Monday, November 24, 2014

MOUNT COLOSSI

Danae scrambled ahead of me through the clawing brush ever higher up the Mount of the Colossi. I followed smiling despite myself.

“Come on, Danae, give it back,” I called after her. “It’s mine. I found it.”

“But I know where it goes!” she said for the hundredth time and brandished the massive faceted gem I’d found rolling in the surf. It flashed, filled with its own light, a strand of burning lightning frozen and captured in its amber heart. She grinned at me, that same grin that had captured my heart when we were just children.

“How could you possibly—?” She took off again and with a growl I followed. The hard white and gray soil beneath my feet shifted and crumbled making me stumble, but Danae ascended the steepening incline like a mountain goat. Of course she was just in her long tunic. I lugged my short sword, bow quiver and heavy cloak. I had to use the coarse creeping juniper and myrtle to haul myself higher up our childhood playground. We hadn’t been up here in ages. Not since our coming of age.

She disappeared from view, cresting the mountain’s chalky brow above me and for a moment I was alone suspended between the gray sky and grayer sea far below. I looked out towards Claw Hill a little ways away, the ring of stones on its peak stood dark against the pale earth. The wind gusted. The gulls screamed and far below the boom of the surf echoed up to me.

“Are you coming or not?” Danae said from above. Her face appeared above me.

“How is this harder to climb now than when we were kids?”

She disappeared with a giggle.

A moment later I scrambled atop the gently sloped peak of Mount Collosi. Here the myrtle was in bloom and the juniper berries ripening so that the mountain side was covered in flecks of blue. Danae ran ahead, a figure of white stark against the dark blanket of foliage. She dropped to her knees beside a tumbled hump of black stone and started pulling up weeds and breaking branches. When I finally caught up she’d cleared away the brambles from a flat gray stone I recalled as being much larger years ago.

“Remember?” She said and like a rush I suddenly did.

“The elf hole!” I said. I knelt as she easily flipped the stone away. It had taken both of us to move it when we’d placed it years ago. There beneath it lay a seven sided hole, its edges curiously sharp. It held stagnate rain water, shells, smooth stones and a faded bit of ribbon—the treasures of our youth. I grinned as she scooped the baubles out one after another. I picked up a triangular stone that had once been a fine knife for me to play with.

“I wonder how long we spent up here. Even in the rain,” I said testing the grip of my old toy. “There was that one time, we took that old canvas…”

Danae finished scooping out our treasures and before I could think to stop her, she thrust the great gem into the hole. It fit as perfectly as a blade to a scabbard, slotting home with a snick! The light within suddenly blazed ten thousand times brighter. The ground beneath us trembled and we scrambled back from our old treasure trove.

“What did you do?” I gasped.

“I—I…”

Everywhere golden light shot up from the cracks and crevices in the ground. The whole mountain shifted. We ran stumbling and falling. At first we made for the steep cliff we’d ascended but I snatched Danae’s hand.

“We’ll fall! This way!” I turned us towards Claw Hill. We’d made it only a little way down the ridge when the ground shifted beneath us again. Huge cracks split the earth. The seven standing stones toppled slowly towards each other and then impossibly the entire world seemed to heave up beneath us.

“Danae!” I screamed her name but sloughing dirt and tumbling stones separated us. For a moment there was only terror and madness as the earth itself rose up, trying to swallow me. I crawled and rolled, and tried to run. Branches and loose soil clawed at my feet. Huge rocks whizzed by and then all became still. Somewhere I could hear Danae screaming.

I looked up and my blood froze.

Out of the mountain rose a massive black figure, not unlike a man. Its limbs were long, spindly (if anything so massive can be called that), its head small and misshapen. Two tiny points of gold light blazed for its eyes. The black stone flesh was tattooed in swirling patterns and glyphs of golden light. A rumbling growl emanated from it as it slowly straightened to a massive height. It tugged its hand free from where its fingers hand once been the ring of stones atop Claw Hill. It dragged its legs from the earth and without a moment’s hesitation strode away, the massive foot swept over me, blotting out gray sky for a moment.

Claw Hill. Mount Colossi.

“Colossus,” I whispered the word. I started shouting as I rose on unsteady legs.“Danae! Danae!”

I found her a little while later, crushed. The stone must have landed on her and bounded away for her blood was splashed about in a wide spray of crimson around her pulped body. Her dark eyes were closed, her face twisted in agony, her mouth open showing broken teeth. I stared, suddenly empty. I knew I should be breaking, weeping, but instead there was only a cold void that filled me from top to bottom. For a moment a spark of wrath flashed within me. I still had my sword. I looked around and spotted my bow but my arrows were scattered and broken. Then I looked towards the Colossus and felt the ground tremble beneath its step.

I stood a long time until I could no longer feel the giant’s footsteps.

Then my knees surrendered. I fell and the tears came.

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~SJA

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Not a Drop To Drink - Review



I’m going to be honest. I picked this book up because of the title (it's a great title) and I bought it because of the blurb. On that alone this book is a success. Author Mindy McGinnis paints a grim world filled with thirst, danger and death. A frontier living story at its core, Not a Drop to Drink is also touched with flavors of military adventure, romance, survival, and dystopia. In a world filled with Dystopian novels, McGinnis’ novel is refreshingly different. There’s nary a hint of sci-fi, or death rituals target at teens. Scandalous, I know. What was her agent thinking?

McGinnis has a lot of skill as a writer. She has a clipped, clean style free of overly flowery prose that I really enjoyed. She has a good sense of pacing and action as can be seen in the open and close of the book. Despite being light on plot in the middle, the book remains interesting with characters purifying water, preserving food, building shelters and treating diseases so that it never feels like things have stagnated, which was really impressive to me.

The characters themselves are interesting, though here is where Not a Drop To Drink starts to show its flaws. McGinnis’s small cast of other characters is largely likable but a little flat. You have the love interest, the dependent, the crazy mom, the grandma, and the old coot and none of them really move beyond those tropes.

