River of Stars, Guy Gavriel Kay

From One White Dude to a Bunch of Other White Dudes

River of Stars, Guy Gavriel Kay

River of Stars, Guy Gavriel Kay

I listened to Kay’s River of Stars as an audiobook on my trip to World Fantasy in Washington D.C. With a 20 plus hour drive ahead of me, I needed a super-sized serving of literature to fill the time. 656 pages and a Chinese dynasty fit the bill.

Audio isn’t necessarily the best way to review a book. I’ve had many times where a narrator has either ruined an experience or even improved otherwise lackluster prose with an amazing performance. For Kay’s polished work, the narrator was top-notch, so you’d think there wouldn’t have been any distractions.

However, there was one thing.

Simon Vance is clean, precise, and has a wonderful tone. He is however, unapologetically, unequivocally, British. Rough and tumble soldiers and bandits of the Song Dynasty became cockney laborers. Venerable Prime Ministers sounded more at home in the House of Lords than Emperor Wenzong’s palace.

With all due respect to Vance’s incredible talent – please, trad pub decision makers, stop casting audiobooks like Hollywood movies. From one white dude to a bunch of other white dudes, diversity ain’t a bad thing.

Okay, got that off my chest – onto the story.

I came into this not knowing Kay or the Song dynasty and the legends which this book borrows so heavily from. The picture Kay paints of his version of that world is so detailed as to be indistinguishable from any real world counterpart. The subtleties were ones even a learned expert in the field could appreciate (his go-to Historical China expert Professor Anna Shields, testified to that in a panel at the convention). In that, the book is a triumph of historical fantasy.

Kay also does a masterful job of weaving a large cast of characters into this complex historical backdrop. He drifts nearly seamlessly between an omniscient narrator into tighter points of view.

I say “nearly” because while I listened, I did find myself a few times wanting to skip the more detached history lessons and return to the characters. The information felt too repetitious or even too “prologue-esque” which gave those sections a feel as if they had been written as a serial installment and not a single novel.

In the end I couldn’t pinpoint exactly where those sections didn’t add to the overall story (this might have come from listening and not reading). I will say if you hate prologues or slept through history class, this book isn’t for you.

Even with all the solid grounding, there is enough legend and a taste of magic which sets the book apart from an academic exercise. Spirits and demons and emissaries of the Other are not a common occurrence, which adds to their mythic feel. When these encounters do happen, they are described in such a way as to be unreliable but also retain their vividness which I found refreshing.

The one place the story does definitely stumble is with the characters.

As a story about how reality crosses into legend, I’d like to have seen a more human, vulnerable side to these characters. They seemed to mostly fill the archetypal roles they were born to. The more interesting characters, for me, became the ones on the fringes. And maybe that was the intent?

My biggest beef here was the inexplicable character transplant of Lin Shan which happened midway into the book. She begins as a fascinating, perceptive character who is bold on the page and stands out in the patriarchal society around her. But once she finds her true love, she slips maddeningly into stereotype. Her perception is blinded. Instead of deducing and acting she passively waits for answers and begs for explanations. One scene late in the book attempts to redeem her but falls flat.

Which brings me back to the white dude plea above…ahem.

Regardless, River of Stars was the perfect companion for my drive and I was drawn into the world Kay so carefully crafted. Overall, I prefer a tighter focus on characters than a plot-driven, world building focus but I enjoyed my time in Kay’s Kitai and feel it is worth a read for fantasy and historical fiction lovers alike. Though, maybe a bit more for those history types.

Where Have All the Readers Gone?

I need a reader! And truckload of aquanet...

I need a reader! And a truckload of Aquanet…

I’m going to need to put Free Fiction Friday on hiatus while I focus on my work in progress. I’ve been so busy marketing Crimson Son, that I’ve fallen a couple months off schedule and for someone whose only deadline nazi is, well, me, I need to exercise some serious discipline. Today though, I want to write a post about something that I took from my World Fantasy Con trip last week.

Not long ago, I mentioned I was retooling my site. That I was going to stop posting articles about the writing process and my self-publishing adventures (and mis-adventures). I wanted to focus on hobbies and diversions. Review some books. Share my inner geek and connect with like-minded souls.

I still plan to continue that trend. I want my site to be more than just a marketing platform. That and there are SO MANY sites out there peddling writing advice, whether it be business or craft, I didn’t feel I had that much to add to the noise.

Coming back from D.C. though, I found myself wondering about the state of the industry as a whole.

At the convention I met exactly three “fans”. Not my fans (no club yet though you’re welcome to start one…) but attendees who were solely readers interested in learning more about their hobby. (Actually, I suspect there were four and should include the guy who literally stooped and shoved his face into a conversation so he could read my badge and then scurried off with a rolling bag full of books. )

This shouldn’t be a surprise. The convention was billed as a professional event. A time for writers, editors and industry pros to mingle. The attendees ranged from the unknown (me) to the legendary (Straub, Haldeman, Kay, Datlow, etc.)

However, these three fans had been coming to the convention for years. All middle aged and older, they spoke of a lost time where the event drew readers and not solely writers. A time when they didn’t feel like the “odd man out”. One confessed that the next year would be her last due mostly to that unwelcome feeling.

Locally, I’ve seen the same thing. Our own cons appear to be run by an ageing “fandom” and attendees along with panels have all shifted toward the “you can be a writer, too” perspective.

I have a problem with this. You should too – if you want to sell books.

Look, I’m taking full advantage of the self-pub craze. I realize that. And since I’m not traditionally published, the argument could easily be made that I’m here, doing this, because I simply can’t make the cut as a writer. But I do feel that there are WAY too many people identifying as writers and not enough content to simply be fans.

So why can’t we be both? Why can’t we write and sell our own books while continuing to read and geek out about the Gaimans and the Kings of the industry? Why can’t we sell fiction and on the side run a cottage industry that plugs manuals and workshops on how to become the next big thing in the literary world?

Anyone who wants to take a shot at writing should. I don’t want to discourage that at all. Self pub has opened the doors for everyone to try and I’m a big fan of that kind of demolishing of traditional barriers.

Yet, I think the problem begins when we start to cannibalize our own market. When we push fans, potential buyers, out of our space. When pitching and celebrating in our closed circles becomes the focus and not finding those who want our work and sharing.

