Review — Brief Cases

Finally, a new Dresden book! …kind of. I think that I started reading The Dresden Files about five years ago, around the time Cold Days came out. By the time I was just about caught up, Skin Game was published. Up until that point, the books were being churned out practically once a year, and well, that was three years ago now. I picked the wrong time to get caught up!

Thankfully, a new short story anthology was released, and boy was it nice to get some more Dresden. I recently started listening to audiobooks at work, an with me working full time, I’m getting through them pretty fast. So I am simultaneously ecstatic and depressed that I’ve already finished.

But before I get started let me add a qualifier. The thing that sucks about this review is that it’s more pointless than most reviews. The people that know Dresden will buy it automatically and love it, because it’s the Dresden we all know and love, but the people that don’t know Dresden shouldn’t get it, because like his other short story anthology, there are lots of time skips and even more spoilers. (The last two short stories take place after Skin Game). So instead of me framing it into the vein of “is this worth reading”, I’ll speak plainly in terms of what I liked and didn’t like. That said, this review is not spoiler free. I won’t be discussing many spoilers by virtue of the fact that my opinions tend to paint broad strokes, but I don’t see much point in writing a review that’s half spoiler-free and half not. So let’s jump in.

I’ll start with what I didn’t like just to get over it. The first is that a lot of these stories have sexual contexts I don’t much care for. I mean, I’m not surprised, that’s always been a Dresden thing. But after taking a break from the series and reading so many other things, I’ve noticed how just how much Jim Butcher tends to describe women based on how insanely hot they are, and how naked they tend to get because “the world of vampires and the fey are very sexual realms”. Logical, sure, but I think it would be fair for me to say that the story could redistribute the sex into more polarizing zones. Take it out where it isn’t necessary and emphasize it where it is rather than just putting a little bit pretty much everywhere. (Side note: I am willing to concede that maybe I’m just being dramatic and prude, but at the same time I don’t think the Dresden series would lose much of anything if there was less sex-but-not-actual-sex, you know?)

My second critique is even more whiny than the first: I didn’t really get to see anything I wanted to see. None of my favorite characters, and nothing awesome really happening. Now, obviously he can’t write about important people doing important things in a short story collection—you can’t force your entire reader-base to buy something that’s supposed to be a side adventure—but still. I wanted to see more stuff that had… meaning. “Zoo Day” is probably the best example of this, and it was definitely my favorite story. We see a potentially bad news character introduced, but it was done in a way that doesn’t take away from the main plot when they inevitably return. I also wasn’t a fan of the same plot structure of “retelling a story” used in two of the twelve stories here, though Butcher isn’t much to blame, because a lot of these stories were written at various times over the years and put together, not written for this book.

But the stories in and of themselves are great. I loved everything about the Bigfoot stories, especially the fact that they all dealt with different issues while (unconsciously) foreshadowing future ones. “Zoo Day” is a masterpiece, too. A long scene told in three different perspectives dealing with three different conflicts is great, and Mouse being the narrator to a story was a lot of fun. Top notch.

I love where the series is going, especially considering the scope and the perspective strength of some of the characters, but it’s also nice to take a break and see characters deal with more mundane issues—it puts the huge ones in the main series in a better perspective.

But also I’m mad that Butcher introduced the Lovecraftian mythos in a single short story and we’re probably not going to see much else from the Old Gods for a long time, if at all.

Story — My Lisa Stenton Notes

So, this isn’t a story. Sorry about that. Instead, I decided I should talk a bit about my plans for Lisa Stenton, where it’s going, and where I see difficulties, not in that order. So, spoilers ahead soon for literally anyone reading this (because this is information I’ve never shared with anyone.) But if you don’t care, read on! I will make a mention of where the spoilers actually begin, so it’s safe to keep reading for now.

First, when I started the Lisa Stenton shorts, I wrote them as just that: short stories. The more I write, however, the more it (perhaps inevitably) is turning into an actual novel, and I actually don’t like that. For one, I’m not really writing novels at this point in my career because I get bored with the characters/story after about 8-10,000 words. Now, I’m already at the point with Lisa’s stuff, and luckily I still like everything that’s going on, but it’s still a concern for me.

