You can be a genius too!*

* with enough practice and study

The idea of genius is a troubling one, especially mixed as it is with discussions of normal creativity.  I don’t think many people who aren’t involved in something creative as a primary occupation or even as a major hobby give this much thought.  People who write, play music, or craft visual art generally do think about creativity and “genius” quite often, but I’m disturbed by how many of them fall into the regular traps that so many “normal people” do.  The question of how creative people come up with stuff is constantly discussed in documentaries, behind-the-scenes footage, in writing craft books, and music instruction.  And the thing I repeatedly hear people saying is that creative people, especially those who have a large impact on art, music, and culture, are touched by God.

Let’s put that idea to rest.

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A Quick Note About The F Word

Driving home this morning, the Motley Crue song “S.O.S.” brought to mind something that has really been bothering me lately about popular music. As much as I’ve always considered Motley Crue and KISS to be novelty acts that weren’t really worth my refined artistic attention, there are certain rules they never broke (to my knowledge). In particular, no matter what they’re talking about, no matter which depraved topic, they always made sure that the lyrics worked in the sense of rhythm and in a particular context. What they didn’t do, and what so many pop songs are doing now, was misuse profanity. Ironically, if anything was holy to people with such poor artistic taste as Motley Crue, it was that a song should not distract its listeners with stupidly poor word choices.

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Lions of Al-Rassan: disappointed!

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Guy Gavriel Kay is an author who gets a lot of respect from writers. Brandon Sanderson has said that we’re all just trying to be as good as Guy Gavriel Kay. If that’s true, then after reading The Lions of Al-Rassan I’m starting to think he’s the Bob Dylan of fantasy writers.

That is to say he’s a good writer, who knows how to build characters and put words together. The way he does it in this book has some serious flaws that left me dreading to pick it up, and with no real interest in the characters or what happened to them. This book gets three stars because it is a well-written piece of literature, with a plot that works, but it’s nothing more than that. In terms of pacing and story structure, I also found it to be quite a bit off.

Three major problems kept me from enjoying this book, and I’ll start with the world. What Kay did with this book was to take Medieval Spain, with its well-known conflict between Christians, Muslim, and Jews, and change the names. Let me be clear: this is not Medieval Spain, it is not alternte history. This is a fantasy world with two moons and different constellations that just happens to have the exact same geography as Spain. So does the rest of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Gee, that’s funny. The three sects are Asharites (Muslims), Jaddites (Christians), and the Kindath (Jews). If these were three groups that Kay had invented and come up with a good reason for them to be at odds, then it would be interesting. Unfortunately, he chose to have many of the same practices, beliefs, and prejudices that the real-world groups have. The biggest one is the blood libel, used against the Kindath.

My question is that if the correspondence was going to be so strong, why didn’t he just write about actual Christians, Jews, and Muslims in medieval Spain? I kept reading this thinking it was a very very very very thinly veiled, very nineties attack on Christians and their history (with enough attacks on Jews and Muslims to make it fair). This sort of thing was very popular in the eighties and nineties (as in The Mists of Avalon), and Kay’s choices don’t make it hard to see it this way. As it was, it was either a not-very-creative fantasy world, or a bad historical fiction.

Kay’s characters also kept me from really getting into this book. There’s a doctor, a few kings, and some concubines and courtesans, and a few young men learning their way in the world. And of course the poet. They’d be interesting if they didn’t insist on acting in such implausible ways. The main point of implausibility is their sexual choices: the characters in this book just can’t stop doinking. It’s insane. There is a stretch of at least 60 pages in the mass-market paperback that is all people doing it. There’s a lot of comparing breasts to pears and melons… . Much of the sex is completely inconsequential, which is really hard to believe in a population without established methods of birth control (yes, medieval birth control existed but it’s never mentioned in this book). Not only is much of it meaningless to the plot, it’s meaningless to the characters. I just don’t believe in meaningless sex, I guess, but if it’s meaningless pleasure that has no effect on the plot, why is it in the book?

I just don’t buy that a physician, a woman in her late twenties, who is portrayed as overly sensible would “take a young man into her bed” for some meaningless pleasure without thinking there would be any consequences in terms of their relationship. I’m having a hard time imagining this character doing that. And then he’s just got a crush on her, from a distance…still? After having sex with her? He still just watches her from afar, thinking he can’t have her…after he “had” her? What the…? I just don’t get it. So sex is just meaningless to this woman to the point where she’d have sex with a nineteen year-old boy just because she felt like it one night and then the rest of the book she’s…what the hell, nevermind. I think I’ve made my point. Even if you do believe people can have sex without emotional or other consequences, you still have to question what’s going on with this character.

