Fundamentals for Life

I was recently cleaning up my hard-drive and reorganizing a bunch of files, deleting old things and, not coincidentally, searching for some of my idea notes for a new project when I came across a file entitled simply “Fundamentals.”  I thought it might pertain to the drumming workshop I take (“Taiko Fundamentals”) but it turned out to be a list of reminders to myself.  And so, I share them with you, and hope, in doing so, that I won’t forget them again.

Since this is a quasi-inspirational post, it seems appropriate to pair it with an inspirational image:  I took this shot of Long's Peak from the Flattop Mountain trail.  Someday. . .

Since this is a quasi-inspirational post, it seems appropriate to pair it with an inspirational image: I took this shot of Long’s Peak from the Flattop Mountain trail. Someday. . .


Be present with family and friends.

I feel better when I write.

I feel better when I exercise.

I deserve to be healthy and fit.

Listen with both ears.

Drink a glass of water upon waking.

Posture matters.

If I feel tired, cranky or dispirited, I need to drink more.

Protein for breakfast.

Be thankful.

“You are never given a wish without also being given the means to make it come true.  you may have to work for it, however.” (Richard Bach, Illusions:  The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah)

Do the hard parts first.

Share joy.

Surrender to the legos.

I have worlds enough and time.

Be open.

Pursue adventure.

I am who I am because I dare.

Posted in essays, personal | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Problem of Plagues. . .and other Medieval Usage Issues

I am working my way through my editor’s notes on Elisha Mancer, book four in The Dark Apostle series, and encountering the difficulty of words.  Words are, in a novel, the primary tool for delivering the story.  In a historical novel, they take on a special significance because selecting an appropriate word for the historical context can really make the sentence spark and the work feel right.  And selecting the wrong word will annoy readers in tune with the history.

Which brings me to the problem of plagues.  The Biblical plagues of Egypt, for instance.  In modern parlance, “plague” retains a similar sense:  a plague is, as the OED puts it, “an affliction, calamity, evil, scourge” (a plague of locusts, a plague of survey callers, etc.)  But many readers of medievally set historical fiction immediately leap to a single meaning of the word, which came into use around 1382 to refer to a pestilence affecting man and beast.  And “the plague” wasn’t conceived as a specific entity until the 1540’s.  But basically, I can’t use the word in its more general sense because of the era the books are set.  (for more about *that* plague, check out my previous entry on the Black Death versus Ebola)

But my difficulty with language then versus now doesn’t end with the plague.  There is also the problem of things being lost in translation.  Saints, that is.  While we now use the word “translate” to refer exclusively to taking words or ideas from one language into another (sometimes metaphorically), the origin of the term is actually the transfer of a religious figure from one location to another, as a bishop who moves to a different see, or, more frequently, a saint or saint’s remains taken to a different church.  It is this idea of holiness being moved or removed which brought the word to its present meaning, because the first work translated was the Bible itself.

Broadcast is another interesting example.  Nowadays, we are used to broadcast news, a television or radio phenomenon by which information is shared.  It’s actually a farming term, referring to the sowing of seeds by hand over a large area–the literal casting of the seed.  But most readers, finding the word in a medieval historical context would leap to entirely the wrong impression.  And so, rather than submit to a plague of criticism, I seek a good alternative.

Posted in essays, etymology, fantasy, history, writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Elisha Rex by E. C. Ambrose @ecambrose | @kurtsprings1 #review #darkfantasy

Author: E. C. Ambrose Book: Elisha Rex (The Dark Apostle #3) Published: July 2015 Publisher: Daw Genre: Fantasy Source: Paperback           Rating:  Synopsis: Elisha was a …

Source: Elisha Rex by E. C. Ambrose @ecambrose | @kurtsprings1 #review #darkfantasy

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Review: Touch, by Claire North: a deeply human and highly satisfying thriller

This is one of the rare books that I finished and thought–That is what I want my books to feel like. For me, it delivered a powerful emotional impact along with the ripping story and engaging characters. It’s the kind of book that made me want to race around forcing all of my friends to read it. No, seriously, read this book!


Kepler, our protagonist, can assume the minds and bodies of others through a touch. They (gender is intriguingly fluid for such entities) are one of a small number of people who discover they can do this. Some of those entities now live for the moment, bouncing between lives with no compunction about what happens to the people they leave behind, without memories of the occupation or what they did during that time. Some deliberately abused the power, but Kepler actually forms partnerships with their hosts, often agreeing to help them through a difficult circumstance–like an addiction the host suffers from, but which Kepler does not. So first of all, I enjoyed the elaboration of this premise, looking at all of the ways the power could be used.

