Be Thankful!

That’s right, be thankful for I have decided to give the Internet a break from my presence this week!

In the ol’ US of A this is the week of Thanksgiving, a holiday set aside to give thanks for the many blessings we have. In the past couple of years I’ve just taken the last two days of the week off but this year, due to some family matters that have taken up a fair amount of time and thought in the last month or so, I’ve fallen a bit behind and I’m going to take the whole week off to recover and rest up.

So thanks for dropping by and I hope to see you come December 1st for the next installment of Thunder Clap.

Nate

Writing Men: Mentors (Pt 2)

Welcome back to Writing Men’s first two part section! Not familiar with Writing Men? A complete list of articles from the beginning until now can be found on this page. We’re talking about mentors and the mentoring relationship, starting last week with the general appeal of mentorship to men and continuing now with what mentoring might add to a story.

Mentoring can add one of three things to a story. A mentor can serve as an instigating party, as a source of character development or as a source of conflict. The truly ambitious will use it as a source for all three characteristics! The great flexibility of the mentoring relationship makes it incredibly useful from a writing perspective, meaning you probably see it turn up more often in fiction than it does in real life. So what are some ways you, an author, can use mentoring to develop the men in your story?

Inciting Incident – A way of starting the action off.

  • Mentors are in the business of testing their pupils to see what they’re capable of. Mentors can incite action in a story by setting a new goal or test your characters need to tackle. This can be a reasonable goal that excites your character or a fantastic one that intimidates him.
  • A character and his mentor can suffer a breach of trust, leading either character – or both! – to try and repair the relationship and return to a mutually beneficial mentorship.
  • If your primary character is a mentor he might be looking for some item necessary for the next stage of training and get sucked into an adventure looking for it.
  • The possibility of the student leaving his current mentor for a new one, whether of his own free will or because of the interference of family or circumstance, can result in all kinds of hijinks.
  • Finally, the death of one half of a mentorship – whether it’s the student or the mentor – is such a common inciting incident it’s become a cliché.

Some of these events could happen in other relationships, family for example, but the mentorship combines them all and allows you to employ them in just about any order as a part of a longer running story. This continuity is the perfect set up for the second thing mentors bring to your story, namely character development.

Character Development – Growth is Part of the Deal

  • Let’s start off with the easy stuff. Mentors are tasked with making their students grow. Cooking up tests that will stretch them in new ways and make them confront weaknesses is part and parcel of what mentors do. This is one of the most basic ways to bring character development out of a mentoring relationship.
  • A student might come to realize that the thing he’s been studying so long, be it medicine or music, sports or combat, may not be a good fit for him. Just as directing growth in his field of specialty is the mentor’s responsibility, so too is pointing out when his field is a poor fit for his students. The mentor helping a disciple reach peace with the limits of his abilities or realize that the student’s priorities have changed is another way mentorship helps character growth.
  • Of course, mentors don’t have a perfect grasp on their discipline either, just a much better one than their students. Sometimes the tables turn and students teach their mentor a lesson or two. This kind of character growth can also apply to areas outside the mentor’s specialty to give it a little more flavor.
  • Finally, most mentors and students eventually go their own way. The mentor has taught all he can and it’s time for the student to strike out on his own, with all the challenges and uncertainties that go along with that.
  • As an extension of the previous point, sometimes the mentor will arrange for former students to take on students of their own immediately, swiftly transforming disciple to teacher, a great kind of character growth to illustrate.

Mentorship brings a unique dynamic to character conflict. Unlike parents and children the mentor is generally someone the student chooses to entrust his own goals and desires to by asking for their instruction. While a man has no choice in his parents he does usually choose his mentor, or at least choose to trust him. While a romantic relationship or a friendship is one you enter of your own free will, both parties in it are equals. The obedience of the student and the responsibility of the mentor is not as significant a factor in either friendship or romance. These overtones shift conflict in the mentoring relationship in new directions.

Conflict – Mentor vs. Student, Student vs. Mentor, or one or both vs. All

  • Mentors and students most often conflict over how well the understudy is progressing. You can see this in a thousand and one stories about this relationship, most frequently in sports oriented stories. It’s also the one that’s most likely to occur in real life. This is usually an outgrowth of the competitive, testing nature of a male character and their desire to be capable of new things. This desire often skews the perspective of the student and avoiding it is one of the major reason to have a mentor. Not that men always pay attention to this.
  • Mentor and student can also disagree on the student’s end goals. Men are objective driven but that doesn’t mean their desires never change or just get reprioritized. A student may be trying to balance priorities when he needs to sacrifice one of them and the mentor should be the one that forces the issue.
  • On the other side of the coin, the mentor may have developed a skewed idea of what his discipline means. Usually this takes the shape of prioritizing advancing whatever field of study the mentor specializes in over moral behavior. In this case it may fall to the student to try and push his mentor back onto the right path – a challenge that will result in character growth for both mentor and student.
  • Finally, the as noted above, the understudy may just not feel the subject he joined his mentor to learn is valuable any more and his desire to change disciplines – and most likely mentors in the process – is a great source of character conflict.
  • Of course the student who strays from the path of righteousness is a common trope in storytelling as well, and can be done with just about any field of study with a little work. This is a good chance for delving deeper into the mentor character. Will he choose to compartmentalize, and say that the student has moved beyond his authority? Or will he see it as a test of himself as a mentor who needs to put his disciple back on the right path? Or perhaps we’ll discover that it’s an axiom of his that the mentor is responsible for all things about the student and he will just have to sacrifice whatever is necessary to improve his student, including his own sense of right and wrong.
  • Not all students are entirely free to choose their own mentors. In fact parents are often the major player in these decisions. If parents or other forces try to separate mentor and student then we might see a new dimension to both characters as they cooperate to show that they are, in fact, benefiting each other more than any other force could. On the other hand, parents may force an understudy to accept a mentor he does not like.
  • There’s the classic cliché of a mentor (or student) being killed and that provoking a quest for vengeance. Pretty much any relationship can spark this but loosing your mentor seems to be one of the most common, right after loosing your parents. For whatever reason it’s even more common than a character loosing their spouse!
  • Finally, as mentioned under character development, the mentoring relationship does eventually come to an end most of the time. Goals are reached or priorities change. But sometimes characters aren’t ready for that. Getting either mentor or student, or both, to accept that can be a battle in and of itself.

Whew! So there you have it. Mentoring – a relationship with deeply male overtones, brought forth from the male thought pattern and an excellent avenues for developing characters and growing stories. Put it to all the use you can!

Cool Things: Edge of Tomorrow

So I’ve talked about this movie before, how it did a great job of adapting a work across mediums and culture. (A warning: The post in question has spoilers galore and it’s long. If you still want to read it click here.) That post was mostly written a few days after watching the movie and I have a hard time recommending a movie before I’ve seen it at least twice, in no small part because most movies – good movies at least – cannot be properly understood after just one watching. And while there are some movies (and books) that are good for a single watching (or reading) to be put aside afterwards, the best entertainment, the kind I try to recommend, holds up to multiple experiences.

I finished rewatching the film, this time at home on BluRay, and I find it does. So what makes Edge of Tomorrow a film worth looking at?

I think the biggest thing is it’s thematic choice of the value of courage. It’s not apparent at the beginning but our hero, Major William Cage, is a coward of the highest, purest degree. In an odd kind of way it’s refreshing. There’s no hesitation or shame in Cage’s cowardice at the beginning of the film. Cage is a PR man for the US military in a war against the Mimics, alien invaders who’s march across the world seemingly can’t be stopped.

