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
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.

Writing Progress, December 2017

On Thursday I finished the first round of my latest book! The manuscript is currently 46,000 words, and it took me about 40 days to write! Pretty good for a guy with a full-time job, a wife, and two kids!

Somehow I also managed to squeeze in finally finishing Horizon: Zero Dawn and 2 seasons of Halt and Catch Fire. I guess the point is that after 12 years (off and on) of this writing stuff, I’m finally getting pretty efficient at it.

For the sake of clarity, here’s a refresher. I’ve been working on a new series of Fantasy novels. Book 1 is tentatively titles “Myths of the Fallen City.” Book 2 is “Relics of the Desert Tomb.” My plan is to release Book 1 and Book 2 at close to the same time, so I wanted to make them shorter. Hopefully the novels will have a with shorter, lighter feel, and will feel like episodes adventure/’pulp’ series.

The tail of an Aqrabuamelu, a Babylonian scorpion-man

I started Book 2 back in July. I had just finished the first round for Book 1, and I was going on a weekend trip to Jekyll Island. So I decided to try dictating the beginning of Book 2 into my phone while I was on that trip. I ended up dictating 5,000 words on that weekend alone! Then I put down Book 2 and returned to editing and fleshing out Book 1. Once that was done, I picked up Book 2 again for another weekend beach trip in October. Surprisingly, those vacation days were my most productive writing days. (Or maybe that’s not surprising, depending on how you look at it!)

I did more work on Book 1 in October, then the bulk of my writing days on Book 2 fell in November and December. I never set a deadline for myself, but I did keep track of my daily word count, and I think that helped a lot to keep me motivated.

The next step, is a second round on Book 2. And both books need some polishing and additions. Of course, while working on Book 2 I came up with some good ideas to improve Book 1. Also cover designs will come in the near future. And I suppose I need to work on some sort of marketing plan. All in all, though, I’m pretty excited to be that much closer to releasing the books and getting them out there for new readers. Woo-hoo!