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.

Can Steemit Revitalise Short Fiction?

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A century ago, pulp magazines were the popular entertainment of the working class. Cheap and ubiquitous, the pulps brought exciting tales of action and adventure to the everyman. Fiction was no longer the pursuit of the leisure class; it was now within the reach of regular people. And the secret was length.

Back, popular fiction was much shorter than it is today. The average novel didn’t far exceed 50,000 words. Short stories floated between 5,000 to 10,000 wprds. Everything in between was a short novel or novelette. Pulp magazines, jam-packed with such stories, offered multiple exciting tales for the price and length of a single novel. Being paid by the word, prolific writers with a solid work ethic could support their families solely by writing for the pulps. With proliferation came even more stories to satisfy the demands of an ever-widening audience, creating a virtuous cycle that exploded into a cultural phenomenon.

Short fiction built the pulps. But today, conventional wisdom says short fiction is no longer viable.

It’s a given that the short fiction SFF market today does not pay well. Royalties usually float between one and a half to six cents a word, depending on the magazine’s budget, or none at all. Being published is virtually impossible if you don’t write about the right topics or have the right chromosomes: as Jon Del Arroz discovered, only 2.8% of female writers who submit short stories get published, and just 0.7% of men do. And most of the short fiction markets out there do not seek stories written in the pulp tradition.

There are other magazines today that try to emulate the pulps: Cirsova, Storyhack, Astounding Frontiers. While I’ve heard nothing but good reviews about them, they don’t publish regularly enough or pay well enough for writers to earn more than walking-around money.

Lyonesse, with its subscription model, attempts to use technology to solve the problem of royalties. In effect, readers pay the equivalent price of one novel for 52 stories, plus bonuses, delivered weekly. It’s a fascinating business approach, and I wish them the best, but from a writer’s perspective until Lyonesse reaches critical mass it won’t contribute significantly to one’s income either.

Being paid is critical. The promise of financial incentives drove many of the pulp writers to hone their craft and write vast numbers of stories. High quality and high numbers of stories attracted more readers to the pulps, in turn increasing the potential earnings for writers who serve these customers.

This is where Steemit comes in.

A week ago, Rawle Nyanzi discussed whether Steemit can monetise short fiction. True to the pulp spirit, Rawle has been producing lots of flash fiction online, the kind of content that seems a good fit for Steemit. However, he believes that the US tax code is presently too complex to justify the effort it takes to hop on board Steemit.

Fortunately for me, I don’t have such problems.

Steemit lends itself well to short and serial fiction. Short fiction can be read in a single setting, and the reader can quickly decide whether to upvote it or not. Serial fiction takes full advantage of the 7-day voting window for each post: posts published in quick succession will feed into each other, allowing for a potentially higher payout.

Quite fortuitously, short and serial fiction are the same kinds of fiction that built the pulps.

For authors who can put in the work, Steemit doesn’t just offer a platform to monetise short fiction — it can revitalise the format. A quick look at the fiction tag will show you stories that have earned hundreds of dollars, and stories that have earned hundreds of dollars per chapter. There is significant financial incentive to be prolific and technically excellent, there is a critical and growing mass of customers, and Steemit is only getting started.

I think authors who write in the pulp spirit will find Steemit an excellent platform to write short fiction, get feedback, and GET PAID. It can’t take the place of pulp magazines, but there is no need to. Traditional and up-and-coming magazines can focus on developing a particular genre or aesthetic, while Steemit helps authors build their brands. Steemit makes the fiction pie bigger for everyone, creating the potential to set up the virtuous cycle that led to the pulp explosion of the early twentieth century.

As for myself, I’m putting skin in the game. You can find my story TWO LIVES on Steemit. I’m preparing another story for publication as well. Come 2018, I’ll have more stories in the wings.

I think Steemit won’t just revitalise short fiction — it’ll transform it. And I’ll be there to make it happen.

TWO LIVES can be found here: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

If you prefer longer fiction, check out my novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS here.

TWO LIVES: Part 5 of 5

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Two scenes in a row. That was intense. I wiped the sweat from my brow—and then I realized I was mimicking the upwards parry Akira had used. My heart thumped in my chest. Blood pumped to my fists and feet.

I had to get a grip. That battle was long in the past. I had to leave it there.

At the shrine, I saw a large golden maneki neko. Gathered around the statue was a collection of smaller cats, their left paws raised. Legend held that keeping a maneki neko at a place of business was sure to bring good fortune. Which, no doubt, explained their popularity in Singapore and Japan.

There was a plaque nearby. It read: A manner of joining hands in prayer. Relax, join hands in front of your chest and close your eyes. Raise your left hand to the height of your left ear and mew. Your prayers will be answered.

I smiled. The Japanese sure had some strange customs. Then again, in Singapore, Chinese Buddhists pray by grasping burning incense sticks at chest height and bowing deep and often, sometimes punctuating it by waving their hands up and down in exaggerated motions. What would a Japanese think if he saw that?

Nevertheless, I clasped my hands together and nodded. Japan was a land of kami, and in that sense little different from the branch of Buddhism I had grown up with.

A strange thought popped into my head. Is there anything you want?

I’d experienced too much to dismiss it as a random thought. Instead, I smiled. How did Akira’s story end?

Here.


I was a ronin again.

Hattori was true to his word. He paid me for the job and erased my name from official mentions. The dead bandits were explained away as ‘self-defence’. The bandit chief himself was reported to have ‘died from his wounds’. I couldn’t think of a better outcome.

With the bandits eliminated, the merchant no longer needed yojimbo. With Hana dead, I had nothing tying me down to the city. I tried to stay, but I was surrounded by ghosts. Her smile in the moonlight near the river we had met, the tinkle of her laughter, the way she tugged at my sleeve when she wanted my attention.

