Seventh Heaven… I mean, Helix!

Helix No. 7 is now up and open for business — check it out.

There are seven new stories, by Charlie Anders, Maya Bohnhoff, Adam-Troy Castro, David W. Goldman, Selina Rosen, Vaughan Stanger, and Laura J. Underwood, along with poetry by Mike Allen, F. J. Bergmann, Anthony Bernstein, Gene van Troyer, and Jane Yolen, and columns by the regulars — John Barnes, Bud Webster, etc.

The only pay the authors of those seven stories will receive is a share of what readers donate, so if you like what you read, do please show that appreciation in tangible form, either through PayPal or by sending a check.

This Always Worked Before…

Today is Wednesday — well, it was until twenty minutes ago, anyway — and Wednesday is new comic book day, so I drove over to the mall and made my weekly stop at Beyond Comics, where I picked up half a dozen titles.

And while I was doing that, I came to a dismaying realization that I mentioned to the shop manager, who agreed: There are writers working in comics today who used to be on my must-buy list, but who now are getting me to drop titles I used to buy.

Exiles, for example — I started buying it with #10, and never missed an issue until Chris Claremont took over writing it. Three issues later I’d dropped it, and now it’s cancelled. Once upon a time I really liked Claremont’s writing.

Or there’s Peter David on She-Hulk. To be fair, David said he was going to revamp the book because he just didn’t know how to continue it the way Dan Slott did it, and I respect that — but I don’t enjoy what he did with it at all, and dropped it after two issues.

And Paul Dini — I used to love pretty much everything Paul Dini wrote, but I find his run on Detective Comics tedious. I mean, this ought to be an amazing match-up, Dini and Detective, but it just doesn’t work for me.

Not that Grant Morrison on Batman is any better — I mean, Damian was a really bad idea. But then, I’d already been disillusioned with Morrison when he was writing the X-Men — he started well there, but lost me after maybe eight or ten issues.

I could go on to name other examples, but I think the point is made — these are all writers I thought were great fun when I first encountered them, but who are now writing stuff I really don’t want to read. It’s not just mediocre — if I’m reading a title I can put up with a lot of mediocre before I quit — but so unlike what had gone before, and unlike it in a bad way, that I actively avoid it. Claremont killed everything I liked about Exiles; David systematically removed everything I liked about She-Hulk. I’d stuck with Exiles through a lot of writers, ranging from frankly bad to really good, but Claremont chased me away in short order.

And then there are one-time favorites I’ve been actively avoiding for awhile now — Dave Sim, Warren Ellis, Frank Miller, Steve Gerber…

So why is this? I mean, there are lots of writers I still like just fine, but there are also all these writers I can’t stand anymore. And I can’t think of a single long-time comics writer who I think is getting better, which is kind of depressing.

I don’t have any brilliant insights here; I just wanted to rant a bit. I would love to see an old favorite get even better; instead I’m seeing lots of them go bad. I am not happy about that. The universe is being mean to me.

Make it stop.

Sorcerer’s Bane

[This is another book in the “Fall of the Sorcerers” set — in fact, I think it comes before Mareet Saruis’ story, a.k.a. The Golden Wyvern. I’d originally thought Sorcerer’s Bane was the second book in the series, but now I think it’s first.]

The coachman called to his team, and the vehicle rolled to a stop on the wet cobbles, almost directly in front of a young man in a green frock coat. “Alzur!” the driver called as he set the brake. “This is Alzur!”

The door banged open, and a head thrust out. “Indeed it is,” the new arrival said, looking around the square. “It hasn’t changed a bit, has it?”

The man in the green coat hurried toward him. “Anrel!” he called. “You’ve made it!”

“Hello, Fal,” the passenger said, clambering down. “You haven’t changed, either, I see.”

“Ah, so it might appear to the casual glance,” Fal said, clapping his friend on the back, “but I think that when we have a chance to talk a little you’ll see just how different I have become. When you left I was a child, Anrel, and I like to think I am rather more than that now.” He glanced around. “This way, I think – I believe the rain could start again any second, and I would rather not be halfway up the hill when that happens.”

“I am entirely at your disposal,” Anrel said, “once you let me retrieve my baggage.” He turned to the driver, who had untied the canvas and was heaving a leather-bound traveling case to the cobbles.

“Of course!” Fal said, hurrying to snatch up the first bag.

The coachman handed the next directly to Anrel, who nodded, and passed the man a coin in exchange.

“Is this everything?” Fal asked, hefting the traveling case.

“Indeed it is,” Anrel said. “I am, after all, only a poor student, not a mighty sorcerer like yourself.”

