Friday, 23 December 2016

Five Anime Shows For Fans of the Black River Chronicles

Anyone who's visited my blog will probably have noticed that I'm a big fan of anime, and that enthusiasm was a small but meaningful element that went into crafting The Black River Chronicles: Level One.  After all, Dungeons & Dragons has made its way to Japan just as it has to pretty much everywhere, and Japan has been feeding its own interpretations of D&D-styled fantasy back to the West ever since.  So if you're someone who's enjoyed both Level One and anime, or if you like the former and have been thinking about dipping a toe into the latter, then I'm confident in recommending any or all of the following:

Little Witch Academia

If you thought Black River had an irresponsible attitude to sending students into potentially fatal situations then you haven't seen anything yet: welcome to Luna Nova Magical Academy, where the teachers apparently think nothing of having a dungeon in the basement full of actual monsters, up to and including the occasional dragon.

Little Witch Academia definitely follows in the tradition of works like Harry Potter and The Worst Witch, but with a greater emphasis on humour and a more D&D-style approach to its zany world, making it perfect for fans of Level One.  The characters are instantly adorable, the plots are witty and clever, and the animation and design work are flat-out gorgeous.  So far, all that exists is the original half hour episode and a slightly longer sequel, The Enchanted Parade, both of which you can find on Netflix - though apparently there's a series on the way, which is good news indeed.

Sword Art Online

Despite huge popularity, Sword Art Online has proved something of a love-it-or-hate-it show.  Personally, I tend to find myself both loving and hating it at different points, and even sometimes within the same episode.  Still, there's no doubt that when this action-filled drama about players trapped in the worlds of elaborate multiplayer video games works, it really does work; after all, what better excuse could there be to indulge in some old-style fantasy than to trap your characters in an MMORPG?

It's true that Sword Art Online tends to veer between the ridiculous and the sublime, but it's picked up a massive following for a reason.  The first story arc in particular is excellent, and the recent Mother's Rosarium mini-arc was perhaps the show's finest moment.  What I enjoy most, and what was something of an influence on Level One, is how it finds that perfect balance of treating its characters as sometimes clumsy teenagers and treating them as people on the verge of adulthood.  So if that appeals then you could definitely do worse than to give SAO a try.


A bit of a cheat this one: Mushishi isn't much like Level One at all, but it's also the only show here that had a direct influence.  All I'll say is that I happened to be watching Mushishi when Mike and I were discussing how magic might work in the world of The Black River Chronicles - and I'd be lying if I said that one particular element didn't work its way into the Unbalance, much as the show's attitude to the supernatural helped me figure out how to tackle magic in a way that felt true to the setting we were building.

Anyway, Mushishi is nothing like the other shows on this list: it's meditative, cerebral fantasy, and quite adult, if only in its openness about admitting that sometimes awful things happen to good people for no particular reason.  Nevertheless, if I wouldn't necessarily recommend it as something you'll enjoy if you liked Level One, I'm happy to recommend it to anyone with broad tastes in fantasy: if you're after something a little weird, sometimes a little scary, but deeply heartfelt and imaginative, then Mushishi might be for you.


The oldest show here, as well as the longest running, Slayers is quite a bit further up the comic spectrum than Level One, to say the least.  Following wonderfully-named sorceress Lina Inverse and her companion (and frequent adversary) Naga the Serpent, Slayers is the definition of irreverent: no fantasy cliche is remotely safe here.

On the other hand, it's a show made with clear affection for the stereotypes it spends so much time and humour exploding, and, like all the best parodies, it even manages to work really well as the thing that it's parodying: however silly Lina and Naga's adventures get, they're still rousing stories jam-packed with outrageous spells and monsters.  If you love classic fantasy but don't mind seeing it laughed at mercilessly, and can cope with some slightly dated animation, then Slayers just might be what you've been waiting for.

Chaika the Coffin Princess

The most recent show on the list, Chaika's probably the one that hits the most perfect balance between delivering classic fantasy and affectionately spoofing that selfsame classic fantasy.  I mean, not even a single episode passes before a unicorn gets exploded!