I’d never known what she saw in a ronin like me. Perhaps I never would.

Summer surrendered to autumn. I continued teaching at the temple, but already I felt restless. The city felt a strange place, an alien world of noise and colour and strange customs. There was no place here for ronin like me. It was time for a new city, a new life.

After the final class of the season, I gathered my worldly belongings and prepared to leave. It wasn’t much: the clothes on my back, my weapons, my purse, a small sack holding travel essentials. Everything else I bequeathed to the temple.

I left Hiro with the monks. They could take care of it better than me. The road was no place for a cat used to life in the city. All I had left to remember Hana was the omamori I had never returned.

I headed north. I resumed the discipline of the road easily enough. Walk until tired, rest until ready, keep on walking. Sleep under the stars on dry nights, under trees during the rains, inside inns and temples if they were available and if I had the funds. For sustenance I had tea leaves and rice, and I harvested wild fruits and tubers where available.

I passed through an assortment of villages and towns, taking odd jobs for pay, but never staying for too long. I found no reason to stay, so I kept walking.

As winter approached, the days shortened and the air cooled. Falling ill now was dangerous. A man could freeze to death by the road and no one would notice. Or care. I quickened my pace, heading to the next city. I would shelter there for the winter. After that, well, who knows?

I pushed on, going further and further without rest. The first snows fell, dusting the world in white. I wrapped my haori tightly around myself and endured the cold. My destination was in sight, a black dot in the distance, past a sward of dried and yellowing grass.

I reached the gates in the evening. I pleaded with the sole watchman to let me in, and eventually he relented. At least he showed me the way to the nearest temple.

The snow grew thicker, occasionally slipping under my kimono and freezing my flesh. My geta sank deeper and deeper, barely keeping my feet clear of the layer of white. People retreated indoors, where they could find light and warmth. I doubted I could afford a room at an inn. But monks would never turn away a man like me.

Past the torii, I had to climb a series of stairs to reach the temple. Cold sweat clung to my flesh. I sneezed, wiping my nose against my sleeve. I planted my feet carefully, retaining my balance on the slippery stone.

The stairs fed into the sando, the narrow road that approached the temple. Two lines of toro lit the way. In the distance I just about made out the silhouette of the worship hall. There was another building on my right. Light beckoned from the windows. Perhaps I could find the monks there.

But first, I had one more thing to do.

To my left was a small pavilion. A temizuya. I checked the chozubachi; the stone water vessel was full. Rolling up my sleeve, I took a dipper and poured water on my left hand. The water shocked my skin and numbed my fingers. I rinsed my right hand and mouth, then dipped the handle into the water.

Now ritually pure, I wiped my hands on my hakama and my mouth on my sleeve, and headed for the lit building. By the light of the toro I saw a petite woman approach.

A woman?

She wore no makeup, but her long hair was tied into a neat bun. She wore a haori dyed a pure white, and a hakama the colour of blood.

She was not a nun. She was a miko.

This was not a Buddhist temple. This was a Shinto shrine.

She studied me as she approached. She saw the swords at my side and bowed, deep and low.

“Good evening,” she said.

I returned her bow. “Good evening.”

“May I help you?” she asked.

“I need a place to stay for the winter.”

She smiled broadly, fire dancing in her eyes.

“Come inside. We’d be pleased to have a guest.”


Is that everything? I wondered.

It is enough.

Another life. Another city. Another chance to try again. I hoped it was enough for Akira. For me.

I bowed, and walked away.

Here I was, living a life utterly different from, yet eerily similar to, the one Akira had led. We were ronin who had studied the sword. We were thinkers, not talkers. Buddhism had shaped us. We had lovers named for flowers. He had lost Hana. Mine was still around.

A quiet voice, deep and calm, flooded my mind.

You have one more chance with her. Don’t waste it.

Akira’s voice. My voice, reaching across the centuries.

I won’t.

In the evening, in my hotel, I brought out my laptop. My lover was online. I opened Facebook Messenger and touched my fingers to the keys.

Something funny happened earlier today…


The places and performances described at Noboribetsu Date Jidaimura are as I have experienced them in July 2016.

Earlier chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4.

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Interested in more stories from me? Check out NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

TWO LIVES: Part 4 of 5

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My heart thudded sharply in my chest. I hadn’t seen that coming.

Cold crept through my chest. I breathed through it, focusing blanking out everything but the cycling of air through my lungs. A shard of grief embedded in my heart. Centuries removed from the event, I still felt the echo of the trauma; I couldn’t begin to comprehend what Akira had felt under his mask.

But I wasn’t him. I am me.

No, not quite. I am he, and he is me. How else could I have seen these images, spotted the parallels between his life and mine?

My parents beckoned me to go. I followed them numbly, trying to immerse myself into the flow of information. It was like trying to grasp water; every time I thought I had something it slipped through my fingers. Meaningless babble filled my words. Vague impressions lightly touched my body.

I paused to look around, careful to avoid bumping into people. We were heading towards a temple. Through the doorway I saw figures arranged on an altar. People prayed before them in their own ways. Some clasped their hands and closed their eyes, others added a bow or lowered their heads.

But that wasn’t the temple I remembered. The one I had known was…empty.


It was a quiet day. The children had gone. The priests were busy with their chores. That left me free to practice the sword.

In the empty courtyard, I practiced draws and cuts, thrusts and slashes, body slams and grappling techniques. With every stroke I imagined cutting down a bandit.

The monks continued their chores, already used to my regimen. Hiro was wandering the grounds somewhere, hunting for mice and other treasures. No one came to disturb me. Good.

Hana’s absence had left a hole in my heart, as though an unseen demon had clawed out a chunk of me. In the morning, I had lit incense for Hana and her family, and dedicated an hour of prayers. The funeral had been carried out long ago, well before I had returned to the city. This was the best I could do.

