Review: Crooks & Straights

Crooks and StraightsCrooks and Straights by Masha du Toit

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a wonderful read which I suppose falls into the YA category but suited me just fine as an adult reader. It is the story of a young girl in a magical version of South Africa who gets caught between the magical and non-magical world around her. The world itself is full of everyday magic, but also tension as it becomes increasingly clear that magical people and creatures are an oppressed underclass. As such, the book deals with civil rights issues and the topic of children with special needs, through the lens of a world uncomfortable with magical or odd things.

The book is full of inventive magical details and feels very real and well-constructed, and the writing flows well and is often quite beautiful. I recommend Crooks and Straights to fans of Harry Potter, movies like Howl’s Moving Castle, and the books of Neil Gaiman.

View all my reviews

Manga/Graphic Novel Challenge 2/50: Girl Genius Omnibus Vol 1

girlgeniusomni1

Girl Genius Omnibus Edition Volume 1
Phil & Kaja Foglio
ISBN: 978-1-890856-40-3

I enjoy a lot of webcomics, but I’ve been intimidated by the deep archive for Girl Genius, so I’ve stayed away from it. How nice then to have a thick omnibus edition to help catch me up. The trade-off for this particular volume is that it is in black and white instead of color, but that didn’t bother me except for some pages that came out way too dark this way.

My first exposure to Phil Foglio’s work was from the Myth Adventures book covers and graphic novels (some of which are online here). Girl Genius, with art by Phil and co-written with Phil and Kaja Foglio, has the same sort of over-the-top humor as those stories, but it is set in a world where steampunk science and magic exist in equal parts. In this world, some people have the Spark, a magical ability that allows them to defy the laws of physics.

Volume 1 starts with our heroine, Agatha, getting mugged and having her locket stolen. This makes her late for her class at Transylvania Polygnostic University, where she has a knack for building clanks (autonomous robots) that fail spectularly.

When Baron Wulfenbach and his son Gilgamesh show up at the university, a series of events leads Agatha into the Baron’s service, although only Gil seems to recognize Agatha’s potential.

Mysteries abound throughout the story and there’s plenty of humor in both the writing and the art, but a large part of the pleasure in reading these is in discovering the details of the world the Foglios have built. I’m a sucker for this type of steampunk fantasy, filled with giant automatons and enormous airships, so it didn’t take much to pull me along through this first volume.

This is good, because until Agatha starts coming into her own a little by the end of the third volume in the omnibus, her story was a little painful to read. She’s misunderstood, underappreciated, and has a nasty habit of ending up in lingerie and sleepwalking. It’s a joke that falls flat quickly but gets used over and over for some reason.

Despite some rough patches like this, the book ends on a high note with plenty of hooks to make me want to keep reading this series.

(This is my second entry into the Mother/Gamer/Writer’s Manga/Graphic Novel Challenge.)

Review: A Noble’s Quest

anoblesquest

Review of A Noble’s Quest
by Ryan Toxopeus
ISBN-10: 1492170127

If you’ve ever played Dungeons and Dragons, chances are you and your group of fellow adventurers sometimes waded into combat without asking a lot of questions first. Or justified a slaughter when diplomacy fell through. Or found it easier to kill the King’s guards and hide the bodies than face up to some perhaps well-deserved justice.

You did all this in the name of fun and because, as the main characters in your own story, you were obviously the heroes. You saved the world, or at least the town, and if you left a lot of bodies behind along the way, well, that’s the life of an adventurer.

Maybe someone in your group jokingly brought up how your actions must appear to everyone else in the game world. “We’re murder hobos!” But it’s just a game and everyone’s having fun, so who cares, right?

But when those adventures are the basis for a book, as they are here, those ruthless antics are not as simple. As a reader, I expect the main characters to act heroic, work toward becoming a hero, or at least recognize that they’re not heroes at all, but they’re doing what they think is right.

If I had one huge disconnect with the book, it is that while the main characters are proclaimed to be heroic, the book never really addresses that they often act like murderers and thieves, without having any sense that their actions are justified. They’re doing it because they’ve been sent on a series of quests to achieve a secret goal, and they repeatedly talk about these quests in a way that seemed a little too meta for the characters, as if they were aware they were an adventuring party in a game.