There seems to be a bit of a renaissance in anime fantasy shows right now and, of all the ones I've seen, Chaika is my current favourite.  It's a somewhat old-fashioned plot told with enough of a twist to feel very fresh, and incorporates broader influences in an appealing way; the fact that the main character is a reference to my favourite Western hero was enough to make me fall in love basically from the first minute.  Also, it occurs to me that the titular Chaika is a lot like what the result would be if you somehow crossed Tia and Arein, and male hero Toru isn't a million miles away from Durren, either.  Basically, Chaika is a ton of fun, and a near-perfect blend of humour and original-yet-nostalgic high fantasy.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Book Ramble: Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum

Trust that rabble-rouser Ian Sales to add a fifth entry to a series that he was referring to as a quartet from the moment the first book was published.  And trust him, as well, to make that fifth part stick out like a sore thumb from its four predecessors: a short story rather than a novella, and one that start out as autobiography before - well, becoming something quite different.  Or maybe not.  Look, it's not the easiest of works to explain, okay?  And I haven't even mentioned the appendices...

The truth is that, despite what its author has been heard to claim and even what the cover says, A Visit to the Air and Space Museum isn't really the fifth book in the Apollo Quartet at all.  The clue's right there in the title: look, it's even the biggest word.  This is a coda, and an enticing one at that, an epilogue that finds yet another way to upend a series that had already gone to some bafflingly convoluted and self-referential places.  There's always been a level of in-jokery ticking away beneath the Quartet, but it's never been more visible than here.  And it helps that the in-jokes in question are both satisfyingly strange and rather funny - albeit funny in the specific way that a Zen kōan is, rather than, say, the way a good episode of Futurama is.

But if that implies that the book doesn't altogether stand alone then - well, no, it doesn't.  I mean, A Visit to the Air and Space Museum has no shortage of its own merits: it's a satisfying short and I certainly wouldn't discourage the reader who's only picked at the series from taking a look.  However, this definitely isn't the place to start.  And even if you've already dipped into the Quartet, it isn't essential in the way that, say, All That Outer Space Allows is.  (Which it really is; if you haven't read All That Outer Space Allows, please make all reasonable efforts to do so.)

But as what it claims to be, A Visit to the Air and Space Museum does a fine job of deepening and enriching the series it concludes.  When the Apollo Quartet finally gets released in a collected edition - and seriously, why aren't publishers clamoring to make this happen? - this coda will find it's perfect place and function, I think.  Then again, that's hardly a reason not to give it a look in the meantime.  Especially since - oh, right! - you can download it for free.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Writing Ramble: Why It's Okay to Question Contracts

You know, I could give you a dozen reasons why it's okay, as a writer, to question contract clauses you're unsure of.  And then I could give you a dozen more why it's not only okay but something you're being remiss if you're not doing.  While 'contract lawyer' may not be there in your job description, it should absolutely be in your personal list of auxiliary jobs that you've picked up at least a passing knowledge of.  Because if you're even a little bit serious about being a writer - or, for that matter, a professional creative of any sort - then you're going to find yourself signing contracts.  And if you don't read them, and in reading understand them, then there's a fair old chance that somewhere along the line you're going to get screwed.  Because that's what bad contracts are designed to do: to rip off one party in favour of another.

But I don't want to talk about bad contracts, at least not the kind of bad contracts that are written by the kind of publishers that deliberately concoct bad contacts, because in my experience they're by far the minority and that's a whole different discussion.  What are far more common, and sadly perhaps a little more insidious, are largely decent contracts written by genuinely well meaning publishers, which nevertheless contain some wholly crappy clauses because writers don't ask enough questions.  And by bad I mean here needlessly prejudicial - usually because they ask the writer to make unrealistic guarantees for unlikely worst case scenarios or because they tie up rights in ways that make reselling them in the future all but impossible.

Bad contract clauses, I've come to think, are basically viral.  They get repeated either because a publisher has cribbed them from another publisher or because they've splashed out on lawyers, and a part of the job of lawyers is to protect their clients while stripping as much as possible from those they're dealing with - which they generally do by regurgitating old contracts that did those things.  In my experience, it tends to be the case that the publishers in question generally don't even realise they're asking anything unreasonable because no one's ever stopped to point that out.

