Welcome to my worlds!
Friday, December 18, 2009
It been a while since I gave an update on my Greatshadow progress. I've mailed out eleven chapters to wise-readers so far, and this morning I finished the draft of chapter 13 and am primed to plunge into 14. With a forecast of snow here this weekend, I should be able to execute the butt-in-chair writing magic and finish chapter 14 easily, and 15 if I push a little, taking me safely past the 2/3 mark of completion. The odds that I'll actually finish the draft before January 1 are a bit iffy, however. I'll be logging too many miles visiting loved ones around Christmas; butt-in-driver's-seat is sort of an anti-butt-in-chair. Still, I feel good that by this time next month I'll be able to say to the world, "I am James Maxey, writer of books! Look upon Greatshadow, ye mighty, and despair!" Serously, I do this after everything I write. I just climb right up on the roof and shout it out. Hopefully the snow will be gone by then. I'd hate to slip.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
"Silent as Dust" is a ghost story, though the protagonist has gone into his afterlife without the messy step of actually dying. I'm not sure how long it will be free, so if you're interested, follow this link. Now! Hurry!
Shedding Skin; Or How the World Came to Be, by Jay Lake
The Jackdaw’s Wife, by Blake Hutchins
The Student and the Rats, by Jess Nevins
The Mechanical Aviary of Emperor Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar, by Shweta Narayan
Kay’s Box, by Marissa Lingen
Otto’s Elephant, by Vince Pendergast
The Monkey and the Butterfly, by Susannah Mandel
Message in a Bottle, by James Maxey
The Clockwork Cat’s Escape, by Gwynne Garfinkle
The Wolf and the Schoolmaster, by James L. Cambias
A Garden in Bloom, by Genevieve Valentine
And How His Audit Stands, by Lou Anders
The Story In Which Dog Dies, by Sara Genge
A Red One Cannot See, by Barbara A. Barnett
The Fishbowl, by Amal El-Mohtar
His Majesty’s Menagerie, by Chris Roberson
The Emperor’s Gift, by Rajan Khanna
The Clockwork Goat and the Smokestack Magi, by Peter M. Ball
The Giant and the Unicorn, by Alethea Kontis
Mockmouse, by Caleb Wilson
I'm ordering extra copies, and plan to do a giveaway to spread the goodness. If you can't wait, electronic copies can be ordered from the Shimmerzine website.
Saturday, December 5, 2009
It's easy to get into a comfort zone once you've found your formula. Editors buy your stuff and readers respond to it. You've probably spend years, if not decades polishing your techniques. When you are a novice, experimentation is a useful tool for growth. Once you are established, however, experimentation is more likely to produce failure than success. You've created expectations for your work, and deviating from these expectations to try something new carries the risk that you will write stories you can't sell, or, if they do sell, stories that will disappoint your existing fan base.
But there's a competing truth: It's seldom a compliment to call a work of art "formulaic." If you rely on formula to produce your fiction, you may produce technically flawless stories completely devoid of passion or heart.
I've written and sold stories based on formula rather than passion. I'm not going to single them out; I doubt that the casual reader of my work could spot which of my stories were labors of love versus which ones I built from my insta-fiction toolkit. That's another danger that awaits artists: Your audience may not be able to tell the difference between work you are passionate about versus work you simply got paid for. Why bother with the passion if it adds no economic value?
I would argue that its this very same logic that leads some people into becoming prostitutes.
So, how do you keep the passion in your writing? How do you approach the tenth book you write with the same intensity as the first book you write?
First, you must diligently strive to become aware of your formulas. I've spent a lot of time analyzing my work, figuring out what people respond to, and what falls flat. Pretty much any story I write now, I sell, because I know how to make the plot line logical and satisfying. However, it's only by being aware of my most successful formulas that I can purposefully twist and tweak my tales to keep them fresh.
Second, if you're not a little worried about your story, you probably aren't writing the right story. My most recent sale, "Return to Sender," was a fairly stressful undertaking because it's the first time I've ever written a first person female narration. I've written female POV before, notably the Jandra chapters of my Bitterwood novels, but all first person narration I've ever tried has been male. Now, if I wrote from the first person POV of, say, a dragon, I probably wouldn't be too worried about a dragon reading the story and saying, "This doesn't sound like a dragon!" On the other hand, plenty of women are going to read "Return to Sender," and I do worry that some of them are going to spot little clues in the narration that reveal the artifice of the voice. I could have side-stepped this anxiety by switching to third person narration, or by switching to a male protagonist. The plot formula I followed could have worked either way. But, if I'd played it safe, I suspect I would have produced a story that didn't have the same resonance. After selling over a dozen stories with male protagonists and mostly third person narration, I tried something different, and feel good about the outcome.
Third, continuing with the "worry" idea, it's not just tinkering with structure or form that can take you out of your comfort zone and put you into a new place artistically. You can also tackle new themes and viewpoints. If you're an atheist, you can make a real attempt at writing a religious character who you respect and admire. If you're conservative, you can try a story from the world view of a liberal. Note that if you're just ridiculing or mocking those you don't agree with, you're going to produce, at best, satire. The true artistic challenge is to try to find the beauty and honesty of a world-view that isn't your own.
Fourth, the most important way to keep your writing fresh, to make sure you're always a little out of your comfort zone, is to write naked. I don't mean physically naked; I mean that to continue producing fresh art, you need to be willing to reveal to the world things inside your head that you wouldn't tell your own mother. If your characters are to pass as human, they will need to possess not only virtues like honesty, faith, and courage, but also base traits like shame, prejudice, greed, lust, and rage. It's possible to write about these things on a purely surface level. If I want convey that my character Bitterwood hates dragons, I need only write, "Bitterwood hated dragons." Hopefully, I managed to go a bit deeper than this in the actual books. But to understand Bitterwood's hatred, I had to feel and understand my own hatred. People say all they time that they hate stuff: They hate country music or raw onions or Democrats. But genuine, raw, truthful hating is a much scarier thing. Before I could write about Bitterwood's hatred, I had to open doors in my head to allow my own deep-seated hatred to come out for a while so I could take a good look at it. Bitterwood's dark nature is my dark nature. I knew as I was placing this darkness onto the page that it carried the risk that someone would read the book and think, "Wow, this James Maxey guy has some sick crap rattling around in his skull." And, it's true. So be it. You can't write fiction if you're afraid of telling truth.
As I write Greatshadow, my eighth novel, there's a lot of stuff that's familiar to me. I have my formulas to carry me from scene to scene. But, within these scenes, I'm keeping the passion alive by daring to show my feelings. There's grief here, taken straight from the grief that burned into my heart when Laura died. There's shame here, fictionalized yet genuine confessions of my own failures and weaknesses. There are people who feel trapped by bad decisions they made years before, a refection of my own doubts and second guesses. And, perhaps most daring of all, there's a love story. Writing confessionally of genuine love is as difficult and tricky as writing of genuine hate. Maybe more so, given the sheer weight of literature that has already tackled the subject. Finding something new to say seems like an impossible challenge; yet, I'm going to tell the world what I know about love despite the risk that what I have to say is banal or absurd or flat-out crazy.
Sure, I've written about love before, and hate, and fear. But every time I open the doors in my head to let these emotions out, I always discover some new insight that I need to put onto paper. Because the subjects are so vast, perhaps it's inevitable that all my previous attempts to explore these emotions are going to fail to convey everything I meant to say. It's because I'll never exhaust these topics that I can approach every story with something fresh to say. In effect, every story becomes my first story as I try, for the first time, to get the world onto the page just right.
Sunday, November 29, 2009
But, that's a subject for a future column. Right now, I have some news to share.
First, I learned recently that I've sold another short story. It's called "Return to Sender," and it will be appearing this January at Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show. I've been working on a rewrite this weekend. Edmund Shubert, the editor, made some suggestions on taking the story to the next level of polish, and I've learned to appreciate his instincts, after the success of my prior IGMS stories, "To Know All Things That Are In The Earth," and "Silent as Dust." I also respect Ed for turning me down on the previous story I sent him. If you ever have an editor willing to buy everything you write, you should be nervous. The most valuable service any editor provides is to be a gatekeeper allowing only your most deserving works to be placed before the public, and ensuring that your less felicitous tales remain hidden so that they won't embarass you. "Return to Sender" was a story that actually originated due to this blog. A few months back, I was looking for a name of a magic weapon I could use in Greatshadow, and Cindy Hannikman suggested the "Crystal Lance." I made a joke that Crystal Lance sounded like the name of a protagonist for an urban fantasy, then, as often happens, I took the joke seriously and before I knew it I had a full blown tale involving pizza, a Chihuahua, a drunken roommate, an evil cult, a horny angel, a girl with hairy legs, and Elvis.
