The Truth and Beauty – Manic Philosophy

A while ago I read Andrew Klavan’s memoir, The Great Good Thing. It was a fascinating recounting of the life of a man who struggled with his family, his place in the world and his fundamental beliefs, a man who did not fully find his place in the world until the eve of his fiftieth birthday. As a result I was very interested to read Klavan’s insights into the intersection between faith and art, which he has committed to paper in his latest book, The Truth and Beauty. In the introduction to this book, Klavan states that his wife (who reads his books first) found the book interesting but wasn’t sure if it was good. He reports that his answer was, “Of course it’s a good book. I just have to cut out all the bad parts.” 

In this endeavor, he succeeded. There isn’t a bad section to this book. Unfortunately, it feels like the book itself would be stronger if he had polished up some of those bad parts to the standard of the rest and left them in, because I feel like it could really use some connective tissue in there. 

This book is divided into three general sections. First, the introduction and statement of purpose. Second, an examination of the life and times of England’s great poets. Third, a meditation on the Gospels, with occasional reference to said poets to illustrate a point. 

The core idea of this book is something I think is on point. By which I mean I agree with it 100%. Klavan is trying to grapple with the dichotomy of authenticity and performance. Human beings are not entirely authentic creatures nor are we entirely performative. We are both people pleasers and self-indulgent narcissists, we are both mold breakers and creatures of habit, we are creatures of thought and creatures of impulse. Our societies are structured to maximize natural roles and yet the iconoclast is a natural and vital role. 

There’s several solid lines of reasoning to argue Jesus Christ harmonizes these two seemingly conflicting states into a single superposition. Klavan explores a couple of them in his book and I don’t have any problem with his reasoning. 

Klavan also argues that the life and times of the English Romantic poets forced them to try and resolve this conflict as well. They had to sort out their own radical beliefs, the demands of human nature and the bedrock nature of reality. Klavan walks us through the time period and important events in the lives of the poets to make his case. I’m not an expert on these poets or the era. I can only take what Klavan presents at face value and, if it is all true, he does make an argument that the poets did find their ideas in conflict with their pursuit of art. It’s certainly compelling stuff to read. 

Finally, Klavan expounds on the beauty of the Gospels, the way they show us many people, but Christ in particular, balancing the roles of performer and authentic person. We see that only Christ balances these two things perfectly, and this is what made people react to him so strongly. 

What I find missing from all of this is a direct correlation between the Romantics and the Gospels. I understand that Wordsworth et al failed to balance the conflicts between authenticity and performance. The problem is that’s not a unique failing on their part, it is the human condition in general. Klavan speculates that their excellent art has stood the test of time because it points towards universal truths and does so beautifully, even if those artists didn’t live up to those truths and were not, themselves, beautiful. Fair enough, many such artists exist. 

I just don’t see how the two sets of observations connect. Perhaps it is best to just read The Truth and Beauty as another memoir, a recounting of the facts, ideas and poetry that passed through Klavan’s mind as he was struggling his way to deeper understanding of the Gospels. It certainly works well that way. Perhaps others will have the flash of genius moment Klavan did as they read this. I didn’t have such a moment, nor was the direction Klavan’s thoughts moved during that revelation clear to me. That was what I hoped to get from the book, but didn’t. Perhaps the fact that I’ve been enamored with a similar idea for over a decade – I did a presentation on the Parables of Jesus, Chinese wisdom literature and the unity of character and applied morals in college – has clouded my ability to take in new thoughts on the matter. That can happen to creative minds. Once we have an approach to a topic in mind taking on a new one can be difficult. 

All in all, I enjoyed reading The Truth and Beauty a great deal. It was interesting, humorous, informative and grappled with big ideas. But I didn’t get the insight into how two very deep subjects connect that I had hoped and if that’s what you’re really hoping for I’m not sure you will, either. If you’re okay with that, or if you’re just looking for a high level overview of the English Romantics, you may enjoy this book. And, of course, you may be able to pick up on parts of this book that I could not. But I’m not entirely sure I can recommend this book to people trying to pick up a deeper understanding of truth and beauty vis a vie the Gospels, because I didn’t find it here. It’s hard for me to parse the worth of the book in that respect, however, because I have also been caught up in the questions Klavan wrestles with for most of my life. Your mileage may vary. I would recommend reading the sample or checking your library before buying. 

I’ve been kind of hard on Klavan’s writing here. But I do think this is a good book and I hope to see more nonfiction from Klavan in the future.  

Scars: Of Rats and Men

If gratitude is the measure of a man, then J. Ishiro Finney’s Scars is a story about taking the measure of two men who are at their lowest. By men, I mean one man and one genetically modified rat. 

Our heroes are James, retied astronaut and garbage disposal man, and Max, an augmented bomb disposal rat with near human intelligence. For those of you not in the know, rats trained to find and mark land mines already exist in our world today! They do not have near human level intelligence, although I personally know many people who lack the ingenuity of the average rat, but they make up for it through a well-trained sense of smell. Max is a logical extension of this concept, a rat with the intelligence to also disarm the land mines they find and reclaim land long unusable due to the danger the landmines present. 

Or at least Max was that. When we meet him in the story, Max is retired from that line of work and now makes ends meet as James’s emotional support animal. 