One of the main characters repeatedly worries about the group’s seemingly unjustified murders, but eventually has an epiphany in which he realizes they were all justified after all because he was defending himself and his friends. I didn’t buy the logic and I never really felt the characters were heroic.

That being said, the book is well-written and it kept me reading. There’s a good sense of humor throughout and, even though a lot of the world-building is stock Player’s Handbook in many parts, the original touches are clever and engaging. I especially enjoyed a scene of some dwarves dealing with an interesting type of alarm, and any scene that had to do with the Dwarven religion, which seems like a clever, Dwarven take on Christianity.

I think if you approach this book as the account of a role-playing group acting out the lives of Player Characters, you’ll be more likely to enjoy it for what it is. And when all is said and done, I want to know what happens next in this world. Good thing then that the second book, A Wizard’s Gambit, is in the works.

Review: Helen & Troy’s Epic Road Quest

helentroyquestI used to read humorous fantasy all the time when I was younger: John DeChancie’s Castle Perilous Series, Craig Shaw Gardner’s trilogies, and Robert Lynn Aspirin’s Myth series being some of the books I read and reread several times. Somewhere along the way, though, I fell out of the habit of reading funny books.

Helen & Troy’s Epic Road Quest, by A, Lee Martinez, definitely falls into the humor fantasy category. I might not have picked it up except for it being the book chosen for a local book club I am going to attend for the first time. I won’t say it has rekindled my love of the genre, but it was good enough that I’ll sprinkle similar books back into my reading queue. (Since I’ve had Terry Pratchett recommended to me more times than I count, that seems like a good place to start.)

So who are Helen and Troy and why are they going on this epic quest? Without revealing too much, Helen is a minotaur and Troy is your usual perfect hero type. They live in our world, if myths and legends were true and the fantastical had long since become commonplace. Their Call to Adventure comes by way of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, where they end up being tasked with a quest by an insane god.

In other words, just another day in the fantastical world Martinez has created. Of course, everything is taken so much for granted and treated with a dry, been-there-done-that attitude, that the book doesn’t have much of a sense of wonder. Instead, it’s a by-the-book quest to get the McGuffins, and it wears this on its sleeve. The characters themselves are aware that they are on a quest and must abide by certain tropes.

It’s done with a dry wit and gentle touch, spending as much time on building the friendship between Helen and Troy as on describing the mythical beings they encounter along the way.

Above all, it’s a quick read that kept me amused me and worked by itself and as a meta narrative on the nature of heroic quests.

Moorcock and Tolkien

The scales of justice, photo by James Cridland.I can’t get worked up about a lot of things, and certainly not about what books people like to read, so it is always with some amusement when I see someone or other trash someone else’s writing. It is even more amusing (or perhaps confusing) when I find out one of my writer heroes, Michael Moorcock, despised another of my writer heroes, J.R.R. Tolkien.

I’ll spoil the ending of this post right now: I like both of them and I’m cool with that. But I think it’s interesting to look at their different styles, as I experienced them, and see what I can make of Moorcock’s attitude and what effect each writer has had on my own style.

In a recent piece in the New Yorker, “The Anti-Tolkien,” Peter Bebergal writes: “Moorcock, one of the most prolific living fantasists, sees Tolkien’s creation as little more than a conservative vision of the status quo, an adventure that brings its hero “There and Back Again,” rather than into a world where experience means you can’t go home again.”

Moorcock’s work, especially the Elric series, is presented as a rebellion against Tolkien’s traditional fantasy.

Bebergal again: “In the nineteen-seventies, swimming in the shadows like a remora alongside Tolkien’s legacy, was a hero of sorts with a slightly darker nature than that of Bilbo or Gandalf. His name is Elric, a frail, drug-addicted albino and the reluctant ruler of the kingdom of Melniboné, where revenge and hedonism are abiding characteristics, and human beings are enslaved. The inhabitants of Melniboné are not the spiritual, almost angelic elves of Lothlórien, but a race of decadent autocrats whose magical gifts are bestowed by demons.”

I had never really thought of Moorcock’s work this way, probably because I read Moorcock before I read Tolkien (the Lord of the Rings trilogy seemed dense and overwhelming to me in my teens, when I devoured dozens of books each month and formed some of my strongest reader/author bonds).

