Top Ten!

Wow! Over the weekend, The Sword of the Magi cracked Amazon’s top ten in the cyberpunk category. This is amazing. Obviously, first, I have to say thank you to the fans. This wouldn’t have happened without you. An extra thank-you to the fans who have posted reviews! Remember to sign up for the mailing list to receive notice about the upcoming sequel, A Heaven for Demons, and opportunities to receive an advanced copy.

Cyberpunk has had an interesting history. I grew up on Gibson in the 1980s. “Fragments of a Hologram Rose” and “Burning Chrome” are two of my favorite short stories of all time, regardless of genre. And then in the 90s, of course, I encountered Stephenson – and never forgot Hiro Protagonist. But cyberpunk has really expanded since then.

If you take a look at Amazon’s list of best-selling cyberpunk novels, you’ll see everything from space opera to transhumanism to scifi spoofs. The emphasis is definitely on cyber and less on punk; Gibson’s sprawl and Shadowrun’s spiky hair are less important than anything with an integrated circuit.

That makes sense. Cyber is everywhere in our lives now, so why shouldn’t cyberpunk leave behind its grunge roots and go mainstream?

Cyborgs are everywhere. People with IV ports, pacemakers, headsets, glass. Designer babies aren’t just a possibility. Music, sports, communication, everything comes to us through cyberspace now. It’s not the province of a small segment of society like it was when I joined my first Compuserve forum back in 1984. So – naturally – cyberpunk is a big-tent phenomenon too. That’s too bad for some of the .info Bryces who loved being l33t and viewed the internet as a positional good, but it’s good news for anyone who likes art. Yeats talked about Byzantium being a time where man was closest to unifying artifice, nature, and religion, but it seems to me that now is to Byzantium as ten is to one for that sort of unification.

A Heaven for Demons: Against the Magi book 2 Teasers

A Heaven for Demons is still on schedule for a release this spring. I can’t wait to share the continuing adventures of Silas and Feather with you. So I’m not going to wait! At least, I’m not going to wait completely. Here are a few teasers about the upcoming book:

Sheila 3.0! (I mean really, do you even need to keep reading?)

Relationships are pushed to the limit, and Harriman continues to insist that in the future, all human interaction will be digital.

More secrets of the Sword are revealed…

We head back to India. For India! Also Paris, Hong Kong, and Eudaemon Arabia. That last one has a fascinating history involving the Roman-Indian trade links, and it plays an echoing role – and a titular one – in AHFD.

Thought identification. Let’s not call it mind-reading just yet. But thought identification is coming…

Stay tuned for Book 2!

Meet My Character Blog Hop

Welcome to the January 11th stop on the Meet My Character Blog Hop!

Thanks to Harry Manners for hosting the previous stop on the Blog Hop. Visit his website at to read all about his ultra-cool novel Ruin. The book gives me a Canticle for Leibowitz vibe, and Harry has told me that Canticle is one of his favorites. Top top it all off, Harry’s studying physics at university right now – and I happen to have finished up my own physics degree, and worked in a couple of national labs, quite a few years ago. May the dp/dt be with you, Harry!

Meet My Character!

1) What is the name of your character? Is he or she fictional or a historic person?

I’m going to cheat (I prefer to call it re-engineering the Kobayashi-Maru) and talk about two characters because they’re dual protagonists in my first novel, The Sword of the Magi.

The characters are Silas Brace and his adopted daughter Feather.

2) When and where is the story set?

The story is set in the current day, largely on India’s Malabar Coast but also in fantastic locations such as Mount Athos in Greece, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and Washington, DC.

3) What should we know about him or her?

Silas and Feather have been surviving on the run from the US government – and others – for the past seven years.

Silas met Feather when she was the object of his US special forces mission to infiltrate a North Korean genetics lab. Rather than turn her over to the authorities, Silas adopted Feather, then age eleven. Feather is the only known success of several North Korean-Venezuelan genetics experiments, and she has intelligence, quickness, speed, and accuracy matched by only a handful of others on the planet.

