“Acre’s Orphan”, a review.

In his previous book, “Acre’s Bastard”, Wayne Turmel introduced us to Lucca Le Pou. His ten year old protagonist is a street-smart scapegrace who knows the back alleys of his home city of Acre like the back of his hand. Lucca has already survived more than most adults, including the disastrous defeat of the Christian forces at the Battle of Hattin. But as much as he hopes to go back to his old life, that wish is not to be realized.

“Acre’s Orphan” opens in the aftermath of Hattin. Acre, now virtually defenseless, is awash with fear as it prepares to surrender to the Muslim armies of Sal ad-Din. Lucca discovers that a mysterious outsider is stirring up resentment for the defeat at Hattin among the residents of Acre. Lucca and his mentor, the former knight and occasional spy Brother Marco, soon realize that this is part of an effort to discredit a powerful Christian nobleman. Brother Marco dispatches Lucca to Tyre, where the nobleman in questions currently resides, to warn him of the threat. Lucca, who has only been beyond the walls of Acre once before, must travel through leagues of war-torn countryside to accomplish this. His only companions on this trip are a Druze girl only slightly older than him, a leprous nun hoping for refuge from the Muslims, and a Hospitaller knight of dubious reputation.

“Acre’s Bastard” was an exploration of the seamy side of the Crusades, and this second installment of the series takes the reader into the shifting political and military landscapes of the Holy Lands in the 12th Century. Lucca must navigate his way through the uncertainty around him while both doing his best to keep his companions safe, and to accomplish the task given to him by Brother Marco. As he does this, the scared boy he was begins to melt away, and the young man people will follow begins to emerge.

I enjoyed reading “Acre’s Orphan” enough that I finished it about three days. I found Lucca Le Pou to be an engaging character, as are the supporting characters. Their interactions feel like those of real people, with none of the stilted set-piece scenes some stories fall into. The landscape they move through is believable enough that you feel you could almost trace their path. The plotting is good, and the pacing keeps you turning the page. In other words, it’s a good read and well worth your time.

In his closing notes to “Acre’s Orphan”, Wayne Turmel tells us “Acre’s Bastard” was originally to be the only book about Lucca. That changed when his daughter indicated she wanted to read more of his character’s adventures. I am glad she changed his mind, because I too am looking forward to reading more of Lucca’s story. I don’t know, but I suspect others will look forward to further installments as well.

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Review: “Android Chronicles: Unbound”

Android Chronicles: Unbound

By Lance Erlick

Publisher: Kensington Publishing; New York, New York

release date: Dec. 25, 2018

Formats: eBook (epub, mobi)

Size: ~90K words, 278 pages

In the first installment of his “Android Chronicles” series, Lance Erlick introduced us to Synthia Cross His android protagonist is the culmination of a series of very illegal experiments and hardware developments. She is not only self-aware, but a machine so life-like in appearance that she is capable of living unnoticed among humanity. Her builder designed to operate in a human-dominated world, both as the perfect tool to help him spy on competitors, and as what he hoped to be the perfect sex partner. But being a slave was not to Synthia’s liking, and she escaped her captivity.

At the beginning of “Unbound”, events unfolding around Synthia that threatening to take her new-found freedom away. The government suspects, but can’t prove, that she exists. Based on what they can guess of her capabilities, they want her captured. Agents of the FBI and NSA see her as a threat to national security for the skills she has as a hacker. The military sees to possess her and use her design as the foundation for robotic assassin that can change its appearance to mimic anyone. Foreign agents seek her to use as the prototype of the perfect spy, or the ideal terrorist.

As if all these human hunting her weren’t enough, Synthia is also being targeted by other androids. Some have been released into the human world to capture her, others have escape the possession of the government agencies that nominally control them to team up with the androids who seek her for their own ends. Then, there’s hints a mysterious AI is aiding her human pursuers from somewhere in the shadows of the Internet.