Back in the summer, I mentioned that "Silent as Dust" would appear in The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2009 Edition, edited by Rich Horton. I'm pleased to announce that, after several delays, the book is finally available! Run out to your local bookstore to order a copy, or purchase it on Amazon by following this link. The book has stories by Peter S. Beagle, Elizabeth Bear, Jay Lake, Ian McDonald, Sarah Monette, Garth Nix, Naomi Novik, Robert Reed, Patrick Rothfuss, and many more. This seems like a perfect choice for the SF reader in your life, if only there were some culturally significant gift-giving holiday to provide the excuse for shelling out your hard-earned money.
And, if you'd like a book without spending money on it... stay tuned. I'll be involved in a book giveaway in December. Maybe even more than one giveaway. Details soon.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
I'm a little behind due to a family emergency. My father has been extremely ill; he spent 22 days of October in various hospitals, and so far all of November in intensive care hooked to a ventilator. A week ago, I was pretty certain that his body had taken all it could possibly take, but since the weekend he's been improving every day, though improvement is a very relative word. I won't feel like he's out of danger until he's breathing without the aid of a machine.
All the time I've spent on the road and sitting in hospital waiting rooms over the last month has left me really desiring a laptop I could fit in my pocket. If anyone has any netbook recommendations, I'm interested in hearing them.
Now, on to chapter four....
Monday, October 26, 2009
Here's what would be expected:
My second draft is a structural draft. I don't spend much time polishing individual sentences. Typos, missing words, and semi-random punctuation will be fairly common in this draft, and I'm looking for readers who have a high tolerance for these simple mistakes. I'm not looking for line editors to mark up small mistakes; I'll polish the prose in the third draft. The feedback I'm seeking in the second draft is purely on the story level. I want to make sure all the characters come to life, that the reader knows who they are, what they want, and why they want it. I also welcome feedback on my world-building, making sure that my various religious and magical systems seem plausible and not too derivative of stuff you've read before. Perhaps most importantly, I'll be seeking feedback on the plot. Are things flowing logically? Am I surprising you in pleasant ways, or just jerking you around? Am I throwing in stuff that makes no sense at all? And, finally, while this draft isn't one where I focus on polishing the prose, I do welcome feedback should you come across something that you think is particularly well written, funny, or else a real clunker.
My intention is for the final draft to clock in around 100k words. My goal is to send out chapters in clusters of three or four at a time. I intend to start sending out chapters the first week of November, and plan to finish the second draft before December 31. I'd like feedback along the way: if you sign up as a reader, I'd expect a turnaround on the chapters I send out within a week or so. I'll be working in Microsoft Word; my preference is that comments be made using the comment feature in Word, but it's also acceptable just to type up your comments at the end of each chapter.
The downside to signing up is: 1: You'll be reading unpolished prose that hasn't undergone any sort of professional proofing. 2: You'll be reading in chunks that come on a more or less random schedule. 3: You'll be reading a novel that currently has no publisher. It's possible that all your work will be going to a novel that never sees print.
The upside to signing up is: 1: Even though my prose at this stage won't be polished, I think you'll be getting a satisfying story full of quirky, loveable characters. 2: If you are interested in becoming a writer on your own, this will be a good opportunity to see a professional writer working in a draft stage to bring a world and characters to life. 3: When the novel is eventually published (which I feel very likely), I promise to acknowledge all wise-readers who worked with me on the project.
If you'd like to sign up, please send me an email to nobodynovelwriter (at) yahoo (dot) com with the header, "Wise reader sign up." I'll collect all the addresses into a mailing list, and start sending out chapters next week!
If you have any questions about the process, please feel free to ask in the comments section.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
I mentioned here a few weeks back that I was a nominee for the WSFA Small Press Short Fiction Award. I am pleased to report that the winner of the story was: "The Absence of Stars: Part 1" by Greg Siewert, published in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, edited by Edmund R. Schubert, Hatrack Publishing. Intergalactic Medicine Show and Ed Schubert have been very good to me in recent years; if I have to lose an award, I'm glad I lost it another IGMS author; it sort of keeps things all in the family.
Any way, I got a consolation prize on Friday before I left for the con, when the latest Codex Halloween Contest results were announced. I won again, with a story currently titled, "Return to Sender. But, this was my closest squeaker ever. I had amazing competition; the top four stories were virtually a four way tie; I finished only a single point ahead of Second Place: “Stan Musial, Therapeutic Mathematics, and the Physics of Curve Balls” by Gray Rinehart. Third Place was tied, only one point behind Gray: “Counterclockwise” by Alethea Kontis and “Clockwork Fairies” by Cat Rambo. If I'd come in behind any of these, I would have regarded it as a fair result. Expect to see all of these stories soon in magazines.
A note about Return to Sender: Back in August, I asked readers to chip in names for a magic weapon that I could use in my new novel. Cindy from Fantasy Book Critic offered a couple of suggestions including Crystal Lance. I made a joke at the time that this sounded like the protagonist of an urban fantasy novel; she could be the first ever female Knight Templar. When the Halloween contest rolled aroud, I got a prompt from Christine Amsden to write a story about "The Order of the Golden Dawn." As I sat around trying to figure out what my story might be about, I suddenly realized that the perfect protagonist would Crystal Lance, Knight Templar. The story is kind of a fish out of water tale, as Crystal, who has been raised in strict isolation by the secret order of monks who train the knights, must undertake a mission in the modern world in which she navigates the unknown dangers of snark, snake handlers, and Elvis. It's a fun story; I'll make an announcement once I place it.
Coming soon: More news about Greatshadow.
Monday, October 12, 2009
Fri 8pm Randolph - Comics and Graphic Novels
Participants: Michael Pederson (m), James Maxey, Steve Stiles, Lawrence Watt-Evans
Comics and graphic novels frequently feature SF/Fantasy elements. Which ones are the best and why? What comics should sf readers be reading and why? Can comics ever overcome the prejudice against them?
Fri 10pm Montrose - Did Fandom Lose By Winning?
Participants: David Bartell (m), Elaine Stiles, Christopher M. Cevasco, Doug Fratz, James Maxey
The top movies are almost all sf/fantasy, most videogames are sf/fantasy and many television shows mix in sf/fantasy elements like Lost or Ghost Whisperer. But fandom as a separate culture seems to be dwindling. Are we being absorbed into the mainstream?
Saturday 3pm – Book Signing - Alan Smale, Eric Choi, and James Maxey
Sat 4pm Montrose - Even Hard SF Uses FTL
Participants: David Louis Edelman (m), Eric Choi, Michael Flynn, Ed Lerner, James Maxey
What science is taken for granted in SF and can it really happen? What new scientific discoveries are more likely than others? What science is underused in SF? How much of the science is real and how much handwaving?
Sat 9pm Plaza - Small Press Award
Participants: WSFA and the nominees
Who will win the annual WSFA small press award? Come and see. Celebrate with cake.
Sun 10:30am Twinbrook - Reading: James Maxey
Sun 1pm Plaza - Darwin Bicentennial
Participants: Sam Scheiner (m), Brenda Clough, Mike Flynn, James Morrow, James Maxey
Darwin was born 200 years ago. Why are his ideas still controversial? Is the voyage of the Beagle the prototype for sf missions of scientific discovery? Why aren't there more books about Darwinism?
Sun 2pm Montrose - Post Consumer Economy
Participants: James Maxey (m), Lenny Bailes, David Louis Edelman, Tom King, Kathy Morrow
Is it possible to have a post consumer economy? What will it look like? - What happens when we decide we all have enough Stuff? The Stuff industries won't go away, any more than the auto and appliance industries went away when their reliability went away.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
This is how I finished up both Dragonseed and Dragonforge. Now that I've got the big choreography mapped out, I'll spend the next couple of months figuring out the fine details. The important thing is, I now know who my characters have to be at the end of the story in order to do the things that need to be done. This is the main information I need to go back to the beginning and start my rewrites. The first draft is about exploring who these characters are... every action they take deepens my understanding of them. My first draft starts with me writing about skeletons of characters, stick-men on a bare stage. As the chapters unfold, the characters gain substance and flesh and their personality emerges. They world they move around in slowly reveals itself as well. My second draft, I'm writing about fully fleshed out characters in a world where I know what people eat; I know about smells and temperatures and shades or light. Second drafts are where the story starts to resemble an actual published book.