Feather’s tortured past has left her emotionally stunted, even now at age eighteen. Silas has been driven to the breaking point trying to help his daughter heal.

4) What is the main conflict? What messes up his or her life?

Feather was born and trained to be an operative, but Silas has long resisted that. Without any other options to help Feather heal, he finally takes a job smuggling archeological artifacts down India’s Malabar Coast and agrees to let Feather be his partner.

During the job, Feather is separated from her father, and they are attacked by Islamic militants. They soon realize that they’ve uncovered a map to an artifact that could change the course of human history, and they are in a race against the militants, and their own governments, to find it.

5) What is the personal goal of the character?

Silas’s personal goal is to help Feather heal and, if possible, become happy. At first, Feather’s only goal is animalistic survival, but as she grows through the book, her goal evolves into “be as close to normal as possible.”

6) What is the title of the book, and where can find out more?

The book is called The Sword of the Magi. You can buy it here.

7) When was the book published?

Jan 1, 2015.

I hope you enjoyed reading a little about my characters!

Next week’s host is CN Crawford. CN Crawford is actually two people who work together crafting novels. Their book, The Witching Elm, came out this Christmas season and has racked up some very impressive reviews. Check it out!

Thick Thrillers and the Rewards of Close Reading

Kurt Vonnegut said that a reviewer who attacks a novel is like someone who puts on full armor to attack a hot fudge sundae. I agree with that sentiment. But I also think some hot fudge sundaes are more satisfying than others.

When is a novel extra delicious? To me, it’s when I can sink my teeth into the novel – or when a novel sinks its teeth into me. I think the best fiction is vampiric. It feeds off of the reader, and the reader feeds off of the fiction.

Let’s look at what makes a thriller full-blooded and thick, something that rewards the time invested in reading it.

The main feature of a ‘thick thriller’ is that it provokes thought without demanding conclusions. Keats called this ‘negative capability.’ Take Clarice’s relationship with Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. What price is worth paying for the lambs’ silence? Is she justified in dealing with one monster to catch another? The book does not force you to choose.

Speculation gets the job done too. Real speculation, not some hokey science where suddenly someone’s a perfect telepath or a ‘scientist’ invents a way to freeze time. Take Daniel Suarez’s titular Daemon. How close is that to happening? Would society splinter in the way he envisions? The novel places itself on the razor’s edge and explores how the things would fall.

Two more: character and moral choices. A moral choice doesn’t have to imply ambiguity. But something with a real moral choice gives the reader some brain food. Ditto for characters. A book that provides insight into human character gains an extra layer that thinner books lack. One way to do this is to double your characters: make the bad guy and the good guy mirror images of each other in many respects, doubles for each other, so that when they do turn out differently, the character reasons are highlighted. Tom Riddle and the Boy Who Lived are doubles for each other. So are Tyler and the Fight Club narrator, or Jekyll and Hyde.

And there’s always plain old cleverness. Give me a bon mot, a fresh spin on an old image, a wise observation about the state of the world. I’m easy. It’s a hot fudge sundae, for goodness sakes!

Just don’t make it so thin that it tastes like paper. I want a book that I can savor, that I can look at closely and find ever finer details to treasure.

public domain - NASA

Cracking the Top 100!

I’m delighted that The Sword of the Magi is currently #28 on Amazon’s Hot New Releases for technothrillers. Thanks to everyone who has contributed to the success.

This is probably an appropriate place to put a few things I’ve learned from the process of writing and publishing the book, so here we go (keeping in mind I have a lot more to learn!).

1) 3rd person limited POV rules. WAY back in high school, I don’t remember this POV ever being taught. There was 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person, but 3rd person was always presented as author omniscient. This leads to head hopping. Although some successful authors do head hop (Catherine Coulter hops into my head as one such), they do it very sparingly. 3rd person limited is basically as limiting and almost as intimate as 1st person, but it doesn’t jar the reader when you jump narrators at a chapter break. I cant’ get into a Patterson book, for example, that mixes 1st and 3rd.

