Friday, May 26, 2017

Grimdark, masculinity, and female authors

    I had an interesting conversation recently with a fellow board member on a list where he was discussing how he felt grimdark was a bastion of "male fiction." I blinked because not only did it not make any sense, I wasn't actually sure what he was referring to. After I brought this up to my friend, he went, "Well, you know because it's bloody and gory with lots of violence against women as well as men." Suffice to say, I felt he really didn't know that many women who were familiar with the genre or the greater grimdark community as a whole.

    Honestly, I'm going to state I don't actually think that grimdark is actually that masculine of a genre writer-wise. There's the PERCEPTION which it would be a more masculine genre but it's based around an assumption of gender roles which just isn't based in reality. I.e. Those poor delicate flowers don't like violence, violence against women, or are somehow attracted to fiction which doesn't involve the disemboweling of individuals for no good reason.

    This is notable because it goes against the direction of sense from Game of Thrones success. A series which is famous for its popularity among women viewers (not to mention its parent-series' popularity among women) for not sanitizing the treatment of women in Medieval society. Indeed, it is one of the ones most famous for having a wide variety of individuals ranging from Catelyn Stark to Brienne of Tarth (albeit, I their treatment of Asha Greyjoy was terrible).

    Still, the idea grimdark is a male genre persists. It's also doubly-so because grimdark is a NEW genre (rooted in older Sword and Sorcery) with George R.R. Martin's work. Robin Hobb is widely considered to be a grimdark author and while that's debatable--every author who is considered a grimdark author is questioned.

    If any of you are married you might also check your wives Kindle lists as my own wife's collection of supernatural fantasy and "real life" fiction is a collection of brutally dark fiction of rape, murder, slavery, and torture. The issues of violence against women is a ridiculous non-issue because the stories are very often about the same sort of, "survives nightmarish situation and gets revenge" storyline that so much male fiction is. No more likely to put off readers than the idea Frank Castle lost his family or the Count of Monte Cristo being imprisoned for centuries.

    Indeed, I met my wife on the Anita Blake boards back when it was R-rated urban fantasy versus porn. The books involved slavery, rape, torture, mutilation, and serial murder as regular matters of course with the character of Anita's major story arc being that she was a sociopath who had to direct her anger at villains rather than unleash it at everyone else. I feel embarrassed about it now due to the latter associations but they were grimdark urban fantasy to say the least even with all the romance.

    This post is ironic because I JUST commented on the fact grimdark had a large association of female authors with Deborah A Wolf, Anna Stephens, M.L. Spencer, Mary Gentle, Mercedes M. Yardley, Karen Miller (just not her Star Wars stuff), Anna Smith Spark, and more. Hell, my first THREE zombie novels where everyone ends up mutilated and murdered were all by women. Shana Festa, Stevie Kopas, and Jennifer Brozek.

    So yeah, grimdark being "male fiction"? Bullshit. Bullshit more than regular fantasy, which is undulated with women because, SHOCKINGLY, they've always been there but get looked past like they're wearing a cloak of invisibility. I think I may have a slightly better pair of glasses on this since my first fantasy author of devotion was Margaret Weis and the somewhat better balanced Star Wars novels of Bantam where Timothy Zahn got all the accolades but Kathy Tyers and Karen Traviss were my jam.

    Just thought I'd share this.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Evil is a Matter of Perspective review

    Evil is a matter of perspective. This is a quality which is extremely relevant to grimdark as it involves making sure even the most reprehensible characters have a point. Jaime Lannister is the Kingslayer but he did so because he wanted to save King's Landing and protect his father. Cersei Lannister has many defenders because her marriage to Robert Baratheon was such a nightmare. Glokta tortures people because it's the only thing left to him by a society which functions on corruption and patronage. Jorg Ancrath is a murderer and a rapist but he doesn't have control over his own mind when he's not struggling to survive the war between the thousand kingdoms.