My chest throbbed. I kept training. My services were not required today. My employer said I needed time to grieve. He was right – but grieving can wait. The sword came first. Soon, there would come a time for vengeance. I had to be ready for that moment of truth.

I switched to my wakizashi, reacquainting myself with the feel of the smaller sword, studying how the length and balance affected my techniques. If I had to fight indoors, this would be my primary weapon; the longer katana would be too unwieldy.

A visitor stepped into the courtyard. His bamboo hat shielded his face from sight, but I could feel his eyes on me. He wore a dark green kimono with a white collar, matched with a heavy grey hakama. At his left hip he carried a daisho, and tucked into his obi was a jitte.

He was no ordinary samurai; he was a police samurai.

I sheathed my sword and bowed. He bowed back.

“Are you the ronin who lives in the temple?” the samurai asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“I heard what happened to your woman. On behalf of the police, you have my condolences.”

“Thank you.”

“Are you doing well?”

Every living being must die. It is simply the way of things. Instead of dwelling on her death, the head monk had advised me to remember what made Hana’s life worth celebrating, and how I could live my life to honour her memory. It almost worked.

“Yes.” I paused. “But you did not come here simply to ask after me.”

He smiled. “Of course. Please, step outside with me. We have much to talk about.”

“Such as?”

“It is not proper to speak of bloodshed before the Buddha.”

I exited the temple with him. As we strolled down the street, he began speaking.

“Two months ago, we heard that a mysterious ronin cut down a pair of bandits in the marketplace. One was slain, the other’s hands were cut off. Leaving aside the legality of the incident, we took the maimed bandit into custody.

“We spread the word that he bled to death. In reality, we locked him up and questioned him rigorously. He revealed to us the location of the bandits’ hideout. We have since confirmed the information, and are putting together a task force to apprehend the criminals. You may come with us if you wish.”

“Why me?”

“What they did to your woman demands vengeance.”

“What do I get out of it?”

“A job. Monetary compensation. And the police would not look too closely into your activities on the day the bandits were cut down.”

If the police had truly wanted to question me, they could have found me anytime they pleased. They must have felt that dealing with the bandits was a higher priority than a ronin lodging in a temple.

“You look sceptical,” he added.

The money would be nice. The promise of reduced police attention would be a bonus, assuming he spoke the truth. But the rewards were ancillary. As soon as he had made the offer I had made my decision.

After all, what warrior would not avenge his woman?

I shook my head.

“I’m in,” I said.


The samurai called himself Hattori. At sunset I met his team of twelve lesser samurai at the city gates. They were clad in helmets and suits of mail armour, reinforced with plates on their sleeves, thighs and shins. Their primary armaments were polearms—arresting tools, not weapons of war—but they all carried swords by their sides. All of them had horses.

I was the only one without armour, a non-lethal implement or a horse. What I did have was Hana’s omamori, secured to my obi. None of them commented on my equipment. The moment I mounted Hattori’s horse, we set off.

The bandits lived in a house outside the city. Formerly an inn, the owners had long ago abandoned it, giving the criminals a perfect hideout. It was situated inside a forest by the main road, with a lone dirt path providing access.

The samurai left the horses a distance away and gathered for a strategy meeting.

“We will split into two groups,” Hattori said. “Sumimori, you will take six men and secure the perimeter. Mine will attack the house and apprehend the criminals. We should expect at least six bandits inside the house. In case we need reinforcements, Sumimori’s team will double as our reserve force.

“We will make our approach through the trees, parallel to the road. Sumimori, your group will go first and deal with any guards and traps within the forest. When you’re done, assemble on the left side of the road and mimic the call of an owl. I will reply with a similar call. My team will pass through the forest to the right of the path. When we’re in position, I will sound the attack with my jinkai. Sumimori, if you are discovered, blow your own jinkai and my team will rush in.”

Sumimori gathered his men and crept off into the night. I stayed with Hattori.

There was nothing left to say, nothing more to do but wait. Crickets sang all around us. The remaining samurai checked their equipment and gathered around their leader. I tugged at my daisho, ensuring they were firmly held in place, and joined them. Hattori retrieved his jinkai from his horse. Held in a basket, it was a large conch shell with a brass mouthpiece that served as a trumpet.

Time crawled. I focused on my breath, clearing my mind. There was no room for thoughts of revenge, of duty, of Hana. Only victory.

A long, low whoop filled the air.

Hattori placed his hands to his mouth and issued a similar call.

“Let’s go, he whispered.

He led the way into the forest. I followed. Most of the samurai was city dwellers, unused to the forest. Now and then I heard the snapping of twigs, the rustling of leaves, the soft thuds of weapons bumping into trees. I moved deliberately, keeping my swords pinned to my side with one hand and the other outstretched to detect unseen obstacles.

Reaching the tree line, I saw the house under the light of the moon. It was a sturdy two-story structure with a nearby stable. Long shadows crept under the roof. The windows were dark. Nobody seemed to be awake.

Something moved within the shadows. A man. He walked in a small circle, swinging his arms and stretching his neck. In the dark I couldn’t tell if he were armed, but there was no reason to assume he wasn’t.

Hattori placed his jinkai to his lips and blew a deep two-tone call.

Samurai boiled out of the woods, screaming at the top of their lungs. I drew my wakizashi and followed.

The guard stood his ground. Bellowing something unintelligible, he drew his sword and slashed uselessly at the air. He must be trying to scare the police – but they kept coming.

A samurai charged him, sasumata in hand. The bandit hacked away at the spear fork to no effect. The samurai ensnared the bandit in the crook of the sasumata’s horns and drove him against the wall. Undeterred, the guard flailed about, his sword passing dangerously close to the samurai’s limbs.

