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Review: The Devourers

The Devourers , Indra Das’s debut novel, is an intoxicating and troublesome tale of an Indian history professor being enmeshed in a cycle of outcast “werewolves” interacting with humans throughout the centuries. It is not what I expected. But I don’t think I’m disappointed. I like The Devourers, but I’m not in love with it, either.

Das’s take on werewolves, or shapeshifters, or rakshasas, or the myriad other terms for them is interesting and unique. But it is also very familiar territory for the readers of urban fantasy.

The Devourers is a beautifully written novel. The language is flowing and enticing. The reader, like Alok (the history professor who acts as the frame narrator), is enmeshed into the story of Fenrir and Cyrah before they even know it.

The limited cast is amazingly well done and realized. Especially Alok and the mysterious “half werewolf.” The bitter loneliness, the act of romantic mystery that hides, perhaps an even deeper loneliness is excellent. Cyrah, the lone woman of consequence in the novel (which is a problem), is a masterful creation. Her story, her character is absolutely compelling.

But she is also too modern. For a woman of the Mughal Empire, she reads as if she is a modern Indian woman. The same problem, honestly, also flaws Fenrir and Gevaudan. The two read as modern or postmodern human men, not centuries old non humans.

The plot is engrossing and flows nicely. The Mughal Empire narrative is gorgeous and surprising. This is not paranormal romance. Rather, The Devourers is best described as literary dark fantasy. The Kolkata narrative is a romance in the way these type or narratives are (Alok is a closeted gay or bisexual man and rakshasa culture tends to bisexuality). It is beautiful and bittersweet. And transformative.

That is, I think, the key to The Devourers: Transformation. Alok is transformed by the Stranger. The Stranger is transformed by Alok. Fenrir is transformed by Cyrah. Cyrah is transformed by her experiences hunting Fenrir. A shapeshifter is defined by their transformative nature, the human form and the other form.

The Devourers is not a perfect novel. But it is a rich and evocative one. I found it enjoyable. But not without its flaws.

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Review: Three Parts Dead

Tara Abernathy is a probationary associate at Kelethras, Albrecht, and Ao. Her first job? Aid her mentor, Elayne Kevarian, in resurrecting a dead god. Not an easy feat. Not when there are forces seeking to impede the process. Such is a blurb for Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone. This first book in The Craft Sequence is a very good, if slightly uneven, read.

The biggest selling point for Three Parts Dead is the world building. Think China Mieville unburdened by politics. The world is weird and fun. There are gods, there is lots of magic (here called Craft), there are gargoyles, fantasy cyborgs, etc. Alt Coulumb, the city where the action is mainly set, is an amazing creation that lures the reader into to an experience.

A setting can only do so much, though. Characters, too, must sell the work. The characters are well done.Tara Abernathy is a wonderful protagonist. Elayne Kevarian is even more compelling. Abelard, a supporting protagonist, is serviceable.

However, I came away feeling that the characters could have been more original. I felt that I had read these characters before. Several times.

The plot is really good. I especially love the villain’s scheme. It is a thing of beauty (if evil plots can be described as beautiful). The unraveling of the villain’s scheme, too, is a thing of beauty. The action, both magical and mundane, are very well done.

My biggest problem with Three Parts Dead, however, is how obvious the main antagonist is. The moment he first appears on the page, the reader knows he is the bad guy. You don’t know how, but you know. I wish it weren’t so obvious.

A secondary problem I have is that I am not fond of the epilogue at all.

All the negatives aside, though, I really enjoyed Three Parts Dead. I checked it out from the library, and I want to own it. And I want to check out the other books in the series.

Texas Gothic Part Two: The Small Town Blues

Long ago, the editor of the local paper of my small town declared small town living to be the best place to grow up. I didn’t believe her at the time. I don’t quite believe her now.

I get what she was trying to say. Small towns provide a stronger sense of community than large cities. Small towns are, by and large, inherently safe.

But from my perspective, I never truly felt that sense of community. I was the outsider condemned, as much by choice as anything else, to never really belong. I experienced the small town I lived in as a pit of loneliness. There were bright spots, but never enough to scare away the darkness.

Small town living, before the internet changed everything, can only be described as boring. Especially when one’s interests do not acclimate well to those of one’s neighbors.

