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.

Book Release: NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS

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I am proud to announce the publication of my latest novel, NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS by Castalia House. It is the first entry of the Covenanter Chronicles series. Here is the blurb:

The post-World War III world is a radically different place where magic and technology have become one in the violent struggle for global influence between nations. The rising powers of Persia and Musafiria are challenging the longtime dominance of the weakened Western powers, as the increasing use of magic provides them with a more level playing field.

Supernatural creatures from other planes are summoned and wielded as readily as machine guns and explosives by the special forces of the rival militaries, the most deadly of which are the elite contractors for the Nemesis Program. Both conventionally and unconventionally trained, the Nemesis Program is the hidden blade of the Hesperian National Intelligence and Security Agency, a weapon as lethal as it is deniable. But although they are given considerable leeway, not even Nemesis operatives are allowed to covenant with archdaimons… which poses a serious problem for Luke Landon when a simple assassination of a scientist goes badly awry.

NO GODs, ONLY DAIMONS combines the best elements of military science fiction, fantasy, espionage thriller, and supernatural horror. It features powered armor, physics-breaking magic, close quarters battle, supernatural substances, swordplay, Filipino martial arts, black operations, daimons and an archangel.

Also, a very confused cat.

The following is an excerpt taken from Vox Day’s blog.

We dropped to the ground.

“AK fire,” Pete reported.

Several more bursts rang out, echoing through the city. The sound bounced off and around concrete and glass, coming from everywhere.

“Multiple shooters,” I added. “Can’t tell direction.”

“Can’t be more than a couple blocks away.” He picked himself up. “We gotta stop them.”

“Roger,” I said. “I’ll try to find them with open source intel.”

“I’m gonna get my long gun.”

“Go.”

He sprinted to a car parked down the road. I got to a knee and scanned around me. Civilians were still walking down the street, oblivious to the autofire raking the air, or froze in place. A couple actually stopped to stare at us. What the hell was wrong with people?

I powered up the Clipcom. An array of icons washed over my field of view. I touched the control button, freezing the screen in place, looked at the Memet icon and released.

The app booted. A deluge of raw information, updating every moment, flooded my cascade. Every major news agency reported a shooting in progress at Lacey’s in New Haven. An eyewitness had uploaded a blurry photo of a gunman racing into the department store, wearing a chest rig and cradling some kind of AK, maybe an AK-122.

Another photo showed a jinni. It looked like an old man with swarthy skin, flowing white hair and a thick beard, though his muscles were hard as rocks. But past his waist, the rest of him was a lion with exaggerated limbs, scaled up to support his mass. His tail whipped at air and spat venom—it was no tail, it was a snake.

This was a si’la in its default form. And si’lat were expert shapeshifters.

Pete slung a messenger bag around his neck, stuffed with everything the self-respecting gunfighter needed for an active shooter scenario. From the trunk he produced a Varangian Tactical carbine. It was one of the many, many variants of the AR-855 rifle; this one was designed by Special Operations veterans for their exacting needs.

As he checked the chamber, he asked, “Luke! Need a gun?”

“Got another rifle?”

“Just a pistol.”

“I’ve got mine,” I replied, drawing my SIG. “We’ll make do.”

He jumped into the driver’s seat. “What are we facing?”

I got in beside him. “Multiple shooters and jinn are hitting Lacey’s. Numbers unknown. AKs, grenades and at least one si’la.”

A fresh image appeared in the cascade. An ifrit, inside the mall.

“And an ifrit,” I added.

The car’s engine hummed to life. “Good thing I loaded aethertips.”

“Me too.”

We hit the road. I tuned the radio to the news and listened to a news station rattle off reiterations of the original active shooter report. The gunfire grew softer; the shooters must have moved indoors. Pete zipped through traffic, slipping past civilian cars too close for comfort.

“They’re inside the mall,” I said.

“Must be hitting the lunchtime crowd.”

Closing Memet, I opened Eipos, the preferred Internet telephony service of the Program, and dialed 911. The dispatcher picked up immediately.

“Emergency 911, this call is being recorded. How can I help?”

