Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Two – The Face of Death

Previous Chapter

Roy was pounding on the door of the second compartment down when he realized the Fairchilds had followed him. He caught sight of them out of the corner of his eye as they approached and he shook his head. “What do you two think you’re doing?”

“If you’re a railway inspector I think you’d know,” Brandon said. “Nosiness is a part of life on a train.”

Any rejoinder Roy wanted to make was cut off when the compartment door popped open and a worried father peered out, his family in a worried huddle behind him on one of the compartment’s couches. “What’s going on?” The man asked. “Who are you?”

“Roy Harper, Packard Railway Detectives,” Roy said, pointing towards the medallion he was wearing. “Did you hear a scream just now?”

The father nodded as his wife pointed to the wall rearward and said, “It sounded like it came from there.”

“Thank you,” Roy said. “Please stay in your compartment for now. I’ll send the conductor by when we’ve determined everything’s all right.”

He turned and headed towards the next compartment, looking over his shoulder at his erstwhile compartment mates. “I don’t suppose you’ll remain in your compartment as well?”

“Is that an order, Inspector?” Brandon’s sister asked.

“No, Miss Fairchild-”

“Cassandra, please.”

That took Roy a bit aback, he’d heard the Avaloni were sticklers for propriety with names and stations. Maybe there was some nuance to it that Columbia had forgotten. “It’s not an order, Miss Cassandra,” he said, “just a strong suggestion. And the title is Detective. The Creighton Railway Inspectors don’t like us getting confused, although as I see it that would help their business.”

The siblings shared an unreadable look, the kind close knit families tended to use when they needed to communicate some simple thought quickly, without wasting time on things like words. “I’m aware this is your duty,” Brandon said gently, “but perhaps we could be of some assistance. We’re no strangers to trouble on the sky train.”

“I’m sure you’re capable of taking care of yourself,” Roy said, glancing at the saber in Brandon’s belt subconsciously, “but the Packards are trained and competent to protect others and the train itself when it’s airborn. So I’d appreciate it if you’d return to your compartment. The last thing I want is a druid knocking us out of the coalstoking sky.”

He cut off Brandon’s attempt at answering by banging on the next door down the corridor. To his annoyance the Fairchilds remained in the passage but he wasn’t willing to escalate the matter. Not only wouldn’t it help him discover the source of the scream they’d heard, he actively wanted to avoid dealing with druids as much as possible. Not just because it was a healthy lifestyle – he had little patience for such things in his day to day – but because he’d spent enough time in the last week doing just that and he was ready for a break.

The compartment door opened before his thoughts could run further down that rabbit hole, revealing an ashen faced boy of maybe thirteen years. His stringy brown hair hung nearly to his shoulders in disheveled locks. He was dressed in a rumpled brown shirt with no collar over ill fitting denim pants held up by worn red suspenders. Roy immediately recognized him, not personally but for what he was. The other two children in the compartment wore equally rough clothing and looked about the same age. The boy looked up at Roy, licked his lips and asked, “Can I help you, sir?”

Roy removed his hat and said, “Everything all right in there, son? The neighbors said they heard screaming.”

The boy gestured behind him where the other two, both girls in simple, faded dresses, clung to each other. One had short black hair and a tear stained face, the other a stringy redhead with an apologetic expression. “Sorry, sir,” the redhead said. “We think Olivia had a nightmare. She’s… she’s new.”

“What does that-” Roy put a hand in Brandon’s chest and pushed him another step back into the passage. Once both hand and man were out of sight of the girls, Roy pointed emphatically back up the passage towards their compartment.

“Where’s your Hearth Keeper, son?” Roy asked, trying his best to tune out the whispered conversation in the hall behind him.

“She’s in the second public car,” the boy said. “She was going to say the evening cant.”

“Couple of hours late for that,” Roy muttered. Then returned his attention to the children. “But you don’t see anything wrong with the young miss?”

The dark haired girl – Olivia – made an effort to pull herself together. Her lips quivered a bit but she managed to point to the seat across from her and say, “I saw it. There was a dead man in that seat.”

The redhead put a hand on her head, ducking it down a bit. “I’m sorry, sir. Her parents… were in a fire, two months ago. She’s had nightmares for-”

“But he was stabbed!” Olivia wailed. “I don’t know who he was, but it wasn’t Ma or Pa or…” the girl’s voice slipped from coherence into meaningless grief.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the boy said. “She’s not-”

“I understand, son.” Roy donned his hat and stepped out of the doorway. “Do you want me to fetch the Hearth Keeper for you?”

“Excuse me, Mr. Harper?”

Roy took a deep breath and marshaled his patience. At moments like this the whisper of fire running through the body of the train seemed to grow to a shout, telling him the simplest way to solve his problems was to burn them all away. But the role of magic was to listen to him, not the other way around. “What is it, Miss Cassandra?”

“Could I speak to Miss Olivia? There’s a chance she didn’t dream what she saw.”

“I didn’t!” The girl exclaimed, the vote of confidence restoring enough self control to make her coherent again.

There was definitely something out of true in that compartment, whether the young girl was having nightmares about her parents or seeing visions of stranger things, and it was technically Roy’s responsibility to sort it out, at least to the point where he could determine if it was a danger to the train or its passengers. It wasn’t his favorite thing to do but he kept his Packard license for a reason and until he was ready to give it up there wasn’t much choice in the matter. “We’ll go and speak to the Hearth Keeper, then. What’s your name, son?”

The boy started a bit, apparently not expecting to be called on. “Clark, sir.”

“All right, Clark.” He pulled the aluminum medallion off his neck and dropped it into the boy’s hand. “I want you to hold on to that. If anyone comes to your door and checks on you, show them that and tell them I gave it to you while I went to get your Hearth Keeper. All right?”

Clark’s eyes practically bulged out of his head. “Don’t you need this to fly, sir?”

“You can’t fly just by holding a chunk of aluminum, son,” Roy said with a laugh. “You need a lot more of it than that, plus a furnace of fire to empower it. So don’t go getting ideas. Just hang on to that, and know the Packards are looking out for you. We’ll be right back.”