I'll post here once I start rewrites. At some point this week, I'll also post an update on Capclave. I've got my schedule for it now. I know I get to talk about comic books on one panel, and Darwin on another. Woohoo!
Sunday, September 27, 2009
The main reason I didn't get more than 3k words done is that I spent all week working on my Codex Halloween story. The first draft of it was 8,800 words! Yowza! A bit problematic, though, given that the word count limit for the contest is 7,500 words. I've spent a lot of time intensively rewriting to tighten it up.
I think that my rewriting approach to short stories and novels is very different. With short stories, as I go through, I'm looking at every detail and thinking, "Does this really need to be in here? Can I just get rid of this entirely?" A short story should be free of distractions and side trips. On the other hand, when I'm writing a novel, I frequently find myself asking, "Is there something more I can put in here? Can I add some new detail that's only tangentally connected to the story, but still makes my world come alive?"
For instance, in my dragon age novels, I spend a lot of words talking about food and diet. In Dragonforge, there's a scene where Graxen devours a catfish on the docks in Hampton. It really doesn't have anything to do with the story. You could take out every mention of food in all three books, and the plot wouldn't change a bit. But, I really think the food scenes help bring the books to life; they provide a sensual detail that connects the reader on a literal gut level with what's unfolding on the page.
In a short story, if I have someone eat, I try to make the most of the sensory experience. But, also, I'm only going to have them eat if it's helping move the story along. Every element has to be propelling the reader toward a single destination. In a 5000 word story, you want 5000 words of story. In a 100,000 word novel, you can probably have 90,000 words devoted to advancing the story, and another 10,000 spent on diversions, curiousities, and amusements that flavor the tale without much changing it.
I have yet another draft to go on the halloween story. But, next week, I have a 4 day weekend. Greatshadow will get my full attention then.
Friday, September 25, 2009
Now the subject of my post: Fantasy Magazine has just posted an interview of yours truly by Catherine Bollinger, along with a review of Dragonseed by Cat Rambo. I did this interview back in late June or early July, and at the time thought it would go live in only a week or two, so in it I pitch the Books for Breasts campaign. If you've come here looking for information about it, alas, I wrapped up the campaign shortly after Dragoncon. I gave away a lot of my remaining copies there, both to people who contributed to the Koman foundation, as well as people who gave blood at the con. The Koman contribution page is down now; we wound up raising over $1,100. Between the campaign and Dragoncon promotions, I gave away about 70 books. I may relaunch the campaign next spring, depending on how generous the new owners of Solaris are with supplying me with free copies. The previous owners would mail me free cases of the book without batting an eye.
Monday, September 21, 2009
1: I'm taking part in the annual Codexwriter's Halloween Short Story Contest. I'm the reigning champ from last year. In fact, I've taken top prize in two out of the five years the contest has been going on, and sold every story I've written. "Final Flight of the Blue Bee" was from the first year and sold to Asimov's, ISLI, and Diakaijuzine (where you can read it for free... ignore the fact they've misspelled my name, please!) "Echo of the Eye" took second place the next year, and was published this spring in the Blotter (again, you can read it for free online, but don't if you're offended by kinky cannibal sex; also, the pdf takes a minute to two to open once you click the link). "Silent as Dust" was my first #1 win in the contest, and can still be read at IGMS for a small fee, and will be appearing next month in The Year's Best Fantasy and Science Fiction 2009 edited by Rich Horton. Last year, I wrote "Where Their Worm Dieth Not," which will be published in an upcoming superhero anthology called With Great Power, edited by Lou Anders. I'll talk more about it as the release date draws nearer.
Anyway, this is a long-winded way of saying that my word count on the novel is low because I wrote about half of a short story for this year... which I'm now going to throw away. Normally, I'm a believer in slogging through to the end and fixing in rewrites, but there really was nothing to fix. It was a perfectly fine story. It just wasn't a kick-ass story, and didn't have any hope of ever becoming one. It was just an idea with a plot; there was no loneliness or grief or sadness attached to it. It's funny, I don't normally think of myself as someone who writes sad stories. I normally think of my identifiable story elements as weirdness, humor, and odd takes on morality. But, Blue Bee works because the villian, Stinger, is so heart-broken. Echo works because the cannibal protagonist has a secret that he can't share with anyone but his monkey. Dust works because the hero has screwed up his life so badly that he's turned himself into a ghost, haunting an old mansion, without going through the normally required step of dying. And Worm has a weary superhero facing up to the fact that beating the latest bad guy hasn't reduced the sum of evil in the world at all. So, I'm back to the drawing board with 9 days to go before deadline. I intend to win this thing.
2: Writing is really a wonderful, wonderful activity. I love crafting stories, inventing characters, weaving plots. But, I have to tell you, the actual business of writing, the part where you try to get paid, is just painful. I signed a deal earlier in the summer to sell the French rights to Bitterwood and Dragonforge (Dragonseed wasn't out yet when this started). I've been sitting around all summer, daydreaming about the day when I'd finally get paid. So, last week I followed up with the French agent, and discovered that they'd never received any paperwork back from me (it's a long story why, which I'll not go into here). So, two months of waiting to get paid amounted to zilch. Luckily, they were still wanting to do the deal. Unluckily, I had to fill out tax forms again, then scan them and email them, them Fedex the hardcopy. I've also swapped at least a dozen emails trying to sort everything out. The deal is on, everything's worked out. Still, too much of my week was spent focused on dealing with this rather than on daydreaming about dragons crunching on knights.
Anyway, I'll post again next week. Since I'm doing short story work, my word count goal by next Sunday night will be to reach the 75K mark. Then, the following week, 85k. I'm counting on all of you to tease me mercilessly if I miss.
Sunday, September 20, 2009
I've had a really tough week, so I haven't been able to visit until this morning, and haven't been able to post yet since I had to set up a new user account and now need to wait for Hannah to approve it. I hope to be back there as early as tomorrow. I enjoyed the various discussions that emerged there, and hope you'll join us.
I'll discuss my really tough week in tomorrow's update post on Greatshadow word counts. And, tough might not be the word I'm looking for, since everything worked out well in the end. But any week that involves filling out a lot of tax forms is never a fun week.
Friday, September 11, 2009
I was pretty burned out last fall, having written about 300,000 words of fresh fiction in roughly 14 months, all while holding down a full time job. So, I took a few months to write some sample chapters and an outline for the first of the new fantasy novels I had in mind, a book called 13 Nails. I sent the proposal in to my agent around the end of October if my memory serves me. Not long after, we got the news that Solaris was up for sale.
Now, the smart thing for me to do when I got this news would have been to sit down and start writing. Which, actually, I did. In the past year, I've started four different novels, and written at least a few chapters on each of them. There were the three chapters I wrote for 13 Nails. I wrote five chapters of a novel set in a superhero universe you'll be able to catch a glimpse of in an anthology next year called With Great Power. I wrote two chapters of a sequel to my superhero novel Nobody Gets the Girl. And, while on vacation July, I wrote three chapters of a fantasy novel called Greatshadow, set in the same universe as 13 Nails, but with a completely different central cast.
As I was doing this, I was sort of kicked back, not stressed out about losing Solaris as a publisher. After all, I had an agent. She was still out there shopping around the sample chapters and outline for 13 Nails. So, while I wrote 13 chapters over the course of the last year, I didn't actually write any books. I got spoiled by my last two books, which I sold before I wrote them. I was unable to commit my time to an entire new book until I knew for sure it would be published.
Then, on July 28, I got a call from my agent. She was shutting down her agency and leaving the business.
Now I had no publisher and no agent. A year ago at this time, I had Christian Dunn expressing interest in as many books as I could write. Today, I have nothing nailed down. There's a reason the phrase "Don't quit your day job" is standard advice for writer's getting started in the biz.
