Category Archives: Is Our Writers Learning?

Back to where it began: rereading Storm Front

Jim Butcher’s first Harry Dresden novel, STORM FRONT  established urban fantasy as it’s now known — magical protagonists fighting evil in an urban environment. Before that I’d seen the term used for fantasy stories set in contemporary cities but nothing like what it means now. And while Butcher isn’t the first wizard PI, Glen Cook’s Garrett and Michael Reaves’ Darkworld Detective were operating in a fantasy setting, not contemporary America.

It’s noteworthy that Butcher spends the first few pages establishing the premise. A mailman sees the “Harry Dresden, Wizard” sign on Harry’s office door and makes some jokes. Harry explains that yes, he is a real wizard tackling magical matters — something anyone picking up an urban fantasy two decades later probably takes for granted.

After the light, expository start, things get serious. Murphy, Harry’s friend on the force, calls him in to investigate two people whose hearts were ripped from their breast during sex. Harry confirms that yes, it’s magical. There’s also a worried woman who wants Harry to find her missing husband. Complications ramp up fast. Johnny Marcone, the Chicago mob-master, warns Harry off Murphy’s case (if there was an explanation later in the book, I skimmed over it). One of the victims worked for a vampire running an escort service. A wizard who thinks Harry is a killer — Harry had to murder his mentor in self-defense years earlier — is convinced he’s behind whatever’s going on. The killer’s magic attacks on Harry get stronger and stronger.

It’s a really good book and holds up despite the boom in urban fantasy since. I’m not sure if the plot ties together perfectly but it moves fast enough I don’t mind. My only real issue is that Harry’s a sexist jerk who feels women are beautiful flowers who should be sheltered and cared for accordingly, even someone as tough as Murphy. The book (and the characters) keep calling Harry on his sexism but as I’ve said before, that’s not good enough.

I was reading this to get a better handle on urban fantasy as a genre in relation to Southern Discomfort and Impossible Takes a Little Longer (you can see some of my past reading on those lines here). The first thing I noticed is that it’s very much in the hardboiled PI vein. Harry’s a loner (though unlike Raymond Chandler’s heroes he has a very large supporting cast), largely isolated from the police and almost as cut off from the wizarding world. His friendship with Murphy is a tenuous one as there are things he can’t tell her. The worried wife who hires him has a hidden agenda. There’s nasty stuff going on below the surface of Chicago and not everyone’s what they seem. And yes, the wife hiring him ties into the big murder case.

Another is that after the low-key opening, things get tense — the bloody murder doesn’t hurt — and keep getting tenser. Harry’s unable to tell Murphy everything because of wizard rules, which makes her increasingly hostile and unhelpful. Initially the focus is on the mystery; then, as he gets a few clues, the personal attacks start. They elevate in intensity until at the climax Harry is dealing with the wizard’s attacks, plus some giant scorpions, plus a demon. By the time of the recent Peace Talk, Harry’s suffered from the same kind of power creep as Superman, so nothing less than a demigod can take him down. Here, though, everything’s still manageable.

Unlike Date With Death and Crossroads of Bones (see the list-link above), the tension doesn’t fade away when Harry gets involved with Susan, a tabloid reporter interested him as both a story and a guy. Harry’s apartment is under attack and he’s dragged Susan inside a protective circle. Unfortunately she’s downed a love potion Harry made (not for unethical reasons) and now Harry’s having to fend her off while also fending off the mage attacks.

As I’ve commented before, I’m not sure much of this will help with Southern Discomfort because it’s more urban fantasy-adjacent than UF itself. But it does make me think I’m on the right track in my Impossible rewrite: tighter plot (not everything coming together), more mystery, rising threat levels. So it was worth the time, aside from my enjoyment.

#SFWApro. Cover by Lee Macleod, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Is Our Writers Learning? Abbott by Saladin Ahmed

It’s a common complaint that bringing in writers from other fields (TV, novels) to write comics doesn’t work well (case in point, Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis). They may be good but comics is a different medium and they can’t always pull it off.

In ABBOTT, fantasy novelist Saladin Ahmed (with art by Sami Kivela) shows it can be done, though this works better as a period historical thriller than a fantasy. Spoilers follow.