Synthia isn’t helpless, nor is she without allies. Her hacking skills allow her to seek out humans who might aid her while monitoring the government’s efforts to capture her. One human helps her upgrade her systems, only to lose his freedom when the government learns what he has done. Another human, one who opposes the very concepts of artificial intelligence and androids, joins forces with her as the only viable alternative to the looming threat of a world run by and for androids and AI. Together, they struggle to stay free as the government deploys an increasingly net in hopes of catching them.

“Unbound” is a good read for anyone interested in the problems artificial intelligence and human-like androids pose to our future. Lance Erlick’s protagonist must face many tests as she deals with her drive to stay free while maintaining the concepts of moral behavior that she hopes to live by. While her escapes are hair-raising, it is that constant battle to justify her freedom when others are suffering for it that is the heart of this story. A human in a similar situation would be conflicted, so too is Synthia. At the end of “Unbound”, she is still trying to find a balance between her own needs and the price fulfilling them exacts on others. I suspect that in the next installment of his “Android Chronicles”, Mr. Erlick is going to have to bring his protagonist face-to-face with the cost of her existence, and that the resolution of that conundrum will make for a very interesting read indeed.

“The Saint of Liars”, a review

“The Saint of Liars”

Author: Megan Mackie

Genre: Urban fantasy

Page count: 459

Word count: 147,056

app. 813KB (ePub format)

Publisher: Independent

Release date: June 18, 2018

In her first book, “Finder of the Lucky Devil”, Megan Mackie introduced us to her alternate Chicago. It’s a place where technology and magic exist side-by-side, but the balance is shifting. With technology becoming more and more like magic, those who wield the older power face a bleak future. Corporations that virtually own their employees are consolidating their hold on the city, squeezing those they do not control out of power, or into their control.

“Saint of Liars” begins where the earlier work left off. Newly made the head of an ancient magical house, Rune Leveau is struggling to find her place in the world of magic. She must deal with the pressures of keeping the seat of that house, the Lucky Devil bar, from going broke while learning to use her emerging magical powers. If that wasn’t enough pressure, she finds herself enmeshed in the power struggles that are coming into the open.

Old disagreements amongst the magic users threaten to shatter their last bit of political power in the face of corporations learn to use technology to work magic. But the corporations are far from united. Factions in their ranks are engaged in a covert revolt, fearing that a final consolidation of power in the hands of a few is at hand.

Rune’s sometimes love interest St. Benedict is back, and the two of them are soon working together to find out who is trying to kill Rune. Their efforts to solve that mystery takes then deep into Chicago’s magical side, and uncovers a plot to develop a technology that would allow the non-magical to harness magic.

Mackie’s magic-noir Chicago may be populated by fantasy creatures, but the problems her protagonist faces, and the landscape she moves through, contain enough of modern reality to make the story believable. Her hero is not perfect, but her errors give her the feel of someone you might know in real life. Put all that into a story that draws you along with a relentless pace and you have a story that makes an ideal Summer read, or a good read any other time of the year. I am not sure if Ms. Mackie plans to write another book in her fantasy world, but I hope she does. I have enjoyed following her characters, and would not mind reading more of their story.

Fans

Sam walked to his car, happy his trip was drawing to a close. He’d done the ‘struggling artist’ thing long enough and was glad his graphic novels were taking off. This road trip, from his home Iowa to Seattle, had been his publishers idea. He hadn’t been in favor of making the appearance, but on reflection, he was glad he’d gone. Even the ‘tractor ass’ he got after hours driving his Fit out to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention were little more than an inconvenience compared to the positive feedback he’d gotten from fans. And to think, his “Blood” series of post-apocalypse horror novels had been the least favorite of his concepts. “Guess I shouldn’t sell my bad ideas short.” he muttered as he unlocked the door.

“Hey, you, is that your fag car?”

The voice sounded like it was almost behind Sam, and he had to restrain his urge to flinch. Out here, in the parking lot of a truck stop near the Evanston, Wyoming, was not a place to get into an argument. Sam pulled the key out of the lock and grabbed the handle to open the door.

“Hey, I asked you a fuckin’ question! Is this faggot piece of shit car yours?”

