The minute they had faces, these guys became more real

The minute they had faces, these guys became more real

One of the biggest mistakes I made writing the early drafts of Guns and Guano was being vague. When I started out I wasn’t confident in getting an American protagonist right, so I fudged his accent and was vague about his background. But such evasion is not getting it right, as became clear the minute I got the book near beta readers. Specificity is what makes characters real, because real people and places are specific and detailed.

You can write something in a vague way from the start and then fix it later. But if you’re doing that then why not write something specific, which you might stick to later? You’ll be no worse off. Pick a name for that random bodyguard, decide which town the action happens in, know which side of the war your character fought on (yes I tried to fudge that, no it did not work). Even with accents, pick one, do a few minutes’ research and then go with it. You’ll still be doing better than my original cowboy-impressionist generic American.

Better to take a risk on a detail and maybe get it right than to be vague and be sure of going wrong.

The growing trend for black powder fantasy, combining gunpowder technology with magic, is creating a tiny pocket sub-genre that I consider particularly awesome – French Revolution-inspired fantasy. True, it’s not a full-blown trend – I’ve stumbled across two writers doing it so far – but I’m really hoping I get to see more.

At the moment I’m reading Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s a story of warfare similar to that between France and her neighbours under the revolutionary government. As the war against revolutionary Denland grinds brutally on, Emily Marshwic becomes part of a first wave of female conscripts, desperately trying to defend Lascanne from the nation’s regicidal neighbours. There are touches of Vietnam war story in here as well, lots of questions about the rights and wrongs of war, and a strong cast of characters. It’s a fantastic read.

Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood, the first in his Powdermage Trilogy, looks at revolution from the other side. A despotic government has just been overthrown, and the rebels must now try to establish order even as they face invasion by their neighbours. Most intriguingly it takes the traditional European belief that kings were divinely appointed and runs with it, asking what would happen after the revolution if the king really were tied to divine powers. There are some fascinating ideas here, and though not quite as gripping as Guns of the Dawn, it’s still an enjoyable story of politics and bloodshed.

You could also argue for including Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series in this selection. After all, it’s the Napoleonic wars with dragons, and without the revolution there is no Napoleon. Again, I like these books, but they lack the thing that’s made me really pay attention to the others – an exploration of how revolutions work out, or don’t, when you throw fantastical elements into the mix.

I love seeing fantasy get beyond its usual sword-wielding or urban fantasy territory and play with elements from other time periods. Now I’m hoping for lots more revolutionary fantasy – if you know of any, let me know in the comments.

Terry Pratchett once wrote that rules are there so that you think before you break them. I think the same holds true to any plan or scheme, including my intention to do the Writing Excuses exercises every week this year. This week is very busy with other things, including talking at the Nerd East convention, sorting out website hosting and making preparations to move house in a couple of weeks’ time. So I’m letting myself off and not doing my homework.

Like writing templates, working routines are there to help us, not to follow for their own sake. If a routine isn’t working, maybe it’s time to change it up, or just to take a break. Hopefully I’ll be back from this one next week.

Powerful.

If I was going to choose one word to describe The Wandering Fire, the second book in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, ‘powerful’ is the word I would choose, not just for its style but for its story. It’s a power that lifts a good series into one that’s truly great.

Part Two: Better and Darker

The Wandering Fire picks up some months after The Summer Tree left off. The characters introduced in that book are once more transported from modern Canada to the magical world of Fionavar, where in true legendary style they are called upon to fight the forces of darkness.

At first glance, this book seems much like the first, taking a very Tolkien morality and mythological story-telling, and cranking it up with Kay’s excellent writing. But it feels like, having set up the series, Kay is now free to use his full literary prowess in expanding upon it. The big moments feel even more epic, the intimate ones more personal, the menace even more substantial.

The Revelation of the Overwhelming

Overwhelming power is a major theme of this story, and one that gives it much of its drama.

