Thursday, April 30, 2009

L: Change the WorLd

Last night, my wife and I met one of my friends at the theatre to watch a recently released Japanese movie titled “L: Change the WorLd.” The movie is based around the character L from Death Note (a popular manga title and anime series). In the U.S., the film is playing on two nights, with subtitles in last night’s showing and an English dubbed version playing tonight. I’m not a purist when it comes to manga/anime; I prefer dubbed versions, but last night was our only chance to go, and I honestly didn’t mind having to read the dialogue (plus, parts of it were in English).

A world-famous detective and recluse who identifies himself with the initial L has seemingly wrapped up the Kira case, in which a villain named Kira uses an unworldly notebook (known as a Death Note) to write down the names of any person he wishes to die. In order to outwit his nemesis, L writes his own name in a Death Note, thus precluding anyone else from writing his name. The only problem is that any person whose name is in a Death Note must die within 23 days, so L describes his demise as dying peacefully from a heart attack in 23 days.

An environmental extremist group develops a virus designed to kill anyone infected who isn’t vaccinated, thus cleansing the earth from humans. The only problem for the group is that the man they tricked into creating the vaccine hides its secret with his daughter and then takes his own life. L ends up in custody of the twelve-year-old girl along with a boy who managed to survive in a town that was used for testing the virus. L must find someone who can create the vaccine and stop the extremist group from succeeding in their attempt to unleash the virus, all before his 23 days expire.

The movie had a good mix of action and humor. L’s quirky behavior steals many of the scenes, but that’s as it should be since it’s his movie. It's an interesting “What If” tale from the Death Note universe, one that I think fans of the manga/anime would find amusing.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Black Gate Issue #13

Happy is the fantasy reader who opens his or her mailbox to discover the latest issue of Black Gate. Sad is the fantasy reader who finishes reading that issue because the next will not arrive for another six months.

Overall, I liked this issue because it combined returning writers with new writers, pumping some fresh blood into the pages. I did notice a bit of a boat theme that was probably unintentional (words like “prow” and “gunwales” were found in multiple stories). Congratulations, John O’Neill and Howard Andrew Jones, for putting another great issue together.

“The Beautiful Corridor” by Jonathan L. Howard –A skillful thief named Kyth infiltrates a mausoleum-temple, seeking a safe route to Maten Shal’s throne room, but she has to outwit the architect who protected the building with numerous traps.

I liked how this story flowed up until the final scene. The tension dropped considerably, and it seemed to last too long.

“The Good Sheriff” by David Wsley Hill – Displaced from his own time by millions of years, Charles Duke seeks help from Rascale, a wizard with the power to send Duke back home. Rascale requires that Duke pay him in good, a tangible item in this alien world of gods, demons and humans. Duke accepts a position as sheriff in order to earn what Rascale covets, and he works the job with the demeanor he’d learned as a hired gun of the Wild West in 1879.

This was one of the most unique stories I’ve seen in Black Gate for a while. Duke is a great character, and it’s fun to read about a western lawman working among demons and other odd creatures.

“The Face in the Sea” by John C. Hocking – After rescuing the chieftain’s daughter, Brand and his comrades sail back to their home. Before they can celebrate their efforts, they find the girl’s captor in close pursuit, aided by his powerful shaman, whose face taunts them from the sea as he works against them.

This had the feel of a good Viking tale. Fantasy works well in a Norse setting, I think, and Hocking did a good job delivering it.

“Naktong Flow” by Myke Cole – Ch’oe and his men accompany the mysterious yangban in an effort to thwart the ever-encroaching Waegu by using a machine to turn the river against them. The yangban departs alone with the machine and asks the men to wait for his return, but when he fails to rejoin them, Ch’oe considers disobedience, especially as the Waegu begin to pick off his men one at a time.

I liked the tension in this story, and it certainly didn’t go where I thought it might. It seems like this should be part of a longer work. Not that it wasn’t a complete tale, but I wanted to know more about this world.

