Monday, 11 September 2017

Short Story News, September 2017

Well, it has to be said that 2017 is turning into a horrible year for short story sales, which is frustrating to say the least, if only because I'm pretty sure that I'm sending out some of the best fiction I've ever written.  But the compensation is that, for the moment at least, I still have stuff coming out in some very cool venues.

Taking things in reverse order, May saw my somewhat Lovecraftian, somewhat Howardesque sword and sorcery story Now That All the Heroes Are Dead come out from Read Short Fiction.  It's a thoroughly screwed-up tale, if I do say so, with a lot of subtext about who generally ends up doing the dirty work and why, in fantasy worlds or elsewhere; I guess the clue's at least partly there in the title.  Anyway, it's fairly short and it's free to read, so why not take a look?  And if you never quite trust traditional sword and sorcery stories afterwards then don't blame me, they were never that trustworthy in the first place.

Next we have my only comics work of the year, and something that's been slowly coalescing for absolutely years, mine and my C21st Gods co-creator Anthony Summey's short strip Conservationists in this year's Futurequake anthology.  I've already talked about this one quite a bit, so I'll just add that as of last month it's available on Comixology at a really reasonable price - see here - and that I was hugely pleased to come across a review that singled Conservationists out.  I was convinced no-one would get this one, what with dialogue-free alien invasion stories with animals as protagonists not exactly being a major subgenre, so it's nice that at least one reader responded to what Anthony and I cooked up.

(Speaking of reviews: there have been a few for Horror Library volume 6, but the only one I managed to keep a note of was this one, for reasons that will become apparent if you read it.  All right, yeah, the reviewer picks Casualty of Peace as their favourite story in the collection.  But it's also a really thorough review, so there.)


July also saw my personal highlight for this year on the short fiction front, my second appearance in a Flame Tree Publishing anthology.  I can't stress how stupidly gorgeous these are!  I suspect my biggest regret when I die will be that I didn't somehow figure out a way to wrangle a story into every single one of them, because they're some of the nicest books I've ever seen; at any rate, to be in not one but two of them has been a huge thrill.  This time around, it's The Sign in the Moonlight - lead story of the eponymous short story collection - in their Lost Worlds collection, and I'm up against such vaguely prestigious sorts as Arthur Conan Doyle, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Rudyard Kipling and H. Rider Haggard.  Oh, and those Howard and Lovecraft blokes I plugged earlier.  Seriously though, these books are absolutely fantastic, and if you're into classic genre fiction then you owe it to yourself to track them down.

Which brings us up to the present day, and the podcasting of my flash horror piece My Friend Fishfinger by Daisy Aged 7 at 
YA market Cast of Wonders.  As much as I was ever so slightly disappointed that they didn't manage to find an actual seven year old girl to read it, I'm happy to settle for Head Editor Marguerite Kenner's take; as I pointed out to her afterwards, I know how hard it is to read this grammatically challenged little story out loud, and Marguerite does a fine job.  You can hear it here.

Lastly, I have a couple more stories pending at what's basically my authorial home now, Digital Fiction Publishing - those being Twitcher on the horror front, first published in Pseudopod, and SF story Free Radical, which appeared in the Second Contacts anthology a year or two back.  Sad to say, with me now slush-reading on both the fantasy and science-fiction sides, I've had to bar myself from submitting due to the blatant conflict of interest!  Still, it's been a heck of a run, and I'm really proud to have so much work with what's become, out of nowhere, the most consistently excellent reprint market around.  And yeah, I'm horrendously biased, but that doesn't make it any the less true.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Writing Ramble: On Invisible Words (Pt. 1)

A few weeks ago, I was discussing editing with a couple of writer friends, and the conversation came round to the topic of overusing common words.  The consensus seemed to be that such words were effectively rendered invisible, and so it didn't matter how frequently they cropped up; their very familiarity would let them slip under the radar.

Now, I won't say that's not true; for many readers, I'm sure it is.  Get engaged enough in a story and it'll take more than an overabundance of speech tags to drag you out of it, or even eight uses of a word like "look" or "then" or "but" on a page.  But it's certainly not universally true, and I say this as someone who was taken to task by an editor last year (quite rightly!) for abusing a certain popular pronoun - or, more recently, by a reviewer for over-reliance of a word just uncommon enough to stand out.

The lesson I learned the hard way was, however invisible you might think a word - or phrase, or stylistic tick - is, if you overuse it enough, there'll always be someone out there who'll call you on the fact.  So, in honour of that eagle-eyed reader, here are four reasons that overusing words, even ones so common that they hardly register, may not be such a great idea...