The ugly truth is I most likely won’t make it with this endeavor. None of us will. But the promise is being sold much like a bag of beans. Instead of being inspired by great fiction to become uber-readers, we’re being told that we too can claim the prize.  And everyone is trading their cow.

What exactly is the effect of all this? In short, I don’t think we’re doing enough to nurture the consumer. Writers are readers, for sure. However they aren’t fans. They aren’t even good potential customers for a new writer. While you describe your latest work, they are waiting to tell you about theirs. There might be an exchange, maybe an assumption of a literary handout or trade, but in most cases you aren’t cultivating a lifelong fan. You’re building a business relationship which is entirely different.

At the heart of this is what amounts to a lie. A promise that can never be kept. You too can’t be a writer. We all won’t make it. Thousands of dollars spent at a convention, seminar, or workshop and hundreds tossed at “How To” manuals won’t buy a magic ticket. You need to work your ass off every day, every hour. If you can’t do that, be content to read. Enjoy my lies about faraway fictional places – but I won’t lie to you about the here and now.

For the Old Souls and the Young at Heart

Red Dragon by Larry Elmore

Red Dragon by Larry Elmore

Last night I got the chance to get back to my roots. I headed out to the Sci Fi Factory and jumped into an ongoing Pathfinder game. Okay, I was there to promote the signing this Saturday, but when in Freeport…

I’ve been pretty critical of Dungeons and Dragons lately. In blog posts, on message boards, in heated discussions with friends. I played DnD almost exclusively for twenty years. I ran a Dragonlance campaign that spanned four of those and a homebrew campaign that ran over a decade. ADnD, second edition, and finally ending with 3.5.

I tweaked rules, tossed out annoying ones, made on-the-fly decisions to keep games running. Eventually, I hit a wall. Rules fatigue set in. I tried for months to craft my own version of a system I’d first bought as a kid doing door-to-door sales to earn the red-box Basic set. Pathfinder, for me, fixed many of the issues I had with 3.5 but introduced a new set of problems. I wanted something cleaner.

I branched out and explored dozens of other systems. FATE became a favorite due to the strong sense of narrative the rules-light system encourages. I even developed a hybrid DnD / FATE alternative which we used briefly for a fantasy campaign (and planted the seeds for my upcoming novel, First Song.)

Classes? So passe. Attribute checks? Saving Throws? Seriously, pick one. Pages and pages of spells with increasingly complicated descriptions? Too much. Alignments? C’mon.

But all the way home from my gaming session, I kept coming back to one thing – I had missed it.

Twelve players crowded the table. Ages ranged from tweens to some that had a few years even on me. Many of the younger kids were there with their parents – a new generation brought in by the old. All of them were there to craft a story.

Watching the cleric huddled over her player’s handbook, flipping through those overly complicated spells with a sense of wonder and discovery. The party waiting with baited breath to see how the paladin (me) would react when my Detect Evil caught an aura of some strange symbiotic artifact attached to the sorceress’ arm. Feeling for the DM as he juggled a dozen players all running separate directions around the city like kids on a playground.

It was messy. Crazy. Hectic. And damn fun.

Sure, call it nostalgia. One of the players even felt the need to tell me “you came on a good night.” (I know what those bad nights at the gaming table are like.) But that diverse group, veteran players and new. Young and old. Everyone sharing a make believe world and making the story distinctively theirs. Somehow that clunky rules system provided the glue for a fantastical experience.

It’s where I came from. Where my own narrative began. It embodies what I want to do with my fiction – speaking to the old souls and young at heart. It was a joy to go back and see others getting so excited about a hobby that transcends all the “fixes” that have been applied over the years.

Coffee with Joe Haldeman

Joe Haldeman and some Newb

Joe Haldeman and some Newb

When we arrived this morning at the Crystal City, we emerged from far beneath the earth through a one-way door and out into a brisk morning. Normally, being a lazy sort of adventurer, I’d have chosen to sleep in. There is no reward for fighting sleep and dream here, so why I should I? Luck had it, my ride had a coffee date

We approached the entrance, billowing with smoke and wondered what new guardian had settled into the role. Having dispatched the last by surrendering our mount and a few gold coins, I only hoped this one would be so amenable. But the pungent cloud and the figures moving within spoke to a greater challenge.

Leather armor, steely looks and more sewn on patches than a NASCAR driver. Yep. A biker gang.

Unfortunately, my companion had agreed to partake in ritual with a sorceress. A true legend of the craft. I shuddered to think what a late arrival would mean for him.

So we avoided the writhing cloud and went through a side door…

We were in a hurry. My friend, a fellow writer I’ve known since grade school, had signed up for coffee with Mary Robinette Kowal.  Yep, the Hugo award-winning author. World Fantasy Con is truly a magical place.

I know this because yesterday I got to sit in the presence of the legendary Joe Haldeman. Google can sort you out if you haven’t heard the name. Sci-fi master, novels and short stories, he’s a household name in the Geekdom where I spend my time. His “For White Hill” has to be one of the greatest short stories I’ve ever read. I plug it to everyone I know.

Haldeman and his wife Gay sat at the far end of a conference table from a mixed group of old fans and eager writers. But the first thing that struck me wasn’t celebrity awe. The first thing I noticed was how warm and comfortable this royal couple seemed together. Their own shared story was as plain as words on a page.

I had prepared a few questions beforehand but found myself mostly relaxing and enjoying his interactions with others. Writers asked questions he’d probably been asked a thousands times and he answered them with the same conviction as he must have the first time. “Do you ever get writer’s block?” “What advice do you have for new writers?”

I found myself wondering when that switch flipped. That point in time where instead of answering questions about his work, he started mostly answering questions about his process. I kept that question to myself.

But with his answer to the last one, “what advice”, I practically fell out of my chair.”Just shoot yourself” he said, followed by a “That’s what Hemingway said.”

While everyone laughed at the first statement, I guffawed loudly at the second and had to apologize. I can have a dark sense of humor.

He talked about the good ‘ol days where you could scrape a living off of short stories, writing for .05 to .07 cents a word. (You’d be fortunate to get that today.) He talked about writing your “truth”. How everyone’s experience is different and when writing of things such as war, even soldiers will disagree with the accounts but you can only write what’s real to you. To the detractors, show empathy, don’t argue, and move on.

