Idyll Excerpt: The Streets of Belleterre

In honor of Westworld Season 2 premiering this weekend, here is a sample of my own sci-fi Western novel, Idyll. Idyll is now available for $0.99 here on Amazon!

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The afternoon sun descended beneath the bluffs, and the quartz hills wrapped themselves in velveteen shadows. Samuel found a noisy stream, broke down his tack, and scrubbed Titan where a thick scum of lather had gathered around her saddle. The mare wandered down the bank to chew through a stand of tall grass, and Samuel squatted by the water—at a respectful distance—and watched the surface glimmer as it bustled past. Their father owned a high-priced casting net just to fish these streams. Alma Starboard had teased him because there was no place in Glenn County to use such a net, unless he wanted to try chucking it into wells or rain barrels. Samuel warily dipped his hand into the frigid water and watched the current form hillocks as it bulged and rushed around his fingers. For all he knew, Josiah Starboard had stopped at this very spot.

Samuel imagined that he was speaking to him.

“Is that why you told us it took ten days to get to Belleterre? Because you spent a full day fishing? “I’m going to beat you there, Dad. Nine days.”

Within ten minutes, he and Titan were on the move again. As he cleared each ridge Samuel expected to be suddenly staring down at a crowded city of timber, aluminum, and live glass. He remembered his father’s reports of streets covered with pearlescent river stones and three-story houses with foundations of laser-cut rock. Josiah painted pictures of deafening waterfalls powering gigantic mills and propelling water through a webwork of aqueducts and aluminum pipes. Belleterre seemed to be a hectic paradise with its toy stores, puppet-shows, and men selling food or candy on every street corner.

What if Belleterre had recovered since the Lullaby? At this very moment, the market might be teeming with merchants, hawking their wares, roaring to be heard over the river. Samuel imagined boys sluicing horse manure off the curbs. What if these city folk had been living their lives in busy luxury while Samuel and his family had been living in isolation, withering away bit by bit? Logically Samuel knew that this would be the best possible scenario, but the idea made him want to scream. They had waited for three years. Suffered through—and wasted—three years.

He imagined the city folk gaping at him. What would they think of this refugee in a torn shirt and stitched boots? He had expected rough riding through the quartz hills, and he was wearing his dusty chaps, which were discolored and scarred, with flaps of torn fabric hanging off of them. Samuel was certain that he looked like a hermit. He wished he had followed Walt’s example and taken a bath this morning. He had shaved on the day that they left their father’s ranch because he had fully expected to find people at the county seat. Since that disappointment, he hadn’t thought about shaving at all, and now his beard was tight and itchy, a webwork of ivy on his face.

After another fifteen minutes of climbing, Samuel saw the corner of a building emerge from behind a steep slope of rock. The highway crested a hill, and Samuel had his first good look at Belleterre. His notions of loud merchants and busy street cleaners quickly died as he stared down at dozens of dark row houses and empty storefronts. The buildings seemed exhausted somehow. As he looked closer, Samuel realized why: Where wood showed, the timbers were black and sagging. Broken panes of live glass littered the streets—crooked mirrors shining up to the sky.

There had been a huge fire here. Half of the city had been razed.

In a moment of horror, Samuel realized he was very visible on the hilltop. There could be lookouts hidden among the buildings, watching the road for careless travelers. He turned back down the hill and led Titan to a scrubby niche in the rocks, a spot where the highest buildings wouldn’t have an angle to see them. He dismounted and tethered Titan to a deadfall. Then he unlatched his chaps and his jangling spurs. He peeled the bulky water pouch from his back.

A footpath zigzagged from the hidden niche up into the hills. The path was sheltered on both sides by steep embankments and scrubby conifers. Samuel scuttled from one hiding place to another, always watching the burned out buildings for signs of life. Soot-blackened windows stared down at him like the mascara-smeared eyes of world-weary burlesque dancers. But the windows were empty.

