Monthly Archives: October 2013

Fantasy Literature: World Building: On Scope (part II)

Dealing with multiple worlds for world building is usually more the purview of science fiction than it is the purview of fantasy literature. It is almost a given in any science fiction novel that several different planets will be visited. Each one of these worlds must be built to make the novel an enjoyable read. It is rarer to deal with more than one planet in fantasy literature, unless it is a kind of split-off parallel world existing in the same space as ours as a kind of fairy land. Usually, in fantasy literature, there is no need for multiple worlds (planets) in different locations in space, particularly since transportation between such worlds becomes problematic. One must normally rely on magic to get from planet A to planet B. And once you do that, it is difficult to see how planet B will be understood as anything but a split-off parallel world much like the aforementioned fairy land. As a result of that, fantasy world building is usually limited to one planet and multiple dimensions, because in an odd sort of way, different dimensions actually seem closer to us than different planets—at least from the point of view of fantasy literature.

 

Still, for every rule there is an exception. A previous commenter on this blog pointed out to me that Brandon Sanderson is setting all his novels in the same universe. Each world he writes about exists in the same dimension. He even has a character, a story-teller/bard/what-have-you by the name of Hoid who shows up in each one of his books. I don’t know where he’s going with that, but it is kind of cool. Particularly since he deals with religious themes, with gods ruling humans, sometimes dying, and evil always on the rise. I suspect Hoid is an agent of, or perhaps even the avatar of, the one Supreme Being of the whole cosmos. A kind of god’s God. But that is Brandon Sanderson, and he’s the first writer I’ve heard of to connect his novels in such a way. And it is worth pointing out that as far as each individual fantasy novel is concerned (so far), it takes place only on the world in which it is set. So far, none of his The Way of Kings characters intermix with his Mistborn characters or anything like that. At least, not yet. Although Sanderson’s idea connects all his work into a single inter-related body, it can only take him so far. He might write well and fast, but the universe is an awfully big place with billions of galaxies, let alone who knows how many planets. Although his idea is original, clever, and genuinely really cool, he can only carry it through so far. There is just too much out there to encapsulate his vision fully. Maybe he’ll write about a dozen or two dozen worlds in his career. Two dozen worlds does not a universe make. The scope is just too vast to be manageable. Still, Sanderson is a brilliant writer and he may pull it off in ways I can’t foresee.

 

If you take anything away from this post, it should be the importance of scope. World building, be it a single world, multiple dimensions, or even an entire universe, is always a limited project. The real world parallels to it are always far more vast and complicated than the writer’s ultimate accomplishment. As I said, there’s just too much there to fully encapsulate. The trick is to give enough to give an impression of completeness without overwhelming the reader.

Fantasy Literature: World Building: On Scope (part I)

Well, it’s time for another post on world building in fantasy literature. The concern today is scope. What are you going to build? A fantasy world? A fantasy universe? Or an entire fantasy multiverse?

 

Back in the day, when I played AD&D a lot more, Gary Gygax introduced me to that neat little word: “multiverse.” Apparently, the word was coined by William James in 1895, so it’s not Gygax’s personal baby. Still, that one word sums up what I want to talk about today. We all know what the universe is: look into space and it’s that thing that goes on and on. But are there other universes? Or planes of reality? Is there a Hell or a Heaven? Or anything in between? The present science of real-life Earth can only verify the existence of the one universe we experience. But in a fantasy world, one in which you have embarked on a quest of world building, there may very well be a vast and complicated multiverse consisting of many different planes of reality. The different planes can intrude in the story in a variety of ways. One, they can be just present as a kind of back drop for the story, referenced only in myths and conversation. That is how Hell and Heaven and Limbo (or their respective parallels) and similar such things are normally dealt with throughout much of a typical work in fantasy literature. Occasionally, though, characters may actually physically find their way into said planes. At such a point, world building for said places must commence.