- If They're invisible, Why Have Them?
Look, I don't mean to be invisibilist here, I've seen enough movies to know that invisible people can make meaningful contributions to society.  But I'm not convinced that's so true of words.  "Said" is a fine example here: I've heard it claimed that no matter how many "he said"s and "she said"s you throw at a reader, they'll never tire, purely because the phrase is so fundamental that it goes ignored.  I beg to differ - in fact, I'd argue that ending every line of dialogue with a speech tag makes your writing look like it belongs to a five year old! - but that's beside the present point.  If the reader's going to ignore those speech tags, what are they doing but taking up space?  If you're getting paid by the word then fair enough, but if not then maybe they'd be better stripped down to a point where they're actually serving some useful purpose.
- Bad Habits Become Worse Habits Become Bad Writing
Nine times out of ten, you overuse a word or phrase because it's easy to do so; that's the first word or phrase that comes to mind in a particular context, and you're rushing, and there it goes, the fifth "only" or "even" or "however" of the page.  But good writing and easy writing are in many ways polar opposites, and the habit of accumulating favourite words and even sentences may give you a recognizable style, but it'll be a recognizably crappy one.  Soon enough you're writing everything according to the same rhythms, with similarly shaped paragraphs and dialogue that follows the same patterns and not a jot of energy or variety left anywhere.  Of course, you're probably hugely successful, because I've just described every hack writer ever, but who cares about that, right?  Formulaic writing might put food on the table, but challenging yourself - um - probably feeds the soul or something.
- My Invisible Isn't Your Invisible
Okay, so this is basically the point I made in the introduction, but it bears repeating: reading habits vary wildly, and what you think is perfectly fine might be just what's guaranteed to leave an editor frothing at the mouth.  Here's an example: I recently read a story where the author leaned heavily on comma splices; you know, those sentences missing a crucial coordinating conjunction that Word loves to stick green lines under.  One or two, or even one or two a page, would have passed unnoticed, but once I noticed that they were cropping up like clockwork they became so hard to ignore that they were all I could see.  And really, the last thing you want as a writer is to have stylistic ticks that are so obvious they're all the reader notices.
- Just Because A Word Works That Doesn't Make it the Right Word
The more you favour certain words in the assumption that they'll slip under the radar, the more likely you are to try and fill square holes with round pegs.  There's a lot to be said for taking extra time to really dig through the thesaurus in search of that word that actually means what you're after, instead of making do with one that's more or less in the right ballpark and hey no-one's going to notice anyway right?  Making the quick and easy choices can leave a reader puzzled, and trust me when I say that as a slush-reader it's a colossal turn-off to realise that a writer's gone for the lazy word choices every time at the expense of clarity, detail and complexity.  Once you're tuned into that, it gets really hard to miss, and all those supposedly invisible words that are either doing nothing or taking up space that could go to really useful words begin to stand out like so many sore thumbs.
Now, this is obviously all just my somewhat warped perspective, and I'm conscious that a lot of that warping was done by the fact that I seem to have spent most of this year editing rather than writing, and now I can't read a license plate without hunting for typos.  Still, I think that the basic points are sound: overusing words, especially because you've persuaded yourself that no-one will notice, is a risky business, and one that's sure to bite you in the ass.  Or see you landing a multi-million pound contract.  But definitely one or the other!


And in part two, if and when I find the time and energy to write it, I'll go over some of what I've personally been up to track down those darn invisible (and not so invisible) words...

Monday, 21 August 2017

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 27

I suppose a reasonable goal at this point would be one really excellent title per post, right?  So I guess we're on target with this month's batch.  And yet, twenty-seven posts in, there's something curiously dissatisfying about pointing out time and again that a great deal of nineties anime was just fine if you like that sort of thing.  The problem is, I've exhausted all the stuff that can be picked up really cheaply, and when you're spending proper money on a DVD you tend to steer away from anything that looks like it might be truly abysmal.  Yet truly abysmal nineties anime is a heck of a lot of fun to review.  It's a quandary, all right!

This time, then: Green Legend Ran, Urusei Yatsura Movie 6: Always My Darling, Moldiver and Tokyo Babylon...

Green Legend Ran, 1992, dir: Satoshi Saga

What strikes you first with Green Legend Ran is the look of the thing.  The character designs are damn near as simple as you can get; there's something distinctly nostalgic about them, and while my knowledge of anime gets shaky once we get before the eighties, I suspect they're purposefully calling back to an era a decade or two earlier.  Taken in isolation, they're childish, almost, with big, expressive features even by anime standards.  But then there are the backgrounds, which are up to an altogether different game, with the faded, nostalgic quality of old photographs.  And if that combination wasn't enough, add a palette that never really gets beyond four shades and favors warm but muted colours: ochers, sandy browns, oranges and lilacs.  So that when we get a burst of primary colour - like, say, the red of blood - it comes as all the more of a shock.  But frankly, those backgrounds and designs would achieve much the same affect: one minute you're lulled into the sense that you're watching a remarkably well-animated, intelligent Saturday morning kids cartoon and the next something startlingly violent is happening, and the impact never really lessens, not even by the end of a hefty two hour and twenty minute runtime.

And here we are and I haven't even begun to mention the plot.  Then again, you're probably better going into Green Legend Ran not knowing any more than you have to.  Suffice to say that it's the future, and as if humanity's own destruction of our environment hasn't buggered things up sufficiently, we subsequently find ourselves dealing with the Rodo, inscrutable monoliths that fell from space and now mark the only green spots on an otherwise barren world.  The pedagogic Rodoists see this as a reason for worship, while the terrorist organisation Hazard is more interested in breaking the system and maybe putting something more equitable in its place.  Of course our young hero Ran falls in with the latter rather than the former, because nineties anime, and it's not that much more surprising when he encounters a mysterious girl with silver hair who may or may not have something to do with...