So, that's the bad news. The good news is, I got off the phone with Nadia and started writing an actual book. Of all the projects I had started, the one that most captured my imagination was Greatshadow. It might simply be that it was just the most recent of the projects I'd started. But, also, it's a project I can explain in just a few sentences. All the other books are complex. The Nobody sequel requires that a person has read the first book to get the pitch. 13 Nails is, I think, a great book, but it has a wildly ambitious scope to it that defies simple summary. Any plot line that relies on events unfolding over a 500 year timeline is going to be tricky to pitch in 25 words or less. My superhero novel was a fun project, but I had a problem in that, after five chapters, I hadn't found it's heart. I had a plot, I had characters, but I didn't feel like I'd figured out what my larger point was. When I write a book, I want to be doing it for some larger reason than simply writing a book. I want to say something about what I've learned about life; a good book needs a theme, and it should be something more than "superheroes are cool."
Which brings me to Greatshadow. I'm going to count August 1 as my official start date. While I wrote three chapters in July, I threw those out and started from scratch. 40 days later, I've written 60944 words and 14 chapters. This is longer than my very first novel, which took me two years to write. I feel like this has passed solidly from a book I might write to a book I will write, which I why I'm finally talking about it here.
I've decided not to launch a serious search for a new agent or publisher until I finish it. The problem with only writing early chapters, polishing them, and sending them out is that, for me, I keep discovering wonderful stuff about the world and the characters as I roll along. I could sit and imagine a book for as long as I want to, think I've got it all figured out, but the second I start typing, things start changing. For instance, I know already I'm changing the names of at least two of the characters. I don't know what I'm changing them to, mind you, but the names have an internal rhyme that didn't matter to me when I started (I actually liked the way the names flowed when I listed characters and had the two names that partially rhymed), but now that I've written fourteen chapters, I know that it just doesn't work. Rhyming names always turn into jokes... think Rod and Todd from the Simpsons. And, I intended one of the characters to be comic relief, but the other character has emerged as one of the stronger players in the book, and I don't want to detract from that.
Here's the big picture: Greatshadow is the world's most powerful dragon. He's the primal dragon of fire, half big lizard, half elemental force. He's four thousand years old, has watched civilizations rise and fall, and during this time he's accumulated the largest treasure trove on the planet.
Now, a heroic knight named Lord Tower has sworn to slay the dragon once and for all. He's put together a team of a dozen of the world's greatest priests, wizards, and warriors to get the job done. Guided by an ancient map, they'll navigate into the heart of a volcano to fight the beast, both in the physical world, and in the spirit realm.
Twelve warriors set out. Only two come back.
You may be thinking, hmm, that seems like a pretty traditional fantasy novel. You'd be correct; I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel. The best fantasies I've read always strip down to men testing themselves against legendary beasts, and I want to try my hand at creating a truly archetypical fairy tale adventure. Only, of course, this is a James Maxey story. Nothing is going to be straight or simple. You wouldn't know from just the pitch about the love triangle giving tension to the story. It involves the celibate but sexually tormented knight, the invulnerable, super-strong princess who left him on the altar, and her dead boyfriend who happens to be narrating the book. You don't get a hint of the lesbian frost-ogre, the time-travelling bar owner who has seen the world end in fire and storm, the faceless giant who cries when his kitten dies, or the murdered magician who's been involuntarily brought back to life to take part in the quest. I haven't yet mentioned that almost everyone going on the dragon hunt plans to be the only one who comes out alive, in sole possession of the unimaginable treasure horde.
Also, in the Bitterwood universe, I didn't get to play with magic. This time, magic is everywhere. Lord Tower fights with a magic weapon called the Prayerhammer. He has an inpenetrable suit of armor that is prayed into existence by a team of two hundred monks hidden in a distant mountain monastery. I've got another guy covered with animal tattoos inked with the spirit blood of those beasts who can shapeshift into any creature drawn on him, but only once, until the tattoo gets reinked. (He's one of the characters I need to rename.)
Oh, and, of course, the Bitterwood dragons couldn't breathe fire. They were limited to forty foot wing spans, since that's the largest wingspan any earth creature ever evolved. I took them out of the realm of magic, and made them animals. Now, I'm going in the opposite direction. Greatshadow breathes fire. Greatshadow is fire, beneath a shell of big lizard. And, when I say big, I'm talking half mile wing span. How does he get off the ground at that size? He's magic, baby!
And, without giving too much away, I feel like I have a larger point to make with all this. I'm not some hard core radical environmentalist, but I think I'm touching on some fundamental truths in this book as the heroes set out to slay what is, in essense, a force of nature. Men have always sought to tame nature; everything that is good about being civilized flows from our ability to tame and control the natural world. Of course, some would argue that everything bad about being civilized flows from our separation and degradation of the natural world. Man versus nature is a worthy theme; especially when nature is a mountain-sized monster who gets to fight back.
This novel will get published. I don't know when, and I don't know where. But the chapters I've banged out so far are too good to just disappear forever into slush piles.
My goal is to finish a complete first draft before I start shopping it around; I have a target of finishing before I go to Capclave. I plan to start posting weekly progress reports here, probably every Monday. Once I start rewrites, I'll probably publish a few chapters here so you can see why I'm so excited about this project. I'm also giving serious thought to just mailing out the full manuscript of the book to anyone who wants a copy once I have it done.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
I said you'd see more pirate photos. This is the first con where I've ever worn a costume, even if it was only half a costume. Not many pirates wear blue jeans and Reebocks. It was actually a lot of fun, though I was sweating like a ... a... guy who sweats a lot (sorry, my metaphor batteries are drained this morning). I was just wearing the shirt and the hat and worried I might pass out. I have no idea how the people who wear the heavy coats over the shirts and load themselves down with gear like swords and spyglasses manage to avoid heat stroke. Is there some sort of costume air conditioning system I don't know about?
Anyway, it was fun wearing the costume. I can see how superheroes get addicted to them. I wound up at my only panel during the con in costume. In all the cons I go to, I almost never see other writers dressing up (though I did see some at this con). They don't know what they're missing out on. Now, I wonder where I can get a pair of buchaneer boots....
The Dread Pirate signs some books. Arrrr!
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Monday, September 7, 2009
Okay, first off, this is very poor quality video, shot with my cell phone as I walked through the Marriot on Saturday night around 9pm. It's jerky, the lighting is crap. But, I think you can still get a sense of what the dominant Dragoncon experience is like: Lots of crowds and chaos and a tremendous amount of wonder. The video starts with Captain America taking a photograph of Flash and Catwoman. As I walk past them, I come upon a group of bondage bunnies. I then plunge into a completely dark hallway where I'm invited to a pirate party. I emerge to the sight of a fembot; just beyond is Wonder Woman. I make it to the elevator banks and scan back toward Wonder Woman and notice she standing next to Robby the Robot. I pan the crowd quickly, so you can get a sense of three levels of crowds, before I turn the camera off.
This would NOT be a good place to walk around on any sort of psychoactive drug.
More photos to come once I'm back home!
Sunday, September 6, 2009
Friday, September 4, 2009
It turns out, we actually got to the roof! The Mariott is fifty floors high, so there were only a handful of buildings on the Atlanta skyline taller than we were. It was gorgeous; my cell phone camera couldn't really capture the full grandure of the view. My friend Mr. Cavin pointed out at a bar recently that, no matter how many megapixels my camera has, it's still gathering light through a lense the diameter of a pencil eraser. I'm hoping Cheryl's camera got better pictures; I just don't have an adapter for her media card.
I did try the video feature of my phone. I start by looking down over the edge. Squint, and you can see very, very, very tiny people in costumes milling about on the street.
After this adventure, we went to Princess Alethea's Travelling Road Show, where we partook in a Zombie Haiku slam. My improvised entry:
a shambling horror
bumping into the doorframe
where are my eyes?
Then, we were off to dinner at the Landmark Diner, which proved to be an adventure due to bad directions from the aforementioned Princess Alethea, compounded by bad directions from a cop. But, we eventually navigated our way across countless city blocks to the right location and had some terrific greek salads.
After that.... it was time to come back to where we're staying. I banged out another thousand words of my new novel. Momentum matters!
Now, bed time. Tomorrow, I'll try to get some pictures of costumes instead of cityscapes.