The main character Lynn is a beautiful (naturally), cold-blooded crack-shot. To be honest she’s also a straight up murderer—a character I’ve never had much ability to sympathize with. She’s been blasting strangers trying to approach the pond she and her mother ruthlessly protect for years. Now a teen, she’s killed dozens of people, without knowing if they were actually anything more than thirsty people looking for water. The author paints this as acceptable, since Lynn and her mother are just “surviving” despite the massive amounts of surplus they have available, something I found reprehensible and inhuman.

Where the book also falters is in some inconsistencies. Now, I blame this more on the editor than the writer here, as it’s specifically the editor's job to root out such things. In one section it mentions a field of flowers Lynn has seen from her roof-top sniper perch but never visited. Later she’s suddenly an expert on the surrounding area for hundreds of miles in every direction. She can shoot an enemy in complete darkness at a range of hundreds of feet, but can’t shoot someone six feet away through the ceiling of her house. She’s paranoid enough to consider killing someone she knows when he comes walking towards her property but doesn’t fight when some strange aggressive men approach her with an unfamiliar hostage. There are numerous little things like that throughout, which unfortunately weaken an interesting story.

The author also neglected to do enough research. She has packs of coyotes menace the farm. Having lived in the Southwest my whole life I know coyotes are solitary animals, except for females with pups. They will occasionally band together for a quick hunt but never longer than that. McGinnis also shows a lack of knowledge regarding guns. Normally this wouldn't be a problem except guns are an integral part to the plot so her ignorance is glaring. The characters constantly “cock” their rifles, something that modern rifles don’t do (much less future ones). Bullets leave smoking holes and ignite containers of gasoline. No one ever loads, reloads or even checks the loads on their guns. They carry no ammo and don’t count their shots like a real shooter would.

There are a few other things. I’d worry about spoiling this point but it’s so… well, I’ll let you decide: The villains run some sort of rape-for-trade settlement which is frequented by everyone in the area, despite their brutal treatment of everyone and standard policy of stealing everything from everyone they encounter—so… yeah… I have no idea how they have anyone to trade with or how they keep customers… but there you have it.

As I mentioned, the short comings in this book are the fault, not of the talented author, but of the editor, who should have caught the inconsistencies, and miss-information and insisted on their being corrected. All in all, Not a Drop To Drink isn’t a bad book, it’s just not great either. That said, I’d be very curious to read something else by the author to see how she improves with practice.

What to know: There is a bit of cursing / foul language in the book. The concepts of sex and rape are acknowledged as existing but are more hinted at than explained outright. There is a generous helping of violence and gore that some sensitive readers might find disturbing.

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~SJA

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

GLORY AND GORE

Inspired by Lorde's song Glory and Gore.

There’s a humming in the air of the green room. It makes the whole room feel like it’s skittering, filled with static electricity or robot ants. Maybe it’s just the air scrubbers, or some loose vent cover somewhere. Or maybe it’s just our nerves. We’re all still in our formal wear from the talent portion of the show. We look like a bunch of prom-goers waiting in an Emergency Room—wondering who’s going to live or die.

We’re the final six.

Of course six doesn’t mean squat. It’s the final five we want. Then we get the first pay off we’ve seen since passing auditions nearly three months back. I shake out my hands for the hundredth time, hoping this time it will get rid of the jitters. Other people are busy on their com-swatches, sending out last minute pleas for votes, or thanks to their many fans.

“Bam!” Thomas Cochran suddenly says. “Two million fans.” He scans the room with a smirk. He’s gorgeously fit and can turn on the charm for the cameras. A deadly combo. Too bad he’s rotten to the core. I think there used to be a song about that. Something about a pretty boy with an ugly heart. “There’s no way I’m up for elimination. Not with numbers like that.”

“You heard the judges, they thought your singing was crap,” Mae says, ever the debater.

“Yeah, but the judges don’t get to vote. Not anymore. It’s all up to the world now.”

I swallow the burning bile at the back of my throat. I don’t have many fans—only a couple hundred thousand. I don’t have the knack for schmoosing people and during the talent portion of the show I’d forgotten my dance routine. I’d tried to fake it but no one had bought it. Truth be told, dancing isn’t my real talent. My real ability shows during eliminations. Still it worries me. No one likes facing the possibility of being sent home.

The seconds continue to crawl past, punctuated with the dull tapping of everyone checking and rechecking their swatches. Everyone but me and Gianna, who half-sprawls atop the glass table, poking one of the cheap cups slowly from one edge to the other. I shake out my hands for the hundred and first time to no avail.

CRASH! Everyone jumps at the sound of the glass breaking. Gianna’s pushed the cup off the table. She shrugs. She’s older than all of us by a few years. Twenty, I think. She’s fought in the army on three continents, launched into a minor acting career after appearing as the Army’s poster-child in a variety of ads and has the most amazing alto voice you’ve ever heard. She’s the essence of the show. A real triple threat, just like the name of the show.

“Gah! What’s wrong with you?” someone says

“Better than listening to the sounds of your desperation,” she answers. Everyone glares and I can almost hear their thoughts. I hope you’re the one eliminated. But Gianna won’t be—at least not easily. She was a contender last season and only got eliminated due to a freak injury. She’s heavily favored to win and she knows it. So does everyone else.

We return to our waiting. I keep replaying that stupid dance routine and my epic failure. How can I remember the routine so perfectly now, but an hour ago…? The green room door opens. One of the many PAs enters with a cloud of camera drones that eagerly zoom in on the six of us.

“The results are in.”

Some start hamming it up for the cams. Deep breathing, teary gasps. I try to stay calm—stoic. It’s the one thing I have going for me. People think I’m cold as ice, that I don’t have fear or regret. I’ll make it work for me.

“Aster, Gianna, you’re going up for elimination.”