Well, sort of. Humanity won a battle thanks to Rita Vritaski and the high tech battle suits known as “Jackets” that were engineered expressly to give humans more of a punch against Mimics. No one’s sure how Rita managed to drive the Mimics back but now they’re hoping a repeat is on tap. A huge force has gathered in England to retake the continent of Europe in a high tech reenactment of Normandy and Cage is offered the chance to go with Rita’s unit and film the landing for propaganda.

He says no, because he likes not getting shot.

Offended at the blunt nature of Cage’s cowardice his commanding officer has him busted down to an enlisted man and railroads him into the infantry. Rather than landing with a crack veteran unit he lands with pure rookies, himself one of the least experienced of them all. In the insane melee Cage kills a strange looking Mimic and gets burned to death by its strange blue blood.

After dying he wakes up again the day before the invasion, about to be run into the infantry again. This is going to be something of a theme since Cage isn’t a very good soldier, he was in the reserves before the Mimics invaded and he apparently never went on active duty. This whole loop through time until you get things right isn’t exactly a new story, in film it dates back over twenty years to the movie Groundhog Day. The idea might have first been introduced in a short story called “Doubled and Redoubled”, published in 1941. But what’s interesting about this story is that Cage isn’t the only one time travelling.

Apparently all that blood he got on him when he killed that first alien pulled him into the time loop – that’s how they fight. It’s not that the Mimics have never lost a fight in this war, they’ve just been going around as many times as it takes to not loose in the end. But humans can get sucked into the time loop as well as evidenced by Cage – and, as it turns out, Rita.

What really makes this movie great is a combination of two things. The first is the very careful way the loops show Cage’s character progression from craven coward to wanting to help but lacking skill to able to help but jaded into not caring and finally arriving at the point where he has the courage to sacrifice even the things he wants in order to do what he’s accepted as the right thing. It’s a fascinating journey and it still holds up the second time around. The other thing that makes it work is the incredibly nuanced performances of leading actors Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt who make you believe these two people have actually traveled through time and been deeply marked by the experience.

Oh, the action sequences and alien monster stuff is really good too.

The promo materials for Edge of Tomorrow called the movie a thinking man’s action film and I really think it lives up to that title. It’s an incredibly beautiful movie with well written, well acted characters and a plot just twisty enough to keep you engaged but not so bizarre as to be unbelievable. Provided you’re okay with the space-aliens-travelling-through-time-to-conquer-Earth part. So why aren’t you watching it yet?!

Thunder Clap: Hot Foot

Helix

We were up to our elbows in status updates, police reports, 9-1-1 transcripts and dispatcher traffic, trying to put together a coherent picture of what had been happening in the city for the last eight to ten hours, when one of our dispatchers came in and tapped me on the shoulder.

“Is this important?” I demanded. There were at least a dozen things that I needed to be doing at the moment and if he was about to hand me another one it had better be worth it.

“We just heard from Agent Massif and his team in the city center.” The dispatcher – I couldn’t remember his name – kept his voice so low I barely made out what he was saying.

I huddled in closer and matched his tone. “What happened?”

“Agents Clark Movsessian and Isabella Rodriguez disappeared about fifteen minutes ago. Agent Massif said they found something like tear gas canisters in the area they were headed to when they were last seen.”

So yes, it was important. If we hadn’t already been at our highest state of alert that would have put us there. “Right. Listen, do you know Agent Samson? Miguel Rodriguez?”

His eyes got a little wider. “Yeah. I’ve seen him before.”

“Go find him. He was up here a couple of minutes ago but I think he went somewhere with Senator Voorman. Check Samson’s office first, if he’s not there go door to door until you find him. And when you do.” I tapped myself in the chest. “Come get me. No sidetracking, don’t tell him what happened. Got it?”

He nodded quickly and hurried off. I turned back to my reports, reminding myself that I was younger than Izzy the first time I went out in the field. She had training and more power than a freight train. The biggest problem would be convincing her dad not to tear down the city looking for her.

——–

Izzy

I woke up groggy, head throbbing and dry-mouthed. And sore all over, it felt like I’d been rolled down a couple of flights of stairs while I was out. Sitting up wasn’t hard although it made me very woozy. I was in a featureless room that had probably been an office of some sort before all the furniture was cleared out. There were still visible marks in the carpet where a desk and chairs had been in recent past. Someone had drilled a hole in the wall and a chain came out of it.

I traced the chain and realized, in a weird, detached kind of a way, that it ended at my ankles, which were held together by a set of manacles with a bar between them. The chain attached to the bar through a heavy ring. I lay back down on my back and gave a sharp kick, snapping the bar in half easily.

My ears popped, there was a vague sense of the air being thick and heavy all of a sudden, there was a sharp bang I more felt than heard and searing pain ignited at my feet for just a second before I passed back out again.

——–

Helix

“She’s what?” Samson was talking to me but his whole body was winding up like a spring, getting ready to tear straight through the wall and anything else that might come between him and his daughter.

“Not with Massif anymore,” I said, as if that thin layer of obfuscation made it better. “Now calm down, Rodriguez. It’s not guaranteed that Circuit grabbed her or anything. She could just be running down a lead with Clark. You know, underground or somewhere else where they might not have noticed that communications or power were back.”

Samson’s mind, which had obviously been drifting from the conversation at hand out through the city streets towards wherever Izzy had wandered to, snapped back to me. For the first time since I’d met him I saw what Manuel Rodriguez looked like when he was really, truly angry. I understand that side of him used to show itself a lot more frequently back in the day and I felt a brief twinge of pity for the people who had to deal with him back then.

Both the crooks and his boss.

“You don’t honestly expect me to believe they’re just poking around in the sewers do you?” He snapped.

“No. I expect you to keep your mind on a realistic assessment of the situation. Isabella is a field agent dealing with Open Circuit and there are rules about how that game is played.” I ticked points on my fingers. “She’s more useful alive than dead and Circuit’s not above using hostages so he’ll prefer her alive. She represents law and order, something Circuit claims to value as well so he can’t do much to her without harming the image he’s trying to establish. And she can crush a car with her bare hands, so there’s only so much Circuit can do to keep her restrained outside of using Movsessian as leverage against her. In all likelihood he’s just loaded them onto a truck and shipped them towards the city limits so they present the fewest complications.”

“Assuming it is Circuit,” Samson said darkly. “Even you’re not sure it is.”

“Assuming that, yes.” I sighed. “Look, I’m not saying you can’t go out there. I just want you to understand that you need to do it by the book. Contact Massif, meet up with his team and work out from her last known location until you find a promising lead and report back. Don’t go tearing through the city hunting down thugs and juggling them like bowling pins until they tell you what you want to know.”

“I only did that once.”

I grabbed his shoulder and pulled him down to my level, which was a fair distance, and dropped my voice to a whisper. “Look, I’m not going to claim to understand your feelings because I don’t. But if you go off half-cocked and do something stupid, here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to let you tear apart the city in whatever way your personal demons tell you is best, because there’s no one here who could stop you. Then, when you find your daughter and she’s fine, because I still have every confidence that she will come out just fine, I’ll arrest you. And then I’ll throw you in a jail cell for twenty to life. Do we understand each other?”

Samson gave me a hard look, then nodded slowly. “Yes. And thank you, Helix.”

“Good. Now stop wasting our time, get out of this building and do something useful.” As he started to straighten up I grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back down and added, “Something useful, Samson.”