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
I'm participating in three official events at the con. First, on Friday at 5:30, I'll be taking part in Alethea Kontis's Traveling Road Show. It's her official reading slot, and since she didn't want to fill the whole hour alone, she's brought in buddies to help out. On Saturday night, I have a panel at 8:30pm called "Goblins, Minotaurs, and Elves, Oh My!" It's about writing non-human characters, a good topic for me given my experience with ex-wives. NO! Wait, that just slipped out. I meant, given my experience writing dragons. Then, finally, on Sunday, I have a reading at 2:30pm. Unlike Alethea, I'm being greedy and keeping the whole hour for myself.
I'm lugging along a very large stash of Dragon Age books. In a variation of my "Books for Breasts" campaign, I'll be doing an informal Books for Blood, where I'll be giving free books to anyone who gives blood at the Dragoncon Blood Drive then tracks me down at the panel or the readings with their little "I donated" label. And, of course, you can still get free copies of Dragonseed with a donation to the Susan G. Komen Foundation. (Look for the link near the top of the page.)
Next, I'm also participating in a promotion for Anthology Builder. This is a website where people can order custom made anthologies featuring only stories they want to read. It has an ever growing number of reprint stories available, including a few by me (I hope to have more available eventually.... some of the stories I most want to include are tied up waiting to appear in other anthologies and magazines at the moment). Nancy Fulda, who runs Anthology Builder, has given me 50 badges to hand out at Dragoncon. Send her a photo of you wearing your badge, and you qualify for a prize. Again, see the Anthology Builder website for more details.
I'm taking my laptop, so if I can find free wi-fi I'll post some photos from the con this weekend.
Next week, I plan to announce news here about the new novel I'm currently working on. I've got stories coming out in the next few months in three anthologies and one magazine. Also, there's news about my Dragon Age publisher, Solaris. I'm taking next week off from my day job. Who thought we would see the day when one reason you would look forward to a vacation was that it was a chance to update your blog?
Friday, August 21, 2009
"Drinking Problem" by K.D. Wentworth, published in Seeds of Change, edited by John Joseph Adams, Prime Books (August, 2008).
"Hard Rain at the Fortean Café" by Lavie Tidhar, published in issue 14 of Aeon Speculative Fiction Magazine, edited by Bridget McKenna.
"His Last Arrow" by Christopher Sequeira, published in Gaslight Grimoire: Fantastic Tales of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Jeff Campbell and Charles Prepolec, Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing, (October, 2008).
"Silent as Dust" by James Maxey, published in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, edited by Edmund R. Schubert, Hatrack Publishing.
"Spider the Artist" by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, published in Seeds of Change, edited by John Joseph Adams, Prime Books (August, 2008)
"The Absence of Stars: Part 1" by Greg Siewert, published in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, edited by Edmund R. Schubert, Hatrack Publishing.
"The Toy Car" by Luisa Maria Garcia Velasco, (translated from Spanish by Ian Watson) published in April 2008 edition of Aberrant Dreams, edited by Joseph W. Dickerson.
The award honors the efforts of small press publishers in providing a critical venue for short fiction in the area of speculative fiction. The award showcases the best original short fiction published by small presses in the previous year (2008). An unusual feature of the selection process is that all voting is done with the identity of the author (and publisher) hidden so that the final choice is based solely on the quality of the story.The winner is chosen by the members of the Washington Science Fiction Association (www.wsfa.org) and will be presented at their annual convention, Capclave (www.capclave.org), held this year on October 16-18th in Rockville, Maryland.
By chance, I had already signed up as a guest at Capclave for my first time ever. Ed Schubert, the editor of IGMS who's responsible for publishing two stories on this list, had recommended the con to me several times. Lucky coincidence, or good omen?
Thursday, August 13, 2009
I'm currently writing a fantasy novel that expands on the short story, unfolding in this alternate reality where dragons breathe fire and wizards perform magic by telling lies to the universe and making the universe believe them. The big picture of the story is that the adventurers are on a quest to kill Greatshadow, the primal dragon of fire, a three-thousand year old beast that is more of an elemental force than a flesh and blood creature. The thing that makes killing the dragon possible is a magic sword. In the short story I'm basing the novel on, the sword is called "Frostbite." It's a blade of enchanted ice that's sort of kryptonite to a dragon of fire. My problem is, for the book, the name "Frostbite" seems overused. While I can't think of a specific instance, I'm pretty certain that in the 10,000 fantasy novels on the shelf already, someone has already used the name Frostbite for a magic sword.
I thought of calling it the "Winter Fang." But, I googled that, and sure enough, that's also already been used. In the book, the legend behind the sword is that it's been carved from the tooth of Hush, the dragon of ice, the opposite force to the dragon of fire. The sword is formed of a substance known as "false matter*," and is, essentially, a sword shaped vacuum of absolute zero that disintegrates any "true matter" it touches. I thought of calling it the Nulfang, but I don't like the look or sound of the word. And, other ideas I come up with all die beneath the crushing force of Google: I think I have something, but when I google it I find that some game or book already is using the name for a sword.
So, I though I'd throw it out to you guys. What would be a good name for a really, really cold magic weapon? It doesn't have to be a sword: I suppose the plot works just as well if it's a spear or an axe, but I'd like to keep it a hand-held weapon: the climax needs to have the hero within arms reach of the dragon, so, no holy handgrenades. Any ideas?
I don't want to turn this into a formal contest, but if you suggest a name and I use it in the book, you will, of course, wind up in the acknowledgements to the book, and get a free copy. However, since the book isn't written, and has no publisher lined up, it might be a while before that reward materializes; the non-existence of an prize is why I'm not making this an official contest. Just post your suggestions in the comments section. Feel free to make more than one suggestion.
*In this world, there are four essential forces that blend together to form reality: Matter, Spirit, Truth, and Lies. Most of the physical world - chairs, mountains, hammers, rain, and lollypops- are made of true matter. Dragons, according the the church, are made of false spirit matter. Most things are combinations of two of the forces; humans are the only things known to be made from all four forces, which either makes them the most balanced thing under the sun, or the most unstable.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
I've had a couple of people ask me about upcoming signings. I don't have any bookstore signings lined up at present, but I will be a guest at Dragoncon in Atlanta over the Labor Day Weekend, then a guest at Capclave near Washington DC in October. I skipped Dragoncon last year, and have never been to Capclave, so I'm looking forward to reconnecting with people I haven't seen in a while and making new friends.
Finally, two Dragon Age book reviews popped up while I was gone. First, Loren Eaton has reviewed Bitterwood at I Saw Lightning Fall. He admires the book for breaking conventions, but dislikes Hezekiah's voice-of-God mode where he quotes the Bible in ALL CAPS. It's a fair criticism; I think it was a fun idea when I had it, but perhaps it was a little too cutesy in retrospect.
Dragonseed got some ink (or photons, I guess) over at Aliette de Bodard's blog. She writes: But what I loved about the previous books, and that I still love about this one, is Maxey’s willingness to handle hard questions about species survival, humanity’s worthiness and the value of faith and religion. Those were themes already explored in Bitterwood and Dragonforge, and I’m glad to see that they’re back, and that Maxey handles them gracefully, without sinking into too much preachiness. Every character has a different view on the matter–and, in the end, it’s only the fanatics such as Prophet Ragnar who might be proved wrong.
More updates soon!
Saturday, July 11, 2009
Second: With the release of Dragonseed, the conversations going on at bitterwood.net are starting t0 pick up. The forum has had 143 members sign up. If you dropped by there when I first mentioned it a month ago, it was pretty sleepy, but now it's definitely worth jumping in if you are looking for a place to discuss the books with fellow fans. This morning, I started a thread where I asked three questions:
1: If genetic engineering reached a point where it was possible to create complex life forms, are there any fantasy beasts you would want to see other than dragons? 2: I decided that humans would hunt the dragons because a lot of our entertainment is built around humans fighting dragons. Do you think, if intelligent dragons existed, we would ever live peacefully with them? Or, would you really welcome the chance to slap on some armor and go out with a lance to try to fight one of these things? 3: Let's drop the "if" from the first question. I think we are probably no more than a century away from understanding the genetic code to the level that creating new creatures from scratch is possible. When that day comes, would you regard it as ethical to create new life forms like dragons or angels? How about reviving life forms, like dodos and velociraptors? Or should we just stay away from playing God?
