Tuesday, August 4, 2020

All Routes Lead to Doom: The Princess Improvement Genre

Somewhere in the vast multiverse that makes up the worlds of fiction, a spoiled brat of an eight-year-old princess is about to bump her head. The blow knocks more than a little sense into the girl, for it will gift her with knowledge of her impending execution as an adult. This may be granted through isekai shenanigans or strange forms of reincarnation, but one thing is certain. If the princess is going to see her eighteenth birthday, she is going to need to change. Slowly, the self-absorbed little brat opens up to others and discovers that she can make a better fate by growing involved with and helping others around her.

It's a simple premise, but one of growing popularity in Japan. These princess improvement stories also serve as a strange contrast to the everpresent "The Princess Saves Herself in This One" titles common in American stores. For in these light novels, the girls learn the soft power of inspiration, devotion, and persuasion as opposed to the sword and other accouterments of the action girl. After all, who is more powerful, the one who acts or the one who can move a hundred to act in her place?

Yes, these princess improvement fantasies are still feminine power fantasies. But they are fantasies of feminine power, of living up to the stories of fairy tale princesses, and selfish girls faking it until they make it.

There's a strange undercurrent to recent Japanese light novels, both those aimed at boys and at girls. Compared to the many idealized young women in these fantasies, the portrayal of Japanese girls is almost disparaging. Readers could be forgiven for mistaking these brash, immodest, and self-absorbed girls who turn the attitudes of all around them against them for Americans. One could chalk this up to a form of sexism in the male fantasies, but the portrayal exists in shoujo light novels as well. Perhaps the princess improvement novel came about with trying to figure out how to make a selfish girl into a good girl. But how to get through to a character who only pays attention to herself?

The threat of death does focus the attention wonderfully. But, as in all fairy tales, that dragon eventually gets slain. Even if the plans are overcomplicated and occasionally obsessive.

Generally, the main characters of a princess improvement story are comfort seekers so caught up in their own delights that they lose their security--and then their lives. But by concentrating on their security, they find even greater comforts than sweets and soft clothes. And by helping others, these girls help themselves. These books are illustrations that no woman is an island and of C. S. Lewis's "First and Second Things" wrapped up in a fairy tale package that owe more to Cinderella than to The Tale of Genji.

Of course, such feminine fantasies are full of romantic misunderstandings. Your tolerance for such may vary. And the girls tend to no longer act like children after they first get some sense knocked into them.

The best known is My Next Life as a Villainess, by Satoru Yamaguchi, thanks to a recent anime adaptation. Katarina's naivety is charming, but her misadventures in a magical academy are too quickly resolved. As the genre codifier, My Next Life as a Villainess inspired many imitators, such as Deathbound Duke's Daughter and I Refuse to be Your Enemy. Each one has pushed the genre further into its Western fantasy trappings. Deathbound Duke's Daughter, for instance, features detailed and loving descriptions of magical wands that could only be written by a Harry Potter fan.

The best of the genre, though is Tearmoon Empire, by Nozomu Mochitsuki, who completely removes the story from the previous trappings of the anime/manga/light-novel sub-culture. Its heroine Mia might not change her spots that much, preferring the fake it until you make route to Katarina's more Damascus-style moment. However, there is a surprising amount of depth unexpected in a light novel, and little snippets of wisdom for the reader to glean. Tearmoon Empire masters the old adage that before you can educate, you first must entertain, so the smuggled proverbs and misunderstandings in Mia's favor never seem like the dreaded lecture one expects in a self-improvement book.