Another police samurai arrived, this one armed with a sodegarami. Approaching the bandit from the side, he thrust the sleeve entangler just as the bandit slashed again. The sword clashed against the sodegarami’s head, lodging between its forward prongs. Sliding his weapon down, the samurai drew a tight circle, capturing the bandit’s hand with the pole arm’s rear-facing hooks, and yanked. The sword flew away.

Two more samurai pounced on the halpless bandit, wrestling him to the ground. Inside the house, men yelled. Light spilled out the windows. The front door opened. The faint glow of a lantern revealed a huge man with a katana. His eyes locked on the nearest target.

Me.

Screaming, he raised his katana. The blade caught on the doorframe. As he struggled to pull it free, I thrust into his exposed throat. Retracting the wakizashi, I rammed my shoulder into him.

We tumbled into the house. The dying bandit flopped over, clutching at his throat. To my left, a pair of bandits stormed through an open door.

A police samurai barged past me, going for the left-hand bandit. I raised my weapon and approached the other one. He snarled a curse and rushed me with a frenzy of wild sword strokes. I leapt back, but I felt steel slicing across my arm.

He slashed again. I stepped in, raising my sword. My blade met his with a loud clang. I flowed around his slash, brought my wakizashi high and took off his head.

I looked down. The sword had scored my right forearm. Only bone, minimal damage.

The other police samurai seemed to be in trouble. He held a short jitte against his forearm, while the bandit had a much longer sword. The samurai backpedalled, evading a slash. The bandit stepped in and cut again.

The samurai shot in, blocking the blade with his jitte. Quick as a flash, he hooked the sword with the prong of his jitte and grabbed his opponent’s left hand. The samurai wheeled his arms around, and suddenly he was on his feet, holding the bandit’s weapon. More samurai swarmed the disarmed bandit, tackling him down.

Another police samurai ran past me. Hattori.

“Upstairs!” he shouted. “Follow me!”

I obeyed, running right behind him. Hattori had a te yari, a spear specially shortened for room fighting. This one had a crossbar mounted behind the tip. It seemed he wasn’t interested in taking prisoners.

The room next to us had a staircase. As we pounded up the stairs, I heard men shouting from above. Hattori yelled back, jabbing his te yari. I stepped back and down, giving him room to work. Over his shoulder, I saw a bandit waving a sword. Two more bandits waited nearby, watching the fight.

Hattori aimed high, going for the bandit’s face. The man moved to guard—but it was a feint. Hattori swooped low, hooked the crossbar behind his ankle and pulled. The man went down with a resounding crash. Hattori adjusted his aim and thrust. A high-pitched shriek filled the air and curdled my blood. He’d just been unmanned.

The surviving bandits turned and fled to a nearby room.

Ike!” Hattori urged. Go!

We chased the bandits into the room. Hattori stepped through the door, spear in hand. A bandit blindsided him, tackling him against a wall. Entering the room, I kicked the attacker in the temple. The bandit turned over on his side. Hattori released his weapon and grappled with the bandit.

That left one more bandit in the room. He wore an expensive indigo-dyed kimono and a fine grey hakama. A long scar crossed his right eye. A short sword dangled from his right hand.

“Are you the bandit chief?” I asked.

He snorted. “And what if I am?”

I circled to his right. “You killed my woman.”

He leered. “Really? I can’t remember. I’ve slain so many over the years, after having my way with them. The sight of women on all fours, begging for mercy, really gets the blood going. You know what I mean?”

He continued spewing filth, circling as he spoke. The banter was a distraction. He was slowly approaching me, sliding his feet forward to shorten the distance between us. I let him continue, trying to get an angle into his diminished right side.

He was in range. I stepped in, rearing my body up.

He cut at my neck.

I swooped in low, ducking under his stroke. With a loud kiai I cut through his belly. I stepped through and whirled around.

The bandit was down, blood seeping into the tatami under my feet.

I glanced at Hattori. Two more samurai had come to assist, one to hold down the prisoner and the other to tie him up.

I pricked my ears and listened. Men spoke to each other in conversational tones. There were no more orders, no desperate cries, no ringing of steel of steel. The metallic tang of blood intermingled with the odour of faeces and urine. I counted the number of men we had met along the way. Six of them. The bandits had been dealt with.

The bandit chief moaned, slowly bleeding to death. I wondered why he didn’t resist. Then I saw what had happened to his spine.

I flicked the blood from my sword. It splashed at Hattori’s feet.

“Looks like you’ve gotten your revenge,” he said.

I nodded numbly. I didn’t feel anything. Not satisfaction, not joy, just… calm. An understanding that the wheel of karma had turned once again, like it always had and always will. This wouldn’t bring Hana back—but it would stop the bandits from harming any more innocents.

“He needs a physician,” I said.

Hattori shook his head. “You cut through his spine. With a wound that deep, we should just put him out of his misery.”

“I shall leave that decision to you.”

“You’re not going to do it?”

“He’s…no longer a threat. If I did anything else in front of a police samurai, I could be charged with murder.”

Hattori chuckled grimly. “Come. We still have work to do.”


Earlier chapters: Part 1, 2 and 3.

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For more fiction by yours truly, do check out the Dragon Award-nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon.

TWO LIVES: Part 3 of 5

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I escorted the merchant home, glaring at everyone who dared to stand in my way. The commoners took one glance at my daisho and the blood on my clothes, and hurried to make way. No one wanted to be the next to die.

The moment the client opened the door, I practically shoved him through.

“I’m going to get help,” I said. “Stay here. Do not open the door for anyone except the police.”

He shut the door. I staggered out into the street. Blood stained my kimono and dripped on the ground. This was the only good set of clothes I had. I sighed, and shook my head. I could worry about that later. For now, I needed help. I needed to get to the temple. The priests there would know whom to…

A woman stared at me, dumbfounded. It was Hana.