Granted, I always found something cooler about Moorcock’s worlds and heroes. They were tragic, usually barely hanging on to their lives, and even when they succeeded, it wasn’t long before a cruel world swept the rug out from under them once more. Perhaps Moorcock’s writing better agreed with the way the world felt to teenaged me (and, I’ll admit it) adult me.

I rarely participate in epic quests and ultimately conquer evil. Life is a series of small battles and the outcome is usually questionable, so I can relate more to Moorcock’s heroes in this way. As Bebergal writes, “Elric is not about abstract ideas of good and evil, with faceless powers looking to strip the world of its trees and its hobbit holes. Elric is about law and chaos, and how, sometimes, choosing one over the other is no more or less just.”

All that being said, epic fantasy, with the forces of good eventually winning a hard-fought victory over the nameless evil, definitely has its time and place. I love the scope, the world-building, the mix of characters and personalities. I love that Tolkien’s world feels like a real place, a piece of our own history, with a sense that around any corner of the world, something else awaits, some adventure or hero or villain or ruin with a story all its own.

Even though I tend more toward stories about individual heroes trying to balance law and chaos within themselves, often with bittersweet victories at the end, I don’t feel the need to dismiss one type of story over another.

As a writer I tend toward one side of the balance, but as a reader I enjoy both equally, at least until the next book I read tips me more toward one side or the other.

(Speaking of which, Michael Moorcock’s new book, The Whispering Swarm, is out on January 13!)

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Photo credit: The scales of justice, James Cridland.

Review: Talus and the Frozen King

Talus and the Frozen King by Graham Edwards

£7.99 (UK) ISBN 978-1-78108-198-3

$8 .99/$10.99 (US & CAN) ISBN 978-1-7810-8-199-0

Published by Solaris Books

TALUS AND THE FROZEN KING

 

I started to read Talus and the Frozen King right after A Discourse in Steel by Paul S. Kemp, and at first I worried it would be too similar, a fantasy buddy adventure. As it turned out, I was pleasantly surprised when I realized the book was not really an action-adventure story, but rather a murder mystery. Now, if I had read the book cover, which proclaims that the book introduces the world’s first detective, maybe I wouldn’t have been surprised, but then again I might not have given it a chance because mysteries aren’t my first choice of reading.

At its base, Talus and the Frozen King is much like a familiar Sherlock Holmes and Watson story, except in this case, Holmes is a bard named Talus and Watson a former fisherman named Bran.

Talus is emotionally-stunted but clever and insightful. Bran, his sidekick, is more rough-and-tumble. He may not figure things out as fast as Talus does, but he understands human motivations in a way the bard-sleuth does not. It’s a familiar trope but both characters are fleshed out well enough that I had as much interest in them as in solving the mystery.

The details of the world building kept me interested at first, especially as I was going into the story blind, unsure of what type of fantasy it was. Interestingly, the level of magic in the story is open to interpretation. Many of the characters believe in it, but as it is a historical fantasy, this could simply reflect that many people in our history believed in magic and spirits.

While the world-building pulled me in to the story at first, the mysteries surrounding the frozen king’s murder eventually grabbed hold of me. By the halfway point of the novel, with mystery piling on top of mystery, including those in Bran and Talus’ past, I found myself racing to the end. I’d definitely buy the next book in the series, because while the book works as a stand-alone mystery, I definitely want to know where Talus and Bran’s adventures take them next.

Reviewer’s Note: I received a review copy of this book but as always this review is my honest reaction. I use Amazon Affiliate links so if you follow the link and buy the book, I might someday make enough to afford to buy a book on Amazon. :)

Bedtime Stories #2

I like to tell stories, as you might have guessed if you follow this blog. And I am happy to report that my toddler daughters finally like to listen to me tell stories. Each night at bedtime, they get the next installment in their own continuing adventures. Yes, they are princesses in the stories (and my wife and I are the Queen and King), but I would describe them as Adventure Princesses. Note: Janie and Serena are pseudonyms, as the princesses wish to retain their anonymity.

Click here for Bedtime Stories #1.