She says it so matter-of-factly I almost miss it. Then the icy fist slams into my gut. I have to go up against Gianna-the-freaking-veteran. I’m doomed. I shake the thought away. The mind is half of the battle. I have to win there first. The PA continues as if my life isn’t about to end. “We’ll get the entire cast ready to go, set up on the main stage for the judgement. Check your swatches. The director has pushed some suggested lines and reactions. Wardrobe is ready for everyone so let’s go.”

Reality TV. Nothing real about it—except the money.

I swallow my dread as we head out. There’s a flurry of excited conversations and exchanged glances. The others think I’m as good as gone.

They get us all dressed quickly. We slide out of our shimmering formal wear and into snug leather and plastine, stuff designed to look “tough” more than actually offer any protection. The entire time we’re surrounded by wardrobe and production staff as well as other contestants. Then there’s fresh makeup. New hair styles. Then they film us pretending to get ready and saying potential good-byes. Sometimes they have us repeat something we actually said, other times we’re fed lines and reactions. The cameras seem to linger on me, getting more footage than the other contenders. They think I’m going to be eliminated—they need that extra footage for the farewell montage.

“Not today,” I vow. That ten million is going to be mine, even if I have to go through the veteran.

Then we’re brought up to the big stage and we have to wait in the wings while they bring in an audience, prep the judges, and finish adjusting the lights and redressing the stage. We’re all sitting in silence, me because I’m nervous out of my mind, the others probably because they’re working on their lines.

I glance at the swatch in my sleeve. I’ve been given five options to say when the producers ask me how I feel about being up for elimination but I’m not going to use them. I’ve picked a line. Had it in mind since before auditions.

Suddenly Gianna pipes up. “You know. They had stuff like this in ancient Rome. People battling for the entertainment of the masses. Gladiators.”

For a moment everyone’s silent but inevitably Chochran pipes up. “I’d friggin love to see a gladiator sing Teenage Dream before going out to battle.”

Mae falls for Gianna’s goad as well. “We auditioned for this. We can quit any time. We’re not slaves or like, prisoners.”

I expect an argument, but Gianna just shrugs again. “Sure. Keep telling yourself that. Anyway, the height of the games coincided with the height of Roman corruption. See, no one cared the country was falling apart so long as they were being entertained. I think that’s what we are. My dad called it the opiate of the masses. The Visigoths are on the hill but no one cares because, hey, Triple Threat is on.”

I frown at the thought. Where is all this coming from? Is she trying to rattle me? Trying to get me to forfeit? Or is she just running her mouth? “If you think that, why don’t you quit?” I snap before I realize everyone will think I’m hoping not to have to fight Gianna. I can't appear afraid.

“I’m pretty sure I can kill you all, one by one to get that ten million,” Gianna says. “And even the Visigoths take cash.” That silences everyone.

She should have saved that line for the cams, I think. It’s a good line.

The production staff finally have us line up, down the length of the stage. There are lights, holograms, smoke, music cues. The producers start filming lines, responses they’ll splice together in editing with the judges asking the same questions. Everyone is performing at full bore now. Tears, anxious faces, stiff upper-lips even though they know they’re not going into the arena after this. I feel confused. Conflicted. I stare down through the crystalline floor to the bright mottled orb of the earth hundreds of miles below us. What am I doing here? Distracting the world from problems it should be facing?

I’m next.

I shake off the thought. It’s just Gianna’s mind games at work. The cams and production assistants and director with their black clothing and nerd-chique hairstyles gather around me. This is the worst part for me. Worse than what’s to come.

“Got your lines ready?” the director smiles his taxed smile.

I nod and try to look delicate, cool. A stylist fusses with me for another second and then the cams are on, little red lights winking away as they orbit me.

“So this line will come from Simon,” the director says. He indicates an empty judge’s seat. “So we want you looking that direction for these close ups. Okay.”

A PA reads the line with the enthusiasm of a wanna-be. “What would you say if I told you, you were up for elimination tonight, Aster?”

I jump on my line. “The ancient Samurai used to say, ‘I am already dead. Only victory will return my life.’”

There’s a buzz of excitement from the staff. They’re all grinning, nodding and for a moment my heart surges full of pride. My line’s a hit.

“Great! Great, Aster. Let’s try another couple that we’ve prepared. Give the editing monkeys some other stuff to work with.”

I rattle off the other lines with a lot less enthusiasm, hoping that’ll make them use the first take. After a few minutes more they wrap up my close ups but instead of going to the next person they backtrack to Gianna. To my horror, they give her my line. They’re all grinning and nodding again as if they thought of it. A hollow fills my stomach and a hot fury, my heart. I try not to cry. It’s such a stupid thing to cry about.

Eventually they finish the close-ups and we move onto the wide shots with the actors/judges delivering their lines. Then the final judgment, which Gianna and I have known for hours is declared and the platforms beneath our feet slowly lower us into the floor. They edit the footage so it looks like we’re taken directly to the arena but really we’re just under the stage. They take us out, doctors look us over, we’re redressed, this time in better armor and then we’re given our weapons. Swords. No shields.

They want an ugly match tonight. The execs must want a boost in the ratings.

My anxiety and energy are building. I feel that humming in the air again. I dance on the balls of my feet. My heart rate is going up. I can feel it thumping in my finger tips. My mouth is dry. My palms wet. I spin the sword experimentally. It’s not like the ones I’ve been practicing for the past few years. It’s a heavy broad blade designed for hacking, as well as crushing thrusts. I can hear my father’s voice telling me I’m ready, that he’s proud of me, that there’s ten million on the line.

I glance at Gianna. She doesn’t seem to have any of my pre-fight jitters and just stands staring out towards the arena that’s beginning to fill with the crowd that had been watching our “final judgement” earlier. These people must have been in line since dawn this morning. It’s going on eight PM now and we’re finally getting to what they want.

The death match.

“You ever think about death?” Gianna asks. I pause in my nervous excitement, looking for another mind game. She turns to me, her dark eyes hollow. “It’s alright if you do.”

“Barely anyone dies in these eliminations.”

“Yeah. I know. But do you think about death, about it really, truly finding you and ending everything?”