“I get it.” No sooner was it said than he was gone, out of the office and down the hall in the blink of an eye.

Voorman gave me an assessing look from where he sat in Samson’s desk chair. He’d watched without saying anything since I’d informed Samson of what had happened. “That was a very generous approach to the situation, Helix. I’m not sure I would have handled it that way.”

“I lied, you know. I do kind of understand how he feels.”

Voorman tilted his head in a curious fashion. “How so?”

“I want to get out of here and do something useful, too.” I left Voorman to think about that as I headed back to my office to see if maybe, just maybe, there was something productive to be done there.

——–

Izzy

“That was stupid, Davis. Incredibly stupid.”

People arguing. Great way to wake up. My ankles felt like they were on fire and things were numb from there down. I tore my eyes open and looked around. Same room, except for the scorched, pitted floor on the other side of the room.

“What did you want me to do? We’re out of spare hands and I wasn’t expecting her to just rip right out and try and tear this place apart.”

My ankles had been dressed with some thick gauze pads and I wasn’t sure what else. Bare toes stuck out beneath them – and I was really glad for that – but I couldn’t feel them. Whether anesthetic was involved or it was a result of nerve damage I couldn’t tell.

“Listen, Davis, that girl can’t even drink legally yet. She’s going to be spooked and edgy. And you’ve seen the profiles we hacked out of the Project – she can smash us both to a bloody pulp. What were you going to do if the manacles were faulty or something?”

I was sitting with my back propped in a corner, hands in a similar manacle set to what had been on my ankles before right down to the wire running into the wall. I did notice that it was a new hole in a different place. Unfortunately I wasn’t sure if that was significant.

“That would have been your fault, since you built-”

“You would have been dead, Davis, since you weren’t watching her like you were supposed to so there would have been nobody to put her back under if she got out!”

The voices were coming through the door to the room I was in. I cleared my throat once and they went quiet, which I took as an invitation. “Hello? If you’re done yelling at each other can I have a turn?”

There was a moment of total quiet then the door to the room swung open and two men came in. On my left was a squarish man, not more than five foot five but nearly that wide, with a heavy jaw and a five o’clock shadow. The other guy wasn’t much taller but he looked totally normal except for eyes that never quite seemed to focused on anything. When the square man spoke his voice told me he was Davis.

“Looks like you’ve come around.” He squatted down, an operation that didn’t really seem to make him much shorter since what height he had was in his torso, and pointed at my feet. “You’re lucky you still have those, you know. The shaped charge in those cuffs should have been enough to take your feet off. I’m not sure why it didn’t but we upped the charge in the cuffs you’re wearing now and your wrists aren’t quite so thick so maybe they’ll work this time, hm?”

I glared at him with the confidence born of pain and sleep deprivation. “You’re lucky you stopped where you did. I really just need to touch you to do the pulping thing.” To my satisfaction my toes wiggled when I told them to, coming withing a few inches of his closer leg.

Normal guy grabbed Davis by the collar and proceeded to do some weird kind of maneuver where he crouched down while also pulling Davis to his feet. “I’ll play good cop.”

“That’s a laugh,” Davis said as he backed away a step.

“Listen,” normal guy said, ignoring his partner. “I didn’t want you getting hurt and I’m sorry it happened. My friend here was supposed to keep an eye on you and warn you about that when you woke up.”

“I was getting a cup of coffee,” Davis grumbled. “We’ve been up all night.”

“Join the club,” I said, wiggling back into the corner just a bit to try and get away from them, trying to cover for it by straightening up a bit. “Maybe next time you guys can cook up a master plan that doesn’t involve drinking a gallon of coffee. It’s healthier for you.”

“Look, miss, I just need you to know we’re not planning to hurt you in any way.” He pointed at the manacles. “Those are just insurance to make sure you hold still. There’s a current running through them tied to the detonator. Don’t break the chain or the manacles and it won’t blow your hands off. We’re hoping to trade you for some concessions from Project Sumter soon, so-”

“You haven’t met my boss, have you?”

He grimaced in a way that told me he’d at least heard of Helix’s legendary obstinacy. “So just sit tight, okay? I’m sorry about your feet.”

“Look, if you guys think it’s going to be that simple you’ve got a new thing coming.” I wracked my brains for something more to say, there’s a whole course on negotiating in all circumstances but I was having a hard time remembering anything from it. In fact, I was pretty sure nothing I’d said so far matched what that class had taught.

“Come on, good cop.” Davis grabbed the other guy and hauled him to his feet. “The big guy is going to be waiting for us. Let’s see if we can actually scare up a guard now and get back to him.”

The two of them left before I could say anything else and I didn’t want to leave them with some stupid parting line so I held my tongue. Once they were gone I slumped back into the corner and let my head thump lightly against the wall, trying to figure out what my next move should be. As I sat there a soft thump from the other side of the wall interrupted my thoughts.

I was about to write it off as something being moved in the next room over when Clark’s voice, very muffled, came through the thin drywall. “Izzy? Is that you?”

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Writing Men: Mentors (Pt. 1)

Welcome back to Writing Men, where we talk about the art of writing male characters and what about them makes them particularly masculine. You can find the complete archive of Writing Men pieces here. If you’re not familiar with this segment I’d recommend starting from the beginning, everything kind of builds on itself here.

We’ve reached the point of talking about what kinds of behaviors the male mindset creates and today it’s time to talk about mentorship – from the side of the mentor and that of his understudy or student.

Now I know that, like with everything we’ve talked about in this section, the mentoring relationship is not exclusive to men. But, far moreso than just about anything else we’ve talked about so far, it’s a distinctively masculine endeavor. I’ve meat far fewer women in my life who could point to a female mentor figure than I could men and those that could almost exclusively pointed at their mother (or this one lady I know who has an enormous gift for it). Some women have male mentor figures but I can’t think of any men who have female mentors – I’m sure they exist but I don’t know any personally.

This topic is really very big so I’m going to divide it into two parts, the first today and the next coming next Friday. Today, let’s take a look at exactly what part of a man’s mental process makes mentorship attractive on both sides of the relationship.

Mentorships are curious things. On the one hand, students are placing a large portion of their future in the hands of their mentor, taking an awful risk that he will be fair, even handed and value the same things that the student does. On the other hand mentors give up a huge chunk of their time and freedom to their understudies, making themselves available to teach the other and revealing secrets about their successes and failures that might not be valued the way the mentor thinks they should. All in all, a very risky relationship. Why bother with it?

For the understudy seeking a mentor there are a lot of things about the relationship that are appealing. First, mentors are almost always people who have achieved the objective – or at least the understudy sees them as someone who’s reached it.

Furthermore, the mentor provides axioms readymade. While each person is different and most of the lessons the understudy learns will require some adjustment to apply fully to the student, having a mentor provides the understudy with a very solid set of basic principles to draw on when trying to reach his objective. To go with the axioms, the mentor also provides tests.

Mentors are like built in competition – not that the understudy expects to be his mentor’s equal any time soon. In fact, some understudies spend their whole life trying to equal their mentor, using him as a standard to strive for that they will never live up to. However mentors are not passive in this, frequently presenting their understudies with difficult challenges that will test their understudy to the point of failure. In fact, in the eyes of many mentors tests are better when they are failed than when the student succeeds, as it shows more about their weaknesses and how they might be improved upon.

These failures help the student examine the axioms they are learning and integrate them into the way they look at the world. The mentor frequently pushes the process along with hard questions and forceful demonstrations (in the best cases) or verbal and physical reprimands (in less ideal mentorships).