I’m just not buying it.

The last thing I found annoying was the structure: constant back and forth, summary and rehash, and huge events just glossed over. That made it hard to follow.

The overall effect of all this was that I didn’t look forward to reading this book. The test of a four or five star book is that I think about the characters when I’m not reading the book. These characters were so implausible that I just didn’t think about them. When I picked up the book, I was just thinking “what implausible thing are they going to do in the next chapter?” There were a few tense situations, and a few that I really enjoyed, but the whole book was not engaging.

P.S.: Tigana was a much better book; more imaginative, better characters, actually compelling, but I still didn’t think it was that great. I mean, what were those people doing it in the closet for? See, same problem.

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Demon in White (Goodreads review)

Demon in White by Christopher Ruocchio

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The typical problem with reviewing the books of a series is that at least three or four stars can be attributed to the world the author has set up, and most of that is due to book 1 (in this case Empire of Silence). That’s somewhat true here, but if that were the case, Demon in White would only get four stars. By book 3 some series have reached the “TV show” stage, where their characters are going on adventures that don’t seem entirely related to the overall arc of the story or are just cool, fun things for them to do with new powers or technology. In that case a book could still get three stars if it’s in a four-star universe.

This certainly isn’t the case with Demon in White. With each of Howling Dark and Demon in White, Christopher Ruocchio has taken the galaxy set up in Empire of Silence to the next level, and he’s done the same with the characters. I used to wonder why a story like Ben Hur or Star Wars had to be so tied to a character, why it couldn’t be about how awesomely huge THE EMPIRE is. I think the reason I thought that (at the age of twelve, for crying out loud) was that the characters offered in such stories are often just an excuse to tell the story of how huge the empire is. Ruocchio solves this problem by offering us a character who is believably human, and interesting. He likes to draw, he’s awkward with girls, he knows how to fight, but he tries to avoid it, and so on. He then takes that character on a crazy adventure through the galaxy, thereby showing the hugeness of it.

Howling Dark takes that character to another level, and Demon in White makes him larger than life, so he matches the universe. I don’t know how I could give this book less than four stars because it’s finished and it doesn’t suck. By that I mean it’s an artistic accomplishment, and it is worth every one of its 746 pages (there’s an appendix). There are no BOGSAT scenes, no filler of any kind. Just pure space opera awesome, so much that I was almost worn out by the end. This character is larger-than-life, and we get some idea of why in this book, but he is still overwhelmingly human, and that’s why I’m eagerly awaiting the next book.

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The Dragon Token by Melanie Rawn (Goodreads Review)

The Dragon Token (Dragon Star, #2)The Dragon Token by Melanie Rawn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Wow…ummm…hmmm. Melanie Rawn is second only to Robert Jordan for me, at least among fantasy authors. She’s undoubtedly one of the most influential, and possibly most underrated, authors of the hardcover fantasy boom of the 1990s. Dragon Prince mixes romance, politics, magic, religion, and war for unbelievable turns of plot and unforgettable characters who are at once awesome, beautiful, charismatic and totally believable. Furthermore Rawn’s style is straight-to-the-point in a way that doesn’t have the excess internal dialogue of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, and while it isn’t weighed down with descriptive prose, it manages to be as descriptive as it needs to be. And, of course, it needs to be said that this is not standard (at the time) Tolkien-clone fantasy: she mixes the best of the Mists of Avalon Celtic-inspired fantasy with Arab desert-inspired culture, and her own religious magic and the heroes and dragons of generalized heroic awesomeness. All of this means I had serious trouble putting down her first trilogy of the Dragon Prince world. I can’t remember why I put down The Ruins of Ambrai, but it must have been a catastrophic life-event of some kind. I intend to pick it back up ASAP.

Unfortunately, this unputdownability doesn’t continue with the Dragon Star trilogy. We still have the same wonderful characters, although they are a little older and facing new challenges, and there’s a greater focus on the younger generations. We also have the same wonderful setting: the dragons, the desert, the Sunrunners, and the diarmadhim sorcerers. Roelstra’s leftover offspring are still kicking around, occasionally causing trouble for everyone. On top of that, however, are two problems that made getting through the first two books of this trilogy really hard.