James was an astronaut who towed debris out of orbit so it would no longer pose a danger to space lanes and satellites. Then he lost his leg in an accident we don’t initially know the full details of. With a prosthetic, PTSD and a host of pills to take there’s no way James is ever getting sent back into orbit again. James and Max are a pair of oddballs with long histories in interesting and dangerous careers that leave them with very strong opinions on the world and how they should live in it. 

Scars is a novella and as a result it’s difficult to discuss the plot without recapping it in its entirety. I don’t plan to do that here, you’ll have to read it if you want an idea of the story beyond what you get here. The character development is great, the characters themselves are interesting and the plot… well, it’s very simple but perfectly suited to the story. Not every narrative needs politics, romance and betrayal. The story is mostly a character study and it studies those characters quite well in the space available. 

Finney has done his research. He’s looked into the mechanics of space flight and the dangers therein. He’s a longtime rat owner and it shows, my knowledge of the temperament and behaviors of rats has expanded exponentially based entirely on reading this one story. Admittedly, I knew almost nothing before. 

There’s also a lot of interesting angles explored through the characters backgrounds, which are both similar and wildly different. Both are used to high stress and highly regimented lifestyles whereas they’ve responded to their changes in circumstances in very different ways. Psychology was clearly a part of how these characters were developed and it’s quite satisfying to see.  All that said, this is not a perfect story. 

For starters, we end with James making a resolve to change his behavior. That’s admirable and leaves a door open for further stories exploring how he acts this out but I would’ve liked a conclusion that shows us his first steps along that road. Perhaps that would have overshadowed the ending. I didn’t see the story in previous drafts and I know finding the right ending point is difficult but I was left a little unsatisfied. Given everything I know about James I’m not sure how well he can follow up his new direction. I would like to know how rocky the road would be for him, especially since we may never see him and Max again. 

Speaking of that little rat, Max is a great character but he’s a little one note. He has one major emotional beat in the story and the rest of the time he’s pretty much the same as always. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of character. I just felt like Max has the potential to be much more and it wasn’t explored as much as it could’ve been. Some of this is a choice of medium – novellas are short, they don’t dig into characters as much as novels do. Some of it is undoubtedly the author working to keep the point of his story sharp. My critiques here are more nitpicks than outright flaws, matters of taste more than errors. 

If you’re looking for a short, interesting sci-fi story delving deep into the nature of two interesting characters, I recommend to you J. Ishiro Finney’s Scars

Unexpected Fun With L. Jagi Lamplighter

If you were to walk through the forest and happen across a statue of a woman with feathered wings sitting in a clearing beside a long abandoned stone building, what would you think? Most likely you would assume you’d found an old church, long abandoned by its congregation. Perhaps you’d share a moment of comradery with the place’s guardian angel before continuing on your way. Regardless, you probably wouldn’t find that much out of place with it. 

When Rachel Griffon happens on such a scene at the beginning of The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffon that’s not at all how she reacts. 

Rachel has no idea what the statue is when she discovers it and that takes some real doing since she has a flawless memory and has read every travelog, adventure tale and bestiary in her grandfather’s library. Her grandfather was one of the foremost scholars in the World of the Wise, for him to not know something takes quite a bit of doing. It is the mystery of the winged woman, along with a dozen other small things, that forms the core of Rachel’s drive through the course of the story. She wants to know the secrets of the world. Then she wants to share them, for it’s the thrill of revelation that truly fascinates her. 

As a twelve year old girl, nearly thirteen, you might expect the secrets that most interest her to be of a particularly mundane variety. However, while some mundane middle school drama afflicts Rachel, it’s not the focus of the story. The Roanoke Academy of Magical Arts has a great deal more going on in its ancient hallways than just puberty driven angst. 

Anyone remotely familiar with the Harry Potter franchise will immediately understand the core premise of L. Jagi Lamplighter’s series. Rachel Griffon is newly enrolled in magic school and in the halls of that school she will find far more of an education in far more things than she expected. The hidden wizards of her world – the Wise – live far more complicated lives than she expected. Rachel herself isn’t quite what you’d expect of a Harry Potter knockoff. 

Now before I go on let me address that obvious issue you may be raising right now. “Nate,” you say, “middlegrade fantasy is a very worn out genre. How can you expect me to get invested in yet another tale of magical teenagers going to magic school?

I understand this objection. But Lamplighter brings a sense of myth that is badly lacking from a lot of middlegrade literature. Many books written for teens try to tap into the sense, so common in young people, that the world is new and undiscovered and everything that exists just came into existence moments ago. Lamplighter, on the other hand, presents us with a world that is ancient and shaped by strange forces that have left Rachel and her friends in very unenviable postions. Yet those forces are not all hostile or malevolent. Some of them are but most of them are just consequences of big decisions made ages ago, they are signposts of a history that must be understood and lived in by our heroes if they ever hope to make anythign of themselves or their world.

It’s a much stronger approach to worldbuilding and character growth than I’ve found in most middlegrade writing, and that alone makes it worthwhile. Add in the mysteries and character dynamics that Lamplighter does so well and you have a very strong read for just about any audience.

Back to our protagonist. She’s a well bred young woman with loving parents and a noble lineage. Magic was always something she knew of, while her mother held a fondness for the mundane people – the Unwary – that helps her keep a fairly nuanced perspective on the world around her. While a flawless memory helps her with the study of magic, she’s no great talent. Many of her peers pick up their lessons faster than she does. 

