dodola and Zam have brutal backstories. They’ve both been born into impoverished, third-world cultures that marginalize women and blacks. They essentially have no one else in the world to care for them, and after Dodola escapes from a slave market with Zam, they become each others’ only family. Mother and son. Sister and brother. As Zam reaches puberty, his feelings toward Dodola grow more complicated, and that is the catalyst for the major conflict of the story. That and Zam’s discovery that Dodola has resorted to prostitution to bring them food.

The story is definitely not afraid to ‘go there’ when it shows the readers the brutality of Dodola and Zam’s world. In the first few pages, we are shown the aftermath of the consummation of a child-bride’s marriage. Then we’re seeing white slavery, a medieval attempt at abortion, rape, castration, infanticide, and a harem where women are callously murdered once they’ve lost the interest of the Sultan. Later in the book, Thompson spends a chapter explaining the horrors inflicted on a shantytown when their water supply is tainted by industrial pollution, sewage run-off, and even floating corpses.

img_1516Apparently Thompson chose to set Habibi in an anachronistic, allegorical sort of Arabian world, where skyscrapers and Western tourist co-exist with slave markets straight out of Roots or Game of Thrones. This to me was one of my biggest disconnects from the story. “Wait, was that guy driving a motorcycle? Now he’s throat slit by a nomadic tribesman?” I felt like it cartoonized the book’s depiction of the third-world. Surely there’s enough going on there to be frustrated or shocked by, without adding halberd-bearing assassins or pedophiliac slave traders.

But there are other parts of the book where its epic, allegorical vibe works well, especially when Thompson digresses into explorations of Arabic calligraphy, geometry, and ancient science. I found a lot of this stuff fascinating, in a numerology/astrology sort of way. And it’s always cool when comic artists find ways to work visual concepts or symbolism into their storytelling.

Overall, Habibi is a magnetic, beautiful, if sometimes confusing experience. The strong arc of Dodola and Zam’s relationship throughout the book (and as they come of age) helps to keep the story on track. I haven’t read Craig Thompson’s other graphic novel ’Blankets,’ but I’m looking forward to checking it out in the near future.

 

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I would have words…

Lately I’ve been watching the show ‘Spartacus’ on Netflix. I’m thinking about writing a fantasy book set in Bronze Age-type book series once I finish IDYLL Book 3, and a sword-and-sandals saga seemed somewhat similar to the setting of my story. (Sibilance!)

spartacus batiatusQuestionable research techniques aside, I’ve been enjoying Spartacus. Yes, it’s cheesy at parts, but I think the first season was very well done for what it is—a bloody, lusty soap opera with lots of good twists and over-the-top characters.

To help convey a sense of Old-Old-Worldiness, the ancient Romans talk in a sort of overly formal, faux-Shakespearean phrasing. That’s probably better than having them talk in the original Latin! And the writers have done a good job of using that style to make the simplest lines of dialog sound interested.

For instance, “We need to talk” becomes “I Would Have Words…”

The overwrought language can also seem surprisingly colorful and visceral. As in “You will do as commanded, absent complaint, or see flesh stripped from bone.” Or “There are many words I would use towards your description. ‘Fool’ lives not amongst them.”

The problem for me is that I think that style of speech is slipping into my writing. My characters are speaking a little too formally.

I find my characters saying things like:
“This all that remains.”
“Granted, it was a poor choice.”
“I’m pleased to hear it.”
And granted, my characters are sci-fi cowboys, but still this style is too anachronistic, even for them.

This isn’t the first time that some sort of media I enjoy has seeped into my writing style. I’ve found I can’t read a present-tense book while I’m doing my first draft, or I’ll write whole passages in the wrong verb tense.

How about the writers out there? Are there any writing styles or tropes that unconsciously slip into your writing based on what types of books, shows, or music you’re enjoying in your free time?

Ranking Black Mirror Episodes, Seasons 1-3

Do you have a love/hate relationship with technology? Do you love TV shows like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits? Then you should check out Black Mirror, currently available on Netflix. At first I wasn’t too intrigued by the idea of this series. I kinda expected each plot to devolve into the ending of Superman 3.

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The most terrifying/ridiculous Superman moment ever

Sure, the plots are creepy and pessimistic on the whole, but there’s more to them than that. There are explorations of how mobile/social media and our surveillance culture speak to the seamy or sentimental sides of our human nature. In Black Mirror (I always pronounce it the way Arcade Fire sings it), technology is presented as 30% awesome, 70% revolting/dehumanizing. And we can’t turn away from that awesome 30%.