(An aside: While I’m far from an expert on women, a part of me has always suspected that this rather hostile approach to testing and “encouragement” is a big part of why women in mentoring relationships are so rare. At the same time, being male, I can’t really see a way around this component of it, either… A big part of testing is to push things to the breaking point and that’s not always comfortable. On the other hand, men frequently won’t entirely trust the things they’ve learned until they’ve gone all the way up to that breaking point.)

Finally, a mentorship is a small relationship, just two people in ideal cases. This lets it start as a very compartmentalized relationship, making it easy to manage. At least at first, if it lasts long enough the mentor expands in the students mind until his territory becomes advice on all topics. But the fact that it starts so easy to deal with is what makes it so likely to grow.

The mentor gets a lot out of this relationship as well. The first and most obvious is the emotional fulfillment of the relationship and the act of teaching. Mentoring is a very fulfilling relationship for most people, much like parenting or teaching, and it has a lot of joy and happiness to offer just from seeing someone who is growing and benefiting from being around you and hearing what you have to say. Not everyone will like doing it and not everyone is suited to doing it well but it can be a very positive experience in and of itself.

But on top of that it appeals to men in particular as a way to fulfill those goals that they themselves will not be able to accomplish. This can be both good and bad, offering student and mentor a goal to bond over or resulting in the mentor completely ignoring his student’s wishes and pushing them in directions they don’t wish to go. Regardless of whether it is good or bad it is a very masculine thing and something that frequently draws men to the position of mentor.

Finally it offers the mentor perpetuity. Rather than just having their skills or knowledge endure for a short time a mentor passes things along and builds a legacy that joins mentor and student together into a greater whole. Good mentors tend to beget good mentors, who are then equipped to pass these skills down again and again ad infinitum, allowing the mentor’s influence to continue as long as possible. This not only draws men to the role of mentor but prompts them to do everything they can to be good mentors.

Both sides of the mentor and student relationship have a lot to offer to the male thought process, in fact mentoring as a relationship seems to have been built by men for men. So it’s no surprise that using it is a powerful tool for developing male characters. How do you go about using it when you write? Well tune in next week and we’ll talk about it some!

Cool Things: Plunder of Souls

Ethan Kaille has a rough life. He’s one of only two thieftakers in Boston and the other hates his guts, there’s a cholera outbreak in town and tensions between the British troops and the British townfolk are growing ever higher. And someone’s desecrating graves and Ethan’s been hired to find out who and bring them to justice.

So it’s Tuesday.

No, actually one thing that’s interesting about D.B. Jackson’s titular thieftaker is that his adventures don’t tumble one after the other in rapid succession. There’s actually been about a year between this adventure and Ethan’s last, no doubt so that interesting events of history can line up with fictional events. While the author obviously has that goal in mind it also allows the world some time to pass around the characters which really makes things feel more realistic.

Another nice touch about this story is that Ethan is not investigating a death under unusual circumstances this time. As I said at the beginning he’s been called in to figure out why graves are being desecrated and to bring the perpetrator to justice. Now if you haven’t read my previous recommendation of the Thieftaker Chronicles you need to know that Ethan is a conjuror, a kind of wizard who has to balance his need to make money with his need not to get burned at the stake as a witch. While Ethan has a kind of truce with the authorities in Boston that lets him do his job mostly in peace he is going to have other things to deal with.

For one thing, while conjurors can protect themselves from disease for a little while the materials they need to do it are very hard to find and very expensive and the cholera outbreak isn’t going anywhere. Plus Kaille opens the book by showing up his rival thieftaker Sephira Pryce and she’s not happy about it. While Ethan has conjuring to back him up Sephira has hired muscle and now a hired conjuror of her own and their rivalry is coming to a serious head. But worst of all something is interfering with Ethan’s ability to conjure. And not just Ethan’s, but the abilities of every conjuror in the city.

The best thing about the story in A Plunder of Souls is the development of the characters. While Ethan is a very well established character the supporting characters haven’t gotten as much screen time in the previous couple of books. Even Sephira, who has been turning up a lot in previous books, was mostly a secondary antagonist before where as now she and Ethan establish an uneasy peace that lets us see her in a new light. All of this is great but above and beyond that, unlike in previous books, the villain is also very well developed.

It turns out that Ethan has a history with the villain, another conjuror who has a twisted relationship with Ethan and… well just about everybody. While there’s not a whole lot that’s new to the urban fantasy/paranormal investigation genres in this story’s formula the execution of the formula and the construction of the characters on both sides of the conflict makes it worthwhile. On top of that the villain offers real intelligence and menace whenever he’s on hand to threaten Ethan. Finally the feel and danger of pre-Revolution America is icing on the cake, making the setting in the Theiftaker Chronicles much more real and engaging than many other urban fantasies.

A decent, if formulaic, story filled with very interesting characters makes A Plunder of Souls a read that’s attractive and fun.

Thunder Clap: Dropping The Ball

Helix

When I first met Darryl Templeton he was in his early thirties, single and ambitious. A lot like most people would describe me now. We worked together off and on, Darryl first working as field analyst and then field oversight on my team. Pretty much every kind of work Project Sumter did at the time we handled. Everything from cover-ups, introducing newly discovered talents to the rules of the game and heavy investigative work to serious archive updating and scientific research got handed off to our team. When we worked in the Midwest he ran into Mona Walters and was smitten. He fell in love, got married and gave up field work.

I saw him less after that. He moved up into the administrative side of Analysis. The next time we ran into each other he had gray hair coming in and he was asking me to look after his wife when she tried her hand at field work. When he was in a car wreck I took some time off to check in on him during his recovery.We stayed good friends even though we didn’t see each other regularly.

Until his wife was killed in the field. While on my team.

Now Darryl’s almost a stranger to me. When HiRes got him on the phone I barely even recognized his voice, rough and scratchy instead of level and confident as I remembered. But in person the differences were even worse. He hobbled on a cane, his hair was gray on white and worst of all he didn’t grin when he saw me anymore. I’d avoided him since our brief collaboration after the Michigan Avenue Proclamation just because looking at him reminded me that a fundamental part of my world had shifted out of place and not been replaced yet. The first thing I noticed when he walked into my office was that his face had new lines on it, creases at the corners of his mouth and eyes that made it look like he was perpetually frowning and sleepy.

He lowered himself slowly into one of the guest chairs and finally managed a smile for me, though it was tired and grim. “Congratulations, Helix. You finally rated your own office. I knew you’d have one as soon as I heard the courts had ordered Project Sumter to stop withholding promotions from talented agents.”

My return smile wasn’t really any better than his. “Look who’s talking. You went out and found a whole office full of talents to supervise. Is it any easier than riding herd on the analysts?”

“You have no idea. Project Sumter analysts are the only kind of people I know that get exponentially more difficult to deal with when you have more of them. Talents pale in comparison.” A little of the animation I remembered from the old Darryl came back, his eyebrows waggling in a way that meant he was joking – but it was funny because it was true.

I didn’t laugh because the joke wasn’t that funny but I did manage a more heartfelt smile. It lasted half a second before I remembered what we needed to talk about. “Darryl, I need to talk to you about…”

My voice trailed off because I wasn’t really sure now to describe what I wanted to talk about. But Darryl hadn’t been head of Analysis four years for nothing. “You want to talk about Circuit and what’s happening around the country right now.”

“Never could fool you.” I cracked my knuckles absently on the desktop as I marshalled my thoughts. Training told me to start on easy ground. “I know Circuit has been your number one concern for a while. Did the Secret Service have any idea something was going to happen?”