The door swung closed behind him as he started towards the back of the train. The footsteps of the Fairchild siblings fell in behind him. “That was kind of you,” Cassandra said. “They’re all quite lonely and the gift helped. Who are they?”

“Orphans.” Roy waved a hand to encompass the train. “It’s not uncommon for rail lines to offer open space on trains to orphanages, who can send their older children along the route in an attempt to find them living situations. Unfortunately out here there’s always a disaster or plague or Sanna raid or rogue elemental to generate a new crop of kids like them, and we can’t do much but try and place the more independent ones quickly.”

Roy opened the door to the railcar, suspending the conversation as the three of them crossed the wooden boards between the cars. The wind of their thirty mile an hour passage, whistling through the enchanted tin safety mesh, combined with the creaking of the bronze links holding the boards in place and the cars together, made any attempt to talk futile. Only once they were safely inside the first public car, picking their way through the benches, did Brandon speak again.

“I’m surprised I never noticed one of these groups before.”

“We don’t advertise they’re here,” Roy said, giving a meaningful look around the car. Most people ignored them, which was the polite thing to do, but he still didn’t want to bring attention to the large group of children with only two supervisors onboard. “Although the Packards don’t really have a hand in these groups.”

“You’re a Packard, can’t you at least interview one of them?” Brandon asked, sounding skeptical.

“On the strength of Miss Cassandra’s request? No. Besides, I’d prefer not to step on the toes of their caretakers.” He glanced around the train car but didn’t see anyone under the age of fifteen that wasn’t with a family. He still dropped his tone a couple of degrees. “Besides, those kids have been through enough, they don’t need strangers inserting themselves into their lives willy nilly.”

“Willy nilly?” Cassandra asked.

“Yes. Lacksidaisical.”

“Of course.”

The Fairchilds finally stopped asking questions, for which Roy was grateful. They crossed the rest of the car and into the next in silence.

The occupants of the next car all stared at them as they entered, which was odd but not as odd as the way everyone was packed into the back of the seating benches, with four or even five young children crammed into benches meant for two. A middle aged woman in the red and brown robes of the Hearth Keepers was on the left hand side, the youngest children clinging to her. On the right, near the middle of the compartment, was a man about the same age in the gray and blue of the Storm Watch. He was frantically waving them away, eyes roaming through an area halfway between him and the front of the car.

A semitransparent man sat on a bench in that area, his ghostly innards piled around his feet, a bitter expression on his face. When Roy met his eyes the specter’s face morphed into a chilling smile. “Lieutenant Harper.” The ghost’s whisper seemed to reach every corner of the car. “We meet again.”

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter One – Private Compartment

Brandon woke to the sound of a polite, forceful knock at the door of his compartment. The sound of muffled voices in the passage of the train car were too indistinct to make out in its entirety but he picked up the voice of the conductor saying, “very full,” “no vacancies” and “very personable.” A second voice replied but the only thing Brandon caught was “sleep.”

Brandon gently moved his sister’s head off of his shoulder, taking care not to interrupt her rest, and propped her in the corner of the compartment’s north couch then he got to his feet with equal care. After years traveling the Columbian West he was as used to standing on a flying train as stable ground. The train felt momentarily odd under his feet, not bucking and swaying, which meant they must have come to a station while he was sleeping.

The conductor greeted him with his customary attempt at a cheerful smile, the round man’s salt and pepper beard splitting into an unpleasant display of teeth and gums. “Mr. Fairchild, I hope you’re having a pleasant evening.”

“Pleasant enough, sir. May I ask where we’re grounded?”

“Sanford’s Run,” the conductor replied. “I was hoping to talk to you about your compartment.”

“You’d like us to share.” Brandon didn’t phrase it as a question. In fact it was something they’d been asked to do several times while crossing the West.

The conductor stepped to one side, revealing a shortish man in a well tailored but weathered brown suit and a battered derby hat with a set of heavy leather saddlebags slung over one shoulder. “This gentleman transferred to this line on his way to Hardwick station and asked for a private compartment, but I’m afraid they’re all occupied.”

“And we’re two in a compartment that seats four,” Brandon said.

“If you don’t want to share I can easily close my eyes in a public car,” the newcomer said. “It’s barely eight hours to Hardwick, I can find a hotel there to catch up on my sleep.”

“Not at all necessary,” Brandon said, reaching back to open the door to the compartment. “Happy to share. I’m Brandon Fairchild.”

“Roy Harper.” He followed just behind Brandon, setting his battered saddlebags on the compartment’s southern couch across from Cassandra. Harper’s glance fell on her and a glint of sharp interest appeared in his eyes. He swiveled to study Brandon, then back to Cassie. “Your sister?”

It wasn’t hard to make that connection, to be honest. They had the same round face, though she wore it better than he did, and the same straight, dirty blonde hair, and they were only three years apart in age. But Brandon let that fact pass, only saying, “So she is.”

The sharp look vanished and Harper grunted. “You don’t sound like any Columbian I’ve met,” he said as he settled onto the other couch. “You two from Avalon? Maybe somewhere on the Continent?”

“We’re Avaloni.” Brandon sat as well. “We’ve been taking the sights of your lovely country for some time now.”

Harper nodded lazily. “Then you don’t need me to tell you to watch your back. The West isn’t very hospitable to anyone, I’m afraid.”

With that Harper leaned back on the couch, pulled his hat down over his face and was asleep before the sky train lifted off ten minutes later. Brandon marveled at the accomplishment. Even after a year and a half of regular travel by sky train, falling asleep on one was a challenge for him. Harper didn’t even stir during the rough takeoff procedures.

Cassie wasn’t so lucky, starting awake as the train lurched off the ground with a deep, haunting whistle blast. She looked around, eyes bleary, but took Harper’s sudden appearance in the compartment in stride. In a soft tone she murmured, “We have a guest.”

“He came on at the last station,” Brandon said. “Seems harmless enough and he’s planning on getting off at the next station. Speaking of plans, any new insights?”

