Archive for November, 2014

The Dresden Files 15: Skin Game

Saturday, November 29th, 2014

Skin Game

I am a recent convert to the Dresden Files, so I had the wonderful opportunity of losing myself in all 14 preceding books in rapid fire fashion. These books were light enough to get your teeth into them one right after the other and deep enough to linger in your thoughts long after you’ve put them down. When I was done with book 14, Cold Days, a chill of angst crawled up my spine; after two months of hearing Harry Dresden’s voice in my head, the inevitable reality of being without this wizard for hire dawned stark and dreary. I was doomed with the knowledge that this unhappy state would persist for as long as it took for Butcher’s publishers to run out of booze money (Judging by Butcher’s impressive release schedule, I was in no doubt that it was the publishers who stuck a staff in the gears).

My torment was short lived. I found out that Skin Game was on the release schedule. I prayed that Amazon would mess up the pre-order and send it to me right away. They didn’t; good for them (bastards). I got the book when everybody else got it. I had nagging meta-story questions that have been left open since Changes, beloved characters I haven’t seen since Ghost Story, antagonists that still needed to pay for getting away in the past, especially the new Sword of Damocles in the hands of a certain Unseelie fey. All that didn’t matter, I had Skin Game in my hands, and was willing to go wherever Butcher, and Harry, would point me.

The back cover revealed that Mab, Queen of Air and Darkness was cashing her checks, as we knew she would. The blurb from Amazon revealed: “…a smash and grab job into the vaults of the greatest treasure hoard in the supernatural world – which belongs to the one and only Hades, Lord of the freaking Underworld and generally unpleasant character…”. Worse, Harry is sent on this job to work for Nicodemus Archleone, the only annoyingly awesome recurring villain that Harry cannot seem to set on fire. Ooooh! My excitement mounted well before I received couriered copy. More about the book I will not say.

It took mere moments for me to get back into Harry’s world, and into his head. Butcher’s writing voice fit like a comfortable leather duster. I was home.

I tend to approach my reviews in a structured manner, and although I’m not as gauche as to give a score, I do have a binary system. Either it works for me or it doesn’t.

Concept

Skin Game feels like a natural progression in the series. There was always the threat of certain choices made taken biting Harry in the ass, and Harry made the decisions with that possibility in mind. It’s really nice to see Butcher pulling the trigger on the crux choices of Changes and going big with it. I can almost imagine Butcher’s decision making process:

Now that Mab’s got Harry dancing to her puppet strings, what will she decide to do with her foremost living weapon? What if she uses him to pay off one of her, presumably many, debts? What if that debt is payable to Harry’s greatest foe? Oooh! Indeed. This concept, at this stage of the epic Dresden Files saga, writes itself.

Masterfully done.

Character

Harry by himself is an effective character, but it’s his relationships, as explored in Changes and Ghost Story, that really sets him apart. Butcher is a master at making you feel for his characters, he populates cast of lovable woobies, who also happen to be bad-asses. What’s not to like?

Heroes need antagonists, real villainous bastards who will challenge the protag to the level where the true hero inside needs to rise tot he occasion or perish. At this stage of Harry’s development, he’s pretty much handled every unstoppable bad-ass that dared to set up shop in Chicago. (There’s a point in Ghost Story made to this effect, which can be dubbed the This is Our Town, Scrub, so Beat It effect, where Molly mentioned that Harry’s reputation, the mere fact of his existence in an area, kept the worst bastards away from his hometown, which, of course evaporated as soon as he left for whatever reason.) What this means is in order to seriously threaten Harry 15 books in, hero inflation can be a serious problem. The guy’s got Odin on speed dial for pike sake.

In the hands of any other writer, we may have had a repeat of Rand al’Thor or Goku and Gohan, but Butcher managed to keep a distance between his human characters and his mythological ones intact, and more impressively, managed to keep his human characters relevant and useful, even in the presence of characters like Hades and 3000 year old fallen angels.

There is a slight downside to this methodology, as expected, which I believe is the lesser of two evils. I like the idea of an enemy that is aware of the risks and who is able to lose if things only slightly go against him, and who then hedges his bets by stacking the deck in his favor. The goal should be worth the risk of playing with fire. If a hero is also aware of this, or is aware of the difference in relative power levels, might also want to stack the deck, leading to the inevitable gambit pileup, which I find immensely entertaining.  It’s the eternal struggle of ruthlessness versus indomitability, speed chess style. Now that’s what I would pay an entrance fee for!

Theme

The enemy of my enemy is my friend, if I pay in diamonds. No seriously, I was not expecting high thematic literature here, but there are recurring themes running through The Dresden Files. I like what Butcher explores when he tackles issues of faith through Michael Carpenter, loyalty and sacrifice through Harry and Karrin Murphy, the importance of family through the Carpenters and the value of the individual to make a difference through Waldo Butters. The books are well enough textured for each reader to extrapolate their own themes from the novels, and expect more of that in Skin Game.

Pacing and execution

Butcher is a master at pacing his novels. There is never the sense of breathless action going on unending, and the plot seldom seems bogged down to explore some character aspect or growth. There is plenty of action, and plenty of character development, both nicely spaced so that one does not detract from the other. On a side note, the character developments in Skin Game are Doozies with the capital letter warranted. There was more than once where I was all misty eyed over what was developing between characters.

Verdict

Butcher is just getting better at executing great books; his slow burning meta-plot lines intermingled with rapid-fire action with a full-bodied cast makes for satisfying reading. I heartely recommend the entire series, and definitely Skin Game. Now for me it’s just a long wait to the next book. I hope his publishers run out of booze money soon.