    The anthology of the same title is as grimdark as you're going to get, pedigree-wise, since it is the personal project of Grimdark Magazine's editor Adrian Collins. It exists for the explicit purpose of crafting a collection of stories about rotten [expletive] so we can walk a mile in their shoes. It also has a wonderful collection of authors who are some of the most notable names in the genre of "gritty, realistic fantasy." These include R. Scott Bakker (who provides the introduction), Alex Marshall, Peter Orullian, Jeff Salyards, Deborah A. Wolf, Matthew Ward, Michael R. Fletcher, and more.

    A disclaimer for people who are reading this but I have some ties to the anthology's publisher. I've written a number of articles for Grimdark Magazine (all pro-bono) as well as reviews for their website. This isn't going to affect my opinion of the works within but consider yourself warned. The grimdark community is not so large as you can be an expert and not bump into the people involved. A similar random fact is actress Ashley Judd used to be my babysitter and will prove as relevant to my reviews (i.e. not at all).

    So, short version, is it any good? Yes, yes it is. Some stories are more awesome than others and a couple just didn't work for me at all but I could say that about any anthology. For the most part, this is a solid piece of fiction from start to finish and anyone who likes villain protagonists as well as horror with their fantasy will love this. Certainly, grimdark exists in large part due to the fact too much fantasy ends with the universe bending over backward for the "good guys" to have their violence justified as moral.

    Is there any flaws with the book as a whole? Eh, a minor one in the fact it's not quite true to its title. There's not really much moral ambiguity to the protagonists. While a few of the leads in the short stories are misunderstood or operating from a different code than regular society, most of the time their evil is a matter of being a complete [expletive]. Only a few short stories any sort of Miltonian (or Rolling Stones) sympathy for the devil and they're really just about [expletive]. I also wish I could swear but I want to share this on Amazon. Still, it's still a great piece of dark fantasy throughout.

Now for the individual stories:

"On the Goodness of Evil" by R. Scott Bakker

A foreword which turns into a full-blown essay about how humanity divides people into tribes with "evil" being the Other. It's a great little academic work and while I don't actually agree with it all that much, it's still fascinating reading. It also really does reflect the "good and evil are merely sides" view which I would have been interested in reading stories about.

"A Lifetime of Inspiration" by Adrian Collins

A more personal foreword which talks about Adrian's life-long obsession with seeing things from the perspective of the bad guys. I, personally, liked his statement a lot and think it definitely applies to things like war as well as the making of good antagonists. We are all villains indeed, at least in someone's story. Just like they are the heroes in theirs and we in ours. Because, someone, somewhere, doesn't like us.

"The Broken Dead" by Michael R. Fletcher

One of the strongest short stories in the novel, right out of the gate. This is a tale of a broken and misused young woman who ends up as a murderous revenant in the service of evil necromancer priests. The fact I can use that sentence and still say it's a touching story about dignity and self-worth shows Fletcher is a delightfully depraved new talent.

"Every Hair Casts a Shadow" by Teresa Frohick

I like this story and am interested in exploring its universe a bit more since it's not just a story in this novel. Angels and demons are fighting it out during the Spanish Civil War with one child being a demon who has sworn allegiance to the angels and his grandfather wanting to corrupt him back. I actually felt the morality of the protagonists were pretty clear but checked myself it was always about the "side" I picked more than anything they did.

"The Divine Death of Jirella Martigore" by Alex Marshall

A fascinating story about the ascension of a young woman to the office of Pontifex. Except, in this universe, the Pope is determined by magical ritual that turns you into a human wasteland and a major part of church doctrine is the extermination of animal-featured humans. This is a good example of the "Evil is a matter of perspective" theme as the young woman wants to do good but her church is royally [expletive]-up.

"A Royal Gift" by Mark Alder

An alternate history short story where the famous Black Prince of England was actually a half-human/half-demon hybrid in the service to Satan (God's jailer versus Lucifer in this universe). This is one of the short stories I think which really encapsulates the theme and shows a genuinely alien mindset which some would call evil but is just operating to its own interior values.

"Old Blood" by Adrian Tchaikovsky

A lot of animal motifs, sacrifice, and vengeance themes in this book but I can't say I actually understood much of it. It makes me want to read Shadows of the Apt, though, so I can know what was going on here.