I swallow again. Her simple words have pierced my excitement like a needle through a balloon. I suddenly feel older than my sixteen years, stretched thin and tired. “Yeah,” I admit.

“Me too.” Her voice is soft, almost too soft to hear over the cheering of the crowd and the thundering music as the arena doors swing open, beckoning us towards the final five.

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~SJA

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Skylark - Review

Its rare for a modern author to jump immediately onto my best authors list. Meagan Spooner did just that with her (and Amie Kaufman's) These Broken Stars, so I was very interested in reading her debut novel Skylark. It's been out on the market a while, with the third book in the trilogy just being released earlier this year. Even so, I thought I'd toss in my two cents.

While I didn't devour Skylark in a day like Meagan's other book, it is a good read. For those who think that Brian Sanderson and some of the other new masters of fantasy are the be-all and end-all of world building, they haven't read Meagan's work. The world of Skylark is first and foremost incredibly creative. I've read a lot of fantasy and don't know of anything quite like the rich, horrific and beautiful landscape containing her story. It combines magic, clockwork technology and distopia. Secondly, it is believable in a way that I do not find of the new "masters'" works. Her characters are rich and well fleshed out and leave you wanting to know more about them rather than seeking desperate resolution to some cliffhanger ending.

Like These Broken Stars, Skylark doesn't follow the tropes of any one genre. There's a lot of fantasy to it, some distopian, survival-horror, and naturally, romance which is nice because you don't always know what to expect, so when the rare trope does pop up you're more pleasantly surprised rather than exasperated.

The one issue I had with the book was its pacing. The beginning was a bit of a stagger step of action for me, starting and stopping in a manner that made it hard to really get into. Once things got moving though, they moved along at a brutal clip that kept me turning pages until part 2, where a long journey slowed things down.  Please, don't misunderstand, it's still interesting stuff, the plot just isn't advancing very quickly. For some readers, this middle slump will quickly become tedious.As a reward for soldiering through the journey (and paying attention) Meagan has written some great twists, which make the book a really fun read.

Skylark is a book for young adults. It has some grim torture-esque scenes, and a few parts with bloody violence, though nothing I thought particularly graphic and some mention of nudity--again nothing graphic. With beautiful language, an interesting world, and great characters this is definitely a book to pick up if you're looking for something original for your brain and imagination to digest.


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~SJA

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

PUSH AND PULL

Cekme fought listlessly, his sword hardly making into place to parry his opponent’s savage stroke. The weariness of too many blows, too much lost blood covered him, threatening to drag him to the featureless ground. He feared, as he always feared at this point of the fight. His chest heaved. His wounds burned. His hands trembled. The end was a few strokes away. Death reached out its harsh hand.

His opponent, his twin brother Itmek, stepped back for a moment rather than pressing his advantage. He was young, sixteen, and darkly handsome just as Cekme.

“Ten thousand. Time to be free,” the boy said and smiled mockingly and poised his wicked blade above his sweat sodden head, his curling black hair hanging lank. “You know. I’d have thought I’d get bored with this, brother, but no.”

If he hadn’t said anything Cekme might have just let the blow land he was so weary but the taunt seared a red line through his mind. For centuries they had fought. Could he let his brother win? Could he accept ultimate defeat? Itmek’s smile broadened. His sword chopped down and the battle fury finally came upon Cekme. He twisted aside at the last instant. His brother’s sword scraped the ground but the point darted back up, twisting, lunging for his throat. The the lethal blade suddenly seemed absurdly slow. Cekme let the lunge slide past and drove the heavy bronze pommel of his sword into his brother’s shoulder. His knee shot up, thudded into his brother’s thigh. His elbow made a short, sharp circle and cracked against Itmek’s jaw. Muscles, weary from endless battle gave way beneath the blows, and Itmek went down, his sword spinning away into the blood stained dust.

Itmek scrambled for his blade but Cekme stepped on his brother’s back, forcing him down. He lifted his sword.

“No!” Itmek screamed, his voice high and panicked.

The sword fell. His brother’s life gushed out, red and bright. Cekme stepped back from the suddenly still body and hobbled slowly away. He stopped perhaps twenty feet away, where in the smooth white grit of their featureless prison 9,999 little hash-marks had been scored. One for each time his brother had killed him without being killed himself. He spat on the closest marks and kicked them contemptuously, scuffing them from existence. He turned back to his brother’s body and sat down, his bloody sword resting across his knees. He let his eyes close. With the battle done, the weariness had returned.

He didn’t know how much time passed. There was no way of knowing in the ever-even light of the prison the gods had locked them within. A footstep scraped. Steel rang as it was dragged up from the hard ground.

Cemke sighed and opened his eyes. Itmek’s baleful glare scorched across their eternal battlefield to meet his gaze.

“We agreed! We would end it, thwart the gods’ punishment!” Cemke shrugged but his brother continued. “We were so close. Ten thousand battles.”

Such was their punishment for the foolishness they’d exhibited in life. Ten thousand deaths in a row, each hard won or the oblivion of the afterlife would not find either of them. Cemke supposed he had not yet ceased to be a fool. Almost, but not quite.

“I changed my mind.”

“Idiot!” Itmek snarled and pointed his weapon. “Pick up your sword!”

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~SJA

Monday, August 18, 2014

ZOIE AND THE ZEES

The Zoe knew she couldn’t out distance them but she kept running anyway.

And they kept coming, over a hundred shuffling, stinking groaning Zees.

She was fast but they were relentless. She was quiet but they had her scent. Eventually they would run her down. Even so she kept running, kept fighting to stay alive. In a land filled with death, with creatures that literally crawled out of their graves, it was an uncommon thing. Too many gave up. Too many quit fighting. Whole armies and nations had rolled onto their backs and waited for a swift, brutal death when the zombies first rose up. Not her though. She was too cleaver to quit.

She dodged down an ally and paused to catch her breath. It was ridiculously hard to breathe through the mask she wore.

Why had people given up so easily? She wondered. If I can survive I imagine most anyone can. I’m hardly a teenager.

