A New Short Story From R. J. Eliason

I am part of an anthology!

Changeling Ward is a collection of three short stories/novellas from local Iowa Authors. All the stories are fantasy and all are based around the theme of changelings.

My story is A Knife in the Dark and it’s set in the Gilded Empire world. (The same world that Mage Chronicles is in, though the characters aren’t the same.)

The ebook is currently available as an Amazon exclusive. That means if you have Kindle Unlimited you can read it free for a short time. Check it out today!

And as always, if you want to stay up to date on the latest from R. J. Eliason, sign up for my email list:

Coming Soon: The Mage Chronicles Audio!

I am pleased to announce that The Mage Chronicles has found a narrator on ACX. The audio book is scheduled for early fall, so look for more news then.

The Gilded Empire: A magical empire so ancient it’s name has been forgotten to the mist of time. Its citizens believe they are in their golden age, but already the rot is showing underneath the gold veneer.
The Mage Chronicles: A mage level healer, Mary is unprepared when the Council of Mages wants her to intervene in a border dispute in a distant part of the empire. What does she know of nobility or war? Not one to back down, she must confront the harsh realities of life outside the central core, a legion of unstoppable warriors and the ghosts of her own past.

 

Can’t wait to check the book out? You can get a free ecopy when you sign up for my mailing list.

The Darkest Aspects of Fantasy are the Realistic Aspects

The trend towards dark, gritty fantasies has dominated fantasy writing for the last decade or so. The relatively light-hearted Harry Potter series grew darker and more somber as the books progressed. Game of Thrones came to dominate epic fantasy, filled with violent battles and characters that may be murdered in the blink of an eye. The YA market has seen dystopian novels like the Hunger Games pitting children against each other in a battle of survival.

There is another, less apparent theme that runs through all three of these series. Their brutality is grounded in actual history. Ironic as it is, the darkest aspect of each of these books is actually the most realistic.

Game of Thrones

George R. R. Martin has created many fantasy elements for his epic series, dragons, ice zombies, seasons that last many years, and even the land he describes. But the drawn out civil war that drives the story is inspired by, if not based on, historical events. The English Wars of the Roses contain many elements that Game of Thrones fans will recognize, including at least one battle that puts the series to shame for it’s pure brutality.

This video does a good job of explaining the connections:

Harry Potter

Does Voldemort’s obsession with muggle blood strike you as eerily familiar? It should be. J. K. Rowling based a lot of the Death Eaters rule on Hitler’s Germany. Voldemort’s hatred for muggle blood, especially his shame over his own, mirrors Hitler’s obsession with Jews. Even the way he uses an existing bigotry, building a mythology of Salazar Slytherin around the destruction of muggles, mirrors how the Nazi party played on existing racism and anti-semitism. The world of the later books, where Voldemort holds sway, gives us a haunting glimpse into the lives of resistance fighters in any repressive regime.

The Hunger Games

The idea of forcing provinces to send tributes to compete in a bloody battle royale might sound like the most preposterous fiction, but that’s exactly what ancient Rome did. And that’s where Susan Collins drew much of the inspiration for the Hunger Games. Even the purpose of the Hunger Games matches that of the ancient coliseum. Not only were they displays of wealth and power by the sovereign state, they were vital distractions for the masses.

Other examples

I could continue in this vein for some time without running out of examples. Tolkien denied that the Lord of the Rings, published in 1937, had any historical allegory. But many readers and critics can’t help but see the rising power in the east as being applicable to both Sauron and Nazi Germany. The analogy between the middle earth and the times in which the books were written is remarkable, whether he intended it or not.

Tolkien’s close friend C. S. Lewis, on the other hand, was free in admitting that the Narnia series were written in response to World War Two, and the parallels are significant there as well.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Authors are often influenced by the times in which they live and the experiences of the real world.

I think the bigger question we need to ponder is this, gritty fantasy shows us about ourselves. We create dragons, evil wizards, and mythical weapons, but they true horrors aren’t the things writers manufacture in their minds, but the reality of human nature itself.