For a moment Darryl studied his hands, resting on top of his cane. In the past he’d always been the kind to look you in the eye when telling you… pretty much anything. I wondered when that had changed. “We knew something was going to happen. Lots of buzz going about something building up in Toronto. But nothing to indicate it was a US concern and not a Canadian one. And no sign that it was my office’s concern at all. In fact, most of the Secret Service thinks this is a NSA or FBI matter, not something for our agency at all.”

“But you’re here.” I folded my hands together and pressed them down on the desk to keep from fidgeting. “You must think this is connected to Circuit.”

His head snapped up, a bit of the old fire in his eyes. “Of course. But right now the Secret Service is not inclined to agree with me.”

My eyes narrowed just a bit. “Darryl, are you even supposed to be here right now?”

“Personally?”

Again, I’ve known Darryl a long time. That one word was enough for me to guess what his excuse was. “No one said you could come here but no one said you couldn’t. And HiRes is here to guard Voorman so you just tagged along as support. Is that it?”

“Close enough for government work.”

“Right.” I leaned back in my chair. “So what do you think Circuit is up to?”

He spread his hands helplessly. “How should I know? Are you sure it’s even him out here?”

“No, of course not!” I thumped my desk for emphasis. “I talked to him over video conferencing and even now I’m not sure it was the same guy who built a hydroelectric power plant in a state park. He just didn’t feel right. You’re the analyst, Darryl, you’re supposed to work these things out.”

Darryl put his elbows down on my desk and pressed his fingers into his temples. “How I wish it was that simple these days, Helix. I’m more administrator than analyst these days – other people handle that for me, now.  I just hand out assignments during my office hours.” He sat back up and waved his hand dismissively. “I’ve worked on the case on my own time, of course, but like I said, no one had any clue this was coming down the pike.”

“You mean you had no idea what was going on and you came anyway? You have no plan?” I was out of my seat and waving my hands in the air like a windmill waiting for Quixote but I didn’t care at that moment. “What is wrong with you Darryl?”

He didn’t get up as fast as I did but he was just as upset. “Because as soon as I heard what happened I knew he’d be involved somehow, and it would be here. Everything he’s done that matters, everything he’s done since he killed Mona, it’s happened here. This is where I need to be.”

That was simultaneously the stupidest thing I’d ever heard and something that made total sense. Rather than call him on it I slumped back into my chair and said, “Did you at least come with backup? Please tell me you’re not here on your own.”

“HiRes has Hush with him.”

“Creepy guy who never talks?” Darryl nodded a yes. “Who else?”

“Frostburn and Coldsnap are here in town, but not here in the building. They were useful last time, breaking the hydroelectric plant. I thought we might need them again.” Darryl shrugged and sat back down, too. “Although I guess a hydroelectric plant in the river would be more noticeable out here than his last one.”

I stared at him a moment, trying to figure any possible angle he might have on this. I knew he wanted Circuit in taken down – wanted him gone bad – but it really sounded like he’d been caught as flatfooted as the rest of us. Just to be sure I asked, “So what do we do now?”

“You’re in that chair,” he pointed at the furniture in question, “so that means it’s you’re call. Only person in this office ranked higher than you is Bob Sanders and I think he’ll agree with pretty much anything you suggest.”

I put my head down in my hands. “I was afraid you were going to say that.”

Jack yanked the door to my office, bringing my head up with it like they were attached with a string. “Somebody got power back to the city, Helix. Sanders wants you on the floor pronto. Time to find out what’s been going on while the lights were out.”

“Come on, Darryl.” I was out from behind the desk before he was out of his chair. “If I’m really in charge of this fiasco then I want your eyes on it, too.”

“Gladly.”

——–

Izzy

We were back out on the streets around daybreak. I was feeling fine although the world was starting to turn a little fuzzy around the edges. While I’d  told Clark the truth about not getting tired this was also my first time out on the streets, facing people with guns and maniacs who wanted to take over the world, or at least the city. I was stressed and starting to feel it. The rest of the team looked even more frazzled around the edges when we piled out of Lincoln’s apartment and into the predawn gloom.

After about half an hour of debate Teresa had decided that the best plan would be to try and fry Circuit’s wonderful EMP weapons through the ground. It hadn’t taken long for Amp to find a frequency that would destroy the coolant pump in the weapons without doing much damage to anything else the real question had been how she could deliver it without wrecking half the windows on a block. To make a long story short, Clark and Lincoln had worked out where major electrical circuits ran and they were hoping Amp could amplify sound down them for a city block or two, causing the cooling systems in any of the weapons in the radius to malfunction and short out the whole unit.

It wasn’t a great plan but it was what we had and it worked in no small part because the electricity was out and there wasn’t an noise from the power grid itself to contend with, so if power came back on we’d be right back where we started. Worse, we had to go underground to hit the major electrical stations where Clark thought the plan would work best. That meant going into the sewers.

At least, Al, Teresa and Amp did, Lincoln  and Jane stayed at street level to serve as lookout and Clark and I went ahead to scout out the next point of entrance. Which basically meant finding a manhole cover about six blocks away.

“I could have handled this myself,” Clark said, carefully looking up and down the street while tapping his tire iron slowly against his thigh. I’d lost track of what happened to that thing for a bit but apparently he hadn’t.

“The scouting part or moving the manhole cover?” I leaned out from the side of the building we were hunkered down by, looking up rather than out. “Do you want me on the roof?”

He glanced back at me. “Right. I keep forgetting you can do that.”

“Not your fault. Most people aren’t trained on taxmen tactics. Do you want me up top or not?”

He jerked a quick nod and went back to checking out the street. I stepped out into the middle of the alley and did a quick assessment of the angles then jumped.

It was just a quick flexing of the knees, bend them a little then straighten back out. Most of the strength of the jump came from wherever it is taxmen keep all that power we store, all the muscle we build up is either a place to store it or just a camouflage built up over the years, not the actual source of the power we get to throw around. Personally, I try not to think too much about how it works and just enjoy the results.

Building jumping, either on top of or over, is something I’ve done a fair amount of. Project Sumter actually has an obstacle course for it about an hour outside the city limits and it’s something I’m good at and really enjoy. The rush of air as you go up is only matched by the brief feeling of weightlessness when you hit apogee. Trust me, it’s fun every single time.

Except for the one time that someone switches a floodlight on right in front of your face while you’re on the way up.

After spending most of the night by emergency light or moonlight I wasn’t prepared for the sudden brightness and for the second time in twelve hours I blew my landing and tumbled across the rough concrete roof. I clambered back to my feet, hands and shoulder aching, blinking furiously to try and see what was going on around me. I could dimly see that the world around me had gone from a deep gloom to a dull gray and the air was full of dozens of half-heard sounds that I’d never noticed until the power outage silenced them.

“Damn it, what was that?”

And someone was cursing, there was that, too.

Training, according to Al the heart and soul of police work, kicked in and I shouted, “Federal agent! Who’s there?”

I immediately felt foolish because the man on the roof with me said, “What? Wait, I can’t see anything. You got a badge?”

And of course, I didn’t because I hadn’t been an official federal agent the night before. Not that it would matter since we both seemed to be blinded by the sudden illumination around us. But since the building I’d been jumping up on, another shop of some kind, had been ringed with floodlights for security and I’d basically been looking right at them I figured he’d get his eyes back first and notice I looked a lot like a teenaged girl who’d somehow wandered onto the roof.

