Twelve Fingers!

Okay, see, now this is awesome. [io9]

There is a darn good reason io9 is probably my favorite website ever, and it’s articles like this that make it so. I remember being told in high school biology that the gene for six fingers on each hand is actually dominant, and has just been selectively bred out of the population for other reasons. I don’t know how true this is – it seems like a fair number of the things I was taught in our public school system have either been disproven or were flat-out wrong to begin with – but I always thought it was damn cool.

Naturally, the first six or seven comments are all “Princess Bride” jokes, but I’d like to move beyond that (You killed my father, prepare to die, etc etc). Apparently Mr. Garrido’s extra fingers (and toes!) are so well-formed that they are not only utile, he gets extra utility out of them. I do know that in most people born with additional digits, they are usually misformed or something making them essentially useless decorations… sort of like a vestigial tail. Not that anyone would really consider that a decoration.

On a side note, it’s really heartening to me that he says he is not discriminated against for his difference, but rather is respected and praised for it. It’s good to know that somewhere out there people have the possibility of being decent to one another. If he’d grown up in America, he’d probably be bitter and twisted after a lifetime of horrendous teasing, bullying and being made miserable, if some little psychopath didn’t end up bringing a knife to school and removing the extra digits themselves. (I have problems with public school.)

Somewhere in our genetic code is the possibility for this kind of thing to happen… or maybe it’s out of our genetic code now. I’m not a genetic scientist, unfortunately, just an IT guy and author with a passion for cool science stuff. I also have a passion for history, and it makes me wonder just what it was that we gave up the twelve-fingered genes for. If it exists within our DNA somewhere, why did we push it aside? Usually in evolution there’s some kind of trade-off that leads to the way things are. Were the extra fingers actually superfluous when we no longer needed to climb trees? How far back did this gene actually leave our genetic pool? After all, I’ve never heard of any anthropologists talking about how early humans or homo Neandertalis having six fingers, so just how long ago was this? Did it ever exist in modern homo Sapiens, or has it always been a throwback mutation for us?

Or… is it all a massive conspiracy where we are all born with six fingers on each hand, but the Illuminati have decided that we should only have five fingers, and any extras are immediately amputated at birth, and no one ever talks about it because everyone’s afraid to have their child labeled a freak?

Yeah, I know. That’s silly.

Right?

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The Corpse King – Cover Art

After going through several possibilities, I have finalized the cover artwork for my new novelette, The Corpse King, which is scheduled to launch in early September. This story, set in the world of Eisengoth, takes place sixty years before D’Arden Tal enters the city of Calessa to cleanse it of its evil.

Right now I am doing content edits, and then will come a final line-edit to scrub out typos and such. Then formatting, and then release! It’s approximately 10,000 words long, which is pretty good.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this creepy bit of artwork depicting the eponymous monarch!

The Corpse King - Cover Art

Review – WIRED by Douglas E. Richards

(Note: I received a copy of WIRED via the LibraryThing Member Giveaways promotion. It is available from Amazon. The author’s website can be found here.)

There’s no two ways about it – WIRED is fun. After a slightly rocky beginning with a bit too much exposition and dialogue that didn’t quite click, the story really takes off at approximately chapter 3. Our hero, David Desh, is retired military. Wouldn’t you know it, he gets called up for one last mission before he’ll be given all the money he needs to disappear forever.

Once we get into the plot itself, the story becomes a freight train attached to a rollercoaster track that speeds dizzyingly toward the conclusion. There were a few plot twists that actually took me by surprise, as well as a wealth of action-movie tropes that don’t seem stale at all when Richards writes them. There’s the occasional supervillain monologue, the super-elite military team framed for crimes they didn’t commit – really, this reads like a James Bond novel, or a long-lost episode of 24.

Being that I’m the kind of person who actually watched all 8 seasons of 24, I really enjoyed this book. I noticed scatteringly few editing mistakes; only the occasional typo slipped through to the final product.

Desh and the mysterious woman, Kira Miller, are actually quite well-realized characters. I was also particularly fond of the Matt Griffin character, the good-hearted hacker who looks like a bear. The core science is obviously well thought-out, and the central message is well-communicated. The plot only occasionally seems contrived, and no more so than your above-average action film.

Overall, WIRED ranks among the better books I’ve read so far this year. Highly recommended for fans of action films, thrillers, and those who enjoy when science is extrapolated and used as a vessel to examine what it means to be human.

Final Score: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars. Definitely recommended.

Review – Symphony of Blood by Adam Pepper

(Note: I received a copy of Symphony of Blood via the LibraryThing Member Giveaways program. The author’s website can be found here, and this book is available at Amazon, Smashwords and Barnes&Noble.)

Symphony of Blood is, without a doubt, a hard-boiled detective novel of a very high caliber. Hank Mondale is a private-eye with major issues that are actually consistent throughout the entire novel – props to Pepper on that. It’s easy to let those problems slide out of the way as the plot picks up, but they haunt Hank thoroughly and completely.