It is good that the princess improvement novels are displacing the tales of burned-out salarywomen. And if they inspire a reader to improve herself, so much the better.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Black Moon Chronicles: Sign of Darkness

God might not play dice with the universe, but the devils do.
In The Black Moon Chronicles: The Sign of Darkness, written by François Marcela-Froideval and drawn by Olivier Ledroit, Lucifer grows tired of his generals throwing matches in their little games. So he engineers a game in the mortal world where none of the players can deliberately lose. A Chosen One prophecy and the fall of an empire would do nicely. But what man will be chosen?
He might be a nameless lancer out in the woods, little more than a highwayman in armor. Call him Wismerhill after his home town, or Wis for short. It’s as good a name as any. But this half-elf has an unknown past and hints of more sinister gifts, as the rogue Heads-or-Tails discovers in their first meeting. Wis may be sheltered and naive, but he falls into bad company with the mercurial rogue, whose personality shifts based on which of two magical swords, good or evil, he currently wields. The two fast friends embark on a series of petty crimes and capers. But the eye of the half-ogre Gorghor Bey soon settles upon Heads-or-Tails’ swords.
The swords, however, are attached to Heads-or-Tails, and it is only by the whim of Gorghor Bey that the two highwaymen keep their heads. Now fighters for the half-ogre warlord, Wismerhill and Heads-or-Tails join the Gorghor Bey’s invasion of the Empire. Caught up in a whirlwind of fighting, training, and loving, Wis quickly distinguishes himself as a valued aide, able to read the winds and save the horde from multiple ambushes as they raze the hinterlands of the Empire. But such a display of military power cannot go unchecked, so the Empire sends the Army of Light after Gorghor Bey. And other, more sinister forces have taken notice of the chaos for their own ends.
The Sign of Darkness serves as the ever-popular origin story for the twenty-volume Black Moon Chronicles. This French dark fantasy series has given birth to two spin-off series and even a video game. The emphasis here is on dark fantasy, if the slight elven warrior with an evil magical sword was not a clue. Wis is fighting on the side of orcs, ogres, and barbarians against the setting’s version of Gondor, and there is no mistaking these invaders for the side of Good. At best, Wis and his companions act as anti-heroes who are a little too comfortable with the terrible acts they commit. But those acts are in the future. The Sign of Darkness is comics’ answer to The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, an extending training montage pushing Wis from a nameless tough to a champion on the run. He has yet to be swept up into the various gambits playing out for control over the Empire.
The setting is familiar, with a gleaming white Empire as the bastion of church and civilization standing against a tide of invading barbarism. This time, we see it from the invaders’ point of view, without the expected propaganda of imperial hypocrisies that a contemporary version of the story would demand. Some people just want to watch the world burn. Those willing to light the match fight for Gorghor Bey. The resulting chaotic, orkish invasion is so familiar, as are Wis’s winds of magic, that it would not be a surprise to discover that Games Workshop plundered the Black Moon Chronicles as they did The Lord of the Rings for their Warhammer Fantasy setting. As of yet, the Black Moon Chronicles does not revel in the destruction and cruelty to the same degree that a grim dark world where there is only war has, or with the exquisite artistry of a Melniboné. Instead, a strong dose of self-deprecating humor keeps the excesses away.
The Black Moon Chronicles uses an interesting design choice. Those characters and objects which are evil, or, in the case of Wis’s powers, chaotic, have rougher, dingier, uglier art. Clean lines and beauty are reserved for the good, whether that be the Army of Light or Feidreiva, Wis’s unlikely lover who spends less time clothed than French fanservice favorite Laureline. And as Gorghor Bey changes from Wis’s captor to mentor, his portrait smooths. But the real star of the artistic show is the big battle set-pieces. Ledroit conveys in his art both the immense scale of massive armies as well as the immense chaos of battle. The only portrayal that comes close is The Return of the King‘s field battles.
I am intrigued by the potential in The Black Moon Chronicles: The Sign of Darkness. It is just the opening act, and the villains and main conflict of the story have yet to be revealed. Fortunately, the full 20 volume series is offered on Kindle Unlimited, making it easy and affordable to follow along Wismerhill’s journey under the Black Moon.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The Shadow Returns