She shook her head, turning glum. “Nothing. I know we were supposed to take this train but still no idea of when we should get off.” Cassandra took a deep breath and slowly let it out, then wiped her face with her handkerchief. “Sometimes I wonder if this trip is a waste of time.”

“Well it’s only three days back to Stillwater and the Coastal Express, if we turn around at the next station,” Brandon said in a comforting tone. “Maybe you’ll catch wind of a new tune to run down.”

But his sister wasn’t having it. “Not this train. The entire trip. In two weeks I’ll be seventeen and still chasing half heard echoes through the middle of nowhere.”

Brandon shifted uncomfortably and eyed Harper on the opposite couch. The newcomer looked like he was still asleep but Brandon pitched his voice even softer still. “No one questioned your calling at the time, Cassie. Not you, not even Father. What’s changed between now and then?”

“We left home nearly two years ago. We’ve been running around Columbia for more than a year and a half and we’re still empty handed. What have we accomplished, besides nearly getting killed half a dozen times?” Under normal circumstances Cassie could have laughed that off. Under stress her shortcomings would anger her and motivate her to set them right. But today for some reason she sounded outright despondent and it worried him.

So Brandon put his arm over her shoulder and pulled her in tight. “Cassie. You know this whole thing is just a lark for me. Almost no one gets sent out a questing these days, but you got a genuine revelation and I got a chance to get out of sleepy old Avalon and see the world. Sure, I have to see it with my least favorite sister-”

“Only sister.”

“-but everything requires some sacrifice.” He could see his teasing wasn’t having the desired effect. He adjusted to a more serious tone. “You have a chance to really accomplish something here, Cassie. The search hasn’t been easy so far but I’m sure, if you stick it out, you’ll finish quite well.”

“Making myself a spinster in the process.” It was a line of thought they’d covered often in the last six months.

Unfortunately Brandon didn’t have a single sensible reply to it. So he tucked his sister in a little closer and rubbed her back in a comforting fashion. At this point there was little left to be said on the topic for either of them.

So they sat in silence and lost themselves in the rocking of the train, tuning out questions, doubts and the presence of a total stranger as they slowly drifted off to sleep.

Only to jolt awake as a scream cut through the train car. Brandon reached up and grasped the hilt of his saber, resting on the baggage shelf overhead, and looked to the door of the compartment. To his surprise he saw Roy Harper already standing there, pulling on a pair of dueling gloves. Brandon struggled to his feet and pulled his sword from under his carpet bag still sheathed. “Hear anything, Mr. Harper?”

“Nothing,” Harper replied. “Stay in here, I’ll go and take a look.”

Brandon pulled his hip satchel off the shelf and selected an eighteen inch stick of yew from inside it and tucked it into his belt of woven roots. “Stay? Why’s that?”

“What are you planning to do if you come?” Harper asked.

“Render aid. If necessary, break up a fight or do a little of it myself.” Brandon glanced at Roy’s left side meaningfully. “What exactly are you planning to do if it comes to that?”

Harper snorted, checked the fit of his gloves and twitched his suit jacket aside just long enough to draw a black dagger from a hip sheath concealed beneath. It had the look of iron, although it was hard to be sure and with the metal’s magic killing properties Brandon was in no hurry to find out. “I can take care of myself. And more importantly, I can take care of this. It’s kind of my job.”

And he pulled a circular medallion with a star made of crisscrossing railway tracks from one pocket and dropped it around his neck before stepping out into the passage way. Brandon glanced at Cassie. “A railway inspector. I was not expecting that.”

“I admit, he doesn’t exactly fit with the others we’ve met,” she said. “Are we going to wait here?”

“Have we ever?”

But Cassie was already getting to her feet and the two of them followed Harper out into the hall.

Night Train to Hardwick – Forward

One of my favorite novels of recent memory was Night Train to Rigel, the first of Timothy Zahn’s Quadrail series. The part that appealed to me the most was the sense of claustrophobic danger, trapped on a train full of strangers, working with a person who could stab you in the back at any moment. Most of Zahn’s novels are fast paced adventures with a tinge of mystery and layers of intriguing strategy and Rigel is no exception, but this particular tale has a layer of suspense that few other scifi adventures I’ve read have even approached. 

Ever since I read it I wanted to try my own hand at a story in this kind of contained, tense atmosphere. When I first though of the idea that became Hexwood my idea was to tell the story of a sky train crew and the many mishaps they had crossing the country. My first idea was for the crew to face train robbers. My second idea was… there was no second idea. I had a hard time generating any ideas beyond that. However the idea of some kind of event on a sky train stuck in my mind. 

Fastforward to the end of Firespinner. I casually added a line suggesting Roy was a member of the Packard Railway Detectives, for no other reason than to suggest the existence of an equivalent to the Pinkerton Detective Agencey in Columbia’s world. This wasn’t really meant as a serious story hook, just a random worldbuilding element and an excuse for Roy to easily move around the West on the way from one job to another. 

But almost as soon as I finished the end of that story, the beginning of this one sprang into my mind. I knew I had several new characters I wanted to add to Roy’s life, and a meeting on a train seemed fateful. Destiny isn’t a huge theme in Roy’s life but for this one a touch of providence seemed appropriate. And, with my long standing love for Final Fantasy VI‘s ghost train sequence added to the mix, a fairly simple, self-contained premise built itself in the course of about two days. Fleshing out the details was a lengthy but straightforward process, then it was a matter of writing everything down and refining it. 

I’d always intended to look at Roy through the eyes of other people. But one of the things that made Night Train to Hardwick so appealing to me was the opportunity to look at Roy through the eyes of a druid, the order of magic users he’s accidentally stumbled into membership with. Another, of course, was a chance to try my hand at some of those atmospheric dynamics that made Night Train to Rigel so interesting. But another part was that it gave me a direct, very immediate sequel to Firespinner rather than a followup story that alludes to previous events. 

Now you don’t have to read Firespinner to understand Night Train to Hardwick. But since I am trying to unpack Roy’s character a little more by looking at him through other eyes, it might help you to hear the entire first story, which is told entirely from his perspective and get a firmer sense of his character from that. There’s also a bunch of allusions in here that you’ll appreciate more if you have the greater context of that story. Most of all, you’ll get a broader sense of the world, its history and how it functions from that story. This tale is very much about a single sky train, its passengers, and what happens to them one night as they make the trip from Sanford’s Run to Hardwick. 