He mentioned his teaching experience and how out of the thousands of talented writers he’d seen in his classrooms, only a handful ever made a living at it. He told about a black woman who’d taken his course years ago among the white housewives. She’d awed them (teacher included) with her clean and simple prose, every word perfect in her fables about children and animals. The woman, stuck in a menial job and a hostile society, had been overwhelmed by the attention of that one small, light-skinned class and had left.

The talk was both humbling and encouraging. It reinforced the difficulty of the road ahead. It also drove home how important relationships are to this often solitary task of writing. Both professional and personal.

After the meeting, I thanked Gay Haldeman for taking up a teaching job to pay the bills while Joe “tried out writing for a couple of years.” I personally understand that level of commitment and trust and how damn important it is, especially today. Later, I thanked everyone, face to face and through social media (Mrs. Haldeman included), for stopping by my signing table somewhere outside the gravitational pull of the honored guests.

We’re all in this mad pursuit together. Chances are we won’t survive, won’t finish. Nobody should ever feel compelled to turn back. Our best bet is to stay in the race and help those closest in the pack, being careful not to leave anyone behind. Confront the guardians, make your way around them, it doesn’t matter. We all have our own truth and only we can tell it the way it needs to be told. Speak that truth.

pic2221472_md

Riches to Ruins in Five Hours

Machi Koro

I AM the cheese factory…

This last weekend I broke away from all the self promotion so I could get my boardgame on. Our appetizer for the evening was Machi Koro, a light, city-building card game with an element of randomness thrown in via two six-siders.

You build your city by paying for cards which represent different industries. Each card has a money collection mechanic triggered by dice rolls. Sometimes the mechanic triggers when you roll, sometimes when the opponent rolls and sometimes when anyone rolls. The winner is the first person to develop all the advanced (middle of the photo) landmarks.

In our Machi Koro game, we played the dickhead capitalist version where players aggressively bought buildings which scored money from other players and not the bank. Money was thrown, curses hurled, but in the end I reigned supreme with a crazy explosive combo that allowed me to buy the two priciest landmarks in back to back turns.

Machi Koro is a surprisingly fun game, easy for novice and casual gamers and still slick enough to satisfy veteran cravings.

But then the freaking apocalypse happened and my shiny, happy city was decimated.

Yes, all the characters shown are available in the game. Stunt dog Sparky and Bad Santa top the list for flavor.

Yes, all the characters shown are available in the game. Stunt dog Sparky and Bad Santa top the list for flavor.

With Dead of Winter, instead of building a city we were wandering around a zombie infested, eternal winter version of one.

The core mechanics were fairly straightforward. Character cards with two basic abilities – search and attack – made up your “team”. Each also had a special ability which usual bent the rules in a unique way. A single die roll was used to simulate wounds. A dice pool (rolled and then assigned to the actions you wished) provided the number of actions for each player.

What took it to rules heavy seemed less like a mechanical issue and more of a “fiddly bits” issue. Crossroads Events, while entertaining, often added a group decision into the mix during each player’s turn. Scenario objectives sometimes had their own mechanics. Wounds were of several types requiring tracking with the copious game tokens. Crises required hoarding certain items. Personal “secrets” often had other hoarding requirements which acted to further slow objective achievement.

It felt like the core game was fairly solid but with a bunch of delaying tactics tossed in (or stretched goaled perhaps?).

Speaking of slowing play…

Each player chooses two characters at the start. These form the basis of your personal gopher squad which you can grow with searches through the frozen hell of a city. At one point we had players with six team members which gave them more dice for their action pool and more special abilities to trigger (thus lengthening their turns…)

Ever since a scarring experience playing DnD in college at a table with a dozen players each with multiple characters in play at the same time, I’ve had a major issue with anything which stretches one minute rounds into literally hours of real time.

But what really sucks in Dead of Winter is when you roll the dice and your first team member bites it simply for STEPPING OUTSIDE and then your second team member follows immediately after with another bad roll for an event card.

Because then you’re the guy at the table watching everyone else play. Your number of actions gimped, you have the option of being the team’s personal gopher and cleaning trash at the outpost (seriously, this is part of the game) or building barricades while they explore the city with their fists full of action dice.

You’re the redshirt, everyone else is Captain Kirk.

Sure, you could wander back outside and try to search for more people to add to your team, but if the random character you are handed, with no equipment (cause you trashed all that when your other guys died) happens to have a shit search roll, you’re better off scraping old zombie brains off the floor back home.

Look, any game which has even the remote possibility of utterly boning you for the audacity of moving has, in my opinion, a design flaw. It’s old school DnD with a jerk DM that tells you to roll up a new character when your first level mage gets gutted by a stray kobold fart. Some people get into that sort of masochistic gaming but me, not so much.

Needless to say we were horribly annihilated within three rounds – three rounds which took nearly two hours. This happened in part because another player, right at turn one, rolled poorly and lost a character which gimped our total number of actions in early rounds. Then, the rest began expanding their teams which meant a nice long wait before my single player’s turn ever came back up. This was exacerbated by the rotation of a first player token which essentially gave people back to back turns so when it reached the character-heavy end of the table, you could safely start surfing YouTube on your phone and not feel rude in the least.

We played a second time and that time we won handily, to the point that at no time did we ever feel threatened. However, despite the crushing win, I technically “lost” because I ignored my secret objective in favor of pursuing the team objective.

Which brings me to the next issue I have with Dead of Winter: There is no incentive apart from bragging rights to pursue the secret objective. This is a co-op game. If they want to have a “winner” mechanic, you at least need to be able to rank the “winners” or name only one overall winner.

The only exception to this is if there is a betrayer in the midst and the way the deck is stacked, the odds of this happening appear to be slim.

Despite my gripes, I really do think there is a good game here. Thematically it’s strong and the complex RPG-esque and resource management tension can lead to some fun gameplay and tense moments. That and the Crossroads event cards added flavor and variety (Sparky driving a tanker truck back to the colony was top-notch…)

Several of us at the table felt the game needed some tweaks. I for one feel like the betrayer should have been a guarantee and/or the “secret objectives” removed from play. True, those secret objectives are supposed to mask the existence of a traitor, but the two I received either had no effect unless a betrayer was in play or required hoarding useful items which were better off equipped on my character so I could enjoy success during gameplay as much as the other players.