The Shadow is returning. Per Deadline:
James Patterson and Condé Nast are teaming to revive vintage crime fighter The Shadow in a series of books that will also aim to be adapted for the screen. 
Hachette Book Group imprint Little, Brown will publish the original series, whose first installment is due out in the fall of 2021. Condé Nast has long controlled licensing for the character via its Street & Smith subsidiary. 
The Shadow, a signature New York vigilante, originated in the 1930s as a series of pulp novels by Walter B. Gibson. A popular radio drama based on the books featured the voice of Orson Welles. In 1994, Universal released a feature film adaptation starring Alec Baldwin. 
“Who can forget The Shadow’s historic tagline, ‘Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?’”, Patterson said in the official announcement. “Well, The Shadow knows. And soon readers will, too. I’ve long been a fan of The Shadow and am looking forward to bringing his legendary character to life in the modern age.”
Razorfist was right, reading the tea leaves of rights revocations to predict a new push behind the character, conveniently timed when The Shadow starts to enter the public domain. I remain cautious--the history of relaunches lately has been underwhelming at best and disastrous at the worst. Patterson's involvement is not a salve to those concerns either. Perhaps, though, I might be too cynical of the master wordsmith manager.

However, for those who cannot wait, the Sanctum reprints are still available, and the first two new Shadow novels are as well, Doc Savage: The Sinister Shadow and Doc Savage: Empire of Doom. And if the sudden flood of Canadian public domain Doc Savage books are anything to go by, we'll soon see cheap ebook reprints of The Living Shadow.

Monday, July 6, 2020

True Smithing and Star Runner

Master smith Angus Bjornson hates growing old. Age and an accident at the forge have crippled him, leaving Angus unable to make the swords and armor that are his passion. To help ease the pain, his children give him a VRMMO headset and a medieval game where he can continue his craft in a manual creation mode that draws upon and rewards all the skills he developed as a smith–as opposed to the convenience of using a menu.
Angus soon creates swords and armor that are better than anything in the game, even the legendary pieces. His work attracts the attention of the local guild, who enforces a monopoly of mediocrity upon the town’s crafters. But Angus will not be coerced into making junk, so the guild plots to bring Angus into their fold. By any means necessary.
Even cheating.
True Smithing, by Jared Mandani, is the most recent in the Second Life subgenre of litRPGs. These stories take retirees, typically widowers, and introduce them to VRMMO settings where they are no longer limited by their aged bodies as they pursue their passion. While most of these stories end up dangling the hope of reuniting these men with their long-dead wives, True Smithing instead reunites Angus with his life’s work–blacksmithing.
The result is an almost-statless litRPG. Sure, Angus has to pick a class and roll stats, but as soon as he selects manual mode for crafting, the stats never matter again. It all comes down to the strength of his arm and the fire in the furnace. This means that the long stretches devoted to the drudgery of leveling up are replaced by just as long and detailed stretches describing the creation of weapons. These passages resemble text versions of such blacksmithing shows as Men at Arms: Reforged and Forged in Fire, and can be even more technical. This approach works better in text as the process of creation is at least a story, unlike the exposition of checking menus. But True Smithing does not bother to explain the terminology for the casual reader, so much of the nuance of creation is lost. The result is that these sections can be just as skimmable as the stat screens, which is unfortunate, as in these passages Angus forges the readers’ understanding of blacksmithing needed for the climax.
The focus on blacksmithing also creates a more intimate story. Angus does not care for the combat and exploration that consists of the supermajority of MMORPG gameplay. He stays at the forge and hammers steel and other metals. His concerns are merchants and nobles, not monsters and world-rending cataclysms. As such there is more room in the story for character development. Also, this makes True Smithing a rare example of a litRPG that relies on non-combat conflicts for tension and the plot. The story even shows how the game world and real worlds can interact, as Angus’s insistence on crossing the local lord has real-world consequences for him. Likewise, Angus is able to use real-world laws and ownership to carve through the Gordian knots of MMO politics.
True Smithing is an example of how litRPGs can prosper in smaller adventures than commonplace in heroic fantasy. While it is eager to experiment, not all of it’s attempts bear fruit. But the combination of novelty and solid character work have earned True Smithing its current popularity.

