David B. Coe’s ‘The Outlanders’ and its Wonderful, Timely Message

Fantasy readers arthe_outlanders-ebooksite-200x300e lucky to have David B. Coe, because he possesses enough talent to succeed in any genre of writing, and nowhere is that more apparent than in The Outlanders. This book also contains an important theme, which made it a comforting read as a venomous election cycle came to an end.

The tricky part of writing genre fiction is making the same old plots seem fresh and new. Readers are quick to toss aside any book that seems too familiar. Then, of course, we’ll throw the next one away for not being familiar enough. We fantasy readers are a demanding lot, but, fortunately, Coe knows what he’s doing.

The Outlanders  succeeds the outstanding novel The Children of Amarid, and in this sequel the author faces the challenge of writing about a modern world that exists alongside a magical one. Coe is very good at world-building, and this story gives fantasy readers two worlds for the price of one. But the real heart of the tale is found in its people, and, as Coe knows, that is the secret to making any story a good one.

The novel opens with a simple scene: a woman is looking at a piece of paper. Sonel, the leader of a magical order, has received correspondence from the neighboring, modernized society–the first formal communication between their peoples. The contents of the letter are bland, boilerplate,  but Sonel is struck by the paper, which she barely has words to describe:

The paper itself was a message. Immaculately white, its edges were as straight
as sunbeams, its corners so sharp they seemed capable of drawing blood…Yet, despite the distance it had traveled, it came rolled in a precise, narrow cylinder and tied with a shining, golden ribbon of silk.  Indeed, it looked so elegant, so unnatural in its perfection, that Sonel had known before she read the terse response to her own letter of several months before, what the flawless, ornate lettering would say. She pictured her own note, embarrassed at the thought of how it must have appeared to its recipients. She had used the best parchment available to her, had employed the
most skilled scribe in Amarid, and had tied her letter with the fine, blue satin
used for all of the Order’s communications. But compared with this missive
from Lon-Ser, her image of that first letter seemed to wither and fade. In her
memory the parchment looked dingy and rough-edged, the lettering coarse and
uneven, the blue satin crude and inadequate. The letter from Lon-Ser’s leaders
made a mockery of her effort.

Hoping to stop a pending invasion, a mage named Orris ventures into this modernized land, bringing his mystical gift to people who no longer believe in magic. Orris isn’t exactly a diplomat, to say the least, and his struggles to understand an advanced society are evenly matched by his lack of charm. His presence as a mage is seen as a threat by a local ruler, and Orris quickly finds himself hunted by the most dangerous men in the land while looking for a way to save his home from war.

The story of two cultures clashing as their inevitable collision draws near is captivating, but the real story is how this conflict affects the characters back home. Unable to agree on exactly how to deal with this new threat, the mages, sworn to protect their lands, are bitterly divided. You can’t help but feel frustrated as our protagonists’ noble efforts are swallowed up in bureaucracy and prejudice. I wanted to scream at the characters and tell them to just get up and walk away, washing their hands of the nasty affair.

Fortunately, the characters in this book are better people than that. No amount of bullying or mockery will turn our hero, Baden, from his goal of keeping the order of mages together and unified. Baden refuses to demonize his political opponents or return their mockery, and he also insists that the discovery of their technologically advanced neighbors should be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat. Baden fights the good fight to the end, always steadfast in his belief that these different people, if they will work together, can move forward to something better.

And that’s a lesson we could all stand to learn.

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Stay gold, Owl-Master

Check out David. B. Coe’s site to read more about The Outlanders, and the anticipated new edit he’s releasing for us. It’s wonderful when a writer has the opportunity to revisit an established work and give it a fresh look.

Frederick Turner’s Apocalypse is My Favorite So Far

A book titled Apocalypse: An Epic Poem isn’t something you run into every day, but neither is its author, Frederick Turner, who, among other things, writes science fiction epics in the form of long poems.

Frederick’s biography reads like a character from a book. An Oxford educated man who grew up in Africa. He met J.R.R. Tolkien. Alongside Carl Sagan, he advised NASA on issues like terraforming. As a poet, he has been nominated for the Nobel prize numerous times. He teaches karate. The number of works attributed him is a dizzying list that would make even established scholars feel inadequate.

I recall meeting him at a party, where our conversation turned to the theory of evolution; we shared an uplifting discussion of the way that Darwinism, in our opinion, fits in quite well with religion, like a hand to a glove.

His fiction is absolutely fascinating. Apocalypse: An Epic Poem is 10,000 lines of perfect iambic pentameter, telling a captivating story about the end of the world, along with illuminating insights about philosophy and humanity. The story is often the sort of “hard” sci-fi that leans on Turner’s scientific knowledge (he’s probably the first poet to use the name Chandrasekhar in iambic verse). But for every step he takes in the rugged real world, another foot is firmly planted in the ideal, the thoughtful lyricism of contemplation and beauty.  One line may reminisce on a finer point of ethnobiology while the next may invoke a song lyric, or a religious text, all with flawless, enchanting delivery.