"Black Bargain" by Janny Wurts

A human waste of space named Toler gets enslaved by a wizard who is engaged in a convoluted plot to prevent the end of the world by dragon due to the fact humanity has done some horrible stuff which would compel dragons to eliminate them. I didn't always understand the politics but enjoyed the premise.

"The Syldoon Sun" by Jeff Salyards

Remember that deformed guy in 300? The one who ended up betraying the Spartans because they wouldn't let him fight the Persians? This is basically a version of his story with a new army and a less awful set of circumstances. His story also ends in a way which is dark and tragic whereas most of the protagonists in this book get away with their actions.

"The Darkness within the Light" by Shawn Speakman

A wizard murders, kidnaps, blackmails, and extorts his way to finding the Holy Grail. Why? So he can get revenge on God.The question of evil and suffering in the world is a constant one for the faithful and one which I have often struggled myself with. In the case of the wizard here, it is doubly so because he has proof God exists but still doesn't act. He's certainly a monster but his actions are driven by a very cosmic anger in the Miltonian sense.

"The Greater of Two Evils" by Marc Turner

A tyrannical group of sea wizards fighting against pirates with delusions of being revolutionaries.I love stories where both sides in a war are just dirty with people caught in-between. It inspired my novel Lucifer's Star and Marc Turner does a great job of depicting a conflict where idealistic heroism is grossly misplaced. The ending is also esoterically happy in a way.

"Exceeding Bitter" by Kaaron Warren

An exceedingly (no pun intended) weird little horror story with a lot of creep factor.

"A Game of Mages" by Courtney Schafer

One of my two favorite stories in the book, this is about a completely awful person who is about as moral as your typical Chaotic Evil D&D villainess but is still capable of loving her spouse/partner/lover. Her partner is capable of loving other people, though, and we see how that affects their relationship. The ending also foretells that their evil will destroy itself because, well, traces of goodness is a poison in the well of a truly evil person's happiness.

"The Tattered Prince and the Demon Unveiled" by Bradley P. Beaulieu

The best short story in the anthology, this story feels not-to-dissimilar to a retelling of Aladdin. Except Aladdin's genie is a demon, may want to possess him, and he's protecting his erstwhile princess from a bunch of drug-dealers. Brama is a pretty decent fellow, actually, but evil is a word thrown around a lot against people who don't deserve it.

"A Storm Unbound" by E.V. Morrigan

This is a great story that I hesitate to reveal the twists of but amounts to it being a fantasy version of John Wick with a female protagonist. The ending is also one I found to be touching as humans in peril are an overused motivation versus poochies.

"The Game" by Matthew Ward

This is a story which stars a genuine irredeemable [expletive] and one which I sincerely hope gets eaten by wolverines in his trousers. Nevertheless, I will say the protagonist is an amazingly capable character who you have to marvel at the manipulations of.

"Blood Penny" by Deborah A Wolf.

A runner up for the best story in the anthology, the story of a demon-tainted waif who is desperate to survive and turns to some poorly understood black magic for revenge. The ending is more hopeful than I expected but it's a dark ride throughout.

"Better than Breath" by Brian Steveley

I may have misunderstood this one but I think it's probably the best vampire story I've read in a very long time. Even monsters have mothers....or are them.

"A Foundation of Bones" by Mazarkis Williams

A story about a messiah being raised by a man who wants dearly to make him a hero but may accidentally damn him down a different path. I felt it was a good story but more in the middle than my favorite of this work.

"The Aging of a Kill" by Peter Orullian

I gave Peter Orullian a bad review for "A Length of Cherrywood" in Blackguards but he's won my respect for this little work. It's a story about revenge in the Count of Monte Cristo sense of ruining people utterly rather than simply murdering them. It's also about a very alien mindset where retribution for every slight can make a truly horrifying pile of seemingly justified actions.

"The Carathayan" by R. Scott Bakker

I'm going to grimdark hell for this but I actually had no idea what the hell was going on in this story from beginning to end. There's a lot of murder, mayhem, shouting, and accusations but I felt like I was going "Whose on First" the entire time.