When we first meet Kepler, their host has just been shot in an assassination attempt by a shadowy organization. Kepler is furious because, although the attempt was aimed at them, the assassin deliberately killed the host instead of leaving her alone after Kepler jumped to another body. Kepler determines to discover who wants them dead and why. After a few jumps in a fascinating chase scene, Kepler succeeds in jumping into the assassin himself. But while in a body, they have no access to the memories or thoughts of that person. In order to questions the assassin, Kepler must jump into someone else after securing the guy so he won’t get away.

Thus begins a very interesting relationship. It is exploitative? How would you feel to have someone take over your mind, then leave you behind? How would it feel to be on the other side–a disembodied personality assuming temporary identities?

I felt the author did a very convincing job of creating Kepler as an individual, and building all of these fascinating interactions with hosts and with others–many people don’t even know this is possible, and the few that do have widely varying reactions to it. There are some great twists along the way to a highly satisfying conclusion.

At a recent convention (I believe it was World Fantasy 2015) one of the speakers pointed out the way that a speculative fiction work reflects the world view of the author. This really got me thinking. . .so I think one reason I admire but don’t enjoy George R. R. Martin’s work is that his world view is significantly different from mine. I am ultimately a humanist (in spite of my “you don’t want to be my hero” tagline and often rather grim subject matter), and believe in the potential redemption of both individuals and humanity as a whole.

I found Touch to be very life-affirming on top of its adventure narrative. Read it because it’s a thriller that will leave you breathless. Read it because it’s the story of complex relationships that develop in startling ways. Read it because it will make you question ideas of identity. Just read this book.

Posted in book reviews, fantasy, fiction | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Anti-technology Fantasy and the Author’s War Experience

This past weekend, I was delighted to spend at Readercon in their new location in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Here is the description of one of the panels that got me thinking:

If Thor Can Hang Out with Iron Man, Why Can’t Harry Dresden Use a Computer? . Gillian Daniels, Elaine Isaak, Andrea Phillips, Alex Shvartsman, E.J. Stevens. In a series of tweets in 2015, Jared Axelrod pondered “the inherent weirdness of a superhero universe… where magic and science hold hands, where monsters stride over cities.” This is only weird from the perspective of fantasy stories that set up magic and technology as incompatible, an opposition that parallels Western cultural splits between religion and science and between nature and industry. Harry Dresden’s inability to touch a computer without damaging it is a direct descendant of the Ents destroying the “pits and forges” of Isengard, and a far cry from Thor, Iron Man, and the Scarlet Witch keeping company. What are the story benefits of setting up magic/nature/religion and technology/industry/science as either conflicting or complementary? What cultural anxieties are addressed by each choice? How are these elements handled in stories from various cultures and eras?

The ending of The Lord of the Rings, in which the hobbits reclaim the Shire and take down the mills is often cited as one reason that fantasy novels often ignore or even reject technology.  However, another title that came up was Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, published in 1889.  The work is often viewed as a satire of the chivalric ideal, and thus related to the idea of the Southern gentlemen who drove the Civil War.  Twain apparently blamed Sir Walter Scott and his medievalist romances for resurrecting knighthood as a worthy goal for contemporary men.

But it is hard to read the final battle, where thousands of knights cast themselves upon the Yankee’s electric fence and die under the fire of his Gatling guns, without feeling some dismay.  This is not the satisfying come-uppance of a backward society, it is the wholesale destruction of a generation of nobility.

Even as I read that line, the echo is clear, and some commentators have noted that Twain’s battle prefigures the catastrophic effect of the battles of World War I.  The Lord of the Rings, published in   shows the heavy influence of Tolkien’s battle experiences–the loss of his friends, and the devastating effects, in particular, of new technologies for slaughter.  He served in the army from 1915 until 1919, though much of the latter portion he spent recuperating from Trench Fever and declared unfit for active duty.  His service included front-line duty at the notorious Battle of the Somme, where the total losses are close to 1 million soldiers.

Mark Twain himself was only a soldier (in a Confederate militia) for two weeks, but his anti-war stance became increasingly set.   Twain’s “War Prayer” (1904) says, in part:

O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire;

A sentiment which covers both the killing of people, and the destruction of their idyllic setting, their “smiling fields”.

It got me thinking about how these seminal works in the fantasy genre suggest a link between their authors’ understanding and experience of war, and their anti-technology conclusions.  The advance of technology is often seen as an inevitable course, usually providing people with more and better and less expensive goods and services–but always tinged with the knowledge that this technology often degrades the land and lends itself to applications that will forward the cause of war.