Fal punched him lightly on the shoulder. “Sorcerer, pfah! I am a man like yourself, Anrel. Are we not all the children of the Father and the Mother, and heirs of the Old Empire?” He began marching across the square, toward a pair of small tables set beneath a broad sky-blue awning.

“Some of us are the more favored heirs, Fal, while others are but despised cousins,” Anrel said, following his companion. “Your magic gives you a status most of us can never aspire to.”

Fal glanced back over his shoulder. “I think you may misjudge the situation, my friend. What our fathers dared not dream of, our sons may take for granted.”

“You have certainly achieved what your father did not,” Anrel said.

“Pfah!” Fal waved his free hand in dismissal.

A moment later the two of them had taken seats beneath the blue awning, setting Anrel’s luggage to one side. A woman in a white apron hurried from the door to their table side and said breathlessly, “Lord Fal! How can I serve you?”

Fal looked questioningly at his companion.

“I dined at the Kuriel way-station,” Anrel said. “Just a little wine to wash the road-dust from my throat would be fine.”

“A bottle of Lithrayn red, then,” Fal said. “And a plate of sausages, and some of those lovely seed-cakes from…” He stopped, frowning. He had turned to point to a nearby shop, but now he broke off in mid-sentence and asked, “Is the bakery closed?”

The woman followed his gaze and said, “Hadn’t you heard? Lord Balutar caught the baker’s son stealing from his herb garden, and has sentenced him to death. The whole family is up there now, pleading for his life.”

The Dragon’s Price

[This is the opening of a novel that could be a stand-alone, or could have a sequel or two. If it becomes a series, the series title is “Signs of Power.”]

The sign-reader sat quietly in the corner, huddled over a mug of dark beer, staring down into the liquid. He was not exactly thinking about the girl he had just identified, and what was to become of her, but neither could he think about anything else; the awareness that he had set her irrevocably on the path she would follow for decades, perhaps for her entire life, left no room for other concerns.

But he could not really think about her, all the same; his mind was too muddled for that. Every time he tried to tell himself that he had condemned her to what amounted to slavery, he was reminded that she would be honored, that she would wield powerful magic that was necessary to the community, that her role was essential to the survival of her people.

But she would have no choice about it; the people who lived under the Dragon’s Breath could not afford to let her choose.

And she might even enjoy it; she would be grown by the time she was brought to the temple, no longer the scared child he had seen that afternoon.

None of this was new to him; he had been wandering these lands for twenty years and more, identifying all those touched by the Dragon’s Breath, and had asked himself every possible question, thrashed out every possible outcome, a hundred times.

He just hadn’t yet arrived at any really satisfying answers.

He looked up at the sound of a door opening and voices conversing quietly; he could make out none of the words, but thought the accents sounded local. Probably just someone come to the public house for a drink, he told himself, and dropped his gaze back to the beer.

He lifted the mug and took a swig.

When he lowered it again he found himself looking at a thin man in a damp brown cloak, who was staring directly at him from the entryway. The stranger stood somewhat hunched, with his hands clasped at his breastbone; the face half-hidden by the hooded cloak, and the fingers folded on his chest, were almost inhumanly white.

The sign-reader stared back for a moment, then lowered his beer and said, “Can I help you, friend?”

“They say you’re a sign-reader,” the man said, in an unsteady tenor.

The sign-reader sighed and brushed the hair from his forehead, exposing the indentation there, a thumb-sized depression like the healed-over socket of a lost third eye.

“I assume even you can read that sign,” he said.

“I heard… I mean, yes. Then you are a sign-reader.”

“I am. Why?” He was fairly sure what he was going to hear; some local youth had acquired an odd scar, or a babe had been born with a caul, or perhaps an old woman had had a strange dream, and the family wanted to know what it meant.

“A child… a child has been born. My nephew. My sister’s child. We aren’t sure whether he’ll live.”

“He has a mark of some kind?”

“It’s more… it’s not just a mark, sir. Could you come and see, please, and tell us what we should do?”

The sign-reader sighed deeply and looked down at the beer.

Duty called. The babe was probably just an unhappy mishap that would be dead by dawn, the result of a bad mix of bloodlines, but there was always that chance that he was something more, something marked by the Dragon’s Breath, tainted with the magic that kept the Restored Lands alive, just as the sign-reader himself was.

His magic was to read the signs of the Dragon’s Breath, and his duty was to use this whenever he was called upon, so he would have to go – but that didn’t mean leaving his beer. He lifted the mug and gulped until the last drop had trickled down either his throat or his beard, then let the vessel fall back to the table. He rose, wiping his mouth with the back of one hand and scooping his coat and hat up from a chair with the other.