Another concern is that I never wrote it as if it would be a novel. The first three chapters all happen weeks a part, so if I were to make it a novel I would condense it into days at the most. Now, this isn’t a big problem, but it does change some subtle things. I wanted the shorts to be “snippets” of her life, not “the next important thing” that happened.

She’s also a bad protagonist. I don’t have a clear goal for her to be working towards, for one. Right now she’s still just learning about the supernatural world. In the same vein, I have no character arc set up for her. This isn’t as much of an issue, as I’m realizing I’m apparently writing her as an unsympathetic jerk, and I can make that change over time, but it’s not an intentional thing going on there. Those things make me scared to move on, because I don’t have a novel structure I’m really basing it off of. Of course, the most important thing is that I like the characters and the story, so I shouldn’t worry about writing myself into a corner when I have some semblance of a plan.

Alright: spoilers ahead here. Where is the story going, and what is that semblance of a plan? Before I get to that, let me give you the big picture of this world I’m building. The most important thing is that everything derives it’s power from belief. Supernatural creatures are stronger the more prevalent they are in folklore. In our world, most people don’t believe werewolves exist in our world, but they are given life through our ideas of them. This contrasts old, pagan gods like the Norse, Greek, Chinese, Egyptian, etc. Today’s society doesn’t really believe that those gods ever truly existed in any form, so in my world they simply are immortal beings with no power. So you can use “belief” as a gauge to tell how powerful a supernatural creature would be in my world.

It’s the same thing with the magic. I’m not quite sure if this will work the way I want it to, but right now, the only constraint is your ability to believe something is possible. You could fly if you truly believed you were capable of it. This is why the humans in the supernatural world have formed guilds. They specialize in things because it’s a lot easier to teach somebody to create magic ink if you show them it’s possible. Lineages have their own powers and specialties because doing magical things without anyone to learn from is basically impossible. I also like the idea of bloodlines being directly related to your supernatural abilities, but I don’t have a proper justification for that just yet. As a side note: Lisa totally has a power, but I have no idea what it is. The only inkling I’ve got was maybe it’s her power to believe in other people, giving them power, but I don’t think this really fits with her character very much.

So, all of this ties in to where I’m going. But there’s one big piece of lore I haven’t mentioned yet: The Old War (as I am calling it as of this very moment). The Old War is the reason the majority of every people don’t know about the supernatural world. About 3,000 BC and prior, the world was overrun with the supernatural. It was part of every day life, and because everybody knew they existed, they were incredibly powerful. Think of this time as an advanced civilization. (Not Space Age, mind you.) The world was far more advanced than even the Romans managed, and precious little is known about this time. That’s because the Old War was a century long battle between the humans and the supernatural to wrestle control for the Earth, and the humans won. With their victory, they all but erased the supernatural off the map, utterly destroying their power by doing so. Because of this, that’s the way it’s remained ever since. In Lisa’s time, it is debated to this day whether or not that war was good or bad. On the upside, it gave humans control of their lives, but on the downside it set technology back extremely far. (I’m sort of basing all of this on technology archaeologists have found that confuse our understanding of how advanced the people were back then, like the Antikythera mechanism.)

What does that have to do with Lisa’s story? Absolutely nothing… yet.

But it does tie in with what her entrance to the supernatural community means. First off, and perhaps most importantly, there is no extra plane of existence in this world. The Earth is all we’ve got. This brings a lot of challenges writing an urban fantasy, because it makes it so I also have to hide the events of this story from the public the entire time I’m writing. (Although big events can leak through like in other series. I have no qualms with that.) All that being said, I do want their to be action, and I want swords to be involved somehow, since I’m an epic fantasy writer after all, but I don’t know how to make it work. I have no “cover story” I can use from the real world to justify the true meaning behind what’s happening in mine, and it’s especially hard if I want to use swords rather than just using plain old guns. So, I still have to give that quite a bit more thought.