On the one hand there is the overwhelming threat of Rakoth Maugrim, and of the apparent inevitability of his triumph. By alluding in advance to events to come, as well as shifting the story around chronologically, Kay creates a sense of creeping inevitable disaster, much like the atmosphere of a horror film. Defeat feels almost unavoidable, both in the broad scheme and in individual battles.

But characters are also overwhelmed in a more positive way, through religious experiences. Incidents such as an encounter between Dave and the goddess Ceinwen have a real sense of awe and grandeur to them. The gods are present and yet not reduced to mere people. It’s a difficult balance to strike, and moving to read. This is religious experience at its most emotional.

The Intimate

This isn’t to say that Kay’s book is all about epic grandeur. It’s also rooted in more ordinary but no less wonderful relationships, which he uses to explore all kinds of emotional bonds. There are siblings; romances; parent-child pairings; leaders and followers; blood brothers bound together by combat; a man and his dog; gods and worshippers; mages and the extraordinary people from whom they draw their power. This last pairing, a creation of Kay’s world, helps to draw attention to the others and bring out this theme of the story.

I enjoyed The Summer Tree, but was not enjoying The Fionavar Tapestry as much as Kay’s later work. The Wandering Fire has turned this series into something extraordinary, and I look forward to the final book.

A good fight scene isn’t just an action star beating on some goons. It shows who the characters are and progresses the story. It has a unique style, a gruesome ballet of extraordinary human movement.

Here are my three favourite recent examples.

Daredevil’s Hallway

Netflix’s Daredevil had a lot of action. But my favourite part came in episode two:

Two things I love about this scene:

It’s stylistically unusual, the movement on and off screen creating a novel perspective and engaging the viewer’s imagination in working out what’s happening out of shot.

It shows the protagonist’s character, and that the violence is affecting him. He’s so exhausted he keeps having to stop and rest against the wall, but nothing’s going to stop him reaching his goal.

Snowpiercer’s Sense of Direction

Snowpiercer uses fights not as interruptions to the characters’ dilemmas and journey, but as part of that journey. By continuing its left/right breakdown of shots, and using this to show characters making decisions as well as making progress, it connects the action in to a cohesive and powerful narrative.

The Raids

The Raid and The Raid 2 feature some of the most breathtaking fight scenes in modern cinema. Sure, their plots are primarily vehicles for those fight scenes, but from the floor-by-floor carnage of the first film to the punch-up in the confines of a car late in the sequel, and right through to its brutal climax, they keep showing something new.

Agree, disagree, can’t see the point in on screen violence? Share our thoughts, and great examples I’ve missed, in the comments below.

DSC_0152 - Copy“That was delicious.” Isabelle McNair placed her cutlery carefully on the empty plate and peered around the flat. “Should I call for a servant?”

“You’d be lucky.” Dirk Dynamo leaned back and lit a cigar off a wall mounted gas lamp. “Once they’ve experienced a couple of Tim’s inventions going wrong, staff never stick around.”

“I’m afraid Dirk’s right.” Blaze-Simms grinned as he looked at his guests. “But I have turned the problem into a solution.”

He took a box from the bureau behind him and pushed a button on the top. With a hiss of steam, a mechanical arm extended from the cabinet and took hold of the nearest plate. More followed it, grabbing wine glasses, leftover pudding and empty plates.

Isabelle applauded. It was one of the most marvellous machines she had ever seen.

“Wait for it…” Dirk raised an eyebrow.

“I don’t know what you-” Blaze-Simms was cut short by a crash of shattering glass as the port decanter exploded in the device’s grip. His face fell. “Oh dear.”

He pressed the button, and then another one next to it, but the machine kept going. A frantic look spread across Blaze-Simms’s face as the machine flung a chair across the room and then grabbed hold of the table.

“I’ve got this.” Dirk stood. “Where’s the power source?”

“Steam engine in the linen closet.” Blaze-Simms kept hitting buttons to no effect. “There’s a pipe feeding into the left side of the machine.”

Dirk leapt toward the pipe and the steam trickling from its joints. But as he vaulted forward the machine lifted the table, swung it like a cricket bat and knocked Dirk flying. The window exploded as he hit it and went tumbling into the street.

