#2141

Coins rain down amid bursts of shocked laughter and startled, delighted gasps. The crowd has long forgotten the other market vendors at this chance to flirt with danger, to see something so rare and vicious here in their tiny provincial town. Humans love to feel a little fear when they know there is no actual risk and the townsfolk have thus blindly put their faith in the greasy man who gathers up their coins with one greedy hand while the other prods through the cage with a stick.

The creature in the cage can technically speak Common and should therefore be able to plead with her captor, or at least for sympathy from the crowd, but rage clouds her mind too much for her to do anything other than howl and launch herself at the bars. No one stands close enough to grab with her long claws yet still she tries, lashing her arm back and forth in the hopes of drawing blood. Her blue-gray skin bleeds where she has rubbed herself raw on the metal.

“Yep, wrestled this little bitch right out of the sea itself!” the man brags, jabbing her side with the stick. “She almost had me, too, but I was too strong for her! Not a man alive has ever caught one of these!” His words are lies; this oaf wasn’t even the one who cursed her into a human form, only a lucky idiot who stumbled across her while she was still dazed from the transformation. A feminine creature with long black hair and shark-like skin and teeth? He’d known exactly what she was and how much people would pay to see a monster like her up close.

“A real siren, incredible!” someone cries, while another asks with obvious concern, “Can’t they put a spell on you with their singing? Are we in danger?” The man scoffs at the question and, despite not actually knowing why she no longer has that trademark ability, uses it to his advantage. Kicking the cage, he laughs, “Yeah, but she won’t try anything funny on me. She knows who’s the boss here. Besides, I’ve been starving her down, she’s no match for me.”

Amid the tumult of voices and the siren’s furious snarling, someone whispers an unlocking spell. Even through her frenzy the siren senses this burst of magic and her keen ears catch the sound of the lock slowly turning. This time when she hurls herself against the cage the door bursts open and with a predator’s speed she leaps for her oblivious captor, howling in triumph. The impact sends him crashing to the ground and by the time he lands she’s already tearing at his throat with rows of serrated teeth. The humans who just moments ago had laughed and stared at her flee in terror, not a single one brave enough to attempt to contain her again.

Hunger partially sated, the siren tears off one of the man’s arms for further snacking and climbs to her feet. While she’s still unsteady on these strange human legs, used as she is to gliding through the water with her long, sinuous tail, she’ll adapt. With a little food in her belly she can finally think clearly for the first time since the awful spell that took her from her home was cast. Her thoughts burn hard and bright in their brute simplicity: Find the wizard. Make him reverse the curse. Eat him. Go home. Chewing on a meaty finger bone, the siren picks a direction and starts walking. She has no idea who this wizard is, where to find him, or how she’ll get him to lift the curse, but she’s not a creature of any particularly deep or complex thoughts and so this doesn’t much concern her. She can hunt and she can kill, and that’s good enough for her.

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#2140

They say to cross the Bridge of Ghosts you must wear a mask so the specters cannot recognize you and silver bells to disrupt their voices. If you do not wear a mask the spirits will take the form of those you love to lure you over the side. If you do not wear bells they will whisper lies in your ears until you take their words for truth and leap to your death. Even with these protections in place you must walk quickly and never stop until you reach safe earth on the other side. The mask and bells are no guarantee of protection.

No one crosses the Bridge of Ghosts without good reason. It spans a chasm high in the mountains where the wind wails and the cliff faces sharpen the gusts to knives. Nothing grows there. Nothing lives there. Nothing chooses to linger there longer than it must, for to linger is to tempt fate too boldly. Yet it is also said that if you cross the bridge successfully, never succumbing to the ghosts’ illusions or lies, you may at the other end ask them one question which they must answer truthfully. Such a reward has thus lead many, many fools to attempt the pass.

