Long reviews of some short stories

Well my big bang challenge fic finally posted and episode 5 is off to one of my editors. (note: if you’re also one of my editors and you’re wondering why you didn’t get 105, don’t worry, it’s actually not even to the point of “rough draft” at the moment so we’re kind of doing some fixing before I bother the rest of you – trust me, nobody should read what it is at the moment)

So I got to read a lot of short stories recently.  Most of them by John C Wright.

Spoiler free:

Awake in the Night Lands – Setting that makes Lovecraft look like Holiday World theme park.  Recommended for those with sturdy constitutions, this isn’t for the light sleeper.  Just make sure you read every story in a single sitting.

Opera Vita Aeterna – Not bad.  Easiest way to sum up: did you ever see the movie the Book of Eli?  However you felt about that movie is going to be a good indicator of how you’ll feel about this story.  Apparently it’s part of a larger literary setting which may affect your enjoyment.  If you don’t care much for medieval style fantasy, avoid.  If you love that style fantasy but feel it’s played out and overly cliche, you may want to give this a try.

City Beyond Time – Unless you really, REALLY hate time travel in stories, get this, read it.

One Bright Star to Guide Them – A fun tale.  VERY much recommended for fans of CS Lewis.

Spoiler talk will resume below.







Awake in the Night Lands – It’s literally published fan fiction and I have to admire this fan community that grown up around this old novel.  It’s pretty awesome how the fans have kept this work alive and expanded it.

I really did enjoy this series more than I first thought I would.  It takes you to whole other world and challenges you in ways unexpected.  Heck in my opinion almost everybody should get their toes stepped on a little.  Example: in a state of constant war and near extinction, it would be hard for “the Right” to make a case for free markets in this land.  Likewise for “the Left” this seems to be a world with no room for equality or sexual deviancy.  I mean this is an apocalyptic scenario like few others (zombies, nuclear, whatever) and makes you really wonder what would society be like in such a state?  What SHOULD such a society be like?  It makes the mind wonder…

First story is a great gateway drug to the world, heck I’m tinkering with a spec script because it’s just begging for a big screen adaption. (Hey, Hollywood needs some new sequel properties doesn’t it?)

Second story ended up being my favorite because it subverted my expectations on two accounts.  The first is that the “smartass rebels” didn’t get away with insanity.  See, there is a habit in stories that those who buck tradition are always right.  And I get it, I’m American so I’m very sympathetic to bucking tradition (as they say, slavery was once a tradition – thank goodness it no longer is).  The problem is that stories have turned now from the motif of “it’s right because it’s tradition” to “it’s wrong because it’s tradition”.  Both views are wrong and I do grow tired of creators using that “bucking the trend” as story shorthand for the protagonist.  Traditions and rules exist for a reason and if a character is going to break them, then there has to be compelling reasons within the story that show the audience why either this one instance is an exception to following said rules, or the flaw in the original reasoning that demands the whole thing be struck down.  In this story we see a demonstration that there are very good reasons for the rules and traditions that exist and they should be maintained.  The second thing I was actually surprised about was that the main character – a female! – was actually allowed to be flawed and wrong.  Similar to the above there’s also a running motif that “doing the right thing” should get a person off any punishment scott free.  Partially related to the above, that’s not strictly the case (though the discussion of it probably deserves it’s own essay).  Of course authors almost always rather reward their protagonists rather than punish them so I’m not unsympathetic to the tendency, but you make the protagonist a girl?  Then they’re likely to escape any consequences! (probably because authors are paranoid about being labeled sexist)  It is then with some irony that many of these female characters end up becoming as shallow and 2D as any previous caricature.  Even though at times I found the protagonist of this story grating, in the end I liked her far more because she was more real, flawed, and (more importantly) she had an arc and grew out of those flaws.

Third story I wanted to like more.  I would have preferred less action in it and more discussion about (as mentioned above there) how society can/should be in this world and whether survival trumps all or if there are more important things.

Fourth story… I need to reread.  My fault in that I didn’t go through it all in one sitting and really, you HAVE to on this one.  No, even if your house is on fire, you sit there and finish this story (you’ll at least have plenty of light to read by).

Opera Vita Aeterna – Ok, one problem I had with this story is that I read it immediately following the previous story collection. (hence it’s order and I picked it up because it was free)  Going from JC Wright’s Night Lands to this is rather like going from the finest steak meal you can imagine to a Wendy’s frosty.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Wendy’s frosties, but the taste and level of filling is very different.