“Hello,” I said.

“You’re wounded,” she said.

“It’s not serious. But I require a physician.”

She pursed her lips. “Come with me.”

She reached for her hair and yanked a length of red ribbon loose. Her hair cascaded down in a messy bundle. Taking my injured arm, she wrapped the ribbon around the wounds. Dark spots soaked through the fabric.

“That ribbon is expensive,” I said.

“I have plenty more.”

She led me to a nearby house. Walled off from the rest of the street, it was easily the largest dwelling here. Well-worn stones traced a path from the entrance to the front door. To my left was a garden overflowing with shrubs and flowers. A solitary tree wept dried leaves on the stone path. To my right was a tranquil pond. Koi swum lazily in the water, occasionally stopping to stare at me.

This was the first time I’d been to her home. She definitely came from a family of wealth and taste.

An older man sat by the door, observing the pond. He looked up as she approached.

“Hana! Who is this?” he demanded.

“Father, he’s a friend,” she replied. “He’s injured and needs help.”

He stared suspiciously at me. Meeting his gaze, I delivered a formal bow. My torn flesh complained.

“Pleasure to meet you,” I said.

He squinted at me. “Come in.”

I left my katana at the door, with the tsuba pointed to the left, while my wakizashi stayed at my side. Hana’s father nodded ever so slightly, and opened the door for me.

Inside the main room, Hana’s father bade me sit on the tatami floor and barked orders. A servant hauled a medicine chest into the room. Hana and the servant removed my kimono and examined my wounds, fussing over the injuries. The cat stayed out of the way, but observed the proceedings.

“You are most fortunate,” the servant remarked. “These are shallow wounds. They would heal nicely. But first, we must disinfect them.”

“Let me do it,” Hana said.

She undid the ribbon bandage, grabbed a piece of gauze and wiped away the blood on me. It stung on contact. I endured the pain as best as I could, but Hana lightened her touch.

“What happened?” her father demanded.

I spoke about the encounter at length, sketching over the gory details. A woman didn’t need to know what the insides of a man looked like as they spilled across the ground. Hana set the bloodied gauze aside, poured ointment on a fresh cotton patch, and applied it to the wounds. Fire scorched my flesh. I sucked in a deep breath and carried on. Pain always passes. To acknowledge it was to make it worse. I simply let it pass through me and continued speaking.

Hana finished shortly after me. Reaching into the medicine chest, she grabbed several rolls of white cloth. As she bandaged my wounds, I said, “You know medicine?”

“Everyone in my household must know the arts of war,” her father said. “That includes tending to minor wounds.”

“A wise precaution,” I said. Turning to her, I nodded. “Thank you.”

Her hand rested on my shoulder a little longer than necessary. “It’s nothing.”

The servant carried away the chest, the remains of my kimono and the expended cloth patches, leaving the three of us alone. Hana placed the cat on her lap and stroked its neck.

“You saved my friend’s life,” her father said. “Domo arigatou gozaimasu.”

Iie,” I said. “I was merely doing my job.”

“Nevertheless, you did well. I shall speak to the police. Such a brazen attack cannot go unpunished.”

“May the bandits get what they deserve,” I said.

With Hana out of the way, and the pain subsiding into a low boil, I could study the room properly. Like me, Hana’s father wore a short sword in his obi. Behind him, mounted on the wall within arm’s reach, was a full-length katana.

“I see you are a samurai,” I said, “no doubt of a long and illustrious lineage.”

He smiled tightly. “Yes.”

Which made Hana the daughter of a samurai.

“You carry a daisho,” he said. “I trust you are one too?”

“I come from a humble bloodline. Our domain was abolished long ago.”

“A ronin, then.”

“Yes.”

His eyes hardened. “How did you meet my daughter?”

“Quite by chance. I was sitting by the river when her cat came up to me. It led me to her. I saw that she had fallen and sprained her ankle, and helped her up. We started talking.”

As if on cue, Hiro the cat padded into the room. It studied us imperiously, then rubbed itself against my leg.

Hana giggled. “Hiro remembers you.”

I patted its head gently. It purred softly, then bounded away and leapt on Hana’s lap. It kneaded her thighs and nuzzled against her belly. Smiling, she caressed its neck and back.

“Is that your family cat?” I asked.

“Hiro comes and goes as it pleases, but it seems attached to Hana,” he said. “I’ve never seen it approach a stranger.”

“Hiro’s a good judge of character, ne?” Hana said.

He grunted. “I trust my daughter more than a cat.”

“Father!” she exclaimed, still stroking the animal.

He turned to me. “She told me she knew a ronin who could serve as a fine yojimbo. I see her judgment is accurate.”

She beamed. “Of course! And Hiro’s too.”

“Do you wish to continue seeing Hana?”

She stiffened, and sighed. “Father, he’s just a friend.”

“Yes,” I replied.

He grunted. “My daughter is a strange woman.”

“Father!” she protested. “I’m not ‘strange’!”

“I agree,” I said.

She made a face and looked bashfully away. Her father laughed.

“Please continue looking after her,” he said.

“I will.”


The present and the past twisted into each other. A torrent of snapshots filled my head: a moonlight stroll along the river where we had met; a black-toothed smile, almost invisible in the night; warm conversation over hot meals; a soft small hand in a large rough one; fingers gliding over soft fur; unending repetitions of sword strokes in an empty temple courtyard; the jangling of coins in an increasingly-heavy pouch.

Nothing I did could shut them out.

Like a sleepwalker, I stumbled through a haunted house, filled with depictions of youkai. None of the monsters matched the intensity of the flashbacks. None of them were real, not the way what Akira—what I—had experienced was real. Only once did the flashbacks stop, when I had to navigate a series of treacherously shifting floors.