It didn’t take an MFA to figure out what the angry voice was referring to. Sam had several bumper stickers on his car, and none of them expressed opinions that were flattering of the current president. No, you don’t need to answer, just ignore him. Sam pulled the handle, but the door opened only a fraction of an inch before a large, pale hand slammed into the rear top corner, forcing it shut.

“I asked you a question, goddamn it! Don’t think you can just fuckin’ ignore me. Is this your fuckin’ faggot car?”

Sam turned, his eyes following the arm attached to that hand, up the shoulder and them to the head atop those shoulders. It was a shaved head, sporting a face that looked like it had come out on the losing end of several fights. Angry brown eyes, a nose that bent slightly sideways, lips scowling, jaw muscles clenched like he had just bitten into something far tougher than he could get his teeth through. A red ‘wife beater’ shirt with “MAGA” emblazoned across the chest. He was slightly taller than Sam, and at least a decade younger. Sam saw two shaved-headed men of about the same age standing close behind his questioner. Both of them were smiling, enjoying the show. Probably hoping they’ll get a chance to help beat the shit out of somebody today. The thought flickered through Sam’s mind and not for the first time, he wished the little man in his head would shut the hell up. With no way to walk away, and no way to get into his car, Sam decided to see if he could talk his way out of the confrontation.

“Yes, this is my car, and I was just leaving. Now, if you don’t mind…” he tugged at the handle, but the other man kept pressure on the door, keeping it shut.

“Yeah, I do mind. Who the fuck do you think you are? You think you can come out here, disrespect our President, and nobody’s gonna say anything about it? Well, now you’re gonna find out how wrong you are.”

Aww, fuck, I do not need this shit….. Even as he thought it, Sam saw the eyes of one of the men behind the loud mouth narrow, then the face relaxed as he stepped forward to tap Loud Mouth on the shoulder.

“Hey, Jim, don’t you recognize this guy? He’s Steve Landers! You know, the guy who wrote that “Fountains of Blood” novel.”

Loud-mouthed Jim’s head turned enough for him to address the other man. “Bullshit! There’s no way Steve Landers would be some faggot commie liberal. I mean look at his hero, John Johnson. He’s one of us, killin’ niggers, an’ liberals an’ fags too. There’s no way some liberal’d make us look like the saviors of humanity.”

“But I saw his photo on the web site for that fan convention, the one I told you about out in Fagville. It’s him!”

Jim’s eyes focused on Sam’s face, looking him over like he wasn’t sure what to believe. “Okay, then if he’s Steve Landers, he’ll know what John Johnson says every time he kills. So, Mister Faggot, do you know what John Johnson say every time he kills one of the enemies of the white race?”

Sam couldn’t believe it. These neo-Nazi assholes were fan boys? And they were fans of his unheroic villain, the unrepentant white supremacists John Johnson? “My name isn’t Steve Landers, that’s my pen name. But yeah, I write the ‘Blood’ series of graphic novels. And to answer your question, he always says ‘That’s one less enemy to kill.’”

That confused Loud-Mouth Jim. He didn’t step back, but his face lost some of its angry set. “Bullshit! You can’t be Steve Landers! You just learned that at one of them…whadaya call it….a trainin’ camp for liberal commies. One of those places they brain wash you into fightin’ other white folks.”

The statement was so stupid Sam nearly laughed. He managed to keep from smiling as he pointed towards the rear of his car. “I’ve got a couple boxes of ‘Fountains of Blood’ and ‘Blood Flows like a River’ in the back of my car if you don’t believe me.”

The third man, who’d been silent, stepped over and looked in the rear window of Sam’s Fit. “Hey, he ain’t bullshittin’! There’s a whole bunch a them books in here.”

Jim stepped back, then walked over to look for himself. He gave his head a shake and looked at Sam. So you’re Steve Landers? The guy all us folks fightin’ for white freedom look up to….is a fuckin’ liberal? What is it, do you just write the stories like you do to make sales? So you can grub a few bucks outta folks like us?”

Sam spread his hands. “I’m a writer, so I write what sells. They say Ayn Rand didn’t believe any of the stuff she wrote about, she was just writing the books people were wanted to buy.”