Heroes and Psychopaths

When I was a kid, heroes were heroes and you knew it. They wore white, told the truth and fought for right, all the time. Villains really weren’t that important. They only existed in order for the hero to have something to fight.
Think about the Lord of the Rings. The side plots and subtext might brim with moral ambiguity and struggle, the main story line is pretty crystal clear. Sauron is evil embodied and his primary servants, the orcs are little more than beasts for the heroes to fight. Aragorn is the ideal king reborn and the hobbits are as good as a fantasy culture can come.
Tolkien’s legions of copy cats took it to another level. Fantasy book shelves filled with stories of brave knights fighting orcs, trolls and other evil denizens. Neither side thought much about their morality. The knights never behaved in ways that made you doubt their goodness, nor the orcs (or whatever) in ways that made you wonder if there was a goodness in them. By the time I was in my teens, I had read dozens of books along those lines.
I was growing up and so was the fantasy genre around me. Throughout my teens I discovered more complex, less heroic heroes. The First Sword of Shannara stuck close to the fantasy genre formula but as the series grew things changed. In one of the books, the druid Allanon tricks one of Shea’s descendants into sacrificing themselves to become the new magic tree that protects the realm, an underhanded trick that infuriates the main character and Gandalf would never have stooped to, but it made sense in that world. The White Gold Wielder (Thomas Covenant series) introduced me to one of my first true anti-heroes, a truly unlikeable leper who was accidentally thrown into a magical world and cast as its savior, despite his own wishes on the subject. The age of gritty magical realism had dawned.
Sorry, Game of Thrones fans, George R. R. Martin did not create the concept. He has, however, taken the idea to its logical conclusion. Early in the story we meet The Hound, a vicious soldier and anti-hero who hates knights because for all their holy vows, they are just killers in armor. As the story progresses we not only learn more about why he feels that way, we learn he’s mostly right. The vast majority of characters in the books are unlikeable, vicious and cruel.
Don’t get me wrong, they are well written and compelling. As we learn more and more about their backstories, we start to understand why they are the way they are. In some cases, we feel more sympathy for them. In other cases, we still cheer their bitter end. Its an engrossing series that forces you to keep reading.
At times it’s too much. Not in the I-can’t-take-it sort of way (though it’s close, sometimes, in that way too) but more in a I’m-having-trouble-suspending-disbelief sort of way. Seriously, is it possible that the entire isle of Westeros is filled with psychopaths and pathological liars? At times it seems so.
I was reading an article recently about psychopaths. Psychopaths and sociopaths are pop psychology terms that aren’t well defined and definitions may vary. In the psychiatric field we use the term anti-social personality disorder (ASPD).
Anti-social doesn’t refer to a lack of desire to be social, but rather an inability to form lasting social bonds due a lack of empathy. Poor empathy means that anti-social people don’t identify with the feelings of others. In the most extreme cases this can make them capable of committing atrocities with little or no remorse. They are often referred to as psychopaths in that case. More pedestrian and mundane cases of anti-social personality disorder shows itself in people who lie, manipulate, cheat and threaten to get their needs met with little or no regard for the consequences for the ones they are lying to, cheating or threatening.
A disorder in the psychiatric sense, merely means a condition that significantly interferes with life. ASPD sufferers have a hard time keeping a job, staying out of trouble with the law or keeping any sort of long term relationship going. Risk taking behavior combined with poor relationships puts anti-social personalities at a high risk for substance abuse, depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.
Professional estimate the number of anti-social personalities around 3% of the population. To put that in perspective, studies put the gay male population around 6% and the transgender population less than one percent. The rule that you probably have one somewhere in your family is probably true of anti-socials as well LGBT people.
As anyone who works in mental health knows, a small percentage of the population can make a huge difference. ASPD individuals tend to stand out, both in psych and in the general population. A near brush with one can have lasting impact on one’s life and color one’s view of the world.

ASPD in Game of Thrones

There are three things that would greatly increase the number of anti-socials in a world like Game of Thrones. There are a couple important things that would greatly limit them.
A medieval world like Westeros is, in many ways, an anti-social playground. Most anti-socials are working at a fairly simple level of moral thinking, rewards and punishment. In a world with no central authority to punish them, they would run rampant, doing as they please. If they are lucky enough to be large and good at fighting, think of The Mountain, there would be almost no end to their cruelty.
In our society there is a not so subtle distinction between anti-social personality disorder and anti-social personality. A disorder means that it interferes with living your life in some significant way. Many in our society might have some anti-social traits but realize at some point that if they act on them in certain ways, they will get in trouble with the law, or lose an important relationship. So they rein it in. For them, it’s not a disorder.
In a medieval world the rules are different, and so to is the need to rein in these tendencies. Perhaps a number of law abiding citizens would turn into bloodthirsty psychopaths in that world. Who knows how many? A world where anti-social traits make sense would see a rise in such people, surely.
Thirdly, there are a number of other conditions that might appear like ASPD, especially if untreated, as they would be in a medieval world. The number of psychopathic assholes in games of thrones and the number of, if not random, sudden, bouts of violence bothered me until I realized one thing. These knights are running around in metal helms hitting each other. They are constantly being exposed to killing and violence. The rate of traumatic head injuries and PTSD would have to be astronomical. With no mental health system to speak of, wild mood swings, angry outbursts over small slights and a cycle of escalating violence makes sense in both cases.
There are two factors that would reduce the number of ASPD individuals in a society like Westeros. The laws of Westeros are brutal and quickly enforced. Many ASPD individuals have a history of brushes with the law, and in Westeros your first encounter with the law is likely to be your last. Royalty, and most of the characters are royal in some sense of the word, would protect the person to a degree but ASPD individuals would likely have a high turnover rate in any medieval world.
There are two important disadvantages of anti-social personalities that would show themselves in a medieval world, an apocalypse or anywhere else in literature where these individuals play a significant role. They tend to be grandiose and over estimate their own abilities and they tend to be impulsive. They overreach and that is frequently their downfall. Men like The Mountain might be the ultimate badass in armor, but you would expect that sooner or later they’ll take their armor off and some opportunist would put a dagger between their ribs or something.