When I emerged into the sun, more sense-impressions flooded my mind. Sharpened steel biting through flesh and bone; the warmth of skin on skin; husky feminine whispers at night; laughter in the rain; blades flashing through the air in smooth, practiced arcs.

Abruptly, another flashback kicked in.


Hana and I strolled towards the market. The lunchtime crowd was flooding the street, and with them came a cacophonous riot of noise and colour. I had to raise my voice just to be heard.

“I will be going away for a while,” I said.

“Oh?”

“My client wishes to do business outside the city. It could take a while. Ten days, perhaps.”

“Where are you going?”

“To the surrounding villages. He wishes to expand his business and sell his wares to a wider audience. I will be leading a group of yojimbo to guard his convoy.”

“I see.”

Reaching into her obi, she removed a cloth bag.

“Here,” Hana said. “I want you to have this.”

“What is it?”

“An omamori. It’s kept me safe over the years. I want you to have it. You can give it back when you come home.”
I’d seen the monks at the temple craft omamori in their spare time. These were small amulets made of wood or paper, dedicated to Buddha and the gods. Hana’s was small enough to fit inside the bag.

“Thank you.”

I tucked the amulet away. She held her arms wide in invitation. I encircled her slim body with my arms and held her tight. I drank in the scent of her hair and the warmth of her body, burning them into my mind.

“Be careful,” she said.

“I will.”


The flashback had come so powerfully I had no time to brace myself, and by the time I realised I was in another Japan I had returned to this one.

Maybe I was doing this wrong. This stream of consciousness should not be resisted; it should be embraced, experienced, ridden out all the way to the end. I perched myself on a bench, took a sip of water and a deep breath, found the nearest image and plunged in.


The days crawled by at an agonising pace. Previously, I would have been indifferent to the time spent on the job. Ever since I walked the road of a ronin, I had never visited the same place twice. I was always on the go, drifting from one place to another, with no bedding but my haori and no roof but the sky. To a man with no master, no home and no place, sentimentality was an alien emotion.

But today, I had a reason to return.

Hana.

The moment the merchant and I passed through the city gates, I felt something wrong. The mood of the city was subdued. Hawkers were still peddling their wares, people were still doing their business, but not with the same restless energy I had come to associate with the city. Police samurai patrolled the streets, openly wearing weapons and armour.

Something had happened here. But what?

First, the client. I could speak with Hana about that later.

I led the way back to the merchant’s home. Behind us, the other yojimbo—ronin one and all—protected my flanks and back. Commoners bowed just a little lower, stepped away just a little faster. Now, it didn’t matter that I was still a ronin: I wore a daisho, I was a known face around these parts, and I worked for a wealthy man. I was still unused to such deference, and I was more concerned with potential threats than social niceties.

No bandits jumped out from the crowd to ambush us. After seeing him home, the merchant dismissed us for the day. I sauntered down the street, heading to Hana’s residence.

But it was gone.

My breath caught in my chest. I forced myself to breathe, and studied the sight before me.

Her home had been torched, burned down to its foundations. The garden, so carefully tended, was reduced to ashes. Dead fish choked the pond. There was nothing left but scorched timbers and blackened earth.

I glanced left and right, checking the address. I was at the right place. But her home was a ruin. How?

My head spun. My breath died in my lungs. My legs wobbled.

“Impossible…” I whispered.

But the truth was before me. To deny it would be to deny the world itself. I had to find out more.

I marched to the house across the street. An elderly woman, her back bent with age, carefully swept the area around the front door. She looked up as I approached, and bowed as low as her spine allowed her to go.

My heart demanded me to question her. My brain could not craft the right words. An eternity later, I found a compromise.

“What happened?” I demanded, gesturing at the ruin.

She peered at me. “I recognise you. You visited Hana-chan frequently, ne?”

I nodded. My throat locked up. I forced out what words I could fine. “Yes. What… Is she…?”

“Bandits.”

My fists tightened. My heart pounded. Blood sang in my veins.

“Tell me what happened.”

The grandmother took a moment to compose herself.

“I can only tell you what I heard. Bandits broke into the home last night. I heard sounds of fighting. Men shouting, screaming, dying. I heard Hana-chan crying, too. I was too frightened to look. I hid for a long time. But suddenly, I smelled smoke.

“I slid the door open a crack and peeked out. The house was ablaze. A gang of armed men—four, five of them—slipped out the gate, carrying heavy sacks over their shoulders. The neighbours cried for the samurai and the fire brigade. I ran away in case the fire spread.

“After the fire brigade put out the flames, we helped to sift through the wreckage. We… We found Hana-chan and her father.”

“Dead?”

She nodded. Tears rolled down her cheeks.

“She was such a charming girl. So smart, so lively. And now…” She looked up at me. “You were close, yes?”

I nodded numbly.

“I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Ronin I might be, but I was still the son of a noble line. I was a man of the sword. I had to comport myself accordingly.

I walled off my emotions and bowed deeply. “Thank you for telling me.”

She held her hands up, waving away the gesture. “Please, it is nothing. I have done nothing important.”

“It is important enough to me.”

I looked again at the house. I remembered the times I paid a visit to her home when I was off-duty. The evenings of tea and art and poetry with her and her father. The times when I walked her home from an errand. Her father had contemplated marrying her off to another samurai family, but none of her potential suitors visited her as often as I did.

My fingers remembered the gentleness of her touch, the warmth of her skin, the silky smoothness of her hair. My ears recalled her soothing voice, her laughter, her cries, her whispers.

She was gone. Ashes in the wind. All that was left of her was the omamori I’d never have a chance to return. With her passing I was unmoored, a dead cherry blossom floating in a turbulent river.

Nyaaaaaaaa.