But no, that's enough.  After its look, (and maybe after its remarkably well-developed cast of characters), Green Legend Ran's plot is its biggest asset, a twisty, turny tale that perhaps gets the little details more right than the big ones but nevertheless stays smart and engaging from beginning to end.  It's a little bit Dune and a little bit Nausicaa, but also very much its own thing, which as I may have noted once or twice before now is hardly a given with nineties anime.  Good music and capable direction are more to be relied on, but again Green Legend Ran excels.  Perfectly named director Saga hasn't done much since, though he's kept in steady work; on the strength of his astute, distinctive storytelling here, he deserves better.  Composer Yôichiro Yoshikawa really hasn't had much of a subsequent career, which is startling: his score, heavy on the synth and guitars, is remarkably ahead of its time, and there are some fantastic pieces in there, like the grinding industrial theme that accompanies an early action scene.

If it's not obvious by now, Green Legend Ran comes highly recommended.  I'm not sure yet if it's absolutely top tier work - and maybe your own reaction will depend on how much you take to those very distinctive character designs - but it's definitely a rare treat: adult genre fiction told with skill, imagination and lavish technical values.  What's more, thanks to a US re-release from Sentai Filmworks early this year, it's not even hard to find in a great print.

Urusei Yatsura Movie 6: Always My Darling, 1991, dir: Katsuhisa Yamada

The astute imaginary reader may notice something amiss here: wasn't the last Urusei Yatsura movie I reviewed number 4, and doesn't that suggest we've skipped over one?  The answers are yes and yes, but there's method to my madness: movie 5, the aptly titled The Final Chapter, is generally considered to be the true end of the series, and what we have here - made to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the show's first airing - is a mere humble side story, with scant regard for continuity.

This is an important fact: of all of the movies so far, number six has the absolute least interest in reinventing the Urusei Yatsura wheel.  In fact, having only seen the first four films and none of the series, even I can tell that this is very much the franchise playing hard to its audience.  Even within the scope of those four films, the story feels derivative, particularly of the first.  Our antagonist of sorts this time around is Lupica - "another one of the space princesses that all seem to have found out about Earth in some tour book", as the DVD sleeve notes wryly observe - and her equal parts nefarious and nonsensical scheme involves kidnapping Ataru because he's the most lecherous being in the universe and so the only one capable of stealing the most potent love potion in creation, which she needs to snag her childhood sweetheart, a tofu salesman who travels the spaceways on a bicycle.

The goal here couldn't be any more clearly to make something for the fans that is in all ways Yurusei Yatsura and which doesn't screw the pooch.  The animation is solid if unspectacular, with some inoffensive tweaks to the character designs to acknowledge the fact that animation in 1991 was a somewhat different beast to animation in 1981, and there's a conspicuous straightforwardness to series newcomer Yamada's* direction; he's quite happy just to keep things fast paced and funny.  Which does highlight the one big advantage to an entry determined to not mess with the formula of one of the all-time great anime comedies: it actually has good jokes.  This is the first of these movies that I found myself laughing out loud at, rather than chuckling wryly (or, in the case of Beautiful Dreamer, cringing in existential terror.)

And that, I think, is about all you need to know.  Compared to the first four entries, this one feels notably unambitious, until you realise that just trying really hard not to mess up is a form of ambition in itself.  And if the result is a dispensable entry, it's also the most sheerly entertaining since the original, which wasn't half so funny.  If you've liked any of the others, there's certainly no reason to skip this one, and if you're just curious as to what all the fuss was about all those many years ago then Always My Darling is actually a pretty good Yurusei Yatsura entry point, certainly more so than the last films in long-running franchises tend to be.

Moldiver, 1993, dir's: Takeshi Aoki, Hirohide Fujiwara, Hiroyuki Kitazume, Kenji Miyashita, Tarô Mozaiku, Yasunori Urata

If we were being generous, we could point out that parody doesn't always transcend national borders very well.  But I think that's giving Moldiver too much credit: fair enough, the whole magical girl phenomena never entirely caught on in the west, but we sure as heck have no lack of superheroes, and you'd think that a show that tries to skewer both would stand a fair chance of reaching an international audience.  Not to mention the fact that Moldiver's premise feels at least halfway to something great: genius inventor Hiroshi invents the Mol-unit, an interdimensional supersuit, with the goal of getting up to some stereotypical superheroics, and he manages just that until his sister Mirai figures out his secret and decides that his costume could do with a more feminine touch.  The result is that Tokyo's latest defender, the titular Moldiver, keeps transforming between male superhero and female magic girl forms and - well, that's funny, right?

Sure, potentially.  But Moldiver seems curiously uncommitted to its central gag.  After a couple of episodes, Hiroshi gives up on the superheroing altogether in favour of letting Mirai take over, the suit more or less settles into its female identity, and - aside from an episode in which Mirai abuses her powers to try and meet up with a hot guy, oblivious to the villains turning the city upside down trying to kill her - we're left with something fairly conventional.  Though conventionality, it turns out, isn't the same as comprehensibility; I never did work out exactly what the main villain's agenda was beyond the fact that he liked collecting rare stuff, and by the time Hiroshi and Mirai's younger brother joined the fray on the side of evil I was entirely lost.  In fairness, that probably had something to do with the dire subtitling; I don't understand a great deal of Japanese, but I've picked up enough to know when I'm being lied to, and my bullshit radar was going haywire throughout Moldiver.

