Recipe: Six Hour Southern Cabbage

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Image @quaddle on deviantart. Ruined by me. Satan watches you making cabbage.

I happen to have a little extra time today. So, as promised, here’s my Southern Six Hour Cabbage.

Beforehand, a note. If you are looking for delightfully crisp, healthy, still-green leaf vegetable, turn your attention elsewhere. If, however, you want salty, spicy, mash-between-your-teeth pot likkery COMFORT, then this cabbage is for you.

That guy I live with (known henceforth as Definitely Not Dave, or DND for short) would probably wish me to inform you of its restorative properties, as well as its near-volcanic effects on the digestive system. Again: if you don’t mind farting like a wet sneaker on linoleum for the next few hours, this delicious cabbage is the no-longer-quite-so-green meanie for you. If you’re having your mother-in-law over for dinner, perhaps stick to steaming.

Alternatively: serve it anyway, and set your phone on record. Depends on whether or not you like her.

Anyway, Southern Six Hour Cabbage.

You’ll need:

Big ol’ pot
Roughly 2Q to 1G water (consider, if you will, the size of your cabbage. The water needs to cover it by an inch or so.)
1 head cabbage
1 med. sweet onion
5 large cloves garlic (seem like a lot to you? Take your garlic-pansy ass over to some other cabbage recipe. I usually do seven.)
1/4 c apple cider vinegar (adjust to taste)
1 tsp celery seed, or 1-2 sticks celery
1 tsp bacon salt (alternatively: 1 ham hock + 1 tsp salt, or 1-2 cubes ham bouillon)
1 T vinegar based hot sauce (Louisiana, Texas Pete, etc.)
More salt, if you for some reason still need it

Chop onions, garlic. Saute onions in bottom of your soup pot for 5 minutes or so over medium heat, or until transparent. Add garlic, continue to saute for 30 seconds. Usually, I add in my celery/celery seeds at this point. It doesn’t really matter, because everything is going to be cooking until the remains of your ancestors are gas in someone’s hovercraft tank.

Chop your cabbage and add it. Stir, so things don’t get all layered and shit. This isn’t a parfait.

Add water, enough to cover the cabbage by about an inch. Now bring things to a boil.

Add in your vinegar and hot sauce. You could probably do this at any point in the watery life of this recipe, but hell, I’m superstitious, and I think Satan watches you when you boil vinegar.

Reduce to simmer (usually two or three setting on my crappo apartment stove). Cover with pot lid or whatever’s handy, because you always lose the lids and you can’t for the LIFE of you figure out how, seeing as they never move from your kitchen.

And COOK. Oh sweet Jesus, COOK. Cook while you prepare the rest of your dinner. Maybe get a head start on the cabbage by an hour and THEN cook the rest of your dinner. Stir occasionally, more or less whenever you remember. The point of this is, you want to cook the cabbage over low heat for as long as you’ve got until they turn the power off on you. Hence, six hour cabbage.

Just keep an eye on the water and make sure it’s covering the cabbage and you’ll be fine. Beyond that, cook until the last gasp of hydrogen in our beautiful sun makes the transition to helium.

Serve, with warning label as to gaseous nature of cabbage. Enjoy your delicious mushy vegetable.

A note: I sometimes add in like a fistful of hot pepper flakes, mostly because I enjoy seeing people cry. Also, this could totally be done in a crock pot. High for four hours, I’d say. Resulting cabbage would be loved so tender it could never wear pants again.

REVIEW: Heir Expectant

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Review: Heir Expectant, Southwind Knights #4

Okay, I’m actually just going to talk about this whole series here. I picked it up not long after the third one came out, and I’ll put it this way, I think I read 1-3 twice in one day. These are epic fantasy novellas, folks. And they are classy. Classy. CLASSY.

The fourth novella in the Southwind Knights series, Heir Expectant, came out very recently. I’ve been sitting here like a dragon ass-warming its horde, waiting, so I could tell you to buy these with some reason.

They are also priced at a very affordable ninety-nine cents. And to put how I feel about this into words, here’s a list of things you can buy for that price:

1) A Coke from a vending machine, maybe.
2) An out-of-date phone, if you sign up for another six hundred or so dollars worth of service.
3) One of those teeny packs of gum
4) One of the Southwind Knights novellas, which will ROCK YOU.

Guess what I think the best deal is. No, guess. Hint: it’s definitely not 1-3.

I won’t bore you with a summary, because I hate it when people do that in reviews. Do you like dragons, epic fantasy, tales of friendship, disillusioned youth, and matriarchies? You do? Perfect. Read these. Read them if you don’t, even.
B.E. Priest does so many things right in these I’d be hard-pressed to list it all in one measly review. These books are expertly edited, beautifully covered, carefully considered. And the biggest thing–the most important thing–the story is FANTASTIC. Yes, I am breaking out the block caps.

Asher, our hero, is a fifteen year old boy when these stories start. So far, 1-4 have taken up roughly a year of story time. And man, rarely has a character changed so dramatically, experienced the loss of innocence so deeply. Asher is frequently in just enough trouble–and is just clueless enough, which is a fine and very difficult tightrope to walk–to win the sympathy of any reader. His friends, especially the adorable and quirky (well, until book four, at least) Finn, are just as delightfully cast, in strokes broad and expert. You feel all the pain of growing up in these novellas, the angst of disillusionment, the terrible weight of sloughing off the skin of the boy and becoming a man (or something else. But you’ll get that when you read these). And what better medium to paint this story in than epic fantasy, where the stakes can be true heroism, the life of a queen or a princess?

The decision to publish this as a series of novellas was a masterful one, too. The story has a serial feel to it–best taken in short installments–and, unlike a lot of novellas out there, these really do feel like miniature novels, written in terse, mostly adverb-free prose with little fuss to it and a lot of smart condensed phrasing. In book 4, for instance, Priest uses the phrase ‘a stream of voices’ to describe activity and festivity preparation outside a room. This might not sound like a big deal, but God, that phrase captures every time someone’s sat indoors and listened to a commotion outside with none of the waste-wording, none of the clutter. For a novella, this is key. You’ve less space to impress somebody in, so do it up RIGHT.

In books 3 and 4, the action starts to rise. If I had one small criticism, it might be that it rises a little too quickly. Book 3 comes off, in fact, just a little bit as mere buildup to book 4. But holy shit, that’s mostly just because I had to WORK to find something bad. I had to think about it for a few minutes. And this is me; I don’t think.

I haven’t been disappointed by ANY of these. I hope Mr. Priest (the alias of Ronny Khuri, the author, who writers a very entertaining blog here) continues to do exactly what he’s been doing, because DAMN.
I mean, DAMN.

This is more of a gush than a review, I know. But credit where credit is due, and some credit is definitely due here.

Forgo your daily vending machine crackers and buy these novellas here:

Southwind Knights (Book 1)
The Queen of Grass and Tree (Book 2)
Scion of the Wood (Book 3)
Heir Expectant (Book 4)

Writing Wednesday: Grammar Gestapo

Hey there, guys and Galahads. It’s Wednesday, and you know what that means.

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Yes, I’m finally going to give you my six-hour southern cabbage recipe.

Or–wait. No, that’s Saturday. Wednesday means I’m going to shout genuinely meant and improperly researched invective at you, while keeping my own self-loathing and scandalous doubt close to my chest. Enjoy!

Today’s Writing Wednesday topic, after seconds of careful consideration, is grammar.

No, we’re not going to go over your/you’re and their/they’re, or when it’s all right to split an infinitive (answer to this one: more often than you’d think). We’re not going to pinpoint the locations of periods, commas, and colons, or designate the precise difference between the em-dash and the en-dash. There are plenty of books about these things out there, all of them written by people much more qualified than me, some of which I’ll list at the end of this post. Fuck, guys, this is me. I barely know what an em-dash is.

What I would like to talk about is why grammar is important. And, you’ll be happy to know, this has nothing to do with that self-righteous bitch Aunt Cialys (who heard your speech at cousin Lamictalia’s wedding, adjusted her trifocals over her rheumy eyes, and muttered: “actually, young lady, it’s who, not whom”).

It has nothing to do with that recurring nightmare you’ve had ever since tenth grade, where you’re trapped in a classroom, diagramming sentences, and the bell just never rings.

I want to be very mothefucking clear on this, because it’s a matter of some small importance in my life. I hate–got that?–hate. A goddamn grammar Nazi. But do I think grammar is important? Yes. But not for the same sophistic reasons your neighborhood Grammar Gestapo does.

My reasoning goes something like this. Long ago–many thousands of years ago–there was no representation of the spoken word whatsoever. When people wanted to leave a message with other people outside the range of a human voice, they were pretty well fucked. It took a long time for ideas to spread. Some ideas never spread.

