Friday, 22 June 2018

Short Story News June 2018

Here's a post I've been holding off on for a while now, I guess because bad news only becomes actual bad news at the point when you share it.  Or at least because I've kept hoping that the horrendous dry spell I've been going through these last couple of years on the short fiction sales front might finally come to an end, and then I could spread a little good news instead.

To put that in perspective: since January 2017, I've literally sold more original novels than I have original short stories!  And honestly, this bites.  I mean, not the novel-selling part, that's great news.  But I know with utter conviction that I'm sending out some of the best short fiction I've written - indeed, maybe the best work I've written full stop - and the creeping certainty that some of it might never see the light of day is pretty gutting.  But what can you do?  Only give up or try that bit harder, and I'm not giving up yet.  So I've been submitting with all the energy I can muster, and more importantly, making a concerted effort to edit the remainder of the work I've got sitting about at first draft stage.  Because maybe something in that lot might fare better, right?

With that grumble out of the way, I have to admit that things could be worse.  At least I'm still selling the odd reprint, and at least I've landed them in a couple of really exciting markets.  The nicest surprise was when I was approached by the editor of Nowa Fantastyka to see if they could buy my story Jenny's Sick for translation into Polish.  Now that it's out, I'm probably safe to admit that I'd have likely let them have it for free; my family immigrated from Poland a generation or three back and it was extremely cool to have that link to what my dad jokingly refers to as "the old country."  Plus, Nowa Fantastyka is an utterly wonderful magazine.  I mean, I can barely read a word of it, but the presentation is fantastic, and the illustration for Jenny's Sick - rather, Jenny Choruje - is one of the very nicest I've had.

But family heritage issues aside, the bigger news is surely making it into a third of Flame Tree Publishing's utterly gorgeous gothic fiction anthologies (after Science Fiction and Lost Worlds).  This one's titled Lost Souls, and the story, Casualty of Peace, is one of my personal favourites, which I'm really pleased to be getting to yet more readers after its appearance in Eric Guignard's excellent Horror Library Volume 6 collection.  It's one of those rare tales that turned out just the way I intended, after a gestation period of months or maybe even years, and I'll be thrilled to see it between lavishly engraved hardback covers.  I'm not sure of a release date on that yet, but I'd guess it'll be towards the back end of the year; in the meantime, there's a full table of contents here.

And, thank goodness, there's always Digital Fiction Publishing!  I've already had one story out with them this year - Twitcher, in the Heinous Concoction horror anthology released back in February - and I've a couple more pending.  Again on the horror front, Great Black Wave will be coming up at some point, as will another personal favourite, my science-fiction tale of well-intentioned alien oppressors Free Radical.

Last up, I guess I should admit that there are one or two other things on the horizon, and those are original pieces.  But I don't know that I'm meant to be talking about them yet, so I won't.  Still, I do sincerely hope that things turn around before this year is out, because the way it's going, it's getting increasingly untenable to keep pouring time into writing and trying to sell short fiction - and it would break my heart to give it up.  So on that front as on every other, here's to the second half of 2018 sucking less than the first has!

Monday, 11 June 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 36

Apparently I've been watching a lot of supernatural horror anime lately, which might seem odd on the face of it, since I'm not always that enthusiastic about the stuff.  But there's just so damn much!  How do you avoid it?  And also, in fairness, for someone who'd not a massive horror fan these days, I've actually found a fair number of titles that I'm fond of.  Which makes it less surprising, I guess, that here we are with four releases that on the face of things are pretty similar and yet I've good words to say about all of them.

Plus, it's an excuse for another theme post!  This time around: Blood Reign: Curse of the Yoma, Ninja ResurrectionSpirit Warrior: Castle of Illusion and Guardian of Darkness...

Blood Reign: Curse of the Yoma, 1989, dir: Takashi Annô

Horror!  Ninjas!  Demons!  Medieval Japan!  At first glance, Blood Reign: Curse of the Yoma is nothing if not familiar.  Coming six years after the classic Ninja Scroll, the feature-length, two part OVA is definitely mining similar territory, with its shinobi protagonist tracking the childhood friend who betrayed him through a landscape infested with war, occult monstrosities, and general malaise.  Chances are, if you've seen any vintage anime, you've seen something a bit like this.

However, if Blood Reign has a most valuable player, it's certainly director Annô, who treats his none-too-fresh material with far more gravitas than it probably deserves.  He doesn't pull back from the pulpier elements: it's extraordinarily gory in places, all the more so because of the unflinchingly clinical manner in which the blood and guts are displayed.  But whenever Blood Reign isn't being flat-out horror, or action, or a meld of the two, it's up to greatly more interesting things.  For something so unrestrainedly violent, it's surprising not only how much Annô is invested in building atmosphere but how often he succeeds.  There's genuine creepiness here, and it makes the horror elements a good deal more satisfying.  You suspect that in his heart Annô was more interested in making a straight-up period drama, and one film I was frequently reminded of was Mizoguchi's masterpiece Ugetsu Monogatari.