“Show me,” he said.

The man in the cloak turned to lead him to the door, but then the landlord was there beside him. “Sir, about the…”

“I’ll be back tonight,” the sign-reader said, cutting him off. “We’ll settle my bill in the morning.”

“Oh, we could find you a bed…” the stooped man began.

“No,” the sign-reader said. He turned to the landlord again. “I’ll be back. I’ve left my bag upstairs.”

“Is there anything you need, to judge the child?” the cloaked man asked.

“No. Lead on.”

The man ducked his head in something that might have been either a nod or a bow, and hurried down the entryway to the front door, tugging the hood of his cloak up to cover his head better.

The sign-reader donned his own coat, glad now that he had not bothered to remove his boots before getting his beer, and clapped his hat on his head.

The cloaked man lifted the latch and swung the door inward; a swirl of cold mist blew into the entryway, and the sign-reader pulled his coat tighter as he followed the other out into the foggy chill of a marsh-country night.

The Fall of the Sorcerers: Mareet Saruis

[The working title for this novel is The Golden Wyvern, but since I’m almost a hundred pages in without having ever once mentioned any wyverns, golden or otherwise, that may well change.  I’m referring to it here by the series title and the name of the viewpoint character. The following excerpt is the opening scene of the story.]

She found herself looking up at a man’s face, but it was neither her father’s, nor that of Lord Salchen, the wizard to whom she was to be apprenticed. This was a stranger’s face, broad and bearded and blond, with intensely blue eyes that were staring into her own. His skin seemed unnaturally pale, though a slight flush reddened his brow, and his deep-set eyes appeared almost inhumanly large.

“Father?” she asked, turning her head away from that fearsome gaze, trying to make sense of her surroundings. She was not sure whether she had just awakened, or undergone some more curious transition

“No,” the blond stranger said gently, in a voice that did not match his strong features. Despite his foreign complexion he spoke flawless, unaccented Walasian. “I am Barzal of Blackfield, and I’ve just bought your contract from Lord Salchen.”

“But… where’s Father, then? He was to negotiate the terms.” She did not look at him, but at the room in which she found herself.

She was in a stone chamber, one that looked somehow familiar, though she could not remember where or how she might have seen it before. Sunlight slanted through a row of windows in one wall, illuminating rich red-and-gold carpets and a row of heavy chairs of what appeared to be finely-carved walnut. A strange, acrid odor hung in the air.

She was sitting in one of the chairs, slumped down in it, her hands clutching the arm-rests, and the big blond man was standing just a foot or two in front of her, looking down at her with an expression of concern. He was, she realized vaguely, finely dressed, in green velvet and yellow satin, and carrying a carved walking stick.

At one end of the room, a dozen feet away, stood a black-robed, black-haired figure – Lord Salchen, she belatedly realized. He looked somehow different than he had when last she saw him…

“Your father isn’t here,” Barzal said. “This isn’t what you think; it isn’t when you think. I’m afraid I’ve taken the liberty of erasing your memories of the last two or three years. This is the eighth day of spring in the twenty-fifth year of the Emperor at Orz.”

Her eyes turned forward and upward and met his again. “No, it’s the sixtieth of summer in the twenty-second…” she began.

“No,” he interrupted firmly. “It isn’t. You simply don’t remember the two and a half years you have dwelt here.”

She stared into those blue eyes, trying to disbelieve him, but she saw no hint of uncertainty or deception there, only sympathy – it seemed odd that eyes the color of ice should seem so warm. She looked to Lord Salchen for confirmation.

“He’s telling you the truth, girl,” Salchen said, in a tone of utter indifference. “Will you be leaving immediately, Blackfield, or shall I have something fetched? I still have a decent vintage or two in my cellars, or if you prefer your homeland’s abominable beverages there may be a cask of ale somewhere.”

“I’m not sure yet, my lord,” Barzal replied, without turning his gaze from her face. “Let me see how young Mareet is faring before we decide.”

“What does it matter?” Salchen said. He smiled crookedly. “If you’re going to obsess about her then you might as well be on your way, and make a start on your journey; you’ll be dreadful company. I’ve seen you fixate on ideas in the past, and whenever it happens you can’t speak of anything else for days. I’ve had the girl in my home for the past two years, and have had my fill of her. I’ve no desire to hear you prattle about her.”

At that Barzal finally threw Salchen a quick glance. “Had your fill of her? That’s hardly what you said when we were discussing her price.”

“Ah, but that was business! And besides, now that I know I’ll never again have the opportunity to…”

“Yes, I’m sure,” Barzal said very loudly, cutting off whatever Salchen had been about to say. He met Mareet’s gaze again. “Are you all right, girl? Can you stand?”