“The Murder at Doty Station” by Matthew Bey – Easy and Gonzo stop at Doty Station for supplies, and during their stay, a giant manikin kills the station’s ogre. Easy is arrested even though the evidence clearly shows her innocence, so she seeks to solve the crime after Gonzo frees her from jail.

This story is quirky and funny. The role of manikins seemed akin to the science-fiction of Asimov’s I, Robot. This felt like a very atypical story in Black Gate, but I enjoyed reading it.

“The Evil Eater” by Peadar Ó Guilín – Toby steals a gold leaf invitation to Ahriman’s, an extremely exclusive restaurant, to impress his girlfriend. When they arrive for dinner, they find the simple meal to be quite overrated until they taste it, discovering that the food unlocks blissful memories. Unfortunately, the bill is so steep that they must work in the restaurant to pay it off, and it is a perilous service.

Creepy, but in a good way, Guilín’s story adds a dash of horror to the issue. I became attached to the protagonist despite all of his lies and tricks just to get into the restaurant to begin with. Toby is simply a loveable character.

“Bones in the Desert, Stones in the Sea” by Amy Tibbetts – Aleem’s sister was alienated from the rest of her village after conceiving a half-breed child from one of the uttuk pillagers because she sought to carry it to full term. Aleem arrives after her death that occurred during childbirth, and he must deal with the tragic loss of his sister as well as figure out the most merciful way to kill her offspring.

I felt like this was the heart of the issue. A brother torn by the loss of a sister he’d had little contact with once they became adults, forced to confront his duties of honoring her wishes to have a child that she conceived out of rape. This was a really moving piece that seemed to go beyond just the story itself, one that I’d like to see up for an award.

“The Merchant of Loss” by Justin Stanchfield and Mikal Trimm – Galen brings a wagon of strange wares into the Bitter Hills, an assorted collection of “effluvia of daily life.” He encounters a secretive woman who seeks a trade between the breath of her name and a locked box from Galen’s wagon.

This was my favorite story of the issue. Haunting, captivating and engaging. The story grabbed me and pulled me through to the end.

“Return of the Quill” by John R. Fultz – In the city of Narr, one of the eight sorcerer kings, Grimsort, is lured from his necromantic arts by Artifice the Quill, an exile who seeks to perform a play in exchange for a rare skull. Grimsort agrees to the deal, but the play has a power that sorcery may not be able to contend with.

Another marvelous tale by Fultz, this is perhaps a bit stronger even than “Oblivion is the Sweetest Wine” from Issue #12. It was quite ambitious to give the full history of Narr in the form of a play, and after reading it, I thought, “I can’t believe he just pulled that off.”

“Spider Friend” by L. Blunt Jackson – As a boy, Ch’bib receives a blessing from a spider in gratitude for his kindness, and it extends through all spiders. Though his blessing grants him freedom from pestering flies and the ability to mend fishing nets in a remarkable way, he seeks to end the blessing in order to please the whims of his love interest, Ri’lili.

This was interesting and amusing. I gasped at the climactic ending.

“Silk and Glass” by Sharon E. Woods – Under the promise of freedom, Jas infiltrates Issen to bring a master glassmaker back to her masters in Saria, where his craft secrets will be forcefully drawn from his mind. As a Nonyx, Jas can transform from her dragon-like appearance into that of an attractive woman in order to tempt men. She targets a glassmaker named Yullo, but she’s unable to tempt him without falling in love with him. With her time short, she must decide whether to deceive him for freedom’s sake or to return to Saria alone.

I really enjoyed this one, with its twists and turns and uncertainties. Jas is a very striking protagonist with complex issues that draws readers in.

“The Naturalist, Part III: St. George and the Antriders” by Mark Sumner – After another narrow escape from the antriders, Mr. Brown helps evacuate all the settlers of Selvanos in hopes of sailing out from St. George before the antriders arrive. Unfortunately, the soldiers in control of St. George have other ideas.

As with the previous two parts, this story moves pretty quick. At times, it’s like an older horror movie, when you find yourself spurring the characters out of harm’s way by shouting, “Run! Go!” This was a fun series to read, and I’m glad that I was able to catch all three. For those who haven’t read all of these, I highly recommend collecting some back issues (see page 85 of the issue for details).