Now, Blood Reign ain't that.  But in its better moments, it's at least exploring similar territory.  And though the animation isn't top-notch, with a noticeable reliance on stills, its above par on a frequent basis, rising to the challenges of its material; likewise, the artwork is generally superb, and the intricate backgrounds are a big part of that above-mentioned creepiness.  There's a real sense of a world gone fundamentally wrong that seeps into every crack and corner, and Annô's stubborn insistence that this is all terribly important pushes elements that could be campy close to being genuinely nightmarish in places.  Really, the only production element that wildly drops the ball is the score, which is every bit as incongruous as you'd expect eighties synthesisers to be.  That said, though it could hardly be a worse fit, I did kind of adore the ending theme.

Blood Reign was released as part of ADV's Essential Anime series, and they were fibbing: it's by no means essential.  But it's not that far off; I just wish there was a little more meat on its bones.  Annô's flourishes and certain elements of the narrative, including some disorientating time skips and the presence of two characters who appear to be the same person despite the fact that they can't possibly be, hint at a deeper narrative than the straightforward tale of good versus evil on offer.  Nonetheless, let's not get too sniffy.  A mediocre story told well - sometimes exceptionally well - is still better than being kicked in the head by a giant aquatic demon horse.

Because, oh right, that's a thing that happens in Blood Reign.

Ninja Resurrection, 1997, dir: Yasunori Urata

There's a lot of hatred out there for Ninja Resurrection, for what at first glance seems a highly unfair reason: essentially, the established logic is that publisher ADV purposefully misled fans into believing this was a sequel to Ninja Scroll, by giving it a title with the word Ninja in and not taking sufficient care to establish that the protagonist isn't precisely the same as the one in the earlier work (though that Jubei was in fact a deliberate reference to the historical figure presented here.)  Am I the only person who finds this tenuous?  I mean, I don't doubt that ADV - or for that matter, the original creators - were eager to emphasise similarities with a film that had proved to be one of the biggest breakthrough anime in the West, but I've seen vastly more shameful attempts to cash-in.

None of which is to say that there aren't reasons to hate on Ninja Resurrection.  And the biggest is one we've seen around these parts far too often before: it doesn't end.  I mean, there isn't the faintest shadow of closure, and the second of the two OVA episodes presented here is effectively all setup, with no hint of the self-contained narrative that the first manages to offer.  And this I found more annoying than usual because I really quite liked what there is.

Heck, by the end of that first part, I was willing to go further.  It's an appealingly grotesque slice of warped history, centered around the real-life Shimabara rebellion, which saw peasants and ronin turning against the Tokugawa government in resistance to tax hikes and religious persecution of the local Catholic population.  The latter is the focus here, though as with a lot of anime, Christianity ends up being portrayed in a manner bound to rub a few Western viewers up the wrong way.  Personally I was entirely down with its bewildering central conceit, whereby Jesus returns in seventeenth-century Japan, with the caveat that if his plans go awry he's doomed to turn into the Antichrist instead.  I don't know if I was just in the right mood, but the fact that this story was presented with some genuinely outrageous gore didn't bother me either.  It helped that the character designs are appealingly different, with a style that put me in mind of Mike (Hellboy) Mignola's work.  Really, it felt less like a rip-off of Ninja Scroll and more like a sleazy Italian-style bit of eighties Grand Guignol, à la Demons or The Church, only with Mignola's art style and a truly outrageous ninja battle climax.  Again, maybe I was in the right mindset for such madness, but that sat fine with me.

However, the second part is more of a mixed proposition.  For a start, the character designs get very weird indeed, with a more traditional, big-eyed anime aesthetic rubbing up against the stark angularity of what's been established.  Moreover, in two set piece sequences, the violence is directed at women in a fashion that recalls some of anime's nastier corners.  In fairness, the second of those scenes, while gobsmackingly unpleasant, is a genuinely inspired bit of horror; but the first is unnecessary and crass on practically a Legend of the Overfiend level.  And as I said, there's no real narrative, only odds and sods of story clearly setting up a larger plot.  It's fine, and the gore is effective if that's your bag, but it lacks the impact of part one.

With all of that said, and even with the severe lack of a conclusion, I'm inclined to call out those contemporary reviews for their bad practice - review what something is, not what you thought it might be, dumbass! - and suggest that, if you want some nineties horror anime and have a strong stomach, you could do worse than Ninja Resurrection.  It pulls no punches, it has style to spare, and at one point a guy transforms into an armoured missile to try and take down a giant stone dragon summoned by Christ, which I'll warrant you're not likely to see anywhere else.  Sure, it's not Ninja Scroll, and if I'm honest it's not a patch on that seminal work, but you can grab it cheaply and there's nothing else quite like it.

Spirit Warrior: Castle of Illusion, 1988, dir: Ichirô Itano

Having been underwhelmed by the first of these Spirit Warrior releases, Festival of Ogres' Revival, I decided to give the franchise - which spans a further three volumes after this one - a last try before condemning it to the lowest ranks of the slew of supernatural horror anime that came out of Japan in the eighties and nineties.  The good news is, I'm glad I did.  The bad news is, I now really want to track down the remainder, which are absurdly hard to find.