Frederick Turner’s style is notable for its faithful adherence to the rules of poetry. This is not the free-formed, arhythmic verse that has become so fashionable, with passages on existential angst floating alone on nearly empty pages. No, Turner’s work follows simple, straightforward patterns, and in doing so he demonstrates how following the form frees the words, and frees the imagination, rather than holding anything back. The lines of his epic poem flow effortlessly, and the passages are captivating for their wordplay as much as for their content.

Read more about it from Turner himself, in a post titled Apocalypse Is Here, And It May Be More Fun Than You’d Think.

And check out Apocalypse on Amazon.

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‘The Other Wind’ by Ursula K. Le Guin

It can’t be said enough: Le Guin’s writing is amazing.

I just read The Other Wind, the last Earthsea novel. Le Guin pieces together nearly unremarkable clauses into unforgettable tapestries, writing with every bit of subtle power one would expect from the words of Hemingway.

Observe:

Tehanu was off her horse, had tossed the reins to Yenay, was walking forward down the slight slope to where the dragon hovered, its long wings beating quick and short like a hovering hawk’s. But these wings were fifty feet from tip to tip, and as they beat they made a sound like kettledrums or rattles of brass. As she came closer to it, a little curl of fire escaped from the dragon’s long, long-toothed, open mouth.

She held up her hand. Not the slender brown hand but the burned one, the claw. The scarring of her arm and shoulder kept her from raising it fully. She could reach barely as high as her head.

I read this scene like a kid watching a scary movie, edging off of the couch and letting food fall out of my mouth as I read on, praying for Tehanu as I turned the page.

It’s a short book, but it has everything. So often I feel like I have to sacrifice my desire for good writing in order to read a good story, but once in a while someone can do both.

Old Favorites: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, by Patricia A. McKillip

Rachel Neumeier got me thinking with her blog entry about bringing out the best old books into the spotlight, because I love telling people about The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.
It’s from 1974, and it’s a real gem. The writing style has the mythic weightiness similar to Ursula K. Le Guin’s prose, with every sentence feeling like a fragment of a dark, ancient legend. The magic in the story is beautiful and fascinating. The scenes are as exciting as they are intimate.
Overall, it’s a very thoughtful book, and it features an unforgettable heroin. For a fantasy story, I really think it was ahead of its time in terms of writing style and character complexity. It’s hard to find a better book.
The best part is how well The Forgotten Beasts of Eld holds up over time. Whenever I pour myself into those old pages (my copy is older than I am and pretty well-traveled) I get sucked into the mystery and the magic all over again. Not a lot of books can keep giving like that.

Anyone Else Sleep Better During Storms?

Thunder feels like home.

I’m from the country, a little place that’s only marked by a single sign that you might see going in our out. (It says “Caviness.”) As a boy, one of my favorite things was watching the clouds outside my window during storms. And, let me tell you, we had some storms.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the storm activity in that area is unusually high. I’ve failed to find any record of this, but locals will tell you what I learned over the years: there’s an abundance of lightning in my home town.

I remember visiting home a few years ago and asking my dad why there was so much thunder. A crack every two seconds for more than half an hour is unusual, right? My dad laughed and said I’d been away too long.

On my vacation last year, the wife and I stayed in a train car that had been converted into a hotel room. (Sort of. I think it was a work in progress.) A metal train car. And there was a storm of epic proportions that evening that was really loud for those of us sleeping in a big tin can. Rain hit the walls of that train car like a million hammers falling on us, lightning lit up windows on every side, and thunder rattled the walls and shook the ground.

I slept like a baby.

During the recent string of Texas storms I had warm memories of home when I could hear the thunder growling as it approached, knowing it would end in a loud bang. I know it’s strange, but it makes me feel relaxed. I’ve fallen asleep in a hundred big, loud storms. Like a sailor who keeps steady legs during a squall, I’ve learned to relax to the sounds of rolling thunder and even sleep to it.

Of course, it doesn’t work that way for everyone else in my home. When there’s a whipcrack of thunder my wife is shocked out of bed, throwing off the covers and looking exactly like this:

Well, it’s probably more like this:

Or, more accurately:

My wife’s cat gets really scared. He sometimes flattens himself out in a corner, trying to get as low to the ground as possible. He won’t react to anything we say or do; he only whimpers. I’ve seen him stay that way, absolutely petrified, for hours after a storm.

Even I feel sorry for him. So would you.

So everyone’s in a panic at my place during these legendary Texas storms. Everyone but me, snoring away and finally getting some good rest.