Elena Abbott is a chain-smoking (I often complain about how stories set in the past underestimate the amount of smoking there was. Not this one) reporter in 1972 Detroit. Abbott is black in a racially tense city. She’s also an independent, self-supporting woman (divorced her cheating husband a while back) and bisexual (her former lover plays a supporting role). Abbott has also made a lot of enemies because on top of the city’s regular racial decisions she recently covered the unjustified police killing of a black man, which goes over as badly then as it does today. Her boss sticks up for her but the paper’s board wants her gone.

In the opening chapter the police are investigating the killing and butchering of a stolen horse. They’re blaming the Black Panthers which Abbott points out is ridiculous. At a murder with a mutilated black corpse, Abbott sees visions of shadowy creatures, which reminds her of the equally unnatural murder of her first husband, Samir. It turns out there’s a supernatural force behind it, the Umbra shadow power. It’s agent is Professor Bellcamp, a member of Detroit’s white elite who believes this shallow, materialistic age needs a kick to the head which his dark power will provide.

What struck me about this is that there’s not a lot of period detail compared to what I like to put in or to Max Allan Collins’ First Quarry. The story could easily be shifted to the present and hardly change anything (well, the smoking). But it still worked for me as a historical piece, perhaps because it has echoes of blacksploitation 1970s films — Abbott could easily be a Pam Grier character. Ahmed deals with the ugly racist and sexist sides of the past much better than I could — I’m just not comfortable writing so many racist or sexist characters as we see here.

Surprisingly given Ahmed’s a fantasy writer, that side of the book is less interesting than the mundane stuff. Abbott is a Chosen One, the Lightbringer who must stand against the Umbra. Bellcamp is a pompous villain whose philosophical statements about society and why he yearns to destroy it just sound idiotic — not that there’s anything wrong with an idiot villain, but I kept wishing he’d shut his yap. And the villains go down awfully easily, without Abbott even stepping into her Lightbringer status.

Despite the flaws, still well worth reading.

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Is Our Writers Learning? A Date With Death by S.C. Stokes

A DATE WITH DEATH is a prequel to the Conjuring a Coroner series by S.C. Stokes, about coroner and unregistered with Kasey Chase. We meet Kasey going about her job, then she’s called in to autopsy the body of Lester Harrington, suddenly deceased gazillionaire. It’s off the books because Harrington’s right hand and estate manager, Vincent, doesn’t want any publicity shining on the family; in return, under-the-table payments will pad out Kasey’s department budget (her boss is down with this).

It soon becomes clear Harrington was murdered, probably by one of his five kids. And his will leaves everything, tontine-style, to the last child to remain alive, an incentive for lots more murder. While the opening of the book is insanely info-dumpy (I really didn’t need to know Kasey’s backstory and magical nature in this much detail up front), the old-school mystery set-up looked promising. Unfortunately it rapidly descends into a mass of generic magical battles that left me underwhelmed. Plus the killer was precisely who I pegged early on — this is one of those books where the least likely suspect really is the murderer.

Still, in light of my ongoing study of urban fantasy for improving Southern Discomfort and Impossible Takes a Little Longer the book did get me thinking how much urban fantasies seem to revolve around mystery. The villain’s identity, and their endgame. That has me wondering whether Southern Discomfort, where Gwalchmai spills much of the beans up front, would benefit by cutting out much of his viewpoint. Not all — he provides a lot of information you can’t get any other way — but reducing his appearances would add to the mystery aspect. It might be worth trying. Impossible already has a strong mystery set-up.

So I shall throw that thought into the mental mill and see what happens when I grind it.

#SFWApro. Couldn’t find cover credits, but rights to the image remain with current holders.

 

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Is Our Writers Learning: Crossroads of Bones by Luanne Bennett

As you may recall, one of the Southern Discomfort rejections I got last year recommended reading more urban fantasy (I’m also applying the lessons to Impossible Takes a Little Longer). So here’s my latest attempts, CROSSROADS OF BONES: A Katie Bishop Novel by Luanne Bennett (cover by Deranged Doctor Design).

Katie is a recent transplant to Savannah, GA, from NYC, a tattoo artist running a studio with two employees, Sea Bass and Mouse. She’s also half-dragon, a heritage that normally manifests as a spectacular back tattoo. If she’s aroused, endangered or stressed, however, her inner dragon wants to come out and play.