2) Writing efficiently and quickly is key. There is so much else to do – marketing, publishing (formatting, cover, uploading, etc.), learning craft, life – that writing fast is super important. I can’t say I’m a fast writer, unfortunately. Yet. Will be working on that!

3) Readers are forgiving. I heard Lee Child talk about how people would email him and pick on things like, “You screwed up in your newest Jack Reacher novel. You can’t pump your own gas in New Jersey like Jack does on p. 200, you moron!” But honestly, it seems that readers might complain about stuff like that, but it doesn’t stop them from buying books. Nonetheless, I still think big errors – like taking a chemical rocket from Earth to Jupiter in four days – would still depress sales.

4) Genre is king. If fiction were college football, romance would be the SEC (well, except maybe this year). I think it would take an extraordinary horror book to have the success that a simply good romance book can have these days (maybe not from King, but from a previously unknown author).

5) Kboards Writers’ Cafe board is awesome. I have learned a lot there. Also, I recommend James Scott Bell’s advice, and the blog he contributes to,

6) Perspective. Success isn’t worth the work, in my opinion, if you don’t have someone to share it with. This can come into play with point #2 above. I’m in a slightly different position than a lot of debut authors. I don’t want to give up my day job. On top of that, I love spending time with my family. That puts writing lower on the priority list, and that makes writing efficiently even more important. In a future post, I’ll try to post some tricks and tips to get the most out of your time and still write thoughtful, meaningful stories without spending all day staring at a blank word processor screen.

The Sword of the Magi now available

I just published The Sword of the Magi over at Amazon. I put it in the KDP Select program, meaning that you can only get it through Amazon for the next ninety days. Because it’s my first book in this genre and under this name, the extra publicity from KDP Select will be worth it. At least, that’s the thinking. After 90 days, the book will probably go on sale everywhere.

I’m excited. New adventures await!

Updates and notices:

1) If you’re interested in a review copy of The Sword of the Magi, let me know.

2) Progress meter on the sequel, A Heaven for Demons, is at 90% plotted, 5% written. That’s up from 85% plotted, 1% written last week.

3) Progress meters on various short stories that I plan to release under this name are as follows: 3 one-off short stories are at 100%, Feather Origin story #1 is at 10%, Silas Origin story #1 is at 25%.

4) Don’t forget to join the mailing list.

5) Happy New Year!

The Sword of the Magi cover

Here’s the cover for my new thriller! The folks over at ebooklaunch made it for me.

That’s Silas Brace and his daughter Feather running through St. Paul’s Monastery on Mount Athos in Greece. I’ve loved the monasteries in Greece as a thriller setting ever since seeing James Bond storm a Meteora monastery in For Your Eyes Only. Mount Athos outdoes Meteora, in my opinion. Read about it and get ready for a treat when Silas and Feather visit St. Paul’s in The Sword of the Magi. We’re talking wingsuits, recoilless riles, stealth helicopters, and a VW minibus that makes Bond’s Aston Martin look like a Hot Wheels toy. Buy your copy as soon as it hits the marketplace. Only a few more days until release!

Fine Points: Etymology and homographs for thriller writers

I love it when I come across a word that sings in three or four different voices at once. Thriller writers don’t do enough of this!

They do use etymology and homographs in names. Take Greg Rucka’s excellent Alpha. The protagonist’s daughter is Athena, and she is called Gray Eyes. In one swoop, Rucka invests the daughter with a striking physical quality, wisdom, and martial prowess. The mythological Athena’s children are also said to have gray eyes – this myth helps to put our larger-than-life novel hero, Athena’s dad, up on a suitably heroic pedestal. Finally, one common Greek word for Athena’s epithet “gray-eyed” was glaukopis. One modern word we have that shares the “glaukos” root (gray), is glaucoma, a group of eye diseases that can lead to vision impairment. In the novel, our Athena is deaf. Is it too much of a stretch to say that this etymological doubling was purposeful? Probably! (Though I don’t know Greg, and he seems pretty thorough – so – maybe?) But purposeful or not, it is there, and it is delicious to note as you read through the book.