With a rambling plot that keeps forgetting it's meant to be amusing, we're left with plenty of time to get to grips with the animation and design, which - guess what! - aren't up to much either.  The former tends towards the shabby, while only rarely dipping into total awfulness, and for some reason the fourth episode is actually pretty solid; the latter copes well with machines and costumes but nosedives with the flesh and blood humans.  Mirai, in particular, looks like a peanut with giant eyes, and is among the least appealing anime protagonists I've seen.  And then there's the score, which is notable mostly for how brazenly it lifts from a couple of very recognizable pieces by a certain John Williams bloke you might have heard of.

None of which, I suppose, makes Moldiver bad exactly.  I'll say this in its favour: I had an eye infection while I was watching it, and were that not the case, I'm sure I'd have found it tolerable enough.  It bounces along in the way that a lot of not so great anime does, and it's certainly no worse that something like, say, Twin Signal.  Though when the closest you can get to praise is "it's no worse than Twin Signal", I suppose it might be better to admit that you aren't really trying.

Tokyo Babylon, 1992, dir: Kôichi Chigira

You know what, Clamp are growing on me.  As I've mentioned here before, I'd taken a disliking to adaptations based on the all-female manga creators' group based on not much beside the fact that I loathed their character designs: that means faces so pointy as to be practically triangular, eyes that are impossibly wide and everyone pretty much looking like a teenage girl, for the uninitiated.  And I probably won't ever love it, but the more of their work I come across, the more I appreciate that they became huge for a reason: that being, they told really good stories.**

Case in point, Tokyo Babylon, which looks a great deal like any number of other titles on the surface: a psychic detective investigates supernatural mishaps in the city of Tokyo, which must have had more ghosts and demons in the mid-nineties per square metre than any capital city on Earth.  But the devil's in the details and all that, and Clamp's effort is just that bit better than so much of the competition: the two OVAs here have real stories that you can't guess from the first five minutes and real characters that it's easy to root for, or to boo as the case may be.  In a subgenre with a tendency towards being repetitive and shallow even at its best, Tokyo Babylon is that bit more involved and sophisticated, telling tales that are actually fresh and intriguing.

That's the good news - and it's good news that probably has more to do with the manga that with this anime, thinking about it.  Because the not so good news is just about everything else, to a greater or lesser extent.  Don't get me wrong, there's nothing terrible here, and not even really anything bad.  And, okay, I'd be lying if I said that Kôichi Chigira's direction didn't have a few real moments, especially in the second episode: there's a striking flashback sequence and a scene that uses colour in a way I've never seen before, so I'd hardly write him off as a hack.  But there's no disguising a lack of budget, and the animation rarely rises above so-so, while the music is all over the place, down to a closing theme for episode one in slightly muddled English that's - well, nothing if not unique, let us say kindly.

I don't want to be too dismissive here, because it really was nice to watch two episodes that functioned so well as original short films, given proper space to breath and to develop, and I enjoyed them both a fair bit.  But at the same time, I think it's unlikely that Tokyo Babylon is a title I'll revisit; there just isn't the artistry here to warrant a second viewing once you know all the narrative ins and outs.  I'll say this, though, if there had been more of Tokyo Babylon - as there was clearly intended to be, given one particular loose thread that's left hanging - I'd be seeking it out post haste.  But then where would nineties anime have been if most of the really promising shows hadn't been killed in the crib, eh?

-oOo-

That was another very average selection wasn't it?  Certainly nothing was dreadful - I already suspect I was too harsh to Moldiver - and as much as I dug Green Legend Ran, I'd feel guilty declaring it a lost classic.  Well, maybe not that guilty, it really is damn good and you should seek it out, but still.  And that just leaves us Tokyo Babylon and Always My Darling sitting comfortably in the "hey, why not?" category.

All of which makes me long again for the extremes of earlier posts!  Sadly, I fear this may be the hinterland we're stuck in until I finally give up on this whole mad venture; there's not much on the to-watch shelf that I have real hopes for, and only one title that promises to be seriously abysmal.  Hmm, maybe I ought to devote a whole post to the bewildering dreadfulness that M. D. Geist II promises to be?  That could work...




[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23Part 24Part 25, Part 26]



* Yamada, incidentally, has one of the most fascinating CVs I've ever seen.  Not only did he direct the legendary show Gatchaman (better known in the west as Battle of the Planets), he worked on a couple of Western childhood favourites too, namely The Last Unicorn and Flight of the Dragons.

** Or because lots of manga readers in the nineties wanted stories about men who looked like teenage girls.  Which, thinking about it, is probably just as likely.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Writing Ramble: How to Criticize Your Friends

On the face of things, criticizing your friends may seem straightforward enough.  But think for a moment: do you really want to criticize them over just anything?  Sure, you could point out that their hair is too long or their pets are too smelly or their house is too mauve, but wouldn't it be better to come up with some really significant character flaw, all the better to...

Wait, wait, wait.  That wasn't what this post was meant to be about.