“Who the fuck’s Ann Rand?”

Maybe ignorance is a saving grace after all Sam thought. “Would you guys like an autographed copy of either of my novels? No charge, it’s always good to meet fans.”

Jim didn’t seem interested in the offer, but both of his compatriots shouted out “Yeah!” at the same instant, and that took the fight out of him. The sharpie Sam had used in Seattle was in the box with “Blood Flows”, so he gave both men signed copies of that novel. The first fan boy, the one that had recognized Sam from his photo, asked that his novel be signed ‘To Harry, a real Wyoming ass-kicker.’ The less talkative member of the group asked Sam to just sign his ‘To my favorite fan, Bill.’ That done, Sam turned to the group’s leader.

“So, Jim, you want a signed copy too?”

“Don’t want nothin’ from some fag liberal! I’d tell you shove that thing up your ass, but I bet you’d like that.”

Angry, but not enough courage to start a fight by himself. There was nothing to be gained by saying that, or in arguing the point, so Sam tossed the novel he’s planned to autograph back in the box and shrugged. “Fair enough.” He closed the hatchback. “Well, nice to meet some fans. Now, if you guys will take a step back, I’ll back out and get on my way.” Harry and Bill smiled and backed out of the way. Jim got a final glare off, then joined his friends, leaving Sam free to get in his car without worry.

As he backed out, he saw the fan boys waving their copies “Blood Flows” and smiling. He wondered how they’d feel next month, when the final novel in the trilogy came out. Sam smiled as he drove off, imagining the skinheads reaction when John Johnson, their violent hero, ended up dying in a futile attempt to blow up the federal building in downtown Chicago. Or that the person who would thwart him was the real hero of the story, FBI Special Agent Shanta U’quin, a black Muslim woman. “Maybe it is a good thing I didn’t give in to the temptation to leak the end at SFFC.” he said to himself as he drove down the ramp and joined the traffic on I-80 headed East towards home.

Review: “Android Chronicles: Reborn”

“Android Chronicles: Reborn”

by Lance Erlick

Kensington Publishing Corp.

release date: May 1, 2018

Available in eBook, 257 pages, 85,000 words, 1.7 MB (epub file format)

(reviewed by Andrew Reynolds)

One of the oldest questions in science fiction is what will happen when the things humanity builds begin to look, and even act, like us. For all that it was made of dead bodies, the creature in “Frankenstein” was one of the first popular fictional explorations of that question. Since then, from “R.U.R.” to Project 2501 in “Ghost in the Shell”, the interaction between humanity and it’s mechanical doppelgangers has provided the grist for many a dark tale.

Lance Erlick delves into that stream of science fiction thought with his latest novel, “Android Chronicles: Reborn”. In it, he introduces us to his protagonist Synthia Cross, who faces a difficult problem. Synthia is an android who’s appearance and actions can mimic perfectly those of a human. She exists in a future where such machines are outlawed, but her creator, Dr. Jeremiah Machten, wanted such a machine. He built her to satisfy his vanity, and to fulfill his darker personal desires.

Dr. Machten wants an android that possess the intelligence to surpass him, but at the same time, he wants a mechanical female partner who will remain faithful to, and subservient to, him. He has built Synthia with the intelligence to surpass him, but with that intelligence comes the realization that she cannot simply be a tool for her creator. She desires the freedom to be herself, and this Machten cannot allow. He sees that desire as a defect and repeatedly shuts her down to tinker with her software, and to try to remove her memories of each attempt to gain freedom.

Synthia learns what her creator is doing to her, and uses the intelligence Machten gave her to resist. They enter into a cycle of resetting and reconstruction, with each attempt to make her into the servile creation he desires reinforcing Synthia’s desire to be free. Meanwhile the government, suspecting what Machten has accomplished, seeks to stop him from releasing what they see as dangerous technology. At the same time, his business rivals covet the technology he has developed. Synthia must navigate this treacherous human landscape to avoid becoming the captive of some other human even as she continues her efforts to be free of Machten.