So all aboard, dear audience, and present your tickets. The train will be lifting off in seven days! We hope you’ll enjoy your trip. 

JK Rowling and the Ongoing Iconoclasm

An iconoclast is a person who opposes long held, widely established cultural figures, beliefs or institutions. While the term typically invokes the image of statue smashers or book burners, everyone from the self-styled New Atheists to the feminist movement could fall under the term. While it doesn’t necessarily imply someone who destroys culture for the sake of having no culture I won’t deny that most people I’ve seen or met who are iconoclasts seem to have that motivation underlying their behavior. And iconoclasts don’t refer to people who only seek the overthrow of a single aspect of culture – they’re usually after broad chunks of it – so broad destruction is the outcome either way. 

The desire to change a widely held belief or system isn’t bad by default, but when the urge moves beyond removing one or even a handful of cultural institutions it becomes dangerous. Culture is what binds groups of people together, and if its destroyed we’re left with individuals who must sort each and every conflict between one another in detail. You get anarchy, and in anarchy the powerful always wind up pushing around the weak. Culture must be changed carefully, and only when some new system is on hand that can fulfill the role of the old system being removed as well or better, otherwise collapse is immanent. We see this over and over again through history, most strongly in the French Revolution but in many other revolutionary ideologies in other places. 

In modern Western culture we seem to be undergoing an iconoclasm, a wholesale destruction of institutions on all fronts. Family, marriage, religious organizations, longstanding cultural traditions, respected historical figures and even gender roles have come under the lens of the iconoclast, singled out as backwards and old fashioned by vandals who mouth platitudes to justify their gleeful destruction of things precious to others. In the midst of this mob, J.K. Rowling has an interesting place. 

Rowling is a longstanding feminist, meaning she believes strongly in the movement most responsible for destroying the notion of family as a biologically knit, indivisible unit of mutual care and protection and replacing it with much flimsier notions of consent based emotional bonding. Now, understanding notions like emotional bonding and strong friendships (now mysteriously called ‘found family’) is very important but it doesn’t speak to the same kinds of relationships family does, the kinds of relationships that spring from a bond you can loosen but never sever, and which will mark you for good or ill for the rest of your life. The nuances of this could fill books, but such an endeavor is not my purpose here. Suffice it to say that, on this score, Rowling is herself an iconoclast, joining with those who have carved through old understandings of relationships and biological realities wholesale. 

Rowling is also a cultural figure in and of herself. She’s the wealthiest author living, possibly the wealthiest of all time, and her meteoric ascent atop the Harry Potter franchise has reshaped the publishing world ever since, likely continuing to have impacts for decades to come. She’s the reason publishing companies now account for theme park attractions in their contracts. Many of the current generation of iconoclasts themselves see her – or at least her work – as a cultural icon. 

Which is awkward, as Rowling is also a biological essentialist when it comes to gender. The modern iconoclasm has claimed even biology and sex as icons to shatter, and a feminist of Rowling’s stripe demands that men and women be separate and distinct things, opposed to one another in a constant battle of power and oppression. The two notions cannot coexist, and efforts to strip Rowling’s name from the cultural totems she set up are ongoing. 

In a way, it’s fascinating to watch. As an author myself I understand why it’s so hard to strip the creator away from her work. While I never followed the Harry Potter franchise myself I know that every creative work has a great deal of the author in it and that reality, combined with the fact that Rowling benefits from every new person who engages with her franchise in any way, leaves most of the modern iconoclasts divided with themselves. They still love Rowling’s work but now she represents an icon they must destroy. 

So far Rowling has weathered every attempt to tear down her work launched against her. But, given the attitudes displayed by so many of these rabid destroyers, it’s only a matter of time before the entire Potter edifice is thrown into the bonfire and all loyalty of youth and sentiment is lost. I strongly suspect that not even Rowling will survive that point, and her cultural influence will rapidly vanish unless she can find some new, more stable portion of the culture to anchor in. 

The lessons of this disaster are few and troubling. Even an author 100% in tune with the cultural zeitgeist can lose sway in an instant. There’s little loyalty to creators in the general public, only loyalty to creations. And destruction of old institutions is a very shaky foundation for someone looking to set up one of their own. These aren’t exactly cheery thoughts for those of us looking to tell stories that will hopefully endure into the future. While I doubt anyone reading this will ever have the level of cultural influence Rowling does, these are things worth thinking about. 

For my part, I hope that leaving iconoclastic fury to others and focusing exclusively on building and protecting my own corner of the cultural landscape will fortify my own work better. 

Speaking of which! The time for essays has come and passed. I’m preparing my next project for you all now! I’ll be taking next Friday off, then coming back in two weeks with the Forward of Night Train to Hardwick, the second installment of the Roy Harper adventures. If you read and enjoyed Firespinner I hope to have your attention here as well! Thanks as always for reading! 

Shaking and Straining – Of Circumstances and Art

My favorite band of all time is Five Iron Frenzy, a little known third wave ska band of the mid ’90s and early ’00s. I was introduced to the band when I was eleven or twelve and just starting to form my own tastes in music and it was also the first band I won a convert for, introducing a fellow Boy Scout named James to their music a few years later. When the band went into retirement in 2003 it was the end of an era of my life. I still have all their albums save their first, and listen to them on a semi regular basis. Thanks to poor messaging I missed the opportunity to back the Kickstarter for FIF’s first reunion album, Engine of a Million Plots. But I did catch the campaign for their latest album, Until This Shakes Apart.

The contrasts are quiet interesting. Where Million Plots is one of the strongest albums in FIF’s discography, Until This Shakes Apart is… not.