How to criticize your friends' writing, that's what I was going to talk about.  Just randomly pointing out your friends' flaws is mean, but pointing out the flaws in their writing can be one of the most useful forms of support you can give.  That is, if they ask you to; randomly deconstructing the characterization missteps in that novel they just had published probably isn't going to be so well received.  But a great many writers, regardless of experience, will always be on the lookout for a friend who's willing to read over early drafts with a critical eye.  Yet such people aren't always easy to find, and even when they're available, they're far from guaranteed to respond with anything really useful.

Personally I've been really lucky on that front, and a couple of recent responses, as well as my own efforts to help others out, got me thinking.  What's the difference between useful amateur feedback and the sort that leaves you feeling crushed but none the wiser?  What sort of criticism do I wish I got more of and why?  Having done all that thinking, I thought I might as well share my conclusions here with a little advice for anyone who wants to support the token writer in their life...

- Find the Positives
Criticism can be hard to take, and it's nice to be told that you've got a few things right amid all those mistakes.  But this isn't just about ego management; as a writer, it's not always any easier to know what is working than what isn't.  Sometimes being told that, yes, that section plays the way you hoped it would is every bit as useful as discovering that you need to rip up half a chapter.  In fact, often having an idea of what is succeeding can be the most useful thing, offering a benchmark to aim to get the rest of the work up to.
- Hear What's Being Asked of You
All readers have their reading habits, but not all reading habits are useful to the writer in need of feedback.  Most writers will have at least a reasonable idea of what's wrong with their work, and the kind of criticism that's useful on a first draft won't have half as much value on a third.  If you really want to help, try and understand what sort of response you're being asked for; if the writer doesn't know, probing with a few questions might save you both from wasting your time.  Is it the plot they're trying to figure out?  The structure?  The characters?  Or are they just after someone to hunt typos?  In this, knowing how far on a given work is can make all the difference: is this raw material or close to the point of being finished?
- Don't Kick the Foundations
Unless a story is really broken, "this story is broken" isn't useful feedback.  And yet it's easy to give, even if not deliberately.  "I think this would work better if instead of being a middle-aged housewife the protagonist was a ninja assassin" is, to all intents and purposes, suggesting that the writer scrap whatever they've done and do something else instead.  Saying "the plot didn't really work for me" falls into the same category.  But there are more subtle variations; adding and deleting characters or major narrative points can often add up to the same thing as starting afresh.  Would making the change you're suggesting bring the whole story tumbling down?  If so, it's probably not going to come over as a useful suggestion.  It's always better to try and help a writer to find the best version of the story they're trying to tell than to suggest that it isn't worth telling in the first place.
- Be Constructive
This is a lot like the above points, really, but I mean it literally: try to add more than you subtract.  Sometimes, of course, an early draft of a story really will have superfluous elements; sometimes two characters fulfill such a similar purpose that they might as well be one, and sometimes a subplot would be better off excised.  But more often there'll be at least something there that can be salvaged and improved.  It's a great deal harder to identify how that can be done than to point out that an element is rubbish and would be better off gone, and it's generally too much to ask of people.  If everyone knew how to fix complex plotting mistakes then it would be a weird old world!  Still, even identifying aspects that are ripe for improvement is more useful than simply pointing out what's worthless.
- Read Deeper
I'm assuming here that you're not a professional editor; chances are, then, that you're more likely to focus on certain aspects of what you read, ones that might be grouped under a term like "storytelling": the characters, the big events, the overarching plot.  Most readers are at least a bit oblivious to the more technical aspects of fiction: the fashion in which words are combined and used to achieve particular effects.  This is all fine and good and no writer in their right mind would expect more, but that's not to say a little insight can't be helpful.  So after you've read through, why not delve more analytically into a paragraph or two?  Is the language telling the story as well as it could be?  Is the pace too fast or too sluggish?  Are the choices of words repetitive, or needlessly obscure?  Even just digging into one isolated passage can identify wider problems.
Last up, I'll just sneak in the fact that I'm always on the lookout for good beta-readers!  With at least three novels on the go at any given time and a dozen short stories waiting for attention, I can never get all the help I need.  So if the above has inspired you, do feel free to get in touch...

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Level One Recovered

I remember writing a while back about how I've always been insanely lucky with audio adaptations.  If anything, I've been even luckier with covers.  To have seven books (and a comic) out and not have a single one I wasn't totally happy with is quite the thing.  Heck, even the covers to the German editions of Giant Thief, which had barely a thing to do with the actual book, were still pretty cool.  And really, who's to say that Easie Damasco doesn't look like a sexy ninja guy?  Not me.

I was thrilled with the original cover to The Black River Chronicles: Level One.  That's probably the one the most discussion went into, as Mike and I worked with Xerx to figure out exactly how these characters would look, even down to the sorts of little details that probably only we would ever notice.  It was a cool image, and it got right so much that was crucial to the book.  More than anything, I liked how nervous the gang looked: these weren't hardened fantasy heroes, they were basically a bunch of kids, and while they were trying to act tough, they weren't altogether succeeding.