With that said, here is my ranking (in order of bestitude) of the episodes in Seasons 1, 2, and 3:     

#1
San Junipero
The premise:
I don’t want to give anything away. One of the great things about this very great episode is the mystery of it. This isn’t the first bit of science-fiction to explore this concept (It turns up to mind-blowing effect in Iain M. Banks’ Surface Detail). I will say if you’re still yearning for 80s nostalgia after Stranger Things, this will help scratch that itch.
My take: A rare optimistic episode. Some people will find it uplifting—some will find it uplifting and vaguely disturbing. But I don’t think you can deny that the story is bittersweet and beautiful. Maybe the story was particularly resonant for me because I feel like (pardon the self-promotion) my two Idyll trilogy books deal with this idea, a little (but in a more pessimistic way). Book 3, Exile, which I’m polishing now, will explore the concept further.

#2
The Entire History of You
The premise: Almost everyone has implants in their skull that record the video and audio inputs of every moment of your life. You can replay those memories at will, or project them onto a screen for others to see.
My take: I had a similar idea for a short story; I’m sure probably a lot of people have. But here, the writers take the idea and just kill it (in a good way). My story was going to involve a guy who become addicted to reliving his best days, so that he never makes any new memories. This story goes in a much better direction. Also, Robert Downey Jr. has bought the rights to turn this episode into a film.

#3
Fifteen Million Merits
The premise: More dystopian than the SNL’s The Group Hopper. Everyone wears gray sweatsuits. They pedal spin-bikes to create energy. They are inundated with screentime at every waking moment.
My take: Of all the episodes in the series, this one builds a world that is most different from our own. In fact, parts of it are a bit cartoonish. Then the episode reveals how this world deals with instant—and disposable—celebrity, and the story really takes off. Everyone is one step from becoming a reality show buffoon, one step from an American Idol superstar, one step from a porn star.

#4
Nosedive:
The premise: The world is so plugged into social media that every social interaction is logged in and rated. Social status is now absolutely quantified, and posted on Heads-Up feeds, so everyone can see where you fall on the popularity scale. If your score is high enough, it will help you qualify for loans and housing—low enough and certain places will bar you from entering.
My take: I had to stop this one midway through because it was stressing me out. Anything involving an airport snafu is like an immediate trigger warning for me. So the first half of this episode is lightly disturbing. Then the second half almost becomes a comedy, ala Road Trip or Wedding Crashers. Overall, the feel of ‘Nosedive’ is more like a parody than a cautionary tale. Ultimately, I don’t think people would buy into this concept of Facebookifying their entire lives. But 10% of the population would probably love it!

#5
Be Right Back
The premise: A tech startup can resuscitate the dead—virtually—by creating an artificial intelligence based their mobile and social media presence.
My take: Wow. The writers flesh out the characters, lay down the dynamite, and set up the viewer for a wallop. The story has some similar themes to Her and A.I.—except this ghost in the machine was an actual person at one point.

#6
Hated in the Nation
The premise:
This one is another mystery, so I won’t give anything away. A woman is murdered. And internet hatin’ is involved. At 90 minutes long, ‘Hated in the Nation’ is a movie-length capper to Season 3.
My take:
This was good. It reminded me of those buzzy, ‘viral’-type suspense movies (Nerve, Purge, Gossip) where characters get caught up in social phenomena. Also, there’s a bit of Seven in there. Now that I think about it… it might have been better if the main sci-fi element had been removed, and the story was more of a straight-forward serial killer mystery.

#7
Playtest:
The premise: A man volunteers to spend a night in a creepy house while hooked up to an augmented-reality gaming device that taps into your greatest fear. For the love of God… Why?!?!
My take: Good, straight-forward popcorn/horror fun. You can kind of see the big pay-off coming, but the path it takes has just the right amounts of twists in it.

#8
White Christmas
The premise: A bonus-length, Christmas episode that works in two sci-fi ideas: 1) digitally copying your mind to create your own digital house-slave, and 2) turning social media ‘blocking’ into a real-world thing.
My take: This is another very dark episode, and the concepts and core characters are pretty mean. If you know someone who’s freaked out by artificial intelligence, don’t let them watch this episode.

#9
Shut Up and Dance
The premise: Verrrrry dark. This episode feels close to modern times. A teenager has his laptop hacked, and he ends up being FaceTimed during his ‘personal’ time. The troubles only get worse from there.
My take: The characters’ decision-making seemed over-the-top for a lot of this episode. And did I mention this one is verrrrrrrrry dark? Then there’s a sort of hurried, garbled phone conversation that ends the proceedings with one final, icky cherry on top. Did I hear what I thought I heard? Is it true? Seemed a little confusing to me. Good use of a soundtrack, though.