Still, Spirit Warrior: Castle of Illusion (which has nothing to do with the Mickey Mouse game of the same name, that I can tell!) is satisfying enough in its own right.  It's more or less the same thing as the first release, with heroic Buddhists teaming up to fire off what amount to magic spells in an action-heavy quest to quell an ancient evil, which this time turns out to be Oda Nobunaga, who's popped up in so much damn anime by this point that I envy him his agent.  Only, every element works better this time through.  The plot is busier, the action is more exciting, and the horror is a good deal freakier.  One monster in particular, apparently designed by special effects genius Screaming Mad George, is legitimately fantastic, and gets the best of some frequently strong animation.  The titular castle is another standout, a horror of organic architecture that we first see rising from a lake of blood and never stops being weird and wrong.  Even the running time is a touch longer, scraping past the mark where it feels like a proper film with a real beginning, middle, and end.

Needless to say, it's not perfect.  The U. S. Manga Corps release has a tendency to look like crap in the talky sequences, which may or may not be a fault with the original print, but in any case is hard to ignore.  And there's next to none of the sorts of thing you'd generally expect from a film, even a dumb one that basically wants to showcase monks fighting icky monsters: seek for meaningful characterization or plot development and you'll come away empty-handed.  Still, within its narrow niche, Spirit Warrior: Castle of Illusion manages a solid hour of entertainment, with enough excellent scenes and genuine bizarreness to stand out from the crowded pack.  It's a keeper and it turned me around on the whole series, so I guess that's a definite recommendation.

Guardian of Darkness, 1990, dir: Osamu Yamasaki

Guardian of Darkness is full of surprises.  Which is not to say it's full of originality.  Its visible influences are many and obvious, and at times it feels like a patchwork quilt of popular Japanese properties and subgenres.  There's a bit of Ultraman, a hefty dollop of The Guyver, for a while it looks like it plans to be a high school drama, and all of that's built upon a spine of horror-tinged dark fantasy that recalls a whole heck of a lot of shows from the nineties in which events out of history or mythology threaten the present.  There's nothing truly novel in a story that finds two teens possessed into fighting on opposite sides of an ancient conflict, with on the one hand shy, bullied Terumi being empowered by wrathful dragons and on the other the boy she has a huge crush on, Susanoo, learning that he possesses the power and cool, size-changing bio-mechanical armour to stop them.

All of this rattles along merrily for the first of three lengthy episodes, but the first sign that something more interesting might be going on comes when those forty-five minutes wrap up a good chunk of what looked as if it was going to be the plot.  Sure enough, by part two we have a radically changed status quo and a renewed focus on character over action, as well as a widening cast and scope.  The elements remain familiar, but none are used in quite the fashion you might expect.  And as the show progresses, the more apparent it becomes that it's at least trying to carve out a distinctive corner for itself, even if it's not mustering any brand-new ingredients.

To some extent, that's Guardian of Darkness all over.  It does nothing amazingly well, nor is there any aspect that lets it down significantly.  The characters are interesting, even if Susanoo threatens to be the sort of overly moody teenage male that populates so much of anime; Terumi gets to grow considerably and in satisfying ways, taking over the story in a manner I wouldn't have dared hope for based on her early scenes.  The design work and animation is solid without being great, though there are some lovely backgrounds and Yamasaki uses his budget to good effect.  Seikou Nagaoka's score has some terrifically minimalistic pieces for the slower, more atmospheric scenes, but grows generic when the action kicks off.  The only real letdown is another dire print from U. S. Manga Corps, which is so dark and muddy that it's often an active effort to keep track of what's going on.  Nevertheless, Guardian of Darkness gets a solid thumbs up: it may not be original or terribly outstanding, but it hits enough unexpected notes, develops in intriguing enough ways, and combines its elements differently enough that it ends up feeling unexpectedly fresh.


I guess the standout here was Blood Reign, which perhaps was the only release not getting props for being better than I expected; it's genuinely a bit special, if frustratingly imperfect, and I'm still listening to that awesome, utterly inappropriate closing track.  As for the rest, it's well worth keeping an eye out for and diving on a reasonably priced copy - or in the case of Ninja Resurrection, grabbing for a pound or two and watching the first episode when there's nothing that takes your fancy on Netflix.

Next time, perhaps we'll get the post that Blogger decided to delete and autosave over, if I can bring myself to rewrite it!  Or if not, one of the seven or so others I seem to have on the go!  Honestly, this whole thing has got a bit out of hand, he says, about three years too late...

[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 25Part 26Part 27Part 28Part 29Part 30Part 31Part 32Part 33Part 34, Part 35]

Saturday, 2 June 2018

The Black River Chronicles Book 3: May Progress Report

I swear I'm not going to get into monthly reports on the new Black River Chronicles book or anything
like that.  But now that we're out of May, I did want to share some good news while there's good news to be shared.  I'm considerably past the halfway point with the second draft now, and things are going well, despite my concerns around turning in a way-too-long first draft.  However many books you have under your belt, it's a little scary trying to wrangle a bloated novel into shape: there are all those words, and many of them are the wrong ones, and they're going to need carving out or else replacing with ones that work.  Plus, with all that dead wood, it's hard to see what shape the trees are in.