Soon he was ducking through an archway and into the city. He saw that someone had chipped pieces off of the arch’s quartz pylons, probably to feed a rock-roller. Samuel reached over his shoulder and shook his own rock-roller carbine. Its ammo of polished pebbles clattered in the stock. Samuel remembered Uncle Warren’s stories of rival militias battling in the chaos that followed the epidemic. Apparently those skirmishes had spread to Belleterre—or perhaps the skirmishes had started here. Either way, the men who had conquered this city were probably still holed up somewhere in these buildings.

Samuel’s heart was pounding high in his chest, threatening to choke him with each beat.
For the next twenty minutes Samuel worked his way past deserted inns, saloons, and barter shops. Several buildings had collapsed, and the aluminum skeletons of porches, roofs, and plumbing systems had been twisted and dragged into the avenue to create ramshackle barricades.

He weaved between shards of live glass, careful to not cut his shoes or make noise. Live glass was one of the Settlement’s most precious commodities. Each square-meter was honeycombed with hundreds of tiny cells that expanded or contracted based on temperature changes. The cells were designed to store and multiply energy that could be transferred to mechanical devices, stoves, or incandescent lights. Even broken panes of live glass were valuable as insulation materials. And yet, here were thousands of square-meters (shattered or not) that had not been salvaged. The survivors in Belleterre must have had more dire priorities. Or perhaps there were no survivors at all.

Samuel crossed a footbridge that resembled two squat staircases fastened together—one going up and the other coming down. Beneath the bridge, a section of the Kepler River foamed through a narrow canal. All around him, the metallic roar of the continent’s second-largest river echoed between buildings, rattled shards of glass, and settled as an uncomfortable weight between Samuel’s ears. He could see the city’s famous mill wheels, but the wheels had ground to a halt. The falls thundered off their useless paddles. Water sloshed over the sides of bent aqueducts, falling and slapping the ground. The clamor of millions of liters shook the city as if it were a gigantic caged creature. But the river raged at no one. The city was empty.

Belleterre was dead. They had trekked for nine days and subjected their mother to stresses that had nearly killed her. All of that suffering had been for nothing.

Samuel was ready to be away from these claustrophobic streets. The oppressive noise and humidity was settling on his shoulders, turning his clothes cold and heavy. The buildings loomed over him. He looked up, and the view made his head swirl. He came to an intersection between four hulking buildings and turned toward the sunset. He was trudging across a wide road that must have been one of the city’s main avenues. He didn’t worry about being seen; there was no one to see him.

Soon he was crossing a covered bridge over a large, squared-off canal. He watched the water bluster away under him, foaming angrily over splintered moorings and half-sunken boats, and his stomach roiled because all this water—all these buildings and manmade things so close to it—seemed unnatural. Samuel could not swim; he had never wanted to learn. He had a cattleman’s natural disdain for bodies of moving water. This city’s humidity—all its closeness—felt sickening to him. It was no surprise that the Belleterrans had all been wiped out by a contagion. Maybe their corpses had been swept away by the river, similar to cattle in a flash flood.

Samuel wanted to be in the saddle and racing away, far and fast and riding strong. But he was on foot and probably a full kilometer from his horse. His escape would be so slow, it almost didn’t seem worth it. Belleterre was dead. And Marathon might be dead too.
Samuel made himself walk. With his first step he stumbled on a loose flagstone on the bridge. The flat rock was angled wrongly and obviously out of place—as if someone had set it there specifically to trip him up.

Too late, Samuel realized he had triggered a booby trap.

A beam of wood crashed through the bridge’s aluminum canopy. Samuel flinched, raising his hands to his face to ward off any debris that might be flung up when the huge weight hit the stones before him. But the beam of wood didn’t fall normally; it arced toward Samuel, swooping to meet his knees as it accelerated to a bone-smashing velocity.

Samuel saw thick coils of hempen rope tied to each end of the beam. It was a pendulum. He didn’t have time to bend his legs and jump; he dove forward into the empty air above the hurtling beam. But a splintered edge caught his boot, and his body was flung backward and upward. He landed face first on the stone paving. Samuel stayed there, crumpled, for a split second. Then he remembered that the trap was a pendulum. It was coming back for him. Samuel rolled as fast as he could to avoid the beam’s lethal backswing. He fell off the bridge.