I mention all this because earlier in the year I found myself having to ask for changes on contracts from two different publishers.  And the reason I thought the subject worth posting about was that they both in wholly reasonable fashion, and really couldn't have been much nicer.  In the first instance, the contract had lawyerly fingerprints all over it and all in all was a bit of a monster; when the publisher realised just what they were asking they came back with something four pages shorter and about a thousand times more reasonable.  The second instance came down to worries over one specific clause, and we got round that with a bit of tweaking.  But the crucial point here is that both experiences were entirely pleasant.  Most publishers are decent folks who have no desire to rip off or even inconvenience you.  Raise polite concerns and you'll get polite responses in return.  And if that's not the answer you get then you may have stumbled across one of those rare publishers who genuinely are trying to exploit you, in which case, far better to learn before there's ink on paper.

As a closing note, and for anyone who doesn't feel they have the knowledge or confidence to go negotiating contract terms, here's a link to a model contract from the SFWA, who are fantastic for this sort of thing.  There are tons of similar resources out there, both from the SFWA and elsewhere, and if you have worries then it's not hard to confirm whether they're justified and to find something you can point a publisher to that explains your position.  It might take a little time and effort, but that's sure to be worthwhile for a contract you won't regret in a few years' time.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Level One: The Locations

As befits a story about a party of teenage trainee heroes being sent on a variety of increasingly life-threatening quests, there are a fair number of locations in The Black River Chronicles: Level One, and many more that are alluded to but not seen - at least not in this first book of the series.  Here's a look at some of the more significant...

The Black River Academy
To call it a building was misleading in itself: the Black River Academy looked more as though a dozen edifices of various functions had been thrown together, castles and libraries and temples and halls tumbled one upon another.
The Black River Academy has been around for a very long time indeed, but, like the Ship of Theseus, it's done so more by changing than by staying the same - to the point where its hard to say whether the establishment as it now exists is really the same place that was founded centuries ago as the Conto Martial Academy.
Academic life at Black River is marked by a certain steely-eyed pragmatism, as is perhaps inevitable for an organisation that spends most of its time thrusting young people into danger and preparing them for an existence of facing even greater dangers.  However, that shouldn't imply that the academy doesn't care about its students, or that efforts aren't made to keep them on the straight and narrow.  If perhaps it's not always possible to turn out heroes, Black River certainly does its best to produce graduates who lean more towards the Lawful Good end of the spectrum.  However, that's not to say they always succeed, or that there aren't those among the academy's hierarchy who have their own, less well-intentioned agendas.
There was a certain basic level of luxury expected of a wealthy Luntharbour merchant. 
As Durren's home town, Luntharbour is a place we hear a lot about in Level One without ever actually seeing.  We learn that the city houses wealthy and stolid merchant folk, who have little time for fripperies such  as magic.  They trade both inland and with the nations - such as Tia's people, the dun-elves of Sudra Syn - beyond the expanse of the Middlesea that divides the northern and southern continents.  But Luntharbour has more than its share of poverty too: at one point Durren notes the many homeless there, "the sailors too devoted to drink to take ship and the petty craftsmen whose debts had consumed their fragile livelihoods."
Growing up in a large and cosmopolitan city explains a lot, too, about Durren's reactions to the places he encounters around Black River: the academy is as far from civilization as he's been, and nearby towns such as Olgen seems barbaric by comparison to Luntharbour's grand mansions and teeming dockside.
The Monastery of the Petrified Egg
The place didn't entirely emit the sense of brooding malevolence Durren had been expecting.  In fact, with its whitewashed walls, many small windows and gently curving arches, the monastery appeared quite peaceful. 
Most who use magic consider it to be an essentially benevolent force that can be controlled with care.  But there are others who feel the need for greater diligence, lest the cosmic force known as the Unbalance should one day rupture beyond all hope of restraint.  So it once was with the priesthood of the monastery where Durren, Tia, Arein and Hule find themselves sent on their third quest: the place was devoted to the meditative practices used to heal the Unbalance, with the power of those who live there amplified by the ancient, vastly powerful artifact in their care.  But the problem with ancient, vastly powerful artifacts is that if their owners suddenly decide to start using them for evil instead of good then someone has to go and try to stop them...
The Wilderness
Durren found himself wondering if all their quests would see them transported to dark forests in the middle of nowhere. 
There are a lot of wild places in the world of Level One, and the party see plenty of them before the book is out.  Theoretically they should be where our ranger protagonist Durren is in his element - but then, this being a book called Level One, Durren's woodcraft isn't the greatest.  As it is, it generally falls to Tia and her wider first-hand experience to pick up the slack.
The Ruins
The surrounding forest had taken its toll, as branches thrust at crumbling walls and creepers dragged at the brickwork.  Still, something about the cut of the stones and the sheer extent of the damage told Durren that what he was looking at belonged to centuries long past.
To say too much about the ancient ruins the party stumble across would be a major spoiler, not just for Level One but potentially for its sequels also.  (Which is, in itself, admittedly a spoiler ... those things are tough to avoid!)  So let's just say that there are ancient ruins out in the wilds near Black River, and by ancient I mean ancient.  They might once have been anything, but they were clearly important - and the events that lead our young heroes there suggest that they're still important to at least someone.
And if you haven't yet delved into the world of The Black River Chronicles: Level One and would like to, you can pick up a copy at Amazon UK here and Amazon US here.