The plot kickoff is a creepy customer who demands a very precise tattoo. It turns out he’s a demon-god or rather one half of a demon-god imprisoned by the local magical council. Somehow part of him got out and the tattoo helps him manifest. If he can get his other half out, he’ll be unstoppable. The council figures that he’ll inevitably come to Katie, and that as the one responsible for releasing him she has an obligation to help put the demon back in the bottle.

I enjoyed this one, certainly more than the last urban fantasy I studied. It’s a pleasant read with some cute touches such a tribe of shifters who become inanimate objects. The biggest weakness is that much like the previous book, the suspense and looming threat stops dead when Katie goes on a date with the male lead — suddenly they have the time for a lovely romantic idyll. It doesn’t help that I didn’t buy Katie’s instant attraction to the guy at all. He seemed like such an obnoxious jerk I assumed her sudden lust indicated he was an incubus or something. I concede that’s partly personal taste — I hate arrogant jerk alpha-male romantic leads — but not entirely.

The second biggest problem is that Katie is too passive a protagonist. She doesn’t act on her own initiative most of the time, she’s pushed into it by someone else — the council, the demon, her boyfriend. And her dragon side plays much less of a role than I expected, which is a little unsatisfying.

So what did I learn? Like most of the other UF I’ve been reading since the feedback, there’s a lot of emphasis on community. Katie’s friends and employees play a large role in the story even if they’re not on the front line; her boyfriend and the members of the mages’ council do too. This seems to be the norm for UF; even loners actually have a large supporting cast. That’s a plus for Impossible — KC’s friends and community are a big part of the story — but maybe not for Southern Discomfort. There’s a community but Maria, my protagonist, isn’t part of it. She does make a friend but the community doesn’t open its heart to her, nor vice versa.

Maria is also pushed around a lot, but I think she pushes back and tries to assert herself more than Katie, even if it’s only by running away. In some ways Joan would make a more typical lead: she’s part of the Pharisee community and she’s determined to fight, but I still prefer Maria. And because I use multiple POVs, neither one will work as a first-person narrator, which seems to be the UF norm.

There’s also enough exposition here to make me wonder if I overreacted keeping it trimmed down in Southern Discomfort. There’s a more in Impossible, but hopefully both interesting enough and not done to excess that it won’t turn the readers off. I will say that despite Bennett pulling the old “my character is new to this milieu so that excuses lots of exposition” I didn’t find myself turned off as I often do.

Another thing that struck me is that, even aside from the romantic break, the pace here is relatively leisurely. I don’t mean that as a criticism but one of the comments on Southern Discomfort was that the pace was too laid back — urban fantasy requires more urgency and tension. While there is plenty of urgency and tension, there’s still a lot of that epic fantasy introduce-us-to-the-world leisure; if Harry Dresden is a hardboiled PI, Katie Bishop’s more a cozy protagonist. Which isn’t a criticism, just a difference. I’m sure there’s an insight I can gain for improving Southern Discomfort but I’m not sure what it is yet.

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From a trailer park to Chicago: two books

BLESS YOUR HEART: Fairy Tales of a Trailer Park Queen I by Kimbra Swain is an urban fantasy whose protagonist, Grace, is a fae royal in exile, currently living in an Alabama trailer park. Under the orders of this mythos’ magical council, the Sanhedrin (I have no idea why a magical body composed mostly of fae would pick a distinctively Jewish name) she helps out local law enforcement so she and top cop Dylan Riggs wind up investigating the supernatural murder of two kids, plus dealing with their relationship.

This one didn’t work for me. No sooner do we visit the crime scene, which Grace declares the most horrible thing she’s ever seen than she and Dylan take several chapters to discuss their relationship. I’m fine with this being a fantasy romance but the juxtaposition didn’t work. Nor did one big reveal which I won’t go into. And Grace doesn’t feel particularly fae — if she were a wizard or a djinn it wouldn’t have changed much.

CLARK AND DIVISION by Naomi Hirahira works very well. It’s 1944 and Nisei protagonist Aki Ito and her family have just been released from Manzanar and sent to Chicago (the government doesn’t want Those People back in California). Aki’s adored older sister, Rose, went on ahead to set things up but by the time Aki and her parents arrive, Rose is dead. The police consider it a suicide, possibly linked to her getting an abortion.