“Captain Bill Gorman has mysteriously disappeared. His clone, set aside for a dark day like this, awakens and begins to put together the pieces. What’s gone wrong out on the frontier? Why are our colonies being attacked by aliens while the Conclave worlds dream of better days? And what happened to the original Captain Gorman?” from the Star Runner advertisement.
B. V. Larson is back with a story he does best–alien invasions. Larson follows the fashions for milSF protagonists by choosing a gun smuggler for Star Runner (formerly Gun Runner). More precisely, his clone. Giving the clone the mission to try to find what happened to the original not only humanizes the stakes, it allows Larson to hide the threat of invasion behind another, more personal mystery.
While the plot has grown more complex compared to earlier Larson novels, the characters have grown more refined. Most Larson stories feature a secondary antagonist that is a snarky, arrogant coward wrapped up in his own intelligence and a desire to trip up the protagonist at every steps. Larson’s heroes tend to refrain from spacing him as the intellectual occasionally makes key inventions needed to fend off the alien threat. In Star Runner, this character is replaced by an overbearing and backstabbing cheat of a boss. The comparisons between the clone and the original give Bill Gorman a layer of depth that previous hyper-competent protagonists lacked. It also helps that Gorman is not presented as a savant in all endeavors he sets his mind to. Instead, he’s just really good at running and firing guns.
The highlight, however, of Star Runner is the aliens. Larson introduces symbiotes, humans who are controlled by urchin-like aliens in their guts. What appeared to be a throwaway line of description slowly gets more horrific as Gorman learns what happens to the humans controlled by these alien riders as well as the riders’ plans for humanity. Each in the masterful series of slow reveals is brought to light through a myriad of interactions with clients, customers, and officials. While the riders have designs on the galaxy, they also have plans for Bill Gorman’s clone. As they did for the the original. And it’s through uncovering these personal plans that Gorman’s clone discovers the galaxy-spanning threat.
Star Runner is a return to classic Larson storytelling, where the characters are the equal to the inventive scenarios and settings they fight in. And while the current novel is a stand-alone in the Undying Mercenaries series, there are hooks for sequels.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

I never knew it was this bad

I never knew it was this bad.

Sure, declining sales have been on the lips of every critic of the SSF Titanic's course for the past decade--and many of the passengers of science fiction, too. And writers have bemoaned the apathy for short fiction along the way.

So, yes, things are bad for science fiction short story magazines. Out on the edges, titles have shorter runs than the fly-by-night pulps. Fire sales of back issues before closings are not uncommon. Amazing was saved from a failed Kickstarter by an angel investor writing checks in excess of $10,000. More than one small press has gone out of business thanks to repeated flirtations with short fiction. And the recent Weird Tales revival just...vanished. The old names don't have the drawing power they used to, and the new names are stuck between not-taking enough risks and taking too many in a field that is glutted with supply but not demand.

It's not the short story. The indie shared universe mega-series make mone selling anthologies and even fanfic anthologies to their fans.

Still, in my ignorance, I thought things were bad by pulp standards, where 50,000 in circulation was average, 100,000 was good, and 35,000 was the lean years. Anything below that, and the magazine would be set aside for one that covered the current fad in short fiction. And, given that I've come across anecdotal statements that placed Asimov's and Analog at around 85,000 in the 1980s, I assumed that the same standard still applied.

Given the declining audiences in just about every entertainment media, this was a lazy assumption on my part.

No science fiction magazine currently has a circulation higher than 20,000. To pick one example, Fantasy & Science Fiction has gone from 60,000 to 6,000 in 80 years.

Many of the "cool and forward-thinking" are lucky to get 5,000 or even 3,000.

And the market here has been floundering for a while, as 2009 figures show. Certainly, a precipitous drop from the 1980s.

The market is contracting, without signs of stopping, from at least the mid-2000s generational handover. Digital and its different margins have likely kept some of these magazines in business far longer than print runs can justify. This has also allowed many smaller magazines to thrive in niches as a sort of underground to the underground. But the overall scene is still shrinking, and there is no prestige, no coolness to short fiction in a time where tens of thousands and more devour teenagers' first fanfiction short stories. If there was, the magazines would be growing, not managing their decline

It's almost to the point where the established science fiction "fandom" does not and should not be the audience. There are 300 million people not reading science fiction short stories. The editor who can figure out how to reach even 0.0001% of that will be the king of science fiction.