Someone stands now at one end of the bridge and the ghosts swirl hungrily in anticipation, appearing as a white mist which ascends from the valley far below to shroud the bridge and cliffs in wintry half-light. The traveler wears a finely wrought mask of silver with rays like the sun’s with bright little bells tinkling softly from each point. One foot moves to step out onto the bridge; the spirits take up their howling din. They cannot physically touch the man and so they seek to stop him with trickery, yet the mask and bells render the deceptions powerless.

The traveler thus passes through the fog with ease, never faltering, never fearing, and arrives safely at the other side of the bridge. As he removes the mask he speaks to the empty air, “Did you keep your promise?” Behind him a familiar voice answers, “Yes. I have waited long for you.” The traveler turns back to the bridge to find his lover standing upon it with arm extended. “I am here now,” he responds. He steps forward and they join hands; both disappear, leaving behind only the fallen mask.

#2131

Reading Master and Commander, or: Meet Your New Fandom

Last winter my father told me to read Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian. This might not seem very odd or momentous to you, but my father has been dead for eleven years. However, when I dreamed of us walking through a bookstore, looking for this exact title, I took the hint and grabbed the book off his shelf where the series has sat untouched all that time. I figured even if I didn’t like the book, I would read it in his honor and move on. Certainly I wasn’t going to attempt reading the entire 20-book series! I know next to nothing about the Napoleonic Wars, the British navy circa 1800, or Georgian society – while I might like the book okay, I just couldn’t imagine liking it enough to read the rest. So I started it with some trepidation… …and then my mind exploded and I developed a new and undeniably intense obsession. Hello, new fandom!

I’m here now to pass on the favor by telling you why you should read what is quite possibly the best western historical fiction of the 20th century, if not western fiction in general. But let’s start at the beginning. I’m betting most of you have no idea who Patrick O’Brian is or what Master and Commander is about, but you may know more than you think. Remember Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, that boat movie that came out in the early 2000s, the one with Russel Crowe and Paul Bettany as BFFs Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin? If you don’t, ask your dad – I think the movie is required viewing for all fathers. Either way, I will try with my mediocre literary powers to convince you why you should read this entire series right now. So here we go!

The Setting

Master and Commander throws us into a world at war – it’s the year 1800 and Napoleon is fucking shit up all over Europe, much to the chagrin of the British Navy and her allies. Against this historical backdrop we are taken all across the world, from the icy waters of the Arctic to the blazing deserts of Africa, from the prim and proper society of Georgian England to deserted tropical islands beset by pirates, and everywhere in between. Many books take you to other places but this series does so with a depth of detail and historical accuracy that will leave you feeling like an expert historian.

But I don’t know anything about that time period! you say. Never fear! You don’t particularly need to. Look, high school history class failed me too – I know more about Napoleon from Assassin’s Creed: Unity than I do from any teacher I’ve ever had. Thankfully O’Brian understands the need for accessibility and flawlessly weaves any necessary explanations or information into the text in a way that educates without boring. As for the immense amount of nautical terms thrown back and forth, the reader is comforted in knowing Stephen Maturin has no idea what they mean either. However, I promise you that upon completing the series you could convince anyone that you’re an expert in early 19th century naval history, social status and etiquette, biology, ornithology, entomology, hydrography, naturalism, mathematics, astronomy, religion, medicine, imperialism and colonialism, and just about any other topic you could think of. The amount of research O’Brian had to do to make these books so believable is absolutely mind boggling.

The Characters

This series is most commonly referred to as the “Aubrey/Maturin novels” or the “Aubreyad”, as the two main characters are naval captain Jack Aubrey and doctor/naturalist/spy Stephen Maturin. Theirs is one of the most beautiful, realistic, and enduring friendships I’ve encountered in any form of media and forms the true heart of the series. These two are such utter dorks that you can’t help but fall in love with them and turn eagerly to their next set of adventures.