The scrape of dead flesh on asphalt grew louder. The stench became overwhelming and Zoe took a moment to adjust the breath mask over her face. The packaging had said that it eliminated odors but the reek of rot seemed to seep through no matter how often she changed the filters. She let the mob get within a few hundred paces before starting to run again. She jogged, conserving her strength for any surprises. The chase was almost finished.

She ascended a flight of concrete steps, and passed through the broken fence that had once enclosed the fitness center’s pool. A dozen hand written signs papered the fence. “Living, Keep Out!” “Danger” “Zee Trap. Do Not Enter!” She passed them without a second glance and trotted to the edge of the now-dry pool. She kicked the switch and the generator roared to life. The lights blazed, bathing the pool area in harsh white light. A claxon began to wail. If there were any Zees that hadn’t been following her yet, they’d be on their way soon.

Here, Zombie-zombie-zombie, she silently called with proud smile.

She skipped across the narrow catwalks to the central platform—a pole mounted to a round table, stood in the pool’s main drain and cemented in place. It felt a little wobbly but it was plenty stable and her own design to boot.

The Zees came a few minutes later and immediately began falling into the pool. They were far too clumsy to cross her spidery walkways and they simply marched to their doom. Some died falling, their mushy skulls cracking open on the hard pool bottom. Others survived to mill about trying to reach her but since she was suspended over the deepest part of the pool there was no fear they might reach her. Eventually the survivors all made their way to the shallow end and...

BRRRRRAAAAP!

The industrial wood-chippers positioned there took care of the first Zee that tried to escape that direction. Zoe wondered again why so many people had given up when the Zees were so easy to dispatch.

Maybe most people just aren’t as cleaver as me, she thought. She sat down, put on her headphones, cranked her music, opened her book and relaxed as the claxon continued to scream and the wood-chippers roared.

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~SJA

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Unwrapping Story Ideas - Guest Post



Photo Credit: www.morguefile.com, photo by iphis

I grew up in a big-city, ethnic neighborhood where men gathered at smoky bars for a beer after working all day in the factory (to earn a wage that put bread on the table but rarely put their kids through college), where women shared gossip during a rousing game of bingo in the church basement, and Saturday night bowling leagues were an essential social requirement.

Our family bought rye bread from a bakery, bologna from the butcher, and penny candy from a grouchy old man in the corner store. He would visibly cringe when I laid a quarter on the counter and began a child’s ceremony of choice—two bb bats, one atomic fireball, four flying saucers that melted on the tongue to reveal tiny balls of sugary goodness hiding inside, two red shoestrings, one caramel (for Mom), two bit-o-honey, four candy lipsticks (to share with my sisters), and on and on until the entire twenty-five piece assortment was placed inside a brown paper sack and I scooted happily outside.

The elementary school had a big playground that doubled as an asphalt parking lot; we lost a lot of balls to the busy street below. When the shrill school bell rang, adrenalin would shoot from the top of my head down to my toes as I raced to class, sad that I had once again missed an opportunity to erase chalk from the blackboard. Today, in the early days of spring, when the snow melts and the sun shines strong, I can still catch a whiff of remembrance; drying winds that lick rock salt off roadways can mimic the chalky smell.

Once a week, my fellow classmates and I went to the school library. It smelled like old paper and lemon wax, and books were shelved on oak bookcases large enough to sail through the Atlantic with a crew of glib librarians. But everything seems bigger when you’re just a little kid.

Photo Credit: www.morguefile.com, photo by click

At first, I looked only at picture books. To my mind, Dick and Jane were real people. Several years older and wiser, I searched titles for interesting language. My favorite was one cataloged under Religion called Purple Violet Squish. I eventually bought—and still own—this David Wilkerson book.

The title of another book eludes me, but I remember some of its content. This work of science fiction, the first science fiction I ever read, inspired me to think outside the box. Over forty-years later, it still does.

For example . . .

My protagonist, we’ll call him Jim, enters a time portal and catapults through decades before landing in his own school cafeteria. He’s shoved into line and picks up a tray as he stands before a flat screen with pictures of edible selections. His finger touches a glossy of beef stew, and instantly, the machine spits out a duplicate on an index card.

He takes it to a table (made of transparent acrylic so the lunch monitors, which are beams of light, can see everything), sits on a hover chair, and wonders if a waitress will bring him his food. But the moment he places the card on the table, the picture emerges into a 3-D version of beef stew.

Within seconds, the aroma of grilled onions wafts from the paper to his nose. Savory celery chunks appear. The rim of the picture becomes the brim of a bowl full of bubbling hot stew.

At this point, a real human hands him a spoon. He dips it into the bowl, lifts a carrot to his lips, and swallows. Something in his brain is immediately comforted. At the same time, an idea registers that he must control his consumption to maintain mental acuity and physical prowess.

He takes another bite. Creamy potatoes fill his mouth with memories of happy family dinners. As the soft lump slides down his throat, he notices a perfect pea pop to the top of his dish. He bathes his spoon with gravy to retrieve the pea, and slurps it down with gusto. His eyes grow wide. That single pea tastes like his grandmother garden looks, bursting with color and steamy summer heat.

And there you have it—one potential scene in an other-worldly story, derived from the recollection of reading my first science fiction book. Some of the best story ideas are those that have incubated in memory—a vague remembrance of elementary school, a camping trip, the dog that chased you down the sidewalk . . .imagine the possibilities.

For me, story ideas from penny candies and childhood innocence build when I ask lots of questions. What if the grouchy candy man was not human (in reality, I often wondered if he was)? What if the candy had been replaced with alien produced drugs? What if the man was merely trying to protect young customers from buying the dangerous food? What if we bought them anyway?

A creative writer must constantly dream up new scenarios, and asking “what if” is essential.

At the moment, however, the question I ask myself is, “Why can’t candy still cost only a penny?”