Then, one day, some guy (we’ll call him Eggiweg) had a brother, or a friend, or something (henceforth: Lomtickitoast). Eggiweg was leading his cave-group through the area, and there were a lot of bears, because I like bears and there should be more of them.

Eggiweg said: “Holy Nonspecific Gods of Cavepeople, there are a lot of bears all up in this bitch. Man, if only my brother Lomtickitoast, leaded of the Whitehead Clan, were here to see them with me. He’d know to go all the way around this place, and be spared dealing with like umpteen bears.”

There was probably a fire that night. I like to imagine the people of Eggiweg’s Runningsore Clan were roasting some goddamn bear, after a day of surprised but successful hunting. There were sticks of half-charred wood lying all around. Eggiweg looks at them, looks at the blank walls of the cave his people are staying in, and has a capital-I IDEA.

“What if,” our caveman intellectual says to himself, “what if I were to take this charcoaly stick, apply the tip to the cave wall, and attempt to represent in a more-or-less accurate pictoral fashion the metric fuckton of bears we have found in this location? Then, perhaps, my brother Lomtickitoast would see my drawing, and connect it with the fuckton-of-bears possibility always lurking on the horizon for myself and my people. Genius! Lomtickitoast will be sure to thank me, when next we see each other at the Great Gathering of Cavepeople That Isn’t At All A Block Party. He might even refrain from hitting me on the head with his club this time, and giving me a purple nurple.”

And in this fashion, the first writing was born. The first message was left, the first steps towards written communication enacted. And that’s all great. Really.

But what I’ve always wondered is: what happens when Lomtickitoast sees the drawing?

Does he immediately go “oh, shit, this amateurish charcoal is telling me there’s a boatload of bears in the area, and I and my people should probably stay away?”

More than likely, no. More than likely, Lomtickitoast looks at that wall and goes: “gosh, these charcoal smudges are weird-looking. They look almost purposeful, like someone was trying to draw OH MY TRIBAL GOD, IS THAT LIKE FIFTY BEARS OVER THERE?”

And, once the bears had properly digested Lomtickitoast and his brave band of warriors, there was no one left to appreciate the effort.

Fast forward a few thousand years.

If Eggiweg had been able to write properly, imagine how different that effort would have been. If the message on the cave wall had been:

Dear Passers-By,
There are bears here. You’re bear bait if you stay.

That’s pretty clear, right? You are, evidently, bear bait if you stick around this cave for too long. But a few minor changes and:

Dear Passers-By,
There are bears here. Your bear bait, if you stay.

And we have a very different story. Oh, so for some reason they need my bear bait, if I’m going to stay here. I guess they’re getting low on honey. Gotta feed all those bears somehow.

The story could go two very different ways. One of them, the first example’s outcome, involves Lomtickitoast getting the warning and also the fuck out of dodge. The second one involves Lomtickitoast piling all his honeycomb and dead salmon at the front of the cave like a sacrificial offering, sitting back, and waiting to be eaten.

From its very earliest days–I’d imagine, from the first time it was ever attempted–writing has been all about sending the clearest message possible. It’s a method for conveying ideas–some of them complicated–to people who aren’t necessarily right next to you at the bar, and who can’t easily understand why ohmigawd, making a giant cheese wheel that grates itself is just the best idea everrr.

If you want to get Brother Lomtickitoast bear-eaten, by all means, continue on with your crude charcoal-sketch approximation of language. If you want him to see your message and understand as quickly as possible that he needs to get the fuck out of there, try out a comma or two. Or, if you’re feeling wild, a semicolon. Whatever the situation calls for.

Like I said before, I’m no grammar Nazi. I’m not particularly concerned with whether or not you used that colon in the MLA-proper place, or whether your character said who and meant whom. And my texts and occasionally even blog posts are just as lower-case fantastic and punctuation-insensitive as yours.

But I am reading your story because I want to become immersed in it. I want to lose myself in the world you’ve created, identify with the characters, experience their crisp autumn days and oppressively hot summer nights with them.

For me to do this, your writing needs to be almost transparently clear. You are, after all, describing a scene that never existed, people who never existed. I can’t look at a picture to make sure I’m imagining everything right. So your writing becomes a tool–a tool to get me places I want to be.

And I’m reasonably well educated, and reasonably well read. And mean. Did I mention mean?

So when I see, in your otherwise sterling publication, a character moving ‘further’ away, or ‘farthering’ an idea, it’s like someone grabbed me by the hair, yanked me out of Yourbookington, and said: “here, now. This place isn’t real, and there’s visible evidence on this page that the author hasn’t finished high school. How can you believe this place is real if the author is leaving turd-trails of unfinished education all over this novel?”

Your characters can say ain’t. If you’re writing in a certain style or voice, you can even say ain’t.

But if your characters are all post-doc, and they live in high rise Manhattan apartments, I better not see the word ain’t. it just doesn’t fit with the story, and not fitting with the story means pulling me out of your world.

Is your scene rushed? Is a lot going on, is it super-tense? You might want to indulge in some piled-on commas or run-on sentences. But when there’s a break in the action, when there’s room to breathe, that shit better stop, for the simple reason that I need to breathe too.

Grammar, my dear, is a part of your language and a part of your voice. And even if you have reasons to use it incorrectly–and there are some good reasons, related especially to mood and setting–you better know why your usage is incorrect, and precisely what it’s doing.

Grammar is one of the many tools in your belt of Intelligent Storycrafting. Like most tools, you can use it for its intended purpose, or you can use it creatively. But if you don’t know what the tool is for–or, God forbid, if you’re unaware it exists–you can’t use it at all. The question, summarily, isn’t ‘to Oxford Comma or not to Oxford Comma’. Both are technically correct. The question is: ‘does an Oxford comma make this sentence more or less easy to read?’.

So, while I don’t encourage you to scour your story for split infinitives and putrescent punctuation, I do encourage you to brush up on your grammar a little before sitting down to pen that masterpiece. Because your/you’re might be the life-or-death difference to Brother Lomtickitoast. Or, less vitally, there might be someone like me in your audience. And, every time you write something about ‘you’re characters two mother’s’ I’m going to look up indignantly and go:

“Well, I guess we just found the child Laura Bush didn’t want left behind.”

And that doesn’t sound like the sentence that precedes a five-star review, now does it.

If you want a good basic grammar education, I highly recommend these books:

1) Strunk and White’s eternal Elements of Style. This is a classic, pretty much the Casablanca of grammar, and every writers needs a copy sitting right by the laptop, where it can wait to be consulted with pathetic eagerness. I actually need a new one. Mine has been around so long it loses pages every time I pick it up.

2) Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. She makes the point I just made, only better and funnier. This is one of the few grammar books out there that you will want to read. And for that reason, though there are myriad others as well, it’s one of the best.

And, for those of you idiot writers who ‘don’t read’ (what the hell is wrong with you?) here are a few Internet resources, reasonably reliable, to round you out. Though I feel like I shouldn’t be helping you bastards out at all. What sort of writer doesn’t read? Shame on you!

1) This Guide to Grammar and Writing is concise, simply written, and very easy to navigate. If you need help with the basics, this is the place to go.

2) Louis Menand’s New Yorker article on Eats, Shoots, and Leaves is worth a read as well, preferably directly after reading Lynne Truss. Have to say, I think his point would’ve been made a little better if he’d spent less time correcting her grammar in turn, but it’s a good point nonetheless.

3) Times and rules change. Well–to be fair, the rules don’t change often, but whether or not we give a shitake mushroom about them does. when we do care, and our question is perhaps too modern for Mssrs. Strunk and White especially, there is Grammar Girl.

3) This grammar guide is the full deal. Sometimes a little too full for my tastes, even. Again, however: to break the rules, you have to know them.

4) Just can’t bring yourself to bother with all of this learning stuff? Get Grammarly. Will it serve you half as well as some careful human consideration? No. Is it better than Word’s grammar checker? Um, yes.

This brings me, actually, to my last point. Maybe my biggest point. It’s a point, in fact, that I will be making a lot.

Nothing will make your comma placement better, your language cleaner, your waterfall of colons, semicolons, and em-dashes more instantly recognizable, than reading.

If it’s been published in a big house, or even if it’s just been published by someone who took the time to shake, rattle, and actually edit, the grammar’s going to be pretty good. And, like swimming, you need to immerse yourself to learn. You can read instructional posts about where that comma’s supposed to go all damn day. But if you actually see it in action, fifty or five billion or however many it takes times, you’ll be much wiser. And the best part is, you’ll just kind of know. No grammar worksheets or sentence diagrams required.

So read. Jesus Carjacking Christ, read.

Much love, you guys.