Aki can’t believe it so she begins moving through the Japanese-American community in Chicago, and sometimes the white world, trying to find answers. The mystery works and didn’t play out as I expected, but the real pull is the setting. A world of Nisei and Issei (Japanese-born Americans) uprooted from their homes, needing work but having a hard time finding it, dealing with racism and wondering about their friends or family still in the camps or fighting in Europe with the 442nd Nisei. Hirahira knows her stuff — she collected oral histories of post-camp life for a nonfiction book — and it shows.

As it’s Halloween, rather than post a book cover, here’s an unrelated but spooky one by Joseph Eberle.#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder.

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The pandemic from space: thoughts on reading “The Andromeda Strain”

THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN was the book that catapulted Michael Crichton on the best-seller lists, a science fiction novel for people who don’t read science fiction. As I’m including a discussion of the movie in Alien Visitors, I reread the novel for the first time, probably, since it came out.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the novel concerns a satellite gathering xenobacteria as possible bio-weapons. When it crashes to Earth in a small town of less than 70 people, the men who found it take it to the town doctor, who opens it. By the time the military two-man collection crew arrives, everyone’s dead. The two soldiers die too. Their alarmed CO triggers a Wildfire alert, a special protocol for dealing with extraterrestrial threats of this sort. A crew of four scientists assembles at the cutting-edge Wildfire lab to figure out what caused the deaths, and why two people — a baby and an aging wino — survived. And, of course, how to prevent whatever it is from spreading.

The novel, like much of Crichton’s later fiction, is insanely talky. He constantly info-dumps about the amazing technology, the computers, the biology of the Andromeda infestation, the methods of research. There’s almost no characterization to distinguish the four doctors (Stone, Leavitt, Hall and Dutton) other than Hall being single (significant to the plot). There are several little points where the book feels off: the assumption that Andromeda will grow if fed nuclear radiation seems to come out of nowhere; repeated assertions the team made small mistakes don’t apparently lead anywhere. Nevertheless, the book worked. It established Crichton on the A-list and he stayed there consistently for the rest of his long career (which led to movies including Jurassic Park and Westworld plus less successful films such as Rising Sun). I enjoyed it too, though I can’t remember my reactions in detail (if I’d loved it I’d probably have a much stronger memory of it).

Much as writers, editors and reviewers talk about “show don’t tell,” I’m not so sure readers give a crap. This book is very, very “tell” but obviously it didn’t hurt it. It probably helps that Crichton’s not telling about his characters love lives or careers but about interesting, extremely cool science and tech stuff. And in a situation where an extraterrestrial pandemic could break out at any second. It’s not a new thought but if you embed a lot of info-dumping into an intriguing story, it’s much easier to get away with, particularly if it’s interesting info-dumps (case in point, Airport). That it dealt with outer space didn’t hurt — the space race was one of the coolest things going on in the 1960s.

The movie still has a lot of telling but it moves smoother than the book. More important, it makes the scientists into individuals, enhanced by capable actors (director Robert Wise picked less well known actors, figuring it would help the realism). Stone (Arthur Hill) is the leader, a wealthy establishment guy. Judging from Dutton’s (David Wayne) home he’s much more middle-class and more liberal; his family are very upset he’s going to work for the “germ warfare people.” James Olson plays Hall as a smartass, a cynic and a bit of a womanizer. Kate Reid as Leavitt — in the book it’s a man — is tart-tongued and dour. In the book Leavitt avoids flashing red lights (they trigger his epilepsy) claiming they remind him of his ambulance work in WW II. In the movie Leavitt quips about working a brothel in the red light district.

On the whole, the movie is one of the rare ones that improves on the source novel.

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R’Lyeh vs. New York City: NK Jemisin’s “The City We Became.”

THE CITY WE BECAME by NK Jemisin opens with a hot-tempered street artist, homeless, black and gay. The avatar of the city of Så0 Paolo contacts him to explain he’s the avatar of New York City, which is now becoming sentient, and that the Enemy will object, so the avatar has to prepare for battle.

After the opening scene, we cut to an amnesiac, newly arrived in Manhattan, who winds up fighting off an incursion by a Lovecraftian horror; the amnesiac, it turns out is the avatar of Manhattan. A short while later, he and his new roommate are attacked by the Women in White, an avatar of the same horror. Only not physically — she pulls the trick of reporting them as men of color (and gay men no less) threatening her! The Enemy has more than one method of waging war.