#10
National Anthem
The premise:
Someone has kidnapped England’s most beloved princess, and they want to extort the Prime Minister to do something very embarrassing.
My take: A short episode, and not a whole lot to say about technology in general. Except that the web completely cuts through the reins that the British government’s try to put on their traditional news outlets.

#11
Men Against Fire:
The premise: High-tech soldiers fighting a mysterious hostile species called Roaches. I won’t give away anything else, because this one is also set up as a mystery.
My take: I feel like I figured out the mystery way too soon, then the story seemed to drag while I waited for everything to play out. An interesting idea though; and Doug Stamper’s in it.

#12
The Waldo Moment
The premise: A comedian who voices a vulgar cartoon bear finds himself mixed up in a national election.
My take: Again, Black Mirror takes on politics. This episode reminds me a bit of House of Cards, real people caught up in diabolical political schemes. Shadowy  strategists decide that an irreverent, populist cartoon bear is the perfect candidate, and their argument actually kind of makes sense

#13
White Bear
The premise: 90% of the population have mysteriously turned into gawkers. All they ever do is wander the earth mutely and record stuff on their phones. Society has broken down, and the remaining 10% of the population react to this new status quo in one of two ways. They go on Purge-style murder sprees, or they run and hide from the Purge people.
My take: A good start, but in my opinion, this is one case where the episode’s twist actually makes the story lamer.

I just read: The Steel Seraglio

steel_seraglio   ‘The Steel Seraglio,’ by Mike, Linda, and Louise Carey (a dad, mom, and daughter team), is a wonderful epic story about women changing the world from unlikely origins—a medieval Arabian harem.

Considering its setting, it’s not surprising that the story works in elements of 1,001 Arabian Nights, with storytelling as a strong theme. But the first section of the book is more of a twist on the myth of ‘Lysistrata.’ In ‘Lysistrata,’ the women of Greece go on a sex strike to force their men from going to war. In ‘The Steel Seraglio,’ the protagonists go the opposite way, overindulging the bellicose Sultan (with sex, flattery,  white lies, and any other feminine wile they can muster) to soothe him into not pursuing wars. As a result, the seraglio (another word for  stealthily presides over the most prosperous and enlightened sultanate in the land.

Unfortunately, this ‘Pax Romantica’ is finally shattered by a truly frightening villain in Hakkim Mehdad. Hakkim is a religious extremist who believes all of Earthly existence should be a grinding, joyless slog to achieve perfection in the afterlife. He’s also got a unique origin story and a truly creepy secret totem that he keeps with him.

The protagonists are a savage exile, surrounded by men who see them as objects of gratification or political pawns to be slaughtered. But they work their way through each hardship with wisdom and cunning. These courtesans aren’t just sexpots playing dumb; they’re savvy, talented women.

65_edc02steelseraglioremnimitmalaviaAll except one among them, who wields a sharp knife better than a sharp wit. I won’t give that woman’s name, because it would spoil her sudden introduction to the story. But let’s just say she is the land’s only professional female assassin, and she finds herself throwing in with the Seraglio. Soon she is recruited as the group’s reluctant (and refreshingly gruff) tactician. There are other standouts: the wise and aging matriarch, the snobbish and brilliant diplomat, and the librarian who was granted powers to see the future.

Lastly, there’s the slain Sultan’s last living heir, Jamal. Jamal starts the book as a young, inconsequential prince—far back in the line of succession—so he is both spoiled and essentially ignored. When the Seraglio helps him survive the slaughter of all his brothers and half-brothers, a new world of possibilities opens up for Jamal in exile. But will he choose to follow those possibilities toward good, or toward evil? Jamal has the the strongest character arc in the book. He’s written as a character who is hard to like, but easy to empathize with.

Steel Seraglio also features evocative illustrations by Nimit Malavia.

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Jekyll Island, Before the storm

I went to Jekyll Island early in October, before Hurricane Matthew rolled through. Like most of the barrier islands on Georgia’s coast, Jekyll is owned by the state park system. There are houses and businesses on the island, but I believe they all lease their property from the state. So the island usually has a very isolated, uncrowded vibe, especially on the southern end. Here’s a few pictures and movies:

Sunrise on the island:

 

Rickety walkway to the island’s southern beach:

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I ran into lots of dead horseshoe crabs:

img_1309A windy afternoon, and the buried mast of a shipwreck (a shrimp boat from the 1990s)

 

Listen to those bugs!

 

Live Oaks at the South Dunes Park:

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