But two thirds of the way through and the trees are looking pretty respectable.  Eye of the Observer is a very different book to either Level One or The Ursvaal Exchange, for a whole variety of reasons.  It kicks off with a bang, both literal and metaphorical, and a great deal of what follows is spent picking up the pieces of what's gone badly wrong, though of course our intrepid gang don't necessarily realise that's what they're doing.  From their perspective, they're mostly just muddling through, and even more so than usual, Durren tends to be oblivious to the bigger questions.  That leaves the sort of narrative where it's tough to see the exact shape of what's been going on until after it's happened ... which, frankly, isn't easy to get right!  There's no neat three act structure here, but there's a lot ticking away in the background.

That flabby first draft made it difficult to judge whether crucial character beats and plot points and those sneaky bits of foreshadowing were falling in the right places.  Now, having already hacked away the equivalent of a couple of chapters, what remains is a good deal more reassuring.  The underlying story is definitely the one I set out to tell back at the end of last year, and that's a story I'm still really excited for.  In particular, I love where this book takes Arein, who, between you and me, has always been sort of my favourite character.  And isn't your job as a writer to put your favourite characters through the wringer without mercy?  I think it is.  So while I feel bad about what our resident wizard has to endure, I don't regret it for an instant.

Of course, I've still got the better part of a hundred pages to go, and the easier stretch is behind me.  There's definitely some significant re-writing ahead.  But there again, I'm feeling confident: I know where I've gone wrong and what needs changing.  In particular, I know what needs fixing for the big climax - and it's a huge big multiple-chapter-spanning climax this time! - to really come together.  So while the next month isn't likely to be easy, I'm not so nervous anymore.  There's a long way to go before our end-of-the-year release date, but I'm confident that come December, Eye of the Observer will be the book I've always hoped it would be.

Friday, 25 May 2018

The Bad Neighbour Available to Pre-Order

September seems like a long way off, but it really isn't, is it?  In fact, in about four months' time my sixth novel - and my crime debut - The Bad Neighbour will be out to buy as part of Flame Tree Press's exciting opening line-up, which also features a whole host of impressive fantasy, SF, and horror names, including Tim Waggoner, Ramsey Campbell, and John Everson.

Fortunately, Flame Tree are a bit more aware of the calendar than I am, as I recently discovered via Michael Wills, my editor over at Digital Fiction Publishing.  Probably that's not how these things are meant to work, but hey, the important point is that The Bad Neighbour is available for pre-order in a whole host of exciting places.

I will, of course, be going into greatly more detail on the book the closer we get to the release date, and about why I think it's great and you really ought to read it, but for the moment, here's the blurb:

When part-time teacher Ollie Clay panic-buys a rundown house in the outskirts of Leeds, he soon recognises his mistake. His new neighbour, Chas Walker, is an antisocial thug, and Ollie's suspicions raise links to a local hate group. With Ollie's life unravelling rapidly, he feels his choices dwindling: his situation is intolerable and only standing up to Chas can change it. But Ollie has his own history of violence, and increasingly, his own secrets to hide; and Chas may be more than the mindless yob he appears to be. As their conflict spills over into the wider world, Ollie will come to learn that there are worse problems in life than one bad neighbour.

Needless to say, pre-orders are a huge deal in publishing, and it will do the book no end of good to get a few - so if you're planning to grab a copy then now would be a terrific time to do so.  You can find The Bad Neighbour on Amazon UK and Amazon US, at Waterstones, and very likely at any other online bookseller of your choice as well.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 35

Let's take a break from those themed review posts, which were a silly idea anyway, and go back to the usual randomness, huh?  And this one seems all the more random from my point of view in that I'm hopelessly far ahead on these things and I barely remember watching this stuff, let alone reviewing it.  Did I really have nice things to say about M. D. Geist II?  Was I really bowled over by a fighting game adaptation?  Now that I think, I'm not convinced I wrote this at all.

Well ... whoever did, here to do with as you please are their questionable opinions on Samurai X: The Motion Picture, Night Warriors: Darkstalkers' Revenge, M. D. Geist II: Death Force and Darkside Blues...

Samurai X: The Motion Picture, 1997, dir: Hatsuki Tsuji

I've encountered the Rurouni Kenshin franchise in a weird old order: firstly with the excellent Trust and Betrayal OVAs, which serve as a prequel to the main series, then with the wildly fun trilogy of live-action films released only recently, then with the terrific Reflection OVA, an epilogue, and now with this, the anime motion picture - also known under the fussier but more useful title of Rurouni Kenshin: Requiem for the Ishin Patriots.  Yet I still haven't seen the main series.  Given that the show ran to about ninety episodes and the films have a combined running time of maybe six hours, I suspect I've missed out on some of the finer details.