“Are you alright, Mr Dynamo?” Isabelle shouted, her heart racing in alarm.

“I’ll live.” The distant reply was almost a groan. “Ain’t gettin’ back up the stairs anytime soon though.”

“Then I’ll deal with this.” Isabelle glared at the machine. She was not going to let a glorified cupboard be the ruin of her. “Sir Timothy, how can I-”

The machine swung the table and Isabelle darted back, dragging Blaze-Simms with her into the corner of the room. Half a dozen mechanical arms were flailing around, turning the whole space into a whirl of deadly, determined metal.

“Terribly sorry.” Blaze-Simms had a screwdriver in his hand and was fiddling with the control box. “I overlooked certain limitations that would have told it what wasn’t mess.” He ducked as one of the arms tried to grab his collar. “I’ll remember next time.”

“Lets worry about getting through this time.” Isabelle looked around. There was almost nothing left in the room around them, and five out of six arms were busy yanking books off of shelves, trying to cram them into the same recess as the dirty dishes. Just one hovered in front of her like a snake, its pincered end snapping open and shut, ready to tidy her away the moment she came near.

“Dash it all, this isn’t working.” Blaze-Simms frowned in exasperation at the controller.

“Then maybe this will.” Isabelle grabbed the controller and waved it in front of the arm, then flung it on the floor a few feet away. As the arm reached down to tidy the mess, she darted past it. The others turned to stop her as she stood by the side of the cabinet and the hissing metal pipe. One lunged down and she leapt out of its way. The pincers slammed into the pipe, which burst open, filling the room with steam.

Its power cut off, the tidying machine ground to a halt, limbs crashing down on the floor.

Isabelle righted a toppled chair and sat down, fighting the trembling that now threatened to take over.

“Maybe if I pay more I could find a tolerant cleaner,” Blaze-Simms said from the far corner of the room.

“Maybe,” Isabelle said. “Or maybe you could just learn to wash the dishes.”

* * *

This brief story is set after Suits and Sewers, the second book in my Epiphany Club series, available now on Amazon and Smashwords. If you enjoyed this then you might like to give that a read, or to start with the first book, Guns and Guano, which is free on Amazon and Smashwords.

If you’d like to receive stories straight to your inbox every Friday then just sign up to my mailing list, and get another free book while you’re about it.

Just one of many images of the apocalypse.

Postapocalyptic fiction is pretty big at the moment. And by ‘pretty big’ I mean among the best-selling books and movies out there in the form of The Hunger Games. Of course there’s grittier stuff as well, scavengers looking to get by in the devastated future of Mad Max or prepper fiction.

Harry Manners, author of the postapocalyptic Ruin Saga, made a good point about this when he said on Twitter that postapocalyptic fiction is a great arena to discuss the underlying fragility of civilisation. In a world where we have become so detached from the basics of survival, it can be terrifying to consider how easily our comfortable lives could be undermined. Postapocalyptic fiction is a way of addressing that terror, of venting and exploring modern fears. Perhaps it also lets us get a taste of the barbaric, as we increasingly come to understand that the rest of the world isn’t populated by backwards primitives, as everyone from the Romans to the Victorians believed.

I find it fascinating that we can see the same themes – the fragility of civilisation, difficult choices between morals and pragmatism – in stories about the rise of civilisation. Rome and Deadwood both brought this to our TV screens, deliberately exploring how civilisation emerges while showing that as a difficult struggle of faltering steps. In both, the path to safety and security was spattered with blood, and the survival of something that might be called civilised always seemed under threat.

As writers, it gives us two ways to explore these themes – with the birth and the death of civilisations. And as readers it provides something familiar and intriguing in wildly different settings.

What do you think? What’s the appeal of postapocalyptic fiction? Are we really so fascinated by civilisation’s rise and fall?

And if you want to see me grapple some more with what it means to be civilised, you can download my novella Guns and Guano for free from Amazon or Smashwords.