The plot picks up steam rapidly after a short introduction into Hank’s life that feels neither forced nor awkward. Something very weird is going on, and it quickly spirals out of his control. The first section of this book was like riding a freight train on a one-way trip to hell, and it was awesome. My favorite hard-boiled detective is actually Harry Dresden, so I’m totally down with the whole supernatural-unknown-forces-and-a-detective novel thing.

Hank Mondale is a great character and his voice is very strong. He’s got problems but he’s not sleazy, and he definitely fulfills the hard-boiled “never give up” mentality. The prose is spare but powerful; it packs a real punch when things get messy.

Just as Hank’s story builds to a stunning climax, everything comes to a screeching halt as we’re suddenly transferred to a different point of view (and just whose point of view that is, I’ll leave out so as to avoid spoilers). This is perhaps my one quibble with the structure; I might have alternated the points of view earlier, although it would have spoiled some of the surprise. I understand why Pepper chose to do it this way, but it was a quick turnaround from exciting plot to build-up again, and it took me a few pages to readjust.

When we again return to Hank’s POV for the conclusion, it picks up right where we left off, and drives us home to an ultimately satisfying but still-mysterious conclusion. In an attempt to not give anything away, I will say that the center of the supernatural mystery in this case is exceptional for its originality and stark creepiness.

Toward the end of the novel I did encounter a few minor typos/conversion errors that got missed, but they were not pervasive by any means. Overall, the copy editing was very good.

If you’re a fan of the hard-boiled detective, or of original supernatural fiction that doesn’t involve no stinkin’ vampires or werewolves or other standard tropes, I definitely recommend checking out Symphony of Blood.

Overall Score: 4 out of 5 stars. Recommended.

Decisions, Decisions

So, I’m approaching what I believe is going to be the end of “Part One” of the tentatively-titled “Prophecy, Book 2 of the Arbiter Codex”. It feels like we’re wrapping to a mini-conclusion – not at all the one I’d planned for the actual end of the book, but instead a smaller one that could easily divide the novel into two halves.

Part One is going to need some revision, but certainly not an entire re-write. There’s a few scenes which need to be redone in order to make the tone fit better with the world and the story I intended to tell. This is to be expected, I think, since one can’t really hope to get it perfect on the first try.

Now I’m encountering a bit of a problem in my own head. Once Part One wraps up, I’m not really sure what to do. Should I go back and edit what I’ve got so far so that it all lines up and matches what I wanted before I press on into Part Two? Should I press on and get the whole thing laid down before I go back and do my editing?

The other part of my problem is that I think I’ve finally figured out how to re-write the urban fantasy novel which was my 2007 NaNo and actually turn it into a cohesive story that follows all the way through… and I’m itching to actually do something with that. However, if I let my brain flutter off and just do whatever it wants, I’m certainly never going to get anything done.

Hmph. I know I can’t abandon “Prophecy” for another project right now, or even really take a break to work on something else, because I’m bound to lose the forward momentum that I’ve got going for myself right now. Still, it leaves me with the problem of deciding whether to go back and edit first or just push through to the end of the first draft.

I guess I’ll see what happens when I hit the end of Part One. Should be in pretty short order here, I think.

My Dungeon, Your Dragon

My Dungeon, Your Dragon
Pen & Paper RPGs as a Path to Cooperative Storytelling

Despite the weathering of time, there are still people who look at you askance when you say that you’re a D&D player. I’m not sure why this still happens, especially since it clearly moved into the mainstream several years ago. It’s like there are still people out there who believe the old late-70s early 80-s “devil worship” vibe, and think that because you like to gather with your friends, drink, and tell stories that you’re some kind of “weirdo”.

Well, here it is: I’m a D&D player.

In fact, I have not one, but two weekly gaming sessions going on right now. One with a group of friends who are primarily actors (let me tell you, they’re a lot of fun around the gaming table) and another group that I met at the local comic shop who invited me to join them – a great honor if ever there was one, to be drafted by near-strangers, who have since become great friends.

As a bit of backgrounder, I’ve been playing D&D since I was 6. That’s 20 years now, off and on, that I’ve spent time sitting around a table with drinks (first soft, then harder as the years go on) and friends, rolling dice and either telling a Dungeon Master just what it is that I’m planning on doing; or, far more likely, actually being that Dungeon Master myself. I’m pretty sure that playing cooperative social games since childhood is the reason that I have trouble trying to play a video game on my own. There’s got to be something really compelling to pull me through to the end, which is why I’ve finished Heavenly Sword, Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age, but not much else in recent years.

So, why do I play D&D? Is it because I’m a devil-worshipper? Is it because I like to dress up in costume and pretend to be a barbarian under the black lights? (I do own a sword.) Is it because I’m a total nerd and love to do nerdy things?

Well… that last one is kind of true, but the real reason is because I love stories. That’s all D&D really is. It’s a way for a group of people to get together and all have influence on the outcome of a story.

