Appendix N Review: Three Hearts and Three Lions

To Holger Carlsen, Dane by birth and engineer by trade, science rules all. The immutable laws of physics govern the universe, and there is no space in this rational world for the mysterious and the magical. Yet one fateful day, when fighting along the Resistance in the Second World War, he is knocked out in battle, and awakens naked in a strange forest. Nearby is a horse of startling intelligence, carrying arms and armour that fit him perfectly, including a shield that bears the device of three hearts and three lions.

Thus begins Poul Anderson’s seminal work Three Hearts and Three Lions. Coming from an era saturated with Japanese isekai stories and Western dark fantasy CRPGs, Three Hearts and Three Lions is simultaneously refreshing and inspiring. Both of these media owe their origins to Gary Gygax’s Dungeons & Dragons tabletop roleplaying game, and Gygax in turn drew inspiration from a list of stories, stories he listed in his famous Appendix N. Among them is Three Hearts and Three Lions.

Before the isekai boom, before the fad of Western dark fantasy, there was the traditional Western fantasy in all its glittering splendor. Three Hearts and Three Lions hails from that era, seamlessly weaving myth and religion into a tale of chivalry and romance.

Holger Carlsen is not on Earth anymore — and yet this Earth bears startling similarities to ours. There is talk of Charlemagne and Saracens and Jews, but there are also fairies, pagans, monsters, demons, and the Dark Powers that rule the forces of evil. Magic is accepted reality, but scientific principles also underline the world. Holger has no knowledge of the language of this world, yet when people speak he hears his own tongue, and when he speaks the words that emerge are those of this other world. Most curiously of all, Holger’s name is known far and wide across the land as a Champion of the Law.

As Holger attempts to understand how and why he was brought to this world, he joins forces with a beautiful swan maiden and a stout dwarf. Together, they embark on a journey to discover his identity, uncover the significance of the three hearts and three lions, and save both worlds from the forces of Chaos.

Fans ofD&D, Western fantasy and isekai can clearly identify the progenitor of many themes and tropes within this book. There are monsters taken from myth, the hero who applies modern-day knowledge in a fantasy setting, elves and dwarves and demons, the archetypal paladin who wanders the world doing good and smiting evil, and so on. Admiral Ironbombs does a commendable job here linking Three Hearts and Three Lions to D&D.

But there is one thing that many modern fantasies have not inherited from classical fantasy, something that is readily apparent in every page of Three Hearts and Three Lions: religion.

The world of Three Hearts and Three Lions is divided into Law and Chaos. As Jeffro Johnson discussed, they represent different polarities and different ways of life. Law is civilization, selflessness and predictability; Chaos is selfish, unpredictable and subversive. The lands of the Law belong to humans — religious humans — while the domain of Chaos belongs to the Fae and their vassals. Caught in between are the Middle Worlders who adopt a policy of neutrality.

In a direction confrontation with the forces of the Law, Chaos is impotent. The touch of silver or cold iron, the sight of a crucifix, or a sincere prayer will repel the forces of Chaos. Faith alone is the ultimate weapon against Chaos. Instead of direct confrontation, Chaos relies on a strategy of subversion, breaking the will of the inhabitants of the Law to spread their power. Chaos relies also on recruits from the neutral creatures of the Middle World. While lacking the magical powers of Chaos, Middle Worlders are not vulnerable to iron, silver or holy symbols, enabling them to battle the forces of the Law directly.

Such a conflict is reminiscent of Ephesians 6:12 (“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places”), a battle of wills and faith instead of flesh and steel. When waging war on Chaos, you aren’t just placing your life at risk — you risk your soul.

In the world of Three Hearts and Three Lions, the Fae are cunning, seductive and manipulative beings who tempt their enemies into ruin. A prayer and a cross can ward you from demons in the dark, but a single impious thought will break the wards, and the tireless monsters of the night will fall upon you. Scenes like this resonate sharply with Christian readers, and yet it is presented as an organic aspect of the world, so non-Christians do not feel like they are being lectured to.

Contrast this with many modern fantasy stories, isekai or otherwise. The Church — or any kind of centralised religion — is usually nonexistent, a target of ridicule, or an evil and oppressive organization that must be destroyed. The forces of evil are powerful and innumerable, sweeping across the land like an infernal scourge. The enemy is known and readily identifiable. The hero is usually either a displaced shounen with overpowered cheat skills, a designated hero only slightly less evil than the Big Bad, or both.

Such a setting ignores or denounces the concept of a central moral authority. Morality thus stems from the characters’ personal code of conduct, or relies heavily on the perspective the consumer brings to the table. Lighter works like Death March to the Parallel World Rhapsodyhave the heroes act generally according to accepted modern moral norms, without exploring the moral dimension. Darker or more mature works attempts to undermine the notion of objective ethics altogether. For instance, in Tsuyokute New Saga, protagonist Kail will do anything — lie, cheat, manipulate and murder — to attain his goal of defeating the Demon King, and suffers no consequences or guilt from his deeds.

Stories that lack a moral dimension tend to become predictable. The main character begins by fighting small fry, and as he becomes more powerful, the bad guys become increasingly dangerous and the stakes ever higher. Past a threshold, there is no longer any excitement from fighting lesser scum, for the reader knows that the hero will steamroll them. The writer knows this too, so the only way to keep things interesting is to either expand the cast of characters or to shoot for the highest stakes: to defeat the Big Bad and save the world.

While there is nothing inherently wrong in escalating stakes, in one paragraph I’ve described nearly every major shounen and seinen fantasy story of the last twenty years.

Stories where morality has consequences and religion has weight carry a gravitas unknown to the previous category. Religious institutions and rituals meaningfully contribute to the world, adding layers to the setting and influencing the events of the story. Indeed, Christian rites and beliefs influence the inhabitants of the world of Three Hearts and Three Lions in ways minor and major. When faced with critical decisions, characters must weigh their options and act appropriately.

When good and evil both have costs and advantages, every decision has impact and significance. From a craft perspective, you don’t have to keep coming up with ever-more-exciting setpiece sequences to keep the audience interested; you can always switch things up by making the character make a difficult choice.

Stories in which an ever-increasingly powerful protagonist merely faces mortal peril must eventually fall back on spectacle and action extravaganzas to make continued conflict meaningful to the audience. Stories that place the hero in mortal and moral peril require the hero to guard his soul from corruption every step of the way. The latter doesn’t need a Demon King, a horde of cannibal barbarian warriors, or slavering eldritch abominations from Beyond to keep things exciting — when the hero must constantly struggle with his inner demons, a single misstep will leave him naked to the forces of Hell. Such a setting allows for fresh stories, meaningful drama and compelling arcs — and prevents the hero from being trapped into a never-ending loop of beating up foes, getting stronger, and beating up even stronger foes ad infinitum.