Another delicious name freighted with multiple meanings is MR Carey’s lead from The Girl with All the Gifts. Her name is Melanie. No need to wonder here. Melanie muses upon her own name’s meaning in the book – a passage which is in keeping with both the book’s and Melanie’s self-consciousness. Melanie means dark, and boy is she. Melanin – same root as Melanie – is a skin pigment that is associated with mutations, and she’s one of those, too (mutations, not pigments). The question here is why she wasn’t named Pandora, like the book is (Pandora means the all-gifted). Maybe the book isn’t really about her? Fun to think about.

So much for names. But at the granular word-by-word level, I am often disappointed in my fellow thriller writers. Of course, they’re far better at diction than so-called ‘literary fiction’ writers, whose purpose isn’t emotional evocation but peer puffery.  Still, there is room for improvement: these etymological or homographic issues have all thrown me off at one time or another:

1. Enormous – Big, but also heinous. I get thrown when I see “enormous ice cream cone” if it’s supposed to be yummy ice cream. Enormous things are big and bad, not big and good.

2. Arrive – Thrillers tend to take place in exotic locales. Meetings in the middle of the ocean or in a space station shouldn’t use “arrive,” which means (etymologically) “to the shore.”

3. Deliver – Means (again etymologically) to set free. Please don’t deliver a man to jail! I’ve seen it written that way. I still have the scars.

4. Fire a weapon – Should only be used with weapons that actually require fire, like the earliest firearms, or, arguably, their direct descendants. Firing an arrow is just silly.

5. Orchid – Plant’s name means testicles. Jarring when someone writes that a housewife spent the day admiring her girlfriend’s orchids.

Better stop now. I mean, it’s not the biggest thing, right? It’s a fine point. You can have a great book while committing all kinds of errors, etymological and otherwise (front of the line in this is always Sister Carrie, amirite?).

But how delicious is it when the multiple meanings, whether etymological, homographical, or something else-ical, all converge and harmonize? It’s super delicious, that’s how delicious it is. I lurves it. I wants more of it. Let’s go, thriller writers.

Here’s a valedictory example. Look at Joss Whedon’s script for The Avengers when Loki confronts Agent Coulson. Coulson tells Loki that Loki is going to lose because he lacks conviction. He even pauses before saying “conviction,” and you can hear in that pause Joss saying listen up, everyone, I’m about to lay the literary smack down. And he does. OMG he does. The use of the word ‘conviction’ right there is awesome, easily on par with the famous ‘buckle’ from Hopkins’s “The Windhover” or “offices” from Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays.” I get chills. Look at the meanings: con- gives us togetherness, which the heroes have – this is a superhero team movie – but Loki lacks; faith, which Loki is a twisted, poor reflection of when compared to Thor, despite Loki’s efforts at instilling faith throughout the movie; vict- from vincere, to conquer, which obviously; legality, playing on the law vs chaos theme; religion, which reflects the religion-and-science theme (look at the origins of the Avengers selected for this movie: almost all science, while one is a god); binding, as the themes are all bound together in that one word. The craftsmanship was beautiful. I want to see more of it.

Background image – Ken Billington, CC BY-SA 3.0

Notes on the Monomyth and the Stan Lee Literary Revolution

Some thoughts are venerated beyond their due. One is Clarke’s contention that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Thanks for pointing that out, Arthur. I really thought if I gave a caveman a rail gun he’d come up with Maxwell’s equations instead of A Wizard Did It. Or von Clausewitz’s famous idea that war is an expression of politics by other means. Duh. He could at least have written in English that swordplay was an extension of wordplay! Right? I know. And there’s a third C to add to Clarke and von Clausewitz: Campbell. As in Joseph Campbell.

Everybody knows that Campbell detailed the monomyth, a single Hero’s Journey myth form that repeats throughout literary history and across cultures. But then he gives 17 different aspects of the myth and says that not all stories that fit the monomyth archetype must contain all 17 aspects.

That’s a lot of wiggle room.