Once Upon A Time…

Janie and Serena are princesses who live in a giant sandcastle on the edge of an ocean. Although the ocean crashes against the base of the castle, it never washes the castle away, for it is a magic castle that can withstand the waves of time. The King and Queen also live in the sandcastle, but the needs of their kingdom often keep them busy. To the west lies an endless ocean. To the east there is a tall mountain range. To the north, there are grassy plains as far as the eye can see. And to the south, there is a vast desert.

Left to their own devices, the princesses often go on adventures…

Over the Lava River

Serena and Janie were bored one day, and since the giant playground in the cloud kingdom had been closed to them, they decided to follow rumors of an awesome playground to the south. They trudged through the hot desert for what seemed like forever, until the sand gave way to stone and the stone to rugged mountains where steam vented up through the ground. Finally they reached a cliff edge, and far below it, a river of hot lava. On the other side of the river there was another cliff face, and past that was the playground they sought. The only way across was a rickety wooden bridge, but this didn’t stop Janie from running across it and drawing Serena in her wake. Halfway across, the ropes of the bridge began to snap, one by one, and the two princesses had to half-run, half-climb the collapsing bridge. They only barely made it to the far side, and now there was no way across the chasm and thus no way to get home.

“What are we going to do?” Serena asked.

“Let’s play first and worry about it later,” Janie said.

Serena shrugged, smiled, and ran off into the playground with Janie at her heels. They played for most of the day and it was not until near sunset that they started to ponder how to get back home.

“Yup, there’s really no way back across,” Janie said, eyeing the river of molten lava far below.

“I think there is,” Serena declared. “To the swings!”

Janie followed her to the swing set, which was perched right at the edge of the cliff above the lava river. They both got on and started swinging with all their might. At just the right moment, they leaped out of the swings and soared over the river to the other side of the chasm, landing in a tumble but coming up safe and sound.

swingnight

“That was great!” cried Janie. “Let’s do it again.”

“It’s time to get home,” admonished Serena. “We’ll have to come back here and fix it later.”

“You mean rebuild the bridge?” Janie asked.

“No. I mean build another swing set on this side so we can swing back across!”

Janie laughed. By the light of the full moon, they crossed the desert and made their way safely back home.

The Rainbow Forest

It had been raining for days, and Serena and Janie were suffering from a huge case of boredom. They were watching the rain outside their window, when suddenly the rain stopped, the clouds parted, and a rainbow appeared. One end stopped right at the base of the Sandcastle.

rainbowatsea

The princesses smiled and set to tying their bedsheets together. Once this was done, they climbed out of the window and down their bedsheet rope to the beach below. It was a short jog from there to the base of the rainbow, which angled far up into the sky.

“Where do you think it goes?” asked Serena.

“Let’s find out!” said Janie.

They ran up the rainbow until they reached the top, where they found a rainbow forest. It smelled sugary, and Serena plucked a rainbow leaf from a rainbow branch and touched it to her tongue.

“It’s sweet!” she cried. She took a bite. “It’s candy!”

“No way,” Janie said. But when she tried one, too, her eyes lit up. “It is candy!”

Not only that, everything in the forest atop the rainbow was edible, and the girls promptly gorged themselves on rainbow twigs and bugs, rainbow mushrooms and moss, rainbow butterflies and hopping rainbow frogs. By the time they were done, their stomachs were queasy from all the rainbow candy they had consumed.

“I think I’m going to be sick,” Janie moaned.

“Let’s go home,” Serena said, clutching her stomach.

They staggered back home, opting to knock on the front door rather than make the climb back to their room. The Queen answered the door, looking down on the girls with one raised eyebrow.

“Did we learn anything today?” the Queen asked.

“Yeah,” Janie said. “Rainbow twigs are goods. Bugs, too. Mushrooms and moss, ditto. But butterflies and frogs? Not so much.”

Serena held her stomach with both hands. “I can still feel them fluttering and hopping around!”

The Queen smiled and said, “I guess you won’t be doing that again.”

“Nope,” said Janie. “At least, not until we get bored again!”

The girls giggled and ran into the Sandcastle. The sigh behind them was either the Queen or the closing door.

Commentary

Another story about a playground! If I didn’t steer the requests elsewhere, I think every story would involve a playground. I forgot to write the rainbow forest story down right away after I told it, and then I forgot it entirely. I only knew that there was a story about a candy forest at the top of a rainbow because I mention it in a later story (yay continuity!), but I had to reconstruct the details almost a month later for the written version of the story.