Most of all, in stories with a positive portrayal of religion, a skilled writer can drop the veil at the right moment, revealing exactly where the protagonist stands in the grand cosmic design and how he touches the lives of everybody and everything around him. It is a powerful moment that affirms the value of the good life and inspires awe and wonder in the reader. This is the moment of awe the Superversive movement strive for. And the climax of Three Hearts and Three Lions does this beautifully.

With the hero facing mortal and moral peril, Christianity as a powerful force for good, tireless evil that hunts patiently for souls, fantastic creatures and marvellous characterisation, Three Hearts and Three Lions is a worthy addition to any fantasy library. It is a seminal novel that upholds the pillars of Western civilization, yet speaks to readers of every creed. Quite simply, it is one of the finest fantasy stories of the twentieth century.

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My own stories also conspire to place the hero at mortal and moral peril. Check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES here.

What Do Otaku Readers Really Want?

The Japanese publishing industry is getting predictable. Every other week, there’s a brand new series starring a Japanese high schooler who is mysteriously transported to a fantasy world. There he promptly gains overwhelming powers, the antagonism of the local Demon King, and the affections of a harem of cute, buxom, mature, demihuman and underage girls. Harem hijinks, massive explosions, and indecisive fumbling and awkward stuttering follows. And along with these come the inevitable light novel/manga/anime/movie/game/mobile adaptations.

Exaggeration? Probably, but not by much. As JD Cowan notes in two separate blog posts, pandering to otaku makes easy money. While he was writing about the context of anime, the Japanese publishing and anime industries tend to be tightly integrated. If a manga or light novel becomes a bestseller, an anime adapation will follow, and vice versa.

In July 2016 I saw this phenomenon first hand in Sapporo. Strolling into a Kinokuniya, I took this photograph:

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A glance at the covers will tell you what the contents of many of these stories are about. Having read several of these manga, I can confirm that the covers are faithful representations of the contents. The deliberate positioning of these books at eye height, where customers can easily spot them, likewise indicate what the bookstore thinks will sell best.

That said, while it’s easy to dismiss all modern manga, anime and light novels as fanservice, a closer inspection will reveal more interesting tidbits. Among the titles I found were Nejimaki Seirei Senki – Tenkyou no Alderamin (Alderamin in the Sky), a military fantasy series; Fate/Strange Fake, a spin-off of a popular urban fantasy franchise; Ri:Zero kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu (Re:Zero − Starting Life in Another World), a isekai fantasy story with death-triggered time travel as its main gimmick; All You Need is Kill, a military science fiction time travel story; and Golden Kamuy, a historical action thriller. None of these titles are fanservice titles, and yet they take pride of place in bookshelves.

These are also the kind of stories that will be exported overseas.

Three Markets, Three Tastes?

Otaku pandering may be a surefire formula for financial success in Japan. But in places without a significant otaku population (i.e. the rest of the world), works that rely on fanservice and otaku in-jokes aren’t going to survive. The more risque ones might even be banned outright, formally or otherwise.

Companies that specialise in importing, translating and distributing Japanese media need to select works that they believe will appeal to their audiences. Bookstores, in turn, have to make careful stocking selections to ensure maximum returns. As bookstores shutter their doors and online marketplaces expand, stocking the right kind of books spell the difference between profit and closure for brick-and-mortar bookstores.

Looking at translated media gives a good gauge of what distributors and bookstores believe to be the tastes of the local audience. It may not necessarily be totally representative of what the audience is looking for, but it provides insights into the state of the industry and the tastes of the market. With this in mind, I visited the Kinokuniya bookstore at Orchard Road on the 29th of December.

My first stop was the manga section, with some of its offerings photographed below.

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These manga are shounen titles, aimed at males between the ages of 12 to 18. These are wildly-popular series: Attack on TitanYour Lie in AprilOne-Punch Man. Other titles on offer include Blue ExorcistFairy Tale and Servant x Service. You might also find the odd seinen manga, which are works for males between 18 to 35, such as Ghost in the ShellVagabond and, if you are incredibly lucky, Berserk.

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Fanservice is not in demand in Singapore’s bookstores. And the titles I’ve discovered are all hits in Japan–and in the West. This indicates that there is an aesthetic that transcends geographical and cultural borders. Not to mention media genres.

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For a most mysterious reason, English-language light novels are shelved under ‘Comics Literature’. Even franchises that began as light novels (Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in A Dungeon?) or web novels (The Rising of the Shield Hero). Naming peculiarities aside, a quick glance at the shelves speaks volumes about local tastes.

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Once again, these titles are hits in Japan and the West, and most are not fanservice-heavy titles. The majority of them are shounen titles too. Indeed, I counted only three explicit seinen titles tucked away: OverlordRe:Zero and the infamous Goblin Slayer.

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As you can see, the books are practically skeletal by Western standards. For instance, every chapter in Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in A Dungeon? tends to run to about 20-25 pages, with plenty of white space, one-liners or three to four-line paragraphs, and minimal descriptions. This allows the bookstore to stock multiple copies of the same book, and indeed keep the entire series in inventory, without sacrificing much shelf space. It also allows the reader to quickly breeze through the book — and drives demand for the sequel.

The English-speaking demographic of Singapore seems to favour shounen titles filled with action, fantasy, adventure and a dash of harem hijinks. Seinen stories are a tough sell.

Wandering over to the Chinese section, I noticed straightaway that the Chinese naming conventions tend to be in line with Japanese ones. Light novels are indeed called light novels, and manga is translated as manhua. Unlike the English section, there is also a shelf reserved exclusively to web novels.

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The Chinese manhua shelf shows a surprising diversity of works — not the least because the Chinese language section has more shelf space for Japanese imports. There are oldies but goodies like Slam Dunk and Ranma 1/2, contemporary sci fi like Space Brothers, and the odd seinen title like Billy Bat. There are likely a number of original Chinese manhua mixed in the shelves too, but I’m not familiar enough with manhua to make a definitive pronouncement. And smack-dab in the middle is Cardcaptor Sakura. There doesn’t seem to be a preference for genre, demographic or publishing date — just a preference for proven bestsellers. The one thing we can say that the Chinese market probably loves is Gundam.

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The light novels section likewise follow a similar trend. With more shelving space comes an increased variety of selections. We have Chinese-translated versions of Japanese favourites like Your NameFireworks, Should We See it From the Side or Bottom?, and The Irregular at Magic High School. There are seinen titles like OverlordUntil Death Do Them Part and Re:Zero, and fanservice books like Ero-Manga Sensei and Only Sense Online. I also found classics like The Kindaichi Case Files and more obscure titles such as Alice Mare.

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There’s at least four times the shelf space dedicated to Chinese light novels than their English counterparts. This is possibly indicative of increased demand for light novels among Chinese readers than English readers. Further, many Chinese language novels are published in the same short and thin style as Japanese light novels. The familiar formatting might make it easier for Japanese light novels to break into the Chinese market.

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The web novels section stands apart from the others. Virtually all the titles on sale are Chinese-language original works. With the odd doorstopper, many print web novels tend to either be as long as their light novel counterparts or perhaps a fraction longer. Chinese language web novels are also markedly similar to their Japanese counterparts, with brief, breezy writing, volume-spanning story arcs, and hundreds, if not thousands, of chapters.