Hiro. The cat entwined itself around my legs and looked up expectantly at me. Kneeling, I picked it up and cradled it to my chest. It cried plaintively, nuzzling my neck.
I almost broke. I stood my ground and sucked in a breath. Moisture stained my eyes. I touched my fingers to them and cleared it away. The woman did not comment.

“That’s Hiro-kun, ne?” she asked.

I rubbed its head. “Yes.”

“Poor baby. I wonder who will take care of it now.”

“I will,” I replied, keeping my voice steady.

“That’s good to hear.” She pursed her lips. “This must be such a shock. Will you be well?”

“In time.”

She didn’t look convinced. “What will you do?”

“What I must.”


Earlier chapters: Part 1 and 2.

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For more fiction by yours truly, do check out the Dragon Award-nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon.

TWO LIVES: Part 1 of 5

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Summer in Hokkaido was unlike the summers I have known. In Singapore, so close to the equator, summers were hot and humid, the sun so fierce it glazed the world in subtle hues of orange. Here, the air was cold and crisp, so cool I had to keep my jacket on all the time. The light was different, too, framing instead of drowning, bringing out the blues of the skies and the greens of the earth.

It was the second day of our group tour. It had started on an evil note: a visit to Jigokudani, better known as Hell Valley. Hot springs and mineral-rich streams issued thick sulfurous clouds, choking the air and closing off lungs. The guide had explicitly warned off anyone who had respiratory ailments. I stayed long enough to snap a couple of photos before beating a tactical retreat.

The other highlight of the day’s schedule was Noboribetsu Date Jidaimura. A theme park based on city life in the Edo period. Tokugawa had destroyed his rivals, uniting all of Japan. The shogun ruled the nation, while the daimyo retained their authority over their holdings. The ancient class system was rigid and ossified, the bureaucracy ruled all, and the way of the sword had come to an end.

Stepping off the bus, I followed the guide to the entrance. At the gate, figures of samurai with katana and armour stood next to greeters dressed in stereotypical all-black ninja outfits. A man and a woman dressed in period costumes stood at the gates, welcoming us in Japanese and English and Mandarin. They weren’t completely authentic; I saw wires snaking to earpieces and radios.

The guide issued us our tickets. The greeters exchanged them for pamphlets. Glancing at the map, I stepped through the open gate and—


Summer had come. The days were growing longer, the nights warmer. Sweat soaked through my kimono and stained my haori. My hakama clung to my legs with every step. I was long used to it; I had walked countless ri in my ancient geta, and no doubt I would cover countless more in the cheaply-made wooden clogs. A familiar ache pervaded my muscles. I ignored them. My destination was in sight.

A city. A real city. Walls of unyielding stone stretched along the perimeter. The road—a paved road, built for carriages and horses—led to the sole gate that controlled access into and out of the city.

A pair of armed men stood guard next to the massive double doors. Both men carried yari in their hands, the shafts planted firmly against the ground. They wore simple iron helmets and chest armour, and under those they wore cheap shitagi and hakama. As I approached, they sized me up. I felt their eyes crawling across my face, down my clothing, and to my obi.

They bowed.

These men had many things I did not. Jobs. Homes. Maybe families. But I had two things they did not: a katana and a wakizashi worn by my side. The daisho that was the hallmark of the warrior class.

“Good morning, sir,” they said in unison.

These men were ashigaru. Ordinary foot soldiers of common blood. In some domains they were considered samurai, in others they were not. Apparently, the local custom placed ashigaru beneath me.

“Good morning,” I said.

“Are you expecting trouble?”

“There are bandits in the area,” the older one said. “We have been asked to reinforce the police.”

And where there were bandits, there was work for a man who lived by the sword.

“I see,” I said.

“Sir, what is your purpose in coming here?”

“I seek employment,” I replied truthfully.

Both men glanced at each other, barely hiding their disdain. If my cheap clothes and lack of a horse hadn’t given it away, now they knew who I am. I was no true samurai, just a masterless ronin. A man with no place in society, doomed to an existence as ephemeral as the dewdrop world.

“The daimyo is not currently recruiting,” the younger guard said, in a tone only a shade removed from naked disrespect.

“Perhaps there are other opportunities,” I said mildly.

“Perhaps,” the senior man echoed.

After a cursory inspection, they let me pass. I stepped through the gates, letting the road guide my feet.


—I blinked.

What was that?

It was like my mind had been transported to another time and place, leaving my body in modern-day Japan. Images and sense-impressions flooded my brain, superimposing themselves over my current experience. And just as abruptly, here I was again.

Was I imagining things? Or was that something else?

I grabbed my bottle and chased that thought with a gulp of water, but no new fresh insights surfaced.

Well, whoever he was, I could sympathise with the ronin. I was one too, in my own way: instead of two swords I wielded a laptop and a smartphone. I was presently carrying them on my person, the computer in my backpack and the phone in my pocket. Like him, I had no formal employer; I’d slipped into the nebulous existence of the freelancer since I completed my education, and had never left. I practice a blade-based martial art, and, no doubt, so did he.

Coincidence? Or something else?

The group was moving on. I could ponder the vision later. I followed them down the main road, where we queued up for a live performance. It seemed to be highly popular: ahead of me, dozens of young Japanese teenagers chattered excitedly, while behind tourists of all ages conversed in their native tongues. Others sneaked away to the smoking zone.

Studying the nearby buildings, a sense of deja vu descended on me. I had seen my fair share of similar designs: documentaries, encyclopedias, Age of Empires, Rorouni Kenshin. But this felt different. The gently curved tiled roofs, the oversized eaves, the heavy wooden support columns, the dimness that the sun could not banish. It felt like I had lived here, somehow, though I had never visited Japan before.

Odd.