REVIEW: The Guests of Honor, Cat Amesbury

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The Guests of Honor: Tales from the Virtue Inn Book One
by Cat Amesbury

This has been one of my favorite indie reads for a while now. I read it once, and then I read it again. A few months later, I read it again. Because of this, it’s today’s review. If I want to read it more than once, it’s review-worthy.

The fact is, Ms. Amesbury combines a lot of things I just LOVE to see in a fantasy writer. Her writing, while sometimes a little clunky for my tastes, gets the goddamn job done with little fuss or (my pet peeve) badly placed commas. Her written voice is unmistakable and a genuine pleasure to hear as you read. Her characters, including her excellent MC Honor Desry, are defined in broad, vivid strokes. And trust me, there are no weepy princesses or ruggedly handsome knights here–though there are some Virgins, but trust me, they’re not what you think. Every character, even the ones (like Mama Desry) who’re no longer there, is their own more-or-less-human.

And her imagination, good God. I don’t want to go into great detail–don’t want to spoil a single stick of it for you–but WOW. Her universe, seen through Honor Desry’s practical and worldly eyes, is absolutely convincing and, more importantly, entrancing. You feel a little bit like the writer not only sees the world before her, but is absolutely floored by how beautiful and strange it is. Ever been on a tour with a tour guide who loves what he or she is doing? Makes the tour a lot better, doesn’t it. It’s the same thing happening here. I read a few other reviews of this when I bought it, and I was amused to see several saying parts of it–namely the very lively kitchen appliances and laundy– ‘defy belief’. Well, this is about the highest praise I can imagine giving a fantasy novel. I want my beliefs defied. Particularly, my belief that an egg timer can’t be adorable.

I really can’t say enough good things about this book. It’s original, personal/extrapersonal conflicts layer together perfectly, and Ms. Amesbury manages to write some funny, funny stuff without losing a centimeter of heart or storytelling honesty. Also some of the best romantic tension I’ve seen in a fantasy novel, and this is me, disinterested ignorer of romances, saying that.

A moment to just mention, as well, the stand-alone awesomeness of Honor Desry as a main character. Here is a strong, independent woman who, while certainly able to move forward and lay down the law, still has a lot to learn. There are a lot of Big Five published writers who could learn serious lessons from the believable way Honor reacts to unbelievable situations, from the seamlesness with which her backstory is interwoven with the present. Her interactions with her mother–who is not, save by her absence, a physical participant in the plotline–make for one of the most believable family elements I’ve seen. This is not a young adult story to me, and it’s because of Honor. Honor, like a lot of folks in their late twenties/early thirties, is still trying to balance what she came from with what she is. And she finds, as I think most people do, that the two are more related than you’d think.

Also, the cover is just adorable.

Downsides, though there aren’t many, include:

Sometimes the writing is a little confusing. Book could’ve benefitted from one more draft, I think, with special attention paid to character location and the way characters move through a scene. There’s a scene near the 70% mark, for instance, where two characters start moving down the hall to get coffee, talk a bit, and after what seems like two or three geological ages, get coffee. I understood what was going on after a read or two, but the wording was just awkward, and the conversation was too long for a hallway poised on the brink of something else.

The wording gets, occasionally, a little awkward–Ms. Amesbury tends to sacrifice clarity for voice, and, fortunately, her voice is so clear and lovable she for the most part gets away with it. This sort of thing doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers some folks. If I wanted to spend my reading time hunting for errant adverbs and correcting participle placement, I’d grade English papers for a living.

Also, I do feel like the last twenty percent or so suffers from a serious case of too much, too fast. The plot gets a bit cluttered as Ms. Amesbury tries to clear up loose threads. Again, I’ve seen it handled in far, FAR worse ways. The main villain is introduced far too late, and as a result the ending feels a little tacked-on. But, again, the fun of this story for me had nothing to do with the actual plot and everything to do with the digressions and discoveries along the way.

Great read if you’re looking to get lost in a world nestled right inside our own, with some relatable characters who take lessons from everyday life into a fantasy setting with them. If I didn’t frequently use this word as an insult, I’d use the word ‘whimsical’. Since I don’t want to insult the totally undeserving Amesbury, I’ll instead say she combines contemporary fantasy and old-school Southern Gothic elements with flair.

God, ‘flair’ isn’t much better, is it. Shit.

It’s funky. There we go. We like funky.

This has been your seven AM chronically nonsleeping review. Now I’m off to edit more and drink coffee straight from the pot. In the meantime, if you want to spend your money on something worthwhile, forgo your morning cup of Starbucks and buy Ms. Amesbury’s book right here, right in the kisser, c’monnn, you. You’ll be pleased to know she’s got a second one coming out (named, just as punnily as the first, ‘With Honor Intact’,) though I couldn’t for the life of me find a release date.

Writing Wednesday: Details, Plaid Genitals, and the Devil

Before we begin, let me bring you bastards up to date.

So I was freaking out for quite a while there. Had a family member gotten cancer? No. Had I lost a job, lost a friend, gotten ebola? No, no, and no.

The caps lock and shift keys on my Bluetooth keyboard stopped working. Or, okay, to be honest: I was being all gloomy nineties college rock about it and writing in the rain. Like a moron. Like I do every couple of months, only to then be surprised when my keyboard dies.

Sure, laugh. I was in a foul mood for the entire week. I couldn’t write. I went through the stages of grief–or, okay, to be honest I think I bottomed out somewhere around ‘anger’–only to realize, towards the end, two very important things.

1) This is very much a first world problem, and as I still have food and running water I probably need to consider my priorities, sip my frappa-mocha-choka-whatever latte and shut the fuck up. Also:

2) A KEYBOARD HAS TWO GODDAMN SHIFT KEYS.

So yes. I am, if anyone was as of yet undecided, an idiot. Writing resumed. Woohoo.

As writing is resumed, I think it’s only fair that I eke a meager Writing Wednesday post out of my rosy buttocks. I apologize for last week, really I do. I was just too busy weeping into my soy latte to do it.

But this week, ladies and gerrymanderers, we’re going to talk about details. Why? Because the devil’s in them. And the devil usually makes things interesting.

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WRITING WEDNESDAY: THE DEVIL IN THE DETAILS

So you’ve probably seen this chestnut in your internet writeathon rounds: write what you know.

One of the basics, right? Good advice, right?

Well, it is. Collective oohs and aahs, because I’m actually agreeing with someone.

Here’s the thing, though. People take this way, WAY too literally. Writing what you know doesn’t have to mean writing about waking up at seven in the morning, accidentally using your husband’s toothpaste, and wearing a pair of slightly uncomfortable pumps to work. It doesn’t have to mean taking every little protoparsible word-snippet from your day to day. If you write fantasy, this is doubly hard–I mean, what do you know, like, really know, about hexing someone’s private parts? Not much, I’m hoping. If you do, please share your experience with the rest of us. In relatively non-graphic terms.

But here’s the thing. You’ve never hexed someone’s privates. You’ve never had your privates hexed. But I’m willing to bet you’ve had an itch down there, or a rash. Maybe even–gasp–an STD. Remember what that was like? Remember when you were eighteen, and you JUST KNEW you’d somehow gotten AIDS, dammit, how did this happen, how’re you going to tell Mom–and of course, when you DO tell Mom (aaaawkward moments, here) she sighs, shakes her head, and tells you it sounds like a yeast infection to her, but by the way, you’re grounded for like a year?

My experience here lately has been mostly culinary, so as a result, we’ll name our hero Sambal Oelek. His girlfriend, princess Garam Masala, took an elective class in the Black Arts in college. Three credits if you can pass the exam–which is, of course, the recitation and elocution of a spell that turns someone’s Gendered Giblets plaid. Because this is college, the spell is of course intended as pure demonstration and nothing harmful should come of it. Because, again, this is college, and you’re not going to get to the interesting stuff until grad school.

Now, there are a couple of places to draw from your own experience here. A couple of places where details–those crunchy, real-life details–will come in nougaty handy. First off, have you been to college? No? Then maybe this school should be more local. Or maybe Miss Masala is just learning a thing or two from a mysterious hunchbacked palace scrubwoman (in which case–have you ever had a servant?).

If you have been to college–and I have, so we’ll stick with this–think about your own college classes. I’ll be honest, I was at best an indifferent student. Classes often took a back seat to other important things, like discovering which liquor goes best with tomato juice, which is the only thing you have for a mixer in your fridge. And of those classes, elective classes, which didn’t fulfill any of the umpty-teen course requirements, were so far back they were practically standing in the lecture hall doorway.

Maybe our genital gentrifier, Garam Masala, is in a similar situation. She’s been having a little too much extracurricular fun, and she needs, NEEDS, to pass this class to keep herself out of magical academic suspension. (And here we have some basic detailing that broadens the ‘college’ feel already. There’s an academic suspension level of grading. There are credit hours, requirements for your major that are filled or not filled by certain classes. You remember this stuff. If you don’t, pick a more appropriate setting.)