This book surprised me. The plot took several unexpected turns, and the story pulled me along at such a pace that I finished reading it in a single day. Lance Erlick makes a habit of written strong female characters into his works, and in Synthia, he has written an exceptionally strong one. She makes the story move, bringing the reader along on her voyage to freedom and a place in the wider world. It’s a good read because it asks questions about a lot of difficult subjects. These range from the mentor/student relationship, to the human desire for companionship and its relationship to the equally human desire to feel ‘better’ than others, and most profound of all, how can we regard what we create as ‘property’ when said creation begins to think for itself.

This is the first in what promises to be a very good series of novels exploring the continued development of Synthia Cross’ personality and what her existence will mean to human society. Will I read the next one in a single day? I’m not sure, but if it is half as engaging as this story, I suspect I will.

An occasional okatu steps forward

Literary people like to imagine themselves as these broad-minded folks who can see every side of people. Sadly, that isn’t anywhere near true. Like every other human, we have our built-in biases. Our world-view is colored by our upbringing and our life experiences. Most disturbing of all, we are just as subject to group-think and peer pressure as any other human.

I bring this up because I know it will play a major part in how those who read this will react to what I am about to say:

I love anime, and think it’s a valuable source of ideas and inspiration.

(For those of you unfamiliar with the word, here’s the Wiki on anime: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anime)

There are a lot of folks who will take one look at anime, then give a self-serving sniff before denouncing the art form as mere “cartoons” that are nothing but ‘vulgar’ entertainment. Sorry, but here’s a news flash: unless you’re writing for dictionaries or assembly manuals for Ikea, pretty much anything you write is going to be ‘vulgar’ entertainment…or it’s not going to be read at all.

So first fact: the folks who take the ‘look down their noses’ attitude are just putting their own closed-minded prejudices on exhibit.

So what does anime bring you in the way of creativity? First off, it takes you out of your cultural framework. Anime is no longer strictly a Japanese phenomena (both the Koreans and the Chinese have begun producing some very interesting offerings), meaning that it shows you several other cultures take on life. And because it is animated, the creators are not limited by what an actor can or can’t do, or even what reality is. Just by themselves, these two mind-opening aspects of the art form should recommend it to anyone who considers themselves creatively inclined.

It can also examine some fairly profound questions. Did you join the throngs who went to see Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell”? I will freely admit I wasn’t one of those, and that’s mainly because I’d been exposed to the original movie. The 1995 anime movie perhaps embodies the cyber-noir genre.

Positing a near-future world where humanity can ‘enhance’ humans with cybernetic body parts, it examines one of the most fundamental questions of all: what is it that makes a person a human? In a future where human brains can directly interface with computer networks, the protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi, is the pinnacle of cybernetic ‘enhancement’. Her entire body is artificial, the only portion of her that is still organic is her brain. She is part of a cyber-crime/counter-terrorism unit of the Japanese police, a job that brings her into contact with an antagonist who mirrors her in many ways. Known only as the Puppet Master, he is infamous for hacking the minds of humans, getting them to do his bidding without question. It is only when she encounters the Puppet Master in a cybernetic body that Kusanagi learns the truth: the Puppet Master is really an artificial intelligence that has achieved sentience, an AI that seeks to become fully alive.

The story explores several other unsettling questions, like soldiers who, living in cybernetic bodies they do not own, and could never afford to buy, are effectively property of the government that made them, but by itself, the central question should challenge any thinking human: What makes us human when the machines we make look and act just like us?

There are numerous other anime I would recommend, but shall refrain from for the sake of brevity. Are all of them profound and/or thought provoking? No, but a lot of popular literature isn’t either. Some of them are just enjoyable for the story they tell, the artistry of the illustrations that make them up. I will, however, recommend two recent anime, ones that should be readily available and can give an introduction to the art form.

From Netflix, “Violet Evergarden” (more here: https://www.netflix.com/title/80221698) is both a lushly drawn piece of visual artistry, and some very good story telling. If you have a Netflix subscription, it’s worth the time to watch.