 

 

Techsmart gigabyte sci-fi short story competition

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

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I’ve been of a mind to enter as many writing competitions that I could manage. Strange as it may be, this one caught my eye. This is the pitch: 

“All aspiring writers, if you have a science-fiction short story in you, it’s time to put fingers to keyboard and send it to us. Why? Well you could have the opportunity to have your story published in TechSmart. Good enough some might say, but more importantly, there’s an amazing Gigabyte U2440N notebook up for grabs for our overall winner, worth R10 000!

There’s a little twist though; all sci-fi stories must have a South African angle. Whether it’s Jabraltians invading Jozi, Cape Town stuck in a Cerebral Time Vortex, or Durban doppelgangers poisoning prime-ministers – get Mzanzi in there!

So, if you think you are the next Asimov, Clarke, Dick, Herbert or Heinlein, start writing today!”

A South African angle to a sci-fi story? We’ve had quite a bit of that recently with all Neill Blomkamp’s latest films, so I thought why not? I looked at the rules. The first one caught my eye:

“Stories must be no longer than 700 words (excluding title) or they will not be accepted. ”

That’s not a short story, as the first to comment on their post pointed out, this is flash fiction. Okay, I can do that. Many writing competitions have flash fic as a format, so this is a good place to start. Previously, I’ve attempted a horror flash fiction with a 500 scene called Cats Eyes which I’m still attempting to cut down to 500 words. Extraneous words notwithstanding, I was quite pleased with the result. As soon as I find a horror flash fic competition, that’s where it will go.

Now, on to the task of creating a sci-fi story set in South Africa using less words than what is usually needed to describe the first location of a sci-fi setting. I was teasing about an idea of what would happen to good ol’ Mzanzi should a momentous scientific discovery be made elsewhere in the world. Something like fusion power, or wormhole time-travel, something that will change the way humans relate to each other.

What I went with is the development of the universal immunity system chip. A choice that seems a bit counter-intuitive for such a narrow word count now. Can I explain the Sci-Fi concept of such a chip in less than 700 words? (Well, you see, it’s a chip that hijacks your auto-immune functions and optimizes the fight against foreign bodies, like diseases. 17 words. Maybe I should have included this bit as lazy exposition) What I was hoping for was to be able to describe the function of such a device when left in the hands of our mostly lawless, racially divided, multiculture of mistrust.

Will I succeed? Well, we’ll find out when I am updating this site from a brand new Gigabyte laptop.

Arc Angels and Inner Demons

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

Arch Angels and Inner Demons cropped2I’ve been asked to present a workshop for a local group called Word Count 012. These events are always entertaining, because, as you might expect, it causes situation that allows for a bunch of writers to be in the same room allowed and be able to talk about their passion freely. Where else can you overhear a conversation along the lines of “so that’s when the pale nubile boy is masticates by the half-cat chimera, while everyone watches on” without needing to be booked in first. Writers are the most interesting people on the planet, well, to other writers at least. It’s where the writer can talk about what titillates her without suffering the stares of the uninitiated.

I have another reason to present this workshop; as a facilitator, I took very seriously the words of Stephen Covey, when he proposed that learning should be done with the intention to teach. I merely took that maxim to the next rational step. I am currently in the process of entering the academic sphere, so I find facilitating workshops invaluable in developing my own expertise, as a lecturer and as a writer.  Everything I mention in the workshop I attempt to implement in my own writing.

Lastly, it offers me an opportunity to meet new people in the industry, and have them meet me. A writer, who is a natural recluse, needs every opportunity he can get to out there and meet actual human creatures, lest he lose whatever tenuous grasp he may have had on normal behavior.

 

DauntlessWriting.com Announcement

Saturday, November 1st, 2014

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Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about my readership and what they want out of my Author Page. Do the care about the craft of writing or do they just want to know about the stories?

How do I approach author sites? I realized that I generally don’t, because they tend to be boring and advertise-y.  I’ve looked at authors I follow on Twitter and Facebook and what they get up to on there. It’s a real mixed bag. Some tend to talk about whatever interest them, and that makes them interesting, such as Neil Gaiman’s Twitter feed and Anne Rice’s Facebook page. Others, who will remain nameless, focus on trying to sell their work. I unsub those pretty quickly.

What do I want from my page? I want what I can’t get from those other pages; I want an interesting author page that’s not all about me (the irony is not lost on me). I want to provide information that my readers will want to read whilst giving readers the opportunity to maybe pick up advance copies of my work or links to where they can be found.

So this is what I’m going to do about it. I’m going to split my page into two separate websites. First, is the Author Page, RichardTWheeler.com. Here I will focus on what’s happening in my genre, what’s happening with my career, and posting reviews of fiction that I’ve consumed.

The second site, DauntlessWriting.com is going to be all about the details of crafting fiction and being an author-entrepreneur. Here I will write about the organization, craft, and marketing of fiction, and reviewing books that fall into those categories.

Of course, the pages will be cross linked, so if you are interested in both facets, then by all means, subscribe to both. I’ll keep the content separate, so no “Heeeey my new short-story has been published by Granta Literary Magazine” on the DauntlessWriting mailing list and no “Greatest Techniques for Creating Compelling Antagonist’s Aunt’s Pets: Specifically Homicidal Mantis Shrimp and Sundry” on the author page side of things. (I kind of want to write that guide now).

This does mean that some of my previous posts will now disappear from the Author Page, in order to deliver on this plan. But Noli desperare fili, they will be back online at their new home at Dauntless.