Rachel doesn’t even have a grand destiny laid out before her. Some of her friends are fated for heroics, but Rachel herself isn’t one of them. If she wishes to do some great thing for the world around her she’ll have to find that work and take it on herself. 

The conflicts at Roanoke are deeply steeped in the history and lore of Lamplighter’s world. As you might expect of a story starring someone who never forgets, connecting details of past events to unravel current problems is an ongoing theme in this story. Rachel delights in gathering facts, making connections and revealing her secrets at the right moment. We delight in seeing whether she’s chosen the right moment (which she does often) or if youth and naivety have deceived her and she’s misread the situation (which isn’t rare). 

Beneath all the flashy magic spells, shadows of old evils and standard schoolyard drama, however, Rachel faces deeper issues. One touch I really liked came in the third novel. After several weeks of chaos, emotional strain and traumatic events, Rachel finds herself on the verge of a very believable mental breakdown which is resolved, as so many things in her life, by the unexpected but totally coherent application of her flawless memories. It’s hard to describe more without spoiling the moment, so I’ll leave it at that – suffice it to say this is one of my favorite moments in the series so far. 

Another interesting deep current running through Lamplighter’s novels is the twin questions of purpose and allegiance. Rachel is constantly looking at her loyalties to friends and family and comparing them to her own wants and goals. She’s a very driven character, but also a very devoted one. Reconciling her strong sense of duty to principle and loyalty to others is difficult for her. Her principles are challenged and some are worn down in ways that don’t benefit her. Five novels in and Rachel still doesn’t have a clear cut, highest standard for her life. Yet. 

But there are hints. 

One of the greatest achievements Lamplighter reaches with her series is inviting the audience to share Rachel’s delight in knowing a secret. Yes, we follow her adventures and know many of the secrets she knows. However, things go a layer deeper than that. You remember our opening thought experiment, of finding a guardian angel by a ruined church? This is a secret we know that Rachel does not

There are other hints to that secret in the early pages of the first book. Rachel owns a model of broom known as a steeplechaser. However, no one knows the meaning of the word steeple. It’s an orphaned word, like saint, so old that its meaning is lost even though people still use it. And, of course, there is the familiar. All the students at Roanoke have familiars but Rachel’s roommate brought a particularly unusual one. A lion, miniaturized for convenience. A lion that talks to a raven on the windowsill in the middle of the night. Even among the Wise, even among the enhanced creatures known as familiars, animals don’t talk

But these two do. The lion isn’t supposed to be there, the raven says. He was called, the lion explains, and where he is called no earthly power can keep him from answering. Not even in a world where knowledge of him has been locked away. 

This is the secret we know, but Rachel does not. We know the Lion of Judah and we get to watch Rachel slowly discover him in spite of the painstaking efforts made to hide him from view. In spite of the fact that the lion here is behind enemy lines. In spite of all the other things clamoring for her attention. This part of Rachel’s story is what truly gripped me as I read Lamplighter’s books. It was a brilliant idea, executed in a way that did a wonderful job of holding my attention. If watching someone discover that secret seems like a worthwhile tale to you, I would highly recommend this tale. 

The Hyperions – Visuals and Story

I’ve gotten very invested in the methods of visual storytelling in the last couple of months. This isn’t just because I love comics and the methods of telling a story there, although that’s a part of it, but also because I’m trying to develop a better understanding of integrating descriptions into prose. I’ve repeatedly received feedback in the last few months from people wanting a better idea of what things look like. I’m not the best at describing the worlds my characters inhabit or what they look like and that’s a weakness I’m trying to overcome. Part of my approach to that is analyzing the visual storytelling of others. Putting things that work into words helps me put my own thoughts into words better, and that’s a big part of why I write essays like this. Hopefully reading them helps you folks, too. 

The most visually creative film I’ve watched in recent memory is The Hyperions, directed by Jon MacDonald. The Hyperions exists in a carefully recreated world of the late 1970s and features the retired scions of a superhero program. The titular Hyperions are an interesting combination of the traditional superhero and the Power Rangers. They wear spandex costumes with capes, like Superman. But their powers come from a bulky, wrist mounted device that relies on badges and tweaks their physiology rather than genetic mutations or magic. This blending of narrative and visuals from two very different sources is common throughout The Hyperions. 

The clearest example comes through the eyes of Professor Mandelbaum. 

The Professor is a classic emotionally distant, absentminded genius who never quite connected with the kids he gave superpowers to. His focus is very much on the future and the things he hopes to create. When he’s alone with his thoughts the world around Mandelbaum becomes animated – as in, it changes from what we see to actual, hand drawn animation. MacDonald apparently did this animation himself. It’s a brilliant touch to show just how much the Professor lapses into his own thoughts and his own world when he’s alone with his thoughts. It also helps us understand why he never quite connects with any of the people he cares about. They’re literally living in different worlds. 

While Mandlebaum is clearly based on Professor Xavier, the legendary leader of the X-Men, he has a large touch of the Power Rangers and tokusatsu as well. He has a mechanically augmented parrot with enhanced intelligence, much like the sidekicks of Power Ranger team founders. He’s out of touch with the modern world, which is more like a tokusatsu leader and less like Xavier. It’s an interesting balancing act, telegraphed by a number if visual design choices in his appearance and the things he creates.