 

But this raises a question: How much world building should the author do? Or better yet: How much world building can an author do? Let’s begin with a fantasy world. They are usually (though not always) conceived to be parallels of our own; i.e. some kind of planet spinning away in space, but a planet on which magic works. It is the author’s responsibility to develop that world and make it an intriguing place for the reader. It should never be said that world building a single fantasy world is somehow too limiting. If you recognize that an entire world parallels in scope all that there is on our world, you will understand that a single world can easily produce enough material to keep authors and readers fascinated for years to come. Just consider the huge variety that exists on planet Earth. There are seven continents. There are hundreds of nations and a plethora of cultures. The environment is rich in detail and full of surprises. If you add in the hallmark characteristics of fantasy literature—a magic system, strange and wonderful creatures, and what-have-you—you will have created a milieu of astounding proportions. Something that can (and has) provided material for innumerable writers involved with world building. One world is plenty. By itself, Earth proves it. As do such fantasy worlds created by gaming companies like say, The Forgotten Realms or Krynn. Such places have provided endless hours of entertainment and have never grown stale.

 

However, just because there is no need to include another world or plane, doesn’t mean the author doing the world building shouldn’t include such. But those developments are for my next post on the subject.

Infinity Blade: Redemption (Brandon Sanderson)

Infinity Blade: Redemption is the second Infinity Blade novella written by Brandon Sanderson. From what I can tell, the novellas are being written in tandem with the computer apps, of which there are three: Infinity Blade I, Infinity Blade II, and Infinity Blade III. I have Infinity Blade I for my Apple Ipad. I’ve played it a few times, but have never completed it. It’s an interesting approach: having interspersed novellas to cover background story material between the release of each version of the app. It does have one drawback, though: I, as a reader, do not get a full story or even succession of stories out it. The first Infinity Blade novella covers material in between apps I and II. This second novella covers material between apps II and III. That was kind of annoying going in, because I had become somewhat invested in the characters and to start reading without having played app II was somewhat disorienting. Still, it was a fun novella. Unfortunately, the series will be completed by app III. So, the cliffhanger ending that I got at the end of this novella will have to suffice for me as I have no intention of playing the app.

 

Anyway, this novella continues the story of Siris and Isa in their quest to defeat the evil God-King and free the people of his land. That was the original quest, anyway, but by this stage in the game things have changed a bit: Siris finds himself imprisoned with the God King. They are locked in a perpetual struggle in a chamber neither one can escape; they take turns (not by agreement though) killing each other, until finally, Isa manages to set them free. Now, Siris finds his quest transformed. It was the famous Worker of Secrets whom Siris sought out as a potential ally against the God-King who imprisoned the two Deathless, leaving them to their hellish struggle against one another. Now, two years later, Siris must seek him out again, but not as ally, instead as foe. This novella details that quest, a quest that may find him making alliance with that Deathless he was once sworn to destroy: the God-King himself.

 

Strengths: It was written by Brandon Sanderson, so it’s got to be good! Well, it is. The characters were well fleshed out and believable. The pacing was great. The twists were good. And there was more backstory dropped in to explain how the world in question (apparently Earth) came to be the way it was. There were also hints dropped to tie the series to the ancient Egyptian gods. All in all it was a blast. Weaknesses: well, you are missing a good chunk of story if you are not playing the Infinity Blade apps (like me). It’s kind of annoying actually. And it certainly detracted from my enjoyment. If I had known that going in, I probably would never have even read the first novella. I would have skipped it: I’m not much into computer games, anymore.

 

Anyway, I’ll give Brandon Sanderson’s Infinity Blade: Redemption four and a half stars out of five if you are playing the games; otherwise, that is too much of a handicap and it warrants only three and a half stars out of five.

Horror Literature versus Fantasy Literature

I’ve been on something of a horror literature kick lately. Well, to be more specific, I’ve been on something of a H.P. Lovecraft kick lately. I have an entire book of his short stories, including two novellas. The book is simply called: The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft: Dreams of Terror and Death. At this moment, I have but one more short story to read, and then I’ll be done. Of course, I’m going to go back and reread some of the short stories and review them for this blog; I’ve already started that process, but I’m going to complete it. Anyway, for much of my life, the bulk of my literary diet has been fantasy. One of the first series of books I ever read were The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Prior to that, I think was Watership Down which I think I read for the first time when I was about eight. I’ve been reading ever since. And most of it has been fantasy.