photo credit: thevitruvianman Newark Castle via photopin (license)
photo credit: Lucas Marcomini When in Venice, Get Lost via photopin (license)
photo credit: varmarohit Nature's Best via photopin (license)

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 18

Not much to say this time around: it's more of the usual randomness, and a solid batch yet again, with a couple of really splendid releases and two more that kept me amply amused, which is the most I'd ever dare ask from four nineties anime videos selected largely at random.  Now, next time around - hoo boy! - we'll be right back to plumbing the darkest, deepest depths.  So I for one am going to enjoy talking about some genuine quality while I still can.

This time through: Slayers ReturnCyber City Oedo 808Plastic Little: The Adventures of Captain Tita and Ruin Explorers: Fam and Ihrie...

Slayers Return, 1996, Hiroshi Watanabe, Kunihiko Yuyama

Here we are with the second of five Slayers movies and already there's a slight but noticeable step down in terms of ambition: the animation is pared from "cheap film" to "expensive TV episode" and the plot is smaller in scale too, in a fashion that feels like a knowing joke on the nature of less ambitious sequels.  In fact, its best running gag involves something that for want of being bothered to think of the right word I'm going to call de-escalation: a scenario is set up with great gravitas, usually involving some stereotypical fantasy threat, and at the last moment a swift rug pull throws all the established tension out of the window in favour of a cheap laugh.

Not that there's anything wrong with cheap laughs.  Humour only needs to be funny, after all, and the joke lands every time; there's something thoroughly charming about epic fantasy that just won't stay epic.  And its one of the reasons that Slayers Return is, I think, a marginally better film than its predecessor, lower production values and all.  At any rate, the elements that worked well there work just as well here: in particular, Lina Inverse and Naga the Serpent continue to be terrifically fun protagonists driven by terrifically fun vocal performances, and their interplay provides a certain base level of amusement that keeps the film comfortably afloat.  The two are in rather more mercenary form here, and Lina in particular seems to have lost a lot of her scruples, but for entertainment purposes that's definitely for the good: based on all of two films, I'm already coming to think that Slayers is at its best when its at its most irreverent, and Slayers Return gets very irreverent indeed.

Plus, it's not like its been done on the cheap by any means.  The third act, in fact, gets up to some city-scaled destruction that's actually pretty thrilling, while at the same time not losing its grip on the comedy elements, and so manages to have its cake and eat it in a manner that Slayers: The Motion Picture didn't land half so well.  And since I'm making a lot of negative comparisons, I feel the need to say that I thoroughly enjoyed Slayers: The Motion Picture, so any step up is a welcome surprise.  In fact, I'm starting to think that that this Slayers box set was an awfully good investment.  But if you're not willing to go that far then Slayers Return is comparatively easy to track down and a perfectly fine place to jump aboard.