Confession time: For a few years I subscribed to Realms of Fantasy (which I actually quite liked).  If you were to hold up the picture that accompanied every short story in the magazine, I could probably give you a decent summation of said story (because I have a semi-freakish ability to retain almost anything I’ve read).  If however you asked me to NAME any story (or summarize it) off the top of my head from that mag, that number would be less.  The most common feature of the stories I could name?  Religion. (even one or two that were INCREDIBLY insulting towards it)

Now it’s always been a bit odd that religion is left out of so many stories (though I can understand it from a business perspective), particularly stories that often describe odd details about the characters to add realism to them (especially something like that person burping or farting).  This is a big feature of a lot of people’s lives and it is weird that it is so rarely touched on (unless you assume there’s an atheist requirement to be an author) though I’ll admit I’d rather it not done at all than done poorly (which is why some topics and things I avoid in my own works since I’m not confident yet in my ability to do them justice).  However, that’s for generally modern day set fiction.  If a story is set in a medieval style period, then it gets REALLY weird for religion to not be present.  I’ll admit it’s very hard for any of us to conceptualize just what religion was like back during the middle ages of… actually most of the world (not just Europe).  The closest approximation would be to the internet today – so every time you read a medieval style story without religion in it is rather like reading a story set in modern day times (2000+ AD) that has no internet in it: kind of weird.

So I did appreciate this story placing religion where it belongs in a medieval style fantasy.  Though I was thrown off by this faith being a carbon copy of Catholicism with a few names changed to protect the innocent.  One of my favorite features of Narnia was the demonstration that a different world would have a different divine incarnation within it (world of beasts == God as beast).  The concept of humans sharing a world with other sapient species is one I adore (and am working on in another top secret work) but it does make the mind wonder why/how the Church ended up exactly like it did in our world.  As I said above, this story is apparently a smaller part of a larger whole so maybe some of those answers await elsewhere but I’m still on the fence of how well this story worked as an introduction to the world.  Had the differences been a little sharper I think I would have been intrigued enough to seek out more about this world to learn where and how things altered, but as it stands the similarities were so numerous I gained little interest in the world.  If however you’re a hardcore religious nerd (especially a geek for Catholic trivia) you will probably enjoy this a lot more and catch the probably more numerous differences that those of us less knowledgeable missed.  (I for one wanted more discussions on how magical spells and religious rites are similar or different.)

The story itself… well I LOVED the Book of Eli and quite enjoyed this story too though a few moments and motivations that the climax ultimately turns on I thought could be better fleshed out.  Oh right this is spoiler discussion.  WTF with the demon?  Yes I know I’m partially jaded because of all the Supernatural I’ve had to deal with lately but why it was so attached to the elf and why the monastery didn’t feel the need to ward off the bastard I didn’t grasp.  Again, might be elsewhere in another story, but since so much of this tale turns on these two factors it ends up counting against it.  All in all I don’t regret reading this story, it was enjoyable enough, but it didn’t grab me like any of these others.  Now the story of those missionaries going to the elves…

City Beyond Time – What can I say?  I love time travel and a collection of stories examining the morality of it rather than the usual questions tickled my fancy.  I think the choice of order for the stories was… debatable (but then when it comes to time, what events aren’t?).  Stories like the one about dad’s monument get kind of weird after you’ve read the tale at the beginning about how the city is fading.  I mean is the ending supposed to be hopeful or sadly tragic?

Slayer of Souls BARELY fits into the theme of this collection, but is so freakin freaky, unnerving and awesome, it’s impossible to complain.  I’ve talked about one of the stories before, I stand by what I said, and there’s not a lot to add past that.

One Bright Star to Guide Them – Here’s a fun game for the extremely nerdy.  Grab a copy of this story, get your favorite drinks, and then have a game where you see who can spot the most tributes to CS Lewis in this story (it might be even more fun as you all argue over whether this name or that scene are a tribute to Lewis or not – such is fun for the geek).  I’m a big CS Lewis fan (if for his writing ability and style if nothing else) so I got a big kick out of this story.

I admit I was surprised that there was no “twist” to the story.  Having read enough short fiction in the last few years, there almost always has to be some kind of “twist” come up at the end.  So through the whole story I kept waiting… ‘Tybalt will be the villain’ or ‘They’ll hint that Tommy might be mad and all this might be in his head and he’s killed innocent people the last few days’ were the two that most commonly ran through my mind.  And then… no.  None of that happened.  What does it say about the modern state of stories that the biggest twist to them nowadays is NO twist?  Honestly I didn’t expect a straight story.

What else to say… a lot of things I was going to discuss when reading ended up having the story itself pointing out by the end so I feel not a lot to say without quoting some passages verbatim.  I will say this: It’s a very common piece of advice to storytellers to “show don’t tell”.  Now in movies and TV and other media of that type the implication is obvious.  In writing (and radio) that’s… a bit harder advice to grasp since, on some level, isn’t everything you’re doing telling?

In this story Mr Wright apparently took that rule and said “Challenge Accepted” and decided to do a story that consisted almost ENTIRELY of telling.  In fact you could adapt this story as a stage play or independent film VERY easily (no really, I’d love to get a local acting troupe here to perform this story).  I have to admit though that this author pulled it off dagnabbit.  At the least I would recommend this story to classes to help writers grasp what is the difference between showing and telling and – if you must – how to make even telling exciting.  Whatever else you might say about the tale, the author deserves a slow clap for that.

Hmm… now how to get this into a movie on YouTube…


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