In subsequent chapters we meet the avatars of Brooklyn (woman rapper turned politician), the Bronx (sixtysomething lesbian and street artist), Queens (Indian-American math whiz) and Staten Island (racist white woman who hates living with her abusive dad but can’t bring herself to face the imagined horrors of the rest of New York). The amnesiac is Manhattan. It turns out that because NYC is NYC, one avatar wasn’t enough; the different boroughs have their own manifestations, but if they can’t learn to work together and revive the initial avatar, they’re doomed. The Woman in White is the avatar of R’lyeh, and because human cities achieving sentience wreaks havoc in other dimensions, she’s determined New York’s new avatars must die Which would be extremely bad. As in Atlantis bad.

I read this as part of my ongoing research in response to that Southern Discomfort feedback, but it’s an excellent book in its own right. My only complaints are a)the Woman in White’s dialogue is sometimes creepy as hell (the early scene I mentioned) but other times it’s generic power-mad supervillain (we humans are nothing but amoebas compared to her!). And while I don’t dispute that New York is more multiple cities than a single one, I wonder if it’s that unique — would people from Sao Paolo roll their eyes at being told they can be represented by one avatar? Heck, even the part of the Florida Panhandle where I used to live sees plenty of differences between communities (Destin’s for rich snobs and retirees, DeFuniak Springs is for the rednecks, etc.). But those are minor quibbles.

Like Southern Discomfort this is very much a setting story. As you’ve probably gathered, it’s all about the Big Apple and what makes the Bronx the Bronx and Staten Island Staten Island, and the tensions within the communities. Braca, the Bronx avatar, has to deal with a bunch of smirking white male artists who deliberately troll her gallery with racist-themed art, then go online to rant about how they’re oppressed because Braca wouldn’t accept their work (leading the woman’s sidekick to describe them as “Cthulhu’s tentacled fuckbois.”).

It’s also interesting to see how Jemisin makes the opening compelling even when not a lot is happening. She still makes the scene tense because the avatar is tense. He’s sitting in a fancyrestaurant, conscious that he’s the only black man there, that everyone’s checking him out, that his clothes are threadbare. There’s a lot of internal monologue but Jemisin can even make that interesting.

Like Southern Discomfort this also has multiple narrators, though nowhere near as many as I go through.

Overall I don’t know that I learned anything useful, but it was a terrific book I’d have read anyway.

#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder; jacket art by arcangel

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Is Our Writers Learning? Black Water Sister, by Zen Cho (with spoilers)

Continuing to study urban fantasy in response to that feedback … I enjoyed Zen Cho’s BLACK WATER SISTER (cover by Tiffany Estreicher) but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with it (and didn’t like it as much as Sorcerer to the Crown and The True Queen). Part of that is that it’s a New Adult book: Chinese-American protagonist Jessamyn is an Ivy League graduate whose career dreams have crashed and burned (I never quite got why) so she’s moved back in with her parents. She’s also a lesbian with a girlfriend bit hasn’t come out to her folks yet. Now she’s heading back home with them to Penang in Malaysia where her father, recently recovered from cancer, is getting a job with his Chinese-Malaysian family.

Much like coming-of-age novels, the mid-twenties crisis is a turnoff for me. Things pick up as it turns out Jess is haunted by Ah Ma, the ghost of her maternal grandmother whom she never met. Ah Ma was a medium and servant of a local deity, Black Water Sister. A local big-shot developer with mob ties is planning to pave over the temple where the goddess’s altar sits; Ah Ma wants Jess to help derail this.

This, of course, proves much harder and more dangerous than it looks. The developer has no qualms about having obstacles like Jess rubbed out. Ah Ma is a nasty piece of work, a criminal in life herself, with no qualms about using her granddaughter. Jess has medium abilities herself and Black Water Sister wants Jess as her new high priestess (not how they phrase it in Malaysia, but that’s the concept).  And Jess’s girlfriend is convinced by Jess’s sudden lack of communication and reluctance to leave her parents that it’s all over.

The Malaysian elements are absolutely fascinating, particularly the rhythm of people’s speech. I really like Jess’s parents as characters: a lot of first-generation Americans get stock types for parents (traditionalist mother, affable father) but this couple feel like individuals, not generic. The developer’s son is a good character too, a seemingly nice guy but not strong enough to be genuinely nice when Daddy needs him.