During my most recent session with Group 1 (the actors), we had been sent to a forest grove to discover the source of the mysterious battenwulfen (quasi-intelligent wolves that can transform themselves into bats) which were plaguing the nearby lord’s castle and his closest people. During the course of the investigation, it turned out that these creatures were not bothering the peasants of the nearby villages, but only the lord himself. We forged into the forest, fighting off the largest of the creatures we’d so far encountered, and found ourselves in a glade with a huge druidic-style standing stone in the center.

The leader of the battenwulfen, a disaffected, angry dryad, came down to meet us (and begin the wholesale slaughter of the lord’s mooks which had accompanied us) as the DM prepared for a fight. Believing us to be terribly outclassed (and he was probably right), our group’s paladin called out to talk to the dryad, to try and determine what the reason behind the slaughter was.

Our DM hadn’t been expecting that. He’d expected us to simply dive into combat when the dryad began slaughtering the mooks, but the paladin had seen something which had been hinted at, perhaps inadvertently – that perhaps there was another side of the story, something else which could be told. Suddenly, there was a new branch to the tale, and it was because of one of the players.

This is the key difference between writing a short story or a novel on your own, and engaging in a game like D&D. When writing a story or novel, the characters and plot twists are all limited by your own imagination. It’s more difficult to come up with something truly unexpected, because to the writer, it always seems expected. I have written a few stories which relied on a twist at the end, usually one which I know from the beginning, and it always seems hackneyed and impossible for it to truly surprise the reader – although it sometimes does end up doing so, in the end. It’s much more difficult to tell whether the story will truly surprise the reader or not, because you’ve already known the answer, the twist, the unexpected turn since the beginning.

Now, that’s not to say that the average D&D game is fit to be turned into a great novel. Due to the inherent nature of getting a bunch of fun-loving humans into the same room means there is bound to be silliness (our paladin in the actor’s group has a tendency to suddenly start sounding an awful lot like Bill Cosby), jokes, laughter and general ridiculousness – but that’s all part of the fun of the moment.

For me, it’s much less likely to be that I would simply try to turn a D&D campaign into a novel, and more that you can learn something, as a writer, from that cooperative experience. Being given the outside perspectives of other characters, or the unexpected turns delivered by the dice (when one of your players, with one lucky shot, manages to kill that villain you’ve spent the last three nights working out motivations and backgrounds for; or when another uses the vorpal sword rolled on the treasure table a few sessions back to single-handledly behead a large black dragon) gives you strength as a writer, because you have a greater understanding of random chance and how things can go terribly wrong.

One of the most dangerous traps that a writer can fall into is making things too easy for their characters. If there’s no challenge, no difficulty, there’s no story. Characters can’t simply waltz through the events, having everything go their way, if you want your story to be compelling. It’s a cliche at this point, but a story thrives on conflict. Conflict between characters and other characters; between characters and their environment; between characters and the villain; characters and themselves. Those are the events that draw us in to a story, and if everything is just easy, there’s nothing there to interest us.

Somehow, one must learn that the world is random; that things rarely if ever work out just the way they’re supposed to – and in a story, things need to almost actively conspire against the main characters to make everything go wrong.

By attempting to tell a story with others, via an RPG, free-form roleplaying, or any other method which involves more than one mind, we learn about the unpredictability of the world (via the dice) and of people (via the other players).

You fancy yourself a storyteller? See if you can successfully keep up with a group of five players; all of whom have developed characters that you know very little about, who all have different ideas about what they want the story to be, and who have the randomness of dice both for them and against them. Can you tell a coherent story that’s both engaging and fun?

It’s more difficult than it sounds.

Review – Blood Duty by J.R. Tomlin

Note: I received a coupon for a free copy of Blood Duty from Smashwords.com as part of the LibraryThing Member Giveaways program. Blood Duty is available in ebook editions from Smashwords and Amazon.

Blood Duty is primarily the story of Tamra, a competent garrison commander working for her mother, and Jessup, a no-nonsense, rakish scout with a devil-may-care attitude.

I think the story itself is best described as a “high fantasy romance”. The world-building is perhaps the most remarkable part of this story; it was clearly given a lot of thought and fleshing-out prior to the story being written. The plot itself is soundly constructed, moving from one point to the next without wandering or getting wrapped around itself.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find myself getting passionate about the story. I’m a big “swords-and-horses” fantasy lover, and as such, this book should have clicked with me, but it didn’t. The characters never seemed to quite rise up above their archetypes (the plucky young girl, the brooding but handsome boy, the young prince, the elderly wizard) and become fully human, though they tried valiantly to do so. It didn’t feel particularly rushed, but rather concluded in its own time, though I would have personally liked to see events unfold a bit slower. The villains seemed to be evil for the sake of being evil, with no more motive ascribed to them than simply conquering using dark magic just because they could. We never see enough history to really *feel* the conflict between the warring nations, so it ends up as just a sort of backdrop for the characters’ struggles.

Overall, this was a competently-executed high fantasy/romance which just seemed to lack that final bit of sparkle that would have made it really come alive. A few nagging typos and the occasional formatting issue also served to interrupt the story’s flow. One more pass through content editing/revision and a final copy edit might well lift this story from “good” into “great”.

Final Score: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars. Good.