And the river swallowed him, pulling with an instant and nearly irresistible power. Samuel observed his situation with cold detachment, perhaps he was dazed from his fall onto the stone bridge. In some dim corner of his mind, he was considering the fact that he couldn’t swim. Simultaneously, he was absurdly fascinated by the novel sensation of being submerged in moving water.

He felt as if he were being propelled by a hundred mismatched cogs, all greased and moving incredibly fast. He was flung sideways, the current twisting his shoulders. Now he was face-up, now he was plunged headfirst to the cold, dark bottom. Samuel thrust out his hand, and his fingers raked up a slurry of mud. He rolled and plowed his heels into the muck, hopping along the bottom, going with the current, slowing his momentum. He straightened his legs and found that he could hold his head above the surface. Still, he took in a mouthful of frothy water as he tried to gasp for air.

The current pushed him toward a shattered skiff. The stern of the flat-bottomed boat had settled against the side of a broken building so that it formed a ramp out of the canal. Samuel grabbed the boat and clung for his life.

Now that he was within an arm’s length of dry land, his state-of-shock calm quickly flowed away. This new possibility of salvation made the imminent threat of drowning more palpable—more horrifying. His heart was pumping uncontrollably, as if the ferocious current was rushing through his chest. His legs were as flimsy as reeds beneath him. Did he possess the strength to pull himself out of the water?

He did. Samuel heaved himself up onto the slanted planks, which didn’t budge under his weight. Somehow, the strap of his rock-roller had shifted so that the carbine was stationed across his chest, not his back. Water dripped from his nose and from the twin prongs of the weapon. He wondered if water would affect its electromagnetic sling. Samuel climbed until he was teetering on the lip of a ragged hole in the side of a ruined building.

Its interior was dark and expansive. Here and there, damaged columns broke the darkness like jagged teeth. He looked down and saw that this improvised ramp had been tied to the building with ropes, not unlike the cords that had bound the booby trap on the bridge.

“Oh.” Samuel said. A flicker of green fabric moved among the shadows. He pulled the butt of his rock-roller to his shoulder.

An explosion went off in his right leg. He looked down and saw that his knee was wrapped in glittering wire. The wire crackled with blue lightning. Samuel could see and smell the fabric of his dungarees beginning to burn, but he couldn’t move to beat out the flames. He was paralyzed. His brain wouldn’t work. He couldn’t speak—couldn’t scream. The world seemed to spin around the fulcrum of his burning knee. Again he tried to grab it; instead he just pitched forward against the stone floor.

FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. GET THE BOOK!

I just read: The City of Brass

City of Brass starts off about a con-artist named Nahri in Napoleonic-era Cairo. Nahri doesn’t know where she comes from, but wouldn’t you know that she eventually realizes that she’s far more than just a rootless street urchin—she’s descended from a noble family of mythical djinn (they call themselves Daeva). The rest of the story revolves around Nahri coming to terms with this revelation, and how she affects the lives of two djinn men in the far-off, secret city of their ancient race.

I always thought of a djinn (or a Daevas, or an ifrits) as a sort of elemental spirit—or shapeshifting demon. Something inhuman. But the author, S.A. Chakraborty, presents the Daevas as very close to humans, both in their appearance, their politics, and their passions. If anything, the djinni here come off as elves, and their fabled city of Daevabad is Rivendell. One major difference to that is that some tribes of Daeva feel spiritually connected to fire, some to water, etc. The intrigues that run between these different tribes are as fraught and as morally ambiguous as anything you’d see in Game of Thrones. And just as complicated!

Nahri finds herself drawn to two Daeva men who are on opposite sides of this political divide. Nahri feels a romantic spark for both of these men. Dara is a hotheaded outsider—and a deadly warrior—who feels rightfully angry at the city’s current ruling family. Alizayd is the second son of that royal family. He is a devout Muslim, and also secretly entwined with an insurgency fighting for equality of Daevabad’s half-human population.

After a stilted and complicated introduction, Alizayd became my favorite character in the book. Because of his religion, he has chosen to remain chaste. At the same time, Nahri has been forced into an arranged engagement with his older brother, Muntadhir. All the same, Alizayd develops a fierce attachment to Nahri, and the best parts of the books are when he’s clashing with Dara—his political and romantic rival—over Nahri. There’s more than meets the eye to all of these characters, and that includes Muntadhir and Ali’s father, Ghassan.