In other words, Duh. I mean, a hero’s a hero. A story about a hero is likely going to have certain elements because to be a hero, you have to, you know, be a hero.

But there’s a distinction within the Campbell mythic structure that doesn’t get enough attention. This is the distinction between the Christian myth, where the source of the hero’s suffering is the hero’s power itself, and the Greek myth, where the source of the hero’s suffering is separate from the hero’s power.

Take Odysseus. He doesn’t suffer because he possesses legendary cunning; he suffers in spite of that. Or look at Achilles. His thousand pains in the Iliad are not hurled upon him because he’s a great warrior but because he’s an ass (and so are most of his friends). Alcestis and Admetus both suffer because of the pride of a goddess and because Admetus considers women chattel, not because Admetus is a powerful Argonaut.

But then look at Christ. He suffers precisely because he _is_ a superhero, the Son of God. Because he can work miracles, he must suffer. The Romans don’t crucify him because he was too proud or because he forgot to make a sacrifice to Artemis; they crucify him because his power is a threat to them. Other prophets in the Judeo-Christian religion fit this description, too. Think of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Their superpower – faith – is also the source of their pain.

This is an important distinction because of the way that heroic literature has gone in the West since Stan Lee. Before Stan Lee you had heroes in the Greek mold, heroes whose reason for suffering was distinct from what made them heroic. Superman – beginning in the 1940s – suffered from kryptonite, not because he was a god among men. Hornblower’s isolation and self-doubt make him suffer, but he is not great because of these qualities. Holmes had his vices, but none were identical with his ratiocinative faculties. Rather, these faculties were a source of comfort to him, and he was pained when he did _not_ have the chance to exercise them. Tarzan is a tricky but illustrative example. Instead of his situation bestowing upon him both pain and extraordinary power, the King of the Apes is portrayed throughout the novel as benefiting from his status as noble savage. While many of Tarzan’s challenges arise because of the same origin and nature that give him superhuman powers – part of the genius of the novel – these challenges are not fonts of existential pain but mere toys with which Tarzan can demonstrate his savage superiority.

And then look what Stan Lee did, and what he does not get enough credit for. He turned from the Greek version of the monomyth to the Judeo-Christian one. His quintessential hero, Peter Parker, experiences depths of anguish because of his superpowers. Would he feel guilt over not stopping his uncle’s killer if he had not been able to stop him, that is, if he did not have superpowers? Would he be as torn over his relationship with Mary Jane if he did not have superpowers? Would he be in trouble constantly with his boss JJJ if he did not have superpowers? No, no, and no. The source of Spider-Man’s pain is his existence as Spider-Man. This is fundamentally different from the heroic journeys seen before. Lee did the same thing with characters like the Hulk and the X-Men.

It is difficult to overstate the influence of the Lee revolution. Buffy is the perfect example. Her angst is deeper than the Hellmouth, and it’s all because she’s the Slayer. If she didn’t have superpowers, she wouldn’t have problems – at least, nothing of the soul-wrenching, family-threatening sort she is put through. Not only that, but _every_ slayer is like that in the Buffyverse. Before Buffy, they all died sooner or later, simply because they were Slayers. It’s a superpowered life, but because of those superpowers, it’s a painful and doomed one. Many, many other heroes have followed this Christian monomyth archetype since the Stan Lee revolution, ranging from Hellboy to Katniss to Edward Cullen to Thomas Covenant. Even Harry Potter, for example, when he breaks up with Ginny to protect her from Voldemort. If he hadn’t been The Boy Who Lived, if he hadn’t had the power to defeat Voldemort, he would not have had to endure that pain.

I suppose that you could say something about the Stan Lee Revolution and our view of ourselves. You could say that the shift in hero types has paralleled our change in opinions regarding technology. Technology once solved problems, only; nowadays it is often viewed as the source of the problem. Another, more fruitful way to look at it may be in light of the increasing power developing in the hands of individuals as civilization has progressed. Superpowers aren’t just fun and games anymore when you’re the one who has them.