All of which is to say that I was a bit at sea with Samurai X: The Motion Picture, which I'd imagined to be along the lines of the OVAs - that is, more of a self-contained, stylized, mature take on the material - and turned out to be entirely a sidequal to the core series.  Unlike the stunningly gorgeous OVAs, this looks very much like a mid-budget TV show, with character designs and voice acting that are a huge step down.  Nor does it help that the plot takes a damn age to get going, especially if you're unfamiliar with the background details of the show and particularly with its supporting cast.  Even knowing different versions of these characters, I often found myself struggling to feel much involvement in their fates.

But it's bad practice to criticise something for not being what you expected, and on its own merits, Samurai X: The Motion Picture is - well, fine for the most part, and pretty good in its last third, once events finally grind into motion.  Despite the impression the opening scenes give, it actually tells quite a self-contained tale, as Kenshin and his friends find themselves mixed up with a samurai named Takimi Shigure, who's spent the years since the end of the war against the Tokugawa Shogunate bitterly nursing his grievances, and is now ready to settle old scores, with a fresh revolution to wipe out the failures of the old one.  Of course, he and Kenshin have personal history too - a fact revealed to we the viewer almost immediately, but which neither of them realise for a good long while - and inevitably the two are going to come to blows sooner or later.

As a spin-off movie for a well-respected TV show, this is pretty great stuff, and exemplary in a lot of ways.  It's not absolutely necessary, but it certainly adds depth to both the characters and the narrative, while essentially doing its own thing in a way that even someone new to the property could just about follow.  What it isn't is anything like on a par with the OVAs - which, to be fair, set a high bar indeed.  So while Trust, Betrayal and Reflection are indispensable if you're serious about anime, the movie is more along the lines of a solid ninety minutes of entertainment, which you'll probably find a bit exhausting unless you've experienced some other iteration of the Rurouni Kenshin universe.  Which feels a bit harsh to say, given that what's on display here would probably warrant a recommendation were it not book-ended by excellence, but so it goes.

Night Warriors: Darkstalkers' Revenge, 1997, dir's: Masashi Ikeda, Satoshi Ikeda

You remember that Dark Universe nonsense that Universal were so determined to get off the ground, an attempt to revamp all of their famous monsters that was foiled by a clear contempt for basically everything that made the originals great?  Well, pretend that hadn't been utterly misconceived from the ground up and you'd have something a bit like Night Warriors: Darkstalkers' Revenge.  Er, if the great Universal horror movies of yore had involved all of the monsters fighting each other with ludicrous special moves, anyway.

Because, yes, it's another fighting game adaptation.  But I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Night Warriors is probably the best of the bunch.  Though animation-wise it's perhaps not quite on a par with Street Fighter 2: The Animated Movie, it comes damn close, and for a three hour OVA that's saying something.  Meanwhile, on every other count it wins hands down.  For a start, the characters are infinitely more interesting.  Which I suppose is faint praise, so I should say instead that there are actual interesting characters here, ones that stretch beyond 'ethnic stereotype with particular move set.'  My favourites were probably the vengeful demon-hunting Chinese wizard sisters, one of whom is a hopping vampire, but there's probably enough information in that sentence alone to give you a sense of the lengths Night Warriors is going to.  And because it breaks its running time down into a series of sizable vignettes that sideline characters for long periods or even entire episodes, there's none of the frantic chopping and changing and making sure everyone gets to fight everyone else that normally comes with these things.  It has actual stories to tell, a fascinating setting to tell them in, and space to tell them well.

The flip side, I suppose, is that the overall tale is weaker than its components.  But it's still a fair bit more fun than you'd expect, especially since the plot to pretty much every other damn fighting game adaptation is "evil corporation creates international tournament to steal fighters' skills."  Night Warriors sticks two fingers up to all that and asks if you wouldn't rather hear about an alien sun god teaming up with sentient robots programmed to manipulate Earth's evolutionary history?  And while I can conceive of someone who might answer that question in the negative, I can't imagine they'd have stuck with these posts all the way through to number thirty-five.

The result is, of course, furiously silly, and perhaps sillier for how seriously it sometimes takes itself.  But I'll be damned if I'll grumble about over-ambition from a nineties anime fighting game adaptation.  So what if the makers wanted to dress up their ridiculous premise with a few meaningful ideas that probably don't belong anywhere near it?  Really, the worst that can be said of Night Warriors is that it leaves you craving to play games from a franchise that vanished an entire two console generations ago, because somehow people thought that Street Fighter and Tekken were more fun that making a zombie with extendable ribs battle a giant mummy.  Such is the fallen world we live in, but at least we're left with three bonkers hours of monsters philosophizing and punching each other, so it could certainly be worse.

M. D. Geist II: Death Force, 1996, dir: Kôichi Ôhata

If I recall correctly, my response to the original M. D. Geist was along the lines of us, "it's terrible, but not interesting enough to be a true nadir of the medium," which is about as harsh a critique as I have in me.  So you can see why I didn't exactly rush to watch the sequel.