 

As a result of my fantasy diet, I’ve been exposed to all sorts of horrors in literature: undead warriors, dark magic, death, chaos, blood … you name it. I’ve seen it all. Because of that, special effects don’t faze me one bit. A witch casting a spell … is that supposed to frighten me? Come on! I’ve seen it a million times before. The first time I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I read it as a fantasy novel. I thought it was okay, but pretty tame by modern standards. Last year, I read it again for about the fifth time and I walked away knowing I had just read a masterpiece. You can read that review here. I don’t get frightened by horror stories (I’ve read too much fantasy for that), but I do appreciate them more, now—as my review of Dracula will attest to. Fantasy stories are full of adventure and action. As a result of such, sometimes horrible things happen, or at the very least, are expected to happen should the hero fail. The horror of such events is usually derivative of the events themselves. In a horror story, the horror is more ambient and all-pervading. There is an appropriate mood and tone that carries the sinister appeal of the story. There is also a greater probability of death on the hero’s part in a horror story. And if done well, that can be a plus.

 

It is worth pointing out, that by horror I mean horror literature not film. Rarely does a horror film live up to something even approaching the magnificence of the novel, Dracula. Most of the time, horror movies are just blood baths. I wouldn’t even want to put them in the same category. Then again, my experience with horror is fairly limited. I’ve read Dracula and a few Lovecraft stories; but I liked the same thing about both: that ever-present atmosphere of dread and doom. And that, I think, is the distinguishing feature that separates Horror from Fantasy.

Old Movie Review: Cool Air (2006) (H. P. Lovecraft)

Cool Air is a film based on the short story of the same name written by H.P. Lovecraft. I have never read the short story so I can’t say for sure what liberties were taken with the script; although it seems likely that it did take a number, if for no other reason than that the film is set in modern times.

 

The film tells the story of Charlie Baxter, a struggling screenwriter, who takes up residence in an apartment in a large townhouse near Malibu. From the outset, it is apparent that he is surrounded by strange characters. The quirky landlady and her autistic daughter run the house; the man across the hall from him is strangely reticent as a matter of course; and the mysterious doctor living upstairs remains sequestered in her room pretty much all the time. The combined cast give a strangely compelling aura of mystery to the setting. Struggling from writer’s block, Charlie seeks inspiration from the strangeness of his own surroundings. He begins a tale in which a “mad doctor” plays a prominent role. Then, he suffers a heart attack and, crawling upstairs, is saved by the doctor’s timely intervention. When he comes to, however, he must grapple with the unwitting truth of the mad doctor in real life as the inhabitants of the house begin to reveal their secrets one by one.

 

There is a lot of narration in this film. I found that a refreshing change from the usual cinematic experience. This was one-half movie, one-half Lovecraft reading. And the voice it was done in, a low, tired, and worn voice, fit the film perfectly.

 

Strengths: overall the movie was good. The narration, as noted above, added to the mystery and intrigue. There were no logical flaws, and no loose ends. The acting was decent, and the setting … strangely innocuous. It was a great juxtaposition for the macabre events it told. Weaknesses: well, it was a low-budget film, so the special effects were somewhat lacking. They were okay, just not up to the full-blown Hollywood standard. But special effects alone don’t make a movie. This one easily made up for it with a good tale to tell and a number of clever touches. I particularly liked the bit at the end where the movie claimed it was the work of Charlie Baxter and his return to screen writing. Anyway, other than being limited in special effects, I have no other serious complaints regarding the film.

 

Ultimately, I will give four stars out of five to Cool Air.

Upcoming Book Signings for Drasmyr

Matthew D. Ryan will be holding two book signings for his dark fantasy novel, Drasmyr, at the following dates and times:

Book Signing Schedule

Friday, October 18th, 7 p.m.— Peru Public Library, Peru, NY

—Includes Talk on “World-Building.”

 

Thursday, October 24th, 6:30 p.m.— Chazy Public Library, Chazy, NY

—Includes Reading from Drasmyr

Short Story Review: Dreams in the Witch House (H.P. Lovecraft)

The short story Dreams in the Witch House by H.P. Lovecraft is a devilishly good horror tale coming in at thirty pages or so. A few months back I reviewed the movie The Dark Sleep based on this very short story. You can read that review here. Having now read the story, I can compare the two, and I can unequivocally state that they are really quite different. The movie is only loosely based on the story; it had about three or four shared elements, and that’s it. Plus, the movie had a reasonably happy ending. Not so Dreams in the Witch House.