In short, great book. Solid 4.5 bloody axes out of 5.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Holy Avenger by Kenny Soward review

    I was a big fan of Kenny Soward's Galefire, which was a early example of grimdark urban fantasy. It was a story about a drug-addicted mind-twisted man named Lonnie as well as the colorful cast of weirdos he hung out with in Cincinnati. The ending of the book offered the promise of big change which I wasn't necessarily all that fond of since I was interested in the low-key storytelling that the first book excelled at.

    Holy Avengers makes a course correction so that we don't end up in a big plot to take over hell and, instead, focuses mostly on the protagonists trying to recover from their wounds in an underground hospital run by a demon who is (for all intents and purposes) Swamp Thing. I hope Kenny Soward continues to keep the adventures of his group of small as I think they work better that way.

    Even so, there's a broadening of the world which occurs in this book as a substantial part of the story takes place from the perspective of Bess the Holy Avenger. Despite the fact "hell" is clearly stated to be populated by humanoid and monstrous beings who know nothing of God or the Devil, closer to fairies than demons, the power of God is a real thing in this reality. The ECC is a demon-hunting organization which is determined to wipe them off the face of reality, not the least because most Fade-Rippers really are loathsome abominations.

    Sorry Isla, Ingrid.

    After narrowly losing her life to a vampire (whorcal), Bess ends up recovering in the hospital of the aforementioned Swamp Thing-like creature and gets a uncomfortable lesson in tolerance. Lonnie, Selix, and the sisters may not be the nicest people in the world but they're far from inhuman abominations. Really, they're about as dangerous as Jay and Silent Bob given the amount of drugs they regularly consume to replace their connection to Hell's energies. Which, personally, I think is just an excuse.

    There's not much to the story, actually, as the Galefire books are short adventure reads and I think that's to the book's credit. Events happen but one more step is taken on Lonnie's journey. That doesn't mean huge changes to the cast and their line-up aren't made but it's an easy action-filled romp I finished in about a day.

    Is the book grimdark? That's questionable as while the first book certainly was, this one moved away from Lonnie's addiction to drugs as well as his longing for the family he betrayed to something which felt more like a straight adventure. I mean, he's still a scumbag but a likable scumbag who is more pathetic than bad intentioned. I also liked Selix and Lonnie's romance despite it being something I felt was "no accounting for taste" in the previous book.

    I do think one of the characters who leaves the story in the book was a mistake on the author's part, though. A character dies who was really interesting and central to the narrative. I don't think this was for shock value but to highlight their presence was keeping everyone else from developing. Still, I considered them one of the most important elements of the book's formula so their absence will be missed.

    In conclusion, Holy Avengers is a fine fun book and I recommend the Galefire series for those who like their urban fantasy a bit off-kilter and tragic. They're very violent, cast members die left and right, while the protagonists are wastes of space--but in a good way. It's not about the heroes who want to change the world, Bess shows what that's like and Lonnie's crew is VERY MUCH not like her, but people trying to survive when they're not the top dogs of the supernatural food chain.


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Dark Defiles review

    The Dark Defiles is the third and final novel of A Land Fit for Heroes, which has the interesting quality of being the first grimdark story that I recognized. I'd read A Song of Ice and Fire and The Witcher beforehand but it was the excerpt from this book which convinced me I wanted to explore the genre more fully. In the story except, Egar Dragonsbane beats a bunch of randy soldiers senseless for interrupting his brothel time.

     I'm not going to lie: I have issues with the way Richard K. Morgan's series progress. I love his work as a whole but he seems to have serious issues following up on his initial story points. I loved Altered Carbon, disliked Broken Angels, and felt ambivalent about Woken Furies. I have a similar feeling about this trilogy having loved The Steel Remains, enjoyed the Cold Commands, and really hated this book until the final quarter. Indeed, it took me months to finish this novel and if anyone has ever read my reviews, you know I can usually plow through the thickest doorstoppers in a week.

     Part of this is the first three-quarters of the manuscript have nothing to do with the pressing questions of the series: who are the dwenda, what happened to the Kiriath, what about Ringil's relationship to his family, will the insane Caligula ruler of the Divine Throne be overthrown, and so on. Instead, there's an epic treasure quest which satirizes the typical Lord of the RIngs quests by having the heroes getting themselves lost and having no clue where to go for the majority of the trip. Which is funny when it's a chapter or two and boring when it's most of the book.