I did not truly find a sense of happiness until I moved to Austin for college. I just felt at home there. That was, and remains, a place I belong. The same is true of San Francisco and the too brief weekend I spent in Portland, Oregon. I yearn to return to those places, permanently.

It is, I think, my conflicted feelings for the town I grew up in that inspires me to spend so much of my time interrogating the concept of small towns. It could also be the fact that I adore Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories.

Whatever the true reason, maybe my Texas Gothic will exorcise the memories of the places I grew up, or out of.

Just A Portal Fantasy Part Six: Tyler Spang

Tyler Spang originated outside of my fantasy work. I created him to fill the role of main protagonist/ narrator in an erotic project. As I have written before, the erotic project existed to prevent my primary work from being too heavily gay porn. Gradually, Tyler gravitated towards my primary work and supplanted Webster Cypress as the gay protagonist of my major fantasy project.

The thing about Tyler is that he doesn’t have magical powers. He isn’t a wizard. Even though Black Magic is all about magic (and this project will have a heavy amount of magic itself), I just don’t see Tyler being an insider when it comes to magic. He just doesn’t fit. I’ve tried.

I don’t know if this is me gravitating away from magic to some degree or exploring the possibilities of heroes without magic. It could also have something to do with the fact that his original project was realistic.

As the superhero Redwind, Tyler did have superpowers. But I look at superpowers as different from magic (though I do like magic when they act sort of like superpowers). Superpowers just are. All that is needed is training. Magic requires knowledge. A vast amount of knowledge at that.

Tyler is, despite now being the star of a fantasy novel with unknown amounts of epic, still very the star of my erotic project.

But who is Tyler Spang?

He is a city boy, in contrast to Jett’s small town roots. He thrives in the hustle and bustle. He is mildly ruthless when it comes to achieving his goals. His passions lay in history and world affairs. He wants to know, to experience. But he recognizes that his knowledge, in many areas, will only ever be surface. He will never have the deep knowledge that comes with a lifetime of living it. He is cautious. I would describe Tyler as being akin to a scorpion in personality.

I have parts of his character arc mapped out (depending if I use one world or many).

Though he originated separately, he has inherited much of the planned stories of his predecessors.

I could blather on about Tyler Spang. But I have work to do.

Black Magic Part Four: Honor Gale

If this novel is slightly autobiographical, why is the protagonist Honor Gale?

Black Magic (I really need to settle on a title) is the merging of several different projects. The most prominent of those projects is the realistic occult novel. Another project is a proposed series featuring the adventures of a wizard. The final project is a contemporary fantasy that featured a young woman returning to her hometown to report on the discovery of a colony of satyrs living in the nearby forests.

Honor Gale is the protagonist of the last of those projects. But, on closer inspection, the Satyr Project did not work well at all. So, Honor is out as a protagonist.

The thing is, I really don’t like getting rid of projects or characters. So, Honor needs a home.

Black Magic is the perfect fit for Honor Gale because I don’t see her as the typical fantasy heroine, certainly not the typical urban fantasy heroine. And, the more I thought about it, the less I wanted Black Magic to be a traditional contemporary or urban fantasy novel.

In the end, the realistic fantasy wins out.

And Honor Gale is, of all my creations, most suited to a more realistic fantasy.I hope to show what I mean in the pages of Black Magic/ A Witch’s LifeGoetiaHonor Gale/ whatever the hell title this work finally gets.

So far, I’ve only conceptualized this project as a novel. The question of novel vs. series will be the subject of my next post.

Black Magic Part Three: Realistic Magic

Why do I want to write a contemporary fantasy novel focusing on real world magic?

It started in eighth grade. I suffered from depression caused by being the shy kid at a new school. I was miserable.

Then came buying some book published by Dover. What book, I cannot remember. But I remember writing for several catalogs of books they publish. Among the books I bought were: a book on the ferns of New York, a book on spiders, a book on parasites, a book on birds, a book on modern Algebra, an omnibus of three novels by H. Rider Haggard, and a few others.

It was in the general catalog that I first read about actual books of magic. Among them was The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage. I was intrigued. I wanted that book.