But like I said, I'm insanely lucky with covers.  And now Level One has a new one, by the magnificently talented Kim Van Deun, and it's really a thing of beauty.  I mean, it's right there, I don't need to tell you!  I can guarantee it won't get any less great, too, because I've been staring at it off and on for the last two weeks and it's still really great.

I love how Tia's being all too cool for school there in the background.  I love how Hule's looking off in just the wrong direction, like that kid in the school photo who got distracted by a bee.  I love how Pootle looks like a crazy flying eyeball!  But maybe the biggest difference is that this time we get to see the gang out in the wilds, and somehow that feels exactly right to me.

To close, here's a look at the full image in all its glory.  And as ever you can purchase The Black River Chronicles: Level One from Amazon UK here and Amazon US here.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

One Website, Finally (Mostly) Finished

I feel like I've been working on my website since approximately the day, more than a decade ago,
when I first started selling fiction.  Back then (and probably today) it was one of those pieces of advice always given out to writers who were just starting out: you've got to have a website or no-one will ever take you seriously!  This turned out to be largely nonsense, of course*, and for a long time, Writing on the Moon - as I called my site for no discernible reason that I can remember - was a horrid, rotting albatross corpse around my neck, as I struggled with shambolic design software to try and produce something that didn't utterly embarrass me.

Things got better when I moved my business from Streamline - may their name live in infamy until the last star burns out in the sky! - to Wix, who are actually pretty great, despite some occasional ups and downs.  Since then I'd like to think that the site's been basically okay.  But I was still hamstrung by some older elements that I couldn't find the time or the energy to redesign, and at the end of the day my graphic design skills aren't exactly the greatest.

Short story long, I've finally managed to get around to the last bits of overhauling.  That mostly means I've fixed the banner to a degree that I'm actually happy with, but there's been a lot of less visible tweaking under the hood too.  And really, there's a fair bit of content up there, if I do so say myself: details on all of my books and short stories, links to anything remotely relevant that can be linked to, samples for all three Easie Damasco books and Level One, a trailer for Giant Thief, a free (albeit ancient!) story and details of every other story that can be read or listened to for free, not to mention a bio that tells you basically nothing except an obvious lie that I'm hoping no-one will pick up on.

Nevertheless, I won't kid myself that it's anywhere near perfect.  And a part of the reason for this post is to ask: What am I missing?  What isn't working?  Should I delete the whole thing and just post kitten pictures?  (I'm not doing that.)  If you have a minute then maybe take a look, and if you have another minute I'd love to hear your thoughts: you can find the site here.**




* After all, it's not like anyone takes me seriously with a website!
** Of course, it's perfectly possible you're reading this on my website, in which case this post must be really confusing!

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 26

Say what you like about this batch, it's a varied selection.  We've a surreal comedic sci-fi franchise movie, a swords and sorcery OVA based on a computer game, demonic horror manga adaptation and a surreal mockumentary spliced with the re-imagined history of its animation studio.  And okay, including that last one, Otaku no Video, is a bit of a cheat; there's nothing much like Otaku no Video anywhere in any medium.  And I suppose we also can't ignore the fact that three out of four of those are adaptations of one thing or another.  But let's not expect miracles, eh?

This time: Urusei Yatsura Movie 4: Lum the Forever, Wizardry, 3x3 Eyes and Otaku No Video...

Urusei Yatsura Movie 4: Lum the Forever, 1986, dir: Kazuo Yamazaki

I went into Lum the Forever conscious of its reputation as the Urusei Yatsura movie that's all but impossible to parse, the one that's little more than a collection of random scenes strung together by the ghost of a plot, the one that was a hefty but muddled bout of fan service to see the then-concluding series off in something approaching style.  But truth be told, none of those things especially bothered me.  There certainly is a plot and I can even more or less summarize it for you: stirred by to the chopping down of an ancient cherry tree, the town of Tomobiki gains a sort of sentience formed from the collective subconscious of its inhabitants, recognises Lum's alien presence and attempts to erase her from existence.  Indeed, once the film managed to stumble through an aimless first third, I found that plot quite engaging.  And though there are scenes that seem intended to do justice to individual characters rather than the given story, they're in the minority.  No, while the narrative wasn't up there with the best, it certainly didn't ruin Lum the Forever for me.

You know what did?  The crappy animation.

For the first time we're slap bang in the realms of telly moviedom - note the 4:3 TV standard ratio! - and my goodness but it shows in just about every shot.  Really, even back in 1986, I'd be willing to believe that TV anime could muster better efforts than this.  Even elements that traditionally stand out despite a limited budget fail to do so here; the backgrounds are muddy and uninspired, and the action sequences are about as crummy as everything else.  From top to bottom, Lum the Forever looks as though it was made in a rush.  If this really was the end of Urusei Yatsura, it would be a hell of a shameful way to send the franchise into the hereafter.

With all of that in mind, it's tricky to say whether Yamazaki's direction is up to anything terribly impressive.  It's possible to imagine a version of the film with animation on a par with, say, Beautiful Dreamer, that would be pretty interesting to look at, and that alone suggests that the visual storytelling is there in at least skeleton form.  Nevertheless, of everything I've seen by the director, this is certainly Yamazaki at his least inspired, which again makes me think that the movie was a rushed job.  All that argues against is a strong score by seeming franchise newcomer Yukio Kondô; apart from that, not one element fails to suggest that speed above all was the driving imperative.