Overall, I’d say building the city with Machi Koro was more fun than exploring the apocalyptic ruins. This runs contrary to every gaming and even narrative instinct I have, but sometimes it’s good to be the cut-throat tycoon at the top of the heap. Of course, the ruins were vast, so perhaps they are worth a revisit.

Dry Spell – Part Two

Bela_Lugosi_as_Dracula,_anonymous_photograph_from_1931,_Universal_StudiosYou can find Part One here

Vlad started at the rumbling tones of Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor. As the second measure ended, the tones repeated and he stretched, scrubbing a patch of dirt from his ear. “Renfield?” he mumbled, his voice stretched thin across the line between sleep and death. Tocatta blared once more. “Renfield!”

“Yes, Master,” Renfield called from the floor above. “I’ve got it, Master.”

Floorboards creaked as his servant hurried to the front door. Vlad sat up in his coffin and dusted the dirt from his sleeves, curious who would be calling at this early of an hour. A digital clock on the wall read ’0:28′; twenty eight minutes until sundown.

His estate was unlisted. Off the grid. No phone even for a do-not-call list. On private land and surrounded by a high fence, his only visitors to date had been a steady stream of Jehovah’s Witnesses and a couple of Mormon missionaries. The former, Renfield dealt with. The latter, he’d actually invited in. No crosses. No bibles. Renfield’s surprising thoughtfulness had provided a lovely mid-afternoon snack.

Even with the keen senses of a predator, Vlad could only tell that the current visitor was a female and by the sound of Renfield’s increasing stammer, a quite persistent one. She’d need to get in line like the rest, he mused. Planting his palms on the coffin’s lip, he sprang to the floor. He shuffled across the stone floor toward a closet and shed his hoodie as he moved.

Once a color somewhere between alabaster and damaged plum, his skin had been painted. Normal flesh tones disguised every visible inch. Six-pack stripes stretched across his engorged belly.

Vlad scratched his head and opened the closet. As he reached for another black hoodie, a plastic dry-cleaning bag brushed his hand.

An empty void stared through the plastic. Perfectly black, so deep it would stand out like neon against a night sky. The imperious collar knifed the edges of the bag. Regal. Deadly.

His eyes drifted to the card table next to the closet. Several vials of flesh-toned paint rested beside an airbrush. Next to this were stacks of pink eggs, half of them lidless and strewn haphazardly on the floor. Somewhere in his hollow chest, a sinking feeling formed.

“Master?” Renfield’s voice came from the stairwell.

“What?” Vlad shook his head and grabbed a hoodie.

Renfield crept slowly into view as he navigated the darkness. “May I?” he felt around for the light switch as he reached the final step.

“Very well.”

The lights flickered on. Atop Vlad’s layer of flesh tone paint, a glittery film shimmered under the fluorescent bulbs.

Scrubbing at a silvery speck on the bridge of his nose, Vlad snapped, “Who was it?”

“A girl, Master. She says she saw you at the club last night.”

“Oh? All of the women I entertained last night have served their purpose.” Vlad flicked his hoodie over his head and it flopped flaccidly across his brow.

“Well, she never actually spoke with you. Or so she says.”

“Describe her.”

“Ummm, well,” Renfield struggled. “Average height. Average weight. Light brown hair.” Renfield narrowed his eyes. “Rather vacant stare – I almost took her for a thrall.”

Vlad curled his lip and picked absently at a fang. “Could be any of them. How did she find us?”

“She admitted to following you, Master.”

“Really? How did I not see this?”

“You were plastered, Master,” said Renfield, hastily adding under a piercing stare, “The fault of your inebriated prey.”

The hardened stare softened. “I’d hardly call them prey. They don’t deserve the name. More like one of those windows where they grind cattle and serve it on bread with potatoes.”

“A fast food drive-thru, Master?”

“Yes. Much too convenient to call them proper prey.” Vlad patted his belly and grabbed the airbrush off the table. “But, I should have done this years ago.”

“I’m not sure this would have worked years ago, Master,” said Renfield, snatching the airbrush.

Vlad rolled up his hoodie and faced Renfield who began spritzing on paint. “Perhaps, but this strategy is most effective at present.”

“If you say so, Master.” Renfield did his best to appear focused on a particularly tricky blend of abdominal muscle. When he finished, he stepped back and rubbed his hands together.

“Excellent.” Vlad shimmied back into the hoodie and motioned to his coffin.

Obediently, Renfield slouched across the room to freshen the graveyard dirt inside. While he scooped rich earth from a ceramic urn, he tried to continue his earlier line of thought, “I just wonder if this isn’t a bit…well, beneath you.”

His Master narrowed his eyes and Renfield focused on smoothing the dirt.

“We’re only doing this to weather our little dry spell, Renfield. By the time this fad passes, we’ll have moved on.”

Renfield gave the bedding a final pat and hurried after his Master who was ascending the stairs.

Halfway up, Vlad stopped and turned. “What of this woman? Did you get the forms signed?”

“Oh, yes, Master.”

“Name?”

“Robin, I believe, Master. Robin Brutto.”

“Sounds…common. Did she leave an address?”

“Of course, Master.”

“And she initialed the Right of Access clause?”

“Definitely, Master.”

“Good. Then I shall visit her tonight, when the full moon shines above the world like polished bone and the forces of darkness gather under its gibbous power!” Flinging his arm out in front of him, Vlad swept up the stairs, imagining the flutter of his cloak. But the cotton hoodie only clung like a puffy skin and Vlad sighed. Yanking the hoodie drawstrings tight, he stomped up the stairs.

#

Pale moonlight stretched along the 1925 Rolls Royce Phantom. Despite the absence of color, the black machine out-shined the economy cars and pickup trucks which dotted the neighborhood’s driveways. Tail lights flared and the car pulled up to a powder-blue house that looked drab and gray outside the circle of porch light.

With practiced ease, Renfield hopped out and navigated the elongated hood of the Rolls, stopping to polish the hood ornament with his sleeve. Vlad watched him brush the tattered jacket sleeve on his trousers as he approached the passenger door.