 

Anyway, the short story begins with the main character, Walter Gilman, living in a run-down garret in “changeless, legend-haunted city of Arkham …” Gilman is a student at a nearby university, caught up in studying advanced mathematics and quantum physics, as well as folklore. What has brought him to this particular building and the apartment therein, is his knowledge of said folklore. Apparently, the infamous witch (again, this is a witch with a Lovecraftian spin, not a practitioner of modern Wicca), Keziah Mason, of the Salem witch-trial days who escaped from Salem, and fled here to Arkham, along with a strange rat-like familiar that was often seen haunting the house and local area these many years later. The crux of the story is very much the crux of much of Lovecraft’s writing. He operates under the premise that advanced science and mathematics can be used to “rediscover” occult secrets; in this case, the secrets of witchcraft. As a result of his studies, Walter Gilman, while exploring the occult side of mathematics, using it to inadvertently travel across dimensions, is drawn into a confrontation with the ghost of Keziah Mason, and her hideous rat-like familiar, as well, one of Lovecraft’s personal favorites, Nyarlathotep … the crawling chaos. I won’t dwell on the final result; I’ll let the intrepid reader find out for him/herself.

 

Strengths: there was enough depth to keep the reader interested; the writing was typical Lovecraft with a masterful use of mood and surreal atmosphere that gave the tale a very haunting aspect. Weaknesses: I’d say the length: it was too short to be a novella, and too long to really be a short story. I guess it might qualify as a novelette, but I think it should have been expanded more into a novella. He had a lot going that could have enriched the story even more.

 

Anyway, I’ll give H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreams in the Witch House four stars out of five.

Movie Review: Gravity (2013)

Gravity is a film starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, two pretty big names for an hour and half jaunt through Near Space. Clooney plays the experienced astronaut Matt Kowalski, while Sandra Bullock plays newbie astronaut Ryan Stone. Together, they are the only survivors of a Space Shuttle disaster.

 

Let’s back up a bit: the film begins with Matt and Ryan (chuckle, chuckle) on mission working on the Hubble telescope which is docked in the shuttle in orbit. They shortly receive word that the Russians have shot down one of their own satellites. The reason is unclear, but it may have been a derelict spy satellite or something similar. At first, the debris path poses no threat and the mission can continue as planned. However, that soon changes. The debris begins colliding with and destroying other satellites starting a chain reaction of destruction in Space. And that is not a good thing. Minutes later, a field of debris slams into the shuttle, destroying it and all the crew except Matt and Ryan (chuckle, chuckle) and also severing all contact with Mission Control. What follows is an intense journey from one location in orbit to the next, as the two astronauts desperately look for a way back to Earth. First, after being sent spinning off into Space, they must return to the shuttle. Then, the International Space Station. And next, a Chinese Space Station. At each stop, they must overcome obstacles and challenges in their desperate bid to get home. Will they make it? Check out the film and see.

 

Strengths: well, the acting was strong; it had two seasoned professionals in Clooney and Bullock and virtually no one else to detract from it. It’s hard to maintain a story with such a small cast, but they managed it well. The special effects were excellent. I have to wonder how they manage the floating in space bit without actually going there. Is it just filmed in a big swimming pool? I don’t know. The story was fairly compelling, and even touching at points. Weaknesses: although my friends really liked this movie, for some reason I can’t endorse it wholeheartedly. It was lacking something, but I don’t know what. Although it was an original storyline; something I wouldn’t have expected to come from Hollywood these days. That said, I did enjoy how the characters shared my names (chuckle chuckle).

 

Anyway, I’ll give Gravity three and a half stars out of five.

Novella Review: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is a rather long novella (112 pages) written by H.P. Lovecraft. It tells the story of a certain mental patient by the name of Charles Dexter Ward. It begins with his early formative years where he displays an interest in all things antiquated. It then moves on into his early twenties when trouble starts. However, in order to tell the story properly, early in the work Lovecraft takes us back another 170 years or so, to the life and times of Joseph Curwen. Joseph Curwen is a practitioner of witchcraft—and I don’t mean an innocuous Wiccan. Oh, no, Joseph Curwen delves dark and deep, and has no qualms about killing anyone who gets in his way. It begins with the summoning of the shades of long dead people, but other horrors are hinted at, too.