Eventually, I moved back to the town I lived most of my life in. But I was still interested in magic. I bought books on magic from both Dover and my local Barnes and Noble. I amassed a small, but interesting collection.

My interest never went far beyond collecting the books. Trust me, the actual practice of many of these magical traditions is a pain in the ass. It takes a lot of commitment and knowledge of many obscure subjects.

I grew out of my fascination with magic in my freshmen year of college. Then, in an episode similar to one a year before, I threw my magic collection in the dumpster.

Have I come to regret that decision? No. Though it does make research into the subject more difficult because I have to interlibrary loan many of those books (or read them on my computer).

While I no longer have an active interest in the occult, my fascination for it has never quite gone away. The history is a rich mine for a writer. The French magical feud, the rise and fall of the Order of the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune, etc. are all very interesting subjects, whether one believes in magic or not.

I’ve focused exclusively on Western Ceremonial Magic. Why? I don’t know. I did toy with Wicca at the same time that I plowed into WCM. However, Wicca never appealed to me in the way that WCM did.

In a way, I suspect my desire to write a novel featuring real magic (or at least the magical systems present in the real world) is an attempt on my part to come to grips with my teenage flirtation with the occult. Only this time, I’m wondering what would have happened if I had taken things further?

Honor Gale is my expy. The reason why is the subject of my next post.

Black Magic Part Two: The Research Rant

Researching magic and the occult has never been easier than in the past years. There are a plethora of books and other sources that the internet has made available. However, a researcher must be aware that the quality of what they are reading must be questioned.

Much of the problem lies with a bias on the part many occult writers who interpret their subject matter poorly. A great example would be a book on traditional Mexican sorcery that interprets Aztec tradition within the frame work of modern neopaganism. Another example is where interpretations of traditional magics neglect the darker side of those traditions. If cunning folk exist, then there has to be something to fight. But what? No clue.

The reason for this exclusion is simple. Many writers are practitioners, and they wish to write their subject in the best light. Exploring the negative applications of magic and occult knowledge is, therefore, left alone. A magic mail order business that I used to receive catalogs from said it best in regards to the Lesser Key of Solomon: buy it for historical value just don’t try it at home.

Another problem that I’ve encountered is finding good histories on the subjects. I’ve found some good histories on English magic and American magic. But I’ve been sorely disappointed with finding anything on Mexican magic and Chinese magic.

While ceremonial magic and goetia are going to be the centerpiece of my story, the setting does call for some knowledge of traditional Mexican magic. And, for that matter, I do want to explore magical traditions outside of standard Euro centric traditions. I’m not writing Harry Potter (even though I’ve read a book that makes the case that England is the magical nation par excellence).

If only I can find gems in the piles of detritus.

It almost makes me want to make it up. The reason why I don’t is the subject of my next post.

Black Magic Part One: An Introduction

Magic fascinates me. The desire to write about it is ever present. Indeed, this is one of my oldest and most concrete projects.

Over time, my magic project evolved from being a science fantasy featuring a wizard protagonist set on a secondary world to being a rather more contemporary story focusing on real world magic. Or as close to real as I can make it (I’ve got a rant on researching magic coming up next).

I had originally planned for the main protagonist to be a gay man, but Honor Gale claimed the position of main protagonist for her own. I like this change because Honor Gale allows for a more complex structure.

The project has gradually evolved from a linear beginning to a more complex time hopping.

While I said the project originated from an earlier science fantasy project (which has survived as the portal fantasy project), the truth is that I have always wanted to write an exploration of near real world magic in a contemporary setting, without it being urban fantasy or too Harry Potter.

After years of hair pulling, I’ve finally got it. But what have I got?

The Superhero Blues Part One: The Agony of a Dream

I’ve written before about my desire to write a superhero story. I’ve expressed a desire to write comics, and I’ve explored the possibility of writing a superhero epic in novel form. But I’ve never quite overcome the hurdle that prevents me from actively seeing this agonizing dream of mine to fruition.

I have the hero pretty clear in my mind. I have a rough idea of where I want the story to go. But still, something is holding me back. What is it?

It is the fear that there really isn’t anything new one can say about superheroes. Especially the type of superhero who populates the shared universes of Marvel and DC. Those two companies have been around for decades, each seeing thousands of superhero stories published. With that knowledge in mind, what can I say that hasn’t already been said?