“I asked you to remind me about freshening your appearance,” said Vlad.

“Sorry, Master.” Renfield ducked his head and shuffled backward, extending a hand which Vlad ignored. Stepping onto the pavement, Vlad heard the door of the house slam shut. What at first glance appeared to be a man stomped down the porch toward them.

Perhaps five and a half feet tall, shorter than even Renfield’s hunched frame, the figure was an amorphous blob which exploded out from a pair of bikers shorts. His legs and arms swung like unweighted pendulums. Bronze skin and chestnut eyes peeked out of a thick mat of body hair above a snarling muzzle. The beast wafted by on a current of coriander and tumeric lingering above a hint of human flesh that made Vlad’s stomach grumble.

Without pausing, he growled, “Good luck,” stretching the ‘o’s through a thick accent before disappearing into the night.

Vlad shrugged and approached the house while Renfield stood by the Phantom. Once at the door, he grasped the knob and was pleased to find it unlocked. He opened it and slid his toes over the threshold. Satisfied, he stepped into the entry hall and closed the door behind him.

“I thought I told you…” a man emerged out of the living room to his left. Bald, with a neck like an inner tube, he cradled a shotgun, the barrel resting on his shoulder. Tattooed arms made up for the lack of sleeves on his flannel shirt.

Far from intimidate, Vlad smirked. “Robin invited me.”

“I got silver slugs in this here gun, boy.” He pumped the shotgun with one hand and began to level it.

“Is that so?” In a blur, Vlad closed the distance and ripped back the man’s collar. Fangs hovering above the flesh, Vlad froze and stumbled backward.

A tattoo of a cross decorated the man’s collar bone. Caught off guard, Vlad turned to leave and balked again. Nailed to the door was a sign – another cross stenciled above the silhouette of a military rifle. Beneath the rifle words declared, “If Jesus had his AK, he wouldn’t have been crucified.”

Hog-neck raised his shotgun and motioned Vlad into the living room. Trapped between the crosses, Vlad flashed razor-sharp canines. The man didn’t flinch. Scowling, Vlad headed for a well-worn sofa.

“That’s it. Have a seat.”

Sinking into the spring-less cushions, Vlad scooted forward and perched on the edge. Hog-neck dropped into an armchair and placed the butt of the shotgun on the ground. With his free hand, he flipped a lever and his feet sprang up in Vlad’s direction. After he’d wriggled into the chair a bit more, he snatched a can from a side table and took a long draw.

“Want a beer?”

Astonished, Vlad took a moment to answer. “No.”

Hog-neck finished another long gulp with a contented exhale and crumpled the can. “So, you want to date my daughter?”

“Not exactly,” Vlad said.

“No? Ain’t that why you’re here?” The man’s fingers tapped the barrel of the gun.

“I have no intention of this being an extended affair.”

“Really now?” With a meaty hand, the man dug through a pocket on the side of the recliner. Several remotes, a short barrel .38 and TV Guide later, he produced a thick red book. “Wanna swear on that?”

Vlad sunk into the couch as the man leaned forward. Tucking the Bible into his lap, hog-neck drummed his fingers on the cover. “You saying my daughter’s looking for a hook-up? That what they call it? You saying she’s a cheap whore?” His fingers continued to drum.

“What your daughter is or isn’t is no business of mine. My need for her is only…temporary.”

“Oh, I know your kind. Don’t think I don’t got cable TV. You vampires with all your sex and blood sucking. It ain’t right. Ain’t you dead?”

Vlad’s temper flared. “I am immortal, peasant!”

“But, you’re dead. You can’t be immortal.”

“Dead, alive, I have been on this earth for centuries. Long before your narrow family tree sprouted from whatever sty it took root in.”

“Only one man ever raised hisself from the dead.”

Taken aback yet again, Vlad mused at the ramifications. An empty grave, a sacrament of blood drinking. He shook the thought from his mind. “Interesting point. But I assure you I am…”

“A walking corpse. Like them shows.”

“It’s nothing like ‘them shows’,” Vlad spat.

“Don’t try to fool me, boy. You got that glittery skin.”

Vlad struggled to find the right words.

“You think because you’re all glittery and apathetic, you can treat my little girl like a piece of trash.”

“Seriously, I’m here for a late night snack. Nothing more.”

“So my baby’s a suck ‘em and dump ‘em kinda gal to you?” The man sat forward, waving the Bible furiously. Vlad growled as it bobbed closer. “See. Exactly like them shows. I know what you people are like.”

“Daddy?” Robin’s voice carried across the house like the scent of iced cinnamon rolls. “Is everything alright out there?”

Hog-neck’s tone dropped several octaves. “Everything’s fine sugar plum. You just pretty yourself up, you hear? Daddy’ll call you out in a minute.” He fired a harsh whisper at Vlad. “Now look, you’re making her all upset!”

“Is he here?” she called.

Hog-neck scowled at Vlad and rose from the recliner, dropping the bible on the coffee table. “Yes, sugar plum.”

“Oooh, which one?” came the sweet voice.

He turned his head and narrowed his eyes at Vlad as he shouted, “The sparkly one.”

“What happened to Nabendu? Wasn’t he here before?”

“Yeah, sugar plum. I threw his sorry ass out. You’re too good for him, baby.”

While her father faced the hallway, Vlad took the opportunity to slink across the couch, away from the Book which continued to send steady waves of repulsion through his jerky-like flesh. He could see into the kitchen where another door, minus any crosses, waited.

“They didn’t fight did they?” The gooey sweetness disappeared under a wave of anticipation.

“No, baby. Nobody’s fighting. We ain’t fighting neither. Just talking.”

“Okay,” she called, deflated. “I’ll be ready soon.”

Hog-neck turned and Vlad fell into a casual pose, his hand resting under his chin. The man eyed Vlad suspiciously before he fell into the recliner and shot his legs into the air.

A safe distance from the holy tome and with hog-neck once again enveloped in his recliner, Vlad sprang to his feet. “There’s been a mistake. I’ll just tear up the contract. No harm, no foul as they say.”

The man’s eyes shrank into narrow slits and his thick neck shortened. He reached for the shotgun propped against the chair. “You ain’t thinking of walking out on my little baby, are you?”