Cyber City Oedo 808, 1990, Yoshiaki Kawajiri

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Yoshiaki Kawajiri really liked Escape From New York.  For in Cyber City Oedo 808 he rips off the few remaining elements that he failed to pillage in his earlier Demon City Shinjuku.  Except that where that classic B-movie only had one criminal forced into service on the side of law and order by the threat of being unceremoniously exploded, Cyber City Oedo 808 has three.  And this time around they're not on a mission but on the job, stuck working down outrageous prison sentences for a period that, it's strongly hinted, may prove to be the entire rest of their lives.

Now, as with Demon City Shinjuku, I don't for one moment begrudge Kawajiri his Carpenter influences, especially given that he does rather more with this particular idea than Carpenter himself did.  Our three protagonists - each the focus of one lengthy episode of a three part OVA - are wholly at the mercy of their sadistic boss, who thinks nothing of setting them literal deadlines at the most inopportune of times, which in turn makes the fact that our charming but dubious "heroes" are basically scumbags a lot easier to swallow.  There are few dramatic mechanisms more effective than a well-used ticking clock, and Kawajiri wisely exploits his borrowed gimmick to keep the tension at boiling point.

In fact, in many ways, Cyber City is top tier Kawajiri, and with Kawajiri being one of the most accomplished directors in the medium at this point, that's no small thing.  Only one flaw holds it back from unadulterated greatness, and it's not remotely his fault - but Cyber City feels awfully familiar.  Now I suspect that this is partly because cyberpunk was never the most versatile of sub-genres, but I think the real issue here is that this OVA would prove to be too damn influential for its own good.  In fact, I suspect that what we have here is the urtext of nineties cyberpunk anime, and for that reason, there's not a story here that you can't guess through to its conclusion if you're relatively familiar with the medium and the era.

The thing is, though, Kawajiri spins those tales better than any of his imitators subsequently would.  And whether or not his material was as fresh as I'm suggesting all the way back in 1990, he still makes it sing.  Few directors in any genre or medium handle action so well, and combined with Kawajiri's mastery of mood, that's enough to provide a fair amount of entertainment.  But what edges this past, say, Demon City, is that the characters work too: they're types of course, but enough goes into padding them out that they're easy to care about.  It's masterful stuff really, the sort of pulp par excellence that its director did so well, and even if imitation has robbed it of an otherwise deserved minor-classic status, I'm still happy to recommend it.

Plastic Little: The Adventures of Captain Tita, 1994, Kinji Yoshimoto

In so much as Plastic Little is remembered at all, it seems to be remembered entirely for a scene about ten minutes into the fifty minute OVA in which our two heroines - Tita, captain of the pet shop hunter ship the Cha-Cha Maru and Elysse, escapee daughter of a murdered scientist - take a bath together for no readily explicable reason.  And in fairness, it's a memorable scene: outside of the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, you've probably never seen breasts drawn with such obsessive attention to detail.  I mean, there's fan service and there's putting your plot on hold for five minutes just so you can devote half your budget to the lavish portrayal of bosoms, and this is definitely the latter.

But let's put aside, for a moment, the fact that the Plastic Little keeps getting a bit porny and look over that sentence again.  Captain of a pet shop hunter ship?  Escapee daughter of a murdered scientist?  Doesn't this all seem rather involved for a less-than-an-hour long film that exists at least partly to show off its characters' boobs at the drop of a hat?  And indeed, the other thing that sets Plastic Little apart is the degree of energy that it devotes to building an interesting world full of interesting notions and at least reasonably interesting characters.  It feels like the setup for a series, but none ever materialized - though apparently there was a manga adaptation that fleshed out the plot.  And it certainly does get a bit vague and busy at points, especially near the end, when it's not at all clear just how our heroes are accomplishing the things they are.  Still, given a choice between an overabundance and a scarcity of ideas, I'd never choose the latter.