In fact, here we are, twelve posts and over a year later!  And you know what?  It really wasn't that bad.  In fact, up until the midway point, I was suspecting that it might even be kind of adequate.  After all, ten years had gone by in the world of anime between the two titles, everyone had surely learned a bit about their craft in the meantime, and there was money to be spent, from none other than U.S. Manga Corps, the company that were so wedded to the original that they made its protagonist their "company spokes mecha."*

So yes, those first few minutes are almost kind of fun.  There are some entirely solid sequences, even; and somehow the nastiness and the gore, which have been cranked up to eleven this time, have a certain tacky charm that was largely absent the last time around.  It's not good, exactly, but nor is it shockingly bad in the way M. D. Geist was more or less from its opening moments.  The setup is even a little bit interesting, as we discover that there's a single haven of humanity holding out against the killer-robot threat of the titular death force - but one that's run by our "hero" Geist's predecessor in the Most Dangerous Soldier program, who may not be the out-and-out nutter that Geist is but doesn't exactly come across as sane and rational either.

Yet there are warning signs, both of weird cost-cutting measures and of weirder creative decisions: the first is an expository scene in which we never see anyone's mouths, because actually animating mouths when people are talking costs money, don't you know?  It's one of those details you can't help but notice, and having noticed, find inexpressibly cheap and awful.  Then we get near the halfway point, which feels so much like the end of a first episode that I wonder if that wasn't once the intention, and things really go off the rails.  An entire new plot starts up, which seems to contradict the previous one in a couple of essentials.  And the more time goes by, the more apparent it becomes that Ôhata simply can't tell this story worth a damn.  Crucial plot points are skipped over or delivered retrospectively for no apparent reason, and it's all very confusing in a way that feels deliberate, but to no discernible purpose.  I mean, it's not like the narrative is anything but idiotically straightforward!  How hard is it to tell an idiotically straightforward plot in a straightforward manner?

If you're M. D. Geist II: Death Force then the answer, apparently, is "impossibly hard."  But, I don't know, that fact just didn't bother me half as much as it should have.  In fact, I had quite a bit of fun with this sequel: it's so hilariously, self-consciously mean-spirited and nihilistic, and so in love with its impossibly horrible protagonist, that it's hard not to be caught up in its preposterousness.  And there's a certain eagerness that I found charming, as though everyone involved was daring each other to see how over the top they could go.  Like, "Hey, what if Geist used some guy's body for a shield and then shoved his gun through the resulting mess of bullet holes and shot everyone while guts showered everywhere!"  Which, writing it like that, admittedly sounds quite obnoxious.  And, yes, M. D. Geist II: Death Force is absolutely that.  So maybe all it comes down to is that the animation was a great deal better this time around, at least when it wasn't cost-cutting still frames.  Am I really that shallow?  I think I am.  And since it's not like I'm actually recommending that you waste your time with this rubbish, and I intend to sell my copy and forget about the experience as soon as I possibly can, I guess there's no real harm done.

Darkside Blues, 1994, dir: Yoriyasu Kogawa

We've seen quite a lot of author Hideyuki Kikuchi around these parts - or rather, adaptations of his works - and reactions have been somewhat mixed, but on the whole I'm happy to call myself a fan: Demon City, Wicked City and Vampire Hunter D (or at least Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust) are all titles I've enjoyed to a greater or lesser extent.  But while Darkside Blues has much in common with all of those - up to and including its blend of supernatural fantasy with science-fiction elements, its menagerie of monstrous enemies, and its general air of weirdness - it also feels quite distinctive.  What research I've done suggests a passion project, as does the sheer level of detail that's gone into the world-building and the cast of characters, which is intimidating for a movie that clocks in at under an hour and a half.

Even summing up the plots proves a challenge, though on its simplest level it boils down to the sort of 'plucky rebels versus evil corporation' story that was everywhere in anime at this point.  Strip away those supernatural elements and I suppose that's all you get; but then strip them away and you'd lose half of what there is here, and nearly all of what makes the film special.  For a start, there's the character of Darkside himself, who in the opening minutes rides out of some sort of space-time fissure in the middle of the city that acts as home for most of the narrative, and proceeds to make his presence felt in ways that suggest he has the power to be doing a great deal more than hanging around the sidelines being cryptic.

Speaking of being cryptic, there's an awful lot of that going on, and whether you love Darkside Blues - as I did - or consider it a load of nonsense will probably come down to how much slack you decide to cut the baffling pronouncements that Kikuchi gifts his characters.  I strongly suggest that you go along with him, because there are some thrilling notions here, including the idea that the entire setting may be some sort of psychic sinkhole created by an unbalance in our own "real" universe.  Or there's the hostel that automatically takes everyone to the room where they need to be, or Darkside himself, whose profession and motivation are equally nebulous.