Psychopaths and writers

What does this mean for writers? Anti-social characters can be fun to write. There’s a vicarious freedom in writing a character who just doesn’t give a shit, who will say or do whatever comes to mind.
Populating a world with them takes a bit more balance. Too few and your work might come across as too idyllic, too many and it isn’t believable. Most people feel empathy, even if their life has been twisted or they’ve experienced significant trauma. They pause before killing. They think, worry about the consequences for others. They create relationships and those relationships mitigate violence.
Psychopaths make easy villains, sometimes too easy. It’s cliche to make your villain simply evil for it’s own sake. Remember, every character has motivations of their own. Every character truly believes they are the hero of their story. Game of Thrones does this well, even though many (too many in my opinion) of the characters meet the definition of a psychopath, they all have deeper motivations than just being evil.
And finally remember the pretorian guard. I wish more writers would remember the pretorian guard. The pretorian guard protected the Roman Emperors, most of the time. Whenever an emperor started acting in ways that threatened the realm, or the life of the guard themselves, they often went along or even instigated assassinations and coups. The same dynamic will appear frequently around anti-social leaders, when their grip on sanity starts to slip, other folks will want a different leader by any means necessary. These may often be lead by normal men, otherwise loyal followers, who see the leader as a loose cannon, as much a threat to them as too the enemy.

10 signs you just binge read the Game of Thrones

I just finished reading the final book in George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. It’s one of those highly immersive series, where you get sucked into the world. It affects how you see the world for weeks after. Here are my top ten signs that you’ve just binge read all five Game of Thrones books.

It’s Songs of Fire and Ice, you stupid TV watching cretins

Maybe it’s a stereotype, but we literary types can be snobs. Like insisting that the book series was really named Songs of Fire and Ice, not Game of Thrones.

Phrases like “mayhaps” and “ever so” have suddenly become part of your vocabulary.

Initially some of the archaic language and made up medieval language bothered me. You might even say I had my smallclothes in a bunch over it. But by book two it starts to roll off your tongue easily and by book five, you find yourself using it in daily life. As in “Mayhaps we will have pizza tonight. That would be ever so tasty.”

You are craving stew served in a trencher, even though you have no clue what a trencher is.

A trenchers were rounds of flat bread that were used as plates and then eaten afterwards, the medieval forerunner of the bread bowl. And yes, that does sound pretty tasty. The less tasty aspect? Trenchers were generally served with stews to soften stale, dried breads. Hardly the grossest thing in the Game of Thrones world, but I personally prefer my bread fresh.

 

Wait, pease porridge is a real thing?

They eat pease porridge frequently in the series. All most of us know about pease porridge is the old children’s rhyme;

pease porridge, hot,

pease porridge cold,

pease porridge in the pot, nine days old.

A common recipe in medieval Europe, pease porridge is a thick stew made from dried peas, not unlike split pea soup. It was often left to congeal overnight and then eaten cold in the morning. In some cases a large pot was left to warm by the edge of the fire as a quick any time meal. More was added to the stew as needed and it was quite possible that some of the ingredients had indeed been in the pot nine days by the time they got eaten.

When your spouse asks you to do a chore you reply, “Valar Dohaeris.”

Valar Morghulis, “All men die” and Valar Dohaeris, “All men must serve” are sayings from old Valyrian. Both are heavy with meaning both in the series and without. Valar Morghulis however is harder to work into everyday conversations.

You call poison control to ask if there is reliable antidote to Tears of Lys.

My day job is working as a nurse. The first indication I had that I had become too entrenched in the world of Game of Thrones came at work. There was a note on a patients chart about contacting poison control. It took several minutes trying to figure out who would try to poison them before I realized it was about an overdose attempt. Oh, right, people don’t generally poison each other in real life.

When you see an eleven year old girl walking down the street, you cross to the other side. (It might be Arya Stark.)

Arya Stark is a pretty bad ass character, until you stop to consider the fact that she’s an eleven year old girl. And she’s killed how many people? Yikes.

All your other fannish friends are saying things like: “I wish I could go to Hogwarts.” “I wish a blue telephone box would materialize right here.” You just look at them and think, “nope, I’m fine with this world, thank you very much.”

Most fans would love to live inside the world of their favorite series. I don’t blame them, but the world of Game of Thrones is way too bloody for that. Life is cheap and characters die unexpectedly throughout the books. If you are a noble, your life is in constant danger. If you are smallfolk it’s even worse. No thanks, I’ll pass.

Two missionaries knock on your door. You demand, “Can your god protect us when the cold winds blow and snows are ten feet deep, when the others come and the dead walk? I think not. Winter is coming.”