And here I am making Lum the Forever sound terrible, which it certainly isn't.  Really, if my theory's right and this was rushed together to capitalize on nostalgia roused by the end of such a long-running and much-loved show, it could certainly have been a hell of a lot worse.  There are some fantastic ideas floating about, and the whole level of weirdness appealed to me; Lum the Forever is only less strange that Beautiful Dreamer because it's less successful in sustaining a mood.  I'd rate it as the least of the films so far, but then bad animation makes me cross; if you've watched and enjoyed any of the earlier movies, I wouldn't argue for skipping this one.  At its best, it's delightfully mad, and at its worst it looks rubbish but is at least still delightfully mad.

Wizardry, 1991, dir: Shunya Fujioka

First, a disclaimer: the 1991 OVA adaptation of the seminal Wizardry role-playing video game series was never released in the UK or America, so that the only way to watch it with English subtitles is via a fansubbed version that's easily found floating around on the internet.  I feel the need to get that out of the way because, not being a fan of piracy, I try and track down legitimate copies whenever I can, but also because in theory it gives an idea of the level at which to set your expectations, given some of the things that were picked up for release outside of Japan.

That already offers us a few reasons to assume Wizardry might be awful, but there are others.  Take director Fujioka, for example, who according to IMDB had never worked in anime before and would never do so afterwards.  Or take the Wizardry games themselves, which, though seminal, are more or less precisely what you'd expect from a D&D-inspired game series at the dawn of the last decade of the twentieth century and didn't exactly offer up a wealth of intricate plot.  For that matter, a couple of minutes of watching are enough to establish that the budget wasn't mind-blowing, nor the ambition to break any molds: clichéd fantasy heroes hack and slash at clichéd fantasy monsters in a quest for a big clichéd chest of treasure, and really the only detail that isn't a cliché is the fact that two fighters and a ninja makes for an awfully weird party.

Yet what should doom Wizardry to mediocrity or worse is actually what makes it a bit delightful: it's just so damned literal.  Our heroes are actually adventures who really do spend their days looting a ten floor dungeon with a fearsome boss antagonist at its lowest level.  An early plot-splurging tavern sequence reveals that there are other parties who do the same.  Healing spells can reattach severed limbs, and characters can even be reincarnated, so long as their corpses are dragged to the right temple.  Wizardry is faithful to its source material in a way that feels shockingly rare and almost daring; the degree of thought that's gone into taking a nonsensical world and making sure that it functions enough to be plausible for the span of just under an hour is rather commendable.

I'm biased, of course, on any number of levels.  I have a soft spot for early fantasy video games, just like I have for nineties anime, and I'm in the middle of writing a novel series that attempts something not wholly dissimilar with the tropes of classic fantasy.  Nevertheless, there's no denying that Wizardry does what it does more than adequately.  At its worst, it's at least functional; the frame rate, for example, is obviously low, but Fujioka has enough of a handle on his material that it's never bothersome.  The characterization is largely nonexistent, but the voice acting and designs are good enough to compensate.  The music is pleasant, if not memorable.  Nothing is actively bad, much is pretty good, and most importantly, the sum total just works: not as any kind of a masterpiece of course, but as an amiable, surprisingly determined stab at using one medium to bring another to life in a way that's neither ironic nor condescending.

3x3 Eyes, 1991, dir: Daisuke Nishio

The four part OVA of 3x3 Eyes marks a landmark of sorts, as the first time I'm reviewing something with which I have more than a passing acquaintance with the source material; I actually read and enjoyed a good portion of the 3x3 Eyes manga back in the day. Which is to say, for once I had some meaningful expectations going in beyond "this is meant to be good" or "oh no, not more tentacles."

Though, thinking about it, both of those would have been sensible preconceptions.  3x3 Eyes has a solid reputation, and it does get a bit tentacle-y in places, though thankfully not half so much as it might.  At any rate, we're firmly in the demonic horror tradition that characterizes so much work from the period.  Teenager Yakumo stumbles upon Pai, apparently a girl of about his own age, who reveals that despite appearances she's a member of an extraordinarily long-lived mystical race known as Sanjiyans.  But before he can ask much in the way of questions, the pair discover that Pai's pet pterodactyl-monster Takuhi is terrorising the city, and when they try to intervene, it focuses its terrorising on Yakumo by killing him stone dead.  That is, until Pai reveals that she shares her body with another much less friendly consciousness, one that restores Yakumo to life as her immortal servant.

From thereon we have Pai questing to become human, the threat of another, evil Sanjiyan reawakening (well, more evil, Pai's alter ego is pretty mean) and lots of Yakumo dying, generally in astonishingly gory ways.  3x3 Eyes may have a bit more plot than the average 90's horror anime, but that's not to say it skimps on the blood and guts.  In fact, the horror is pretty effective in places; in particular, the second episode genuinely took me by surprise, and then genuinely freaked me out.  I mean this as praise, by the way: some of this stuff, like Legend of the Overfiend, is shocking, but not much stands up as effective horror.  Perhaps because it bothers with things like story and characterisation before diving into the demons and evisceration, 3x3 Eyes manages more punch.