Even if you decide that too much deliberate oddness isn't a good thing, there's still a lot to be enjoyed.  The animation is very good, but the design work and artwork style are absolutely splendid.  There's some excellent action for what's on the face of things a fairly cerebral affair, and the score is pretty much marvelous - indeed, the title track is, against all reasonable expectations, a truly fine blues number.  Really, the only significant complaint I have is that there was obviously intended to be more. The ending is a proper ending, in the sense that it wraps up what we've come to think of as the central narrative thread, but every one of the big questions is left hanging.  Which takes us back to that passion project thing; it's obvious Kikuchi was deeply invested in his characters and setting and wasn't ready to shut the door on the world of Darkside Blues by tying everything up with a neat bow.   And honestly, I can't criticise.  Those leftover questions are fun to guess at, and I don't know that I need them answering.  Unless you're the kind of person who has to have every last strand of a story tied off, or unless you've actively hated any of those other Kikuchi adaptations, I'm happy to give this one a serious recommendation.  It's a bit special, all told, and not too far off the absolute top tier of nineties anime moviemaking.


Okay, I clearly did write those, because no one else would waffle on for five paragraphs about M. D. Geist II.  And it's funny going back to these posts with the benefit of hindsight; I really didn't remember being that enthusiastic about the Samurai X movie, whereas Night Warriors and Darkside Blues I'm already itching to watch again.  The latter you can even track down for a reasonable price, so I guess that counts as a serious recommendation.

As for next time, who knows?  I have so many of these posts on the go now that it's anyone's guess!  A Gall Force special, maybe?  That 'anime that isn't anime' post I've been slaving over?  More random crap?

Yeah, it'll probably be that last one.

[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 25Part 26Part 27Part 28Part 29Part 30Part 31Part 32Part 33, Part 34, Part 36]

* Or rather spokesmecha, surely, if you really have to make up such a dumbass neologism.  But no, that's how U. S. Manga Corps want it, and it makes me grit my teeth a little each time I see it.

Monday, 7 May 2018

The Top Ten Reasons I Reject Stories For Digital SFF

The topic of why stories get rejected is one I've been thinking about for an awfully long time, first as I tried to figure out what I was doing wrong to earn me endless rejections in the early days and then, over the last couple of years, as I found myself being the one behind those rejections in my role as Acquisitions Editor of fantasy and sometimes science-fiction short stories at Digital Fiction Publishing.  In the early days I tried to write a brief note explaining all of my 'no' votes, and I rapidly found that I was hunting for permutations of the same handful of explanations time and again; steadily it became apparent that, with a few rare exceptions, I was bouncing stories for a very limited number of reasons.

Now before I go further, I should say that the general standard of submissions we get is reliably high, and that we end up rejecting very many solid stories.  There's a definite advantage to only considering work that's been previously published in at least a semi-pro market.  (Of course, not everyone follows the guidelines, and that can be a reason for rejection in itself, though rarely on its own.)  My aim here certainly isn't to denigrate the work we turn away; it's simply to offer a little behind-the-scenes insight.  And to that I'll add that I've made every single mistake here at one point or another, so I'm certainly not one to judge!  In fact, I suspect I still make some of them.  Like this first, for example...