Really, Plastic Little crams in a lot.  Each member of the Cha-Cha Maru's crew gets a little fleshing out (and, ugh, yes I realise what I just did there) and there are three big actions sequences, there's backstory and world-building and - yes - a lot of breasts.  And not all of the animators' attention was devoted to those last, either; the animation may be nothing extraordinary, but generally its pleasant to behold.  In short, I enjoyed Plastic Little rather a lot.  After a while, I forgot I was watching an OVA and settled in for a movie, and there was enough going on that I didn't feel short-changed; I was bothered about minor characters who'd probably been on screen for all of three minutes and caught up in a plot that on the face of it was fairly standard good guys versus bad guys stuff, except done well enough that the familiarity didn't much matter.

With all of that said, this is an even more pointless review than most of those here, because Plastic Little is damn near impossible to find these days.  I watched it in a video CD edition, and boy, there's a reason video CD didn't take off as a format.  Plastic Little is really damn hard to find, basically, and that's kind of a shame.  It's no masterpiece, not by any means, but it's charming and fun and deserves better than to be a footnote in history filed under the category of "well-drawn boobs."

Ruin Explorers: Fam and Ihrie, 1996, Takeshi Mori

Sometimes the most you can ask of anything is that it be an excellent version of the sort of thing it is.  So when a four part comic fantasy OVA comes along that manages to be fun and engaging on just about every level, that's worth jumping on wholeheartedly in my opinion.  If aspects push towards out-and-out brilliance then all the better; what good in bemoaning that the plot is hackneyed in its essentials or that the fantastical elements are hardly revolutionizing the genre?  And so it goes with Ruin Explorers: Fam and Ihrie.  To worry unduly over the parts that are boilerplate fantasy would be to miss just how well done the whole is, and how enjoyable the end result.  And really, perhaps even boilerplate is unfair: if the show drifts into kill-the-big-bad territory, it at least layers on enough wrinkles to stay distinctive.

Maybe what matters most, though, is that we get a pair of wonderful protagonists.  Fam and Ihrie are at core a cynic and innocent respectively, but again, there's enough done to complicate those types that they come together as deeply likable characters in their own right.  In fact, for something less than two hours long, Ruin Explorers manages to build quite a marvelous cast, even if none of them end up as heart-grabbing as our two bickering, tomb-robbing, magic-wielding heroines.  Still, on the whole the show develops the sort of fun hangout vibe that normally takes hours to establish, and some excellent design work helps in that regard.  There's perhaps not a huge amount of money on display here, backgrounds are subtly reused and stills are slyly employed, but what needs to work works: the action's vibrant, the mood is spot on, and those characters are distinctive.  Oh, and a nod, too, to the score, which is old-fashioned in odd and lovely ways, sounding like something that went missing in the 1940's and was just re-purposed.

I'm not sure that I've done much to put over why Ruin Explorers: Fam and Ihrie is so great.  But, honestly, I think that's because I'm already too emotionally attached to it; I went in expecting a Slayers rip-off and came out with a new favourite and two characters I wish with all my heart had gone on to more adventures.  For that reason, I don't want to dig too deeply into the plot and spoil, for example, the sizable inconvenience that befalls Ihrie whenever she casts a spell, or who Fam develops an adorable crush on, or why the villain ends up being so much more interesting than a lesser work of fantasy would have made them.  But, hey, you know what?  You don't see much whole-hearted recommendation around these parts, so let's push the envelope: Ruin Explorers is charming, witty fantasy made with artistry and obvious affection, and I urge you to hunt down a copy.


Would that this had been the final post in this series!  When the worst you have to put up with is something as innocuous as Plastic Little and your biggest complaint is that the animators were too preoccupied with drawing topless women, you know you've reached a high point in the business of reviewing nineties anime.

But it's not to be.  There are plenty of things to watch still on the shelf, and though some of those are very special and exciting indeed, they're most emphatically not what I'll be talking about next time.  Oh no!  Because as much as I never imagined it possible, I've found something more sleazy, disreputable, black-hearted and joyless than Legend of the Overfiend, and in the next post I'll be trying to put into words just why it hate it so vociferously.  So there's something to look forward to!

[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16, Part 17, Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23Part 24Part 25Part 26 Part 27Part 28Part 29Part 30Part 31Part 32Part 33Part 34Part 35Part 36Part 37]