Where's science fiction's Dana White?

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Dungeon Core Fantasy

As literary RPGs have demonstrated lasting power in the turbulent mix that is publishing, authors have taken the idea of novelizing immersive gameplay and applied it in new ways. Most litRPGs take up the story of adventurers clearing out dungeons for profit and story progression, describing the adventurers’ growth and skills along the way. But what if the dungeon was the protagonist instead of the adventurers?
It’s an idea that’s been done before in games. Dungeon Keeper, the Dungeons series, and Evil Genius have taken the mechanics of empire building games and crossed them with real-time strategy gameplay to create a tongue-in-cheek genre where evil overlords map out cunning and cruel traps inside dungeon to protect their loot from waves of raiding heroes. But something unusual happened on the way from darkly humorous gaming to popular novels.
The intellect guiding the dungeon’s growth was no longer humorously and sadistically evil. Instead, it became crystallized into an item called a dungeon core; its growth now dependent upon the adventurers braving its depths. Cull too many too quickly, and powerful adventurers will smash the core. But provide a suitable challenge and pick off the careless and the inept, and both the adventurers and the dungeon core prosper. This has resulted in a shift away from satirical evil to what might be the coziest of fantasy genres.
For such a new genre, the formula is already established. A person dies under mysterious and violent circumstances, usually connected to the evil plaguing the world. That person then wakes up as a crystal dungeon core under the tutelage of a fairy assistant. The fairy gives a tutorial of the books mechanics and acts as a sounding board as the dungeon core carves out his dungeon.
On the surface, a local finds the entry to the dungeon and tells the local adventurer’s guild. The guild tests the dungeon, who is only saved from destruction by offering a rare treasure. Afterward, the guild offers money, power, and adventurer training to the local, who soon becomes the dungeon core’s favorite. The intrusion of dark dealings from beyond the county’s borders forces the dungeon and the local into a working relationship to clear all the threats affecting the dungeon and the town that sprung up around it–including the inevitable return of the evil that ended the dungeon core’s earlier life.
While the formula is common, the dungeon core novels differentiate themselves with different mechanics and themes. One might be made out of bones, another may use an elemental theme, and yet another will choose an Eastern xianxia cultivation approach to monsters, magic, and tombs of not-quite horrors. In this regard, the dungeon core story is similar to the golden age cozy mystery.  The same thing may happen in every book (a dungeon or a murder), but the author presents a new puzzle for the reader to play along with in each.
Focusing on a game with the readers has caused the dungeon core story to develop in similar ways to the cozy mystery. Romance is non-existent in many, and rarely proceeds beyond puppy love when present. Thus dungeon core fantasies offer a distinct alternative to the harem fantasies that share the marketplace. The puzzle of progression leaves little time for such distractions. And the puzzle forces each writer to bring something new and novel to the tale. After all, when the players, the beginning, and the end are known, the only way an author can distinguish himself is through the journey. The coziness is also helped by a more accessibly named set of characters–John, Cal, and Steve rather than Kalladin, Kvothe, and Yyrkoon.
That’s not to say the dungeon core genre is not without its weaknesses. Like most progression fantasy, these stories are exposition-heavy, with many pauses to the action and the intrigue to level up, explain new mechanics, and hollow out new rooms. Most of the stories tend to walk a fine tightrope between exposition and plot, but navel-gazing and plot-derailment does happen. For that, it’s best to skip ahead a couple pages.
The dungeon core is also limited to a single location. After all, a hole in the ground does not move. While this can make for excellent small-stakes and local conflicts, the genre has yet to figure out what to do when the immediate challenges are mastered. Attempts to shift into more conventional epic fantasy plots have been mixed at best, as the dungeon core has to wait for the world-shattering threat to come to it, rather than seek it out. And epic fantasy heroes are driven by the need to address what happens beyond the borders of their sleepy little towns, while dungeon cores must concern themselves with the administration of said towns. While a lot of experimentation is underway, no one’s figured out how to satisfyingly extend a dungeon core story beyond the natural conclusion of its local dominance.
Finally, the dungeon core is a new genre, and while authors are experimenting with tropes, settings, and systems, there are a lot of dead ends. Attempts to shift the idea to new settings and genres, such as outer space, inner space, and science fiction, have yet to take hold. In part, this is because magical mana, as a resource, does not exist in name or kind in these settings. Neither do many of fantasy’s conventions find analogues in other genres. In general, the genre works best the closer it remains to its Dungeon Keeper fantasy roots. That hasn’t stopped authors from branching out, though.
For those willing to brave the genre’s depths, treasures abound. Johnathan Smidt’s Bone Dungeon is the purest version of the dungeon core formula done well. Dakota Krout’s Divine Dungeon series reduces the exposition burden of gamey mechanics by relying on Chinese xianxia magic to fuel his characters’ and dungeons’ growth. Johnathan Brooks’ The Crafter’s Dungeon offers a rare female dungeon core, with different motivations than found with the males. And James Hunter and eden Hudson collaborate on Rogue Dungeon, which solves some of the problems of the genre by returning to its Dungeon Keeper roots.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