Image credits

Night Swinging” by shadowbrush, CC BY-NC.

Rainbow at Sea” by edwick, CC BY-NC.

Bedtime Stories #1

I like to tell stories, as you might have guessed if you follow this blog. And I am happy to report that my toddler daughters finally like to listen to me tell stories. Each night at bedtime, they get the next installment in their own continuing adventures. Yes, they are princesses in the stories (and my wife and I are the Queen and King), but I would describe them as Adventure Princesses. Note: Janie and Serena are pseudonyms, as the princesses wish to retain their anonymity.

sandcastle

Once Upon A Time…

Janie and Serena are princesses who live in a giant sandcastle on the edge of an ocean. Although the ocean crashes against the base of the castle, it never washes the castle away, for it is a magic castle that can withstand the waves of time. The King and Queen also live in the sandcastle, but the needs of their kingdom often keep them busy. To the west lies an endless ocean. To the east there is a tall mountain range. To the north, there are grassy plains as far as the eye can see. And to the south, there is a vast desert.

Left to their own devices, the princesses often go on adventures…

The Giants’ Playground

One day, Serena and Janie were bored and they begged their parents for something fun to do. The King informed them that he and the Queen were too busy, but the Queen took pity on them and gave them some magic beans.

“Plant these and you will have an adventure,” she told the princesses.

“Some adventure,” Janie said. “This is probably a trick to get us to eat our vegetables.”

“It can’t hurt to try it,” said Serena.

They planted the beans in the garden, and seconds later the ground began to shake and tremble. A beanstalk shot out of the ground and into the sky, widening as it grew, until it reached the sky and was so wide across that Janie and Serena could not encircle it, even by holding their hands together and stretching as far as they could.

“Let’s climb it,” said Janie.

Serena agreed and they climbed the beanstalk up into the clouds. Once they made it above the clouds, they were surprised to find that they could walk on the fluffy white substance. They bounced along until they reached a giant playground made of clouds. The clouds were easy to climb, so they spent the day scaling the giant slides and swings and stairs of the playground, laughing and screaming in delight.

After a while, their shouts of glee attracted giant children, who were none too pleased that Serena and Janie were using their playground uninvited. The giants chased after Serena and Janie, who fled across the clouds and down the beanstalk.

When they reached the bottom, they looked up in fear. Would the giants chase them down? But no, the beanstalk lifted up out of the ground and disappeared into the clouds above.

“And don’t come back, neither!” came a booming voice from above the clouds.

Serena and Janie shrugged. The giants’ playground had been fun while it lasted.

dinosingrass

Of Dinosaurs and Rocketships

One fine, sunny day, Serena and Janie were playing in the sand outside of the castle when they heard cries from the North. A villager ran up to them from that direction and reported that there were dinosaurs running rampant in the fields, eating up all of the villagers’ food.

“Dinosaurs?” asked Serena.

“There’s only one thing for it,” said Janie.

“Rocketship time!” they agreed.

They rushed back into the castle and headed for the rocketship hangar. Once inside, they fired it up and took off, soaring out of the castle and above the grassy fields. It didn’t take long to find the dinosaurs, a dozen of them at least. While Janie piloted, Serena dropped the grapple claw time after time and plucked the dangerous dinos off the field and into the rocketship’s cargo bay.

Once they had collected them all, Janie asked, “Now what?”

Serena, looking out of the cockpit, saw the full moon above them. “I’ve got an idea,” she said with a glint in her eye.

Janie followed her gaze and nodded. “You got it, kid,” she said.

And that’s how dinosaurs ended up living on the moon. This solved the villagers’ problem but caused some problems of its own. Those are stories for another time, however.

Commentary

The versions of the stories shared here remain basic but are more polished than those told at bedtime. Telling a story while two toddlers bounce around their bed, giggling and yelling, is not easy, and I have to hit the highlights to keep their attention. I do take requests as to what they want the story to be about, so playgrounds figure prominently in many of these early entries because, well, my daughters like the playground.

A lot of the characters who show up are based on their toys, shows they watch, or games they have seen me play. The dinosaur request must have come from some cartoon or another, but putting them on a rocketship to the moon simply tickled my fancy, so I ran with it.