All in all, an enjoyable fantasy read in a setting that you don’t often see. I look forward to reading the sequel when it is released.

(Ground)Breaking News: Cover reveal!

Here’s the cover for Groundbreakers Book One, which will be released on April 17! Yes, that is a giant echinoid in the bottom half of the image. Spooky and spiny!

“The land of Embhra is ruled by magic—and it’s ruining everything.

Gods and sorcerers jealously hoard their power, and innocent people everywhere are suffering for the cause of those who wield magic. Sygne and Jamal are hoping they can change that. She’s a scientist. He’s a former soldier and aspiring poet-singer.

With her brains and his bravado, they might just make a difference. It also helps that they are on course to find a primordial Ancient One that might hold the key to changing the entire world. Not so helpful: both a war goddess and a love goddess want to see them dead!

The ‘Scientician’ and the Singing Swordsman begin their first groundbreaking adventure in this short-length novel.”

I just read: Sharaz-de

Until about a year ago, I wasn’t familiar with Italian illustrator and comic-artist Sergio Toppi. Which is a shame because his work is brilliant. It reminds me of the fluid abstraction of Bill Sienkiewicz, the bold action and scale of Walt Simonson (who contributes a foreword to this edition), and some of that realist detail that you see in advertising illustrations of the 60s. This last bit is probably not surprising considering that Toppi started off as an advertising illustrator before transition to graphic novels about cowboys and soldiers, historic figures and the icon Arabian Nights mythos—which is what is collected in ‘Sharaz-de.’ Unfortunately Toppis passed away in 2012 at the age of 80.

Toppi was certainly in his element when it comes to illustrating the world of Arabian nights. His rocky desert landscapes are incredible, and just as impressive is the way he arranges his panels to communicate the passage of time and distance.

His pen carves the faces of his kings and shamans in the same sort of weather-worn majesty that he renders sandstone. Sometimes his vizier and chieftain faces blend in with rock formations or Gustav Klimt patterns, and it all creates this beautiful, dynamic texture of pen-and-ink.

I was also impressed with Toppi’s writing. He condenses the stories to as few lines of dialog. Although this descriptions and introductions are a little longer, and dashed an Old World tone. My favorite story was the set-up in the beginning, which mixes infidelity, sibling rivalry and compassion, and a bit of schadenfreude. (Scheherazade, meet Schadenfreude.)

Plot wise, most of the stories are pretty violent morality plays—full of jealous or greedy characters getting their just deserts. Sort of similar to Grimm’s Fairy Tales, if you read the old-school versions. But all the decapitations and demonic punishments are beautifully rendered, at least!

(Ground)Breaking News: It begins!

It’s finally almost here!

I’m announcing I’ll be releasing my latest novel on Tuesday, April 17th.

It’s part of a new series that is a bit of a departure for me. After first testing the indie-publishing waters with a horror book called Line of Descent, I then completed a full-blown sci-fi trilogy, Idyll. Now I’m trying my hand at the fantasy genre. And boy has it been a blast!

The series is called Groundbreakers, and it started out as a story about a proto-scientist making it in a world that has been dominated by sorcery. I thought of it as Mr. Wizard meets actual wizards. Or Isaac Newton in the age of Conan the Barbarian. I realize these pitches make it sound like the main character is a man. Actually, the scientist is a woman, and—actually again—there are two main characters. The second protagonist is a cocky, swashbuckling type.

As I said, this was the premise when I started writing the series a year ago, and also the basic germ of the characters I wanted to build my world around. Of course, as I’ve worked on the series, the characters and the themes have evolved.

Still, throughout the process, I’ve tried to maintain a high-spirited, lighthearted tone—which is also a bit of a departure from what I’ve written in the past. I want the Groundbreaker books to be fun, quick reads. If there are a few moments of heaviness or horror, then maybe they’ll have all the more impact because of it!

Anyway, enough chit-chat. Here is a map of the world (I showed a version of this in an earlier post), and a blurb. If you’re interested in an advanced-reader-copy, send me an email! jderrywriter@gmail.com.