First, the main problem faced by High Prince Rohan and his family are a group of invaders from…where? These bearded fellows show up on dragon ships, indiscriminately setting fire to everywhere, taking nothing but horses, ruthlessly killing Sunrunners. It’s bad, yes, but neither we nor the characters know anything about these invaders. We gradually learn a name, Vellant’im, for these formidable foes and a few fun facts. Despite The Dragon Token even granting us the POV of a few Vellanti characters, at the end of this book still no one knows anything about them. I found that this really sapped the motivation. Our favorite characters are just getting beaten mercilessly, despite their ingenuity in slowing down the Vellant’im, and they don’t even know why. I find it confusing.

What’s even more confusing is that this book (and Stronghold, the first book of the trilogy) skip around from one point of view to another throughout the whole conflict every few pages. I was genuinely surprised when I came to a sequence that lasted more than two pages. Quite often these shifts happen right when things are getting interesting. Huge battles are skipped over with fleurons, and we come back in the middle of a few of those battles, and by then I couldn’t remember what happened before because there had been an intervening seven two-page sequences featuring characters I didn’t care about. Characters are also named after each other. I couldn’t keep track of who was who quite often, even forgetting who Sionell was, and what a critical role she played in Sunrunner’s Fire, the final book of the first trilogy.

That was pretty disappointing, because, as I said, I love Melanie Rawn’s writing usually, and she has things that no other author has. All of the above led to me not looking forward to this book, falling asleep reading, and trying desperately to finish it so I could move on to something else. I was going to give this book 2.5 stars, but then in the last ten pages things get very very interesting, and contain some of Rawn’s best writing. It’s that kind of conflict that is really inspiring to me as a writer, and I hope Skybowl has more of it, although honestly, I’m only looking forward to reading it if it is more like the last seventy or so pages of The Dragon Token.

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Wheel of Time Myths

0_robertjordanSaturday night I finished Christopher Ruocchio’s Howling Dark, and had to read something else before I went to bed. I picked up The Eye of the World to read it for the fourth time, and I cannot put it down. I’ve read one hundred and fifty-one pages since Saturday night. It’s one of those things that I have experienced so many times and put aside in lieu of new things, that I forget how great it is: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Steve Martin’s stand-up comedy. I love it. It’s still my favorite fantasy series.

This is a good opportunity to dispel some myths about reading The Wheel of Time. People say a lot of things that I have never thought were valid, even (or especially) Wheel of Time Fans. So in the interest of personally attacking people and creating useless rivalries, I thought I would address my top three pet peeve criticisms of The Wheel of Time. These are things that people say all the time and some fans even justify them, saying they’re not a big deal. I think they’re a big deal, and I think they’re complete crap.
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movies, Writing

Who are you? Will Star Wars:The Rise of Skywalker Answer The Questions Set Out by The Force Awakens?

In which I alienate the film industry…

Right away, some interesting news: Brian Staveley’s Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne has been optioned for a television series, with producers attached.  In other words, unlike some options where a “property” is destined to just sit on the shelf while someone waits for the next trend to come along, The Emperor’s Blades actually has a plan to be shopped to networks. As a fan of Staveley, that I look forward to seeing what these other fans of his will do with a show.

'Westworld' TV show premiere, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA - 16 Apr 2018

Who are you?

But apropros of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker coming out at one second after midnight tomorrow night, I finally watched J.J. Abrams “Mystery Box” TED Talk, in hopes of seeing for myself what some have criticized about his filmmaking approach. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is really the only Abrams film that I have watched in its entirety, since I fell asleep during Star Trek and was completely baffled when I woke up to see Leonard Nimoy in a space suit. My wife and I watched about five minutes of Lost back in 2007 because everybody at my office was talking about it, and we were completely confused (we were lost).

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Marvel Movies: In a Class by Themselves

In which I alienate Marvel fans, Joss Whedon fans, and of course Phish fans…


Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ, a movie that’s like totally not any better than Iron Man 2, I mean come on…

For those of you who’ve been living in a vibranium mine for the last few weeks, Martin Scorsese recently disparaged Marvel movies, such as Black PantherAvengers: Endgame, Captain America: Civil WarGuardians of the Galaxy, and Captain America: Colon Avenger, as not only substandard films, but as not cinema at all.  They are comparable to theme park rides, he said, and not really meaningful as art. This was followed by a predictable backlash on Twitter, which I’m sure Scorsese reads assiduously, in which multiple nobodies with blue checkmarks next to their names politely informed Martin Scorsese that he didn’t know what he was talking about as far as what constitutes cinema. Continue reading