Jack Aubrey

On the outside Jack Aubrey is an ambitious naval captain who passionately loves the navy, his crew, and doing anything to foil Britain’s enemies by sea. On deck he’s a dashing master of his ship, called “Lucky Jack Aubrey” for his skill in battle and his frequent taking of prize ships. He bears a number of nasty scars as evidence of his firm belief that a captain must lead, not direct from the sidelines as his men head into danger. Even more, Jack is a man who sees the silver lining in every bad situation and always manages a smile in the face of danger or disaster. His seemingly endless fount of optimism endears him to the reader immediately, especially since we are offered glimpses of the emotional turmoil beneath which he hides not from pride but from the necessity of leadership. I would sail into battle with this man in a heartbeat.

On the inside, however, Jack Aubrey is a big squishy teddy bear and the king of dad jokes (even before he becomes a father). This man finds puns so funny that he laughs at his own before he says them, and laughs even when he can’t think of one to fit the situation. He’s just so tickled by puns and it’s adorable. He’s also quite fond of food and good alcohol, as well as a talented amateur violinist and astronomer. Jack appears at first like our usual dashing hero, eager for battle and flirting with all the pretty ladies, but this James Bond facade masks a dorky, good-humored man with a heart of gold who loves his family and friends fiercely. I love him so much it hurts.

Stephen Maturin

On the outside Stephen Maturin is a singularly intelligent and talented surgeon and famed naturalist with a focus on ornithology (i.e. a huge fucking dork). He’s the most hopeless landlubber ever to fall into the ocean while trying to board a ship, his mastery of multiple languages no help when it comes to naval jargon, and the crew of the HMS Surprise has to constantly keep him from dying at sea. Stephen will go to extreme lengths to observe a particularly interesting bird and can happily monologue for hours about a new species of beetle. He’s your classic nerd: cranky, socially and physically awkward, unkempt, and simultaneously unbelievably smart and totally oblivious to everything around him. He’s everything I want to be.

tenor

On the inside, however, Stephen is a man driven by love of his home countries, Ireland and Catalonia, and his resulting abhorrence of all forms of colonialism and oppression, especially slavery. This leads him to become a valuable member of Britain’s spy network to stop Napoleon. Few characters know his secret but the reader is gifted with insight into Stephen’s activities and we come to understand just how dangerous an enemy he can be and how valuable an ally. Stephen’s nerdiness and clumsiness lead to some of the best laughs in the series, yet he can be colder and scarier than any other character. What he is at his core is a good man driven by higher principles and a truly exceptional love for weird birds.

Everyone Else

Jack and Stephen might have stolen my heart by the end of the first paragraph (in which they get into a fight at a musical concert because Jack won’t stop air conducting), but the secondary characters are where this series truly outshines its contemporaries. Every single side character is as richly developed and complex as our protagonists and will capture your heart just as easily. From Jack’s loyal crew and officers to Stephen’s odd collection of wayward souls (many of whom are ex-slaves), both men manage to form an extended family of lovable and loving characters. One of my personal favorites is Tom Pullings, one of Jack’s young officers whom we watch grow from little midshipmen to captain of his own ship. His utter adoration for Jack is so sweet it makes me want to throw my book across the room:

“…All except for Pullings, who had the watch, and was walking the quarterdeck with his hands behind his back, pacing in as close an imitation of Captain Aubrey as his form could manage, and remembering, every now and then, to look stern, devilish, as like a right tartar as possible, in spite of his bubbling happiness.”

The Writing

I know what you’re thinking. That’s great, but this just isn’t my genre. I know I’m gonna be bored. I need magic/sci-fi/paranormal-whatever. And you know what? That is FALSE. Look, I have extremely high standards for my fiction and while I’m a sci-fi/fantasy girl at heart, I’m drawn primarily these days to queer speculative fiction. Historical fiction set in 18th century England is not at all my cup of tea (pun intended)… or so I thought. But please understand the gravity of the following statement:

I have never read a more beautiful, well-written work of fiction than this series in my entire life.