The land of Embhra is ruled by magic—and it’s ruining everything.

Gods and sorcerers jealously hoard their power, and innocent people everywhere are suffering for the cause of those who wield magic. Sygne and Jamal are hoping they can change that. She’s a scientist. He’s a former soldier and aspiring poet-singer.

With her brains and his brawn, they might just make a difference. It also helps that they are on course to find a primordial Ancient One that might hold the key to changing the entire world. Not so helpful: both a love goddess and a war goddess want to see them dead! No one ever said change would be easy…

The ‘Scientician’ and the Singing Swordsman begin their first groundbreaking adventure here—in MYTHS OF THE FALLEN CITY!

Currently Distracting Me: Halt and Catch Fire

I’m moving along pretty well on my author projects this winter, but I’ve also been enjoying some shows, books, and games in my bits of free time.

Today I want to talk about ‘Halt and Catch Fire,’ which I’ve been bingeing on Netflix over the last two months. It’s been awesome! It’s been a long time since I’ve looked forward to a show so much that I would shudder giddily before each new episode. Even now, just hearing the theme song kick in is enough to trigger Pavolvian glee.

Over four seasons and forty epsiodes, the show follows four brilliant characters (4.5 if you count Toby Huss’s character!) through the personal-computing and networking boom of the 80s and early 90s. Each character brings different skill-sets and philosophies to several different startup ventures, and although the characters are fictional, we see them have a hand in several real-world advancements.

Lee Pace

Season 1 is all about the four characters trying to create the first laptop. (Eventually, Macintosh eats their lunch.) Season 2 is about creating a fledgling online community. Season 3… well, I don’t want to give away the plots for all four seasons. But I will say that part of the wonder of the show is seeing one character come up with the germ of an idea and then see another character building on it, (or screwing it up in a way that gives birth to something completely new). Eventually the idea takes shape and you recognize it as something we all know (anti-virus software, a version of Craigslist, etc.)

I’m going to recap all four characters, but I’ll use the actor names, because the cast is absolutely awesome and they deserve as much name-recognition as possible.

Mackenzie Davis

Lee Pace plays the entrepreneur of the group, he’s the iconoclast who brings people together and pushes them to disrupt their normal ways of doing things, although he’s criticized for never actually coming up with any ideas on his own.

Mackenzie Davis is the genius programmer and game developer. Her weaknesses are that she can be ridiculously stubborn and idealistic.

Scoot McNairy plays the engineer (the hardware guy) who is a married father of two. I think I related the most to him. His character flaw is that he can be manic (at home and at work).

Finally, there’s Kerry BIshé, who plays the sleeper-hit best character on the show. She has a mix of I.T. and business skills, and she’s the voice of reason and backbone of several of the team’s endeavors. She’s can also be a lethal, c-suite cutthroat (to friends and foes) when she thinks that’s what’s required.

 

Scoot McNairy

The four main characters clash a lot—end up in out-and-out conflict, fall in love, fall out of love, reunite, separate—over the four seasons of the show, The character arcs and realistic conflicts in Halt and Catch Fire really make each season crackle with energy, even if there are no hitmen or gangsters anywhere in sight.

Not to make this post any more geeky, but again and again I kept thinking that Marvel/Disney should hire the show’s creators, Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers to reboot the Fantastic Four with the same sort of team and family conflicts that they bring to HACF. Hell, they could even use the same cast with some of the same character traits in place. Lee Pace is Mr. Fantastic. Mackenzie Davis could be an excellent gender-flipped version of the hot-headed Human Torch. Scoot McNairy is Ben Grimm and Kerry BIshé is the Invisible Woman.

 

Kerry Bishe

I looked it up, and it seems that the producers and writer of HACF knew that their fourth season would be their last, before they started it. Because of that, the creators had an entire ten episodes to build to a proper conclusion for the series. That gift of time and consideration really shows.

If you working in the technology sector, or if you’re a fan of Mad Men or Silicon Valley, I’d say you should give Halt and Catch Fire a try!