The music of Five Iron Frenzy evolved a lot during their roughly decade long absence from the scene. It became a bit more melancholy, a bit less recklessly optimistic. That’s understandable, given the changes in outlook age can bring, but even with the change in tone Million Plots featured the same irrepressible energy I’ve always associated with the band and added a kind of seasoned wisdom to them that was pleasing and wholesome. Lyrically outside of the disappointing “Zen and the Art of Xenophobia” the band’s songs kept focused on the kind of big picture storytelling I’ve always associated the band with. The songs are about the human condition, how it leads us astray, and, to a lesser extent, how we escape our worse natures and strive for our better.

Engine of a Million Plots plays much like a story. Many of the tracks roll into one another and tell us about the dangers of hubris and blind escapism, while reminding us that holding out for the good things does eventually pay the biggest dividends, even if it isn’t always fun.

Shakes Apart is much more focused in the here and now. The music is almost lethargic, it feels like a slog to listen to sometimes. The lyrics are also very based in the present moment. Where Million Plots talks about the timeless parts of the human condition, Until This Shakes Apart is focused on the unique circumstances surrounding its creation. There’s a place for that in art, no doubt. But that place was rarely the music of Five Iron Frenzy.

It’s true, tracks like “Giants”, “Goodbye, Goodnight” and “The Untimely Death of Brad” had points that ring true even now, some twenty years after originally written, but even those, while based on immediate events, drew out timeless truths about the human experience. On the other hand, tracks from Shakes Apart like “In Through the Out Door”, “Lonesome for Her Heroes”, “Renegades”, “Tyrannis” and “While Supplies Last” share the dull, unpleasant, scolding tone of “Zen and the Art of Xenophobia”, displaying a disdain and lack of empathy for their targets that is ugly and frankly laughable. Granted, third wave ska was heavily influence by punk, a truly dreary, scolding, self important genre of music, but for the most part FIF had avoided punk’s worst tendencies until now.

Shakes Apart does manage to hit some highs, with “So We Sing” bringing a little of FIFs old optimism back and “Auld Lanxiety” is a very potent reminder of the power of music to bring comfort. “Homelessly Devoted to You” is a wonderful, sweet love song and “One Heart Hypnosis” lampoons our addictions to social media brilliantly. “Like Something I Missed” and “Huerfano” are wonderful, fun tracks to listen to. But all told, that leaves about half the album below par and much of that steeped in a very offputting shroud of self-righteous lecturing.

Most notably, the silly, irreverent, purely humorous songs that were Five Iron’s strongest brand for decades are entirely absent from this disk. Even Million Plots had “Battle Dancing Unicorns with Glitter.” Perhaps over the years something has been lost.

And perhaps it was merely circumstance. Million Plots was written and released during the Obama administration, when many of the social and political goals FIF advocated for were coming to fruition. Shakes Apart was primarily written during the Trump administration, a dark time for the self styled progressives that fill the bands ranks. It was disappointing and trying for those progressives I know in my personal life, even though I found little changed for me personally from the administrations of 44 and 45. It wasn’t uncommon for them to become bitter, preachy and caustic. Most art became that way as well. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Five Iron was caught in the flow.

Perhaps they can turn things around with their next album, if one arrives. We’ll have to wait and see. Still, it was an interesting outcome, and I felt strongly enough about it to add this review to my scheduled essays. I hope you got something out of this. See you next week.

Downfall of the Imperial Hollywood Media

A lot is made of the fall of Rome and the dissolution of the Roman empire. A cultural touchstone that stood for hundreds of years was unseated, after all. But a closer study of what happened in the aftermath of the sack of Rome and the waning influence of its empire reveals the true horror. Monks in Christain enclaves had copied and stockpiled the most important cultural works. Scientific innovation skyrocketed as isolated regions began jockeying for position once again, rather than pretending to play nice so the Legions would leave them alone. And as for Italy itself? Truly tragic! It remained the center of wealth and culture for centuries to come, with Venice, Florence and Rome itself commanding huge amounts of trade and pilgrimages. 

The dominance of Italy only began to wane, ironically enough, because of an Italian man hired by the Portuguese. And he had to discover an entire unknown continent to trigger the shift. 

American media today is very much run like an empire. Where there used to be a great deal of small, local media companies running radio stations, newspapers and television, now a handful of major media conglomerates basically control everything.  

There are only five publishing houses for books, six if you count Amazon as the independent publisher. About four studios remain to make movies. Sony owns a large majority of music and music studios in the nation. TV was very stagnant under the three or four networks on the airwaves until cable came along and broke up the types of programming available but now almost all cable channels are as centralized as the three major networks were in the 50s and 60s. Even streaming boils down to Netflix and Disney, and one of those companies is also one of the only existing movie studios. 

And if you go up the ladder a few steps, many of these various branches of media are ultimately owned and run by even larger media conglomerates. 

The Internet has offered some freedom in media, but as it opened the door to new creators the old guard got very jealous and started pushing the businesses that managed Internet communication and commerce to join them as gatekeepers. So far, old media has largely succeeded in transforming places like Amazon and Facebook into extensions of their gatekeeping agenda, ensuring that the growing conglomerates of media hegemony will continue to corner the market. 

The direct result of this is stagnant media. Comic books keep pasting a new set of faces on top of the same trite, boring, cookie cutter plots. Disney spends more and more of its time remaking old films rather than telling new stories, to mixed or poor receptions (plus some occasional mockery, as with Mulan (2020)). Neither network or cable television has launched a truly significant TV show in the last decade. (Well, almost. A quick check reveals that, as of this posting, Game of Thrones is not quite a decade old yet.) 

The thing about empires is they grow stagnant very quickly. The various imperial dynasties of Asia severely slowed growth and progress in the region, in spite of their fairly widespread access to the technology and innovations of Europe and the Middle East. It’s certainly reassuring to see a large, imposing cultural edifice but the problem with edifices is they tend to stay the same until they crumble. And our media landscape is crumbling before our eyes. 

Five years ago everyone agreed that Netflix and Hulu were all you were going to need to keep up with TV and movies. It was just a matter of time until everyone agreed to share their stuff with one of the two service and we’d be living in a media golden age. Then the Netflix Original jokes started. 