It’s true! In just one book Patrick O’Brian surpassed Ray Bradbury as my Biggest Writing Hero Ever and every single book in the series is as fantastic as the next – how often does that happen? The prose is flawless, at once accessible and laden with historical accuracy, a fast-paced read rich with minute detail. What O’Brian does best, though, is his weaving of subtle humor into every scene; a reader paying close attention is rewarded with some truly humorous, one might even say silly, little scenes and asides. I have to share my two favorites, though they’re a little long:

“The sloth sneezed, and looking up, Jack caught its gaze fixed upon him; its inverted face had an expression of anxiety and concern. ‘Try a piece of this, old cock,’ he said, dipping his cake in the grog and proffering the sop. ‘It might put a little heart into you.’ The sloth sighed, closed its eyes, but gently absorbed the piece, and sighed again.

Some minutes later he felt a touch on his knee; the sloth had silently climbed down and it was standing there, its beady eyes looking up into his face, bright with expectation. More cake, more grog; growing confidence and esteem. After this, as soon as the drum had beat the retreat, the sloth would meet him, hurrying towards the door on its uneven legs: it was given its own bowl and would grip it with its claws, lowering its round face into it and pursing its lips to drink. Sometimes it went to sleep in this position, bowed over the emptiness.

“In this bucket,” said Stephen, walking into the cabin, “in this small half-bucket, now, I have the population of Dublin, London and Paris combined: these animalculae – what is the matter with the sloth?” It was curled on Jack’s knee, breathing heavily: its bowl and Jack’s glass stood empty on the table. Stephen picked it up, peered into its affable, bleary face, shoot it, and hung it upon its rope. It seized hold with one fore and one hind foot, letting the others dangle limp, and went to sleep.

Stephen looked sharply round, saw the decanter, smelt to the sloth, and cried, “Jack, you have debauched my sloth.””

And from the very first book in the series…

“‘I was contemplating on the Pongo,’ Stephen said aloud as the door opened and Jack walked in with a look of eager expectation, carrying a roll of music.

‘I am sure you were,’ cried Jack. ‘A damned creditable thing to be contemplating on, too. Now be a good fellow and take your other foot out of that basin—why on earth did you put it in?—and pull on your stockings, I beg. We have not a moment to lose. No, not blue stockings: we are going on to Mrs Harte’s party—to her rout.’

‘Must I put on silk stockings?’

‘Certainly you must put on silk stockings. And do show a leg, my dear chap: we shall be late, without you spread a little more canvas.’

‘You are always in such a hurry,’ said Stephen peevishly, groping among his possessions. A Montpellier snake glided out with a dry rustling sound and traversed the room in a series of extraordinarily elegant curves, its head held up some eighteen inches above the ground.

‘Oh, oh, oh,’ cried Jack, leaping on to a chair. ‘A snake!’

‘Will these do?’ asked Stephen. ‘They have a hole in them.’

‘Is it poisonous?’

‘Extremely so. I dare say it will attack you, directly. I have very little doubt of it. Was I to put the silk stockings over my worsted stockings, sure the hole would not show: but then, I should stifle with heat. Do not you find it uncommonly hot?’

‘Oh, it must be two fathoms long. Tell me, is it really poisonous? On your oath now?’

‘If you thrust your hand down its throat as far as its back teeth you may meet a little venom; but not otherwise. Malpolon monspessulanus is a very innocent serpent. I think of carrying a dozen aboard, for the rats—ah, if only I had more time, and if it were not for this foolish, illiberal persecution of reptiles … What a pitiful figure you do cut upon that chair, to be sure. Barney, Barney, buck or doe, Has kept me out of Channel Row,’ he sang to the serpent; and, deaf as an adder though it was, it looked happily into his face while he carried it away.”

