Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Write What You Want by Eric James Stone

My Story Recommendation of the Week goes to Write What You Want by Eric James Stone, from the September 2012 issue of InterGalactic Medicine Show. This is Eric's second SROTW. His previous recommended story, "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made," went on to be a Hugo nominee and Nebula Award winner, so the bar is set high for "Write What You Want."

The narrator of "Write What You Want" owns a magic shop, which is visited by a troubled young girl:
From the haunted look on her face, I don't think she's an aspiring magician interested in tricks. She's here for the real magic. . . . I hold up a hand and say, "Don't tell me. You're here because you want something so much it hurts."
To work this magic, the shop owner has the girl write down on a slip of paper what it is she wants so much. Interspersed through the story are the notes written down by previous visitors to the shop. The shopkeeper's magic really works, but not for everyone . . .

This is a very short piece, only slightly over 1000 words, but it succeeds on multiple levels. The key to flash fiction is to distill the story down to its essence. Eric James Stone does that effectively by telling us almost nothing about his characters except what they most want. He conveys what the young girl wants and needs in powerful fashion. He includes snippets that amount to microfiction stories about previous visitors to the shop: "I want the cancer to be gone so I don't die." / "I want to be thinner and prettier than Jasmine Rawlings." / "I want to be straight." And he ends with the narrator. All we know about her (or him) is her dearest, unselfish desire, a desire she tragically cannot always have.

"Write What You Want" is a beautifully written story, well worth the subscription price to IGMS.

As an aside, posting this today makes me eligible for Eric James Stone's contest to win his old Kindle. So yes, you can bribe me for a Story Recommendation of the Week, but only if you can write a kick-ass story like "Write What You Want."

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Old Soul by Adria Laycraft

The Story Recommendation of the Week is for "Old Soul" by Adria Laycraft, from the anthology Tesseracts Sixteen.

Angelica is a young girl with an "Old Soul," despondent from the insistence of all the adults in her life that the shimmery figures she can see in the air around her are not real. The story nicely shows how a gift can be turned into a curse, by the unfair expectations of others:
"She's an old soul, Maria" a friend said as they sat in the kitchen drinking coffee. Angelica sat with a book in the very next room and wondered why adults thought children could not hear their conversations.

"She's a little girl with an active mind," her mother replied. "One day this will all be past and she probably won't even remember it."

This made Angelica close the book and lay her head back. She didn't want to forget the place of light, or Gloria. Trying to ignore these things hadn't made them go away like her mother said they would.
How Angelica learns to embrace her rare ability makes for heart-warming reading.

Tesseracts is an annual anthology series, showcasing Canadian science fiction and fantasy writers. The authors in Volume Sixteen range from established pros like Robert J. Sawyer to rising stars like Ryan Oakley to new voices such as Laycraft (as well as some of my fellow Writers of the Future alumni, including Stephen Kotowych and Melissa Yuan-Innes).

An Odyssey Workshop graduate, Adria Laycraft has sold stories to Neo-OpsisJames Gunn's Ad Astra, and other publications. She is also currently co-editing the Urban Green Man anthology.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Battle of the Books, Summer 2012, Second Semifinal :: Silver by Rhiannon Held vs. The Mongoliad: Book One by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear & five others

The second semifinal of the Summer 2012 Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books matches Silver by Rhiannon Held against The Mongoliad: Book One by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, E.D. deBirmingham, Erik Bear, Joseph Bassey and Cooper Moo. The book I most want to continue reading after 100 pages will advance to the championship round.

Silver: Tor trade paperback, June 2012, 317 pages, cover photograph by Trevillion Images. Rhiannon Held is a US writer. Silver, her first novel, is an urban fantasy. Silver made it to the semifinals by prevailing over Destroyer of Worlds by Mark Chadbourn in the first round, and by overcoming Age of Aztec by James Lovegrove in the second round.

Werewolf Andrew Dare tracked down an unknown lone werewolf who smelled of pain and silver. He found a deranged woman who can no longer change into a wolf. She told him that Death called her Silver. Someone harmed Silver by injecting her arm with silver.

Andrew coaxed Silver to go with him to the Roanoke pack house. Silver, who feared leading "the monster" to the other were, wanted to run away. Andrew wasn’t entirely welcome in the house due to werewolf politics and his bloody past.

Rory, the Roanoke Alpha, didn’t recognize Silver and didn’t want to deal with her. Rory ordered Andrew to get one of the Western packs to take Silver. Andrew phoned a number of Western alphas. Those who answered were unhelpful or unfriendly, and unaware of any missing were. Eventually, the Portland alpha, Michele, offered to take Silver. Andrew and Silver took a chartered flight west.

Determined to hunt down whoever hurt Silver, Andrew left Silver and headed to Seattle. Michelle thought the Seattle pack was acting atypically. Before Andrew encountered anyone, Michelle phoned because Silver wouldn't stop screaming. Andrew rushed back to Portland. The full moon was affecting Silver badly. Andrew risked bleeding Silver’s hurt arm, and it helped. But Andrew knew that neither he nor Silver should stay.