On the negative side, Jess’s girlfriend is virtually a cipher, much less fleshed out than the parents. Jess herself is too passive, either threatened by the bad guys or used as a tool of Ah Ma and Black Water Sister. There’s one point where she forces a meeting with the developer that she shows some drive to control her own fate, otherwise she just keeps telling Ah Ma “no” while slowly wearing down. Black Water Sister’s fate — free her from the trauma she carried over from when she was a mortal — is a stock ghost-story trope and it left me unsatisfied. So did the ending in which Jess finally decides to out herself to her parents, but we don’t see their reaction. I get the point — the book starts with Jess completely adrift and ends with her finding direction — but I really hoped her parents would be able to deal and I’m disappointed not to know.

What I learned: This novel doesn’t start with much at stake, but it makes up for it by Jess’s emotional state. She’s frustrated, full of doubt, thrown into a culture she doesn’t know (her parents left Malaysia when she was very small) and generally miserable. Which is certainly true of Maria in Southern Discomfort (she’s also pushed around but tries harder than Jess to get away), but she doesn’t come in until Chapter Two. I’ve considered making that the start, but I’m not sure the novel would work without the backstory and the relationships established in Chapter One. I’ll think about it again, though.

Then there’s Impossible Takes a Little Longer. The opening has some life-and-death stuff going on, but then it slows down quite a bit, as some of my writing group have pointed out when I read parts of it. As it isn’t finished yet, this may be easier to fix than to rewrite Southern Discomfort.

So a useful read, and, overall, a good one despite the bits I didn’t like.

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Is Our Writers Learning? Two books

Continuing to read fantasy with an eye to that feedback on Southern Discomfort I got a while ago.

BLACK SUN: Between Earth and Sky Book One by Rebecca Roanhorse worked for me even though I don’t normally like epic fantasy. Part of that is the strong characters, par the setting (based on pre-Columbian North America). Also, unlike a lot of epic fantasy, sharing info about the worldbuilding didn’t become tedious as I often find it.

The book opens with a woman, over the opposition of her husband, performing some kind of magic ritual on her son, including sewing his eyes shut. We then jump forward some years to start with Xiala, a female smuggler of a matriarchal society widely feared for their sea magic. She’s recruited to carry a mysterious passenger to Tova, one of the world’s great cities, using her powers to control the weather and get the boat across the open sea (like many sailors in ancient times, sticking close to the coast is preferred).

Meanwhile, in Tova, we meet Naranpa, current high priest of the sun. She’s risen from the bottom dregs of society to lead a priesthood much less powerful than it used to be. Some think she doesn’t deserve the gig …

The book is third-person POV, usually close up and that’s how we get our exposition: people reflecting on their past, current politics, their relationships. This can easily turn heavy handed but Roanhorse makes it work. And when it works it’s much less tedious than working into conversations (as in Black Wolves which I found insufferable).  That I liked it gives me confidence in Southern Discomfort‘s exposition, as I went much the same way (which is not to say I’ll do it as well, of course).

While the feedback on my book mentioned epic fantasy having a slower pace and starting with lower stakes, I don’t find Black Sun‘s pace slow: the tension is high from the first. However it is much more personal stakes — Naranpa’s political struggles, Xiala dealing with her crew — even though it’s clear as we go along that the stakes are rising.

DIE AND STAY DEAD by Nicholas Kaufmann, by contrast, ups the stakes very quickly. This sequel to Dying Is My Business opens with the amnesiac thief Trent and his friends saving a woman from a mage/serial killer sacrificing them to his kid. The killer knows something bad is coming and he hopes his demon-deity will save him. It’s action packed, then after Trent gets the woman home, we get some mystery (she’s worried about someone else stalking her). When Trent goes back to see her the next day, she’s been killed, cruelly.

We learn early on the stakes are high. Twenty years ago a cult tried to summon a demon prince to destroy the world. They botched the job and died instead … except one. Now he’s putting together the mystic McGuffin that will enable him to complete the work. Trent & Co. have to beat the villain to the McGuffin, but Trent’s distracted by a beautiful woman who recognizes him — is this his chance to get a life back?

The book is enjoyable and I’m sorry V3 isn’t in the pipeline (Kaufmann says sales were to low for his publisher). It’s biggest flaw is that there are two big reveals, both of which were obvious well in advance. That may have been intentional (one of them is so very, very obvious) but it didn’t work for me.