I was right and I was wrong. Only as the sparks in my vision began to fade did it occur to me that whoever it was on the roof with me, he didn’t have any better reason to be up there than I did. Looking back it should have been obvious that he trouble, but I was flash blinded and shaken from my bad landing so I didn’t really tumble to the fact that something was wrong until something clanked at my feet and started hissing. My vision was clear enough by that point that I could look down and see a cloud of gas already up to my knees and rising quickly.

A glance up told me the guy who’d thrown it was about ten feet away and his head looked weird. I took a single long step, closer to a jump than anything, and as I slid to a stop next to him I realized it wasn’t his head, he was just wearing a gas mask. I probably wanted one of those for myself and his was the only one handy. But when I snatched at it I misjudged my grip strength and wound up crushing the eye goggles in one hand rather than just grabbing it and pulling it off his face. He staggered back with a yelp, dropping a second smoke bomb or whatever it was he’d thrown at me in the process.

It wasn’t safe to stay up there with nothing to protect me from whatever fumes he was throwing around. A quick jump to my right sent me over the edge of the building and down into the street below. I landed as lightly as possible and looked around. There were two other people in the street, closing in on the alley where I’d left Clark. I rushed over to it much faster than any normal person only to find myself in the middle of another cloud of gas.

Yeah, outrunning our ability to keep track of our surroundings is a major taxman weakness.

I had enough time to figure out that it wasn’t smoke in those bombs before a weird sense of dislocation, of numbness hit me and I pitched forward on my knees. I had just enough time to make out Clark, lying face down on the ground, before the world faded away.

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Avengers Analyzed: Bruce Banner

The Avengers: Age of Ultron is coming next year and I’m kind of excited. Not sell-my-soul-for-an-early-screening excited, but I’m looking forward to it. One of the reasons I’m excited is that the first Avengers film did a truly exemplary job of drawing its large cast of characters and making them dynamic, relatable and fun. Even if you’d never seen a movie from the Marvel cinematic universe you could enjoy the film – I’d only seen Captain America: The First Avenger before I sat down to watch Marvel’s The Avengers and I still managed to follow everything quite well.

The Avengers was a masterpiece of tight writing and character conflict and, in preparation for Age of Ultron, I’m going to take the next several months to unpack the great writing in the first film one story arc at a time.

The best way to understand The Avengers is to view it not as one story but seven and to analyze those seven stories by their basic conflicts. The largest story is the story of Earth, represented by SHIELD and the Avengers, against Loki and the Chituari. The conflict is character(s) against character(s). But within that story there are six other stories taking place, each of which makes the larger story richer and helps us understand each of the individual characters in the story much better.

For today we’re going to start with the character who I think people who watched The Avengers understood the least: Bruce Banner and The Hulk.

Banner’s Background

Bruce Banner was an omnidisciplinarian scientist who was trying to replicate the supersoldier serum that gave Captain America his abilities. Instead he created a formula that made him invincible and unbelievably strong when enraged. It also takes a lot of his conscious thought process away and replaces it with instinct.

The Conflict

Bruce Banner’s conflict is character against himself. Bruce sees the Hulk as a horror that he must suppress and control or the people around him will be threatened.

We Meet Bruce Banner

“I’m going to talk to Stark. You’re going to talk to the big guy.” – Phil Coleson

We’re first given an idea of what the Hulk is when we see Agent Phil Coleson sending Agent Natasha Romanov out to retrieve him. Phil says she’s off to see “the big guy,” a statement she initially misunderstands. When she realizes what Coleson means we see the first sign of genuine intimidation from her in the film. Remember that, before this, she’s performed a reverse interrogation on a bunch of bloodthirsty Russians who she then beat up and showed no reverence at all when talking about one of the most intelligent and wealthy men on the planet (hint: Tony Stark). Clearly, the big guy is someone special.

We finally meet Bruce as he’s washing up after a medical procedure in India. He’s helping the poor there, probably the “untouchables” who are the lowest rung of Hindu society. He follows a girl who begs for his help with no question and as fast as he can. From this we see both deep compassion and intelligence in Banner’s willingness and ability to solve medical problems amidst extreme poverty… as well as a tendency to plunge into situations without thinking that Romanov exploits to cause their meeting.

Banner’s Starting Point 

“The other guy spat it back out.” – Bruce Banner 

On meeting Banner, Romanov congratulates Bruce on not having an “incident” in over a year. The she asks, “What’s your secret?”

“No secret,” Bruce replies. This moment is important for two reasons – first, the idea that Banner has a secret is going to be tied back to his character progression at each significant point and second, this is the first sign of Banner’s problem, his unwillingness to admit The Hulk is a part of him. To Banner, the Hulk is literally another person, as if he’s Dr. Jekyll and The Hulk is his Mr. Hyde.

Now this is be a legitimate angle on Banner/Hulk taken with The Hulk in the comics but for the purposes of this analysis the comics have no bearing on this movie and I don’t think that’s the angle the script writers actually envision when thinking about Banner/Hulk so we have to understand Banner’s development as a conflict between one personality facet – The Hulk – and the rest of Bruce Banner.

Banner has concluded The Hulk is to be avoided and, if he does show up, fought back down until Banner is again in control. Banner is at war with himself, although he won’t admit to it.

Romanov and Bruce continue their verbal sparring, Natasha trying to manipulate him and Banner seeing through the game. Finally Bruce decides to give in but reminds Natasha that he’s dangerous and she’d better be ready for that and, at the same time, lets the audience know that ultimately lies and trickery are meaningless against The Hulk’s rage.

Remember that, because it will be important later.

First Bridge

“Oh no, this is much worse.” – Bruce Banner 

Since no one character can get anything like center stage in The Avengers, Banner fades into the background a bit while other things happen. But in this period of time we continue to see his genius for science applied and a total avoidance of things that might bring out The Hulk.

And again, Bruce does his best to ignore the elephant in the room. Aside from the occasional comment about air-tight, pressurized containers he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that he’s unusual in any way other than maybe a bit smarter than normal. By the end of this quiet period Loki has been captured and brought aboard the Helicarrier, Banner has met Tony Stark and the two are tasked with finding the Tesseract.

Banner Begins to Change

“I’m a huge fan of the way you loose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster.” – Tony Stark 

Most characters in The Avengers evolve in three steps – where they are when they start out, their pivot point and where they end up. Banner’s pivot point comes as Tony jabs him in the side and then congratulates him on maintaining control. Once again the question gets asked. “What’s your secret?”

Again, Banner answers, “No secret.”

Banner is still in denial but Stark has a perspective on Bruce’s situation that Natasha does not. Romanov is an expert manipulator but has no insight into the difficulties that come with suddenly have power thrust upon you – she’s fought her whole life to get what power she has – while Tony went through a similar experience to Bruce’s when he became Iron Man. Even Stark, with his enormous ego, struggled with what to do with himself after his time as a prisoner in Afghanistan. In some ways Stark had a harder time of it but ultimately Banner had to face a part of himself he found truly horrific which makes their experiences a bit different.

Fortunately Stark has enough people sense to see what’s holding Banner back and he suggests that the bizarre set of circumstances that has changed his life happened for a purpose and that, in point of fact, becoming The Hulk might actually have been a good thing. Banner can’t see what that purpose is but the thought has been planted in his mind and it changes the direction of his character from there on out.

Second Bridge

“Target is angry!” – Anonymous Pilot 

Most of the Hulk’s second bridge between characterization points is an action set piece but it’s bookended by some important events. First is the moment he hulks out for the first time. The Helicarrier is under attack, Romanov and Banner wind up getting hurt in the carnage and Romanov is trying to keep Banner calm by promising that he’ll be fine and he’ll get out of this. Then she says something she shouldn’t have. “I swear on my life.”

If you watch closely you might notice Banner was starting to shrink back down to a more normal size just before she says this. Now he surges back and forth a bit before finally Hulking up after Romanov says this so it may have just been him still in the midst of his transformation. It might be nothing. But the fact that he latches onto the phrase and repeats it suggests something interesting.

I don’t think Banner ultimately hulks out because he’s hurting, although his frank recounting of his suicide attempt at the beginning of his character arc tells us that could happen. Bruce becomes enraged because someone who’s already hurt and in a bad situation is offering to endure even worse problems in order to help others and Banner feels powerless to do anything about it. So he transforms into the Hulk, who does.

Not that the Hulk actually helps things, but that’s because Bruce is fighting the Hulk every step of the way. He still sees “the other guy” as a problem to be avoided rather than another talent, like his genius, which is helpful at some times and useless at other times.

Fast forward several minutes. Bruce is picking himself up off the ground in the rubble of a warehouse and a janitor is telling him he came down where he did, in a place no one was around, not by coincidence or luck but by design. The Hulk was consciously trying to land someplace no one would get hurt.

And for the first time the idea that The Hulk wants to help people just as much as the rest of Bruce Banner does enters the mind of our hero.

Banner’s Conflict Resolved

“That’s my secret, Captain. I’m always angry.” – Bruce Banner/The Hulk

When Bruce rides into Manhattan on the sweetest hero ride ever, the Chituari have already made a mess of it. New York needs help and the brilliant mind of Bruce Banner is not the best tool for the job. Captain America suggests it might be time for him to try something else. “It might be a good time to get angry.”

Banner isn’t in denial any more. The Hulk isn’t another person in his mind anymore. He has made peace with himself. Bruce wants to help the people of Manhattan and so does the Hulk. It’s he did it.

Bruce Banner is a man of compassion. Seeing people suffering at the hands of aliens they’ve never heard of and did nothing to provoke makes him angry. And so does seeing people sick and dying in poverty in India. And so does being lied to about the things SHIELD was doing with the Tesseract. In fact, he’s a smart enough man to realize that every second of every day something horrible is happening to someone, somewhere and he’s empathetic enough that the fact enrages him, even if it’s just the smallest bit. He’s never acted on that rage because he didn’t think it could make a difference.

That was before the Hulk.

And on the streets of New York it was time to finally admit his secret. It wasn’t that he didn’t get angry. The secret, of course, is that he always is. But now he accepts that he can use it for good, and he proceeds to do so.

Unless you’re the Chituari, of course.

Confrontation with Loki

“Puny god.” – Bruce Banner/The Hulk

Every Avenger in the story confronts Loki at some point during the story but the Hulk is special because he is the only one to confront the Norse god of Trickery after his character’s arc is complete. All the others confront Loki during their arc or at it’s the completion. So it’s fitting that The Hulk is the Avenger who ends Loki’s ability to directly influence the larger conflict – The Hulk is the only one who confronts Loki when he is fully invested in the greater conflict and not distracted by his own personal conflict. Thus The Hulk has the entire breadth of his terrifying strength to bring to bear on Loki and Loki alone.

Also, as I mentioned at the beginning of Banner’s arc, Bruce/Hulk is not stopped or even slowed by deception. He cannot have his conviction shaken, his confidence moved or his attention distracted. The Hulk is far too simple to be confused by fine speeches or deterred by illusions. In The Hulk Loki met his one natural enemy and was defeated in one of the shortest and most brutal curb stomp battles a supervillain has ever faced.

On the whole I feel that Bruce has a great, dynamic character arc that hints at his character progression without having to spell it out. Unfortunately with six other stories going on around him that subtle, understated characterization doesn’t play as well as it might if his was the only character arc going on. This caused a lot of people to miss it in spite of each major point along the arc being highlighted by the word “secret.” Banner is very secretive about his being the Hulk, in fact he’s the only one of the four “super” heroes in the movie that has a secret identity. Tony Stark is a prominent industrialist who announced his identity at a press conference, Captain Steve Rogers was a prominent war hero and now has an exhibit in the Smithsonian and Thor is a literal legend in his own time.

Banner starts out ashamed of who he is and fears what might become of others if his power is allowed to go unchecked. Note that Banner doesn’t want the formula that made him duplicated or improved upon which is a major reason he’s in hiding. He also doesn’t believe The Hulk can think about the good of others or cooperate with other people, at least at first. This is a possibility that, for all his intelligence, other people have to explain to him. He’s a flawed character and doesn’t understand himself that well sometimes, but these are things that make him more realistic and actually help what could have been an over the top, one note character fit into a realistically portrayed character progression.

So, for having a well thought out character arc that’s told deftly and with every step in his growth well demonstrated (and mostly by action or reaction and not words), I consider Bruce Banner/The Hulk to be the best written character in The Avengers. But I don’t think he’s the one who went through the biggest change. So next month I hope you’ll join me as we take a look at Banner’s fellow genius Tony Stark to get an eye full of one of the biggest character shifts I’ve ever seen from a superhero in a single movie.

Cool Things: Jani and the Greater Game

Steampunk meets space opera? Yes, please!

One of the worldbuilding challenges a steampunk story faces is explaining how technology managed to get so advanced without the British Empire’s place in the world going in a weird direction. Some people chose to gloss over the question, never addressing it, some actually do try to warp the development of the world and change Britain’s place in the world and some just create a new world with analogs for the British Empire and it’s colonies. Eric Brown’s Jani and the Greater Game both answers the question in a nice way and integrates the secret of advanced technology into the foundation of the story.

Now there’s a spoiler here so you’re warned but it’s hard to discuss the book without mentioning this and I can’t really see anyone not getting this by the end of the first chapter or so.

So the way the world works is the British find a crashed spaceship in the late 1800s and start reverse engineering it’s technology. This makes the British Empire an even more dominate force on the planet than it was in our timeline and triggers a kind of cold war between the British, the Chinese and the Russians over the land of Nepal, where the space ship is located. Of course, most people don’t know what makes Nepal so special but at least the leaders of Britain and Russia do. (It’s not clear if the Chinese are aware of what makes the territory so valuable but that’s forgivable since they’re not really a part of the story of this book.)

The primary character of this book is Janisha (Jani to family and friends), a young half English half Indian woman who has been called back to India from studying medicine in England because her father has fallen ill. Along the way her airship is shot down by Russians. Because that’s the kind of thing that happens to airships during cold wars.

Once again this plot point serves multiple purposes. Not only does it establish the Russians as our antagonists in this story it also provides a very natural reason for Jani to encounter the airships’ most exotic passenger – Jelch, an alien that was under heavy guard in the hold of the airship. When Jani’s ride crashes Jelch’s prison breaks open and the guards wind up dead. Jani offers Jelch medical treatment but Jelch tells her the medicine she knows will not work on him. Still, Jani’s generosity and compassion is something Jelch has apparently not seen much of from humanity and he’s moved to leave her a gift and protect her from the Russian landing party that has been sent to eliminate survivors.

Another plot point that it won’t take a perceptive reader long to figure out is that Jelch is on earth to oppose an invasion from a second alien species. Earth is a piece in the Greater Game being played by this expanding alien empire. The aliens already have agents on earth and, along with the Russians, these alien agents will plague Jani and her friends from beginning to end.

Now like War of the Worlds there are undoubtedly parallels between the British Empire and the invading aliens intended but, at least in the first installment of the series (and yes, this is a series), there’s no preachy moralizing or hitting us over the head with messages. While Jani does feel a bit like a Mary Sue at times she and the cast around her are at least well written and beginning to grow from hastily sketched archetypes to well rounded characters and the story promises to put a new, fun skin on the fairly well explored prevent-otherworldly-invasion storyline. If you enjoy steampunk sensibilities it’s worth your while to check it out.

Thunder Clap: Break it to Pieces

Izzy

It only took two minutes of watching over Clark’s shoulder for him to stop what he was doing, look up from the box containing Circuit’s amazing EMP superweapon and say, “You’re not helping.”

“Sorry.” I came around the table, sat down on in a chair and put my bottle of water down on the floor. The table in Lincoln He’s kitchenette was scattered with pieces of casing from the gizmo we’d found in the bookstore. It had taken a while to get back to the concert venue on foot, consult with the stage manager and Lincoln, and finally decide to move most of our people out of the venue and to Lincoln’s apartment via a rather roundabout route. Cheryl was staying there to direct new Sumter resources that might come to join us but otherwise we were all crammed into Lincoln’s small one bedroom apartment.

Soft sounds of snoring came from the cramped living room just outside the low wall dividing it from the eating area. Massif, Gearshift and Lincoln had bedded down out there after practically forcing Teresa and Amplifier to take a nap in the bedroom. Chivalry wasn’t dead out there but it was having to work awfully hard to express itself.

Clark had started disassembling the box almost as soon as we’d gotten settled again, pulling out small canisters, a clear plastic or plexiglass box half the size of my head containing coils of wire I guessed was an electromagnet and parts that did who knew what, with no sign of nodding off. I wasn’t sure where he had gotten the tools from, my guess was they were Lincoln’s since he worked in IT when he wasn’t moonlighting as Massif’s man on the street or whatever ti was they did together. Clark moved with confidence, unlike most of us had when we finally dragged ourselves into the apartments, his hands rock steady and working fast. Other than his brief moment of annoyance when I started kibitzing I don’t think he’d stopped working on the thing since he’d walked in the apartment door and sat down at the table.

“Aren’t you tired?” I asked. Given how quickly the rest of the crew had hit the sack I’d have expected him to do the same.

“This is the middle of the day for me. I’m working third shift at headquarters right now so I’m always awake this time of night.” He went back to tinkering with something in the box. A long, thin black hose connected it to the electromagnet container. “What about you? Training is done during the day and you weren’t a field agent until tonight so I’d assume that’s most of what you did.”

“Believe it or not, not getting tired is one of the perks of being a taxman.” I poked at the hose. “What’s this for? There’s no wires connecting it to the magnet itself, just the box, so it’s not a power cable.”

Clark looked at me strangely and said, “No, the power hookup is on the bottom. I think this,” he tapped the thing he was working on in the box, “pumped some kind of coolant to keep the thing at an even temperature. Those,” he pointed at the canisters he’d already taken out, “look like a six or eight month supply. You don’t sleep at all?”

“Well, I don’t get physically tired.” I tapped the side of my head. “This still needs time to unwind, do all the subconscious things the brain does when you’re asleep. But if I need to I can skip a night or two here and there without major problems. Slightly slower reflexes, some fine motor control lost.”

“Not that that’s a huge loss,” Clark muttered, finally detaching the pump and pulling it out of the box to look at more closely.

“Not that big a loss,” I admitted. “I generally make a point to hit the sack before short temper and annoyance become an issue.”

Clark opened his mouth for a moment, hesitated like he was thinking better of it, and finally settled on saying, “I’ll keep that in mind.”

I waved it off. “Just finishing my thought, nothing against you. I spent most of my life trying to find the lowest possible setting for my talent. I still don’t really have an idea what the upper end of it looks like.” That was enough of that. Time for a subtle subject change. “Why does that thing need coolant? Does firing off the EMP cause it to overheat or something?”

“Best guess? It’s only an EMP part of the time. The rest of the time it just creates a low level magnetic field.” Clark pointed at the coil of wire with a small screwdriver. “Even if it operated at a very low strength that would show up on the electricity bill. Unless that’s a superconducting wire. The resistance on those is so low they practically need no power at all to keep running. So they probably did it to keep the owner from noticing that there was something in his building eating through electricity like there’s no tomorrow.”

“What you just said told me nothing about why it needs to be cold.”

Clark shrugged. “Most superconductors only superconduct when they’re cold. It’s complicated and I don’t really have the physics or electronics background to understand it, I just know it’s so. If they are using the superconductor to keep the electric bill down they need to keep it cool all the time.”

“Great.” I flopped back in my chair. “Does knowing this actually help us in any way?”

“Not really. I mean, if we’d known about it six months ago we might have started running down leads on where Circuit might have gotten all this stuff. It’s liquid nitrogen cooled and this,” Clark tapped on the box holding the electromagnet, “is actually two layers deep and I’d guess there’s a near vacuum environment between the layers. Circuit’s done that with his gadgets before as a countermeasure against Helix but there’s got to be so many of them out there that they were built by a third party. And it’s probably a custom job, that’s not an every day piece of equipment. I can’t think of a single practical application for it outside of messing with heat sinks.”

“You’re dodging the question.” I waved my had at the mess of junk scattered on the table in front of us. “Circuit’s shut down the city using these things. There’s got to be some way to counter it.”

“Actually, he hasn’t.” He waved his hand at the stuff on the table. “Magnet, capacitors sufficient to keep it firing, coolant to keep it superconducting, simple hookup to a fiber optic network fast enough to let the thing react nearly real time. But nothing here lets him disrupt the power grid. That must have happened at the regional level. Knocking these things out will probably let vehicles through again, it’s probably hooked up to the surveillance system so it will probably blind them. But we’re not getting power or cellphones back, not by taking these out.”

After everything that had happened so far it was weird that hearing that was what made me the most disappointed. I rested my head on top of the magnet case and exhaled deeply. The sound of Clark poking around with the coolant pump went on for another ten seconds or so then he stopped. “Don’t you have to wave your hands in the air before you lay on hands?”

“I’m not praying, I’m being frustrated.”

“Frustrated?” Clark sounded like he wasn’t sure if he should laugh or not. “I didn’t think frustration was a part of your religion.”

I picked up my head enough to look him in they eye. “My religion doesn’t have things that are a part or aren’t a part. It just has help for people with problems. Right now my biggest problem was that we just got shot at, smashed a guys floor and got a box full of highly suspicious junk. And all that work was for nothing. This doesn’t frustrate you?”

“Well,” Clark heaved a sigh and pulled the pump out of the box. “There is one bright side.”

“What’s that?”

He tipped the pump on one side and tapped the power hookup. “Give me fifteen minutes and I’m sure I can jurryrig this into something we can plug into the outlet. Then we can run it long enough for Amp to see if it has a frequency that will break it. Almost all motors do, they shake in a specific way when they’re on and if we can amplify that enough with a sympathetic frequency and break it like an egg.”

“Sounds good.” I carefully pushed myself up to my feet and started towards the back room. “Let’s get to it.”

He put a hand on my arm as I went by. “Better wait. You might be able to go forever but Amp needs her sleep. I’ll wake her in a few hours – if you don’t do it right her yelling at you about it will be that last thing you hear.”

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