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Lessons for SteemPulp

While the PulpRev community aspires to study from the old pulp grandmasters, I think there is much to be learned from modern writing as well. Steemit is a superb platform for publishing light novels and web novels in the style of the Japanese and Chinese traditions. For aspiring web novellists, I have the following observations:

Shounen is King

The number of shounen works vastly outnumber those of seinen stories. This shouldn’t be surprising, since there are far more shounen stories out there. But there is also a distinct lackof shoujo and josei stories too — stories targeted at girls and women. You’ll have to work to find the latter two genres.

Before the inevitable cries of sexism, I should point out that the shelves I’ve photographed comprised a tiny fraction of the total shelf space available in Kinokuniya. With so little space to work with, the bookstore needs to prioritise titles that will turn a profit. They will select for titles with universal appeal, which seems to be shounen works. For non-shounen stories to break out into the market, they’ll have to find a way to differentiate themselves from the competition.

Different Demographics, Universal Tastes

The English-speaking market seems to prefer modern works, while the Chinese market has a mix of modern and classic works. This could simply be due to the limited shelf space available for English-language books — and perhaps an indication that Chinese translation may not be a commercial priority beyond well-known bestsellers.

With that said, the length and size of the print stories are telling. Light novels and web novels all tend to be just the right size to hold in one hand. The same size as old pulp novels. However, the presence of thicker Chinese-language web novels suggests that a Chinese audience is also receptive to longer works.

It appears that there is a universal preference for short novels, short chapters, and tight stories. In other word: pulp stories.

Seek the Universals

There are themes, aesthetics and archetypes that transcend geographical, cultural and linguistic borders. Stories of high action and adventure, cool magic and advanced technology, compelling characters and intense drama will always gain traction no matter which language they are presented in. Tight, trim novels are appreciated no matter where you go. Stories that stand the test of time will always have willing readers.

If SteemPulp is to take off, they must write their stories to fit market preferances. If PulpRev, Superversive, Noblebright and other affiliated movements are to make fiction great again, they must tap into the power of the universals.

And fanservice is, most assuredly, not among them.

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My Dragon-nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons is assuredly light on fanservice and heavy on action, tradecraft, and character drama. Check it out here.

Unreview: The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang

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When I first heard of The Tensorate Series, alarm bells rang in my head. The core concepts sound cool: A crypto-Asian continent-spanning nation fracturing at the seams, exotic monsters roaming the wilds of a strange world, Tensors who use magic based on the classic Chinese elements and the Force, a pair of children who will shape the destiny of the nation. And the writer is Singaporean. Then I saw the publisher.

Tor.

For the uninitiated, Tor allegedly publishes science fiction and fantasy, but its offerings are mired in social justice messaging. At best, its works are merely uninspired hack jobs — think everything by John Scalzi, which is essentially rehashed fan fiction of more popular franchises. At its worst, we have The Tensorate Series.

The Tensorate Series is composed of two novellas, The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune. Having picked up the latter first, I’ll break it down in this post — and if I find a copy of the former, I’ll post another unreview. The Red Threads of Fortune can be summed up in one word.

Unreadable.

Two Broken Women and a Monster

The first chapter opens with protagonist Sanao Mokoya staring at the remains of her voice transmitter (not-radio), trying and failing to repair the damage with magic. The remains of the voice transmitter she just broke.

When she is alone.

In a desert.

Hunting a naga.

Mokoya is too dumb to live. She destroyed a vital piece of equipment in the middle of a mission to locate the nest of an allegedly dangerous monster. She even acknowledges that it was a mistake. And why did she break the transmitter? In her words:

Could she admit she had been startled by Adi’s voice coming out of nowhere and had lashed out like a frightened animal?

Here I see an impetuous, self-destructive idiot on a hair trigger without the emotional self-control to reign in her temper and exercise the discipline necessary for a solo mission. This isn’t the kind of character who will survive an action-heavy story, much less a character with whom I can identify.

But that’s not all: Adi, her boss, is also an idiot.

Why was Mokoya alone? She even acknowledges that ‘scouting alone was a mistake’. Yet she went and convinced Adi, the leader of her crew, to let her go alone, because…reasons.

Mokoya justified her decision to go alone by saying, ‘I trained as a pugilist in the Grand Monastery. I can handle a naga, no matter how big. I’m the only one on this crew who can.’

Later on, it is revealed that ‘Naga hunting was a specialty of Adi’s crew’.

Mokoya is the only person on the crew who can handle a naga, but the crew specialises in hunting naga? That makes no sense. A crew that specialises in hunting naga will have every combatant skilled in the art of handling naga. A naga-hunting crew reliant on a sole naga wrangler will be forced to close down when the specialist goes down. Or perhaps Mokoya simply meant that she was the only one in the crew who can handle a naga of any size.

Either Adi is an idiot who placed the livelihoods of the crew in Mokoya’s hands, or Mokoya can’t communicate properly. I’m betting the former, because Adi allowed Mokoya to go gallivanting in the desert to hunt a monster with nothing but a voice transmitter and a pack of raptors.

It’s implied that Adi sees this as a favor, to be collected upon later, but if you’re hunting a super-predator (or any kind of hostile creature), a solo mission is the height of lunacy. The buddy rule exists to ensure complete situational awareness (a point unknowingly reinforced later). Further, Mokoya is a Tensor, the equivalent of a magician, and a skilled martial artist; if she dies in the desert, the crew would lose a valuable asset, and a competent boss would do everything to prevent that.

Only, it doesn’t matter in this case, for the naga is a veritable idiot.

Mokoya spends most of the chapter woolgathering, spending the time dumping information on the reader. Then the naga appears, swooping down from behind her, so close the wind of its passage startled her raptor and threw her off her mount–

–and flies down into a nearby canyon to roost in its nest.

Up to this point, a naga is treated in-universe as an terrible monster, so dangerous that a single naga can destroy villages and rip up the countryside. Mokoya suspects that this particular naga was unnaturally modified. And Mokoya and her raptors was in the middle of open desert, with neither cover nor concealment, easily visible to anyone from the air.

So why did the naga ignore her?

Yang chose to allow Mokoya to survive the encounter by having the naga ignore her. This defangs the naga and undercuts the reader’s expectation of a deadly predator. There is no sense of threat from the creature, and with it Mokoya’s mission lacks urgency and peril.

Thus, the first chapter is about an idiot working for an idiot to hunt an idiot.

Language and Its Discontents

After breaking her not-radio, Mokoya shouts the word ‘Cheebye‘ over and over again. It is a derogatory term for the female sexual organ, usually appended by ‘chao‘ (‘smelly’), and highly favored by Singaporean men.

It is also a Hokkien word. A dialect hitherto unseen up to this point.