There’s a lot of exposition here too, even in the slam-bang opening chapter. However it is slam-bang, where Southern Discomfort is a political strategy session (and an unrelated personal discussion) interrupted by murder. Not slam-bang.

The Impossible Takes a Little Longer is better in that respect as the opening chapter involves KC preventing a ritual sacrifice. It’s tense (I hope). However things in the current draft slow down considerably for the next couple of chapters, something I’ll have to think about when I go back to the book (probably not until after Alien Visitors is done).

Another thing that occurs to me is that urban fantasy tends to go considerably wilder than Southern Discomfort does. Kaufmann’s book has mages, demons, Trent, vampires, zombies and necromancers. The world has a hidden, magical history. Southern Discomfort is closer in some ways to intrusion fantasy — one piece of magic intruding into a nonmagical reality (Impossible is a good deal more colorful).

So the reading was useful. And fun to boot.

#SFWApro. Cover illustrations by John Picasio (top) and Chris McGrath (bottom)

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Is Our Writers Learning? Pax Demonica by Julie Kenner

As I mentioned a while back, the editor who rejected Southern Discomfort suggested I read more urban fantasy. Perhaps she has a point because reading Julie Kenner’s PAX DEMONICA I discovered it shows exactly the kind of pacing problems she said I had (and in discussing them, there will be lots of spoilers. Be warned).

I didn’t expect that when I ordered the book because I love the Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom series. Kate Conner is Buffy with the serial numbers filed off, an orphan trained by the Catholic Church for Forza, the demon-hunting fellowship. By the start of the first book, she’s retired, married with a kid and her adventuring days are long behind her. Then the demons start returning … but after V5, Demon Ex Machina, her published killed the series. Kenner went on to other stuff but realized a few years ago that self-publishing was an option.

At the end of the previous book, Kate had a number of questions about Forza, such as how Eric, her dead first love and father of her daughter Allie wound up alive and possessed by a demon. They’re off to Forza’s Rome headquarters to get some answers. It’s a tense trip as Stuart, Kate’s husband, briefly walked out on Kate when he got the whole story about her side hustle.

Adding to the tension: demons attacking Kate demanding a McGuffin of some sort. A girl showing up who claims to be Kate’s cousin (Kate’s an orphan with no knowledge of her birth family).  Kate discovering she comes from a long lineage of Forza demon slayers. Eric’s warning that she shouldn’t trust anyone in Rome.

It turns out the McGuffin is a key that can bring on the apocalypse, literally bringing hell to Earth. Some of the demons are on humanity’s side in wanting to stop it: they like possessing mortal forms so they’re opposed to their fellows who simply want to destroy the world. Despite their assistance, the destruction demons get the key and open the gate to Hell. Kate and Co. figure out the gate’s location, rush to it, and discover that Allie has inherited some of Eric’s demon side — enough that her human/demon blood can close the gate. The world is saved!

It’s a solid plot, but the execution is imbalanced. Despite the demon attacks, the first three-quarters of the book spend way too much time on personal stuff: Kate rejoicing in being back in Rome, Allie pushing against her parents to go off and explore, sightseeing (a running gag is that they never actually make it to the tourist destinations. It should have been funnier than it was), Kate and Stuart rebuilding their relationship. All of which is typical for this series, but normally the threat level is high enough to balance it out. Not this time.

Instead we get the threat jumping to omega level in the last quarter. Backed up by a lot of exposition to rationalize how the Conners, Kate’s cousin and the McGuffin all showed up in Rome at the same time. It was too much exposition for such a small portion of the book, and Eric’s warning never pays off. Even the Forza priests who put a demon in him were doing so with an eye to his future child sealing the gates.

Which is a minor complaint: the book’s rosy view of the Catholic Church feels like the equivalent of “copaganda.” Not that every story with a Catholic priest has to make him a pedophile (Southern Discomfort has a perfectly decent priest) or that every nun runs one of the Magdalene laundries. It’s nowhere near as bad as Tarn Richardson whitewashing the Inquisition in The Fallen but it still feels like Forza should have had a little bit of a dark side.

I must admit, if Southern Discomfort made the editor feel as disappointed as Pax Demonica made me, I’m not surprised she rejected it.

#SFWApro. Cover by the Killion Group, all rights remain with current holder.

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