Third: Another review of Dragonseed has popped up! Author Colin Harvey has just reviewed the book, along with recaps of the previous books. Read it all at Suite101.com.
Finally: There's an interview by Cindy Hannikman at Fantasy Book Critic where I discuss Land of the Lost, Christian-bashing, the fate of mammoths, and the esoteric knowledge that humans have aquired that is even better than magic. Read the whole thing at Fantasy Book Critic.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
To celebrate the launch, she's holding a contest. Anthology Builder has a collection of pre-designed covers; she's inviting writers to write a story based on their favorite cover. The winner of the contest will win $200 and publication in the Anthology Builder database. Full details of the contest can be found here.
I've got a both of my Asimov's stories available there. Final Flight of the Blue Bee is a superhero tale; To the East, a Bright Star is a "last-day-of-earth" story about a former circus aerialist. Now that the site is no longer in beta, I'll probably expand my offerings there in the near future.
Monday, July 6, 2009
I just raised the goal to $1500. I have mixed feelings about raising the goal. On the plus, it's for a good cause, and I hope the higher limit will encourage people who still learn about this cause to contribute. The only downside is that I dislike moving the goalpost, so to speak. I told my friends and fans I wanted to raise $1000, and you did an amazing job of making that happen in only a week. I don't want to diminish your hard work and dedication by taking away that 100% filled-in goal thermometer. But, in the end, I think the greater good falls toward raising the goal and trying to collect a little more if I can. It may be that the news of this drive has spread as far as it's going to, but if there is someone out there who hears about this in the coming weeks, I don't want them to be confused into thinking the Books for Breasts drive is over. If I can raise even another hundred bucks toward fighting breast cancer, I intend to do so.
Thanks again to everyone who helped meet the initial push toward $1000. I cannot begin to sum up my enormous gratitude for this. As readers of my dragon novels may surmise, I'm not someone who always sees mankind in the sunniest light. The fact that so many people jumped in for this cause so quickly has reminded me that the greatest thing about humans is their humanity. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
In the end, Maxey lived up to my expectations in Dragonseed. I loved the fact that readers get to learn more about the characters that they have spent 2 books learning about and even grow closer to these characters. There are definitely a number of twists and turns in Dragonseed that bring an element of surprise and action to the book.
Sunday, June 28, 2009
Back in 2004, the Mountain Goats put out an album titled We Shall All be Healed. I suspect they borrowed the phrase from the prayer, "Heal us, Lord, and we shall be healed." I first listened to the album in Laura's bedroom. She was on chemo at the time, and was spending much of the day in bed. The album is mostly about the self-destructive behavior of drug addicts, but there are some lines within it that filled me with neo-religious visions. In one of the songs, John Darnielle sings, "I dreamt of a factory, where they manufactured what I needed, using shiny new machines." He's talking, in the context of the song, about methamphetamines, but I would find myself dreaming of men and women in white lab coats, toiling over test tubes and microscopes, typing data in to computer terminals. These were the invisible soldiers in the war on cancer, and it filled me with the hope that any day I would pick up a newspaper and find that there had been some breakthrough, and Laura's cancer could be healed. I knew of people who'd lived with cancer for ten years and more. If Laura could hold out ten years, I was certain she would beat the disease.
She didn't, alas, make it ten years. And, if she had, I no longer believe the cure is going to be found tomorrow, or the next day. The last five years of research have yeilded important discoveries, the chief and most important of which is that we still have much more to learn.
But, when America was discovered by Europeans, it took them a while to figure out what they'd found. They set up colonies before they really even understood the shape and scope of the continents they'd encountered. I feel like we are in a similar stage in the understanding of cancer: We are still making maps of its boundaries. We are still sending surveyors into its interiors. We do not yet know all there is to know, but we are daily pushing the frontier ahead of us. And, just as we continued to improve the technology to map America--today, I have the ability to look down on the roof of my house from space!--we are only going to increase our understanding of cancer. Even discovering our ignorance, learning, for example, that a drug wipes out cancer in rats but does nothing for people, is progress. As we seek to understand what doesn't work, we gain insights into what will work.
So, on this warm June Sunday morning, I'll give a little prayer of gratitude to those unknown explorers in their lab coats who are seeking a new, cancer-free world. And, I extend a great big, heart-in-my-throat thank you to everyone who's donated this past week. You've done a good thing. You've put your money where your heart is.
The day is coming. We shall all be healed.
Friday, June 26, 2009
And, of course, the "Books for Breasts" campaign is still active if you'd like a signed copy of Dragonseed. After just four days, I've given away 25 books, so there's still plenty left for those who wish to support an important cause. See the links at the top of the page for more information.
Next, I just got contracts yesterday for French editions of my books! I've been sitting on this news for month. Somehow, the thought of Blasphet speaking French gives me chills.
Finally, I'd like to offer congratulations to my cover artist Michael Komarck, who this week received a nomination for a Chelsey Award for best paperback cover for Dragonforge! I really hope he wins, not just because it's the cover of one of my books, but because it really is an amazing bit of art in its own right.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Jandra looked down at her notes on the thick oak table beside her. “Unlatch safety,” was underlined. “One second delay between spark and shot,” was underlined twice. “Keep butt of gun against shoulder,” had four thick lines beneath it.
She looked back across the spacious loft at the target, a round wooden shield balanced atop a stool about fifty feet away, with a feather mattress behind it, and a thick brick wall behind that. She braced herself as she aimed, gritting her teeth as she pressed the butt of the weapon firmly against her bruised shoulder. She pulled the trigger. There was a flash, a hiss, a curl of peppery smoke, then BOOM. The force rattled every bone in her body, but she kept her balance. A cloud of thick white smoke in front of her hid the target for a few seconds. When it dispersed, she found the target gone, reduced to splinters jutting from the feather mattress. A few puffs of down floated in the air.
“Bull’s-eye,” said Burke. “That’s how it’s supposed to work.”
Anza had her fingers in her ears. Her nose wrinkled as the acrid smoke reached her.
“Does it have to be so loud?” Jandra asked.
“Yes,” said Burke. “The cannon I’m building will be even louder. It’s the sound of the future, girl. Get used to it.”
Jandra tried reloading the weapon the way Burke had shown her, stuffing the wad of powder-filled cotton down the barrel with the ramrod, then stuffing the shot bag in with it. She tapped some fresh powder into the flash pan, and inserted a new fuse.
“This isn’t exactly a fast weapon to reload,” said Jandra.
“I’m still working on a percussion-activated cartridge,” said Burke. “In the Human Age, guns took centuries to refine. I had a week.”
“I wasn’t criticizing your work.”
Burke sighed. “Sorry if I’m defensive. I’ve had almost no sleep in the last week. It’s got me on edge.”
“Is your leg keeping you awake?”
“That’s part of it. The bigger part is trying to keep this town running. Ragnar’s management skills are somewhat lacking. He had no plans for securing resources like food and water, let alone coal and ore. We’ve had some lucky breaks so far, but it’s only a matter of time before the dragons reorganize and set up a blockade. It’s what I would do. Holding onto the town isn’t enough. We have to be able to project force.”
Anza set up a new target, the top of a crate on which the crude outline of an earth-dragon had been drawn. Jandra looked toward the fireplace, where Lizard, the earth-dragon child, sat on the hearth, staring at the flames. The scales on his back shifted slowly through shades of dull orange and red. If Lizard had been frightened by the rifle shot, he didn’t show it. She wondered if he’d even recognized the outline on the board. Once Anza was clear, Jandra pulled the trigger again. She clenched her jaw as the fuse sizzled… BLAM! Her shoulder felt bruised down to the bone. Again, though, she was pleased with the results. The target was shredded.
“Okay,” Jandra said, lowering the gun. “This gives me the firepower I need if I get into a bad spot. And, I still have this if I need to turn invisible.” She raised her left arm, sporting the silver bracelet, the ring of invisibility she’d created for her sun-dragon friend Hex. Her former friend, to be exact, now that Hex had stolen her genie, the source of her powers. Jandra had charged the bracelet with enough reflective nanites to work a half-dozen times. Hex had used it once, to her knowledge, meaning she had five chances to vanish from sight if needed.
Burke said, “Anza will be along to help remove obstacles. I’m also sending Vance.”
“Vance?” Jandra asked. Anza glanced up from the stack of targets, looking as if she, too, was surprised by this news. “The short guy with the bad mustache? Why him?”