Finally, I’m not trying to create a world out of whole cloth here. Much is borrowed or reinvented. The goal is to have fun.

Click here to continue to Bedtime Stories #2.

Image credits

The sandcastle image is my combination of this sandcastle picture taken by starryeyez024 and this beach picture taken by dgphilli. Both images are CC BY-NC.

The dinosaurs in the field image is my combination of this picture of dinosaur toys taken by ewanmcdowall and this picture of a field of wheat taken by freefotouk. Both images are CC BY-NC.

Pro-Lithic Ramblings: 8/16/12

It’s been a while since my last post but I can say I have spent the time well and I am feeling refreshed. So what’s new? Well for one I have a short story coming out in Electric Spec at the end of this month, called False Negative. There are some kind words about it from editor Lesley Smith here. Needless to say, I’m pretty happy about that. Also, I’m back to work on The Only City Left parts 31 and up and I’m quite excited about that as well. Besides those (and other) writing projects, I have also been reading a lot of short stories to get into the short story mindset, and I’ve managed to read a few novels and discover a few new-to-me webcomics, too. Here’s a sampling.

Tales of the Emerald Serpent (Shared World Anthology)

I grew up reading a lot of books (surprise!), and some of my favorites were the Thieves’ World books, edited by Robert Lynn Asprin and later him and Lynn Abbey together. Not only were the stories full of swords-and-sorcery fun, the characters that each author brought to the book would sometimes pop up in the other authors’ stories, and there was an overarching plot that all the writers were working to build together. I loved it.

So when I saw a Kickstarter for Tales of the Emerald Serpent that promised to revive the old-school shared world anthology model, it was an easy decision to pledge for an e-book so I could at least check it out. How to judge a new shared world, though, against my glowing memories of books I hadn’t read in years? I would be happy if the book had: 1) an interwoven, overarching plot; 2) fun swords-and-sorcery stories with characters that I found intriguing; and 3) an interesting setting. Tales of the Emerald Serpent met my criteria and managed to surprise and impress me along the way. Here’s why.

Thieves’ World had the city of Sanctuary, an outpost city that contained a dangerous ghetto called the Maze. Emerald Serpent has Taux, a stone-carved city whose previous inhabitants fell prey to some Lovecraftian doom, leaving an empty but cursed city behind which was eventually reinhabited by those willing to risk life in a city whose very stones whisper curses at them. As settings go, it has great story potential and it feels well-realized. While this first volume focuses on the Maze-like Black Gate district, there are hints of other parts of the city that I hope will be fleshed out more in another volume, like the Wizards’ Tower.

The characters are a nice mix of scoundrels, mages, and fighters of various races, and in this universe different races have access to different elemental magic to a greater or lesser degree. I can easily say that I would be happy to read about all the main characters again, which goes along with my opinion that all the stories in this first volume are well-done. Standouts for me include editor Scott Taylor’s story “Charlatan,” for the sheer bravado of its main character, Savino; “Water Remembers” by Julie E. Czerneda, for crafting a story that works well in itself but that also left me wanting to find out what happened before the story began and what happens next; and “The One Thing You Can Never Trust” by Harry Connolly, for creating an unlikely action hero in Emil Lacosta, a mage who specializes in love potions. Talk about the power of love, Emil has it and he’s not afraid to use it, to deadly effect.

Those stories were great, but like I said, all the stories were good. The surprising part for me was how well woven together they were, too. I went into the book expecting the events in each story to follow the events of the one before it, and it took me a while to realize that the stories jump around in time quite a bit. Once I realized that, I also noticed how they fit together like intricate puzzle pieces, and by the end of the book I wanted to re-read the whole thing now that I “got it,” like when you got to the end of the Sixth Sense for the first time and wanted to immediately re-watch it. (I didn’t re-read it, though. Too much to do!)

If you like dueling swordsmen (and -women), magic-filled action and adventure, love both true and enchanted, and stories that work on their own and as part of a shared whole, get thee hence and pick up a copy of Tales of the Emerald Serpent. What Scott and the involved writers have accomplished is not only a solid shared-world book, but stories and characters that call out for a sequel. Here’s to a new era of shared worlds!