Just a few short weeks ago you thought all those fanboys and fangirls complaining about the slow progress on book six were being whiny brats. Now you feel their pain. Come on, George, hurry up already!

Most importantly though, if you binge read the saga you will have the satisfaction of knowing what a great bunch of books they are. Enjoy.

A Taste of the Gilded Empire

Here is an excerpt from the latest book, an epic fantasy called The Mage Chronicles. It sets the scene for a long series called the Gilded Empire.

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Chapter One

Ashley La’Margin the Fourth

Mary stood on the brown cobblestone of Muted Lane and waited while the oxen cart rumbled by. As it passed her, she caught a glimpse of Muted Market. She wondered, as always, how such a noisy place came by the name “Muted.” She crossed the lane, feeling the warmth of the stones underneath her sandals as she left the shade of the apartments behind her.

To her right was the market itself. It was a single-story building the size of a small park and without walls. Arched pillars of granite stood every fifteen feet, and the roof rose over them in billowing waves, like a giant pavilion frozen in stone. That such heavy stone could be shaped into such a delicate structure made the market one of Tomlin City’s marvels.

Not that those inside were paying much attention to the architecture above them. The market was crowded. Then again, it was always crowded. Merchants hawked their wares in loud voices, haggled with customers, and complained to each other of the day’s business. The market’s assault on the senses did not stop at sound. Jewelers flashed bits of gold and silver. A tailor threw a bright brocade of silk around a woman’s form with a practiced flourish. Small, contained fires heated an incredible variety of pots, pans, and skillets, which in turned contained an even more incredible variety of foods and spices. The aroma mixed with the sweat of the many patrons and hung thick in the air.

Mary ignored the market, and for the moment, it returned the favor. Mary was a slight figure, almost a head shorter than the nearest man in front of her. She was thin and had long, coppery-red hair pulled back into a long braid. She wore a simple dress of burnt orange held fast around the waist with a silk scarf. A pentacle, embroidered into the sleeve of the dress, marked her as a healer.

To the left of the market was the Tower of Ashley La’Margin. If the market was one of the marvels of the city of Tomlin, the mage’s tower was the marvel. Set about two hundred feet back from the lane, the building was maybe a hundred feet across at its base and rose to nearly five hundred feet high. It literally towered over the market and every building nearby. It was composed of white stone that appeared to be seamless.

The land around the base of the tower was entirely covered in a hedgerow maze. Where the maze opened onto the lane, there stood twin sandstone sphinxes, eighteen feet tall. There was an almost imperceptible sound of stone grinding on stone as one of the sphinxes turned its head to look at Mary as she drew near. Though slight, the sound cut through the din of the marketplace. There was a collective rolling gasp as the people in the crowd turned their attention toward the tower.

A hand reached out and pulled Mary from the lane.

“Careful, young maid,” the merchant said. “Wouldn’t want to see you crushed under the heels of that beast.”

“What devilry is the mage up to now?” a nearby woman wondered out loud.

“Appearances can sometimes be deceiving,” Mary said.

“Aye,” the man agreed, misreading her completely. “I thought they were mere statues. They’ve never moved an inch as long as I’ve been at the market.”

Mary smiled. “Be not afraid; they mean no harm.” As she stepped back into the lane she chuckled to herself. Young maid indeed. The fool doesn’t realize I could well be the one who delivered him.

All of the collective eyes of the market were on Mary as she crossed the lane and approached the sphinx. It dropped its head, and its mouth gaped wide.

In her mind, Mary felt its excitement. “Yes, Azroth,” she said aloud, for the benefit of those in the market. “I have brought you a gift.”

As she reached into her small purse, a raspy sandstone tongue extended from the sphinx’s mouth. It cupped its tongue delicately, and she placed a small river stone onto the tongue.

In a single swift movement the tongue was gone and the sphinx returned to its former, immobile state. A sense of contentment and the memories of other stones, other places, rolled off the sphinx.

“I have one for you too, Shemazai,” Mary said to the second sphinx. Slowly, and with a much greater sense of dignity, the second sphinx bent and accepted its gift.

This will be the talk of the market for weeks to come, she thought.

They are all fools anyway, Azroth said in her mind, settling itself into its usual stony, watchful silence.

Without a backward glance, Mary entered the maze. There was a brief pause, then the noise of the market rose again. Inside, most of the merchants broke into loud, speculative conversations—about discovering the sphinxes were real and about the young girl who seemed to know them. A few merchants stayed quiet; wondering, no doubt, how many of their misdeeds had been observed by the statutes and to whom they had been reported.

Mary’s feet took her within the maze. She stopped briefly at the imposing main entrance. She had brought another, more mundane gift for the doorman, a pastry from the bakery near Cornall Hospital, where Mary both lived and worked. She did not ask for entrance. He understood.

She passed the much smaller and simpler servant’s door just within the maze as well. Her feet sought the student’s entrance, hidden deep within the hedge. More than a decade had passed since she was a student of the mage, but she felt intuitively that this was the best approach. She could only surmise she had guessed correctly when she found Ashe himself was waiting for her at the student’s entrance.