 

The story starts with Joseph Curwen on his farm in Pawtucket, R.I. (I think it’s Rhode Island) where he is ensconced in his magical rites. His exceptional long life and other dark dealings breed sinister rumours about him. Eventually, the populace rises against him, raids his homestead, and in a final battle manage to kill him. But his activities are not through. Fast forward, 170 years to the time of Charles Dexter Ward. This young budding historian is the descendant of Joseph Curwen’s. And, when he discovers a painting of the old sorcerer, almost an exact double of the man. Ward, entranced by his own love of history and the things of a bygone era, continues to dig, and dig deep. Soon, he is traipsing off to Europe in his search, only to come back a changed man. Now, his family begin to truly worry for him. His searches have affected his mind. He has become obsessed. And, when two mysterious strangers join him in his efforts, the family’s worries multiply. The strangers are odd folk; some might even say sinister. What hold does the long-dead Joseph Curwen have over these men? And what is their ultimate design? I’ll leave that for the intrepid reader to find out for himself.

 

Strengths: this novella is horror, it is not fantasy. As I have read countless fantasy stories, horror stories never manage to “shock” me. I have to be in the right mood for a horror story to really sink in and absorb the ambience. That said, I enjoyed this novella immensely. It told a pretty gripping tale, and it told it well. All the loose ends were tied off, and yet a whole range of facets were left to the reader’s imagination to fill in. Lovecraft does that a lot. Weaknesses: I think some of Lovecraft’s writing may be overburdened with long, multi-syllabic words and descriptions. That’s usually a mistake of young writers, and I’m not sure when this particular piece was written in Lovecraft’s career. In any event, it can make his writing cumbersome at times; although, then again, that may just be because he was writing one hundred years ago (or nearly so) and the language may have changed slightly since now and then.

 

Anyway, I’ll give The Case of Charles Dexter Ward four stars or maybe even four and a half stars out of five.

Old Movie Review: Alex Cross (2012)

“Alex Cross” is a movie based on the fictional character created by James Patterson in a series of books (a series of books I have not read). The title character, Alex Cross, is played by Tyler Perry. He’s a tough cop and a brilliant psychologist with an uncanny ability to get in the head of the perpetrators of numerous crimes. He’s accompanied by Thomas Kane (played by Edward Burns) a tough cop in his own right, but not quite so brilliant as the esteemed Cross. This time, though, they are pushed to the edge by a ruthless assassin named Picasso (played by Matthew Fox). It’s a deadly game of cat and mouse, where life and death are on the line.

 

The story begins well: it gives some backstory for Cross and his team and shows the assassin making his first hit. He starts in an underground mixed martial arts tournament where he maims the reigning champ. Of course, his mark decides to take him home with her, whereupon he drugs her, kills her and her bodyguards, and leaves a drawing behind as his calling card. That’s when Alex Cross and his team are called in to investigate. Cross deciphers the drawing and determines where the assassin will strike next. A confrontation ensues, which ultimately comes to something of a draw. The mark is saved, but the assassin escapes. From there things get really hairy and Cross must decide if he’s going to cross that line between justice and revenge when the assassin begins to threaten and kill those closest to him.

Strengths: I thought Tyler Perry did a wonderful job as Cross. I’ve never seen him in anything else before—I know he’s something of a comedian, but this was straight-up solid acting on his part. The other actors did well, too. There were no gaping logical flaws in the storyline that I saw. They developed the characters well and pulled off an entertaining movie. Weaknesses: The second half of the movie just seemed to evolve into a standard cop-type movie. It was okay, but not truly strong. Also, the main protagonist and antagonist were just too … awesome. Cross figured things out too quickly and just seemed too smart for human. Ditto for the assassin. He was just too brutal and effective. Plus, there was that bit where the assassin maimed the MMA champ, but had difficulty fighting Cross whose hand-to-hand combat skills were never stated as being anything above ordinary. That, perhaps, counts as a logical flaw. Regardless, Alex Cross and the assassin seemed almost superhuman, and that detracted from the film.

 

Overall, I’ll give “Alex Cross” a rank of three and a half stars out of five.