The buildings the story takes place in also offer differing insights into the characters and how they’re related. Professor Mandlebaum’s mansion is a big building that manages to be both cluttered and empty at the same time. Outside of the Professor’s rooms, the mansion is a pretty impersonal place. There’s very few human touches. Instead there’s a lot of stuff scattered about, snacks or books or whatever else the Professor thinks will hold the interest of the youngsters he’s taken in. The Professor’s rooms, on the other hand, are very snug. His favorite chairs and books are there, in a space clearly optimized to be as close to the fantasies in his head as possible. It’s a place perfect for him, but difficult for others to make sense of at first. 

In contrast, the museum where Vista and Ansel spend most of the running time is very impersonal. It chronicles the lives of the Mandelbaums through a pane of glass, as if the people it immortalizes were bugs under a lens or actors on a stage. It reinforces the sense that Vista and Ansel are long removed from their lives as superheroes whether they like it or not. The mayhem unleashed there at the end of the film is a nice touch, emphasizing how that chapter of their lives is over. 

There are other little visual touches that are quite nice. Maya’s teleportation effect is animated, rather than some kind of 3D, computer generation effect, which makes the visual feel like a touch of Professor Mandlebaum’s world made real. This emphasizes the closeness between the two on top of being a perfect visual representation of what the Professor is hoping to accomplish. The talking bird character manages to look completely organic to the world it lives in, even though it’s also clearly a puppet effect lovingly brought to life by a dedicated member of the film crew. 

On top of that, painstaking care is taken in creating a world made entirely of parts from the late 1970s (outside of the obvious additions added by the nature of the story). This added touch of realism makes the more fantastical elements feel like they could be right out of that era, as if MacDonald is simply documenting a part of the era we were unaware of until The Hyperions was released. A lot of care went into making the visuals all feel organic. 

The Hyperions isn’t the best superhero film ever created but all the attention to detail in the way it tells the story lets MacDonald reach a conclusion that is particularly poignant. The film ends on a long shot of Vista going into her father’s office, a place that has been entirely for the Professor until now, and she sees it with new eyes. At first I thought this was a strange shot to end the film on. But as I ruminated on the film I came to realize this shot shows Vista becoming a part of her adopted father’s life in a way she wasn’t before. She understands parts of him she was too young and immature to appreciate when they parted ways but which she’s come to see more clearly now that she’s a mother herself. So she can enter her father’s place and feel at ease now, where she was clearly out of place before. A well done use of visual storytelling subtle enough that I might have missed it. 

You can’t make a perfect story entirely through visuals. You need good storytelling on other fronts to round it out. By the same token, good visual storytelling is an integral part of building a well-rounded story that speaks to the audience on all levels. I can’t point to any single story, film, comic or novel, that handles all of them perfectly. We have to examine stories that handle particular aspects of story well and The Hyperions handles the visual aspects quite well. If it’s a subject that has troubled you I would recommend giving it a look.

Mary’s Wedding – Simple Excellence

I recently had the opportunity to go and take in a little theater. The name of the show was Mary’s Wedding by Stephen Massicotte and I went in with very few expectations. I’d never heard of the play and the description didn’t tell me much beyond it being set around World War I and the two actors portrayed a young couple in love. It didn’t exactly inspire confidence. I had confidence in the group producing the show, all for One Productions doesn’t go for saccharine stories after all, but I sat down in the theater with some reservations. 

I needn’t have worried. 

Before we break down the story itself let me say a few words of praise for the production itself. First, the cast of Jessica Munsie (Mary, Flowers) and Cooper Beer (Charlie) did fantastic work. Their performances were sincere, emotive and engaging. They studied horseback riding to add authenticity to some of their scenes and it showed. They had great chemistry with each other and the audience. The set was also perfect, built in two layers and full of props used in surprising and interesting ways. From the use of wheeled railings as doors and horses to the upper level’s many duties as hills, bridges and the deck of a ship, the minimalist set did everything it needed to and more without ever straining belief. 

Many people say seeing how a trick is done makes one appreciate it less. Mary’s Wedding is the kind of show that convinces me that the opposite is true. I caught a dozen little flourishes, like the causal setting of a hat on a platform as an actor walks around behind the stage, that speak to the practice, dedication and proficiency both actors developed while preparing for the show. It made me enjoy the performance more and not less. Well done, one and all. 

Now for the story itself. Mary’s Wedding focuses on the titular Mary as she dreams on the eve of her wedding. We are introduced to this dream by one of its chief figures: her sweetheart, Charlie. He tells us we are seeing a dream, and as it is a dream we must understand it follows its own logic and its own sense of time. It’s a great opening soliloquy, drawing from concepts we often see in Shakespeare and intended to lull the audience into the theater of the mind. Many plays do this, in one way or another, because the sets and costumes may be great but we know, deep down, they’re not real and the illusion of the stage is not as powerful as, say, that of the movie screen. 

A good storyteller knows how to weave the spell that creates this illusion of reality for audience and sometimes that’s as simple as asking them to step into the narrative with us. It’s a bold approach, and Massicotte deserves props for taking it. I know it worked for me. 

From this simple introduction a clap of thunder snaps us into the narrative itself – Charlie, seeking shelter from a thunderstorm and Mary calling out to him. This ominous opening gives way to Mary and Charlie’s first meeting, as they both hide from the rain in a barn. Mary is recently arrived in Canada from England, Charlie is a longtime resident of the area so they’ve never had opportunity to meet before. Mary helps Charlie overcome his fear of the thunder by coaxing him to recite poetry. Charlie only knows The Charge of the Light Brigade so that is what he quotes. 