On the technical front, the animation is of the reliably good sort, to the extent that nothing really blew me away; the odd shot of Pai in the last episode, maybe, and I'm always glad of a show that fusses over its character moments.  Anyway, the compensation is that reliably good means just that.  The same goes for the largely instrumental score, which is effective stuff, full of pleasing nods to Pai's Tibetan heritage, but also content to support the drama without too much calling of attention to itself.  Again, this is no bad thing; really, it's nice to see such a focus on solid storytelling.  And that, thankfully, is something 3x3 Eyes offers in spades.  For once we get an interesting narrative with some genuinely original ingredients, and if the characters are more familiar, they're at least worth spending time around.  Particularly cheering is the fact that, despite being an early chunk of yet another hugely long-running series, the OVA manages to reach a resolution of sorts.  Nothing really gets wrapped up, but the status quo gets enough of a jolt and the last moments are enough of a new beginning that we're left with the sense of an ending, if not quite the thing itself.

Of course, not everything is perfect.  The odd bit of goofy humour is misplaced, and a more serious issue is the burgeoning romance between Yakumo and Pai; she's portrayed as so childlike that it comes off as more creepy than cute, and never becomes a satisfactory motivation as the creators seem to believe it should.  But while a useless central romance proves quite a flaw, especially in the final episode, it's also not enough to undo the good work done elsewhere.  3x3 Eyes remains a real standout, good enough to get me caught up in a subgenre I tend to be pretty cold towards, and I'm eager to dip into the sequel.

Otaku no Video, 1991, dir: Takeshi Mori

Okay ... this one's going to take a bit of explaining.

Probably anyone reading this already knows, but just in case, Otaku crudely translates to nerd - though importantly, you can be an Otaku on just about any subject so long as you're sufficiently obsessive.  And what Otaku no Video is above all else is a tribute to Otaku, though it's nearly as much a mockery, and also something of a critique.  Most of the more negative stuff is clustered in the documentary footage that makes up roughly half of the two fifty minute episodes, and which consist of a series of interviews with anonymous Otaku.  Oh yes, and those interviews are most probably faked, with the interviewees really being members of the studio, Gainax, behind the film.  Which sort of makes sense, because the animated portions of Otaku no Video, following an innocent named Kubo who gets lured by his geeky friend Tanaka into the dark waters of Otaku-dom and eventually sets his sights on becoming the ultimate Otaku, is also a thinly veiled and heavily fantasised telling of Gainax's own origins.

Got all that?

At any rate, it makes more sense while you're watching it, at least once you settle into its odd rhythms.  The interview footage and anime segments comment on each other in clever ways, creating a neat dialogue between fiction and reality (even if that reality wasn't all that real.)  And the ambition on display is remarkable; Otaku no Video really feels like an attempt to be the last word on its subject, not so much because it's comprehensive but because it lurches in so many different directions.  It's at once history, overview and prediction, homage and pastiche, a catalogue and a deconstruction of Otaku-ism.  And from the perspective of 2017, it's an extraordinary piece of cultural archeology.  After all, what's covered here is the birth of a new means of consumption and appreciation of culture, and something similar was happening at the same time in both Europe and the US - enough so that I found myself alternately cheering and cringing at much of what was on screen.

It's disappointing, then, that as a work of anime it can't be just a tiny bit better.  Given the knowledge of what Gainax could do - this is the studio behind masterpieces like Wings of Honneamise, Gunbuster and the mighty Neon Genesis Evangelion - the fact that the animation is, until the last few minutes, resolutely used to represent real world scenes that aren't especially visually interesting feels like a missed opportunity.  (Though the animators do manage to cheekily insert some footage from their legendary opening to the Daicon IV convention, which if you haven't seen it you should watch right this second!)  At least Kôhei Tanaka's parody score is terrifically good fun.

The inevitable question, I suppose, is what appeal a half-documentary, half anime OVA from 1991 chronicling the rise of Japanese nerd culture has to offer to the modern viewer.  As a work of entertainment, I've already highlighting a couple of imperfections; to that could be added that the story told in the animated sections is interesting more than fascinating, though it gains from knowing how it's mirroring real events.  But the truth is that time has been generous to Otaku no Video, more so than to most anime from two and half decades ago; what was recent history when it was made now feels indescribably ancient in a multitude of subtle ways, a candid glimpse into a reality long gone and in many ways almost forgotten.  Yet what's equally striking is how much what's presented here is the foundation of our current age, in which so many of the niche hobbies presented are now thoroughly mainstream.  All of which is to say that, as anime, Otaku no Video is pretty good, but as a time capsule of a cultural epoch, it's priceless.

-oOo-

So what will next time bring?  More of the same, most likely.  My nineties anime buying has slowed considerably; I think this time I really have picked up everything that can be found for a reasonable price in the UK, and though there are a few titles I'm still curious about, it's a case of watching out for those super-rare affordable copies that pop up every few months, or perhaps never.

Does that mean there's an end in sight?  Given how often I've claimed there might be and been wrong, I think the only possible answer is "Um, maybe."  At any rate, I suspect I'll hit the big thirty without too much trouble!  There are certainly a few things left on the shelf that I can't wait to get to...



[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23Part 24, Part 25, Part 27]