The kind of superheroes I want to write about are built on pastiche. Comics are infamous for playing fast and loose with copyright. And both companies do seem very lax when it comes to enforcement.

But, to be honest, just because I could write an expy of Sider-Man doesn’t mean that I will (or even should).

Are there possible solutions? I think so.

On one level, the superhero story I want to write is a coming of age story. It is about a youth with superpowers who realizes that he can make a difference. But how is that idea any different than any number of superhero origins?

The one thing that annoys me the most about comic books (and opens the door to the accusation that comic book superheroes are reactionary) is the fact that the status quo for the muggles is maintained. Why is the Earth depicted in the Marvel Universe and the DC Universe the same as our Earth? Why hasn’t the super science generated by Mr. Fantastic, von Doom, Beast, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Mr. Terrific, etc. percolated to general, everyday usage?

And, while I’m on this, shouldn’t Earth of both universes be a mix of utopia and apocalyptic wasteland? Of a near breakdown of the social order?

The possibilities offered in taking this approach, of exploring how the existence of superheroes and all that go with them will affect the world is certainly an interesting possibility. And a possibility I will seriously consider. Maybe I have finally jumped the hurdle?

What about writing for the Big Two? Who hasn’t dreamed of writing for Marvel and DC?

I would love to write Teen Titans, a Tim Drake book, Young Avengers, etc. But I am equally aware that writing those comics might not be all fun and games.

I will conclude “The Superhero Blues” with a further discussion of what a superhero epic might look like. But first, I’ll have a few mainstream comic book pitches.

Tomorrow, I take on the Teen Titans.

Building Worlds

Talking to myself while I pace is my favorite method of brainstorming. I get a lot of exercise and ideas out of it, what’s not to love? Anyway, I’ve been brainstorming a lot lately. With the brainstorming comes a reassessment of my creative plans. 

My creative instincts pivot towards writing lone novels with little to no relationship between them. Baring, of course, the fact that I wrote them with the resultant similarities of style. I like this approach. It allows me to avoid the pitfalls of writing series ( I can’t abide the bloating that kills many long running series, be they novels, television, or manga). It also allows me to dabble in multiple genres and, perhaps, forms (rather than limiting myself to just writing one form my entire career).

This is how it would have looked in practice: My first novel would be occult fiction. My second novel would be epic fantasy. My third novel would be realist fantasy. So on and so forth. 

But there is a huge problem embedded in this approach. World building is a hard and stressful operation. How much more stressful would world building a project every year or two be (whether that world is a version of Earth or a secondary world)? 

Looking back over many  various projects, I realized something. Many of my projects are either set on Earth or could just as easily be reworked to be set on Earth. What if I create a single, alternate, Earth for my common setting? 

In the days I’ve had to think, I’ve fallen in love with this idea. I can keep my projects largely separate, but I won’t have to kill myself creating new worlds every few years. I’ve mentioned that I’m wanting to write some form of superhero fantasy, and I think having a common setting will allow me a larger canvas for depth and history while not becoming bloated. 

But why Earth? Why not a secondary world?

Assume, for a moment, that I could only write one fantasy. That one fantasy could only be inspired by a single time period. What period would I choose?

Easy. The modern world. 

Yes, the modern world is where my passions truly lie despite the fact that I’m a history nerd with a wide array of interests. 

Would a secondary world inspired by the 1920s, 1960s, or 2010s have a shot? There is an undeniable desire for fantasy to be inspired by periods not medieval Europe. But would such a fantasy world drawing inspiration so close to our own time really fill that need? Maybe. I can always hope. 

There is another problem, though. Our world today is far more complicated than other historical periods because there is so much information to sift through. We have hundreds of countries and polities, an equal number of languages, and dozens of religions. How can that diversity be reflected in a secondary world? Maybe I could hew closely to Earth and use real languages for various places. Maybe I can limit the setting to an expy of the United States that stuck with the Articles of Confederation (or just remained independent states) with a few references to other countries. Maybe that could work. 

Or maybe I could just recreate Earth as a very weird and fantastical world. A world where anything could be possible. 

Either way, I’m looking forward to the journey.