Better, then, to remove the technology all together.  No mills mucking up the Shire, no Gatling guns to mow down the flower of chivalry.  The technology in these works may be seen as a frightful enemy which it is hard for man to stand or strive against.  Interestingly, the armored knights did not succeed, but the angry ents and the plucky hobbits did, striding into the fray armored with courage if little else, standing in for all of us who are, as the panel description suggests, a little fearful of what technology might bring.

Posted in conventions, essays, fantasy, fiction, guns, history, medieval, technology | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Developing Magical Systems, with Joshua Palmatier

Under normal circumstances, today would be my book launch day. Alas, that was not to be–but that means I can open up the blog to celebrate someone else’s launch:  friend and fellow DAW author, Josh Palmatier. . .

First off, I want to thank E. C. Ambrose for inviting me to guest blog here today.  I really appreciate it!  She asked me to speak about how I develop and integrate magical systems into my worlds, which is fortuitous because while I’m finishing up the third novel in the “Ley” series (the sequel to THREADING THE NEEDLE), I am of course looking forward to the next potential series.  And one of the first things that I have to do for that is to determine/develop/figure out how the magical system is going to work.  Because, for me, the world is created by the magical system, not the other way around.  In other words, the world develops from the magical system, I don’t take a world and integrate a magical system into it.  It simply feels more natural to me to have the magical system first, and then figure out what kind of world would develop around that, or because of that, system.

Cover art for Threading the Needle, Joshua Palmatier's latest novel

Cover art for Threading the Needle, Joshua Palmatier’s latest novel

For example, in the “Ley” series, I sat down with the intent of writing a world in which we’d tapped into the magic of the natural ley lines of the Earth and started using it as a power source.  Obviously, this would mean that important cities of influence would shift from waterways such as ports and rivers and lakes to wherever the nodes of the ley lines were.  So the setting for the book, the city of Erenthrall, suddenly became what used to be a mostly unimportant crossroads in the middle of the plains.  Its sole existence used to be as a central meeting place for caravans crossing the plains, since it was at the confluence of two rivers.  But suddenly it became the most important location in the world, because the central node used to control the ley, called the Nexus, was created there.  What used to be a baronial manse surrounded by a few cottages and a wide flat section of grassland where the caravans would pause to trade blossomed into a huge city with a hundred different districts and towers grown in the space of a day using the ley.  Writers need to think about how the use of magic—whatever kind of magic—might affect the economics of the world.  In this case, it completely altered the trade routes and central trading houses from shipping lanes to wherever the ley nodes were.

But magic is going to affect more than just economics.  Writers also need to consider how the magic in their world will change the everyday activities of the individual.  Will it change how the everyday person lives?  If so, how?  So once I visualized this city of Erenthrall, I began to ask myself how the ley would be used by those who lived in this city.  Would they use it for heat?  For light?  For transportation?  All of these questions birthed aspects of the city, such as heat stones powered by the ley, used not just to warm rooms but to cook food, along with ley globes to light homes and apartments and the streets at night, and ley carts and the equivalent of a subway system using ley barges.  And with these aspects added to the city, the world began to come to life for me.  Suddenly there were people moving through the streets, living in them.

These are the two extremes of the worldbuilding required when working with a new magical system—the macrostructure along with the microstructure.  There are levels that must be considered in between as well.  If someone is controlling the ley system, and people are using it on a daily basis, then someone must maintain the system.  This birthed the Wielders and the Primes—those who repair the system at the street level and those who control the Nexus, the power source itself.  Those are simple mechanical aspects to the system.  Writers also need to consider how the magic might affect the politics, government, relations with adjacent nations, etc.  And what about advancement?  Science doesn’t remain static; we’re constantly inventing new ways to use electricity and magnetism, etc.  Your world should also be coming up with new ways to use the magic to make life easier.  All of these things need to be considered when creating a new world with a magical system at its base.

So for me, the magical system always comes first.  Everything else grows from that base, and as I consider each of the aspects I mentioned above—and more—I find that the world builds itself and comes to life on its own.

Thanks, Josh!

If you want to know more about Josh and his books, check this out. . .

Author Bio:

Joshua Palmatier is an epic fantasy writer with a PhD in mathematics.  He has had eight novels published by DAW Books, including “The Throne of Amenkor” trilogy, Shattering the Ley, and Threading the Needle.  He is currently hard at work on the third novel in the “Ley” series, Reaping the Aurora.  In addition, he’s published numerous short stories in various anthologies and has edited four SF&F themed anthologies with co-editor Patricia Bray.  He is also the founder of the small press Zombies Need Brains.  Find out more about him at or on Facebook or Twitter (@bentateauthor).