Adi also uses the same profanity a lot. In fact, she doesn’t even speak the same language as Mokoya. Here are some quotes:

“Ha nah ha nah, you go lah, not my pasal whether you die or not.”
“Mokoya! Kanina–is that you or a ghost?”
“Eh, hello, I let you go by yourself doesn’t mean you can ignore me, okay?”

Adi speaks Singlish. A language that shouldn’t exist in this world.

Singlish is a modern tongue that arose from peculiar and specific circumstances. When the British arrived in Singapore in 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles found an island dominated by Malays with a small Chinese minority. After establishing a colony here, the British used English as the language of administration, and imported huge numbers of labourers from China and India. So many Chinese settled in Singapore that they outnumbered the indigenous Malays and became the new majority. English bridged the four peoples, but these cultures quickly left their mark.

Singlish is built on British English but obeys Chinese grammatical rules, and indeed it reads as a near-literal translation of spoken Chinese. Its pronunciation is based on Chinese, Hokkien and Malay. Singlish also borrows heavily from Singapore’s four major languages, including Hokkien (hence cheebye and kanina) and Malay (pasal, which might also be a Tagalog or Indonesian word).

Singlish is a creole that could only be born under unique circumstances. Circumstances like a major trade city in a Malay-majority region with an English-speaking coloniser so powerful that it could bring in subjects from faraway lands.

As far as I can tell, there is no equivalent city in the world of the Tensorate. The main characters of the Tensorate series sport quasi-East Asian names. Not Chinese, closer to Japanese. During a mental soliloquy (read: infodump) in the middle of the chapter, there are allusions to a Chinese-speaking society, a Mongolian-esque nation and an Indian analog. All of them are widely separated by thousands of li, and there is no mention of any special place where peoples of all nations live and congregate.

In other words, the worldbuilding doesn’t support the existence of Singlish.

But even if it does, the jarring use of Hokkien and Singlish points to a deeper issue with the story: its refusal of the mythic.

The planet of the Tensorate series is a strange world. It has low-gravity areas where monsters breed and roam. Suns cross the sky six times a day. The Slack underpins all creation, granting untold power to the gifted few who can touch it. It is a world that exists only in fantasies.

Mythic language reinforces the element of the fantastic. Unusual vocabulary and measured cadence draws in the reader, sucking him into the world and keeping him there, reminding him always that this is not our world. Mythic language paints the fictitious world in vivid colours, prickles the senses, and teases the reader with possibilities of what could be and what might have been.

When Aragon addresses the men of the West, he addresses their fears and encourages them to push on, he acknowledges great evil and ignites the spark of defiance, he speaks to their shared identity and history as Men of the West and inspires them to victory and glory. When Palpatine lies to the Galactic Senate, he presents the image of the eternal tyrant taking the reigns of power. These speeches point to mythic archetypes long buried in the human consciousness, roused to roaring life, transporting the audience deeper into the world of the story.

When Adi speaks, I am transported to my living room.

The world of the Tensorate is not Singapore. There is no reason characters should speak Singlish or any kind of mundane English. The use of everyday English in a fantastic setting tears the reader away from the book and the characters. It makes the characters feel as though they were abducted from our world instead of fully-fleshed inhabitants of theirs.

Consider Mokoya. She was raised and trained by warrior monks as a pugilist, she has the power of prophecy, and she can manipulate the elements. But, as the quotes above show, she speaks exactly like a Singaporean Chinese woman lifted from the streets of modern-day Singapore. Her cadence is Singaporean, her word choices are Singaporean, even her profanity is Singaporean. In her voice I hear an echo of modern Singapore, not the echo of a religious, martial and magical upbringing in an exotic land.

The few concessions to the exotic are laughable. A radio is called a ‘voice transmitter’ — never mind that it can receive voices as well. The naga of this universe seem like Western dragons with wings that don’t breathe fire — not the half-human half-snake water-dwelling creatures from Asian myth. The one unusual word that stood out was the word ‘gravesent’, used as a pejorative. That it stands out at all points to the distinct lack of the mythic.

The language of a fantasy story should ground the reader in a sense of place. The language of this story tears me out of it.

Place Without A Place

I’ve read the first chapter a half-dozen times. I can’t tell if Mokoya were traversing a desert, flying through a fogbank, or wading through a wasteland of pink slime.

There is no sense of place here. Words like ‘desert’ and ‘bluff’ and ‘cliff’ and ‘mountain’ appear, but there is no veracity to these words, no sense of scale or context. They are just there, as though they came into being only when Mokoya observed them.

The closest the reader has to a sense of place is an infodump in the middle of the chapter as Mokoya works out a puzzle. Mokoya thinks of nearby nations and peoples and cultures as she ponders the naga’s behaviour. That infodump is both boring and irrelevant at that point in the story. But it does show Mokoya woolgathering in the middle of a solo hunt for a dangerous monster — but that’s all right, because the naga ignored her, because reasons.

I don’t see a sense of place here. Only a sense that the writer’s craft is sorely lacking.

Everything Has Consequences

The chapter began with a Strong Female Character who places herself in mortal peril twice. It ends with the naga ignoring her, and with her using a different gadget to talk to Adi.

This chapter has no sense of consequences. Mokoya breaks her not-radio when she is hunting solo in the desert, but that’s okay because she can use another kind of not-radio with her magic, which she had conveniently brought with her and forgotten about until the end of the chapter. Mokoya goes on a dangerous quest solo, but that’s okay because she knows what she is doing. Only, she shows that she doesn’t know what she is doing by daydreaming in the middle of a hunt, but that’s okay because the naga pays even less attention to its surroundings than she does.

If the effects of Mokoya’s actions can be undone by the end of the chapter, if nothing she does has any grave consequences, then why does the chapter even exist? Far better to have Mokoya regret her stupidity by being forced to flee from a raging naga that she failed to detect, or better yet, open the story with Mokoya and the rest of the crew taking down the naga and discovering something unusual about it.

The chapter is just barely-disguised exposition. It exists to introduce the obligatory Strong But Flawed Female Character, the Overbearing Boss who is differentiated through her unique speech patterns, how the magic works, hint at the Machinists and some ominous enemy faction, some nearby nations, a dangerous monster and Mokoya’s mission. It doesn’t advance the story one bit. If this chapter were cut, the story loses nothing.

I couldn’t get past the first chapter of the story. It demonstrates poor writing craft and even poorer publishing strategy. I have no doubt that Tor chose to publish this story primarily because it features a Strong Female Character written by a genderqueer Person of Color from an exotic but modern country. Not because it tells a compelling story.

Social justice and bad writing has consequences. I refuse to read the rest of the story, and urge you to ignore it.

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Unlike The Red Threads of Fortune, my novel No Gods, Only Daimons features a female main character who overcomes her enemies through skill, cunning, wits and sheer ruthlessness. You can pick up the book on Amazon.