“We are two off-duty Federal agents responding to the shooting at Lacey’s,” I said. “Tell the first responders not to shoot us.”

“Okay, may I know what you look like?”

“Two white males. I’m wearing a black jacket, red shirt, blue jeans. I have a pistol. Partner has green polo shirt, khaki pants. He’s got an AR-855.”

“All right. What’s your name and which agency do you come from?”

I hung up and turned to Pete.

“Brick, comms on Eipos.”

I called his number. Pete grunted. Moments later the call window filled the screen. He was taking the call on his implants. I handed the app off to the holophone, piping sound into my buds, and cleared my field of view.

Pete slammed the brakes and worked the wheel. We fish-hooked right, stopping in front of the department store, just barely missing a parked van. As we jumped out, a civilian almost collided into me. People were fleeing the area, but the roads and sidewalk were streaked with blood. A dozen civilians were lying on the ground, bleeding.

“Any idea where they’re at?” he asked, shouldering his rifle.

A string of shots split the air.

“Inside!” I replied unnecessarily.

We charged through the front door. I broke off to cover the right while he moved left. More gunfire erupted deeper inside the mall, punctuated by single shots. The shooters had left a trail of broken, bleeding bodies in their wake. Brass shells glittered in pools of blood. Most of the casualties had been shot repeatedly in the torso and then once more in the head.

We tracked the shooters by their gunfire, brass and empty mags. By the destruction they left in their wake. We ran past a shot-up McDonald’s, the customers bleeding and moaning, the golden arches destroyed by a burst of gunfire. Past an electronics shop, everything and everyone inside slagged. Past a schoolgirl, clutching at her bleeding leg, crying for help.

Pete faltered at the last. Halted for a moment. Shook his head and kept running.

This wasn’t our first ride at the rodeo. First neutralize the threat and then tend to the wounded. Reversing the priorities would leave the bad guys free to kill even more, and that would not do.

NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS can be found DRM-free on Amazon and the Castalia House ebook store.

Three Essential Mindset Books for the Modern Man

There are three books every modern man must read today. These books are not for the faint of heart or weak of will. They are not soothing feel-good diatribes designed only to part your money from your wallet. These books are forges for the soul, created to scrub away your weaknesses and temper your spirit for greatness. If you desire to live a high energy life of accomplishment and greatness, these books are for you.

Gorilla Mindset

Mike Cernovich is an author and independent filmmaker. A lawyer by training, he blogs at Danger and Play, and is one of the world’s most successful mindset writers. Among his many achievements, he accurately predicted the rise of Donald Trump, produced the critically acclaimed documentary Silenced: The War on Free Speech and wrote one of the best-selling nonfiction book on Amazon. That book is Gorilla Mindset.

Gorilla Mindset is more than just a mindset book. It is a workbook chock-full of exercises for mind, body and spirit. These exercises are designed to bring out your fullest potential by developing proper posture, deep breathing, mental flexibility and more. The heart of Gorilla Mindset is to develop a mindset that allows you to take on the challenges and chaos of the world — and thrive.

While Gorilla Mindset focuses on instilling mindfulness and a positive mindset, it covers a broad range of topics: health, nutrition, emotions, fitness and more. Cernovich recognises that the mind, body and spirit are intertwined: to bring out your best, you need to improve all three aspects of your existence. The book also has interviews with subject matter experts, delving into the science behind some of the more esoteric principles discussed in the book.

Gorilla Mindset isn’t just for men. While it is targeted at men, anyone can apply the same principles to living. This is a book for everyone, accessible to anybody motivated to kick their life into high gear.

Gorilla Mindset can be purchased here.

New World Ronin

Written by Nick Kelly (aka Victor Pride) of Bold and Determined, New World Ronin is a handbook of hard-won wisdom, aimed at artists, entrepreneurs, rebels, warriors and outcasts. B&D focuses on building up men to become masters of their destiny. Both blog and novel are unapologetic about their core audience: men who desire to escape the humdrum of 9-to-5 life and become online entrepreneurs.