This is when I realized this story didn’t have a happy ending. 

The dire stanzas of Tennyson’s poem weave throughout the play, a simple foreshadowing for a simple man. Charlie is like the cavaliers Tennyson describes – fixated on his duties and carrying them out. He knows things could end badly for him, but he presses forward regardless. This is contrasted with the poem Mary cites as something she has no wish to live out: The Lady of Shalott.

Subtlety, thy name is Stephen. 

All joking aside, these simple allusions give Mary’s Wedding a chance to weave these grandiose and romantic notions of duty and heartbreak into a very simple romance story. Mary and Charlie are from different worlds and different social standings but they fall in love. We see their relationship as it struggles to survive awkward meetings in the town streets, flubbed meetings with families and ultimately Charlie’s decision to join up and fight in the Great War in 1914. Interspersed with stories of the growing romance are stories of Charlie’s time in Europe, told to Mary through letters he sends home from the front. 

Both aspects are told in a blunt and straightforward way. This is not a Hollywood romance or war movie. Much of the pretense of such stories are stripped away, with Massicotte focusing on very realistic dialog and motivations for his characters. Charlie’s letters home sound very much like those I’ve read in compilations of first-hand accounts from any number of wars from the present day back to the American Civil War. Mary and Charlie’s relationship is free of flowery promises or generic statements of affection. 

Many stories could be fairly criticized for trying to characterize their protagonists using well know works of literature. But, while Massicotte is doing that in his script, he is also doing something a little more complicated than that. He is showing his characters use these poems to try and express themselves to each other. The Charge of the Light Brigade grapples with many philosophical questions that people think about but rarely try to articulate to each other. When forced to explain the horns of a dilemma like that which Tennyson describes, the average person will fail to put their thoughts into their own words. So, they turn to the poets. 

It is this, I think, that makes Mary’s Wedding work. It shows us simple, everyday people as they put their hand to every tool at their disposal to connect with each other and share their struggles. It’s an impressive achievement. 

The portrayal of Flowers, Charlie’s commanding officer during his time in Europe, is another fascinating device. Flowers is portrayed by the same actress who plays Mary. When Flowers and Charlie first meet Charlie is on the troop ship headed to Europe, smoking while watching the ocean at night. Flowers finds him and asks what he’s thinking about, to which Charlie admits he’s thinking about a girl back home. Flowers warns him not to do that, or soon enough he’ll be seeing her everywhere – which, of course, he already is. The close friendship the two develop is illuminating and powerful, and Jessica Munsie’s portrayal of Flowers was so excellent that I never confused her with Mary in my mind. It provides us a look at another side of Charlie, one we need to really appreciate before the story concludes or the conclusion will not be as powerful as it should be. 

Ultimately, Charlie never comes home. 

Charlie only lives in the dream, now, and soon enough Mary must wake up and continue on with her life. Her wedding day is coming. There is still a good life ahead of her, even with all the grief and regret that came from her parting with Charlie. That is the promise at the end of Mary’s Wedding. It’s a bittersweet ending, but the only ending their story could possibly have had. The thunder we heard at the beginning of the story is quiet now, and the rains have left poppies in their wake. And just like Mary, we must wake from the dream on that stage and leave Mary, Charlie and Flowers behind. 

As nearly as I can tell, while many of the events in Mary’s Wedding actually happened, Charlie and Mary were not real. Their story was a dream we shared for a moment. But we can carry that simple dream with us in our waking lives, a reminder that the peace we have was bought at great sacrifice. A reminder that after loss we can still carry on. Those simple messages are a powerful gift, and one I am grateful to have.  

Fall 2021 Reading Wrap-Up

I am a writer, and so I read. What have I read recently? Strap in. 

Thrawn: Greater Good, by Timothy Zahn 

I’m a longtime lover of Zahn’s work and, while I’m not invested in the Star Wars franchise these days, I will make an exception for him. His latest series in that franchise focus on a new origin for his fan favorite character, Grand Admiral Thrawn. The first trilogy of books was somewhat interesting, but largely existed as peripheral works to the TV show Rebels, which I haven’t watched. That did reduce my investment in the series some, although I found the second novel in that trilogy very enjoyable overall. However, his second trilogy allows him the freedom to play around with the kinds of world building and open ended tactical inventiveness that is fun to read and dig in to. Beyond that, we get to see a wide array of interesting characters at different levels of society all trying to play out their interests and balance them against the titular greater good. 

Beyond that, Zahn is playing an interesting game. In most of his novels we learn a great deal about his antagonists and follow a lot of the game from both sides of the gameboard. However, in this trilogy Thrawn’s opponent is hidden from view for 95% of the story, which gives it a different flavor. A warning – outside of Thrawn himself this novel has very few ties to the wider Star Wars galaxy. If you’re not a fan of the character and you’re looking for Star Wars, rather than just Thrawn, it may not be for you. 

For Crew and Country, by John Wukovitz 

This is another niche book. As a long time student of the Samar Island action during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, I try to read every book on the subject that comes out (which is about one every four or five years.) Crew and Country is a complete service history of the USS Samuel B. Roberts, from its commissioning to its loss in combat on 25 October, 1944. This is not really a good book for people new to the topic to read. (Read The Battle for Leyte Gulf by C. Vann Woodward or The Battle of Leyte Gulf: Oct. 23-26 1944 by Thomas J. Culter before this book if you’re not familiar with the story at all.) 