Books, movies

IT Chapter One: A case study in the worst ways a movie can fail

it_28201729_posterOver the past couple of nights I watched IT Chapter One, and I was profoundly disappointed.  I wasn’t disappointed most at the poor way that the story was adapted, I wasn’t disappointed with the update of the story into the eighties–an era in which certain parts of the story just don’t make sense as much as they would have in the late fifties–and I wasn’t disappointed with the actors necessarily.  Of course the production values were high and the picture quality was good (for the most part; the rock fight was particularly badly done).  I was more disturbed by how this movie illustrated two particularly disturbing trends in moviemaking: bad characterization and bad exposition. Continue reading

Books, Reading

Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio (Goodreads Review)

Empire of Silence (Sun Eater, #1)Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Empire of Silence takes place in a far future of our civilization, where biotechnology and space travel have enabled the human race to establish a galactic empire. For centuries this empire has been under attack from another civilization that also discovered space travel, and Hadrian Marlowe has grown up as the elder (genetically-engineered) son of a minor lord on a minor world. He’s rich, but not that politically powerful. Hadrian is, despite his militaristic upbringing, passionate about intellectual pursuits. He’s an artist, an avid learner of languages, and quite clumsy with the ladies. Constantly in conflict with his younger brother, Hadrian assumes he will inherit his father’s duchy, but things go astray when he is instead assigned to join the ruling guild of torturers and propaganda artists. Hadrian and his scheming mother find a way out, however, which results in Hadrian’s first trip off-world. He escapes his father’s plans only to find himself waking up from interstellar hibernation nowhere near where he expected, penniless, and unable to reveal his noble status.

The story is told in retrospect as the narrator awaits his fate. Although this is not part of the story, at least not yet, the narrator (Hadrian) has done something horrible, and is rather notorious. This doesn’t get in the way, but instead provides a great device by which the narrator introduces doubt and comments on events with information he learned later in the story. It’s a really well-devised world, built in believable steps with believable technologies, that doesn’t rely on stupid-sounding technobabble. It’s not grimdark, but it’s mature and intense, with no cutesy stuff, and well-formed relationships, romantic and otherwise. And underneath it all, there’s some spooky stuff going on. I love that element of it.

I would give this book four-and-a-half stars if I could. This is a well-written book, and Christopher Ruocchio is a knowledgeable, well-rounded and intellectual writer who knows what he is doing. Most importantly he doesn’t shy away from real intellectual engagement in philosophical terms. I only give five stars to my absolute favorite books or established classics, so this one gets four, but this book is one of the best of the year, and surely one of the best contemporary series I’ve read. It’s one that I’ll keep up with, along with The Black Witch Chronicles and the Song of Shattered Sands. I don’t mind making a few enemies saying this: a few people have called this “The Name of the Wind in space,” but I’d have to say the crucial difference here is that this book is actually interesting.

It’s better than that, though, mainly because it’s written by someone with real taste, an author who isn’t just pointing to cliches in order to establish rapport with the reader (note: I’m not saying that’s what Patrick Rothfuss did, but many others do). Instead, Christopher Ruocchio has created a culture and world out of believable and sophisticated use of language. He’s not just a Tolkien nerd who read a few books on how to create a language (although he’s certainly fooled me if he hasn’t), but rather someone who understands the interplay between language, culture, and biology to create a convincing future history. For example in the foundational mythology of the interstellar human culture of the empire, the story of King Arthur has been mixed with the story of The Buddha. I got a kick out of that. He also doesn’t shy away from using technical grammatical jargon as exposition, or even as a plot point.

He is also adept at creating romantic and plot tension. For the first time in a long time I was on the verge of shouting “Kiss her, damn it!” at a book. Yes, shouting at a book. There really is an excellent understanding of human relationships here, and the constant interplay between the main character’s social standing and his naivete works up to produce plenty of interesting situations. It was fun to read a space opera where things on so many worlds have reverted to more medieval situations, and hence it reads a lot like a fantasy book.

It is a long book, however, and I had to pick up something shorter afterward. I didn’t find it exactly un-putdownable, but when I did get into reading it, I read it at long stretches, wanting to know what would happen next. This is the kind of book that traces a character’s life across a long arc of his lifetime, and since his lifetime is over 900 years, there is a nice tension of whether the narrator is being honest. It reminds me more of Severian than Kvothe.

I loved it, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Howling Dark.

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