Lastly: what’s in Lisa’s house? Well, saying it flat out will be disappointing, but in the context of the story I think it’ll come across as a breath of relief. Most importantly, it is an extremely dangerous being. When Lisa described what happened to Will, he recognized that the only things that could do what it did were powerful and dangerous, so that’s why he warned her not to go back home. What he doesn’t know is that that creature is bound in servitude of Lisa’s parents, and effectively under contract to keep her safe. This will take some time to be revealed in Lisa’s actual story, but that’s what’s going on. I don’t know what to call this beast just yet, but his name is Reed. He is a body-snatcher, and without warning or approval, can take direct and complete control of somebody’s body. This is what he did to Lisa when he wrote her suicide note. He did this as an introduction, since he recognized her discovering the supernatural world. (It was also his way of showing his annoyance of having leeches in the house.) Now, what does Reed do? Well, he reads. Lisa’s mother named him based off the same principle that she names leeches. This isn’t his real name, but it’s hard to pronounce so they just call him Reed. He reads ancient manuscripts from the Old War, which is what Lisa’s parents go off every spring to collect more of.

As an aside to everything I’ve already said, Lisa and Doc will have an Ash/Pikachu relationship, except in this circumstance she does it because she knows it annoys/disturbs the rest of the supernatural world to have a leech by her side all the time. She does it because she genuinely likes Doc, being one of the only people that was introduced to the leeches on her own terms.

So that’s pretty much everything I have planned for Lisa Stenton’s story. The upcoming chapters will be her and Will going off to do something that I don’t have planned, and it will be a little while before she goes back home, not knowing what’s there and being terrified to return. I don’t plan on continuing the story for a few months at least, because I’ve got other stuff I want to be working on, but also I need to iron out some of the above details before I’ll let myself continue.



Review — The Tao Series (370)

I recently finished the third book in Wesley Chu’s Tao series, and while it’s not my conventional reading of sword and sorcery type stuff, it was still a good read. So, here are my full thoughts on the series as a whole, treating it as a trilogy of books (even if there are technically other works that follow the third). Since the “last” book was published in 2015, I won’t bring up any spoilers here. Instead, I’ll focus on plot and character development, writing style, and story structure as a whole.

Before we get started, let me talk about genre and story premise. I would describe these books as a secret history series where the Earth is all but controlled by this alien race called the Quasing. In the context of these books, many famous (or infamous) world leaders and prominent historical figures had aliens in their heads telling them what to do. The only way for a Quasing to leave their host to move on to the next is for the host to die, and they can’t exist outside of a person for very long. Over time, these beings split into two warring factions, called the Prophus and Genjix, and now have a secret war that has been raging for centuries. All of this is unbeknownst to the public.

The series follows one particular Quasing, Tao, as its main character. He is a Prophus operative trying to stop the Genjix from doing whatever their dastardly schemes have brought them to next. He and his host meet trouble along the way (of course) and it’s up to the two of them to save the day against all odds.

The book series is pretty good. If that sounds like a premise you would enjoy, chances are you would. I personally love secret history and learning all of the “hidden truths” about past events and people. This series basically rewrites world history from the beginning by shedding light on who was really pulling the strings behind Caesar, Napoleon, Charlamagne, etc. Another great thing about this series is that it can be pretty humorous. In something like Dresden Files, it can be serious sprinkled in with hilarious situations or comments (Harry Dresden is a funny guy after all), but in the Tao series, it doesn’t take itself quite so seriously. Humor is thrown in quite a bit. It’s not the “every once in a while: comedic relief”, but rather a “humor is always a character here, he is just quieter in some scenes”. This can be taken as a negative or a positive point, depending on your preference.

My biggest annoyance with this series though is that the series isn’t complex, and on top of that broke important rules once or twice. If I were to describe to you the overarching plot of Dresden Files, or even the plot of any one specific book in that series, it would take me quite a while because there’s a lot going on the further into the series you go. Granted, the Tao series is only three books, but describing the plot development in any one of the three would take me less than a minute each. To be honest, the plot is pretty similar between all three books, as well. It’s just too formulaic for my tastes. Going back to the rule breaking, it pretty much made one big change to the way things worked just to have a bad thing not happen, and that never sat well with me, because it almost directly contradicted a major plot point in the first book.

On top of all this, the writing itself seems pretty basic. Now, I don’t feel comfortable judging somebody on this particular point, being a fledgling writer myself, but as I was reading it there were a lot of mistakes that even I don’t make anymore. Many had to do with description and word choice, but the books are predictable. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it isn’t exactly good in this case, either.