While Last Epic Naval Battle by David Sears or Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James D. Hornfischer are brilliant retellings of the story from the level of the normal crewman, and Hornfischer also goes deeply into the story of the Roberts, Wukovitz digs into that one specific crew to the point where you almost feel like you’re talking to someone who served with them. Every other retelling of the story presents the reader with a jumble of crazy events unfolding in parallel, which is understanding as that’s how a battle plays out. But in Crew and Country diversions from the decks of the Roberts are brief and this creates a very different atmosphere to the crews training, Crossing of the Line, service in the Pacific and final defense of Taffy 3. 

Perhaps it takes a person who’s spent a decade trying to learn new tidbits about a six hour period of history to appreciate this book. All I can say is, if that’s the case, you should try it some time. This book, and the men it pays tribute to, are treasures that you deserve to enjoy. 

When Christmas Comes, by Andrew Klavan 

I reviewed Klavan’s Another Kingdom trilogy some time ago. While I found the way he released and promoted that series very interesting, as a fantasy series and allegorical tale it was merely above average. Klavan is a good storyteller and master of the crime story (Werewolf Cop made that clear when I read it) but he never put in quite the research into the practical aspects of things like sword duels, armor and other aspects of medieval life to quite sell them when they came up in his story. 

But with When Christmas Comes, Klavan has returned to his roots. As a crime story, its suitably dark and gripping. Cameron Winter is a fascinating protagonist, with an understandable malaise about his character that both he and we hope to see dispelled. And the story is full of unsavory characters we can loathe as well as sympathetic ones we can attach to. If it has one major weakness it would be brevity. 

When Christmas Comes is a very noir story, with purple prose, a man with a solid moral core, and a lot of very nasty people around him. Those are both its biggest selling points and the thing I believe most detractors will dislike. That said, it’s not a wildly inventive tale. If you like an expertly executed crime story, this will not disappoint. But it’s not as inventive as the Another Kingdom novels or Werewolf Cop. I highly recommend it to fans of crime drama and character studies, and perhaps the casual murder mystery crowd. But beyond that, I don’t know as the story will have much purchase. 

Soulfinder: Demon’s Match and Black Tide, by Douglas Ernst 

Iconic Comics puts out a number of fun adventure titles but of all of them Soulfinder is the darkest, most mature and most interesting. In many reviews, these would automatically equate to being of the best quality. I do not believe you need dark or mature themes or even deep and interesting concepts to create an excellent story. In fact, adding these things to a subpar story can make it worse, not better. 

All that said, Soulfinder is probably the best comic Iconic offers, which I say as no slight to their other titles. Father Patrick Retter is an infantry veteran turned priest who gets offered the chance to take the ultimate blending of his skills – a position as one of the Vatican’s Soulfinder Exorcists. 

The Soulfinder narrative moves on multiple levels. Retter has personal relationships that range from close friendship to tense family ties. And there are demons. He has responsibilities to the parishioners at his church and presumably, at some point, his own matters of faith to consider. Also, demons. 

Ernst has put a lot of interesting things in the air and he juggles them quite well, delivering good stories and good characters while avoiding many of the common traps stories about exorcist priests often fall into. I know that Ernst is a devout Roman Catholic, a veteran and a widely travelled man. He’s done his research and brings a lot of knowledge and authenticity to the table. Retter and his allies are likeable people with a lot of good skills and good heads on their shoulders. It’s also nice to see a story that not only isn’t shy about matters of faith, but actively embraces them. That may turn off a small portion of the audience but even openminded atheists have read and enjoyed the series, so I find I can recommend it to anyone over 12 whole heartedly. Younger readers may find the themes and concepts a little over their head and the imagery unsettling. 

And that’s the reading round up for this essay series! We now move back to my next fiction project so, as is traditional, there will be a week off before coming back to the preface of the  

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.

Spring 2020 Fiction Roundup

It’s been a while since I read or watched a fresh tale and felt truly inspired to sit down and think through everything I loved and hated about it, what worked and what didn’t. That’s partly because I haven’t been reading as much fiction as in days past and partly because I haven’t seen as much that really impressed me in the last few years. Maybe our cultural institutions are on the decline. Maybe I’m just more jaded and cynical about media these days. Maybe it’s a combination of both.

That said, I’ve had the pleasure of watching, reading and listening to some very entertaining fiction in the last year or so months and I thought I would share some of it with you. Strap in, because we’re going to go through this quick!

We begin with Another Kingdom by Andrew Klavan. I covered this series once, after the first season concluded. With the conclusion of the audio version of this series now out and available for free on the YouTube you can sit down and enjoy a truly rousing adventure story that takes many of the shibboleths of modern culture (particularly in Hollywood) to task while showing one man’s transformation from timid and uncertain to confident and purposeful. There’s a lot of interesting allegories at work in the story, clear enough to speak to the audience but general enough not to come off as preachy. While Klavan’s prose sometimes belabors a point a little too much and Knowles’ performance still doesn’t always sell the female characters listening to Another Kingdom is still quite the fun experience.