- No Sympathetic Characters
It's tough going to read about a protagonist who's totally obnoxious for however-many pages; then again, it's perfectly possible to make the most colossal asshat sympathetic so long as they're interesting.  The everyman characters tend to be the worst for this one: those who are just like all those boring people you know, only something wildly fantastical is happening to them.  That's fine and all, but I don't especially want to read about boring people, especially if there's nothing to give them a spark of inner life and I start to suspect that maybe their author isn't terribly attached to them either.
- Seen It Before
This is probably the hardest to pre-empt; what's overly familiar to me might be the freshest damn thing to another editor.  With that said, it's definitely the case that a writer's unfamiliarity with the genre they're working in tends to show itself quickly.  Often, however, it's not even the content necessarily, but rather a question of style and tone.  To put it another way, the stories that tend to spark my interest early are the ones that do at least something to surprise me: a turn of phrase here or an idea there.  When you boil it right down, there aren't a lot of truly innovative concepts left to be written, but any really good writer will bring a voice to their material that will make it feel fresh.
- No, Literally Seen It Before
Oh, and then there are the folks who actually just keep sending in the same story.  Pro tip: for this to stand a hope of working, you really need to make sure that the person who read your story the last time is out of the picture.  Try murder.  Or bribery.
Wait, no, definitely that second one.
- More Than a Couple of Typos
We're a reprint market, so we're not much for copy-editing, because that should have been done already.  So if I'm spotting obvious mistakes in a piece that's already been published then that's a major red flag.  Also file under this category leaving track changes on with an editor's comments visible in the margins.  Especially when you've ignored those comments, despite their being obviously correct.  (This has become so common that it's actually kind of weird.)
- Too Long
Actually, this arguably affects the majority of submissions we get.  And I'd urge any writer of short fiction to make trimming their story to its briefest reasonable length a priority.  I'll always look more kindly on a good four-thousand word story than a good six-thousand word short story, because the former makes less demands on my time and so allows me to get more work done.  And in the latter case, I'll likely be noting the points where cuts could have been made.  Generally they're not hard to find; often these are the tales that start a couple of pages before they should have, with a lengthy character-establishing preamble or a blob of direct exposition that really should have been worked in more subtly later.
- Fairies And / Or Blacksmiths
This is probably a subcategory of "Seen It Before" - in fact, it definitely is - but there always seems to be someone who assumes that everybody else out there has forgotten the roots of the genre and that it will be terribly daring to write something in which a random blacksmith's apprentice kills a dragon or gets tricked by fairies or whatever.  I don't know if there's an obvious sci-fi equivalent, but as a general rule, if you think you've rediscovered the long-lost wellspring of a genre, you probably haven't.  In fact, you'll be lucky if your 'blacksmith's apprentice vs fairies' story is alone in that batch of submissions.
- Not As Funny As It Thinks It Is
These tend to be the most likely to make me want to stop reading within a paragraph: the stories that scream their intention to be humorous from their opening lines and just aren't.  Which, in fact, is most of the ones that take a stab at being funny, because humour is perhaps the hardest thing to get right as a fiction author, and also because I'm a miserable git.  Unless you have cast-iron proof that you're a comedy genius, I'd argue for not taking the risk.
On the other hand, any story that really makes me laugh is almost a surefire recommendation, so make of that what you will.
- Not Actually a Story
A tricksy one this, but awfully common; these are the tales where five or six or a dozen pages in, I'm still not getting any sense of an actual narrative.  Twist-ending stories tend to fall into this category, at least the ones where the author has assumed that someone will endure a few thousand words of mundanity just to have the rug pulled from under them in the last paragraph.  Whatever the case, a story needs to be doing something awfully right elsewhere to get me to overlook the fact that I'm nearing the halfway point and still don't have a clue as to why what I'm reading about should matter.
- Not Enough Style
These are the stories that tend to get farthest along, only to be rejected at the last minute, or scrape their way to a hesitant 'maybe'.  They're fine, they're engaging, there's enough originality in the tale itself to make them stand out from the crowd, but there's nothing to differentiate them stylistically.  On the narrative level they're interesting, but on the level of sentences and words they're a bit flat.  Honestly, this is a really, really hard one to nail, but it's often what makes all the difference, and a sign that a further draft was needed to introduce that elusive spark.
- An Overabundance of Style
Then there are the stories that just don't know when to back off with their style.  It's there from the first line and never relents, even when it's getting in the way of such basic necessities as moving the plot forward or setting up characters.  After the stories that try to be funny and don't land it, these tend to be the most wearisome, and often its because they're the work of obviously talented writers - ones who are maybe just a little too aware of that fact.  Style is undoubtedly a way to catch an editor's eye, and I've recommended stories that wowed me that way, but it can also become exhausting really quickly; basically it's a tool like any other, that needs to be put away sometimes.
And there we have it: the top reasons I'm most likely to turn down a submission, or at least the ten that I could remember off the top of my head.  So what do people think?  Is anything here unreasonable?  Does the world need more stories about fairies and blacksmiths?  Is style overrated?  Or underrated?  Set me right in the comments!

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Hark to the Sign in the Moonlight

Implausible as it might seem, I can be a bit sneaky on occasions!  Like when it comes to news; I've been sitting on this particular piece for over a year now, even though it was a subject I was craving to discuss.  But I can also be sly when it comes to getting my books out in cool formats.  Today's case in point occurred somewhere around last Christmas, when, due to a contract mix-up, it turned out that my story The Shark in the Heart had been included in an audiobook adaptation of the Sharkpunk anthology though I'd omitted to sign over the relevant rights.  Editor Jonathan Green was immensely nice about the confusion (as he tends to be nice about everything, unless you're unlucky enough to find yourself up against him in a live version of Just a Minute at a convention, in which case he's a git) and offered to have my story removed.  But I'd already heard the recording of The Shark in the Heart by then, and it was a terrific take on the story, so that was the last thing I wanted to happen.  Instead, spying an opportunity, I asked if he would mind making introductions to the team who'd produced the audiobook version, studio Circle of Spears?

My goal, of course, was to talk them into producing an audiobook of my own short story collection The Sign in the Moonlight, which had been a cherished dream basically from the moment I started putting the anthology together.  And fortunately they didn't need a lot of persuading; in fact, they were flat-out enthusiastic.  The results, somewhat over a year later, are everything I could have hoped for, and something I suspect only a smaller, independent production house could have concocted.  For a start, Sam Burns and Tracey Norman split the male and female narrators up between them, which is a brilliant touch; but more than that, their deep roots in drama mean that these are more than mere narrations.  They've gone the extra mile to build on the characters I wrote, and to capture the period atmosphere that's crucial to so much of the collection.  Stories such as The Burning Room and The War of the Rats really do have the air of historical diary accounts read aloud; The Desert Cold really does have the sinister overtones of a criminal's confession; let your mind drift a little and it really is possible to believe that the teller of The Facts in the Case of Algernon Whisper's Karma is recounting from the distant past.  Sam and Tracey have found the bloody hearts of these stories and ripped them out for anyone to hear, and the result is something as special, in its own way, as the beautifully illustrated original or its lavish hardback cousin.

Anyway, no need to take my word for what a fine job Circle of Spears have done!  You can grab a digital copy here, or a physical copy here.  And full details of the collection, including the story listing, can be found on my website here.