So she’s studying. Hard. The trick is, she hasn’t been studying hard for the rest of the semester. So when it comes time to cast the spell, instead of aiming her wand at the plaster cast intended for this demonstration by her professor, Masala makes the terrible mistake of pointing it, blindly, out into the distance, and reciting the terrible words:

GENITALIUM TARTUM EST.

She missed the first-day lesson where the students were told that a hex must, under all circumstances, have a subject. Her professor tries to knock the wand out of hand, but he’s old and slow (and also a little disinterested–maybe he just lost magical professor tenure). The spell, in a flash of tartan brighter than the Hindenberg exploding, recedes into the distance.

She also missed the lesson where you were taught to empty your mind while casting. She’s been standing there, gesticulating wildly at nothing, thinking off-handedly of her long-distance boyfriend, Sambal Oelek, who she’s been having some trouble with lately. (Young lovers, separated by cruel college, able to communicate only by magic mirror. Sigh. Where’s Skype when you need it.)

Now, the professor checks in the village below to make sure the hex didn’t land anywhere important. A university always has some CYA policies in place for this sort of thing. He doesn’t find an afflicted mark, fills out his sheaf of paperwork, and goes back to dozing in his insufficient and cubbylike office, waiting to die and/or retire.

Meanwhile, in a galaxy far, far away, Sambal Oelek is practicing his fencing (because princes do that) when his privates start to itch. He excuses himself, runs to the restroom, and pulls down his particolored hose to find, you guessed it. Plaid penis.

The rest is up to you. A note–we recommend not mixing patterns.

There are a lot of places you can write what you know in this fantasy story to increase its impact and emotional resonance. First off, remember being twenty-one? Oh, god, I do. Garam Masala probably thinks she knows everything, probably thinks she’s not so much ‘a drunk’ as ‘avant-garde’. She probably hasn’t realized yet that, when she signed that ‘student loan’ contract in blood, the chalk circle and newt’s eye paste wouldn’t protect her from massive debt. She may or may not have had to make rent at some point in her life. She may or may not have had a real-girl job, even.

And the university. Remember your school? I bet there were sports. I bet there were a LOT of sports. I bet you had crusty old guys in polos and belted shorts LEFT AND RIGHT telling you about university sports, and how much better ‘the team’ was when THEY were in college. If you were me, you didn’t give a shit. If you weren’t, maybe you did.

I bet your campus had a ‘green’. I bet it was more often silver and nicotine colored than the aforementioned verdant hue.

I bet you had a cafeteria–I’m sorry, is it a ‘dining hall’ by the time your pubes are fully sprouted?–and I bet you remember what food you liked, what food you didn’t, whether or not Chik-Fil-A had a kiosk downstairs. This was the first and last time in your life Chik-Fil-A would feel special to you.

Did you live in the dorms, have a roommate? Did she smell funny, watch Judge Judy at three in the morning, save her crunchiest cereals for midnight cram-session consumption while you were trying to sleep? Living with somebody, especially someone you know, is annoying. In what ways did she piss you off? In what ways, and at what times, were you glad she was there?

You can take all these things and adapt them. Maybe they don’t have Captian Crunch at Fenugreek U, but you can work with it. For instance, maybe Masala’s roommate is one of those horrible fucking elves. Maybe she eats twigs. Maybe she poos compost, and it stinks up the whole suite.

Maybe the university sport is magical duelling, instead of whatever version of sportsball yours indulged in. Maybe the alumni, veteran duellers of old, tend to try and help out from the stands.

Maybe you have to invoke the demon Asafoetida and sign a contract in blood instead of paying tuition. Maybe college loans take years off your life if they aren’t paid, on time, every month. Maybe there’s a group of seniors, informed by their older siblings of the years of infernal slavery ahead of them in the name of college debt, who’re trying to find a loophole in the contract. Maybe they have. Maybe you have to be in Anise Hall, room 666, at precisely 12:03 AM for the secret to be revealed to you. Maybe they’re just blowing hot air, and they ambush you there and turn you into a muskrat. Maybe there’s now a muskrat wing in Student Health because of it, and muskrat care supplies in Student Stores.

See what I mean? No, you haven’t lived any of these things. At least, not exactly. But you’ve lived through things that made you feel the same way, made you react the same way, had the same repercussions in your life. And the basic premises–student loans, annoying roommate, sportsball–are still real-life premises. They’re things that anyone in a college setting remembers and will have to deal with. So you get emotional resonance as well as detail, detail, detail.

A note, however; the devil is also in TOO MUCH detail, and he is just waiting for you to waste those three pages describing the magical duelling sportsball system at the state university of your main character’s second cousin. Look at it this way, and only this way:

1) Does this add to my story?

Note–not ‘is it important’. Important can mean a lot of things. But.

Does this detail further, in any way, your main story? Does it increase your understanding of the characters? Does it make the setting more accessible to the average reader? Does it enhance the mood of the story? Does it keep the plot moving?

If it does none of these things, chuck it. Or, if you must, mention it briefly. But remember:

When you write a LOT about something, you are emphasizing it.

Hence, Checkov and the whole gun going off in the third chapter thing. (Don’t know about Checkov’s Gun? Google it. You need to.) If you draw your reader’s attention to something, they quite rightly expect it to be important. Too many false alarms, too many false starts, and your reader will start wondering if your story in total is important. Then, thirty seconds later, they put down your book.

So there you are.

Excerpt: Chapter One, Time Two

Okay, this is the last time I’ll do this to you guys. Thank you so, so much. Especially Matt and Al. You guys are editing superheroes, and in a very short amount of time!

A BIG thank you as well to Chris at Modern Fantastic. I forgot this earlier because I’m an ass. Your edits are tidy, sir, and your skill set complex.

Added some description, calmed down the pace a little, destroyed some but not all passive verb use. Don’t worry about the lute, it comes into play at the end of the chapter. Using it as an object-lesson for Aurian’s comfort in the inn, way better than all the town dialogue for it.

ONE
ERSATZ WIFE

Aurian gazed down the length of the blade to the knotty hand grasping it, and beyond there to the dirt-streaked face of the bandit currently holding him up.

“I said,” Aurian repeated patiently, “what money?”

“Don’t get yourself killed, laddie. There’s got to be some money in this shitheap. Couple coppers socked away, antique glassware–whatever you’ve got. If you ain’t got nothing, we’ll just slit your throat and sell your corpus to the necromancers down the road. All the same to us.”

The bandit pressed his sword a little deeper into Aurian’s throat. Aurian swallowed with some difficulty.

“Look where this inn is situated,” he said. “It’s a shit location. We haven’t seen a traveler in months. We’ve got a few pigs in the yard and a few chickens. About half a barrel of ale. That’s it.”

“Don’t lie to me, now!” Spit flecked Aurian’s face, as well as a few droplets of red–the bandit had finally worked up enough nerve to break skin. Aurian ignored the pain, took deep measured breaths. Certainly this wouldn’t be the amateur holdup that got him killed. Certainly.

To calm himself, he looked around the inn–the trestle tables his father had built, ungainly legs evened by bits of folded paper and spare checkers. The rows of thick-bottomed glasses, hibernating under their blankets of dust. The painted lute over the fireplace, blue and garish yellow, which Aurian knew logically was a musical instrument and not just a decoration, but which it had never occurred to him until right now could actually be played. Hells, he wasn’t even sure where it had come from.

It would also, he thought wistfully, make a rather excellent bludgeon. Fortunately, he had a better one waiting upstairs: best give his assailants a few moments of silence, though. He knew from long experience not to seem too eager.

The bandit’s two friends, every bit as dusty and mustaschioed as the bandit himself, were looking nervous. Aurian was willing to bet none of them had ever killed a man before–hells, if the weather had been better, they’d probably still be on their farms with their fathers, and the nasty-looking machetes at their sides would still be used for clearing brush.

These times made men desperate, they did.

Which was none of Aurian’s business. They had chosen this, not him. And there was always a choice.

“Look,” he said at last, making his voice quaver slightly. “All right, you’ve got me. My wife keeps a sack of coppers on her–supposed to last us the winter, they were. You’re welcome to ’em. Just leave us in peace.”

“Maybe,” the lead bandit said curtly. “Maybe not. Where’s the lady?”

“She’s upstairs.”

The bandit resheathed his sword. “Call her.”

“Jin,” Aurian called. “Oh, Jin! We have visitors.”

“Fuck off,” said Jin from above. Her voice sounded thick, fuzzy. Aurian was willing to bet she had been sound asleep.