In much the same vein, This Sounds Serious is a hilarious sendup and love letter to the true crime podcast. From the rivalry of two very odd twin brothers to the fascination an entire small town in Washington has with Joe Rogan, the creators of this spoof podcast series has an eye for the absurd that they always try to emphasize while crafting fun and devious crime stories to tell us about in a mockumentary fashion. There’s not a lot of great traditional character work here, nor are you likely to grow over attached to any of the characters as the cast will mostly change from season to season. But there is a kind of suspense built over time and it is quite fun to listen to, even if you’re not likely lot laugh out loud more than once or twice an episode.

The Dragon Prince is an interesting take on a fantasy property. While I’ve found its approach to some issues to be a little lacking in thought on the whole it builds good characters and takes a nuanced approach to most of the issues it discusses, showing even its obviously evil characters as well rounded and even occasionally sympathetic characters. It has an eye for action and a wonderful aesthetic to its world. While a lot of questions about the philosophical questions it wants to ask are unanswered at this point on the whole I prefer that willingness to let the issues breath. For example, Dragon Prince brings up issues of prejudice quite often. So far, the issues that prejudice presents have never been resolved in a single episode, as many other shows aimed at younger viewers would insist on doing. Some of the lesser side characters are never confronted about their prejudice since confronting this lesser evil would take away from the character’s ability to pursue other goals, forcing them to chose which good ends they will pursue. Thus we see the characters interacting with prejudice in much more realistic, true to life ways. That’s nice to see, and I’ll probably continue to follow Dragon Prince until its run is over.

If you’re wondering what I thought of Castlevania Season 3, as I said in my Castlevania Seasons 1 and 2 review, I’m happy with where that story ended and don’t plan on watching it. However, Sei Manos, an interesting blend of the Western and a Kung Fu film, produced by the same studio as Castlevania, manages to bring a new level of smoothness to the animation while crafting a radically different tale about a Kung Fu master with a devilish secret who dies, leaving his three pupils to struggle with various dark powers as they try to unravel the bizarre blending of drug trafficking and occult powers that threaten their small Mexican town in the late 1970s. It’s mostly intense action but, much like in their previous vampire tale, the writers and animators find plenty of human moments to leaven its ghostly tale. But more than that, it manages to take an animated character, who tends to take a lot of their personality from their voice actors, and make him a mute while still giving you a clear window into his personality and desires. A remarkable achievement, all things considered.

A Letter for the King is very different from many fantasy products aimed at young adults. It presents us with a totally normal protagonist – no, not totally normal. He’s probably a bit weaker and more cowardly than most. It then sends him on an adventure pursued by friends and foes alike, with the charge to deliver… well, a letter to the king. The journey will cost Tiuri far more than he thought, and along the way he will have to confront poor decisions on the part of himself, his family and his friends. He’ll find that his good character is rarely rewarded by the world around him. And in the end he’ll make things right not with magic, strength or cunning but determination, trust and courage. There are major failures in the writing of this series, particularly as regards the climax. But the heart behind the message and the decision to put character at the heart of the conflict makes it a refreshing change from most of its peers.

Last summer I was beta reader for a novel called The Last Warpiper, which is a fantasy novel about an elite soldier who plays the bagpipes.

Wait! Come back! The bagpipes are broken for most of the story!

In all seriousness, Warpiper is a very straightforward, John Wick kind of story about a man who has been wronged by the King and has only one means to set things right. It’s good worldbuilding, an interesting protagonist and anthropomorphic cats. What more could you want, amiright?

Marion G. Harmon’s Repercussions marks a major inflection point in his Wearing the Cape series. Hope Corrigan spends the first three years of her career as a professional Cape protecting the city of Chicago but in this story we see her scope of operations believably enlarged to an international scale. It’s been interesting to watch Harmon’s slow building stakes over the past three or four novels and in this one he has finally decided to go all in and swing for the fences. Many superhero stories try to do this far too quickly, putting the fate of the world in the balance very quickly and it frequently strains believability. This is Harmon’s eighth book and he’s just now getting to the global stage. Rather than coming too soon, I’m almost annoyed it’s only happening now. But only almost – this was an excellent paradigm shift for the series and if you like the series or superhero lit in general it’s well worth reading.

That’s all of the really noteworthy stories I’ve taken in since I started writing Pay the Piper. If you’re looking for something to do in the next few weeks (but why would you be?) then they’re well worth checking out. If you’ve already read them, be sure to let me know what you think!

The Big Short – Larry Correia’s Target Rich Environment

It’s always hard to talk about short story collections. Even when they’re written by a single author there’s rarely any kind of narrative through line, they frequently lack a shared cast and tend to vary wildly in tone. In my experience the best way to tackle them is to discuss the author so before we get to Target Rich Environment we need to talk about Larry Correia first.

Correia is a somewhat popular fantasy and science fiction writer known for long, pulpy novels with an emphasis on crazy action and bizarre creatures. While many of his characters are characters they aren’t the deepest examples of character writing in the world. These stories are written for the penny dreadful enthusiast and feature exotic locations, pretty women and hard fighting. There’s lots of good, honest fun to be had but not much in the way of the deeply psychological or introspective. That alone should be enough for you to decide whether you want to read it or not, but if you really need convincing I’ll say a few words about the stories themselves.