She realized she was still slouching in a most undignified manner, and forced herself to sit upright.

“I think so,” she said. She set her feet firmly on the carpet.

Barzal stepped back, giving her room, and she pressed firmly on the chair arms, rising to her feet.

She was displeased to find that she was not entirely steady; she saw Barzal’s hands come up as if to catch her, and she straightened up, throwing her shoulders back, to make plain she did not need any assistance from some oversized foreigner.

Her head swam, but she remained upright, not allowing her legs to tremble.

It was only when she stood, and felt her clothing rearrange itself, that she noticed that she was not wearing her best dress, the dress she had put on – not that morning, if the foreigner was to be believed, but the morning when she came to take up an apprenticeship. Instead she was wearing a simple white cotton shift, with nothing underneath; the hem of the skirt reached a few inches below her knee but stopped well short of decent ankle length, and the sleeves ended at her elbows. Her feet were bare. Her hair was pulled back in a simple ponytail, rather than properly bound up.

She blushed at the sudden realization that she was standing so boldly and indecently before these two men; she felt her cheeks go red.

“I mean you no harm,” Barzal told her gently. “You need not fear.”

Her blood stirred at that, and her head cleared. “I do not fear you, sir,” she said, “but I value my self-respect, and I do not understand why I am standing here half-clad, and being treated as… as something less than a free woman of the Empire.”

Asking for Trouble

It occurred to me that I wasn’t making a lot of blog posts, and that if I ever want to see active discussions here, I really need to give people more to discuss.

Ah, but what?  Generally, if I’m in the mood to write something creative or thoughtful or witty, I work on writing something I might get paid for.  Blog posts are something of an afterthought.

But hey, what if I were to post things I do hope to get paid for?  Specifically, what if I were to post excerpts from works in progress?

Right now, I have a lot of works in progress; I’ve deliberately been not tying myself down to any one project, but writing whatever catches my fancy.  Some projects are getting more attention than others — and on all of them, reader feedback might be useful.

So maybe I should post excerpts here for comment?  Or plot summaries (sans spoilers)?  Or bits of background, as I work them out?

Right now, the major project I hope to sell Tor is an ongoing fantasy series with the overall title “Histories of the Afterlands.”  It’s going to consist of several subseries, set in different time periods; the first of these, “The Fall of the Sorcerers,” is set late in the tenth century after the fall of the Old Empire, and will include at least three related but non-sequential volumes.

“Non-sequential,” you may ask, “what does that mean?”  What it means is they cover roughly the same time period, and some of the same major events, from three different points of view; some characters are in more than one book, the stories interrelate, but they aren’t the same story.

I’ve started writing two of them — the working titles (likely to change) are The Golden Wyvern and Alvos.

The other planned Afterlands books are set anywhere from nine hundred years earlier to a hundred years later than the Fall of the Sorcerers. They’re “after” because they’re all (except the opening chapters of one) set after the fall of the Old Empire that once ruled most of the known world.

I’ve outlined the earliest one, Swordsmen of the Fallen Empire, and written a couple of chapters of one set in the seventh century, Assassin in Waiting.

So — anyone want to know more?

Helix Redux

The sixth issue of Helix is now available!

This issue has stories by Mike Allen, Jayme Lynn Blaschke, Vylar Kaftan, Sarah K. Castle, Jay Lake, Ann Leckie, and Jennifer Pelland, as well as poetry by Danny Adams, Kendall Evans, David C. Kopaska-Merkel & W. Gregory Stewart, Mikal Trimm, JoSelle Vanderhooft, and S.C. Virtes. Also, premiering this issue is a new column about science fiction by John Barnes.

This issue prompted one well-respected authority in the SF field to remark that it certainly has a lot of sex and violence, to which senior editor William Sanders responded that he likes sex and violence. And he likes reading about them, too.

This webzine is entirely donation-supported, no ads, no subscriptions, no registration. Check it out, then send us money. The seventh issue should be out in January.

There’s Something Out There…

I’ve made a new discovery — Crimson Dark, a graphic space-opera adventure on the Web.

I suppose some of you have known about it for ages, but I’m a little slow sometimes.

It’s an ongoing adventure story that’s lasted through a prologue and four chapters so far — 150 pages in all, counting some between-chapters filler. It definitely owes something to “Babylon 5,” but it’s not a swipe.

And as long as I’m at it, let me once again mention my all-time favorite webcomic, Girl Genius, by Phil and Kaja Foglio. It’s a whole lot lighter than Crimson Dark, and I adore it.

Check ’em out, says I.