~Amy Nowak

Historical Novelist Amy Nowak has lived in and researched the American West for over thirty years. Her exploration of prehistoric ruins and study of European expansion has inspired her to write candid stories that embrace bygone events, while her approachable characters arouse vitality, spiritual contemplation, and hope. She loves to cook southwestern style food and dithers between red sauce and green, but she’ll take either with a squeeze of lime. Be sure to check out her website.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Making of Incarnation - Guest Post


This is an excerpt from The Making of Incarnation: A Reader's Companion, available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and Smashwords.

If there is one concept that is the most critical to understanding the setting for both The Awakened and Wandering Stars series, it is that of different realms of existence. In the first paragraph of Incarnation, you’re introduced to the concept of creation’s spectrum. And the following scenes take place in both the Temporal (Tima) and Eternal (Eili) realms. Though a full understanding of these realms is not impossible to piece together from the scenes of the novel, it is much easier to comprehend when walking through it chronologically. So, I’ll start with the cosmology of my fictional universe.


Creation and Rebellion


The Holy One (Saerin) originally created everything as a single, cohesive, and complex realm. All manner of living beings, as well as other non-living matter, shared the same dimension and were only separated by physical distance. The passage of time was nearly irrelevant within this realm as all things were intended to exist permanently.


One of the living beings, an angel, became discontented with his status and, in his pride, formed a rebellion to overthrow the Creator. The rebellion polarized the angelic host, and by necessity, began changing its function. The Evil One (Malrah), as he later became known, deceived a third of his kind into following him and went to war against the Holy One.


The Casting Out



The attack was repelled, and the Evil One and his followers were cast out of the presence of the Holy One. This defensive act occurred with such force that it stretched the realm, thereby revealing the intricacy of its design. The single, complex system that used to exist was pulled apart into stratified layers of existence. These layers, though still occupying the same physical space as before, were nevertheless separated by a different type of distance—dimensions of which most beings are not even aware. A vast ocean of liquid in one dimension might be solid in another, and an empty vacuum of nothingness in yet another. This is what would later be called the spectrum of creation.


Multiple Existences


As all of creation was pulled apart, objects of similar natures came to rest in groups along the spectrum. It was at this point when the three parts of a being’s existence became evident:



1) The body occupied only one location along the spectrum—the environment where it was most suited to exist.


2) Within the container of the body, the soul or consciousness experienced life at the outer limit of where it came to rest during the casting out of the Evil One.


3) The spirit—containing both the body and consciousness—extended from that point, all the way back to the Holy One at the far end of the spectrum. In this way, the spirit became like a bridge that spanned a range of creation’s spectrum.



The Great Turning-Away


Prior to being cast out, the Evil One and his angels came between the Holy One and his most cherished creation—humans. The Unfaithful (Marotru) began their assault from this position, and when they were expelled, humans and their environment ended up at the far end of the spectrum, opposite from the Holy One. It was a casualty of war that placed humans as far as possible from their creator, with enemies in between.



With humankind now vulnerable, the Evil One sought to exploit this weakness. Though unable to reach them physically, he devised a way to free his consciousness from the limits of his body. Traveling along the bridge of his spirit, he could see the spirits of all other creatures stretching back to the Holy One—pathways into other physical existences. But the spirits of the humans were not viable paths to follow; the souls who lived at the other end of those spirits were independent wills, too strong to be overpowered. Instead, the Evil One chose the wisest of all creatures lower than humans, one with the capacity for speech and just barely capable of containing his consciousness. Using this creature’s spirit as if it were a road, he traveled to the end of the spectrum and overpowered its will, stealing its physical existence for his own. This was the first instance of possession.


From one end of the spectrum to the other, only two created objects remained constant—common threads woven through each layer of existence. Two massive trees, one dark and the other light, were entwined with one another, embodying the fullness of creation in concentrated forms.



The Evil One deceived the first humans into eating fruit from the dark tree. When they did what had been forbidden, the effectiveness of the Evil One’s strategy was revealed. The humans, as well as their environment, began separating from the rest of the spectrum.


Death had entered into creation, and like a festering wound, the sickness began to spread. As this new realm drifted from the presence of the Holy One and His life-giving Spirit, its eternal nature drained away until all that was left was a place of temporary existence. On both sides of the wound (The Void), the spectrum bore the signs of a violent separation.


On the Eternal side, the environment had lost much of its form and structure. Unlike the rest of the spectrum, the Borderland, as it became known, was a place of lights and shadows, of lingering sounds and echoes.


In contrast, the Temporal realm retained all of its form and structure but had lost most of the radiance of eternity. What little was left clung to it like a desperate child. From that moment on the Temporal realm was but a dull reflection of what it had once been.



With the first humans cut off from the rest of the spectrum, and dying as a result, the Evil One proceeded to wage war against the Holy One and his angels, and the next stage of history was born.


The Reshaping


As the angelic forces of the Holy One fought against the demonic armies of the Evil One, the Borderlands became a theater of war. Territories developed like a patchwork quilt, places of light and life bordering areas of death and desolation.


With the Evil One’s attention focused on the war, the Holy One set into motion a plan to redeem the humans and their world. To the race of the Myndarym—angels who were capable of shifting their bodies and consciousnesses to anywhere along the spectrum—he taught the Songs of Creation. Armed with the melodies and harmonies that were integral to every part of the spectrum, the Myndarym shifted into the Temporal realm and began to change it, altering its forms and functions so that it could sustain itself and thereby survive. By the time the task was completed, some of the Myndarym had become so intimately involved and highly invested in the Temporal realm that they had begun to see it as their own creation. When the Myndarym were finally called back to the Eternal realm, some did not heed the call. They lingered, wandering within their new home, continuing to shape it as they saw fit.


Thus, the two realms were born and the stage set for the tale of the Wandering Stars. If you have read any of The Awakened books, you know that the Temporal realm eventually ends up as three parallel worlds. I’m sure you’re wondering how that happens, but I plan to dive into that topic in subsequent novels, so I can’t discuss the details just yet.