“I am delighted to see you, Mary,” he said as she approached. He looked as he always did, a tall, graying man, who could be described, depending on his mood, as either imposing or fatherly. He was wearing brown leggings and a light tan shirt with an embroidered edging. The shirt was simple in design but of high-quality construction. The hair on his head, though graying, was full and worn short. His movements, as he stepped forward to give Mary a hug, were strong and graceful, belying the age of his appearance.

“Indeed it’s been too long,” she replied, returning the hug with warmth. “But I suspect you did not call me back simply because you missed seeing me.”

“Indeed not,” he replied. “Though I have missed you. Still we need not sit on the doorstep and talk.” He ushered her inside.

As they walked along the gently curving corridor, Mary said, “So for whom was that display outside?”

“The sphinxes?” he replied. “A trifling matter.”

“It will be the talk of the market for months, if not years, to come.”

“Indeed.” Sensing her curiosity he went on, “Some of the merchants wish to have entertainment in the market at night.”

“I can recall when they had minstrels and dances,” Mary said, “and for a while there was the theater group.”

“These are far more illicit and unpleasant entertainments, I regret,” Ashe continued. “I thought it would do well to remind them the market is watched.”

“Very civic of you,” she said.

Ashe was fond of the number three, and just as he had three entrances to the tower, there were three rooms that he used for greeting visitors. Near the main entrance, he had a throne room of sorts, where he could sit high above his visitor, to impress or intimidate. He used it often with petitioners who came to request magic from him. He had a business office where he would sit behind a large desk. It was there he took his peers, men of power from the city council, and court officials who sought his advice. Then he had a small sitting room for more personal visits, lessons with a rare apprentice (Mary was the first apprentice he had taken in anyone’s memory), a visit from a fellow mage, and the occasional individual graced with status of friend.

Today he passed all three rooms without a second glance. He ushered her instead into his private study. It was an interesting choice, and Mary could not help but wonder what it portended. Here was a singular room in a tower built around the number three. Most mages had a number they were obsessed with and for Ashe, it was three. Everything about this tower, from its dimensions to the number of rooms, was some multiple of three. The man even had three bedrooms, which Mary knew because she had shared all three rooms for a short time after her apprenticeship had ended and they had been lovers. But he had only one study. It held two simple, wooden chairs, a low table, a bookcase, which held a very select portion of Ashe’s library and a window that overlooked a seaside beach— nowhere near Tomlin City, if indeed it was even in this world.

They sat, and Ashe gestured at a steaming teapot and a selection of tea canisters on the low table. Smiling slightly, Mary pulled out her final gift, a tightly bundled Chrysanthemum flower.

“My favorite,” Ashe said. “You always think of the little things, Mary. It’s one of the things I love about you.”

He placed the bundle in the teapot and left the lid off so they could watch the flower unfold while the tea steeped.

After a long time, Mary spoke. “You have an assignment for me, I take it?”

“I do,” he replied. “Though you are no longer my apprentice and I can hardly compel you.”

“Still, you may speak.”

“It’s an unusual request, I must warn,” he said. “There is a situation in a distant province. Someone needs to look into it. A mage.”

She thought about other assignments she had taken from Ashe. Mostly they were humanitarian missions, as befitted her main gift, healing. Once she had fought a demon for him. Two or three times, she had sought out other mages for rituals, herbs, or other magical lore. These last assignments had been more for her own benefit, to increase her own knowledge. None of these assignments prepared her for what Ashe said next.

“It’s war, Mary. In the Barony of Cordona, a far distant corner of the empire, war is again threatening the land.”

She almost laughed but caught the serious expression on her former mentor’s face. “But surely there hasn’t been a war in the empire for several—” She stopped abruptly before she said the word millennia. She knew enough history to know that was a pleasant fiction. Still . . . “For several hundred years at least.”

“Three hundred forty-two years this March,” Ashe said. A troubled look crossed his face. Then he laughed. “No, even that is a polite fiction. The empire lives by the sword. War is a constant companion.”

He stared out the window for a long time before going on. “The emperor’s peace is merely a controlled war, Mary. You must understand this. The border legions and the army fight and conquer distant worlds, all in the name of keeping war far from our borders. But this is not the war of which I speak.

“Despite the emperor’s peace, or perhaps even because of it, small internal wars erupt frequently. For small nobles, hemmed in by each other, there are few ways to grow or increase their holding or power. Some play at court intrigue, some play at love—or marriages of convenience, rather. A few play at war.”

“Nobles, playing at war?” Mary said. “I don’t understand.”

“They fight border disputes, often over trivial trumped up offenses,” he said with some distaste.

“And the emperor allows this?”

“Of course not,” Ashe said. “These things are stopped as soon as they come to someone’s attention. But if a noble moves quickly enough, takes a village here, a town there, it’s fait accompli. When the dispute is ended one lord has another village in his domain, and the other is that much smaller.”