SIGNAL BOOST: The City and the Dungeon by Matthew P. Schmidt

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Writer and fellow Steemian Matthew P. Schmidt has submitted his latest novel, The City and the Dungeon, and Those who Dwell and Delve Within, to Amazon’s traditional publishing arm, Kindle Scout. If he gathers enough nominations for the next thirty days, Amazon will (presumably) buy the rights to the novel, and everyone who nominated it for publication will receive a free copy. If you would like to see his official announcement, click here.

Set in a world that runs on RPG mechanics, C&D follows the adventures of Alex Kenderman, a new immigrant to the titular City who braves the Dungeon to remit money home to the family. Along the way, Alex makes firm friends, battles terrible monsters, navigates the legal system, plans and develops his character and party build, and almost accidentally crashes the world economy. Oh, and he falls in love in a girl who is way out of his league…and unlike trashy anime or manga protagonists, actually musters the courage to speak to her.

Schmidt is in my writer’s group, and I’ve had the great fortune of beta reading the manuscript. I can wholeheartedly recommend this story to everyone who enjoys Young Adult fantasy fiction and litrpg stories. It is a clean, tightly-written story suitable for all ages, brimming with adventure and fascinating characters and intriguing detail. If it’s right up your alley, and you’ve got an Amazon Kindle account, you can nominate the story here.

Oh, and Schmidt: Good luck!

Signal Boost: WAR DEMONS by Russell Newquist

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After five years of war in Afghanistan, Michael Alexander returns home a broken man, haunted by the ghosts of war. Returning to Georgia, he tries to start a new life. But something evil followed him from the mountains of Afghanistan, it’s tearing up everything in its path, and Michael is squarely in its sights.

To survive, Michael has to rely on his military and martial arts training; forge an unlikely alliance with his friends, a homeless prophet and the family members of a lost love; and take the fight to the relentless demon.

But the demon is merely the first of many monsters to come.

(Full disclosure: I received an advance copy in exchange for a blurb.)

WAR DEMONS by Russell Newquist is hands-down the finest urban fantasy thriller I’ve read this year by an indie author. The first book of the Prodigal Son series, WAR DEMONS features a battered veteran struggling with inner and outer demons, a taut mystery intertwined with an ever-escalating conflict, outstanding action set pieces, and all-too-human characters battling with the forces of evil.

Newquist has long championed the Superversive movement, and it shines through in WAR DEMONS. This is an unabashedly Christian work, built on a Christian sense of ethics and populated with Christian characters. But the story refrains from preaching about the faith, instead letting Christianity inform the characters’ actions. They aren’t saints–Michael least of all–but when the chips are down they strive to do the right thing. They may not always succeed, but in doing so they ennoble themselves and inspire everyone around them.

This moral characterization paints them in stark contrast to the villains of the story. While we don’t see their perspective as often as the protagonists, every time they appear they exude an aura of evil and malice. Everything they do reeks of depravity and corruption. They are the agents of pure, elemental Evil, and with their dark powers they seem nigh-unstoppable.

The heroes are sympathetic and the villains utterly vicious. Through this sharp moral delineation, you can fully appreciate the titanic clash of good versus evil. Every victory is hard-won, every defeat stings, every reveal is believable, every act of valor or kindness both simultaneously in character and edifying.

WAR DEMONS begins as a psychological thriller. A strange creature is stalking Michael, and he must find out what it is and why it’s hunting him. At the same time, he battles his own demons of post-traumatic stress. As the story progresses, the veil is lifted, and what follows is a chain of high-octane action sequences and well-timed revelations that inexorably build up to a climactic finale.

Russell Newquist is a fourth degree black belt in Shin Nagare Karate, an eclectic martial art that combines karate, kickboxing and jujitsu. His martial arts sequences are a beauty to behold. They aren’t just technically accurate; they capture the chaos, tension, and sheer rush of combat. Likewise, the firefights are a slick combination of realism and awesomeness, constantly driving the story onward.

In an industry filled with boring message fiction, ugliness and perversion, WAR DEMONS is a breath of fresh air. For readers who love Jim Butcher and Larry Correia, this novel is a must-read.

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If WAR DEMONS sounds like it’s right up your alley, you’re sure to enjoy my Dragon nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS, rated 4.5 stars out of 5 on Amazon.

SIGNAL BOOST: The Ronin Genesis by Steven Hildreth Jr.

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I’ve known Steven for 13 years and counting. Back then, we were newcomers on the writing scene with more ambition than skill. Nonetheless, we kept each other going over the years, even though I veered off into science fiction and fantasy while he stayed a purebred thriller writer. With THE RONIN GENESIS, I can confidently say that he has reached new heights.

Previously in THE SOVEREIGNS, former Special Operations soldier Benjamin Williams intervenes in a terrorist attack at the Saguaro Towers in Tucson, Arizona. But the strike was a false flag attack engineered by Iran to breach the American covert intelligence infrastructure — and the true mastermind has fled the scene with a thumb drive filled with sensitive information.

With no other options, the Central Intelligence Agency turns to a small Private Military Company to find the Iranian and recover the thumb drive. The PMC in turn hires Williams and members of his former Special Activities Division team. Pursuing their target through Mexico, Williams and his teammates must battle mercenaries, a ruthless drug cartel and a shadowy wet work team. And in this multi-factional drug war, the Ronin Defense Institute will be born in blood and steel.

Steve made his mark writing hard-hitting action-packed thrillers intertwined with surprising depth of character. As a beta reader of THE RONIN GENESIS, I can confidently say he took his skills to the next level. Action scenes explode from the page from the first trigger pull, and once the shooting stops there’s no letting up until the last body falls. The operators are portrayed authentically, displaying the mindset, training, techniques, tactics and procedures that separate the best from the rest. When Williams and his allies clash with the opposition, both sides do their best to outwit and outfight each other, creating satisfying scenes of suspense, drama and all-out action.

It’s not all blood and guts and gore. During breathers, Steve explores his characters’ histories and personalities, letting his characters evolve with the plot. We see more of Williams’ backstory, gain insights into why the bad guys do what they do, and even peek into the hearts of many minor characters who, in other stories, would be shown once or twice and soon forgotten.

Steve’s writing is clean, precise and hard-hitting. Brisk and workmanlike, it is highly reminiscent of the best of Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy, with events proceeding at breakneck pace. While there are plenty of acronyms and military jargon in there, the book also comes with a glossary for readers new to the genre.

THE RONIN GENESIS also takes the series into a darker direction. Steve has never shied away from graphic depictions of violence and torture, but this novel kicks it up a notch. Even so, it’s never employed gratuitously for mere shock effect; instead, it underscores the brutality of Mexico’s drug war, creates chilling portrayals of human evil, and demonstrates the terrible cost of sustained violence on the human spirit.

I only have one main issue with the novel. Now and then the characters make references to past adventures that Steve hasn’t written yet. Having sat with Steve and discussed his ideas for the series, I can say that the novel will spoil some of his future novels set prior to the events of the currently-published series. Among the many stories I’ve read this is a novel issue — but it will not in any way affect your enjoyment of the novel.

You can pick up THE RONIN GENESIS on Amazon in Kindle or paperback here.