Series Condition: Black Hammer

For casual readers of comics, a series like an ‘analog’ Black Hammer can be great. It’s a standalone story (no other back issues to track down, no Wikipedia pages to research) that features ‘analogs’ to well-known archetypal characters.

I love a good ‘analog’ comic story, by that, I mean a fresh story that takes on the expected archetypal superheroes, slaps new names and costumes on them, and deconstructs them in new ways. Kurt Busiek’s Astro City is a great example of a long-running city that any casual reader can pick up and totally get. Each issue of Astro City showcases a new hero or villain, like Samaritan, the Confessor, and Winged Victory, who are instantly recognizable as analogs of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, respectively. Watchmen, Squadron Supreme, and Irredeemable are two other great examples of superhero analog series where you don’t have to wade into decade’s worth continuity in order to enjoy the story. (Although, to be honest, it does help.)

Black Hammer
Writer: Jeff Lemire
Artist: Dean Ormston
Colorist: Dave Stewart
Publisher: Dark Horse
2015-2017
14 issues (the series entered hiatus, but is supposed to return in 2018)

Black Hammer is the latest analog universe that I’ve dived into. It was a memorable experience, although I have to say I wasn’t completely blown away. The story follows a collection of superheroes who find themselves trapped in some sort of pocket universe that resembles a tiny farming town. How did they get there? What is the force that kills them if they try to leave? Unfortunately, none of these questions are answered before the series went on indefinite hiatus in 2017.

The best thing about the 13-issue series (so far?) are its character concepts. I’ll list a few of my favorites.

  • Abraham Slam is an obvious Captain America analog, but he doesn’t have a super-soldier serum or the benefit of being frozen in ice to help him fight off ravages of time. As the Black Hammer story begins, he’s already the oldest character and quite a bit over the hill.
  • Golden Gail is sort of Shazam character in reverse. Shazam was an ordinary boy who turns into an adult superhero when he says a magic word. Gail is a normally aging woman who has become stuck in her eternally prepubescent, super-powered form.
  • Talkie Walkie is a robot sidekick character with an awesome name and an even more awesome character design.
  • Madame Dragonfly is the mystical, unpredictable superhero (think Scarlet Witch or the X-Men’s Magik) who also acts like a host character from the 1950s EC Comics. (Think the Crypt Keeper.)
  • Black Hammer is a character who seemingly died trying to escape the pocket universe. At first he seems like a 70s-blaxploitation hybrid of Superman and John Henry, which cool enough. But later we learn that his origin veers toward Thor and Jack Kirby’s New Gods.

The characters have a lot of potential, and the series has already spawned an excellently named spin-off, Sherlock Frankenstein. I was disappointed, however, that we didn’t get any kind of resolution for the main characters. In issue one, we find out that the heroes have been trapped in this bucolic setting for ten years. And yet it takes a newly introduced character to start showing them clues that might help them out of their predicament. If these are Earth’s greatest heroes, then why have they given up so easily on finding a way out? Also, Gail’s best friend is a gay team-member who doesn’t seem particularly closeted. And yet after ten years of living in close quarters, Gail is shocked to find out he’s gay? There are some plot points and character interactions that seem paper-thin. Maybe some of these troublesome issues could have been resolved if the characters had been trapped in the pocket dimension for one year instead of ten. Also, some of these issues seem to be exacerbated as the last three issues of the series seem to slow down and drag, plot wise.

Dean Ormston’s rough-hewn art is charming and expressive, but there are some panels where his backgrounds and his faces seem a too flimsy for Black Hammer’s more horrific or cosmically-scaled scenes. For instance, when one character enters a Lovecraftian dimension of “unspeakable angles,” where a mortal man could go insane. The background of that scene simply shows sketchy alien eyeballs floating in space.

With all that said, I truly did enjoy the series. It’s brimming full of cool characters. And some fun experiments in comics deconstruction. In one flashback, we see a Golden Gail adventure told through that overwrought tone of 60s comics. I already mention how Madame Dragonfly re-creates an EC Comics feel. Another story shows Abraham Slam take on an ‘Extreme’ 90s-era makeover. It’s moments like these—and some fantastic David Rubin fill-in issues—that I’ll remember most about the series. Here’s hoping one day we’ll get some answers about everything else.