New World Ronin is a lean, mean book of principles. Delivered in a direct, no-nonsense style, it delivers hard-hitting advice on a plethora of subjects: the right mindset to be a winner, works of genius versus work that maintains business, how to be a professional creator in the modern world, and so on. Every line is crisp and brusque, filled with just enough information to spur the wise reader to read between the lines and live his advice.

More focused than Gorilla Mindset, this is a book that drives readers to cultivate a mindset of success. While there are many practical tips in here, there is only one major exercise in the book. Most of the work here is mental, demanding the reader to view the world through a specific mental paradigm and act to achieve his goals.

As Kelly says, do not overthink it. The genius behind New World Ronin can only be fully experienced when acted upon. It is not a book for deep meditation; it is a book that demands you to act, to seek out what he saw, and become the kind of man to seize the reigns of destiny.

New World Ronin can be purchased here.

The Nine Laws

The Nine Laws is a book that will be remembered through the ages. But it is not for everyone.

The author, Ivan Throne, is a man of action and achievement. He is a martial artist with over three decades’ of training in ninjutsu. He is a business manager and a veteran of the financial industry. He is a public speaker and writer nonpareil. He is also the writer behind Dark Triad Man, a blog that teaches men how to apply the dark triad of Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissism to achieve success. In The Nine Laws, he describes the nine laws that govern existence, and discusses how a man can utilise the traits of the dark triad to leverage these laws and achieve success in a brutal, uncaring world.

The Nine Laws is not a book to be skimmed over. Every paragraph, every line, every word, must be studied and mined to the depths of meaning. Throne writer in a highly baroque style. Combining powerful rhetoric and impactful vocabulary, the book demands you to use both the logical thinking of your left brain and the intuitive leaps of your right. Seldom does Throne go into explicit detail; either you grasp the meaning of his words immediately or you do not. While I found his writing understandable, I should add that when I was younger I read Friedrich Nietzsche for fun — his style might not be for you.

The Nine Laws is a book of transformation, but it is not merely a mindset book. Read deeper and you will see how it combines Christian doctrine with Taoism, Ninpo and Buddhism. It coldly and unflinchingly describes the state of the world and the fallen nature of Man, and how you can live in accordance with the Will of Heaven. Karma is an everyday reality, to be understood and utilised for one’s ends. To live in such a world, you must have a strong spirit, and to have a strong spirit, you must train your body and master your mind. The Nine Laws will show you how. Filled with mental exercises, it demands the reader to hold up a mirror to his life, identify his weaknesses and strip them bare. Then, naked before the world, he must forge mind, body and spirit into the apex of mastery.

The Nine Laws is a masterwork of philosophy and personal transcendence. It is not for everyone. But it is a book the world needs at this stage in history.

The Nine Laws can be purchased here.

Uniting the Trinity

View these books as steps on a spiralling staircase, taking you from mundane life to an elevated state of existence. They are not books to be read, but advice to be acted on. Once you have exhausted one, move on to the next, and when you have completed the last, go back to the beginning and plumb it again for more insight.

Start with Gorilla Mindset. Its combination of practical advice, coverage of the mind-body-spirit unity, and accessible language makes it ideal as the foundation for a dedicated self-improvement plan. If there is only one book you can read, read this one. It is broad base upon which you can build a platform to explore other aspects of life.

New World Ronin is next. While targeted at a very specific group, it shows you the mindset of winners and creators. You may not have any desire to be an Internet entrepreneur, but his approach of taking life by the horns is critical to achieving the apex of success wherever you go.

Last of all is The Nine Laws. it is the equivalent of a graduate text. It offers no workable advice for mundane matters like gym, dieting and martial arts. It will not tell you how to shape your life like an entrepreneur, if indeed you want to be one. Its attention is on more rarefied subjects, delving into the nature of man and existence. The exercises here are all psychological and spiritual, and require you to think hard and deep.

Taken together, these books form a trinity of transcendence for the modern man. If you are not content with where you are now, if you strive to achieve greatness and immortality, if you seek to emulate magnates and join the ranks of the Caesars of the world, you owe it to yourself to study these books.