__________



Jason Tesar is the author of seven novels (in the genres of Fantasy, SF, and Military Fiction), including the bestselling Awakened series. To learn more, view his published works here, or visit his website at jasontesar.com.

Sign up for Jason’s email list to be notified when he releases the next volume of the Wandering Stars series.

Read another excerpt - Deleted Scene from Incarnation

Monday, July 21, 2014

Getting Started In Software Engineering - Guest Post

Hi there. My name’s J.T. Evans, and I’m an aspiring author that pays the bills with a Day Job as a lead software engineer. I started programming for my grandfather’s real estate rental business in 1980 when I was seven years old. All I had to assist me in my efforts were my trusty TRS-80 from Radio Shack and two books on how to program in BASIC.

Things are much easier these days, even with the growth in complex technology. There’s this thing called the World Wide Web, which I’m sure you’re aware of since you’re reading this on a web site. When I get stuck in my programming efforts, I always turn to Google (and a few other resources, listed below) to help dig me out of the hole that I’m in. It’s rare that I crack a book open for research, but when I want to learn a new language or technology, I almost always turn to a book on the topic.

So where to start in learning software engineering? The advice I’m going to give you assumes that you know the basics of working a computer, but not much beyond that.

The core of software engineering is thinking logically since that’s how computers approach their day-to-day operations. Regardless of your age, I think the best place to start learning these logical chains of thought is a program from MIT called Scratch. It’s packed full of tutorials, examples, and has a great user interface for building out your programs. There are some limitations to it in an effort to keep things simple for the beginner. Don’t be discouraged if you think, “Is this all computers can do?” Once you’ve reached the limits of what Scratch can do, it’s probably time to move on to a full-blown programming language.

Now comes the problem of which language to pick from. If you visit this page on Wikipedia, you’ll see there almost 50 different categories of languages, and hundreds to pick from! Don’t get overwhelmed. Many of those languages are for specialized purposes or were created as a class assignment in college and were released “into the wild.”

My suggestion is to use a language that is “object oriented” since you’ll rarely find a programming job these days that doesn’t require that kind of approach in development. Object oriented languages encourage properly structured sets of information and the code that operates on that information to be placed together. A good tutorial on the basics of object oriented programming (OOP) can be found at Oracle’s tutorial site. The examples are written in Java, but are simple enough that the concepts can be ported to any decent OOP language. Googling specific questions about OOP and its ideas can also help find more targeted information.

Once you’ve outgrown Scratch and have gotten comfortable with the ideas of OOP, it’s time to pick a language. My suggestion is to go with Python. Python has been around since 1991, is very robust, has tons of online support and books, is supported by a wonderful community, and has countless libraries and modules that you can put into play in your own code. It also runs on every major operating system out there (and quite a few rare ones as well). There’s also a great beginner’s guide as well.

I also recently found out that Python is the #1 language used in universities for teaching people how to program. If you’re about to graduate high school, now is a good time to jump into Python. If you’re still in elementary school, middle school, junior high, or similar, then things might change between now and when you hit college. That’s fine. I’ve personally gone through almost a dozen programming languages in my life. That’s the exciting part of being a software engineer. The learning and forward growth never stops! Almost everything I’ve learned in one language has made it easier for me to pick up the next language and run with it.

So, now that we’ve picked Python, how do we go about learning the language? Well, I’ve already linked to the to the support, community, books, and beginners guide. I’d suggest starting with the beginner’s guide, and when you get stuck, jump into the documentation specific to the area you’re working in.

If the documentation confuses you, don’t get frustrated. Sometimes it’s written by people that are so close to the topic at hand, they can’t see the flaws or shortcomings in what they are trying to say. This is when I would suggest turning to Google or other research resources. My favorite site for finding help from others is StackOverflow. Just a word of advice: Chances are, someone else has encountered your problem and asked a question that has a great answer attached to it. Use their search to try and see if this has happened. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, then feel free to ask away!

One thing I always do with a new language is to find a project to code. This will push me to try things outside tutorials and walk-throughs. It will also keep me interested in the process, as I will have a goal in front of me. Something I like to do in new languages is to write a recipe catalog piece of software. It’s pretty straightforward, but you can get really fancy with it if you like. It involves objects (the recipes, the ingredients, the tools) and actions on the objects (add, delete, adjust quantity, replace with another ingredient, search, sort, filter, etc.). Give it a shot, and try to write something to track your recipes for yourself.

Once you have a firm grasp on the language of your choice, how do you take things to the next level? This is where finding some “coding buddies” comes in. It’s rare for a software engineer to code in isolation. More often than not, a software engineer is on a team and must play well with others. This means dividing up the work, writing specifications, sticking to those specifications, interoperating on a personal and technical level, and hitting deadlines. Of course, this is describing a work environment, but it also describes open source software projects.

Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) is a concept you may have heard about, but just in case, I’ll describe it in brief. In the early days of computing, the source code to software was kept super secret. This prevented people from stealing, borrowing, or using trade secrets and such like that. This idea of keeping things secret still exists in many industries and governments. However, in the early 1980s a movement started up to create software in which the source code was shared with the world for all to use (with certain limitations) in order to improve upon software capabilities.

In 1983 The GNU Project was started by Richard Stallman, who also went on to found the Free Software Foundation in 1985. With Stallman’s efforts joined with many others, FLOSS became a reality. The efforts were mostly grassroots for several years, and then Linus Torvalds released Linux in 1991, which ignited a slow-burning fuse of open source innovation. By the end of the 1990s, open source efforts were popping up every day. Today, there are countless projects in endless areas that are open source.

My tip to you is to find a project that you can be passionate about. If you find several, pick one. Just one. This will allow you to focus your efforts instead of spreading yourself too thin. Most software projects have a bug list or a to do list or a feature request list of some sort. Find those lists, and target something easy to add or fix. Download the software’s source code from their open repository, and get to work! Remember that a key part of contributing to an open source project is communication. Contact the project maintainer and ask if you can help. Let them know specifically what you would like to help with (name the feature or bug that you would like to do) and ask permission to assist.