“But we are talking fighting here, right? With soldiers and spears and stuff?” she said.

“Yes.”

“Don’t people get hurt?”

“They get killed, Mary.”

“But—”

“Mary,” he interrupted, “you need to understand the kind of people we are talking about: power-hungry nobles. If it increases their holding, even a couple of acres, a hundred deaths is worth it to them.”

She shuddered.

“In the Barony of Cordona, such a border dispute is currently underway,” Ashe went on. “And I fear it has the potential to spiral into a much larger conflict.”

“You said the emperor puts a stop to these sorts of things,” she said.

“Usually,” he replied and fell silent for a long time. “You must go and put a stop to this, Mary.”

“Me?” she protested. “Surely there is somebody more suitable. Who usually puts a stop to these things?”

He shrugged. “The emperor cannot be everywhere, obviously. The bureaucrats usually send a simple ultimatum and that’s that. Or the courts intervene; some noble house large enough to command the respect of both parties. Neither of these things has happened.”

Mary watched him, trying to understand what he was saying. She took a different tack. “But the soldiers, they are part of the military, no? Do they really fight each other? Can’t they just be commanded to stop?”

“Each lord must raise a certain number of soldiers for the imperial army, this is true. But they have a local militia as well, which is not beholden to the military. These are the soldiers who fight and die in these border disputes. The military can’t command them. However the military certainly could intervene, and has in such situations in the past.”

“Are there not war mages?” Mary asked.

“There are.”

She stared out the window at the seashore, trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. “So the bureaucrats could end this, the courts could end this, the military, the war mages, all could end this. Why haven’t they?”

“That is an interesting question.” He turned toward Mary, a serious look on his face. “The council of mages, the civilian council of mages,” he clarified, “are deeply troubled by this entire situation. But we must not be seen as interfering. There are larger forces at work here. Why? I cannot say.

“However, if a healer were to show up, offering humanitarian aid, and then find some way to get both sides to sue for peace, the pretext is gone. The forces must then reveal themselves or retreat.”

“And the Council of Mages wishes me to go?” She did not believe even half the council knew of her existence. She was too young, too small a mage for them to notice.

“I wish you to go,” Ashe said.

After a pause, she replied, “I have always trusted you. If you ask, I will go.”

 

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What Makes a Great Sci-fi/Fantasy Story?

I have been thinking lately about what makes a great science fiction or fantasy novel great. What elements do I look for in a book or series?

I’ve distilled it down to three main elements and I strive to include them in my own writing as well. Those elements are lush world building, mythic storytelling and the ability to challenge our assumptions.

Lush World Building

I love novels that transport you into the world the writer is creating. I don’t want to read a story, I want to become enmeshed in it. I want to escape this world and live in that one, at least for an hour or two.

I think this is something that sets science fiction and fantasy apart from other genres. A romance novel needs strong believable characters. We need a great storyline. If we have those, we can forgive a flat poorly developed setting. We can all envision real world settings well enough to give literary writers a pass if their characters meet at a generic coffee shop.

In science fiction and fantasy the world itself is as important as the characters and story. We need to create that world. That can include physical descriptions, an understanding of the physical and cultural rules and a feel for the setting. A science fiction or fantasy novel with a flat setting is like a B movie with poor special effects. We just don’t buy into it. And that makes us not buy the story either.

Mythic Storytelling

An editor once told me that the greatest stories are about those times when the character realizes something that changes them forever. If the main characters are not left forever changed by the story, your reader won’t be either.

To put it another way, stories need to be a mythic journey. Even if its only a story about a kid standing up to schoolyard bullies, he is the Hero. Even if the great revelation is simply that we don’t understand the whole world, our character is the Sage. We must see their growth, feel their revelations in our bones.

I read recently that the real power of literature is that it allows us to experience many lives in the space of one. With every story I ask myself, is this a life worth experiencing? Will I grow somehow by exploring this life? What about my readers?

Challenging Assumptions

What if has always been one of the most popular questions for science fiction or fantasy writers. The what ifs can be big or small. We can wonder what if werewolves were real, or if magic was real. What if aliens came to our planet. There are a million possible what ifs.

There is more to these sorts of questions than simple curiosity. Science fiction and fantasy allows us to challenge some very basic assumptions about our world. We can do this in a way that gets past the critical mind and lets us really explore the ideas.

Is it any surprise that the television series that has had more impact on society than any other was Star Trek. From the now ubiquitous automatic door to cell phones to tablet computers, our society has outstripped so much of Star Treks technology, as an entire generation took Star Treks “what if” and turned it into “why not?”

Star Treks’ what if went beyond technical innovations. The original series featured a racially diverse crew in a time period when desegregation was still controversial. It almost doesn’t register in modern American culture, but in 1966 we were still embroiled in the cold war, but a Russian set at the controls of the Starship Enterprise. Gene Roddenberry’s vision of an egalitarian society has motivated generations.

On the surface of things, Gene Roddenberry has set the bar high. But if you scratch the surface of any great science fiction or fantasy novel you will find they too challenge your assumptions.