Posted in books, fantasy, fiction, guest blogs, magic, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Literary Dwarf, Tyrion’s Historical Forbears

Over on the Tales After Tolkien Society blog, after an entry about a particular Game of Thrones episode, someone asked about placing Tyrion into the context of the appearance of dwarf characters in medieval narratives, in particular Arthuriana.  Not long ago, I participated in the Malory Aloud readers’ theater performance at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, and one of my brief roles involved kidnapping a dwarf who was the companion of the scene’s protagonist, Sir Gareth.

This image seems to represent a Little Person as a court jester.

This image seems to represent a Little Person as a court jester.

In current conversation, the preferred term is little person, and we are aware of several physiological reasons for what is commonly referred to as dwarfism.  Tyrion, and many of his literary compatriots, have one of a variety of hereditary or genetic syndromes resulting in disproportionate dwarfism, as opposed to proportionate dwarfism.  In researching this article, I came across the story of Jeffery Hudson, a 17th century dwarf in the court of Queen Henrietta Maria.  He claims to have grown a good deal after being captured by pirates (his is quite a life and worthy of more study!).  Such growth is not unheard of in the case of psychogenic or psycho-social dwarfism which can be reversed, allowing for rapid growth when the causes of the psychological and physiological stress are removed.  But I digress. .

During the Middle Ages, like many other variances in humanity, dwarfism was perceived as a sign from God, either a judgment upon the parents (in Game of Thrones, Tyrion likens his position to that of being a bastard–the child his father would prefer not to acknowledge) or a reflection of the inner nature of the individual.

Some little people were taken into the courts of nobility, as a reminder that the noble family, with their presumed health and beauty, had been so fortunate as to be blessed by God, while others were not.  The dwarf, or another person with a physical or mental difference, would be fed, clothes, feted (we all remember the Hunchback of Notre Dame at the Feast of Fools, do we not?) as an earthly indulgence. They were often the lucky ones, in spite of being treated more like pets than like people, because, like other non-normative individuals outside the court, they would otherwise be reviled.  Infants with clear differences were often left, or meant to be left, outside–“exposed” as they called it–to live or die as God willed.  The popularity of dwarf entertainers is attested to in documents of Imperial Rome, and more recently in anthropological evidence.  (Generally more of the former than the latter–perhaps because Little People were considered such a curiosity that scholars and authors tended to exaggerate their number and presence).

Because they were perceived as outside of the natural hierarchy of humanity, they were often granted greater leeway in what they said and did, immune from the punishment that would ordinarily be imposed.  We commonly refer to this role as that of the fool or court jester. Indeed, during the Middle Ages, fools could be sorted into two varieties, the “natural”, an individual born different, and the licensed fool, an individual granted the status of the fool by official notice.  Rahere, the founder of Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital and the church of the same name, was one of the latter.

Tyrion fulfills this role in spades, serving as one can speak truth to power, always saying or doing something outrageous or insulting, but existing in a liminal space which protects him from harm.  He provides humor, but also commentary on the “noble” characters around him.  His physical stature gives him a unique status in his society. Likewise, the “natural” fool of the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance was perceived as touched by God in more ways than one–their remarkable form and their outrageous utterances both having a divine origin implying that they were worthy of consideration.

Such individuals appear in Arthurian legend, historical record, and, of course, the plays of William Shakespeare, where they often perform (like Tyrion) as both comic relief, and vital commentary on the action of the play and on its major players.  Another intriguing literary dwarf and jester was Edgar Allan Poe’s Hop-frog, who reveals the perfidy of the court in appearing to coddle an individual they clearly find revolting–and who then exacts his vengeance for their treatment.  James Thurber presents a dwarf jester in his fantasy novella, The White Deer:  a dwarf much abused by the king and his elder sons, but defended by the younger son, the work’s protagonist, who succeeds on lifting the curse placed on the titular deer and on her brother, the dwarf.

George R. R. Martin, a scholar himself, drew on these ideas to craft a character in alignment with medieval ideas of dwarfism, who both fulfills the role of the jester, and exceeds it.  Like the “natural” fools of the Middle Ages, Tyrion excites notice both within the novel, where he is often referred to as “the imp”, and from the readers.  His presence at first invites us, like the noble courts of old, to marvel at those different from us, and enjoy his entertainment value, then rebuffs this voyeurism by developing an engaging and remarkable human being, in the end no different at all.  Tyrion is someone we can identify with because we have all, to a greater or lesser degree, felt reviled and outcast at some time.  We can imagine his state as worse than ours, then surprise ourselves by admiring him, and perhaps even wishing we could be more like him:  more bold, more witty, more willing to exceed the roles we have been given.

Posted in books, character development, fantasy, history, medieval, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment