21 12 2016

I rarely see the label of “military fantasy” applied to books that sell well, even when those books arguably fit the bill of what “military fantasy” might mean. Its most dedicated fans would probably agree that, despite the frequency of wars and battles in the works of Tolkien, Lewis, and George R.R. Martin, those stories do not fit into that category. An online search for “military fantasy” books that sell well invariably turns up Glen Cook’s Black Company series, but that was written a long time ago, when the realities of publishing were very different.

Rudimentary research into popular opinions of the Black Company series reveal that a significant portion of its fan base is real-world military, many of whom are happy to regard its characters as more believable representations of soldiers than they normally expect to find in literature, particularly fantasy literature.

This is a great endorsement of what Glen Cook has accomplished with this talent and hard work, but it narrows the category down considerably. I certainly haven’t tried to very hard to make any of my characters seem like soldiers of today. But I don’t think I should, since the story doesn’t have a 21st-century context.

Modern-day military personnel face much higher expectations than soldiers of the past. They have to understand multiple kinds of combat. They must understand, maintain and utilize specialized equipment. They all must follow command procedures and safety procedures far more complex than were required in the armies of centuries ago (if they were even required at all). There was a time when little was required of soldiers, other than courage and obedience. It was once feasible to keep order in the ranks by rationing daily doses of strong alcohol. But that time is long gone.

In Naomi Novik’s excellent Temeraire series, the story focuses on dragons, which bring forth flying aces and dogfighting to the Napoleonic Age. The people who maintain England’s draconic air force are presented as a breed apart — they are so specialized that they don’t mix much with other soldiers. They don’t act “like soldiers”, and no one expects them to. This is something that fantasy allows you to do, in a way that no other genre can.

Raingun’s protagonist is a commissioned member of a regiment comprised of spellcasting light cavalry. These cavalry often conjure their own mounts. They share the battlefield with lancers, pikemen, musketry — and wizards. Magic is used by the military not only for its tremendous power, but also because it’s economical: after an initial investment, keeping a regiment well-charged with basic attack magic is cheap and renewable. These mages think of expending their spells in much the same way that the men of Sharpe’s Company think of using up their bullets.

In the period of military history roughly corresponding to that of Raingun, commissioned cavalrymen literally bought their ranks. This was not only done in the open, it was an important part of military fundraising. Some commissioned cavalrymen were disciplined, some were brave, and some were competent, but many were none of these things. They enjoyed a lot of luxury (especially compared to the artillery and infantry of the time), and certainly did not behave the way we would expect modern-day soldiers or troops to behave.

Raingun, and the books that will follow it, is about a man born poor, who finds himself offered a commission — and the money to buy it — through a combination of luck and courage when his hometown is attacked by pirates. He is raised to rank and privilege, also taking pride in protecting his country. But as his country’s policies become more cruel, he gradually decides to put his new-found “good life” at risk by considering rebellion.

Raingun is not meant to focus on what “military life” is like. Instead, it focuses on the struggles that ordinary people face when they come to doubt the honesty and sincerity of their government. What freedoms do you trade for security? When do you speak out? When do you recognize a government’s misstep as a mere misstep, as opposed to a sinister long-term shift? When do you stop agreeing to disagree, and identify political opponents as enemies? When do you draw lines in the sand? And when do you rebel?

The wars of the past decade often left Americans polarized. Addressing the questions they wrestled with into a fantasy novel is a very liberating way of controlling the focus. I don’t need to research conditions “on the ground”. I don’t need to become an expert in Christianity, Islam, or the history of the Middle East. I can ignore persistent, distracting refrains about whether religion is to blame, or even whether it’s all a lie: the existence of gods in the fantasy world is indisputable, and most of them are readily identified as “good” or “evil”.

Even if the existence of gods was logically indisuptable, proven on a daily basis by small miracles called magic spells, human beings would still waste their lives on vanity and greed. We’d find a way.

I’m a big fan of Bernard Cornwell, George Macdonald Fraser, O’Brian and Forester too. These people didn’t write fantasy, but they know how to put the reader in a thrilling scene, next to people that the reader cares about.



22 11 2016

This post recently appeared in C.J. Brightley’s excellent blog on “noblebright fantasy” — a term coined as a foil to fantasy of the “grimdark” variety.

Everything written here is my own opinion. I hope you find some portion of it helpful; as for any portion you don’t find helpful — discard and disregard.  My purpose here is not to dictate to the world what “noblebright fantasy” is, or how its heroes should behave; but rather, to add my own voice to those of C.J.Brightley and others wishing to contribute to a body of ideas about the topic.

I will be concentrating on . . . war stories in noblebright fantasy. What makes “military fantasy”, or war stories set in fantasy worlds, different from other fantasy fiction?


I try to keep my focus away from impressing the reader with the plot, and let the characters do the heavy lifting of impressing the reader. For what it’s worth, I’ve always been impressed by this quote attributed to Jessica Lynch: “The truth of war is not always easy to hear but it is always more heroic than the hype.”

What is “the hype” — and how can you separate it out from “the truth” of situations involving war? Well, I consider “hype” to be anything written with the primary motivation of getting people excited about war, looking forward to war, portraying it as one big action sequence (or even one big party). In what I’d consider “war hype”, the average wartime government’s portrayal of its current enemy has no redeeming features whatsoever, while the government’s own forces and personnel can do no wrong. The friendlies are merciful; the enemy, cruel. The friendlies fight for a just cause; the enemy, for blood-lust and greed. And so on.

“The hype” also tends to downplay just how confusing or terrifying combat situations (especially battles) can be. . . or how surreal.


I’m sure David Weber, author of the Honor Harrington series, is not the only author to say something brilliant on writing war fiction, but he’s got the best quote I’ve yet found about it:

“I know from the moment that I introduce them that some characters are going to die . . . because of something the story demands. And some of them end up dying because I write military fiction and in military fiction, good people die as well as bad people. Military fiction in which only bad people – the ones the readers want to die – die and the heroes don’t suffer agonizing personal losses isn’t military fiction: it’s military pornography. Someone who writes military fiction has a responsibility to show the human cost, particularly because so few of his readers may have any personal experience with that cost.”


While it’s common for fantasy tales to have battles in the plot, most of them are not “war stories”. Most fantasy tales are about the struggles of a single protagonist (who everyone hopes will be powerful and compelling) — or a “merry band” of adventurers who gradually bond through long periods of watching each other’s backs. But mostly, they won’t be “war stories”, no matter how many hordes of enemies such characters mow down.

This is doubly true when their enemies have no redeeming feature (and thus provide guilt-free carnage). There’s a reason why stories about a zombie apocalypse tend to be classified as “horror” or “survival” instead of “war”.

War stories are not about hidden artifacts of world-shaking significance; they’re not about a special “Chosen One” directed by fate to be the only one capable of saving the world. In fact, I’d say that most fans of “war stories” want protags who are fairly ordinary. These protags know they’re ordinary; they’re not Gandalf, Ender Wiggin or Richard Cypher — but they’re stepping up to the plate to face danger and do their very best on behalf of their civilization (and their fellow soldiers defending it), just like all their buddies are. War stories are about the struggles and dreams of the multitude of regular people who fight: to win, to replace tyranny with freedom, to see home again one day, or even just get out in one piece.

In any war story worthy of the name, any character thinking “This war is all about ME!” is, almost certainly, dangerously delusional . A true “war story” is all about everyone unfortunate enough to be stuck in ever-present, deadly danger.


A war story must be intensely social, since it is about the individual members of two armies, struggling against each other. In such stories, protagonists who don’t socialize much will often think about how socially isolated they are (whether they happen to prefer it that way, or not). Even spies poring over cryptograms alone all night in the basement of a “safe house” are intensely aware of (or at least, curious) about how their efforts might save — or doom — hundreds or thousands of lives.

A “war story” is one where the war, itself, is important to the lives of the people fighting it. In fact, it’s important enough that they believe that killing other people is justifiable. If they have faith in their leaders, maybe they believe that if they lose the war, they will fail to save their nation from invasion (and then, perhaps, life will not be worth living; their families may starve, or be slaughtered). They may even feel pity for their fellow humans fighting in the enemy army (figuring they must be brainwashed, or terrified into submission by tyrants).

On the other hand, if the people of a wartime nation disdain their leaders as bloodthirsty fools, then they may be rather cynical about king and country. They may hope that the war comes to a stalemate that goads both nations into making peace (or even try to make that happen).


Battlefields and war zones are horrifying, and they’re not so easy to find your way out of. Most people will be frightened out of their wits, maybe too scared to even be rational. Fits of rage, sadness, or grief will happen so often that a person may lose their ability to experience joy , relaxation, or even relief. On the other hand, they may experience euphoric joy at the merest bit of good news, or the smallest act of kindness.

Of course, war can also be very boring. Since everyone is expected to literally be ready for anything the enemy might try, the demand for constant vigilance can make it hard for a person to find diversion that isn’t prohibited (or dangerous). The bar of what they find “exciting” can get very low.

Wars turn cities and towns into miserable, smoking ruins that are barely habitable, requiring decades to rebuild (if indeed, they can be rebuilt at all). This can lead to new sources of tragedy: beautiful natural scenery being destroyed, animals wiped out, farms and orchards laid waste, families facing starvation, centuries’ worth of art and architecture turned to dust.

These same factors can also lead to hope, of course; maybe some characters who survive will go on to restore the land, cities or culture the war has wrecked. But it’s normal for some rebuilding projects to take many years to restoreeven  a small part of what might have been lost in a couple of weeks after a city’s fall to invaders.

Fantasy offers magic to mitigate much of this, but if your magician hero comes sweeping in with a simple fix for such distressing long-term problems, you risk altering the setting to the point where it’s no longer a war story. The backdrop should be bleak enough to make it cry out for heroes of the noblebright variety.


We all know what a “hero” is, in the sense that it’s often used by writers as a synonym for “protagonist”. But the “noblebright” brand, to me at least, demands that its literary heroes should share at least some characteristics with the reader’s understanding of the conventional use of the word. Not everyone will have the exact same definition of what a “hero” is. . . so for what it’s worth, here’s mine.

Hero: Someone who knowingly and willingly exposes themselves to risk or hardship (such as pain or death) with the primary motivation of sparing others the same (or similar) risk or hardship.

While “hero” is a word once reserved for males, everything I’ve written here can (and should) be applied to characters of any gender (including characters who are genderless, transgender, or even other possibilities beyond those now existing in the real world). Sexual orientation has no effect on whether a character can be heroic (or to what degree).


Of course. It’s also about plot, theme, and setting. So how “heroic” actions affect those aspects of the story are also critical to consider. These effects should not be predictable, even to characters who have experience with such matters.

A colonel who accepts a huge number of enemy as prisoners may be acting with a virtuous motive (she’d rather spare their lives than kill them). Sometimes, this will work out as the colonel would like, and she may even reap rewards: maybe her lieutenants admire her show of mercy to the defeated, or her superiors will be grateful for giving them a victory with a much lower number of casualties than expected. Of course, the colonel’s mercy could also backfire badly on her — her generals could overrule her and order the prisoners barbarically executed, giving her an undeserved reputation for ineptitude, cowardice or cruelty.

Even command decisions that seem trivial in the moment they’re made have the potential to “blow up” into something suddenly noteworthy, for good or ill. Most wartime military commanders will experience some reluctance toward bending rules (even for the loyal and the heroic), for fear of consequences that no one could have seen coming. These worries are well-founded, for wars are chock-full of events both unforeseen and unforeseeable.


Soldiers are fundamentally different from many conventional “action heroes”. Yet, in most fiction, they tend to be much tougher (and much more fearsome) than civilians. Why is this?

Many people would answer “combat training” or “armament”, but history does show times that those advantages alone often don’t win the day. Two of the most overlooked reasons of why a team of soldiers are likely to beat a team of civilians are: a) soldiers are trained remain alert for long periods of time, and b) soldiers are trained to instinctively remember that they are fighting as a group.

This can be very advantageous to writers who want to write about multiple characters; to perform most effectively, the characters must never forget that supporting each other, with every individual playing their own part to the best of their ability, is the best way to win or at least, survive. When characters do forget this, consequences can range from angry lectures all the way up to bloodbaths.

Characters fighting wars or battles in a noblebright setting will tend to respect and support their comrades, giving you more character relationships to write about — the more selfish characters will stand out, in a way that will provide you more character conflicts to write about.


Noblebright fantasy stories do well to steer clear of the “super-characters” that dominate so many other brands of fantasy. Keep writing to your target audience! War entails large groups struggling together in concert (against other large groups who are generally just as determined.)  Membership in one of those “large groups” is sure to contain a lot of the meat of the story. While combat superstars serve a purpose in fiction and can be very fun to read about, they tend to leave some of noblebright’s intrinsic advantages “on the table”.


In my opinion, the hero must not be “the toughest”, or at least not the best at everything. When the hero’s courage or combat prowess is tested, he must sometimes fail. He must occasionally make mistakes, or the “wrong call”, to occasionally doubt himself. And sometimes, the randomness of battle and “fog of war” will simply cause him to miss a golden opportunity for glory (or to fail at rescuing those he holds dear).  With no risk, there’s less investment for the reader.

All this can provide dialogue between the hero and various comrades, which can offer character development in many directions. It can also offer opportunities for exposition of backstory or other details of setting and plot — which can be very challenging when writing fantasy stories, which can have so much more to introduce to the reader than stories of other genres.


The hero must occasionally get the tar beaten out of him; maybe even volunteer for it because “someone’s gotta do it”. . . and there are lots of ways to give your hero opportunities to get his butt handed to him. This can be a fight with an inherent tactical disadvantage, like holding a bridge, rescuing someone from the enemy’s clutches, or even pulling off a purely symbolic stand whose only purpose is to provide needed inspiration to prevent everyone’s morale from collapsing.

The hero must also, at times, taste extreme frustration; feel hopeless; be defeated or humiliated. Wars are made out of numberless, neverending struggles (many of which end up forgotten). A war where the hero never loses, never feels tired or scared, or faces any setback, is boring. This applies to all aspects of the hero’s endeavors, including combat. Give the bad guys their due!

Of course, to get through these dangerous situations, the hero does need to be capable enough to deal with the situations you throw at him. He can be above average — perhaps, in one or two regards, even exceptional.  And sometimes, he can pull of something truly amazing. But amazing feats shouldn’t be so easy for him that they become trivial, so avoid making him the “the best” at everything. Maybe the enemy’s scariest intimidator can’t rattle him; but maybe their best marksman can shoot more accurately, or maybe their fastest messenger can run (or ride) faster.

This also applies to avoiding, when feasible, giving the hero (or his “side”) a 100% monopoly on the moral high ground. As long as both sides in the war involve sentient, individual beings whose species possess a broad range of personalities, your fantasy war can probably afford more than one reasonable point of view.


The hero’s romantic / sexual partners may include someone he does not love (or even like very much) — after all, war’s constant reminders of death will inevitably cause some people to seek comfort or pleasure whenever they can. But, I strongly suggest that he respect his lovers.

A heroic character can even have an affair with someone he or she considers an enemy (or even “evil”) if he feels their options were sufficiently limited to mitigate their guilt; if their choices were somehow forced, or their loved ones somehow vulnerable or compromised. Of course, he might also hope to gain critical information to help whatever cause he fights for. However, in such a case the respect  I mentioned earlier must still be present, expressed, and acted on, or the hero may be perceived as just taking selfish advantage of  a vulnerable person (because everyone is vulnerable in a war zone).


In my view, it’s okay to sometimes show your hero as fearless. Fear is not always logical — people in the real world who are terrified of lightning strikes and shark attacks may be very careless about driving too fast (which is statistically a lot more likely to get them killed!)

Fear is also exhausting, and some people may seem to  “shrug it off” because they just don’t have the energy to spare on being afraid of a given danger (especially one they’ve already faced a hundred times).

However, fear is an essential part of war. And during wartime, even when all is quiet, I suggest you let some of the hero’s personal regrets, failures and shortcomings — real or imagined — come creeping back to him, when he’s lonely, lost, cold and wet, ravenously hungry . . . or on the run.

The 13 Clocks

24 08 2016

The 13 Clocks was once one of my very favorite books.

I remember a blurb for The Clocks . . . maybe one of the original blurbs, which said:

“Everybody has always wanted to love a Princess.

Everybody has always wanted to be a Prince.”

Of course, there are plenty of people who have never wanted either of those things, but hear me out.

Maybe I’m just more jaded today, about the world and about myself, but it recently occurred to me (after reading it to my son), that it just wouldn’t be the same if I was reading it to a daughter. The object of the hero’s quest was a princess, who wasn’t a character at all, just a plot device. I know there are many shades and nuances to what some readers would say is necessary or desirable in a “strong female character” . . . but Princess Saralinda was particularly extreme in how passive and helpless she was. You could practically get away with calling her a prop.

After having loved the story for such a long time, it’s very hard to describe how sad and demoralizing it was to recognize this. It felt like a childhood friend had died, shortly after I’d missed a chance to meet them and “catch up”.

But of course, the root of it wasn’t an overwhelming sadness… it was a twinge of shame, at finding out that I wasn’t quite as open-minded as I’d believed.

Or maybe, I’ve just widened my scope over time. But even as a little boy, I never wanted to be a Prince (which always seemed to me would be awfully boring).

I wanted to be the Golux. . . I make things up, you know.




30 01 2015

In honor of the upcoming Pi Day (3/14/15), I’m considering a contest. There is no deadline.

It springs from this song, A Rollin’ Down the River:

Oh, the Arabella sets her main topsail, the Arabella sets her main topsail,
The Arabella sets her main topsail, rollin’ down the river.
Rollin’ down, rollin’ down, rollin’ down the river,
Rollin’ down, rollin’ down……..
Said the bucko’s mate to the greaser’s wife.
Oh a pumpkin pudding and a bulgine pie, a pumpkin pudding and a bulgine pie,
A pumpkin pudding and a bulgine pie, on board the Arabella.

Later verses replace “topsail” with “foresail”, “royal”, “gainsail”, or other sails.

It seems to be a shanty for sailors who were on a river, rather than the open sea: a “capstan-and-pumps” song. But some think it’s a sea song that travelled from sailors, to longshoremen, to railroad workers, changing here and there as it went. An alternate title is “The Saucy Arabella”.

You can find references to this song here and there on the internet — but no one knows what a “bulgine” pie. Some people think it’s a “bulging” pie, or died-out slang for a “cow-pie”. Since a “bulgine” was sometimes used to mean a train, others theorize it’s a big puddle of train oil left in a trainyard, or on the track.

Since there’s no doubt that pumpkin pudding exists, though, I think Pi Day would be a fine occasion for making a real-life, yummy pie to fit with the name of “bulgine pie”. Maybe to be good with some real-life, thick sauce? Or contain molasses? My favorite theory so far, is it should contain both peaches and plums.

Anyone have a good suggestion for a worthy prize for whoever comes up with a recipe for this? It needs a crust, of course, to appropriately carve the appropriate mathematical Greek letter into the center, in honor of the big day — even if a satisfying solution to this puzzle doesn’t come until long after it’s past!

By the way, I’m probably going to submit the books of The Talan Revolt onto a new site, ReadFreely: http://www.readfree.ly/

RIPPER STREET (spoilers included)

22 03 2014

I truly, truly wanted to like this series.

And I guess I do like it, but before the end of Season 1 I’m already seeing a disappointing pattern. The show’s a victim of its own talent.

All the actors & actresses are doing a fine job. Matthew McFadyen (did I spell that right?) fits this role so much better than he did “Mr. Darcy”. His earnest face, on such a brooding and calculating hero, is a great focal point for the camera shots to revolve around. He’s just the right person to be at the center of these stories. And the offstage works are done very well too: set design, costumes, and music all pass muster. And the writing’s not bad either, to start with.

But I see a pattern that’s something of a pet peeve of mine: when the setting, the characters, the theme, and the narrative manner are so well done — so lovingly, so painstakingly constructed, that no one can bear to risk seeing any of it change.


I just watched the episode where Sergeant Drake (Jerome Flynn) falls in love. I don’t want to say too much more about it, but you find out some things about his past; another actor you’d recognize from Game of Thrones appears out of nowhere, playing his old commanding officer, and puts a difficult choice before him. Moreover, it’s a choice where questions of right and wrong appear ambiguous, and it also bears directly on his romantic aspirations. After seeing Flynn play such a jaded character in GoT, it’s a great switch to see him play a brutal pit-fighter of a man with such a faithful, sensitive heart. I loved this character, rooted for him, berated him when I thought he’d sold himself short.

Needless to say, a LOT happens in this episode — including some things that appear impossible to easily undo. Yet, the episode ends with literally every aspect of this character’s life in the exact same place it was before. It’s done as believably as possible — but it still hurts the show’s credibility. I don’t mind that so much, but then I started thinking about other parts of the story.

McFadyen’s Inspector Reid has a secret past he shares with his wife, about a daughter they lost (perhaps in a fire). By episode 7 there’s been no action on that whatsoever — just occasional cryptic ruminations and lamentations. The American “Captain”, sometimes referred to as a Pinkerton who has a talent for forensics and doing hard drugs (which go together better than you’d think, particularly at this time in history) also has a secret past he shares with the proprietress of a bordello — and again, the characters go on through murders, gunshot wounds, arguments, fistfights, and terrible verbal threats, only to repeatedly “reset” every tiny detail of their lives exactly to where they were at the start of Episode 1.

Obviously, a series needs to be grounded in something and you can’t change things too often just for change’s sake — changes need to spring naturally, coming about from the interaction between characters and setting. But the other extreme’s no good either — everything gets calcified.

I won’t stop watching the show — I still appreciate its very real merits. I just hope the writers get a little bolder.


5 03 2014

When people ask me about the dreaded passive voice . . . 

I share the timeless wisdom of TAI CHI . . .


Passive voice is best reserved for those scenes in fiction where you wish to immerse the reader in the story

When your point-of-view character is 







Helpless, or . . . 



For those times when events seem to just unfold of their own accord, taking the protagonist by surprise and just sweeping them off into the unknown. I suppose this could occasionally be something that the protagonist finds pleasant, like a carefully planned surprise party . . . but more often, it’s shocking, demoralizing, confusing, or just plain creepy.


Use sparingly. 


29 10 2013

Well, I’m completely stuck. I know what the last sentence of Misfit’s Trek needs to say.

I know a few different ways to say it. All I have left are minor variations on a sentence. . . twelve of them.

To me, they all sound okay. Or maybe good.

Not good enough, though. Not yet.

Rick rides through the night toward San Bitante,

to thwart a hideous mass execution.

He’s got his saber, his magic, his pistol . . .

and no idea what he’ll do when he gets there.

Misfits' Trek

It’s his first day as a rebel.

Volume 4 of The Talan Revolt