Sure, some Netflix shows were good. Great, even. But a lot of it was mindless, repetitive drivel going over the same tired cultural and political points in new packaging with new faces. Movies started on a fast downward slide about the same time. Where the early 2010s were full of great movies like Kingsmen: The Secret Service, Edge of Tomorrow, and John Wick, few films of comparable appeal have landed since then. Even the Kingsmen and John Wick sequels have felt like noticeable steps down, or even outright failures when compared to their originals. Imperial media is failing. 

Now that may seem odd, given how powerful companies like Time-Warner and Disney appear. And as I noted before, when empires fall the remains tend to be quite powerful and influential for a long time to come so it isn’t like we’re looking at a total reinvention of the media landscape in the next five years or something. But shifts are coming and the stagnant nature of the modern establishment is a major part of why we’re seeing them. The other two elements come from the dissent in the ranks and the barbarians at the gates. 

Roman generals were always one of the biggest threats to the stability of the Republic, and later the Empire. They could gain too much popularity and too much influence for Rome to control, eventually getting aspirations of their own. By the same token outside forces, though not as disciplined, well equipped or numerous as the Roman Legions, could still take advantage of the size and fractured nature of Rome to do significant damage to Roman territory. These challenges are mirrored in modern media in the form of Gina Carano and The Daily Wire. 

As I noted last week, The Daily Wire has released an entertaining, though imperfect, independent action film by the name of Run, Hide, Fight which has received good reviews from audiences and promises further entertaining work to come. Meanwhile Gina Carano grew quite popular in her role as Cara Dune in Disney+’s The Mandalorian only to run afoul of a Twitter mob and get fired. Now, Gina is working with The Daily Wire to produce and star in a new, as of yet unannounced film. This is a major crack in the wall of the imperial media. 

So what can we expect? Well, actually… not a whole lot, not at first. Carano’s next film will take a while to get made; we probably won’t see it for another year at a minimum. These things take time, after all, even if they find a script that works and start production in a week there’s still a lot to do. But more than that, a handful of films won’t drastically alter the media landscape. 

However, there is a shift underway. People rarely notice the fall of empires unless they’re in the capitol as it burns. They just change the faces on the coins and continue working on the foundations already in place, with a little less oversight and little more freedom to experiment. My hope is that, as rogue agents like Carano break away from the existing media monoliths and join with new, vital media groups like The Daily Wire, we’ll see a sea change that drags talent away from the mainstream into smaller, more agile and experimental media. I doubt the organizations that currently make up the imperial media will vanish, but hopefully they will join with the culture change in due time. 

In the meantime, for solo creators like myself, there’s only one thing to do. Keep creating, little by little, for a better world, one story at a time. 

Run, Hide, Fight – A Well Made Film Is Its Own Reward

Run, Hide, Fight is a film written and directed by Kyle Rankin about Zoe Hull (Isabel May), a girl who gets caught up in a school shooting. 

I know what you’re thinking – “How did a film like that ever get made in Hollywood? Who thought it was a good idea?” 

To answer your questions, it didn’t and Dallas Sonnier. More to the point, films get made about every touchy subject imaginable. Or have you never heard of Schindler’s List? One of the jobs of an artist is to dig into the deepest, most uncomfortable aspects of our lives and help us reflect on them. Movies are made about rape, suicide and murder, perennial evils that touch many people you know and live with. A school shooting combines the last two and sensationalizes them, to be sure. But they’re not exempt from that artistic examination simply because they are sensational. 

Especially if the sensational nature of the event is one of the things the film wants us to reflect on. 

I’ll admit to being very, very skeptical of this film when I first heard of the premise. But, as it represents a new front in the ongoing disintegration of Hollywood (more on this in another post) I felt I should take a look at it, to see whether it was worthy of becoming a beachhead in the war against gatekeepers and censorship. As someone who watches movies critically – an occupational hazard – I find it hard to sit back and say, “I agree with this movie’s message so it’s okay.” 

First off, I’m not sure Run, Hide, Fight really has a message, per se, other than, perhaps, “Stick up for yourself.” 

But beyond that, I found that Run, Hide, Fight has a lot of technical and artistic merit to it. The premise of the film is simple. Zoe Hull’s mother recently died of cancer and she must reconcile her sense of loss and grief with her thoughts about the future. No, I didn’t expect this to be the premise of the film, either, but there it is. Run, Hide, Fight is as much about Zoe and her grief as it is about the physical threat she faces from Tristan and his merry band of murderers. As it turns out, Zoe needs to learn how to put aside her grief and move forward before she can help anyone in her school during their darkest hours. 

This emotional conflict really works every time it comes up in the film, due in large part to strong performances by May and Rahda Mitchell, who portrays Zoe’s mother, Jennifer. Zoe clearly has some level of survivor’s guilt and she’s not getting much help from her father, Todd (Thomas Jane), an ex-Special Forces soldier and generally stoic individual. Rather than put her in therapy or try and help her through the grieving process himself, Todd teaches Zoe to hunt. 

That brings us to the other half of Run, Hide, Fight, the part where bad things happen. 

I actually found the buildup to Zoe’s fateful day at school really effective. It shows us the many layers of the morning in judicious, well timed cuts, taking us from Zoe’s morning routine to various events happening around town, events carefully calculated to slow police response to upcoming events. Finally, Zoe gets to school, struggles through the morning and breaks for lunch. She’s in the rest room when four deranged students lead by Tristan Voy (Eli Brown) drive a van into the cafeteria and everything goes south. 

This physical conflict pleases me on many levels. First, the mechanics of it are well thought out. From the build up through the morning to Tristan’s final exit from the cafeteria, every decision made by Zoe, Tristan, the teachers and law enforcement is well justified by the narrative, the characters, the situation and some measure of good sense (or bad sense in the case of the villains). Beyond that, it lets us see Zoe achieve different kinds of victories over the villains. She wins a physical victory in a direct confrontation, a moral victory when she convinces one of the people involved to give up on the murder plot and a victory of faith when she carries on in the face of seeming defeat. Finally, the whole situation is portrayed without much melodrama. Certainly there’s a lot of emotion in the situation and we get a good look at a good deal of it. But it’s never rubbed in our face nor does it overstay its welcome. This aspect of the film could have gone very badly. But it was handled quite well, for the most part. 