The Mongoliad: Book One: 47 North trade paperback, 448 pages. The Mongoliad was originally released in a serialized format online. Of the gang of seven authors, Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear are well known science fiction writers, and Mark Teppo is the author of an urban fantasy series. The Mongoliad: Book One made it to the semifinals by overpowering Casting Shadows by J. Kelley Anderson in the first round, and by edging out The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen in the second round.

The year is 1241, during the Mongol invasion of Europe. Cnán, a woman messenger, spies the gathering of the Order of Shield-Brethren near a ruined monastery. She informs the men, a group from different lands, that she was sent by Illarion, an injured friend of theirs.

Cnán guides several of the men on a trip to rescue Illarion. On their return, they cross the bloody ruins of Legnica, and manage to spook their way past a Mongol scouting party.

Illarion says that Onghwe Khan will not honor his word to spare Christendom if their champions can defeat the Mongols in the arena. His city’s champions won a similar challenge, but the Mongols destroyed their city anyway. Cnán mentions that all the Khans would depart for Mongolia upon the death of the Great Khan. This inspires Feronantus to split their group. Some will stay to fight in the arena competitions, but a party of twelve -- including Feronantus, Illarion and Cnán -- will travel east to kill Ögedei Khan.

Meanwhile in Mongolia, Ögedei Khan, son of Genghis Khan, is tired of dealing with bureaucrats. He complains to his wives. His brother sends an emissary, Gansuhk, to moderate Ögedei’s excessive drinking. Ögedei’s advisor arranges for a tutor, the Chinese woman Lian, to teach Gansuhk how to behave and gain influence at court.

The Battle: We have a contemporary urban fantasy going against an epic war fantasy set in the 13th century.

Silver is a more personal story. All the characters are werewolves. I like the tidbit that Andrew Dare is a descendant of the lost colonists of Roanoke. Andrew acts fairly reasonably, but between pack politics and his questionable past, he apparently has gotten on the wrong side of almost everyone. Silver’s mind is loopy, but sometimes she seems relatively coherent.

Here’s an excerpt of Silver talking with Death, when she and Andrew are flying to Portland.
     "At least the monster can’t track our scent," she told Death, trying to sound optimistic.
     "Why would he need to, when you’re going toward him?" Death said. Death didn’t mind flying, and not a hair ruffed out of place as he ran along the air beside them. "It would be better to give in now."
     Silver avoided Death’s gaze by looking at the ground below. That was almost worse. The rivers and paths looked like snakes. "I can’t run forever. I have to trust someone. Maybe I can only find my wild self if I go back to where she first ran, and follow her trail properly. I’ve been looking inside all this time. Maybe I need to look outside."
     Silver heard how little it sounded like she believed that. Death’s contempt for her self-delusion was clear. "He’s not helping you search. He’s hunting the monster."
There was more action in the second 50 pages, but this book is about the characters. Andrew and Silver seem to becoming more attached. But so far, there’s only one lead for the plot to chase.

The Mongoliad: Book One has a large cast of characters with diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise. It’s taking place in two, probably soon to be three, different locations. There are too many characters to really get to know at this point. I wonder if each of the seven authors brought their own fictional characters into the mix.

I like that women characters are featured. But Cnán’s role seems rather atypical. Perhaps a better explanation of the Binders, the fictional messenger group Cnán belongs to, would have helped. Yet I liked Cnán’s point of view, although I could have done without her crush on Percival.

Gansukh, the young warrior sent to get Ögedei Khan to drink less, plays a much larger role in the second 50 pages than I expected. Maybe more words should have been put into his introduction.

I like the audacious idea of a quest to kill the Great Khan.
     "Is there nothing else in the minds of these Khans," Feronantus asked, "other than to go on conquering until, as Raphael put it, the ocean washes their ponies' hooves?"
     "In large part, they have a free hand, as must be obvious to you," Cnán said, "but they obey commands from the center, and they compete against each other"
     "What sort of completion worthy of the name can exist between one Khan and another who is on the other side of the world? Their domains seem to be clearly marked out; one never sees two Khans trying to conquer the same place."
     "You misunderstand," Cnán said. "When I speak of competition, I do not mean to say that they compete for the same spoils. For a man of such wealth and power, there is only one prize remaining that is worth attending to, and that is to become the next Khagan – the Khan of Khans."
For me, this battle was close. I’d like to find out where the story in each of these books goes. Perhaps it was the touches of humor, or maybe the greater sense of danger. I'll go with the medieval Mongol conflict.

THE WINNER: THE MONGOLIAD: BOOK ONE by by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear and five others

The Mongoliad: Book One advances to meet The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis in the finals.

To see the whole bracket, click here.