Monster Hunter International is Correia’s biggest franchise and features a solid ten books, six by Correia alone and four with cowriters. There are two shorts in the collection featuring MHI, one that stretches back to a time before most of the existing stories, the other focusing on a side character from the main novels as he struggles with the personnel issues that come from working in professional monster extermination. Both stories feature the kind of B movie, fast moving zaniness that defines the MHI franchise and are fun, but not particularly remarkable. MHI has worked best when Correia lets his imagination run free and follows wherever it goes, something a short story doesn’t always allow. While neither story feels incomplete they don’t really measure up to other MHI stories.

The Grimnoir Chronicles are a different take on pulp, focusing less on action and adventure and more on the moody feel of a film like The Maltese Falcon. While MHI ostensibly takes place in the world we know, Grimnoir is in a neon soaked 1920s where magic is spreading through the general populace and changing the face of warfare and espionage. Both the Grimnoir shorts in the collection focus on the franchise’s protagonist, Jake Sullivan, and tell a little about his life before and after the Grimnoir trilogy. The second also hints that Sullivan’s story stretches out beyond the three books and two shorts he’s appeared in. They’re great stories for fans of the franchise, but only the first will really jell with people who haven’t read Jake’s other adventures.

There are a number of shorts set in other people’s worlds, using original characters. These are pretty much what I’d expect – again, adventure stories with fun action and fun characters that don’t work the brain too hard. But it’s in the collection’s original stories that we find the hidden gem. “The Adventures of Tom Strange, Interdimensional Insurance Salesman” is Correia at his best. While the premise is a bit sillier than he usually goes for, Correia wisely chose to steer into the absurdities of interdimensional insurance, piling one misadventure on top of another in an ever evolving pile of goofiness until you don’t really care if Tom’s weapon of choice is the Combat Wombat, or that Correia himself (from a parallel dimension, of course) sits atop one of the most powerful organizations in the cosmos or even that Tom’s intern is a hapless, Starbucks chugging wimp. All you really care about is seeing where the story goes and how much it will make you chuckle. The original audiobook version was read by Adam Baldwin, which I’m sure added to its appeal.

On the whole, Target Rich Environment is a great investment for the short story lover or the adventure story lover. It’s not the greatest pick for the person who overthinks his reading material. But if you have  a long international flight coming up you could do worse than taking this book along with you.

The Sibyl’s War – Good Ideas Alone Are Not Everything

One of my favorite science fiction authors is Timothy Zahn. I’ve raved about his many accomplishments in the past but today I’m going to take look at his shortcomings through the lens of his latest original series, the Chronicle of the Sibyl’s War. At a glance, this should be another dose of great Zahn storytelling, beginning with an interesting premise and setting up interesting conflict. However, as big a fan as I am, I have to confess that I haven’t been as interested in it as I could be. Since what makes good writing is very important to me, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work out why that might be and I’ve arrived at some conclusions.

First, let me set the stage. Nicole Hammond is a low rent gang kid from Philadelphia who is abducted by aliens and dragged away to the alien ship Fyrantha to serve as a Sibyl, a human with the ability to telepathically hear the ship giving repair orders when she takes a specific drug. Unfortunately, on top of the whole abducted by aliens thing, taking that drug slowly poisons her and ensures she’ll die in a year or so. To top it off, one of her old gang members was abducted with her and is intent on raising a ruckus through the decks of the ship, getting her and her work crew into trouble. Nothing’s easy for Nicole but when she discovers there are prisoners on board being forced to fight in death matches for reasons unknown even Nicole’s jaded heart is forced to take an interest. Soon she’s doing her best to make peace, both in the death match arenas and the ship at large.

Now, this premise is fine and dandy. It has a protagonist, plenty of hurdles for said protagonist, lots of people for her to cross paths with along the way and so on. The ideas are solid. The problems come in execution. Zahn is not the best character writer in scifi. Now, as a genre more invested in ideas that’s not a major hurdle to overcome and Zahn has always brought strong plots, world building, mysteries and puzzles to the table. On the surface, the Sibyl’s War should be able to stand on its ideas.

Down on her luck girl gets a chance to save city sized starship from the hands of slavers? Great! Ancient battleship of incredible power teetering between the hands of villains and the common folk? Great! Kidnapped gladiators fighting for their freedom? Academy award winning premise! The problem is what happened when all those ideas got jumbled up together.

You see, Zahn’s character writing really shines when we spend a lot of time with a small group of people against the backdrop of a large, colorful cast who come and go but – and this is important – who are with the cast for most of any story they appear in. In short, Zahn can write very good characters, but he needs to spend a lot of time with them to do it. He does not have the gift or technique to sketch compelling characters quickly. But with all the ideas fighting for time in the Sibyl’s War series, characters appear and vanish quickly, sometimes appearing for only a couple of chapters a book, and even those that do receive development get it at a pace too slow to really feel like they’re paying off. This even goes for Nicole, one character who should absolutely not feel like she’s static, especially in the first book of the series (she gets more growth in the second).

Again, this isn’t a flaw in the premise of the series or in Zahn’s abilities as a writer. It simply feels like he has mismatched his talents with the demands of his story. Perhaps Zahn wanted to challenge himself as a writer. Perhaps he’s never attempted this kind of character writing and didn’t realize he would be so lackluster at it. Perhaps he just wanted to tell this story regardless of how well he did at it. Whatever led to it, the Sibyl’s War just doesn’t stack up very well against most of the rest of his work. Everyone has a bad project or two, and it’s better to over reach your grasp than never take risks. Still, a part of me will always wonder if the story would have been more satisfying if the ideas were pruned down, or tackled by a different writer.