Book Review: Six Expressions of Death

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Six Expressions of Death is a solid debut work from Castalia House author Mojo Mori. Set in 16th century Japan, the story begins with the murder of a traveller on the road between the city of Morijuku and the village of Iwagi. When Daikawa Tadashi, a poor but noble samurai, investigates the murder, he quickly discovers there is more to the crime than a mere murder-robbery. Soon, he is embroiled in a complex web of deceit, intrigue and violence. Clan war is on the horizon, and shinobi stalk the night.

Six Expressions of Death is a taut, atmospheric murder-mystery set against the backdrop of the Sengoku period. Japan is still divided among daimyo, and powerful, ambitious clans like the Takeda are seeking to dominate the land. The book demonstrates a painstaking attention to detail, from architecture to artwork, cuisine to culture, immersing the reader into its setting.

Buddhism and folklore are key components of the narrative. The samurai view themselves as drifting within an ever-changing dewdrop world, recognising that their lives are brief and transient. The titular six expressions of death refer to belief among samurai that the faces of the dead hold portents for the future. While religion doesn’t play a significant role in the narrative, it nonetheless informs how the characters think and act.

The Japanese obsession with honour, too, pervades the book. The warriors among the cast, for instance, strive to comport themselves with honour. Tadashi grapples with how to handle himself in the most honourable fashion, even as he deals with shinobi, whom he believes the most dishonourable of creatures. Likewise, when meditating on his relationship with his lover, he, too, tries to behave in a manner becoming of his ancient house. And of course, in the story, deceit and betrayal are seen as the most craven acts, while seppuku is always the final solution to regain one’s honour.

The prose is tight and clean. There are no unnecessary scenes, no wasted words, and the narrative flows cleanly from one event to the next. Mojo writes with a strong, clear voice, imbuing the text with a heady mixture of mysticism and violence. The action scenes are quick and lethal, with individual combats often resolved in the space of a breath. As the mystery unfolds, plot twists come at surprising moments, yet every revelation is carefully thought-out and appropriately foreshadowed. My only quibbles come with the occasional use of Westernisms like ‘sir’ and ‘Commissioner’; I would prefer the use of the original Japanese terms, but I recognise that such terms make it easier for non-Japanese readers to follow the story.

As I read the text, I’m reminded of Raymond Chandler’s notes on the character of a private detective. To quote from the master:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid… He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor — by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks — that is, with a rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a >disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

Daikawa Tadashi neatly fits into the the archetype. He routinely confronts danger and death, but he is neither afraid nor negatively affected by his encounters. Being a samurai he is educated in the way of the pen, the sword, the bow and the horse, and is prone to reciting haiku at the drop of a hat. He is born of high status, yet he is also a poor man not too far removed from commoners. While the people he encounters treat him with the respect he is due, he in turn does not mistreat them or take advantage of his station. He is, of course, a man of honour, and as such he despises deceit and holds weak people in contempt.

Throughout the story, Tadashi uses his wits as often as his weapons. A perceptive and intelligent man, he is quick to pick up clues and piece them together. He is also equally handy with bow and sword, able to match trained killers on their own terms. Readers accustomed to ‘gritty’ works or noir fiction might grouse that he is too perfect, but I would say that Tadashi strives to hold himself to the samurai ideal at all times.

The rest of the cast is also well-characterised, reflecting both their personalities and the norms of the times. There is the loyal and unflappable servant, the extroverted if somewhat unreliable comrade, the incompetent commissioner, the feminine and faithful lover.

A common complaint I’ve seen among other reviews is that the ending is anticlimactic. The true villain of the story is dealt with in a few placid pages. I can sympathise. Readers accustomed to Western-style action stories would expect an action-filled climax in which Tadashi personally delivers justice at swordpoint. However, this is a crime novel at heart. Violence is punctuation, not purpose; the story is not driven by the fight scenes, but rather by Tadashi’s investigation. Likewise, as a poor country samurai, Tadashi’s ability to confront the mastermind is sorely limited; if anything, I felt his method of bringing justice to the offender was particularly inspired. It was entirely within character and completely congruent with the setting.

Six Expressions of Death is a heady brew of logic, spirituality, treachery and combat. It comes highly recommended for readers who enjoy historical fiction and crime novels. It can be found on Amazon and the Castalia House store.

(Full disclosure: I am also published by Castalia House.)

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If you would like to see the work I’ve published at Castalia House, you can pick up NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon and the Castalia House store. This one is for people who love urban fantasy, military science fiction, espionage and martial arts.

My Winding Road To PulpRev

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I wasn’t always a science fiction and fantasy reader. Despite what my bibliography says, in some ways I still am not. At least, not the kind of reader most SFF is aimed at.

As a child I read voraciously, but I was always drawn to world myths, folklore and fairy tales. One day I would read about how a boy and a girl outmatched Baba Yaga with kindness and intelligence; the next I saw Thor slaying Jormungandr and in turn dying from the world serpent’s venom; the day after I witnessed Krishna opening his mouth to his human mother Yashoda to reveal the entire universe. These were tales of courage and cowardice, sin and virtue, heartbreak and sacrifice, duty and destiny.

When I finally meandered over to the fiction section, I found myself utterly bored. Age-appropriate stories had their own charm, but they paled in comparison to the stories I had read. How could a girl who used her photographic memory to solve small mysteries compare to the Aesir’s cunning scheme to bind Fenrir and prevent a premature Ragnarok? Why should I care for the everyday tales of the Bookworm Gang when I could read of the tragedies, labours and triumphs of Hercules? What were the exploits of Mr Kiasu when placed next to Scheherazade’s tales?

Nevertheless, I kept reading everything I could get my hands on. The TintinAsterix and the Hardy Boys series made regular appearances in my household. Readers Digest sent condensed novels to my home then, and there I ventured into adult fiction. At the age of 13, a classmate lent me a copy of Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, and there I discovered a new genre: thrillers.

I read every Tom Clancy work I could find, and sought other writers in the same vein: Chris Ryan, Andy McNab, Larry Bond, Dale Brown. Here were stories of geopolitics, terrorism, war, of issues that mattered to readers of the day. These were events that could have happened and worlds that might have existed. Here I studied tradecraft, politics, human motivations, tactics, technology and absorbed the lessons of research, meticulousness and mindset.

When the Harry Potter craze hit Singapore, I got my hands on the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It was a decent story in its own right, but to someone who had grown up reading the tragedy of King Arthur, Xuanzang’s journey to the West, and the exploits of John Clark, Harry Potter was… underwhelming. It had its merits, but it wasn’t worth a second read. I understood its appeal to regular children, but I, having achieved the Grail with Galahad, slain the Medusa with Perseus and defeated terrorists beside Team Rainbow, was no regular child.

Nevertheless, I attempted to read other modern science fiction and fantasy stories. Storm Front by Jim Butcher was one of the few I remembered: it was raw, but even then it was entertaining, and to be fair Butcher got better with each successive novel. But the rest? There was no sense of tradecraft, no sense of stakes, no plot, wooden dialogue, characters who avoided death simply because the enemy lacked intelligence. They weren’t worth my time.