Vlad raised his hands and sidestepped toward the kitchen. “Actually, no.” With a flourish, Vlad flipped his hoodie over his brow and cursed as the rough cloth fell unevenly across his eyes. The air filled with smoke…and glitter…where Vlad once stood.

Hog-neck leapt up and swung the shotgun wildly around the room.

Assuming the form of a bat, Vlad arced over the shotgun barrel hugging the ceiling as he raced for the kitchen. Both barrels roared behind him.

“Don’t shoot him, Daddy!” Robin had raced into the living room but Vlad didn’t dare look. The kitchen was still too far away and a second shower of pellets punctured the ceiling inches from his wings. He weaved to the side and dipped under a table, flying serpentine through the legs.

“He’s a damn rodent now, sugar plum! Ain’t nothing but good eating!”

“But, Daddy! I love him!”

Vlad soared out from under the table, aiming for the kitchen window.

“You just met the fool! You don’t love him!” Shouted the man as he broke open the shotgun and fumbled in his pocket for more shells.

“I’ve been watching…I’ve seen him around for months now,” came Robin’s stuttering reply. Vlad shuddered and pumped his wings for more speed.

“Why can’t you date the boys at school?” demanded her father as he leveled the shotgun.

Like a misguided bird, Vlad careened into the window pane. Stronger than a dozen men while a vampire, as a bat, the physics of a five ounce body weight had their limitations. Stunned, he slid down the pane of glass and into the kitchen sink. Over the concussive buzz in his brain, Vlad heard hog-neck’s voice continuing in thick whispers, stalking closer to the counter. “Why you want to waste your time with this a-mortal demon spawn, I’ll never understand.”

Head spinning, Vlad stumbled into the drain and landed across a strip of metal.

“But, we’re soul mates! I want to be with him, forever. I can be with him, forever!”

Those words pierced his mental fog and Vlad shivered. Through a rubberized curtain, he saw a hand reach stealthily across the sink toward the wall.

The rubber seal. Metal bar digging into his back. He’d fallen into the garbage disposal.

While there were a finite number of ways to end a vampire’s existence, at least two of those conditions could be met with the flick of a switch and the obligatory rush of water.

Holding the breath he no longer had, Vlad dropped into the narrow drainpipe as the whirring of blades diced Robin’s screams.

#

“Mmmmm. Is that fresh bread I smell, Master?” asked Renfield as Vlad stepped from the shadows. His Master’s only reply was a damp squelch as he trudged toward the Phantom. Renfield’s manic expression drained.

Vlad’s face had become the canvas for an abstract smear of meatloaf, body paint, and beer foam. The black hoodie glistened with a coating of slime. Where hood had once been was nothing but a nest of tattered threads. A crooked gash in the fabric exposed his purpled, dead flesh swimming in muddied flesh tones. But the transmogrification into a bat, the slide into the food-caked drain and the squeeze up the clean-out vent to the roof, had scrubbed off every ounce of glitter.

“Beer.”

“What?” Renfield clawed the door of the Phantom open as Vlad bore down on the vehicle.

“The odor. Beer. Not bread, you half-wit.” Vlad squished into the backseat, eyes straight ahead. Renfield closed the door and hurried to the driver’s seat.

“Wh…where to, Master?” Renfield watched the rearview with wide eyes and Vlad avoided his gaze.

“Home, Renfield. I need to remove this despicable outfit.”

“Yes, Master.” The Phantom purred down the block and Vlad stared vacantly out the window.

Once they’d left the neighborhood far behind, and the moonlight fought only against a jagged silhouette of tall pines winding along the roadside, Vlad spoke. Softly, just loud enough for Renfield to hear him over the growl of the engine. “I’ll be needing my cape.”

A mottled grin like an open sore spread across Renfield’s face. “Yesss, Master. Most definitely.”

Does Bumgarner have Superpowers?

B1Kh-AmCcAA60yC“Seriously, he’s an Augment.” Eric’s got that Hunter Pence look in his eyes.

“Bullshit.” I rack my brain trying to remember all the faces we flipped through on his Conspirapedia database thing. Even the fact that I’m bothering to do that makes me wonder how sane I am. “He’s not an Augment.”

“No, he is, really.”

“Fine.” Fighting an eyeroll is taking monumental effort. “What powers has he manifested?”

“A 1.02 ERA in 55 2/3 innings? And you’ve seen his pitch. I mean how do you do even sling heat flopping your arm around like that. Maybe he’s got an elasticity power…”

“Elasticity? What in the hell are you talking about?”

“Well, like his skin and bones stretch or something.”

“That has to be the dumbest power I’ve ever heard of. Nobody has that power.”

“Well, they could…”

“And what? Use it to pick further up their nose? Maybe creep on girls from the other end of a subway car? What happens when they take Viagra? They like turn to concrete? C’mon dude, that’s dumb.”

Eric looks down in defeat. “Okay, maybe you’re right.” But pretty soon his mouth drops open and he’s back at it. “Clairvoyance. He knows what the batter is anticipating, how they’ll swing and so he always makes the best call. Always one step ahead. And we’d never be able to verify because he’d be one step ahead of everyone else.”

“And he uses this to sling horsehide and not negotiate world peace?” I say, not convinced I wouldn’t do the same thing. “Stop, man. He’s a badass. Anyone can be a badass, they don’t have to be a superhero.”

Eric frowns and doesn’t resist an eyeroll. “When did you become a motivational speaker?”

“Shut up and get me another Dew. Let’s celebrate. No more Augment talk, I get enough of that crap from Dad. How about we hack Amazon and extend that sale of ours? You did post the documents right?”

“Oh yeah, like EVERYWHERE. A buck a click. We might be able to buy a new cooling fan for Babe soon.” Eric tosses a fresh can of radioactive caffeine my way. I snag it, doing a better job than freaking Blanco and Perez and pop the lid. Leaning back in the throne, I bask in the permanent odor of Parmesan baked into the cracked leather and take a swig.

With the rush of sugar comes a flood of memories starting with the Icehole. Next, a retirement home for cast-off Augments. Even the Beetle’s lair – the freaking Black Beetle. My arm convulses sympathetically and I almost spill my drink. How did I even survive? Why? Cheers erupt on the TV again and I let them override the rest before my thoughts drift to those that didn’t. I need a break. A clear win in my column. I’ll take this one.