     The book finally picks up near the end with characters dying, epic battles between humanity and the dwenda, answers to all of our questions, and a good idea of where the world is going to be going in the next few centuries. It has a Michael Moorcock "*** the Gods!" sort of feel, too, which I'm not much of a fan of since I find the idea of humans telling destiny to screw itself off self-entitled since if you can tell destiny off then it's not much of a destiny to begin with, is it? Certainly, too much of the book is spent on Ringil telling the Dark Court (the local pantheon) off and you can guess any action he's going to take by asking, "Did a god tell him to do the opposite?"

    I also have to say much of the book depended on Egar as comic relief. He seems to be the only character who is having any fun in the story and seems to accept the world as is. Both Ringil and Archeth are Byronic heroes who loathe the world as it is. This is fine given the world sucks but their constant never-ending contempt for the way civilization is and the people inside went so far past grimdark it went around to Gene Roddenberry. "Oh, why must we be surrounded by such a disgusting race that is humanity?" Yeesh, you'd think both of them would catch a clue they're jerkasses themselves.

    Did I find the ending satisfying? Yes, mostly. I found the idea of a conspiracy to put Archeth on the throne less interesting than the author did. Archeth is a haughty, self-absorbed, frankly racist elf who I only realized is supposed to be considered a moral paragon. It's kind of like Terry Goodkind's books where I only realized I wasn't reading a parody deconstruction of fantasy heroes about halfway through. Likewise, the book loses a lot of energy whenever Egar isn't on page and what happens to him costs the book dearly. Still, I have to say Ringil got as good an ending as any grimdark hero.

    Richard K. Morgan is at his best whenever he is doing shocking scenes, torture, and nasty betrayals of what we expect from our heroes. Whenever Ringil is killing slavers, insulting dwenda, or murdering the hell out of people like an NC-17 rated version of the Punisher--the book is very good. The same with Egar making fun of Archeth for being horrified at the soldiers beating up the villagers when she's done nothing but sit in her tent and sulk the entire time versus leading them. Character moments carry the novel. Unfortunately, there's also a lot of magical A.I. and gods talking down at our hero which sinks the narrative like a stone.

    There's something to say about Richard K. Morgan: he finished his series. A Land Fit for Heroes wraps itself up in this novel. We find out what happens to every character, the world, and all of the major plots are resolved. With so many other books artificially extended or having uncertain futures, it's nice to have a book which really does answer all of the questions which needed answering. Unfortunately, it required a lot of filler to get to that point when the book could have been a 1/3rd less its size and lost nothing but padding.


Monday, May 22, 2017

Book Writing Update 5/22/2017

My current progress on multiple manuscripts:

Agent G: Saboteur (Agent G 2#): Complete and submitted to Amber Cove publishing. Jeffrey Kafer will be doing the audiobook. Cover complete.

Lucifer's Nebula (Lucifer's Star 2#): 41,000 Words (90K estimate for completed manuscript). Cover complete. Eric Burns will be doing the audiobook.

100' Miles and Vamping (Straight Outta Fangton 2#): 51,000 Words (65K estimate for completed manuscript). Cover complete.


The Kingdom of Supervillainy (Supervillainy Saga 5#): 11,900 Words (65K estimate for completed manuscript). No cover.

The Tree of Azathoth (Cthulhu Armageddon 3#): 17,000 Words (90K estimated word count at completion). This is a low priority at present because I want this one to be perfect but it is still in the works.


Wraith Lord (Wraith Knight 2#): Completed and submitted to Crossroad Press but held up by *grumble grumble* issues. No cover.

Eldtich Ops

Eldritch Ops. (Red Room 2#): Completed and ready for submission to Amber Cove but held up by *grumble grumble issues* Cover complete.

I have a few other irons in the fire as well with a YA sci-fi novel and a upcoming Lit-RPG space opera.