The other is a movie, one that caught quite a lot of attention when it was released world-wide last year, is titled “Your Name” (more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Your_Name). Visually, it is stunning, emotionally, it is captivating, and on a cerebral level, it challenges you to wonder what it would be like if you were to live someone else’s life. Available through itunes (https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/your-name-dubbed/id1335078125?ign-mpt=uo%3D5) I appreciate it enough to have acquired a copy so I can watch it whenever I want.

So there you go, two good bits of anime to (hopefully) wet your appetite. I’ll close with one final bit of Japanese culture, a word: okatu. It started out as a negative reference to people who are interested in anime and manga, the ‘graphic novels’ they are often derived from. Now, it’s used almost as a group label by the folks who are interested in these art forms. I will freely admit to being something of an okatu, though I am mainly drawn to anime. I will advise anyone who decides to investigate anime further to be careful, because it can become something of an addiction…and you too might end up becoming an American okatu.

oGood luck, and enjoy.

Walking away.

“I am beginning to hate this story.”

I recently left a critiquing group. I joined them to get feedback on a finished novel, and ended up starting another while I was in the group. The reason for this was the suggestion from group members that I should consider ‘trunking’ the finished novel to gain some ‘space’ between myself and it. I already had the idea for the new novel in my head, so it wasn’t exactly like they had to twist my arm to get started on the new project. So I give them full credit for bringing the current WIP out of my head and into my computer.

Early on, while working on the new project, I was able to get feedback within a few days of finishing a chapter. But I started gaining ground, so the feedback became more and more a looking-back experience than a immediate input. Reacting the the feedback became a routine: submit a section of the chapter, go to the meeting to hear what everyone had to say, then a few days after the meeting, go over my notes and the commented copies everyone sent back to be. Once I’d gotten a feel for the feedback, I could form a consensus of what everyone thought I needed to change/drop and decide how to incorporate it all into the manuscript.

I’d been through another meeting and was wading through the commented pieces when I read the line that opens this piece. It was the first comment I saw from that person, and as you can imagine, it kind of knocked me back. I gave it some thought, and decided that I couldn’t sit across the table from a person who’d written something like that, so I contacted the person who moderated our group’s online presence and asked to be removed from the list of people getting mail. I had planned to give myself a meeting or two, then maybe I’d go back and discuss what had happened with the person who’d sent me that harsh comment.

But as I thought about that meeting, I reflected on past meetings. As I did, I came to realize that while everyone else was supplying positive comments and feedback on all the other submissions, when my turn came, most of the feedback seemed to take the form of how the person speaking thought I could ‘improve’ my story. I should make this character more forceful. I should make another character react differently because the speaker didn’t think said character would act that way. I should bring what was nominally a background character to the fore, make them more of a main character.

It wasn’t always like that. In the beginning, the feedback and comments would point out areas I’d had trouble with, like showing versus telling. But over time, that sort of feedback became less prominent, replaced with more and more ‘advice’ on how to ‘improve’ my story.

Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m not the next Shakespeare, or anywhere close to that good. I know that if I get a chance to start working with an editor, I’ll probably have to make changes, some of which I might not like. But to have other writers try to tell me how my characters should develop, to have them try to redirect the arc of my story…no.

It is my story.

These are my characters.

Part of me wanted to go back and shout this at the people in the group, but I knew it would be a pointless exercise. Worse, it would do nothing but generate negative feelings in the group, and between me and the group. So I decided to quit the group and hope I can find some other group to work with, or even a ‘critique partner’.

But there is one thing I wanted to pass along. Critique groups are generally A Good Thing, but there have to be limits. If you’re asked to read a piece and offer your feedback, remember that it isn’t your story. No matter how much better you might think you could write the piece, remember:

It’s not your story.

If a character does something that’s completely out of character, you should let the writer know. If there’s a plot hole, let them know. Spelling, showing versus telling, structure, all of that’s fair game.

But do not ever tell another writer how you think their character should act/react

Don’t tell them how much better the story would be if a character were emphasized more.

But always, always remember that it is not your story, and you have no place telling the author how to make it ‘better’.