Requiem in the Key of Prose (short story)

Here’s your assignment: Write a gripping, touching science-fiction short story that is also a primer on a variety of writing techniques such as first person, present tense, flashback, metaphor, etc. Go ahead. It’s not that easy, is it? But Jake Kerr manages it quite deftly in the July 2012 issue of Lightspeed Magazine with his short story, “Requiem in the Key of Prose.” Kerr manages to speedily set up a world in which the Earth’s atmosphere has become unbreathable, forcing cities to dome themselves off and create their own oxygen. Into that setting enter Adam and Violet, a young couple who become inextricably tied up with ensuring the continued working of one dome city.

I was impressed with the speed and clarity with which Kerr sets up the world, Adam and Violet’s relationship, and the central conflict, and also how each segment of the story is a lesson in a specific writing techniques, without feeling at all pedantic. But don’t take my word for it. At less than 2500 words, this is a quick read I can recommend to even the most casual of readers.

The Adventures of Athena Wheatley (long-form webcomic)

The full title of this reality-skewing, time-traveling, gender-bending webcomic by Sylvan Migdal is The Adventures of Athena Wheatley, or, Warp & Weft; A Graphic Novel. I would describe it as The Time Machine meets Futurama by way of the sexual revolution, but that doesn’t really capture the fun and lunacy of this webcomic.

In the first three panels, a large piece of an Earth-like planet is shaved off from the rest of the planet by some mysterious force. (Maybe it’s the Earth in the future… the landmasses look different and there are two moons, but, well, anything is possible, as we later discover.) Anyway, in the aftermath of this apocalyptic event, we meet super-physicist Athena Wheatley, who is struck in the head by a protester’s rock and wakes up in the year 1841, where she runs a clock shop and, oh yeah, has a time machine in her basement.

So is the vision of the future we saw a true one, or is it all in Athena’s dreams? The answer is unclear because when Athena does travel to the future, it doesn’t look like the one she was dreaming about. The story shifts back and forth between realities as we are introduced to the evil Dr. Moultrie (you know he’s evil because not only does he steal Athena’s journal and claim credit for her work, but he eats some of her cheese and wipes his hands on her curtains, the fiend), an artist named Dave, an edutainment bot with wings named Twan, and a spaceship full of earth cheese, to name a few of the major players so far.

I may not understand what’s going on all the time, but the future world(s?) Athena adventures through are ridiculous and entertaining, and with the evil Dr. Moultrie on her trail and a planet sliced nearly in half, there is definitely an element of danger and tension that keeps the story from being merely a travelogue of future insanity. This is one webcomic that once I found it, I could not stop reading until I had caught up on it, so if you haven’t already, I recommend you go check it out. One caveat: if you’re put off by cartoon nudity and sexually explicit situations, you might want to stay away. The future (or at least one of them) is full of the stuff.

The Only City Left: Part Eleven

Need to read Part Ten first? Please do. And here’s the Table of Contents.

The Only City Left: Part Eleven

I allowed myself a second or two of panic and then called out, “Tumble?”

“One moment, young sir,” the cat called back from somewhere up ahead.

I closed my eyes and rested my head sideways on the bottom of the duct. The cool metal felt wonderful on my flushed cheek and I stayed like that until I heard the scamper of tiny feet approaching.

“Okay, the way is clear now. Please follow me,” Tumble said.

He stood hunched over, bent nearly in half, but he would not resort to walking on all fours, which I thought was kind of funny. Then I noticed that he had his gun in his left hand and my cocoon bag in his right.

“Anything I should be worried about?” I asked as I begin to pull and shimmy my way through the ventilation system.

Tumble stopped and looked back at me. “There are rats in here the size of, well, me. Nasty creatures, I assure you. Since you barely fit in here”—Did he have to remind me?—“I had to disable a few traps along the way that you can’t maneuver around.”

He continued on a few steps and then looked back at me over his shoulder.

“I’m almost certain I remembered them all.”

He chuckled a raspy feline laugh and proceeded forward.

“Cat humor,” I replied. “Now my day is complete.”

This made Tumble laugh all the harder.

I blinked stinging sweat from my eyes. Whether it was from my fever, the exercise, or the tight fear at the back of my throat when I imagined becoming stuck in the duct, I didn’t dare dwell on it.

The journey was interminable and Tumble had certainly lied when he claimed it would only take a short while.