Beauty in Ruins: #SciFi Review: Lucifer’s Star by C.T. Phipps

Beauty in Ruins: #SciFi Review: Lucifer’s Star by C.T. Phipps: As opening scenes go, sci-fi doesn't get much better than this! Lucifer’s Star kicks off with a big, high-stakes, fast-paced battle t...

Friday, May 19, 2017

Ghosts of Tomorrow by Michael R. Fletcher review

    Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash remains the greatest cyberpunk novel ever written with it just barely nudging out Neuromancer in my opinion. I've written a cyberpunk novel, myself, with Agent G: Infiltrator and elements in my dark space opera Lucifers Star but I'm nowhere near the top of the genre. That might not be the case for Michael R. Fletcher who has written a cyberpunk novel that, if there's any justice in the world, should be ranked among those three as defining the genre. Which is high praise, I know, for a book primarily with a fourteen-year-old cowboy spider samurai assassin as one of its protagonists.

    Snow Crash was an affectionate parody of cyberpunk's excesses with a black samurai pizza boy who worked for the Italian mob and a 15-year-old Fedex girl with a sedative-equipped chastity belt. Ghosts of Tomororw, by contrast, embraces every one of the excesses of Neil Stephenson's book but manages to present them in a horrifying as well as tragic light. Many of the murderous cyborg killers in this book act like hyperactive overstimulated video-game addicted fourteen-year-olds. Which makes sense because they are hyperactive overstimulated video-game addicted fourteen-year-olds. They've just had their brains destroyed to make scans so the easily-indoctrinated child-soldiers can be unleashed on the rest of the world.

    The premise is humanity has become addicted to the use of scans as a substitute for still-undeveloped artificial intelligence. Scans are a process where a human brain is destroyed but their personality and intelligence is copied onto an electronic format. They're much faster than regular humans in piloting, managing business assets, and even serving as assassins but the demand for them is overwhelming. This has resulted in the mob and other organized crime syndicates start trafficking children to be killed in their preteen years by the thousands, providing society with the scans they don't question the origin of.

    Thankfully, not everyone is a monstrous psychopath and a few individuals are trying to curb the rampant child-murder. Griffin is a NATU (North American Trade Union) agent working with plucky reporter Nadia and a 17-year-old new combat-chassis-equipped scan named Abdul. Griffin failed in his first attempt to shut down a child slavery ring and has resolved to never do so again, no matter how much collateral damage gets in his way. Abdul is a man who "died" thanks to a spider-mine and has taken what form of survival he could but is going rapidly insane from the sensory deprivation his new life entails. Naida? Naida regurgitates the party line even though it's complete nonsense. These are the "good guys" on the case.

    The bad guys are Riina, a mid-level mafia boss who has murdered and scanned thousands of children with the belief he's doing the impoverished children of Third World Nations a favor. 88 is an autistic girl murdered as a pre-teen and turned into a digital goddess on the quest for a "mother" she barely remembers. There's Miles Lorkner, a billionaire who believes scans are the future of humanity and thus it's perfectly justified to murder however many people necessary to resolve the world's problems with them. Finally, there's Archaeidae who is the aforementioned fourteen-year-old cowboy spider samurai assassin--and a character so insane that he steals the show every time he's on page.

    It's difficult to say what character is my favorite as they're all so vividly realized. I really liked Griffin and Nadia's relationship despite them being the two most normal characters in the book. Abdul's existential angst is entirely justified since he's in a sensory-deprivation tank with the only purpose left to him being murder. 88 is also blissfully tragic and I sympathized with her even as her bodycount approaches five figures. I even liked reading about Lorkner's psychotic breakdown as it's clear the man envisioned himself as an ubermensch but is incredibly unprepared for life as a scan.

    The book is full of action, intrigue, murder, crazy situations, double-crosses, triple crosses, and allegiances shifting constantly. Every character is motivated and three-dimensional but all of them tend toward the extreme because it's an extreme world. However, the saddest part of the book is that it's depiction of thousands of children used up for scans every year is not so different from the same kinds of kids today being used up for other kinds of trafficking. We're not so far removed from the cyber-hell in the book and the only difference is we have less block-destroying battles between cyborgs.

    Which is a shame.