Underneath the swords and sorcery of Lord of the Rings it is the peace loving Hobbits that save the day and challenge our assumptions about power. Dystopian novels like The Handmaid’s Tale challenge our sense of right and wrong. Stranger in a Strange Land challenges our sense of what is possible. The Mists of Avalon challenges both the Arthurian legends and the role of women in history.

It’s gotten so that if I read a science fiction or fantasy novel and don’t come away thinking differently about our world, I feel cheated. I think about that when I write. Does this story challenge my readers assumptions? Will it broaden their world in some way? If the answer is no, I pass on those stories.

 

Those are three elements that I think set a great science fiction or fantasy read from a mediocre one. What about you? What do you value about the sci-fi/fantasy genre? Let me know in the comments.

 

What Exactly is the Gilded Empire?

The Mage Chronicles is the first book in The Gilded Empire Saga. So it’s a series, right?

Well, yes and no.

The next book, The Banner of Kash 1, is a completely different story and it is part of series, so I figured I had better have something posted online explaining what the deal was before I had a bunch of angry fans demanding to know what the hell was going on.

So here I go, or at least, attempt to go. It’s kind of like a world, like the discworld books by Terry Pratchett, though not nearly as funny. Most of the stories are designed to be stand alone novels and the casual reader should be able to pick up which ever one trips their trigger and have a satisfying read. There are a few sub series in the works and there will be characters that cross over into multiple books.

Unlike the discworld books, there is a story arc for The Gilded Empire. I have a fairly extensive Aeon Timeline and a resource manual to keep the story arc straight from book to book. While casual readers can read each novel as a standalone story, fans will start to see the pattern and the broad sweep of history behind the individual story lines.

How The Gilded Empire came to be.

This story has been in my head for years, literally. In my teens and twenty I thought I would someday write a book about the dying days of magical empire. It would have been awful, a giant narrative dump that no one would want to read. There was just too much information, too many strands that were coming together in my head.

Later, in my thirties, I thought I would write it as a series. That solved the problem with the amount of information. But there is another problem, the various strands that are leading the empire down this path are coming from such different angles. How to find one central narrative that explains it? I couldn’t.

A few years back I found the answer. I am writing a series of books that each explore one aspect of this vast place. Eventually each strand will start to weave together and the tale can be told. Or at least, that’s the theory. In the meantime, there are plenty of good stories left to tell.

For now if you would like a free copy of The Mage Chronicles all you have to do it sign up for my newsletter.

The Mage Chronicles

 

Yes, I want a free copy!

Top Ten Posts of 2014

I’ve been blogging pretty consistently this year. This site has slowly been gaining a bigger following as well. What’s been your favorite posts? Here are the ten posts that resonated the best with you, the readers.

  1. Six books that prove book banners don’t read.

Back in August I wrote a tongue in cheek post about books that conservative book banners have overlooked, because most are not avid readers. Apparently you enjoyed that post because it’s been the most viewed blog post of the year.

  1. Ten Adult Dystopians to read now that you’ve read Hunger Games

Dystopians are all the rage these days. Or maybe not, publishers and agents have been quietly spreading the word through writers conferences that “dystopian is dead.” I’ll believe that when the sales start to drop. Until then, many young readers don’t realize that dystopian is nothing new. I posted a list of classic dystopians for those who have already whet their tastes on the likes of the Hunger Games but want something more adult.

  1. How to Kick an Internet Troll, Right in the Freedom of Speech

After the gamergate uproar, I got so sick of trolls trying to justify their actions with the freedom of speech mantra, I decided to shut them down. I guess most readers must have been sick of it, too.

  1. Ten Problems with being a Werewolf

I am guessing that people already know the good parts of being a werewolf, because the ten best things about being a werewolf didn’t even come close to making the list. However a lot of you were curious about the problems.

  1. Hiding in Plain View

Not my favorite post of the year. I hate bringing the news that a heroine to many was far less of a heroine after all. But abuse likes to lurk in the dark. If we are to ever live in a better world, we need to face the truth about sexual abuse.

  1. Shield Maidens, Bell Curves and Strong Women

My post about viking shield maidens didn’t get many hits at the time and I was pleasantly surprised to see it so high on the list at the end of the year. As in ancient times, viking women keep on coming.

  1. Books Everyone Talks About but Almost No one Reads

Another tongue in cheek post, poking some gentle fun at book snobs. There are books that lots of people talk about, but they rarely read.

  1. The Suckiest Superpower

The suckiest superpower arose from a conversation with my son, and like that conversation it was a fun one. I still get a chuckle every time I think about Chicken Man, he can’t really fly but he can sort of flutter places.

  1. Reviving an Old Manuscript with Scrivener

Scrivener is my go to piece of writing software. I love scrivener. It’s so versatile and useful for all sorts of writers. This tip on using Scrivener to revive old manuscripts was well received. I guess my writer friends like Scrivener, too.