Also, there’s literally a chapter in one book where our heroes escape from France by buying a recently skinned bear, turning it into a costume, and tricking everyone into believing Stephen is a traveling entertainer and Jack is his pet bear. They walk hundreds of miles to the freedom of the Spanish border over harsh terrain, sometimes acting for pennies in the town square, as Jack just suffers in this stuffy, slowly spoiling meat suit and no one suspects a thing. IT’S THE BEST.

These books aren’t just about laughs, though. They elicit emotions across the spectrum from joy to sorrow, anger to triumph, disbelief to nerve-wracking anticipation. They utterly captivate the reader from page one – twenty books won’t be enough once you get caught up in the Aubreyad! I’ve never read a series that made me want to simultaneously hug and throw my books as often as this series and I truly will be bereft when I finish the last book. This is a stunning example of “genre” fiction raised to the very heights of literature and a must-read for anyone who appreciates complex characterization and masterful prose. You will not be disappointed, I can absolutely promise you that.

#2128 – Summer Solstice

It is an ancient dance – white teeth and lolling tongue, sharp hooves and swift legs, predator and prey united in survival’s endless contest. Breath mists white in the cool morning air of a summer solstice while wolf and stag twist in choreographed ferocity; feint and fight, snap and stab, blood and brutality. Life, death, to nature it is all of a kind, one long revolution like the earth upon its axis. The stag does not begrudge the wolf his hunger. The wolf does not begrudge the stag his resistance. They were born for this combat, hunter and hunted, and without the one the other cannot exist. Thus when skill or chance contrive to spear leaping wolf upon lunging antlers, sharp tines sinking through flesh and muscle, there is neither regret nor animosity. Today it is the wolf who lays bleeding out on the tundra, but in six months the stag may just as easily take his place.

 

[ Read the other solstice pieces. ]

#2113

It seems strange that I have to justify my intentions. Look around; is this world really worth saving? Is it deserving of your blood, sweat, and tears, or even your very life? Hardly. You only need open your eyes to see what humanity has done to the Eden it inherited. Concrete cities, cardboard slums, humans packed as thick as maggots on their planet’s moldering corpse. In only a few thousand years they’ve managed to irreparably poison the land, water, and air, orchestrate the extinction of hundreds of thousands of innocent species, and invent countless ways to torture each other daily based on race, religion, and creed. They are locusts devouring everything in their path; they are a plague worse than any deadly virus or unbreakable curse. I speak only the truth and for my evidence can but point to any place on the globe and detail the horrors unleashed there since civilization’s birth: pride, greed, envy, sloth, gluttony, wrath, humanity’s chronic rot touches everything. Given all this, is it still a wonder why I want to wipe the slate clean? Why I no longer think humanity can be redeemed and this world salvaged? A fresh start isn’t so bad, is it, when you consider how many more centuries of war and death must come before the inevitable end performs its final undeserved mercy and snuffs life out for good.

What’s in your head, zombie?

#2112

It’s just her, in the end. It has always been just her.

Mage paces the Jolly Roger’s decks in silence save for the brush of wind through the rigging and waves against wood. No voices, no footsteps, no sounds of human habitation. She forgets how long it’s been since Tanim and Daren disappeared. Weeks? Months? Even longer? She wasn’t surprised to find them gone, of course; they were never truly loyal, only temporarily entertained by her quest enough to play along for a while. She has no real need for their power now anyway, but she does miss what passed for companionship with them.

As she walks, Mage runs a hand over the rail of the ship. The Jolly Roger has been her home and power base for twelve years; its timbers are drenched in her blood and magic, her anger and obsession and desperation. It is the closest thing to a home she has had in a millennium and the thought of leaving it behind would fill her with terror if she wasn’t so terribly tired. Yet to do what she plans, she cannot bring it with her. The ship must return to its grave at the bottom of the sea, this time to slumber eternally as it deserves.

If only she could be rid of the hook so easily. But one thing at a time.