The Little People I Discovered in Chattanooga, Tennessee

On my last trip, the wife and I visited Tennessee and everyone told me I was tall. Even though I’ve been getting that comment all of my life, It happened a lot more often during this trip.  Maybe in Texas people are expected to be huge, I don’t know, but I felt like a sideshow attraction. Being a frustrated writer, I had to come up with a more fun explanation.

So, allow me to show you our trip and also let you in on a little secret I learned.

 

We stayed in a Victorian era train car that had been converted into a hotel room. It’s smaller than it looks, and I banged my head on many things. The water from the showerhead hit me square in the belly. Washing my face wasn’t easy.
I’M AN ELEPHANT IN YOUR TINY SHOWER!

We went to Ruby Falls, which is a huge, underground waterfall. It’s very neat. For some reason, every Baby Boomer in our tour group felt like they needed to photograph every square inch of the place with their phones and tablets. Sure, their generation likes to complain about “those darned kids and their cell phones,” but they were the ones holding us up at every turn.

But, more importantly, the caverns leading to the waterfall aren’t very tall.

Fun.
 Along the way, we were told that the first people to find Ruby Falls traveled through these tiny passages. It’s hard to tell from this picture, but that passage is a foot tall at best. Really–someone crawled through that? Something didn’t seem right.
Then we visited Rock City, a wonderful trail through huge rocks, up high in a mountain. I pretended to be Indiana Jones. As usual.
It’s a beautiful place. Gnomes, eh? Hmmmm…
Visiting that place is sort of like walking through Middle-Earth.
With ridiculously tiny paths.
See?
Who can fit in there?
Fat Man Squeeze. That’s funny. Also, if you’re tall you can’t get through unless you crouch low while walking sideways. Try it sometime. Not as easy as it sounds.
Ooh, Fairyland Caverns! That sounds like a good place to take kids!
Uh…
Mildly creepy…
Gnomes are watching you sleep! Ok. That’s, uh…hmm…
 
Gnome hipsters.
Probably inventing Pabst.
Watching.
Always watching.

While walking through this collection of strange scenes I finally understood all that I had seen.

The creepy menagerie of gnomes that is totally not fit for kids. The tiny walkways and impossibly small tunnels. The way everyone treated my meager 6’6″ like a band of lilliputians surrounding Gulliver.

There was only one explanation: the town was built by gnomes that have learned to live as humans.

I was not walking through a roadside attraction, but a museum detailing the fantastic legacy of these people.

It was obvious to me that the locals were still adjusting to being normal sized. But how did these gnomes grow into human-sized people? I wasn’t sure  until I found this provocative box in the lobby of a hotel that explained everything…

 “I wish I was big…”

 

‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ and Why I’m Happy to be a Loser

I’m thirty-two years old. Last week, I got into a Totally Serious Conversation about whether or not Batman could beat Superman. (He can’t.)

Yes, I know about Batman’s kryptonite ring. 
I read about it in this comic. Go away.

I saw Guardians of the Galaxy last Friday night with my wife. She’s not a loser, like me, but she has a wonderful fondness in her heart for losers. (Like me.) We both loved this film, but the question I wrestled with was something I knew she couldn’t understand: which Infinity Gem did they have?

Time to call in the big guns. I watched the film twenty hours later with my high school buddy, James. We’ve been unashamed losers since we were in the same Boy Scout troop, back when owning a comic book collection got you thrown into a locker and referencing Star Trek made girls run away in terror. We earned our stripes, paving the way for today’s “nerd culture” and knowing that society would one day appreciate our love of adventure and creative story-telling. Not yet middle-aged, we stand like grizzled veterans from a forgotten culture war.

While the popularity of the New Kids on the Block has leveled off, people are clawing through each other at Comic-Cons to get close to comic book artists, retired sci-fi actors, and anyone dressed as Power Girl. James and I outlasted our enemies and stand atop a world that we created.

But I digress. The film was great, but I needed some questions answered. If there’s something I don’t know about nerd stuff then James will fill me in. I can always count on that.

For a second I wondered if Star-Lord’s dad was Keyser Soze.

When the movie ended James took off his 3D glasses and said, “So…which infinity gem was that?”

I raved in the air. “I thought you would know! What’s the point of having you?”

What followed was a long dinner conversation about the Infinity Gauntlet, Batman, and the time his kid pooped on everything. (An untapped superpower, to be sure.)

When we were kids, film studios thought we would enjoy things like Top Gun, but two hours of watching Tom Cruise play volleyball didn’t cut it for the likes of us. Today, however, there are movies for losers like me who freak out when Adam Warlock’s cocoon shows up on screen.

I never thought I’d see the a film like Guardians. Drax the Destroyer traded barbs with Gamora even though the two aren’t in the same IQ class. Hints of a greater, cosmic storyline were littered about. Thanos was dark and enormous like the greatest-comic-book-villain-ever that he is. The Collector did weird things and scared everyone with his hair.