Is the Tao series worth picking up? Sure, if the premise sounds interesting, and you like a lot of action in a book. It’s not bad by any means. I liked quite a few of the characters, and my suspension of disbelief was never broken. I’d say there’s a good book for every situation, and this series certainly has a place in an avid reader’s library.

Prompt — Death’s Influence

Cars whizzed by. They didn’t even slow down to read the sign. They knew what cardboard and ragged clothes meant.

“If only this rabble knew what I was capable of,” he muttered. “They would cower at my feet.”

He sat at the corner of a gas station, trying to make eye contact with every driver that wouldn’t want to acknowledge him. People were so selfish. They only lived for themselves. If only he had the power.

Out of the corner of his eye he spotted a limousine pull up to refuel. Limousines were dangerous. They never handed out money and things ended badly if you even asked. The beggar kept his head down as its passenger stepped out and stretched, suit obviously tailored just for him. Just in case, the beggar pointed the sign in that direction. Easily legible, but not demanding. That was safest.

A clatter of change spilled out from behind him, and he turned to see that his cat had once again knocked over the travel mug where he kept his money. “Mau! No!” he scolded, shooing it away when it tried to sniff the spoils of its victory.

Putting the change back into the thermos, he scanned around, checking to see if anyone was paying attention. Nobody was.

Except the limousine passenger. Was he coming this way?

Hurriedly, he straightened his clothes, for what it was worth. There was a difference between desperate and pathetic.

“Is that your cat?” the man asked as he approached. He nodded to the cat that perched on a nearby wall. The villain that only made his life harder.

“Uh… yeah,” he replied.

“You named it Mau?” the man wasn’t looking at him or the sign. He was just staring at the cat.

The beggar clenched his fists. “It’s a sentimental name. You got a problem with that?”

“No, no. It’s just that I saw a very similar cat with the same name in Italy. Maybe, three hundred years ago.”

The beggar snapped up to look at him, to inspect his face. “You with the CIA or some other intelligence agency?”

“Come now, do you really think cats are useful for information? Besides, photographs are newer technology, no organization could keep track of that.”

The beggar scratched his beard, suspicious.

“Tell me, where is Isis?”

“I don’t know who that is.”

“Your sister.”

“My sister’s name is Aset. I don’t talk to her anymore.”

“Because she has power you no longer have? You know part of the reason nobody worships you anymore is because you do not accept change, Osiris.”

“My name is not Osiris! The Greeks butchered my name. It’s like pronouncing chair ‘ka-ha-ray’ to make it sound fancy.”

“Either way, your memory and identity is attached to that name. People can’t worship a name they have never heard, even if it’s the name of a dead god they are familiar with.”

“Dead god,” he replied. “How ironically appropriate.”

The man sighed. “You may think that the ancient religions are dying, but it is only because you and your kin are giving up.”

The beggar glanced up. “Who are you?”

The man glanced around them to make sure nobody was watching. Then, he tucked a hand inside of his suit and pulled out a hammer. It hummed quietly as the runes inscribed on it glowed. It pulsed with electricity, tendrils of lightning curling around it.

“Thor!” the beggar whispered, glancing up at the man. “You… you have power!”

He tucked the hammer back into the suit. “Yes. I’ve discovered a way to reclaim our old abilities. One far easier to accomplish than convincing these mortals to revere and sacrifice to us. And I’ve come with an offer.”

The beggar had vague memories of a life where he held the power over life and death itself. It was so long ago. He would do anything to obtain that once more. “What must I do?”

“Our power comes purely from the reverence of the public. Our strength and that of other gods doesn’t have to be exclusive between each other as we once believed. I reclaimed my power from the cinema.”

“The what?”

“My likeness is portrayed in movies. Stories that play themselves that mortals clamber over each other to witness. They love me, and even if they do not believe it is a true story, I gain power.”

“So I must perform in these stories?”

“No, no. They will have somebody pretend to be you. It is easier for everyone this way. My goal is to reunite every god with the power they once held, and with that strength comes infinite possibilities. But I cannot do it alone. Will you join me?”

The beggar looked at the sign he had left at his feet. Unemployed.  Any offering is appreciated. “Let us conquer the world once more.”

Writing Prompt: Among the homeless live forgotten gods and ancient heroes of legend, unable to cope with society. Tell their stories.