Completing a final circuit of the deck, Mage returns to the quarterdeck and lays her hand upon the helm. For her final act as captain she dismantles the magic layered throughout the ship, spells of protection and speed, firing power and stealth. The last to go is the oldest spell, that with which she raised the ship from the seabed and set it to her purpose. Beneath her boots the wood groans and begins to decay and above her the sails split. “Well,” Mage gives the helm a pat and allows herself one sentimental sigh. “Thank you, ship. You did well. Now rest.”

And with that she steps off its decks for the last time.

~ * ~

Ali hadn’t even bothered putting on her armor. Standing at the beachfront at four in the morning, watching the tide come in, she sensed that Mage was coming. Walking out from the waves, a shadow clad in night and mirrors, her nemesis came ashore.

Mage can see the exhaustion on Ali’s face. “I’m not here to fight,” she confesses, “I just wanna talk.”

#2106

Jurassic Park/World, the Cinematic Franchise We Need (But Not the One We Deserve)

A couple days ago I watched the most recently released trailer for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and it sparked an interesting thought process. I have linked the trailer at the bottom of this post for those who are interested, but I can sum up the plot pretty easily – it’s basically Jurassic Park: The Lost World all over again, but with some fancier dinosaurs. The movie will start with a visit to the island (just like in Lost World), where the dinosaurs need to be removed before am imminent volcanic eruption (or for a zoo in Lost World). Once transferred to the mainland, one or more dangerous dinosaurs will escape (just like in Lost World) and our heroic hetero couple will have to save the day (just like, you guessed it, in Lost World!).

At first I rolled my eyes at this unnecessary rehashing of a previous plot line. If the events in San Diego happened only years before the building of Jurassic World, shouldn’t we as a species have learned a lesson regarding carnivorous dinosaurs in population centers? Wouldn’t we at least put extreme cautions in place, or even new state or federal regulations governing the transfer and containment of extinct creatures? It just isn’t possible for the exact same scenario to play out only a few years later, not when such a scenario was covered worldwide and many of those involved are still alive. Even considering the volcanic threat and therefore the need to save as many of the dinosaurs as possible, I can’t imagine any nation would essentially say, “Yeah, go ahead and bring those things back here, they only destroyed two different parks and escaped their containment in San Diego and killed like forty people, what’s the worst that could happen?” It doesn’t make sense at all.

…except that it does. As I pondered the new Jurassic World era, wondering if the third movie would also be a rehash of Jurassic Park 3, I realized I was missing the point. What if instead of recycling old plot lines out of laziness, the creators of Jurassic World were making a very pointed statement? What if Jurassic World is an allegory for the ways humanity continues to repeat past mistakes without learning from them, even when the consequences are a disastrous loss of human life? Viewed through this lens, the repetition of the movie plots teaches us a valuable, albeit grim, lesson – a portion of humanity will always choose personal power over the safety and prosperity of others, and this greed will inevitably lead society down a dark, deadly path. Considering we’re on the cusp of a third world war, this theory actually makes a lot of sense. Jurassic Park/World is fiction, of course, but I can see it playing out in reality exactly how it does in the franchise. People with too much money attempt something dangerous in the hopes of making even more money; innocent people die as a result; a few years later a new group of people with too much money attempt the same thing but with more bells and whistles; more innocent people die; rinse and repeat. It’s been happening more or less since human society came to be, and it sure doesn’t seem like we’re going to do a 180 any time soon.

Maybe I just don’t have any faith in humanity left. Maybe I just can’t admit my favorite franchise is becoming repetitive and unoriginal. Or maybe it’s just comforting to imagine our current reality isn’t the only one where greedy businessmen have doomed us all. Whatever the reason, I’m standing by my thesis – Jurassic World is trying to warn us that if we don’t learn from our past, we’re doomed to repeat it… and repeat it… and repeat it. Are there money-hungry people out there willing to build a zoo full of dinosaurs even though the last two attempts ended in complete disaster? Yup. Because humanity sucks.

…maybe we deserve to get eaten by dinosaurs.