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Goal of Improvement

When I was much younger, I had dreams of becoming a best-selling novelist. Imagine, millions of people waiting to purchase my next book as soon as it comes out, flooding my inbox with questions and comments, and my only job would be writing. I know that there are best-selling authors in the world, and despite how few of them there are, I find a lot of beginning writers share a very similar dream.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with lofty aspirations, but I suggest a goal that all of us can work towards regardless of whether or not anything we write ever becomes published: to improve our writing. We should be able to look back on something we wrote a few years ago and recognize the fact that we’re writing better now than we were then. Why do swamps smell? Because the water is stagnate. Our writing can become fairly putrid as well if we stop moving forward.

By focusing on the craft itself, we find something achievable to set our sites on. No more disappointment (or at least not devastation) because the last story written didn’t make it into a professional market as we’d hoped. No more pity parties because we just turned X years old and still don’t have a novel published. Instead, we look to the improvements at hand and say, “Yes, this story is better than the ones I wrote a few years back, and I’m going to work on some weaknesses to make sure the next few I write are even better than this.”

Let’s work on getting better. No one can stop that dream but us.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Toddler Fun

At some point recently, my daughter became a toddler. She can run, open cabinet doors, unspool rolls of toilet paper and bring terror to our cats in her excitement to play with them.

Elora loves going outside now, and we run around sporadically in the backyard. I tried to teach her to play tag, but she doesn’t grasp that concept and remains “it” constantly. The grass is less scary for her than it was several months ago, but when she falls, she still likes for me to pick her up rather than pushing herself up off the ground.

One of Elora’s favorite outdoor items is her tricycle. She’s not big enough to make the pedals turn, but she doesn’t care. The tricycle has a detachable pole in the back that I can use for pushing and steering (though sometimes I have to compensate for Elora jerking the natural handlebars). Together, we go up and down the sidewalks, and she waves to everyone she sees like she’s a parade princess.

It’s hard to see my baby turning into a little girl, but we have so much fun together. It warms my heart when I come home to see her because she runs up to me and shouts, “Matt!” (Once she found out my name, “Dad” slid by the wayside, and I haven’t been able to change my identification back yet.) My toddler is a blast.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

April Fools

My mom lives for today. It’s a day when she can try to dupe unsuspecting family members into believing incredulous tales. She tries to base her deceptions on a grain of truth in order to increase plausibility. Her other tactic is to strike early in the morning before her targets become aware that the month of March has passed.

I remember one April first morning when I was in middle school. Mom came into my room to tell me that there wasn’t any point in getting ready for school. When I inquired about this, she informed me that the recent roof construction at the school (the nugget of truth) had gone awry. Debris had smashed into a boiler, causing a terrible explosion that wiped out half of the building. After gleefully telling me the date, she told me that she wanted to fool my dad the same way, so I stayed in bed feigning sleep. Dad had been up for a while, so his reaction was instant shock. Had Mom continued the lie for much longer, I think he would have had time to process the fact that she wouldn’t have access to such information without his knowledge (this was before the Internet had taken off). Instead, he was yet another victim. To fool my much younger sister, all she needed to say was, “Your school blew up last night.”

I think the only time I actually fooled anyone was the year I fooled Dad. That was Mom’s idea as well, though, so I can’t really take credit for it. In our upstairs bathroom, we’d had some trouble with the toilet overflowing periodically, but Dad thought it was fixed. I waited until he came inside from doing something else (activities tend to distract someone from the current date) and flushed the toilet for effect. Then I shouted, “Dad, the toilet’s overflowing!” The man bounded up the stairs, taking three steps with each stride. Mom and I were both up there laughing. Clearly, he didn’t care for the jest, but he let it go.

I haven’t been duped in a while, and I don’t try to dupe anyone else. Still, each year when the day hits, I become a bit wary of any information that comes my way because I’m never quite sure if someone’s trying to take me by surprise. And don’t bother trying to get me this year, Mom. I already know what day it is.