He’ll flip ya’. Flip ya’ for real.

In case you haven’t heard, Guardians of the Galaxy is a great film. If you liked this one, thank a loser. We stood our ground and made this happen.

Agatha Christie’s ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’ is the Perfect Mystery Story

I’ve always avoided Agatha Christie in the same way that girls in my high school would drop their books and run the other way if they saw me at the other end of the hall. This aversion to her works happened because of those boring commercials for Agatha Christie inspired movies. These made-for-TV flicks always looked like slow-moving parlor dramas, the sort that I suspect are designed to make squirmy adolescent boys want to play outside.

Did you know that her books have been translated into more languages than any other work of fiction? And that only Shakespeare and the Bible can outsell her collected works? And she met The Doctor in that episode about a transmogrifying bee? (Or something like that. I stopped paying attention by the end.)

I wanted to give her a try, so I started with her breakout work, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. With a dull title like that, it has to be awful, right?

I was hooked after a few words. Christie was obviously a sly genius with great wit. I laughed in every chapter while trying to keep track of the clues. The book’s ~70,000 words flew by while I chuckled at her jokes and scrutinized the evidence. My spare time, when I wasn’t reading the book, was spent going over the details of the case, certain I could crack Christie’s mystery.

Did I figure out who did it? Not really. I had my suspicions about the ending (which proved correct), but I couldn’t figure out the details even though they were right there in front of me! I was floored when detective Poirot finally explained all of it. This book is as smart as any of the Holmes stories (which are still my favorite), but it’s packaged with a fun writing style that Aurthur Conan Doyle always reached for but never managed to grasp.

Final grade – A+

Can you solve Ackroyd’s Murder? I dare you to try.

I Wear a Purse Now. Purses are Cool.

Someone must have dropped an estrogen enhancer in my coffee, because I was standing in a Target aisle thinking, I have got to have that bag.

My wife, a veteran of the Target’s trenches, excitedly told me to try it on, which made me feel like I was in a romantic comedy where the main character’s best friend enables their shopping habit.

But seriously, it’s really hot in Texas, and carrying a backpack on my two-mile trek to the office gets me pretty sweaty. I know, I know, you think I’m a big sissy for worrying about a little sweat, but now that I’m working a real “professional” job it just doesn’t cut it to show up at work looking like someone sprayed my back with a firehose (and smelling like a horse). This bag/purse/satchel thingy was the answer.

I was about to try it on when I realized something: “Do men wear these things?” I’m not very fashion-minded, and I mostly don’t care about conforming, but would my wife be embarrassed by my accessory? (I’d never had an “accessory” before.) This was uncharted territory for a slob like me. She told me to at least wear it once in the store to see how it looked.

I slung it over my shoulder and then my wife changed everything by saying the words every husband wants to hear:

“You look like Indiana Jones.”

That was all I needed.

 Me. Or Harrison Ford. I’m always getting us confused.

Of course, I bought it. It wasn’t long, however, before her words went to my head and that weekend people in Sundance Square saw me doing the Riker pose.

But you know what the residents of Fort Worth didn’t see?

Back sweat.

Not a drop.

Swish.

Ten Things to Do While My Wife is Out of Town

1 – Watch five seconds of every My Little Pony movie that I can find on Netflix, just to see the look on her face the next time she sees our “Recently Watched” queue.

2 – Cover her Kindle screen in catnip oil and see if she ever gets any work done, again.

3 – Put individual chicken feathers everywhere. The closet. Drawers. Pantry. Everywhere. When she asks about it I’ll say, “What? We’ve always had chicken feathers.”

4 – Replace her wicked, black cat with an identical one (but nicer) from a shelter. Recreate all existing pictures of the old cat with the new one. If she notices a difference in his behavior, say that he got a concussion from a battle with our orange cat. Go to bed feeling like a winner.

5 – There will obviously be no need for shaving, bathing, or wearing clothes while she is away. This will cause outcry from my co-workers.

6 – Shave pentagrams onto her cat. Insist that she is the only person who can see them. Back away, slowly.

7 – When she comes home, ask her how long she’s been gone and claim that I thought she was in the bathroom the whole time. Then excuse myself to go the bathroom because I’ve been “holding it forever.”

8 – If she calls, say she’s interrupting my Mean Girls quote-along and hang up.

9 – Replace all coffee options with Postum. Watch her slide into insanity. Or violence. On second thought, this is the worst idea I’ve ever had since letting her adopt a cat without having a Vatican priest test it for demons.

10 – Tell her stories about the tune-ups I did on the cars. It will be true, as far as she knows, and normal vehicle performance will be credited to manly skills I don’t even have. I should throw in a story about fixing some plumbing, too.

Note: I’ve never seen Mean Girls, but it’s quoted on the internet so often that I would probably recognize most of it.