“He’s the best archer we have with a skywall bow,” said Burke. “Also, I like him. He’s got a good heart. I trust him.”
Anza made a flurry of hand signals toward her father. Burke frowned. “How can you say he’s just a kid? I think he’s the same age you are. He’s definitely older than Jandra. He’s going. I don’t have the energy to discuss it further.”
Anza scowled. Though Anza’s feelings were easy to interpret at the moment, Jandra worried more about Anza as a companion than Vance. Anza didn’t speak, and Jandra didn’t understand her hand signals. Without Burke around to translate, she was worried about how they were supposed to communicate. Jandra was also worried about Burke’s health. He was sweating despite the frigid drafts that cut through the loft. If she still had her powers, healing his leg would be a simple matter. She was frustrated that he had to be in such pain.
There was a knock on the floor. The trap door swung open, revealing the bald pate of Burke’s chief foreman, a portly fellow everyone called Biscuit. “I know you said no visitors, Burke, but I think you’re gonna want to talk to this guy. He says he’s an escaped slave from the College of Spires. Used to work for Chapelion himself.”
Burke raised an eyebrow. “Of course. Bring him up.”
The man who followed Biscuit up through the trap door was dressed in a fine red coat with shiny metal buttons. The coat was mud-flecked and covered with brambles and small rips. Despite the poor state of the coat, it reminded Jandra of the finery she used to have access to growing up in the palace. Unlike many of the rough, rugged rebels who populated Dragon Forge, the new arrival looked as if he had at least a passing familiarity with soap. His bright orange hair was pulled back into a short braid with a black ribbon. He was young, in his early twenties perhaps, quite tall despite his atrocious posture, and too thin for his height. His face had a slightly feminine quality, perhaps due to the unusual fullness of his lips; his cheeks were dotted with freckles.
The new arrival cleared his throat. “You must be Kanati,” he said, addressing Burke. “My name is Shay. I can’t believe I’ve actually found you.”
“Nobody calls me Kanati anymore,” said Burke. “I left that name behind when I fled Conyers. I don’t miss it. Call me Burke.”
“By whatever name, it’s an honor, sir,” Shay said, crossing the room and extending his hand. Burke reached out and grasped it, giving it a good shake. “Chapelion wrote the history of the battle of Conyers. Even though Chapelion wrote from the perspective of the victors, you remain a sympathetic character in his narrative. Chapelion respects genius.”
Burke cocked his head. “You can read?”
“Yes sir,” said Shay. “Chapelion used me as a living quill. He would dictate his books while eating his dinner, or taking his bath, or simply walking the grounds of the College. I faithfully followed behind, recording his every thought. In the hours when his duties took him elsewhere, I had access to his private collection of books, some of the rarest manuscripts in the kingdom.”
“How rare?” asked Burke.
“From the Human Age.”
Shay slipped his leather pack from over his shoulder and sat it on the floor. “I stole several works from Chapelion before I escaped,” he said, pulling out books one by one. The tomes looked ancient; Jandra noted the titles: The Origin of Species, The Wealth of Nations, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Leviathan. The fifth book was comparatively new— A Glorious Victory: The Defeat of the Southern Uprising. Shay held this book out to Burke. “I’ve marked the pages documenting your role in the rebellion.”
Burke didn’t reach to take the book. “Why would any man want to read a catalog of his failures? My sole claim to fame before Dragon Forge has been losing a rebellion.” Burke shook his head, then glanced toward the fireplace. “Now I fear the next history written about me will say I learned nothing from my mistakes. They’ll note how poorly planned our uprising was, and how little thought was given to what would come after we took Dragon Forge.” He took off his spectacles and cleaned them on his shirt. “It’s bad enough that people who don’t read history fail to learn from it; how much worse is it that the men who lived it are unable to gain any wisdom?”
“The blow you struck here is still echoing through the kingdom,” said Shay. “The dragon hierarchy is on the verge of collapse. Sun-dragons plot to seize advantage over other sun-dragons in this time of turmoil. And now, Chapelion has allied himself with the valkyries and plots to overthrow Androkom as High Biologian, risking a civil war among the colleges. The dragons are so busy with their intrigues, you may never face an attempt to retake Dragon Forge.”
Burke shook his head. “We can’t count on that. If it does work out that way, I still don’t expect to wind up as a hero in anyone’s history. Ragnar is going to get all the glory.”
As if the sound of Ragnar’s name had summoned him, a voice boomed from below: “All glory belongs to God!” The elevator that carried Burke’s chair up to the loft rattled as the chains lifted it. The bushy, unkempt mane of hair that wreathed Ragnar’s leathery face came into view. As usual, Ragnar was naked. He’d taken a sacred vow not to wear clothes or cut his hair until the last dragon was slain. His body was crisscrossed with scabs, souvenirs from the battle to capture Dragon Forge.
Jandra cast her gaze at his feet. Ragnar was her brother, though they’d been raised apart. As an orphan, she’d dreamed her whole life of finding a blood relative, someone who would instantly resonate as a member of her true family. Now that she’d found one, it had left her feeling even more orphaned than before.
Ragnar hadn’t arrived alone. He was surrounded by eight burly warriors in armor he’d taken to calling his Mighty Men. The biggest of these, Stonewall, was a true giant—easily seven feet tall and thickly muscled. Unlike the other Mighty Men, veterans of battle whose grizzled faces were marred with scars, Stonewall’s face was pristine, youthful, and clean-shaven, beneath wavy black locks.
Frost, the man she’d shot, stepped from behind Stonewall, looking furious. His head was wrapped in bandages, and brown blood stained the cotton gauze where his ear had been. Jandra felt a twinge of guilt; she’d only intended to frighten Frost. If she still had her powers, she could have grown him a new ear. Of course, she would likely have been denounced as a witch for the effort.
“Burke,” Ragnar growled. “My tolerance has limits. Your usefulness as a weapon maker doesn’t give you the right to shelter a witch. This is to be a holy city; turn over Jandra, that she may face the fitting punishment for her kind.”
Jandra used the ramrod to slide a new bag of powder down the muzzle of the gun.
“I’m not a witch,” she said, calmly. “And I’m not Burke’s to turn over.”
“If you’re innocent you have nothing to fear,” said Stonewall. His voice was as deep and smooth as a sun-dragon’s. “There are tests we will apply to determine whether or not you’ve been touched by the devil.”
Jandra pushed a bag of shot into the gun.
Suddenly, there was a heavy weight clawing up her back. Lizard, the dragon-child, scrambled onto her shoulder and flashed the same shade of green as her coat.
“No eat! No eat!” he hissed at Frost.
“And now you harbor dragons?” asked Ragnar.
“Where did that come from?” Shay asked, approaching Jandra. “Did it just change color?”
“He was sitting by the fireplace,” said Jandra. “He blends into the background when he’s not moving.”
“Remarkable,” said Shay. “The chameleon mutation is exceedingly rare; fewer than one in ten thousand earth-dragons display it. When he’s fully grown, he’ll become part of the assassin unit known as the Black Silence.”
Jandra already knew more than she wanted to know about these assassins. She’d nearly died when one of them had slit her throat.
“If he’s one of those monsters, it’s all the more reason to kill him,” said Frost.
“And all the more proof that you are a witch,” growled Ragnar.
“Consorting with dragons doesn’t make one a witch,” Shay argued. “I’ve been a slave of dragons since birth, yet I’m not a witch. I’ve come to volunteer for the cause. I confess I’m lacking as a warrior, but I have other skills that may prove useful. I’ve brought books, great works from the Human Age.” He held up a tome by Charles Darwin in one hand and by Adam Smith in the other. “If there are children here, I could set up a school. I want to lay the foundation for a new golden age of humanity.”
Ragnar walked toward Shay, his eyes contemplating the books. He picked up the copy of The Origin of Species. The book was over a thousand years old. Shay held his breath as Ragnar opened the yellowed pages. Jandra’s finely tuned eyes could see the dust that showered down from the book as it was opened, fine flecks of the ancient paper crumbling away.
“It’s very fragile,” Shay said softly, as if fearing that his own breath might damage the pages. “Please be careful. I intend to transcribe it before I—”
“The world needs only one book,” Ragnar said, closing the pages with a violent clap. He flung the tome into the fireplace.