The bandits chuckled, perhaps recognizing the same thing. “Right proper and obedient, that one,” one of the two lesser bandits said. Aurian phrased his request carefully:

“Jin. These gentlemen are interested in some of your coppers.”

“Are they now? Goody.” Jin now sounded positively cheery, which was frightening enough even to Aurian. A door swung open, followed by a familiar lithe step and a series of creaks as Jin took the stairs down.

Aurian was not facing the right direction to see her, but he could tell from the guffaws of the bandits when she was in view.

“Aithar’s hells, laddie, that’s your wife?” said the lead bandit. “Where’d you find her, hanging in a butcher’s shop?”

“Oh, now,” Jin said pleasantly. “You shouldn’t have gone there. I was going to leave you alive.”

He heard the sliding ring of drawn steel, a few soft rushed footsteps. The bandit currently antagonizing Aurian choked on something distinctly vital. He jerked, made silent fishlike movements with his mouth, and slumped. A red puddle grew on the floor around him.

With a vicious kick, Jin slid him off her sword and onto the bodies of his cohorts, who had fallen in almost perfect silence. She wiped her sword on his tunic and turned to face her husband.

‘Hello, my darling dingleberry,” she said cheerfully. “My precious puking pearl. My salubrious swine. My–”

“Enough!” Aurian shook his head, barely able to repress a smile. “I truly thought we might be fucked, this time. I thought you’d really gone to sleep up there.”

“I did.” She bent, began to rifle through the purses of the deceased. “What, you don’t think I’d rise to the dulcet tones of my husband in distress?”

Aurian laughed in spite of himself. “Of course you would, my pumpkin. Of course you would.”

“Don’t do it to me. Makes my skin bloody well crawl.” She found a purse that jingled, poured coins into her hand. She weighed them with the aplomb of a master moneylender. “Good take on these bastards. Fourteen copper.”

“About time somebody beat ’em at their own game. Toss it in with the rest, I guess.”

“Which board is it, again?”

“Somewhere around the welcome mat. Step on it, it’ll sound hollow.”

As she stepped, listened, and cursed, Aurian took the moment to stretch, blot the small wound at his throat with the back of his hand, and look at his wife.

Jin Koch, neé Grewler, was nearly six feet tall, thin as a rail, and possessed the blanched complexion and sharp profile common to the Imperial south. In addition to a haggard face, she had a braided mat of ivory hair that hung unbrushed and unloved to the small of her back–the sort of hair that, with about a year’s proper maintenance and a good shearing, might have curled in attractive ringlets around her face.

But her face was the problem, really. For, in place of one pale grey eye, Jin wore a patch–a patch big enough to cover some of her forehead and most of her gaunt cheek. Even so, the patch was not large enough to cover the scars that extended like mountain ridges from her empty socket, or the healed-over shiny burns that clustered around it.

There was a thin film of filth on Jin and everything she touched. Her nails were black, her smile crooked, her baggy tunic a color Aurian could only think of as ‘crusty’. She might have been beautiful once or she might have never been; through the filth-curtain it was impossible to tell. Aurian suspected she rather liked it that way. Suspected, in fact, that she did it on purpose.

It had occurred to him to wonder whether this behavior, abnormal as it was, wasn’t a cloak for other, deeper issues. It probably was. Anyone who needed a name change badly enough to marry Aurian probably had a Chequered Past and a half. But if she didn’t want to talk, twelve demons and a horde of stampeding cattle couldn’t drag a secret out of Jin. So she smiled, and stank, and remained cheerfully incommunicado on the subject of anything deeper than the weather or feeding the pigs.

Aurian liked her. For reasons he couldn’t begin to fathom, it was difficult not to. Especially since she was so damn useful.

He was not an opportunist. Not in any conventional sense, at least: he had been starving at this gods-forsaken inn on the side of this gods-forsaken minor road for long enough to know that. But when he saw a chance to get back–at the bandits who stole the few coppers he managed to make, at the townsfolk who told him he’d never amount to much–by marrying a woman willing to trade her blade for his name, well, he’d have been a fool not to take it. She may have been ugly, and crass, and a drunk, but this strange Imperial swordswoman had made him in six months about double what he’d made in the past ten years.

And all for the price of his hand, and free beer. There was no sex in it–of course there was no sex–but then again, Aurian had heard semi-reliably about sex from the necromancers, and thought it sounded like the sort thing that, when done with Jin, might be likely to spread plague.

“Dearest,” he asked. “You don’t by any chance know how to play the lute, do you?”

Jin rolled her eye. “Of course I do,” she said. “As you can see from my smooth pretty face, I possess all the courtly airs and graces. I keep them up my arse, along with my royal pedigree.”

“So no, then.”

“Resoundingly.” Her last step sounded hollow. “Ah. Here we go.”

Jin found the board’s edge with her toe, kicked it up and over. The eerie light of all their stashed copper shone on her face, making it angular, a sculpture in reds and oranges. Aurian smiled at her affectionately.

“How much, d’you think?”

“Don’t know. Four hundred–five hundred, maybe. A little sack of it’s in gold.” She scowled, fingering the offending sack. “We could afford a place in the city with this, you know. ”

“Aye, but then we couldn’t do our civic duty.” He gestured to the fallen bandits. “We keep it up, dear heart, and Sohoban’s Way won’t have any more bandits on it at all. We’ll be heroes. They might even make me mayor.”

Jin snorted. “Mayor of the midden heap, maybe. Need I remind you that these people hate you?”

“They do now. When they find out we’re rich…” he left his thought unfinished. He could buy some new trestle tables, some glasses that didn’t strain your arms going from table to mouth. Maybe hire some help from town: a pretty girl, moderately saucy but good-hearted, to get folk coming in and keep them coming back. Aurian would pay her well, treat her well. She would tell all her friends, and the townsfolk would see at last that he was a decent person, nothing dark or mysterious about him in the least. Just a young man with a shitty inn. They would maybe start stopping by for a drink, a little conversation.

Money could do so much.

In one easy motion, Jin grabbed a dead bandit and slung him over her shoulder. “Speaking of midden heaps,” she said, “what should I do with these scumbags?” She sniffed, made a face. “Ugh. I think this one’s soiled himself.”

“We’ll burn them tonight. Say a few words over them.” Anticipating her look, he added: “Come on, Jin. They’ve suffered enough for their crimes just by trying to rob us. Don’t feed them to the pigs.”

“Would save us a bundle on pig feed.”

“We don’t need to save a bundle. Remember the pile of copper under that floorboard?”

“They’re dead. They don’t care if they’re pig feed or in a crypt. Might as well use what you have, says I.”

And that was Jin: practical, no-nonsense Jin. Aurian, who had been born and raised in this area and had never seen adventure so much as shake a stick at him, couldn’t help but admire her attitude. He would never feed a dead man to pigs–whether or not he believed in an afterlife didn’t even enter into it. It just wasn’t the done thing.

But he could see how it made sense.

“No pigs,” he said at last. “Have some respect, dearest. Just pile ’em out back–I’ll get around to the fire presently.”

“Pile ’em yourself,” Jin shot back. “And think about your priorities, while you’re at it. You want to stay in an inn with no traffic and drink your days away, that’s just fine. I’ll do it with you. But you can’t go taking things for granted like you do. Someday you’ll be sitting here with no fodder for the pigs, thinking ‘oh, if only I still had those bloody bandit corpses…'”

“Taking things for granted like I do, eh? You’re the one who sits day in and day out. At least I sweep. Hells, your arm gets more muscle moving tankard to mouth than it does swinging that sword of yours.”

“Aye,” Jin spat, tossing the bandit back down on the floor. “Perhaps it does. But I’ve been in worse places, places you can’t even imagine. You’d do well to listen to me.”

She stalked off. Aurian counted to ten.

Before he hit seven she came back in, grabbed a tankard from under the bar, filled it at the barrel, and walked back out again.

“Think on it!” she called. She slammed the door behind her. The door-bar, which had been loose for years, dropped into its slot with a meaty thunk.

Aurian sighed, bent down, and heaved one of the dead bandits over his own shoulder. Something under all the leather and chainmail squished slightly, and a distinctive ripe smell joined the old food/woodsmoke aroma of his home.

He debated throwing some cedar chips on the fire to freshen the air, but what was the point? No one new was coming through that door. Not now, not later, probably not with all the copper in the world.

He caught himself yearning, strangely, for someone new to appall.
*****
Aurian had been trying to play the lute on and off, but nothing good was coming of it–the strings were, he supposed, over twenty years old, and even to his inexperienced hands they felt more like wet noodles than proper musical accoutrement. He was finding it much more productive to stare at it vaguely while scrubbing the bloodstains off his floor than to actually strum it: the few sounds he could eke out of the thing had frightened the wildlife. It was lying on the bar now, useless and garishly cheerful, while he took to the floor with a vengeance, a pumice stone, and lye. Every now and again, as though daring it to become a better lute, he’d glare at it.