Most of the time, project leads are spread a little too thin, and they’ll gladly take your help. The next step is to write the code according to the project’s standards and to the best of your ability. Part of the software engineer’s life is something called “peer review.” This means that a peer of yours takes a look at your new code and finds places where it could be improved, altered, modified, or fixed. They are not doing this to demean your abilities or efforts. This is to ensure that the best possible product rolls out the door at the end of the day. Peer reviews are a fantastic opportunity for learning. If the person doing the review does their job right, they won’t just reject the code with a brief note. They’ll take the opportunity to explain why the code needs to be modified. This will help you learn and grow and improve. Take advantage of this. I’ve been programming for 34 years, and I still learn things from peer reviews.

If you can’t find a project that will take you on (which would surprise me), then perhaps it’s time to find a mentor who will work with you individually to help you grow and learn. Most large enough cities have one (or more) computer clubs you can join and learn from. This is a great chance to meet like-minded people, make some friends, and maybe find a mentor.

One final thought is that to tell you that software engineering is not something you will learn overnight. It’s very much like chess. Learning how the pieces move is relatively easy, but mastering the skill can take years of dedication. I’m not trying to discourage you with the amount of work ahead of you, but to set some expectations. This will help get you through the dark days when you seem to write nothing but bugs (this still happens to me). Just look forward to those days when you create something that runs just like you want it to! Those are the exciting moments that I look forward to in my job of software engineering and in my hobby of programming.

About J.T.:
J.T. Evans arrived on this planet and developed into an adult in the desolate, desert-dominated oil fields of West Texas. After a year in San Antonio, he spent a year in the northern tundra of Montana. This yearlong stint prepared him for the cold (yet mild compared to Montana) climate of the Front Range of Colorado. He has thrived in the Mountain State since 1998 with his lovely Montana-native wife and newly created son. He primarily pays the bills by performing software engineering and other technocentric duties. Like most writers, he dreams of earning enough income via publications to drop the day job and prosper.

Friday, May 2, 2014

THE EXTERMINATOR

“At firs’ I thought it were gophers,” the farmer said and spat a thick spray of tobacco juice. I watched it glisten as it arced through the afternoon sun and wondered what exactly I’d done to deserve this fate. I’d stumbled through life from gig to gig, family-less, fortuneless, directionless until at eighteen, I settled on this.

Some people might call it an adventure.

I just call it work.

I’m an exterminator.

“’Course once the holes got bigger I knew it had t’be some-it else.”

“Right. Sure.” I glanced around at the farm. It was situated at the mouth of a narrow canyon. A dense wood of dark evergreens loomed over the crack in the earth. Wagons, crates, barrels and sacks filled with, as yet, undetermined excess choked the gully. No wonder this guy had pests. Anyone with half a brain knew that this much garbage would attract all sorts of unwanted attention.

“I tried settin’ out some traps but no luck.”

I shrugged. That didn’t mean much. Most amateurs couldn’t set a trap that would snare a mouse much less the larger pests that roamed the world. Even when a trap is properly placed, hidden and bated they’re only marginally successful.

“What type of bait did you use?” Roardan asked. He was there to observe me in action and compile a report for the guild master, but he never could keep his yap shut.

“Oh, I use th’ good stuff. Virgin,” the farmer said, hacking another blob of browned saliva onto the ground.

“Well, we’ll take a look in the canyon and figure out exactly what we’re dealing with. After that we can figure out a fee and—”

“Fee don’t matter,” the farmer growled. “They’re ruining my crops. Take care of ‘em. Y’er supposed to be the best. Git to it.”

Roardan could barely keep from soiling himself with excitement at the prospect of severely overcharging the ignorant farmer.

We headed into the canyon.

Immediately it became clear that we weren’t dealing with gophers. Caverns and tunnels, some a few feet across, others as big as doorways, pocked the walls of the gully. The rubbish that stood intact at the mouth of the canyon was demolished further back. Torn, broken and gnawed. Other spoor of the pests was evident. Tracks, some remarkably large, criss-crossed the sandy ground. A little ways ahead, leashed to a metal stake, sprawled the trashiest woman I had ever seen.

She was foremost filthy. Her bleached hair stood out in a tangled nest. Garish makeup smeared her gaunt face. One pale thigh was sun-burning brilliantly where her too short skirt had ridden up over her hip. The soles of her bare feet were black with grime. She clutched a rusty dagger in one fist and a brown bottle in the other. Swirly tattoos on her ankle, neck and the small of her back completed her look. For a moment I thought she might be dead but she grunted, belched and flopped over onto her stomach.

“I’ll be roasted alive if that’s virgin bait,” Roardan sniggered.

I nodded in agreement and cut the girl free. The only thing she was attracting was flies. She repaid me by vomiting up something that smelled like pure alcohol. We pushed on farther back into the ever-darkening canyon hoping for some solid proof of what we were facing. And then we got it. Outside an especially wide cave opening stood a row of heads, some human some bestial, all spiked along a sagging bit of split rail fence that stood before the cavern’s mouth. Animal pelts, wolf and fox tails, raven wings, scraps of tattered cloth had been nailed to the gray wood forming a grizzly and haunting collage.

Roardan swore.

I unslung my equipment bag and began strapping on my gear. I buckled on my white chainmail coverall, pulled on my tall black boots. Steel gauntlets covered my hands as I settled my helmet on my head and buckled by belt around my waist where vials of holy water, healing potions, mind enhancers, muscle strengtheners and half a dozen other buffs dangled from leather thongs. I synched the straps of my kite shield tight against my forearm and hefted my mace of Holy Vengeance.

“Maker be with us,” I prayed. “Looks like this farmer has a bad case of orcs.”

Roardan plucked a few notes on his small harp. The bard was as ready as I. Together we strode forward and entered the cavern. It would be hell, crawling through tunnels hunting down every last member of the orc clan that had moved onto the farmer’s land. But it was our job. Some people might call it an adventure. I just call it work. I’m an exterminator.

~SJA

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