I turned elsewhere. Michael Connolly, Daniel Silva, Charles Cumming, Max Arthur Collins, Barry Eisler, Marcus Sakey, Stephen Hunter, Sean Chercover. In crime and spy thrillers I found a different emphasis: where the technothrillers of my youth paid fetishistic attention to technology and weaponry, these thrillers sketched out all-too-human portrayals of people and their achievements and failings. And yet… they still lacked something quintessential, something I had seen in my childhood books but not quite replicated.

I turned to the classics. Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley. Here, I found it again: recognition of elemental evil, celebration of the human spirit, the triumph of transcendent goodness. I found adventure and excitement and philosophy and science and reason. In Around the World in Eighty Days I saw how decisiveness, technology, creativity and an obscene amount of money could take a man on globe-spanning adventures; in War of the Worlds I caught a nightmarish vision of an unstoppable alien invasion, on par with the Apocalypse; in Frankenstein I saw the consequences of mad science and an exploration of the human spirit; Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea mixed romantic adventure with then-cutting-edge science.

I had found the pioneers of science fiction and fantasy.

Once again I looked at modern science fiction and fantasy. And once again I was repulsed. I was the child reading a poor version of Harry Potter: having seen the enlightenment of the Buddha, the twilight of the gods and the resurrection of the Christ, what were these stories but pale shadows? But for a few glittering jewels, these stories were dull and flat, inspiring little more than boredom and contempt.

Then I found John Ringo. And from Ringo I found David Drake, David Weber and Larry Correia. These were the descendants of the stories that had fired my boyhood imagination: heroes facing mortal and moral peril, exotic locales, excellent tradecraft and tactics, weighty actions whose consequences rippled through the story universe, coherent technology and intricate settings. I looked at what inspired them, and I found Robert A. Heinlein, Raymond Chandler, H. P. Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammet, Mickey Spillane, Frank Herbert, Elmore Leonard.

In these stories I rediscovered what I had lost: expansive worlds and settings, characters clothed in their culture and their beliefs, exhilaration at overcoming impossible odds, unflinching explorations of the dark heart of man, epic struggles of good against evil, inhuman monsters and alien beings. In these stories I rediscovered the universal elements that lurked at the heart of the grand tales of my childhood. I saw the lineage of ideas and story elements linking these stories to the classics, and from the classics to the world myths.

I had rediscovered the pulps.

How could science fiction and fantasy have fallen so far? When did tales of galaxy-spanning empires give way to interchangeable dystopias in generic Earths wrecked by the predictable boogeyman of climate change? How did military science fiction, the literature of high strategy and wartime ethics and futuristic tactics, become stylized shoot ’em ups or bland sludge about everything but the military? Why do modern SFF stories have characters clinging to 21st century progressive cultural and political values in settings that could not justify them, while old-time stories had entire schools of thought and cultural norms that flowed organically from their settings?

These questions, and more, haunted me as I explored fiction. When I took up the pen, I decided I could not follow in the footsteps of modern SFF writers. Against the old masters, they were like candles to the sun, and I refuse to craft dim candles when I could ignite new stars.

In my writing and my research, I strove to keep one foot firmly in the Golden Age and the other in the present. As I studied the pulp masters I blended their techniques with the rest of my arsenal, drawing upon what I have learned from war stories and mythology, fairy tales and thrillers. And in doing so I found others who shared my approach.

This is where I found PulpRev. Be they members of the Pulp Revolution or Pulp Revival, the people of PulpRev respect the tales of the past while training their eyes on the future. They are the children of the Internet era: they banter on Twitter and Gab and Discord, they haul up the books of the past with Project Gutenburg, they make full use of blogging and self-publishing platforms to get the word out. They tell stories for a modern audience while honouring what made their literary inspirations timeless. For PulpRev, the answer to the doldrums and the blandness of modern SFF is simple: regress harder. Regress to the glory days of pulp, and revel in the forgotten era of SFF. Rediscover the tales of lost cities and atomic rockets, planetary romances and adventure fiction, and breathe new life into a stale, insipid, calcified industry.

PulpRev is a rapidly-growing movement in SFF. We are writers and readers, indies and hybrids, and we have come to create a new epoch. We uphold the old masters, and we birth new works of our own. Neither politics nor borders divides us. Ours is a big tent: all who appreciate the pulp aesthetic is of our tribe. If you wish for fiction that sends the spirit soaring, fiction that is romantic and heroic and thrilling, fiction that is just plain fun, come join us, and together we shall make SFF great again.

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If you’d like to see the fruits of my research in pulp and writing, you can find my novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon and the Castalia House ebook store.

Book Unreview: The Gatekeepers by Nuraliah Norasid

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I try not to review books I don’t finish. But some books are so terrible that they serve as a prime example of how not to write.

The Gatekeepers by Nuraliah Norasid was the winner of the 2016 Epigram Books Fiction Prize. The prize ‘promotes contemporary Singapore creative writing and rewards excellence in Singapore literature’ by awarding the winner $25,000. While it seems to be an impressive achievement for a debut author, when I read the story it felt like I was jamming a block of dry granite into my mouth. I had to drop it after 45 pages.

Worldbuilding, not Worldbreaking

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You don’t want your story world to look like this, do you?

The story’s most immediate failure is worldbuilding. The setting resembles Singapore with fantasy creatures.

But a Singapore with fantasy creatures living openly alongside humans will not resemble Singapore in the slightest.

The Gatekeeper blends Greek and Malay myths, featuring a range of non-human species, such as the cat-like Feleenese, the dog-like Cayanese, and medusas–in other words, gorgons. Like the gorgons of Greek myth, the medusas in-universe have the power to turn people to stone.

And nobody cares.

Medusas are living weapons of mass destruction who stop themselves from petrifying people simply by wearing scarves that cover the snakes mounted to their heads. All they have to do to petrify someone is to take off their scarves — and the potential of even an accidental mass petrification is astoundingly high. Yet no one, not even the Government mentioned in the story, seems to care. There are no inspections or cultural practices to prove one’s humanity, no special military or police units to regularly sweep rural villages for dangerous creatures, no special gadgets to securely hide a medusa’s snakes, not even regular census-taking to ensure there aren’t any criminal medusas or other monsters hiding among people.

Further, because reasons, protagonists Ria and Barani, both medusas, live with their grandmother in a human village.

Why would the people allow such dangerous creatures to live among them? Why would the Government allow the possibility of medusas turning people to stone, deliberately or otherwise? Why would the medusas even want to live alongside people if they pose such a threat to humans but do not want to subjugate them? Why would the medusas take the risk of the Government finding out who they are and obliterating them?