Around five, a necromancer from the coven down the road entered. Glad for some non-instrumental company, Aurian stuffed his lute and his bottle of scrubbing lye back behind the bar and raised a hand in greeting.

“Horis,” he said. “Welcome back.”

“Aurian.” The necromancer took his usual seat at the bar. He looked dried-up, sunken in, and, in the way of necromancers worldwide, freshly dead.
For Horis, this was the pinnacle of health and good cheer. His voice was, as ever, roughly a hundred pounds heavier than he was. He sounded, in fact, far more like a jolly country innkeeper than Aurian did. Aurian had always found the effect rather disturbing: it was like being wished good morrow by a corpse.

“Good to see you still about,” Horis said. “Bunch of blokes through the coven yesterday, telling us they would bring us an innkeeper’s corpus in return for a sheaf of hexes. I take it your woman took care of them.”

“With her usual speed and skill,” Aurian said. “Cor, but I like to think I’m worth two sheaves at least. How goes the gathering of knowledge?”

“Fair, fair. I’m close to reanimating mammals. Found a chipmunk skeleton in the woods, got it to stay alive for a full thirty minutes this time.” The necromancer rolled back his black sleeves, revealing forearms covered in the snaky blue tattoos of his profession. “Augar and Denis might be by tonight. They’ve been in the trials all week and they’re starved for your beer and a friendly game of cards.”
“How’d they do?”

“They’re full-fledged now, aye.” The necromancer smiled widely, even white teeth splitting his cadaverous face in two. “Reanimated a dead salamander each. I’m very proud.”

“You should be. This round’s on me.” Aurian poured two tankards, and the two of them clinked them together. “Ah, Horis. What’d you do to deserve such talented students?”

“Not a damned thing, mate. Not a damned thing.”

The two men sat in companionable silence for a while, listening to the breeze shake leaves loose from the trees outside. They had existed together, often, in this sort of silence. It could stretch out for hours before either one of them bothered to break it.

At last, the necromancer took a swig from his tankard and grimaced. “By the way, boy, your beer’s getting sour.”

“I know, I know. But I want to drink up what’s left before we put in the new barrel.”

“Any of the good stuff left?”

Aurian grinned. “And there I was thinking you were too drunk last time to remember it. Aye, there’s a bottle left.”

He rummaged under the bar, coming up with a rounded glass bottle and two dusty shot glasses. He poured them both a shot.

“You know,” he said, “I never understood how my father got stuck out here. Why didn’t he at least move into town?”

“Stuck? He chose to live out here, lad. Some people like it.” The necromancer raised his glass. “Sun’s rising, moon’s waning.”

“Sun’s setting,” Aurian replied, raising his glass automatically. “Moon’s waxing.”

They both drank. The berry liquor left a warm glow in Aurian’s belly. He leaned against the bar, looking out the windows to the leafy green depths of the forest beyond them. It had rained not long ago, and Aurian could hear the twin reassuring dribbles of runoff coming from the gutter and the crack in the roof he kept forgetting to fix. He moved a bucket under the leak, and the comfortable silence of a gloomy day was heightened by the soft metallic pings therein.

“Why here?” he asked at last. “On this out-of-the-way road, near this out-of-the-way town. Why would anyone choose this place? Even I can tell it’s a terrible location. ”

“I couldn’t say–never knew him as well as I know you. I suspect he was born hereabouts. When you’re older, you’ll understand the power your birthplace holds. Or perhaps he just wanted a decent quiet life for you.”

“I’ve got a decent quiet life,” Aurian said, a little bitterly. “It’s boring the shit out of me.”

The necromancer chuckled. “Oh, my boy. If you told anyone in town what happened here–or what you have piled out back, for that matter–they would call your life anything but decent and quiet. Certainly not boring.” He reached over, patted Aurian’s shoulder with one of his tattooed hands. His knuckles, Aurian noticed, had daisies on them. “Where’s that harpy you live with, anyhow?”

“Out,” Aurian muttered. “I pissed her off this morning, I think. She’ll be back before sundown. She always is.”

“Like a bad copper,” the necromancer agreed. He burped. “You’d do well to listen to that woman more than you do. She’s far wiser than you. Seen more, too–still no idea where she’s from?”

“None. Nor do I care. Somewhere Southern, obviously–and coming into town wanting a name change? I thought it was better not to ask. She’s a good woman, she couldn’t have done anything too awful.”

“A sensible attitude to take.” The necromancer handed Aurian his tankard. Aurian filled it again, and topped off his own.
“To Jin,” the necromancer said. They clinked glasses.

“To Jin.”

“Sun’s rising.”

“Sun’s setting.”

They drank.

Excerpt: Aurian and Jin, Chapter One

Okay, so I lied. This is actually the first part of the first chapter. Fact is, I went in to do one final draft before pub-date and I had a horrifying realization: this is, aside from the prologue, the first part of my first novel, and I do not like it.

I just don’t.

I know there’s too much dialogue, but I don’t think that’s what’s killing me. Yes, they coldly dispatch some people, but that’s sort of what they do. If you’ve got any suggestions, help me out. Aurian needs you, in the sad puppy-dog sort of way he tends to need people.

image

ONE
ERSATZ WIFE

Aurian gazed down the length of the blade to the knotty hand grasping it, and beyond there to the dirt-streaked face of the bandit currently holding him up.

“I said,” Aurian repeated patiently, “what money?”

“Don’t get yourself killed, laddie. There’s got to be some money in this shitheap. Couple coppers socked away, antique glassware–whatever you’ve got. If you ain’t got nothing, we’ll just slit your throat and sell your corpus to the necromancers down the road. All the same to us.”

The blade at his throat pressed a little deeper. Aurian swallowed, with some difficulty.

“Look where this inn is situated. We haven’t seen a traveler in months. We’ve got a few pigs in the yard and a few chickens. About half a barrel of ale. That’s it.”

“Don’t lie to me, now!” Spit flecked Aurian’s face, as well as a few droplets of red–the bandit had finally worked up nerve to press the sword deep enough to draw blood. Aurian ignored the pain, took deep measured breaths. The bandit’s two friends, every bit as dusty and mustaschioed as the bandit himself, were beginning to look nervous. Aurian was willing to bet none of them had ever killed a man before–hells, if the weather had been better, they’d probably still be on their farms with their fathers, and the nasty-looking machetes at their sides would still be used for clearing brush.

These times made men desperate, they did.

Which was none of Aurian’s business.

“Look,” he said at last, allowing his voice to quaver slightly. “All right, you’ve got me. My wife keeps a sack of coppers on her–supposed to last us the winter, they were. You’re welcome to ’em. Just leave us in peace.”

“Maybe,” the lead bandit said curtly. “Maybe not. Where’s the lady?”

“She’s upstairs.”

The pressure on his throat lightened. The bandit resheathed his sword. “Call her.”

“Jin,” Aurian called. “Oh, Jin! We have visitors.”

“Fuck off,” came Jin’s voice from above, thickly. Aurian was willing to bet she had been sound asleep.

The bandits chuckled. “Right proper and obedient, that one,” one of the two lesser bandits snickered. Aurian phrased his request carefully:

“Jin. These gentlemen are interested in some of your coppers.”

“Are they now?” The voice had brightened considerably. A door creaked, followed by a familiar lithe step, joined by a series of creaks as Jin took the stairs down.

Aurian was not facing the right direction to see her, but he could tell from the guffaws of the bandits when she was in view.

“Aithar’s hells, laddie, that’s your wife?” said the lead bandit. “Where’d you find her, hanging in a butcher’s shoppe?”

“Oh, now,” Jin said pleasantly. “You shouldn’t have said that. I was planning on leaving you alive.”

There was the sliding ring of drawn steel, and a few soft rushed footsteps. There was a choking sound. The bandit in front of him went stiff as a red wet rose blossomed in the center of his chest, tipped by the point of a sword. He slumped.

With a vicious kick, Jin Grewler slid him off her sword and onto the bodies of his cohorts. She wiped her sword distractedly on his tunic.

‘Hello, my darling dingleberry,” she said cheerfully. “My precious puking pearl. My salubrious swine. My–”

“Enough!” Aurian grinned. “I truly thought we might be fucked, this time. I thought you’d really gone to sleep up there.”

“I did.” She bent, began to rifle through the purses of the deceased. “What, you don’t think I’d rise to the sound of my hubby-wubby calling?”

Aurian laughed in spite of himself. “Of course you would, my purest puddin’ pumpkin. Of course you would.”

“Augh, don’t do it to me. Makes my skin bloody well crawl, so it does.” She found a purse that jingled, pouring copper coins into her hand. “Good take on these bastards. Fourteen copper.”