We’ll extend the sale. For the Giants. Giants among Augments. Normal people giving everything to something extraordinary. That’s my kind of win.

http://www.amazon.com/Crimson-Son-Russ-Linton-ebook/dp/B00KZ87P2S/

Crimson Son: On sale ONE MORE DAY due to “hacking” and a Giant’s win…

Dry Spell – Free Fiction from Russ Linton

Bela_Lugosi_as_Dracula,_anonymous_photograph_from_1931,_Universal_StudiosVlad sat on a bench designed to be uncomfortable. Centuries ago when his body circulated blood and his muscles were pliable, he’d have complained. Or, more likely, never submitted himself to such common appointments. He started to rise but a passing group of teenagers did a double take. From pure reflex, he brought his forearm to his face and then quickly dropped it, shrinking into a black hoodie.

Drained skin, normally a ghastly gray, was submerged beneath three coats of SPF 150 which practically glowed inside the shadowed hood. His alluring eyes trapped behind a pair of welding goggles.

“Dude! Mothball emos!” snickered the pack leader as the group crawled past.

Vlad stared after them, memorizing the boy’s face. A tall, lanky kid. O positive. Boring, but perhaps, he thought, a decent dipping sauce for the pretzels that managed to force their aroma past even his deadened senses.

A girl in the back, her jeans painted to her ass and a cropped t-shirt full to bursting, saw him looking. “Eeeew, gross.” She shook loose his stare and moved closer to her friends.

Silently, Vlad turned to glare at the storefront before him, avoiding the half-dressed mannequins in the window. Pink and black letters bordered with incandescent bulbs burned through his goggles. A woman exited the store, shopping bag in hand. One look at Vlad and the man seated next to him, and she clutched her bag to her chest, clicking rapidly away into the desolate mall.

“So, Renfield, it has come to this,” Vlad muttered.

Renfield rubbed his hands together in glee. “Yess Master! Yess!” The accompanying smile was that of a mad man free of his straight jacket.

“Stop it,” Vlad commanded. “You look like a pervert.”

The rat-faced man sunk into his tattered dinner jacket.

“And remind me, we need to buy update your wardrobe while we’re here. Your predecessor’s rags are inadequate. You need to get with the times. Blend in a bit.” Vlad pushed up his hoodie’s sleeves exposing sunscreen caked arms.

“Yes, Master.”

A silence surrounded the two and Vlad’s predatory hearing focused on the retreating heels. Normally the sound would have thrust him into pursuit, but now he only sighed, his chest falling into an empty slump.

“You remember Mina?” Vlad asked, his senses becoming unfocused. “Her ivory skin and raven hair. Those lips…”

Renfield rolled his eyes as he interrupted, “…of mulled cherry wine.”

“Are you mocking me?”

“No, Master,” Renfield replied and averted his gaze to a potted fern beside the bench. “It’s just, well, it’s been,” Renfield began a count on his fingers, cycling through each hand several times before letting them fall limp. “Over a century, Master?”

“What is time when one is immortal?” Vlad mused, his thoughts still clinging to the past.

“You’ve had other women since…”

“Other women!” Vlad bared his pointed teeth. “Other women? None compare to my Mina.”

“Oh, never!” Renfield hastily agreed. “But, perhaps, some came close?”

The ancient Nosferatu stuffed his gloved hands inside the pocket of his hoodie and bowed his head. “None.”

Renfield crept next to him on the bench. “What of Alexandra? The fiery one with the big…”

“Pepper spray,” Vlad hissed. “You should remember these things, you dimwit. Every last servile thought should have been passed on from your predecessor, Renfield the Fifth.”

“Forgive me, Master, I am but an insect. Often the memories are slow to return.” As the memory final surfaced, Renfield remarked, “Who would have thought yet another pungent plant would have caused such a rash…” He wilted under his Master’s glare and stammered, “Coraline? What of Coraline?”

“Oh, Beelzebub! Why bring her up at all? I’d never seen a girl so anxious to be bitten. They’re all that way now. No terror. No fear. It’s distracting. It makes it hard to, to feed.”

Renfield patted Vlad’s knee. “It happens to the best of us, Master.”

Vlad’s glare skewered Renfield’s hand and he pulled away, certain he would be killed there, on the spot, dead like the indoor emporium where he sat. But the ferocious and feral visage lasted only for an instant. Fangs disappeared behind tight lips and red eyes became overcast. “It isn’t the same. They used to stand there. Doe eyed. Paralyzed with fright. Now they shout, defy me, spray produce. It’s humiliating.”

The red glow of Vlad’s eyes resumed and the fingers of his gloved hand started to grip then crush the recycled plastic bench where they sat. “And Hollywood. Cable television. Had I foreseen the coming fiasco I would have ripped out the heart of the man who made the talking pictures. How they spit on my heritage now with their sex-starved, gym rats!”

Vlad’s anger cycled to desperation and he hiked the hoodie up to his chest. “Abs, Renfield! They have abs! How is such nonsense even possible?” Gray, mottled, rigor mortised flesh began to smoke under the feeble rays of sun through a skylight.

“Now there Master,” Renfield pulled the hoodie free from Vlad’s loose grip, “abs aren’t everything.”

“No, of course not you imbecile!” Vlad’s temper flared and extinguished. “But everything has changed. No more is the thrill of the chase. The soul blackening domination. The women of this day and age are entirely unreasonable.”

In Renfield’s mind, more memories swirled and faded. He reached for another name to test his Master with, but none came. In fact, in the five years he’d spent as servant to the great Master of Darkness, the Nosferatu Prime, Count Dracul, Vlad the Impaler, he’d never seen his Master take on a smitten, vulnerable girl as a pet.

So far, Renfield’s errands had been trips to the blood bank. Vodka. Sangria mixes on the lean nights. But always drinks for one. The coffin turned down instead of the king-size bed. His Master was becoming an increasingly reckless man. Wandering out in the day. Sleeping at night. On one desperate binge, he’d even attempted to enter an Olive Garden.

“Master. Might I presume to ask a question?”