The Curse of the Golden Skull

First published in The Howard Collector, Spring 1967, "The Curse of the Golden Skull", by Robert E. Howard, resembles a prose poem in the same vein as Clark Ashton Smith's "Chinoiserie". While there is a narrative thread throughout the short story, it does not, at first glance, map to conventional dramatic structure. The three sections, "The Curse of the Golden Skull", "The Emerald Interlude", and "The Orchids of Death" obscure the structure.

The first section deals with the prehistoric perils of an ancient and now doomed magician:
How strange it seemed, that he, Rotath of the Moonstone and the Asphodel, sorcerer and magician, should be gasping out his breath on the marble floor, a victim to that most material of threats -- keen pointed sword in a sinewy hand.
Rotath spends his dying moment cursing the gods that allowed him to die. As their dark servants come for him, this sorcerer casts one last desperate and spiteful spell that changes his body, one that he hopes will wreak havoc across the ages.

In the "Emerald Interlude", the ages pass:
Years stretched into centuries, centuries became ages. The green oceans rose and wrote an epic poem in emerald and the rhythm thereof was terrible. Thrones toppled and silver trumpets fell silent forever. The races of men passed as smoke drifts from the breast of a summer. The roaring jade green seas engulfed the lands and all mountains sank, even the highest mountain of Lemuria.
That's the entire interlude, a descriptive section filled with as much tumult and cataclysmic action as can be fit into 64 words. And, in its way, it's emblematic of the entire "The Curse of the Golden Skull". Howard comes out swinging with his descriptions and fills the story with the struggle of the fight. The Jeffro Johnson test for covers (have people busy with action instead of standing around looking cool) applies here. And this is just the contemplative section denoting that the time is passing.

The final section, "The Orchids of Death", picks up with an unnamed adventurer discovering the skull and skeleton of gold:
What long dead artisan had shaped the thing with such incredible skill? He bent closer, noting the rounded ball-and-socket of the joints, the slight depressions on flat surfaces where muscles had been attached. And he started as the stupendous truth was borne upon him.
The adventurer, of course, is doomed. But is it from the curse or from natural causes? Like most short stories of the era, it all hinges on a twist at the end, a terrible denouement that alters everything that has come before.

 The sections and the uneven lengths obscure the dramatic structure present.  The first line immediately thrusts a problem upon Rotath. 600 words in, almost the exact center of the story, Rotath attempts his spiteful defiance, the turning point for the story. And in the last lines, we learn whether or not his dying action succeeded. This follows the conventional five-act dramatic structure, albeit with an abbreviated introduction and denouement, and without acts. And Howard's conflict-filled prose is well suited for drama, even if ages fly past in mere lines.

"The Curse of the Golden Skull" was a happy little discovery nestled deep in the lines of a search engine. As such, it is a delightfully harrowing read that rewards the critical eye's scrutiny. For, like a good house, the construction is as sound as the facade is beautiful.