“About time somebody beat ’em at their own game. Toss it in with the rest, I guess.”

“Which board is it, again?”

“Third from the welcome mat. Step on it, it’ll sound hollow.”

As she stepped, listened, and cursed, Aurian took the moment to stretch, blot the small wound at his throat with the back of his hand, and look at his wife.

It wasn’t a picture many men would feel lucky looking at, he knew–especially considering she was his wife in name only. Jin Koch, neé Grewler, was nearly six feet tall, thin as a rail, and possessed the pale blanched-looking skin and sharp profile common to the Imperial south. In addition to her sharp profile, she had a braided mat of ivory hair that hung unbrushed and unloved to the small of her back–the sort of hair that, with about a year’s proper maintenance and a good shearing, might have curled in attractive ringlets around her face.

But her face was the problem, really. For, in place of one pale grey eye, Jin wore a patch–a big patch. Even so, the patch was not large enough to cover the scars that extended like mountain ridges from her empty socket, or the healed-over shiny burns that clustered around it.

She had come to him because no one in the town down the road would have her: a disfigured woman in her late thirties looking for a change of name and a quieter life didn’t have many takers in an organized sleepy municipality. Aurian, unlike the townsfolk, had recognized a war wound when he saw one–and the boundless opportunities it implied.

He was not an opportunist–not in any conventional sense, at least. He had been starving at this gods-forsaken inn on the side of this gods-forsaken minor road for long enough to know that. But when he saw a chance to get back–at the bandits who robbed him at least once a fortnight, and the townsfolk who told him he’d never amount to much–well, he’d have been a fool not to take it. She may have been ugly, and crass, and a drunk, but this strange Imperial swordswoman had made him in six months about double what he’d made in the past ten years.

And all for the price of his hand, and free beer.

Jin found the hollow board, and kicked it up and over. The eerie light of all their stashed copper shone on her face, making it beautiful, a sculpture in reds and oranges. Aurian smiled at her affectionately.

“How much, d’you think?”

“Don’t know. Four hundred–five hundred, maybe. A little sack of it’s in gold.” She scowled, fingering the offending sack. “We could afford a place in the city with this, you know. ”

“Aye, but then we couldn’t do our civic duty.” He gestured to the fallen bandits. “We keep it up, dear heart, and Sohoban’s Way won’t have any more bandits on it at all. We’ll be heroes. They might even make me mayor.”

Jin snorted. “Faugh. Mayor of the midden heap, maybe. Need I remind you that these people hate you?”

“They do now. When they find out we’re rich…” he left his thought unfinished.

Money could do so much.

In one easy motion, Jin grabbed a dead bandit and slung him over her shoulder. “Speaking of midden heap, what should I do with these scumbags?”

“We’ll burn them tonight. Say a few words over them.” Seeing her face, he added: “Come on, Jin. They’ve suffered enough for their crimes. Don’t feed them to the pigs.”

“‘Would save us a bundle on pig feed.”

“We don’t need to save a bundle. Remember the pile of copper under that floorboard?”

“They’re dead. They don’t care if they’re pig feed or in a crypt. Might as well use what you have, says I.”

And that was Jin: practical, no-nonsense Jin. Aurian, who had been born and raised in this area and had never seen adventure so much as shake a stick at him, couldn’t help but admire her attitude. He would never feed a dead man to pigs–whether or not he believed in an afterlife didn’t even enter into it. It just wasn’t the done thing.

But he could see how it made sense.

“No pigs,” he said at last. “Have some respect, dearest. Just pile ’em out back–I’ll get around to the fire presently.”

“Pile ’em yourself,” Jin shot back. “And think about your priorities, while you’re at it. You want to stay in an inn with no traffic and drink your days away, that’s just fine. I’ll do it with you. But you can’t go taking things for granted like you do. Someday you’ll be sitting here with no fodder for the pigs, thinking ‘oh, if only I still had those bloody bandit corpses…'”

“Taking things for granted like I do, eh? You’re the one who sits day in and day out. At least I sweep. Hells, your arm gets more muscle moving tankard to mouth than it does swinging that sword of yours.”

“Aye,” Jin spat, tossing the bandit back down on the floor. “Perhaps it does. But I know something of the suddenness off loss, laddie. You’d do well to listen to me.”

She stalked off. Aurian counted to ten.

Before he hit seven she came back in, grabbed a tankard from under the bar, filled it at the barrel, and walked back out again.

“Think on it!” she called.

Aurian sighed, bent down, and heaved one of the dead bandits over his own shoulder. There would be no talking to her for the rest of the day.

*****

Around four in the afternoon, just after he finished scouring the spilt blood off his floor, the necromancer entered. Aurian put his bottle of lye back behind the bar and raised a hand.

“Horis,” he said. “Welcome back.”

“Aurian!” the necromancer answered, taking his usual seat at the bar. “Good to see you still about. Bunch of blokes through the coven yesterday, telling us they would bring us an innkeeper’s corpus in return for a sheaf of hexes. I take it your woman took care of them.”

“With her usual speed and skill,” Aurian said, grinning. “How goes the gathering of knowledge?”

“Fair, fair. I’m close to reanimating mammals. Found a chipmunk skeleton in the woods, got it to stay alive for a full thirty minutes this time.” The necromancer rolled back his black sleeves, revealing forearms covered in the snaky blue tattoos of his profession. “Augar and Denis might be by tonight. They’ve been in the trials all week and they’re starved for your beer and a friendly game of cards.”

“How’d they do?”

“They’re full-fledged now, aye.” The necromancer smiled widely, even white teeth splitting his cadaverous face in two. “Reanimated a dead salamander each. I’m very proud.”

“You should be. This round’s on me.” Aurian poured two tankards, and the two of them clinked them together. “Ah, Horis. What’d you do to deserve such talented students?”

“Not a damned thing, Aurian–not a damned thing.”

The two men sat in companionable silence for a while, listening to the breeze shake leaves loose from the trees outside.

“Horis,” Aurian said, after a while. “D’you ever wonder what it’s like to live in the town? Not a care in your day save making money, neighbors on all sides, pretty little vegetable garden on your roof. Town guard to protect you. Everything right there.”

Horis sighed. “Oh, laddie. I know it must seem tempting to you, but trust me–our kind isn’t any happier there than their kind would be here, on the edge of the Grieving Wood. I’ve lived in a city or two in my time, and it’s more annoyance than pleasure. Your neighbors always want to know what you’re up to, see. A single bad spell, a single infestation of undead woodchucks, and they’re all against you until death do you part. What you do here, fair though it may seem to you–they’d arrest you for it, in the town.”

“Why?”

“Well, because you’re killing people.”

“But they’re bad people. People who’re trying to kill us. It’s self defense.”

“I know, lad. I know that perfectly well, and I understand it too. But see, that’s why we live out here, and not in there. Out here, we can seek our own justice. In there, why, it would be the job of the Town Guard to fight for us. And whatever sort of job they did–well, that would be that. You might not ever see the people who robbed you put to justice. You certainly wouldn’t get to pick their pockets afterwards. And you’d just have to like it or lump it.” The necromancer took a swig from his tankard and grimaced. “By the way, boy, your beer’s getting sour.”

“I know, I know. But I want to drink up what’s left before we put in the new barrel.”

“Any of the good stuff left?”

Aurian grinned. “And there I was thinking you were too drunk to remember it. Aye, there’s a bottle left.”

He rummaged under the bar, coming up with a rounded glass bottle and two dusty shot glasses. He poured them both a shot.

“You know,” he said, swirling the cloudy liquid about, “I never understood how my father got stuck out here.”

“Stuck? Stuck! He chose to live out here, lad.” The necromancer raised his glass. “Sun’s rising, moon’s waning.”

“Sun’s setting,” Aurian replied automatically, raising his glass as well. “Moon’s waxing.”

They both drank. The berry liquor left a warm glowing flame in Aurian’s belly. He leaned against the bar, looking out the windows to the leafy green depths of the forest beyond them.

“But why here?” he asked at last. “On this out-of-the-way road, near this out-of-the-way town. ”

“I couldn’t say–never knew him as well as I know you. I suspect he was born hereabouts. When you’re older, you’ll understand the power your birthplace holds over you. Or perhaps he just wanted a decent quiet life for you.”

“I’ve got a decent quiet life,” Aurian said, a little bitterly. “It’s boring the shit out of me.”

The necromancer chuckled. “Oh, my boy. If you told anyone in town what happened here–or what you have piled out back, for that matter–they would call your life anything but decent and quiet. Certainly not boring.” He reached over, patted Aurian’s shoulder with one of his tattooed hands. “Where’s that harpy you live with, anyhow?”