Vlad barely acknowledged him.

“When exactly was the last time?” Renfield braced himself for his Master’s fury.

Vlad studied the floor and toyed with the string dangling from his hood. “Renfield, my devoted servant, indentured by the last scrap of your pathetic soul, I cannot recall.” Under a pained expression, the SPF150 cracked like dried mud. “That is why we’re here.”

Renfield, rarely privvy to his Master’s schemes, followed Vlad’s gaze and stared in confusion at the brightly-lit sign. Half-dressed mannequins filled the windows. Photos of attractive women in nothing more than swatches of strung together cloth smiled at them. But they were not flesh and, most importantly, blood.

“Why here, Master?”

“For this.” Vlad pressed a piece of parchment into Renfield’s palm. “Go. Be quick about it.”

#

Renfield stood staring at the piece of parchment. He looked up at the cashier, who was either much taller than he or elevated on a platform behind the counter. Thin, her body sculpted in tight lines under a dark suit, she eyed him like she might a cockroach that had crawled out of her chickpea orzo salad.

“Can I help you?”

Unable to find the item from his Master’s note, Renfield had managed to stumble into a display of panties that more resembled spider webs than undergarments. Several customers had walked out as he disentangled himself and the cashier had taken up her imperious pose at the register. He raised the note, swatting at a pair of underwear that clung tenaciously to his sleeve.

The cashier, Lacey, or so her name tag said, wasn’t impressed. Nor did she for a second assume he was looking at her name tag. Her look hardened and she sucked in a breath, ready to deliver a scorching warning when Renfield blurted, “Bootytastic Body Shimmer.”

Her mouth froze, half-open.

Renfield nodded in quick bursts, emboldened by the words that had finally escaped his lips. “I am looking for Bootytastic Body Shimmer.”

Her expression did not change. She stood frozen for so long, Renfield glanced outside toward his Master to see if he’d performed some form of dark ritual on her. The only response was an impatient jab at his wrist. When Renfield looked back, Lacey seemed to have recovered. Without a word she grabbed a jar from a display on the counter and slapped it down with a fierce crack.

“Oh. Yes. There it is.” Renfield glanced at the display and blushed. “Looked all over.”

The burning stare continued.

“I’ll just…how much?”

She pointed at the price tag on the lid.

“Oh.” The display was well-stocked with only a few empty spots. Forty jars of Bootytastic Shimmer packed away in their sleek egg-shaped containers. “I’ll take them all.”

###

Catch the conclusion on HALLOWEEN next Friday!

The Ancient Art of Miàn duì Gōngjí

Over the weekend I manifested a new superpower to be added to the growing list alongside Making Shit Up and Where’s Waldo Echolocation. No, not invisibility. It would be useless anyway because I’d give myself away with the clacking on the keyboard. And no adamantium bones, which is fine. I don’t want to get the grope-down by setting off airport metal detectors every time I board a plane.

It was seven a.m. on a Sunday when I was forewarned of this development.  An annoying buzzing infiltrated my sleep, rattling my brain a bit. Spidey sense, one of the many other powers I’ve picked up over the years. That or…

When my wife Maaike’s phone stopped vibrating, she jabbed me in the face (which I totally didn’t see coming. The Spidey sense is weird like that) and said “It’s time”. Little did I know, this was only a warmup for the day ahead.

With my birthday approaching, she must have sensed the coming changes as well and maybe figured it was best if we were out of the house in case I maybe turned into living flame like the Human Torch. I really never understood how he lived a normal life. Does he clear out the station before pumping gas? Does he have an Emergency Plan set up with Sue? Okay, if I ever “flame on” in my sleep, we’ll meet at the fire hydrant out front.

Anyway, turns out my power was none of these. It was something better and to master it I had to learn an ancient Chinese martial art known as Miàn duì Gōngjí which is only practiced by a secretive, inbred tong. Most of them are missing their teeth and their noses have long since been pulped to their face like Voldemort, but this did not deter me. Though, in retrospect, it probably should have.

Turns out, attacking things with your face is pretty rough but effective. I mean nobody, not even you, sees it coming. The ultimate in sneak attacks.

After several repetitions, my red-suited sensei stopped laughing long enough to tell me that I was ready to unleash my new abilities. A power I’d been waiting for ever since these mutant abilities started to display themselves. The power of flight.

This was a singularly weird experience. It was like learning to swim but being told not to move or else the water will smash you against the side of the pool. Microscopic movements would shoot you across the width of the giant blender (clear walls for the entertainment of your “loved” ones) and trying to figure out which offending muscles had caused the incident was sorta like isolating which individual hair on your head itched.

When we finished, Maaike then decided to share some ancient Eastern wisdom she must have picked up from my sensei. She felt this gift was exactly what someone had meant when they mentioned a writer needed to “live their life outside their head as much as inside”. And that very wise person was right. All those experiences become fuel for the fiction. Add rich layers to the story and maintain the illusion.

I can’t wait until the next power rears it’s head.

I’ll have a helmet on standby and probably a face of steel by that point. But most importantly, I’ll have a new gift to pass on to the people that bother to stop and pick up my books or short stories. A gift of made up stuff tempered by a few reality checks against the inside of the blender.

Don’t leave me hanging (groan) check out the blog tour – dates are on the sidebar to the right. And don’t forget the SALE. .99 for the Crimson Son eBook!

Uncanny Sale – Crimson Son eBook for .99!

As all good mutations do, the Uncanny Blog Tour has morphed. Produced a new strain. Found its FINAL FORM.

Now announcing the AMAZING. The ASTONISHING. The STUPENDOUS. The UNCANNY Sale.

For a limited time, the Crimson Son eBook will be available for .99 cents.

Yep. You heard right. Less than a buck.

I can’t cram anymore badassery into an eBook for anything less. Well, unless you’re a public library. I love libraries – you guys can HAVE the book (I’ve set the eBook price for library purchases through Smashwords to FREE).

RIGHT NOW, you can find it on Amazon for .99 Other distributors seem to have their own time table for pricing updates which is somewhere between the Flash and Professor X speeds, but I’ll let everyone know when the major players have decided to honor my insanity.  For now, feel free to feed 30 billion pound gorilla that is Amazon – just keep your hands outside the cage.