Shay sucked air, as if he’d been punched in the stomach. He dived for the fireplace, reaching into the bright flames to retrieve the book. He snatched it out, but it was too late. The ancient paper flared as quickly as gunpowder in a flash pan. In seconds, all that remained of the manuscript was a mound of black ash.
“You monster!” Shay, shouted, spinning around, his fists clenched. “Do you know what you just destroyed?”
“Useless old words by a man long dead,” said Ragnar. His Mighty Men drew their swords, ready to strike if Shay approached.
Jandra raised her gun. Frost stepped back behind Stonewall.
“Stop this!” Burke snapped, wincing as he shifted in his seat. “Ragnar, you’re not taking Jandra. She’s brought us the secret to gunpowder. Right now, I’m designing and testing weapons that will make the skywall bows seem like toys. She and I are the only two people who know the secret. If you so much as lay a finger on Jandra, I’ll have Anza slit my throat. I won’t use my talents in the service of a man dedicated to launching a new dark age.”
“Suicide will damn your soul to eternal torment,” Ragnar growled.
“And it will rob you of the weapons that will let mankind rule this world. I’m a pessimist, Ragnar. I’ve anticipated that you’d ruin this since the day we met. I’ve been in constant, nonstop, pain since Charkon ruined my leg. Don’t think I wouldn’t welcome death.”
Ragnar glared at Burke, as if trying to determine if the machinist was bluffing. Ragnar frowned; no doubt in his mind all heathens were unstable enough to kill themselves out of spite. The prophet turned his gaze toward Jandra. Lizard hissed at the hairy man. Glowering, Ragnar looked toward Shay, then to the pile of books beside the leather backpack.
“Take the books,” he barked to Stonewall.
“No!” said Shay, rushing to grab the pile.
“Let him have the books,” Burke snapped. Anza leapt forward, sword drawn, putting herself between Shay and the bag. She shook her head slowly as she eyed Shay.
“These may be the only copies of these books left in the world,” Shay said, on the verge of begging. “You can’t let him take them.”
“Books aren’t equal to human lives,” Burke grumbled. “Ragnar, take the books. Use them to wrap fish for all I care. As for Jandra, she’s leaving Dragon Forge before nightfall. You won’t have to worry about her witching up any more of your men.”
“I’ll allow her to leave,” Ragnar said, “provided she doesn’t return.”
“Fine,” said Burke.
“But—” said Jandra.
“Drop it,” Burke said, through gritted teeth. It was obvious that the stress of the encounter was causing him great pain.
Stonewall gathered up the books and went to Ragnar’s side. Ragnar and his Mighty Men turned and went back to the elevator. He glanced back over his shoulder.
“Burke,” he said. “Don’t think I will tolerate your blasphemy indefinitely. I can be pushed too far.”
“So can I,” said Burke, narrowing his eyes. The elevator rumbled, lowering Ragnar and his men from view.
Shay fell to his knees in front of the charred remains of the book on the hearth. “This book survived twelve centuries, only to vanish at the whim of a fanatic. Why did you give him the books, Kanati? I would have thought you, of all people, would have valued those writings. Aren’t you one of the Anudahdeesdee? The tribe that calls itself the Memory?”
“The Anudahdeesdee have copies of all the books you showed me,” said Burke. “I’ve got a collection of over two-hundred manuscripts in the basement of my tavern. The physical books you lost were rare, but the information inside them is more than just the paper they’re printed on. Information is essentially immortal with a little technological assistance. At my tribal home beyond the mountains, my people maintain an old press to preserve copies of essential works. We lost nothing here today.”
Shay perked up. “There’s a printing press in human control? That’s fantastic! I wish I could see it.”
“Maybe you can,” said Burke. “You aren’t going to be on Ragnar’s list of favorite people. You should get out of here tonight. Go with Jandra and Anza. They’ll be passing through Burke’s Tavern, my adopted hometown. Assuming the town is still standing, and hasn’t fallen victim to reprisals by retreating earth-dragons, there’s a map in my basement that would be of interest to you. It contains instructions on how to go to my homeland. It’s coded, but Anza can give you the key.”
“But… but I only just arrived,” said Shay. “I came to fight for the liberty of mankind.”
“Stay here and you’ll get your throat cut in your sleep by one of the Mighty Men,” said Burke. “You’ve never held a sword in your life, have you?”
Shay lowered his head, looking embarrassed. “No, sir.”
“You’re lucky I’ve already forged the pieces to make a second shotgun,” said Burke. “The beauty of a gun is the way it equalizes the slave and the warrior. Let me get the crew to assemble it and whip you up an ammo belt. I’ll send you off with Anza, Jandra, and Vance.”
Shay looked as if he were about to argue further, but held his tongue. Lizard, still on Jandra’s shoulder, stared intently as Burke rolled his wheeled chair over to the elevator and pulled the lever to raise the cage.
“Strong boss,” the little dragon whispered, sounding awed.
Vulpine drifted on the winds high above Dragon Forge, with Balikan a few yards off his left wing. Reports were that the sky-wall bows could reach a mile, and Vulpine took care to stay well beyond that range. He could see scores of humans armed with bows crowded onto the thick stone walls that surrounded the town. They watched him closely, though he knew at this distance he was little more than a speck.
“They look rather alert,” said Balikan.
“Alert enough,” said Vulpine. “This is why the brute strength, head-on approach of the sun-dragons was doomed to failure. Shandrazel was too eager to prove his strength and crush the rebellion in a grand slaughter, the way his father crushed the rebellion at Conyers. If he’d been more patient, he could have broken this insurgency without spilling a drop of dragon blood.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” said Balikan. “He had catapults in his army with a greater range than the bows. He could have lobbed in barrels of flaming pitch and burned the town to the ground.”
Vulpine shook his head. “There’s a difference between destroying Dragon Forge and reclaiming it.”
Vulpine motioned with his head, inviting Balikan to follow his gaze. Dragon Forge wasn’t a large town. The fortress was diamond-shaped, encompassing roughly one square mile of earth. Save for a few broad avenues, the interior of the fortress was cramped with buildings built on top of buildings, so that one dragon’s floor was another dragon’s roof. Three smokestacks dominated the skyline of Dragon Forge, belching plumes of ash high into the sky.
Outside of the walls there were hundreds of heaps of rusting metal dotting the low red hills, the raw material of the foundries. Amid these heaps were hovels where gleaners lived, among the poorest humans in the kingdom.
Threading through these heaps were four major roads. All were busy with traffic. In the absence of dragons, humans throughout the kingdom rushed to Dragon Forge. Some of this traffic, though, wasn’t here for the rebellion. Mule trains hauling wagon loads of coal wound along the western road. They cared little who bought their wares, be it human or dragon.
Along the southern side of Dragon Forge there was a river; a canal had been dug long ago to divert water into the city, where a water wheel powered the bellows that fanned the foundries. The water also served to flush the gutters and sewers of the town — crude but effective sanitation. In addition to this water, Vulpine could see a large well at the center of the town. The rebels wouldn’t perish from thirst. “With the right eyes, you can see the city as a heart. The roads and rivers serve as arteries and veins, carrying in the lifeblood, carting off the waste. Choke off the roads and the city dies.”
“But by now the rebels will have been stocking up on supplies. They could hold out for weeks, or months.”
“And is the world suddenly in short supply of weeks and months?” asked Vulpine.
Balikan clamped his mouth shut, looking properly chastised.
“In any case, I don’t think they will hold out for months,” said Vulpine. “Humans lack the capacity for long-term planning we sky-dragon’s possess. Presented with a blockade, with food and resources dwindling, they will likely turn on themselves in short order, especially once plague breaks out.”
“If plague breaks out,” said Balikan. “I must admit, it looks as if they are doing a fair job of keeping the town clean.”
“This need not be something left to chance,” said Vulpine. “Let’s pay a visit to the Nest. It’s only thirty miles away and a few dozen valkyries can easily blockade the western road and cut off the coal supply. The valkyrie engineers can also block off the canal feeding water into the town. After that, we’ll follow the Forge Road back to the Palace to confer with Chapelion and get the authority to gather all the elements I need to truly solve this problem.”
“Will he grant us this authority? We’re slavecatchers, not soldiers.”
“After I tell him his books are in the fort,” said Vulpine, “he’ll give me every last soldier in the kingdom.”