These issues irrevocably break the story world. It demands that the reader assume that the Government has no interest whatsoever in the continued survival of their nation, that people are perfectly willing to live side-by-side with creatures that can turn them to stone and treat them as little more than humans with funny hair, that there have never been cases of medusas even accidentally turning people to stone, and that nobody thought of how to protect themselves from petrification. These are utterly absurd notions. It doesn’t matter how excellent the worldbuilding is later on; when the introduction of a story fails common sense, the story fails.

She Said, She Said, She Said

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Still a more interesting conversation than nearly everything in the book.

Everyone in the first 45 pages speaks a mix of colloquial Malay and English. This may seem charming, but everyone uses the same emotional register, vocabulary and sentence structure. Everybody sounds alike, even the village Cikgu, or teacher. Without speech tags and without knowing what ‘Abang’, ‘Nenek’ or ‘Cikgu’ means (words which the text doesn’t explain), it’s hard to tell who is talking to whom. Making matters worse, there is barely any dialogue. The first 45 pages averages one or two lines of dialogue per page, if at all. There are people talking to and at each other, but there is no meaningful two-way interaction that brings out their personalities until page 37. The overall effect is that none of the characters, not even the protagonists, stand out from each other.

The prose of the story is not much better. It is as dry as rock and soft as curd. A major character dies early on, but there is no emotional weight to the text. When the Government announces a modernisation programme it is simply dumped on the page without elaboration or context. The early pages features more infodumping explaining the fantastic creatures of the land, even though they have no bearing on the story at that time. It is so very tempting to simply skim over the dull parts — but it means skimming over essentially the whole story.

Our Heroines, the Monsters

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In the story world, if you can see this you are already dead, but nobody cares.

Greek and Malay myths have one thing in common: heroes slay monsters. Be they evil gorgons or malicious swordfish, the monsters are universally evil creatures that prey on humans and must be put down. If a writer wants to make a monster the protagonist, then the writer must ensure that the monster protagonist is sympathetic in some way.

The Gatekeepers does not feature sympathetic monsters.

When the Government’s modernisation programme finally gets underway, it is revealed that the authorities want to demolish the medusas’ home and replace it with paved roads and modern housing, and relocate the protagonists to a government shelter. A government representative teams up with the local police and Barani’s suitor to convince the medusas to accept their offer. Barani refuses the offer, since her suitor said he wanted to marry her and turn her into an ordinary human. The situation breaks down in a lovers’ quarrel.

Ria responds by turning everyone except her sister to stone.

Then she turns everyone in the village to stone.

This is the point where the novel lost me. By crossing the moral event horizon, Ria has irrevocably become a monster.

Up to this point, the medusas have not faced unjustified discrimination. The other inhabitants of the village are noted as staring openly at the medusas and warning their children not to interact with them. This may seem racist — but the protagonists are not simply humans with funny hair. The moment her scarf comes off, accidentally or otherwise, everyone around a medusa will be petrified. What parent would not want to protect their children from accidents? You cannot deal with medusas the same way you deal with humans.

The medusas have not experienced any actual harm. They have not been bullied, cheated, robbed or attacked. Nobody tried to lynch them either. In fact, the Cikgu offers to teach Ria at home and a villager tries to woo Barani. Nothing Ria did is justified. Nothing she did is worthy of sympathy.

Barani believes that Ria petrified the government representatives because it was her way of protesting against the authorities. That may be so, but why petrify everybody else in the village? It is not revenge against oppression; they have not been oppressed. It is not self-defence; nobody was attacking them at that time. What Ria really did was to vent her frustrations against a faraway government on innocent villagers near her.

In other words: she threw a temper tantrum.

And in so doing, became a monster.

Barani joins in the atrocity by petrifying policemen who were trying to neutralise her sister. Instead of stopping the madness, Barani chose to perpetuate it. While this may be understandable, by choosing to aid a monster she has herself become one.

What made the whole sequence so maddening was that none of the visitors in this pivotal chapter was wearing personal protective equipment. Barani’s suitor already knows that she and her sister are medusas. If he didn’t tell the government men, that makes him an idiot. If the government men knew and didn’t take protective measures against a breakdown in negotiations or even just plain accidents, they are even bigger idiots. If there are no PPE in this world that can defend someone against a medusa’s stare, then why are the medusas even allowed to live alongside humans? Why aren’t medusas shot on sight, or at least forced to live only among their own kind? Why are humans and medusas not locked in a state of perpetual conflict or at least a tense truce? Why do medusas not rule the world with their petrification powers, and why aren’t humans more wary of medusas? The chapter that has the medusas turning an entire village full of innocent people into stone is exactly the reason why humans have to treat medusas as highly dangerous creatures — but the humans in this story are too stupid to care about their own survival.

This is a failure of worldbuilding, characterisation or both. Not that I care — this was the point where I lost all interest in the book. Why should I care about protagonists who destroyed an entire village just because they were upset? Why should I care about a world filled with idiots? Why should I care about a story that fails so badly at the beginning?

How to Fail SFF 101

If a story contains fantasy tropes then it must explore them to the fullest. If a work has fantasy creatures then the impact of those creatures on people and the world must be accounted for and built upon, all the more so if these creatures threaten all of humanity simply by existing. Without careful worldbuilding, a fantasy story falls apart from the start.

The Gatekeepers may have a modicum of literary merit, but as a fantasy story it is an utter failure.

To see worldbuilding done right, you can study my novel, NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS, whose worldbuilding has been praised as ‘plausibly created’ and ‘logical’. You can find it on Amazon and the Castalia House ebook store.

Initial Reviews for NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS

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Reviews for NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS are rolling in, and reader reception has been highly positive. Here are a few samples from Amazon:

Ray, May 5, 2017

Great book, that took a surprising twist on the usual mixing of Urban Fantasy and Military cloak and dagger genre, plus a bit of alternate history. I’ll need to re-read it because there is a lot under the surface of this hard to put down well written book…
The action is fast paced and it reminded me of Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter series that is just a fun read, but with a much more sophisticated, serious world view… The mythology makes sense and is not the usual urban fantasy drek. The attention
to detail reminds me of the Laundry Series by Charlie Stross. I look forward to reading the next book in the series.

James Nealon, May 6, 2017

The book is damnably technical, or is it technically damning? Mr. Cheah wrote a very good military spy/thriller, of the type that pulls you into intense action… The book is very well written, with very good characterization of heroes and villains… I can’t wait for more in the series. Great action hook for the book, and a great hook for the series.

Koba, May 11, 2017

This is an action-packed story of “counter-terrorism with a twist”…The alternate Earth is extremely well-realized and convincing. It is just “different enough” that it is not too predictable… The system of magic and the “theology” of the book are also well thought-out and coherent… I would compare this favorably with Larry Correia’s “Monster Hunter” series – action oriented, lots of weapons, but with supernatural elements. If you liked his books, you will like this book. I am definitely looking forward to the sequels from this exciting new author!

NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS can be can found on Amazon and the Castalia House ebook store. If you have already bought a copy, do consider leaving a review on Amazon or your blog if you have one. That would help others find and enjoy this novel too.

Thanks for your support, and please look forward to the sequel, HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.