We’ll get to the part that wasn’t in a sec. 

But I also want to praise the portrayal of Tristan. Brown delivers a masterful performance, oozing a creepy kind of charisma as he manipulates and intimidates, taunts and pontificates his way through his plot. No attempt is made to turn him into a victim of circumstance or a martyr for some kind of cause he ultimately betrays by his foolish actions. Tristan sees the world as a numbers game. But it isn’t money that matters to him. It’s prestige, it’s attention, it’s clout. Tristan is young, savvy and knows his social media. He’s here to bring about a landmark shift, to put his mark on history in ways no one else will ever be able to touch. His name will be immortal. He’s changing everything and the revolution will be televised

Like all great villains, his own character destroys him. He goes from strutting for the cellphone cameras that broadcast his rants on every platform imaginable to juggling his own phones as he tries to keep in touch with his minions, all the while giving Zoe a perfect window into everything he’s doing. Ultimately that hubris gives Zoe the opportunity to overwhelm the legend he’s aiming to build and replace it with her own. This is the kind of carefully calculated poetic justice that I’ve found sadly lacking in entertainment of late. I definitely savored the moment when it came. 

Run, Hide, Fight is not a perfect movie. There are a lot of tiny flaws in it, but only one that I found really egregious. That was the final resolution. In many ways the film slightly overstays its welcome, tacking on about five minutes of extra runtime that attempt to bookend the story but wind up feeling forced and melodramatic. In addition, they create one major plot issue I just can’t overlook, a moment of painful incompetence on the part of the police that is particularly disappointing given how carefully all the other decisions by authority figures are handled.  

I respect what the film is trying to do with this sequence. Zoe is taking away the last sliver of hope Tristan had of succeeding at some part of his plan, cementing a total victory and confirming that she is, in fact, a survivor in control of her own future once again. I just don’t think the last few minutes of the film succeed on either a mechanical or emotional level. That’s a pretty big shortcoming in my book, but not enough of one to outweigh the very competent work the film does with the rest of its run time. If you enjoy good films that combine action with deep emotional moments, and you can look past the fact that the backdrop for the action is a school shooting, I would strongly recommend watching Run, Hide, Fight. 

But because Hollywood wouldn’t touch this movie with a 20ft pole you can only watch it streaming on somewhat controversial conservative media site The Daily Wire. We’re back to the whole bit about beachheads against Hollywood again. I think that’s something to look at next week. See you then. 


Reminder that I have an ongoing comic crowdfunding project for Hexwood: Dust and Ashes, a weird western comic set in the same world as Firespinner. Give it a look here:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/hexwood-dust-and-ashes/x/26322352#/

Ori and the Specters in the Dark

Metroid was a platforming adventure game for the Nintendo Entertainment System that pioneered a genre. Games in that family followed a pretty straightforward formula – a lone hero journeys through a vast world filled with hazards and obstacles with no clearly defined “level breaks” and no set path. The genre also focuses entirely on a 2D side scrolling graphical presentation. The player is free to explore and overcome obstacles using their own wits, observation skills and the various movement mechanics, backtracking to old areas of the world map as new forms of movement mechanics become available, and finally clearing the game. 

The Metroid franchise added a heavy dose of combat to these games, as did successors like Castlevania, but other games in the genre like Cave Story and Owlboy greatly reduce the importance of direct confrontation as a part of the gameplay, focusing more on exploration and fun movement mechanics like jumping, rolling, swinging and flying. As someone who’s first video game was Super Mario Brothers, the Metroid (or Metroidvania or Castleroid) genre holds a special place in my heart. When I first saw the trailer for Ori in the Blind Forest I suspected I was looking at a game I would really enjoy. 

Unfortunately for me, I don’t have a whole lot of time for games these days. I have a lot of things I want to do and not a lot of time to do them in, and at the end of the day the simple upsides of a video game, teaching coordination, focus, and basic puzzle solving, are things that have few returns left for me. I can only justify them as stress relief and there are other forms of entertainment I enjoy just as much so… not a lot of gaming happens in my typical week. When Blind Forest came out in 2016 I never got around to it. Then Studio Moon released Ori and the Will of the Wisps in 2020 and the chorus of high praise the game received caught my attention. I was able to pick up both games for the price of one over Christmas and finally got around to finishing them this spring. 

I was right to wait. 

Ori in the Blind Forest is a very halfbaked game. It has some of the charm of the Metroid genre, with a big, beautiful map full of dangers and horrors around every corner, tons of neat things to find and some very satisfying takes on jumping and dashing. However the game also suffers from very clunky takes on the air jump, a genre staple, and climbing. It’s also got a very bizarre save system, where you can save most anywhere you want except the times when it really matters and you have a save rationing system that runs on the energy resource, which sounds like you’d have to be careful how you use it except saving is the only thing you really spend energy on and I never felt like I was in danger of running out. Worse, with most of the advanced movement abilities being context depended I frequently found myself sticking to a wall when I wanted to drift slowly in the air. 

On top of that, Blind Forest has extremely lackluster combat, leaning more to the Owlboy end of the spectrum in terms of dealing with enemies while crossing the map. There are no boss battles and no notable standouts among the generic monsters that populate Ori’s world. The game tries to make up for this by ending each major chapter of the game with a frantic chases or hectic escapes through a section of the game world where small mistakes cost the player dearly. These sections are a lot of fun at first, coming off as creative and harrowing, but they get a little stale by the end with nothing to contrast them against. Worse, as the more advanced powers like wall running and “bashing” are introduced the context controls can sometimes slip you up through no fault of your own, leaving you to restart an entire chase sequence from the beginning. There are no places to set check points in these sprinting sections and they only get longer as things go on. The last two or three of these were incredibly frustrating. 

But I stuck with Blind Forest because Moon Studios achieved a triumph of storytelling in their game. 

Now video games in general and Metroid style games in particular are a poor storytelling medium. They need to focus more on the feel of playing them than on the story and the narrative almost always suffers for this. But the Ori franchise escapes this curse through two savvy choices. First, they keep the story very simple. Second, they tell it entirely visually. 