“Out,” Aurian muttered. “I pissed her off this morning, I think. She’ll be back before sundown. She always is.”

“Like a bad copper,” the necromancer agreed amiably. “You’d do well to listen to that woman more than you do. She’s far wiser than you. Seen more, too–still no idea where she’s from?”

“None. Nor do I care. Somewhere Southern, obviously–and coming into town wanting a name change? I thought it was better not to ask. She’s a good woman, she couldn’t have done anything too awful.”

“A sensible attitude to take.” The necromancer handed Aurian his tankard. Aurian filled it again, and topped off his own.

“To Jin,” the necromancer intoned.

“To Jin.”

“Sun’s rising.”

“Sun’s setting.”

They drank.

Review: The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss

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Q: Did I read Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind this week?
A: You bet your balls I did. And here’s what I thought.

I am, honestly, uncertain what verdict to give it overall. Did I enjoy the baroque detailing, the legend and myth, the way the story was told? Yes, I did. Especially the old-school story-within-a-story aspects. It provides, I think, a great buttercream frosting of indirect foreshadowing, hearing the beginning of Kvothe’s story and seeing him as he is present-day. I’d read the next few volumes just to connect the pieces. And the detail–lawd, the detail! Rothfuss does a great job describing the University, creating the structure of society in which it exists through character interactions (especially, of course, those of Kvothe and Ambrose). It’s good, I must admit, to see a fantasy hero have troubles with money. Rothfuss very realistically evokes just how terribly being broke can get in the way of your hopes and dreams. It’s interesting how many other orphan hero/ines in fantasy don’t seem to have these kinds of troubles, and it’s good to see a case where even inordinate amounts of talent don’t get you everywhere immediately.

Also–people dislike Kvothe. There is, honestly, a lot to dislike about him. Someone as driven, bright and ungovernable as the man is would have a lot of enemies, as well as a lot of to-the-death loyal friends. I liked that Kvothe doesn’t always get away scott-free with doing things his own way. Again, a lot of writers forget that this sort of behavior makes you enemies. Good on Rothfuss for remembering.

And Kvothe himself? Well, Kvothe’s a determined bastard, though his determination seems to shift in focus throughout the novel. By the time the Chandrian come up again, about eighty percent through the book, I had honestly forgotten he was focused on finding them, what with how focused he was on staying in school/his playing/Denna. I understand that Kvothe, epic fantasy hero extraordinaire, is a man of burning passions and nearly monomaniacal needs. But if i had to write a fifth grade book report about this novel, I’m not certain I’d get an A. I’m still fairly up in the air on what Kvothe’s driving force actually is: there are just too many choices. To Rothfuss’s credit: I’m not sure Kvothe himself would get an A either, for this reason. I can’t, in fact, decide if this is intentional or not. But honestly–if I, the reader, can’t decide, a little more attention to this aspect of character development was probably necessary.

I didn’t like the romance here. Sorry, but I just didn’t. I think Denna’s a well-developed character–and once again, props on a well-thought out and realistically detailed portrayal of how beauty might affect the life of a bright, young, none-too-upper-class woman. Also props on realism concerning how hard it would be to find someone, in a world without cell phones, who doesn’t always want to be found. But I at no point felt the driving force of love in this relationship. Rothfuss spends so much time detailing how Denna plays with and uses wealthier men that I was left wondering if she had any real feelings at all, and if she did, how much of it could be in any way bent towards Our Hero of the Burning Passions. I liked Denna as a character, but, try as I might, I couldn’t bring myself to like Denna. Is it necessary to like a character for a story to be good? No. No, it isn’t. But there needs to be something loveable in a main character’s love interest, and with Denna I just wasn’t feeling it.

I have trouble liking Kvothe, too, at times. Again, this may not be the best way to put it–perhaps it’s better to say I feel he wasn’t properly developed, but that just makes it sound like he’s missing a testicle. But the fact remains, when I see character flaws, I expect a character to either suffer for them or learn from them or some bizarre spam salad mixup of both.

But Kvothe–oh, Kvothe. Lorren says you need to learn patience, and he isn’t wrong. You’re a little bit too clever, a little bit too quick to quip. In spite of the inordinate amount of trouble you have with day-to-day life, the big things–not getting expelled, which I’m frankly amazed never happens to you, especially after straight up skipping school for four days in a row–come pretty easy. Yes, sir, I know you’re a hero. I know you’re painfully bright. I know something horrible happened to your parents, and you’re in love with a woman who is Grade A unsuitable in many ways. But these things do not internal conflict make. If I had to put it simply, I think this is what Kvothe as a character lacks–internal conflict. There’s never much feeling Kvothe worries he’s making a mistake.

For instance, when Elodin refuses to teach him because he jumps off a roof. Instead of thinking that maybe, just maybe, he failed a test by being too eager to do a stupid thing, Kvothe dismisses the whole scene as Elodin being batshit crazy. Which he is. But still. He never learns from this. Lorren tells him he’ll get archive access back when he learns patience, and what does he do? Use a girl who likes him to sneak in. He could’ve attempted to cultivate some of the p-word, but no. Too complicated.

I understand that this is probably intentional, part of his character. But it makes him hard to empathize with. I have difficulty caring about his story because, at least in the course of the first book, Kvothe stays very much the same person, just sort of doing whatever Kvothe wants to do. This is, perhaps, the primary flaw in Rothfuss’s novel for me. I suspect, in the second one, there are more consequences in store for Kvothe, but the second one comes too late. It’s not a consequence when someone busts up your lute if you immediately make back the money to pay for a new one.

One last, minor, thing. Rothfuss harps WAY too hard on how Kvothe’s story is not a work of fiction, not a grand epic tale about a mythological hero. He harps on this so hard, in fact, that I would honestly have preferred he took an eighteen wheeler to the fourth wall and pissed on the rubble. This sort of thing only makes the mythological nature of a story MORE evident, only puts the reader at a GREATER remove from the story. Sorry. One of my pet peeves.

Overall, I did enjoy this book. Don’t get it twisted. Will I read the second one? Hell yes. But I want more from Kvothe. I want more consequences. And overall–overall–I want higher stakes, preferably in the form of some answers.

State of the Union

Okay, guys. Let me explain to you why there is no writing post up yet.

I am pretty sick. My throat is on fire. I am typing this, painstakingly, after paying several very expensive bills all at once, on my Kindle touchscreen keyboard, because the regular clackity-clack keyboard I use to write and such things was drowned last time it rained. I have thirty bucks in my pocket until payday. Which is, by the way, NOT this Friday. I have a headache. And my fucking phone just died.

Jesus Caribbean-cruising Christ, but this is not my week.

So, Writing Wednesday might become Thematically Appropriate Thursday this week. Anything I popped out for you today would be mostly bitching, and nobody wants that. And no, touchscreen keyboard, I absolutely NEVER mean ‘ducking’. Like, never.

I’m going to go eat my ramen and grouse now.

BONUS: Cover Reveal

Oh ma gerd. Ohmagerd, OHMAGERD.

Just looking at this makes me feel like a real writer. A big thank you goes out to this talented and dedicated graphic designer, Cissy Russell –otherwise known to me, yes, as Mom. I’m not ashamed.

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The best part is, without a doubt, the severed head in Aurian’s hand, and the displeased expression on its face. Will anyone see this cover large enough, ever, to notice it? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s THERE. And then there’s that crappy-looking sword (which is, indeed, magical. AND shit as a sword. I mean, what do you expect, from mages? The closest they ever came to personal combat was mobbing a guy who sang the last verse of ‘My Bonnie Wee Lassie Alight in Her Cups’ out of tune. And when somebody told them they’d need a smithy to forge a magical weapon, they said: “well, there are plenty of Smiths. I’m sure, if we borrow a phone book, we can find a Smithy or two as well.”)

For the two or three of you who’ve expressed curiosity, here’s what I’ve got for my bookblurb so far:

Aurian Koch, professional innkeeper, has a pretty easy life. He drinks beer with the necromancers down the road, scrubs tabletops, swabs glasses, and robs bandits. In the company of his wife, the mysterious ex-soldier Jin Grewler, he’s–well, maybe not respected. Maybe tolerated is the right word.

Things change when Jin’s past comes to call in the form of a Bonedancer, fighting scourge of the Imperial South. Before they know it, Aurian and Jin are burning their inn and running for the woods to flee from the consequences of whatever the hell it is Jin has done this time.

But what has Jin done? As they flee, Aurian begins to realize there’s more to the story–and to his wife–than simple crime. Their choices will affect not only their own fortunes, but the fortunes of the entire Imperial South.

TAGLINE: A novel about magic, the nature of power, and a disembodied head with a lovely singing voice.

Mrf. Mrfphlfrrhurr. IT IS DONE. I’m a real girl now.