  1. Trivia Time: Florence Nightingale

This humorous post about the founder of modern nursing, ends my top ten list. I am happy you’ve enjoyed these and other posts throughout the year.

 

What’s to Come in 2015

I can’t believe it’s almost 2015 already. 2014 has been a really good year. I put out four books in 2014. The Best Boy Ever Made came out in February and it’s been my best selling book so far. Bear Naked 2: Wolf Camp followed in April. Rosie and the Quarry Ghost came out in late summer and The Mage Chronicles just this month.

I’ve been transitioning from mostly writing YA to mostly writing science fiction and fantasy. In 2013 I released my first book as R. J. Eliason. In 2014 it was even, two YA novels as Rachel Eliason and two fantasy novels as R. J. Eliason. 2015 will be slanted even more towards fantasy. I have four books I plan to publish in 2015 and three of them will be under R. J. Eliason. When they come out is the three and half thousand dollar question.

Bear Naked 3: The Hunter and the Hunted

The next installment in the Bear Naked saga is almost ready to go. It’s with beta readers now and I am starting to get the feedback I need to clean up the final pieces of the story. I hope to have it to my editor by the first of the year and publish it sometime this spring.

Blurb:

When Uncle Darren goes missing on a winter camping trip, it’s up to Amanda and her gang to find him. The only problem is that where he went missing is Idaho, that’s Skinwalker territory and the Native American cousins aren’t always friendly with to Werewolves.

Children of a New Earth

This is the first novel I ever wrote. Like most first novels, it’s taken dozens of rewrites and a lot of work to make it good enough to publish. It is finally ready for the editor. It is a post apocalyptic novel with a twist.

Blurb:

Amy Beland has grown up constantly at odds with the men and the views of Freedom Ranch, a survivalist enclave buried deep in the Rocky Mountains. And yet it will fall to her to journey outside their valley for the first since the society collapsed, before she was even born, to save the ranch.

The Banner of Kash

The Banner of Kash is the next Gilded Empire book. It begins a trilogy of interconnected stories about the gnome race.

Blurb:

Kendran has been a ranger in the Border Legions for over twenty five years, ever since his brother caught him with another man. Now he’s been called back to the reservation because the same brother is in trouble. He must walk a world of divided loyalties and old race hatreds to learn the truth about an ancient relic of his people, the Banner of Kash.

The Agony, The Ecstasy and the Buddha.

A memoir about my month in Thailand, having a sex change operation. It’s been done in rough form for some time and is almost ready to for it’s final edits. I will likely publish it under Rachel Eliason.

The Three and a Half Thousand Dollar Question

When will these books be out? Well, I don’t know. Three are essentially ready for the editor. The fourth could be made ready with one hard push, maybe a few weeks.

As an indie author I pay for the editing, cover design, etc. up front. Once I’ve paid those costs, I get the lion’s share of the benefit. That’s the good part. The bad part is, I pay those cost up front. It’s not exactly cheap either. I generally estimate a little over a thousand dollars per book.

If you look at the costs individually, about half my books have broke even and are now making me money. The other books are on track to break even and I have faith they will all at least make as much money as I spent putting them out.

Collectively they earn me a small but steady side income. I am hoping that my business as a whole will break even and become profitable within the next couple years.

The challenge is that books don’t start earning money until they are out, after you’ve spent the up front cost. So the fastest way to earn money is to get the books out, but that requires having the money to put the books out.

Which brings us to the three and a half thousand dollar question. Can I find that much money? If so, should I spend it all at once and get the three nearly ready books on the market? Or should I wait and put them out as I can afford to, later in the year? I haven’t quite decided yet.

My Writing in 2015

Writing a book is a long project. I already have many of the books I will write in 2015 in the planning stages, with an eye towards what I will publish in 2016. Bear Naked is a series and book four is in planning stages. It might even be ready for fall of 2015, but I haven’t decided yet. The Banner of Kash is a trilogy and book two has been started in planning stages as well.

I have a science fiction series I want to start this year as well. It’s about first contact with the Galactic Consortium. It will be serialized in an episodic format, like a television series. The first “season” is the Girl in the Tank.

Blurb:

Leaving her children with an increasingly deadbeat husband and their sometimes dysfunctional grandmother is just one of the hardships of military service, Cheyenne Walker knows this. When conflict arises between the Consortium and China over the island of Taiwan, America is drawn in as uneasy Allies. A Chinese Nuclear Sub rises less than two hundred feet off the bow of the aging Burke Class Destroyer, the Cambridge, and Cheyenne’s duty as gunner, however painful, is clear. She must destroy the missile.

She finds herself floating in a Consortium medical tank, wondering if they really have the technology to rebuild her broken body, wondering if the political situation will stay stable enough for her to ever get back to America, or if she will see her kids again.

Stateside she is herald as a hero. On board the medical evac ship Corelean she struggles with divided loyalties and a growing attraction to her master healer, Lana. Will she return to America and the life she knew, or forge a new one among the stars?