After seeming miles of conduits, some terrifying chimney climbs up vertical shafts, and a close call with a rat who sunk his teeth into Tumble’s shoulder before he could bring his gun to bear on it—(“On the plus side,” Tumble told me, proudly holding up the two-foot long rat by its tail. “Dinner!”)—we exited the ventilation system.

I unceremoniously slid out onto the floor, barely able to catch myself, and took some time to lie there, luxuriating in the freedom to move my arms and legs about and not hit anything except the floor. I had spent entirely too much time today in shafts, tunnels, and ductwork; I vowed to stay away from tight spaces for at least a week unless my life depended on it.

“Come now, friend, we are almost there,” Tumble interrupted my reverie.

“Like it was only a ‘short while’ to get here?” I groused.

“No, this time it is truly nearby, so make yourself presentable. You will soon be in the presence of His Illustriousness, He Whose Claws Can Slice Air Itself, The Most—”

I took advantage of the lengthy list of honorifics to get to my feet. Weary and woozy, I had to lean against the wall for support. Seeing me like that, Tumble cut himself off.

“Come, the sooner you are presented at court, the sooner you can rest and recover.”

He returned my cocoon bag and we were off again, but this time through corridors that felt decidedly more lived in than those I had frequented as of late. For one thing, they had power and light, so I turned off my coil and slid it into my shirt. For another, everything was clean. Most of the city I’d seen was grungy, run-down. Even the settlements I passed through were barely cleared of the debris of ages. Here, the walls were freshly painted, the carpet clean, and the air fresh. I mentioned as much to Tumble.

“And this is just the outer bailey!” he preened. “Wait ’til you see the real city! Ah-ha, here we are.”

We reached the end of a hallway and stood before a solid-looking metal door that was flanked by two gun-wielding cats, one jet black, the other calico. As we were expected, the guards did not put up a fuss but simply entered a code onto a keypad.

The door slid open silently for all its weight. These cats certainly had their tiny corner of the city running smoothly.

Tumble led me into a narrow, short hallway that I had to crouch-walk along to pass through. I noticed the thin openings regularly spaced along the walls and ceiling; murder holes. Either the cats were paranoid or they had more than just unusually large rats to worry about.

Once we were through a second gate at the far end, I could stand up again. Hands on my hips, I leaned back to give myself a good stretch and found my gaze traveling up, up, up.

The cat city filled a cavernous chamber whose upper reaches I could not make out. It had obviously been built on and around pre-existing old-world skyscrapers. The old city had been completely remade through the addition of myriad ramps and rooms that hung suspended between the existing buildings on massive strands of braided rope.

From far overhead, bright yellow light shone from an unseen but obviously artificial sun. The skyscrapers were tall, but not so tall as to make me believe I had reached the surface.

Tiny birds sang their songs as they dived and banked in and out of the cat-cradle city, and everywhere I looked, the bipedal cat-folk went about their business.

“Welcome to Pudlington,” Tumble announced proudly. “We hope you enjoy our hospitality for as long as you like.”

“How many cats live here?” I asked, jaw stuck open as I gaped at the sights.

“Not as many as there once were,” Tumble replied, his tone uncharacteristically dark.

I glanced down at him and grimaced. “That’s Earth in a nutshell, isn’t it?”

Tumble nodded and then did a full body shiver from head to tail.

“Enough of that,” he said, his tone boisterous once more. “The Emperor awaits!”

* * *

Meet the Emperor in Part Twelve, but take a gander below at my notes first, if you like.

4/29/12 News: I had fun writing Tumble’s lines (the one about “Dinner!” makes me laugh each time I read it) and I gave him a little more personality this week. Thanks to my cousin Gillian for saying she liked the little guy (and for reading each week!); it made me want to flesh him out more.

Why Pudlington as the name for the cat city, you may ask? No reason other than it sounded cute, and as much as the cats have sought to shed their past as domestic pets, their names are still very much influenced by their history as adorable companions for humans. It also makes me think of a tiny hamlet somewhere in the countryside, so… ironic, yeah.

I have been including little homages here and there in the story (besides the great big homage to Isaac Asimov’s Lije Bailey and Foundation novels). This week’s homage had to do with the unusually large rats. Can you name the movie this came from?

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