Ori in the Blind Forest is a tale about an orphaned spirit named Ori who must restore the damage done to its home forest and the Spirit Tree that created it by undoing the decay caused by the giant owl, Kuro. Simple and to the point. The game uses short cutscenes to introduce and give insight into our main characters, but it also uses the foreground and background of the game to build them up over time. Gumo is the first example of this, his long, gangly limbs coming into view in the out of focus foreground of early areas, his gleaming yellow eyes shining in the background elsewhere. And, once we figure out Gumo and make our peace with him there’s still the matter of Kuro, who begins as a pair of wings whooshing past in the distance and evolves into a menacing force of nature who stalks Ori through the skies, swamps and mountains of the game’s second half. 

What’s more, Kuro reaches the full extent of a great villain, her wrath at Ori and the spirits driving her to more and more extreme actions that eventually threaten the very thing she sought to protect. Kuro perishes not in a direct confrontation with Ori but rather when she returns the light she stole to the Spirit Tree to end the peril that threatens her last egg. This is not the kind of thing that happens in most video games, which seek to give players the satisfaction of overcoming their antagonist in the game itself. And I’ll admit, not having a direct part to play in Kuro’s downfall was a bit annoying to me, as a player, even though I found it very satisfying as the audience. 

However, when I switched off Blind Forest I seriously considered not continuing with Will of the Wisps. The mechanics in Blind Forest were pretty mediocre, and represent by far the biggest part of the game. Sure, the presentation of the story in the game was excellent but I wasn’t sure I wanted to invest another six to ten hours in a game if 95% of that time was going to be aggressively meh. I decided I would give Will of the Wisps fifteen minutes to win me over. 

Within ten I had Ori running through a forest with a torch in hand, the Howler chasing me under logs and over stones in a familiar and frantic chase sequence that ended with something quite new – a boss battle, and a very satisfying one. Will of the Wisps had won me over. In fact, Will of the Wisps feels like the full, complete version of Blind Forest, possibly a complete realization of what Moon Studios had hoped for. The controls are tighter and there’s much less chance of context dependency costing you a fight or a running sequence, although it can still happen. 

There’s also much more control over what Ori can do – players get a slew of abilities from a glowing sword and bow to a nimbus of light and an explosive superjump, all of which can be swapped in and out of your primary action buttons at will. Energy is no longer part of the save system but rather powers most of Ori’s high powered attacks, making rationing energy pretty important for most of the game (though by the end that was much less important). Rather than requiring active saving the game autosaves your progress at fixed waypoints, which are quite plentiful and actually exist in the middle of some of the longer escape sequences. Everything about playing the game is tighter, more responsive and more intuitive. 

And nothing about the story in Will of the Wisps suffers for it. Ori and its new friend, Ku, find themselves stranded in Niwen, another land who’s Spirit Tree has gone dark and now suffers from decay. But Ori and Ku are quickly separated and Ori must find and save its friend before evil befalls her. This story is again set up and told through heartfelt cutscenes. But now, more than ever, evil pursues you through the shadows of the world. 

From the moment the Howler’s many eyes fixed on Ori during the introduction I knew Moon Studios had taken the lessons of Kuro and expanded on them. Almost every area of Niwen has some kind of ominous portent hidden in the middle distance, visible from most places as you explore. The predatory grace of the Howler, undulating through the forests. The twitching legs of Mora poking around the trunks of the Mouldwood. The alien specter of Shriek stalking the Silent Woods. The decay of Niwen is everywhere in evidence. 

But it’s not just the twisted and evil we see in this game. There’s also Baur, slumbering as he waits for spring, and the massive wheels of the Wellspring, caked with grime and sludge at first, then slowly turning to new life and purpose as you cleanse them and set them to motion again, portents of the good you can do and are doing as you work to find and save your friend. The story of Will of the Wisps is the obvious continuation of Blind Forest, but that’s really a mark in its favor. In Blind Forest Ori is young and a bit naïve, and too green to directly confront the massive dangers of the world. 

In Will of the Wisps that changes. Ori has grown up, it has an adopted younger sister to look out for, and it’s much more confident and skilled. Ori is a torch bearer, both literally (however briefly) and figuratively, relighting the land of Niwen and showing its inhabitants kindness and compassion even as the search for Ku consumes most of its attention. In the end, when Ori unites with the Will of the Wisps, we see how far the character has come and it’s an incredibly satisfying experience. 

So on the whole, while I did find navigating the first half of the story intensely frustrating at times, I’m not sorry I went on the journey with the little light spirit. Ori’s saga was fun, heartfelt and even moving. It harkened back to good memories from the past and left the door open a crack for future things. And it reminded us that even the most towering specters of the dark cannot prevail against even a spark of light, a message that rings true no matter what.


A reminder that I am still running a crowdfunder for my comic project, Hexwood: Dust and Ashes. Check out the Indiegogo for more details on the story and preview pages!

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/hexwood-dust-and-ashes/x/26322352#/

Hexwood: Dust and Ashes – A Foray into Different Mediums

Hello folks! This post is coming to you a bit off schedule, I know. Back before I started on Firespinner I mentioned my comic project, Hexwood: Dust and Ashes and said I would be bringing you more on that subject in due time. Well, the time is now! The Indiegogo for Hexwood is now live and ready for your consideration. Curious? Check out this short trailer I put together for the campaign!

Here’s a few more details: Hexwood is a comic with 85 pages of story, illustrated in black and white in a painterly style. It tells a complete story, although one with plenty of promises of things to come. It’s set in an alternate Earth with a much different history and metaphysic than ours, but more details on that are included in the worldbuilding post. (Haven’t read it? Seriously, check it out!)

We follow the sheriff of the town of Hexwood as he investigates the murder of a local miner and slowly gets pulled into a much deeper and darker plot. We meet fun characters, escape surprising situations and get embroiled in some fantastical action along the way. If you read Firespinner and were intrigued by the world, you just love weird westerns in general or you love comics please consider supporting the book! You can find the campaign by following this link:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/hexwood-dust-and-ashes/x/26322352#/