The performance was a reproduction of an Edo-era play. Everyone spoke in clear but rapid-fire Japanese. According to my brochure, printed in Japan’s world-famous Engrish, said that this was the story of an oiran and a court official. As she drank sake with him, her attendants remarked that the way he drank reminded them of the oiran’s lover – who was another official. Instead of taking offense, her customer helped them get married. The locals seemed to like it. For everyone else, the main thrust of humor came from the man who played the customer — a hapless tourist who spoke not a word of Japanese, but gamely played along with the narrator’s assistance.

At the end of the performance, to mimic Edo-era etiquette, the audience was encouraged to wrap coins in rice paper and throw them at the stage as a sign of their appreciation. As the money flew, a new image flashed through my head.

A bright morning. An elaborate wooden stage, raised above the street. A cheering crowd. A line of actors and actresses in full costume, bowing deeply. Paper fluttering through the air, weighted by metal coins.

I shook my head and took another drink of water. This was no mere delusion. This was something like… a memory. A memory from a previous life.

The next performance was at the ninja house. This one, the brochure claimed, told the story of an older ninja and a junior kunoichi. Having obtained vital information, they were taking refuge in a safe house — but the enemy was pursuing them. The first half of the performance was a skit. The Japanese laughed uproariously; all I understood was a small segment where the kunoichi drank her senior’s sake with gusto right after the ninja expounded its benefits. The second half began when the enemy broke in. The shinobi attacked the intruders, taking full advantage of the house’s false walls, secret tunnels and booby traps. Here, physical humor transcended language, and the shinobi finally triumphed.

As the show came a close, another vision struck me. Nightfall. Lanterns lining the road, illuminating another raised platform. As an actress in an elaborate costume delivered her lines, burly men in black clothes hustled in the background. They were stagehands, their all-black clothing a sign that the audience should ignore them.

I needed to clear my head.

A shallow river ran through the park. A place where people could sit and rest by the water. There were no people, though. Just a pair of tame goats.

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I’d seen a similar river, in another time and place. Back then, I didn’t see goats. I saw…a cat. A woman. A ribbon.

As I framed that thought, the past crashed into my mind.

****

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If you would like more fiction from the author, check out the Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

Anime Analysis: Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash

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Party wipe in the first five minutes.

If the anime adaptation of Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash were set in a realistic and unforgiving world, the main cast would have been slaughtered in the first fight scene. Fortunately for them, they somehow blunder their way out and live to fight another die. Unfortunately, the sequence underscores the unreality of the series, placing Grimgar in that nebulous zone between fantasy and realism.

In contrast to most fantasy stories commonly seen in Japanese media, Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash adopts a mundane approach. There are no grand quests or epic adventures, powerful villains or magical weapons, just a band of young people trying to make their way in a strange new world by hunting monsters. Driven more by character drama and interactions than by plot, the anime explores loss and grief and emotional bonds between people.

Alas, its attempts at emotional realism doesn’t translate to the realism in the rest of the story.

So-called Setting

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Pretty pastel colours won’t compensate for a lack of sense.

The setting makes no sense. The tiny slice of Grimgar that the characters inhabit do not exist independently of the characters. Once the party leaves town, it’s as if the town, and everything and everyone in it it, ceases to exist.

When the cast arrives in the world of Grimgar, they discover they have no memories of the past and no idea how they got there. They decide to serve as ‘Volunteer Soldiers’, the world’s equivalent of adventurers, to make a living. Starting as trainees, they must hunt monsters, sell their remains, and earn enough money to become full-fledged Volunteer Soldiers. This is where the setting runs into issues.

In true RPG fashion, the characters sign up at various Guilds to learn a job. After paying a membership fee, they enjoy seven days of training before being left to fend for themselves as trainee Volunteer Soldiers. The Guilds themselves serve no major purpose: they do not represent the interests of their members, they do not participate in politics, and they do not organise expeditions. It’s as if the only reason the Guilds exist is to make money off membership fees and provide skills training.

In such a setting, you’d think the Guilds would treat their members as investments instead of expendable spear fodder. Seven days isn’t anywhere near enough to turn someone into a competent fighter, and it shows. The cast of Grimgar are the leftovers people nobody else wants to party with. In their initial fight scenes they are hopelessly outmatched and utterly incapable of fighting. In a realistic setting, this means that the Guilds will be sending people off to die in droves. They aren’t going to make much money, if at all.

Likewise, while there are religions in Grimgar, they don’t seem to serve any purpose except being the functional equivalent of Guilds. The one time a temple is shown, it’s for a funeral. The priests do not seem to serve any religious purpose except for casting healing magic, in which case they might as well be white mages. There are no holy books, no divine teachings, nothing that marks them as religions as opposed to guilds with funny rituals.

Then comes the question of the economy. Volunteer Soldiers make money by hunting monsters and selling loot, including monster parts. Why are these parts useful? Why is there demand for these goods? Who uses these items and for what purpose? Ranta the Dark Knight offers monster parts in exchange for a Vice, but that is the only time a monster part is seen to have utility. There is no sense of a living economy in Grimgar; for all intents and purposes the scavenged monster parts might as well be vendor trash.

As for the monsters themselves, why are humans hunting them? Why are they roaming the world? What do they want? If they pose such a threat that humans are incentivised to kill them on sight, then why isn’t there a formal military hunting down and destroying these monsters? Why is the task of defending humans from monsters left to roaming packs of Volunteer Soldiers who lack skills and experience?

It becomes painfully obvious that the world of Grimgar runs on role playing game tropes to the exclusion of authenticity. Everything that exists serves the characters, and by extension, the viewer. The monsters create a sense of threat. The economy grinds down the party, forcing them to make tough financial choices. The Guilds teach skills, but nothing more. This is the kind of worldbuilding you expect from a game.

In a game, the player engages the mechanics first and story second. The player doesn’t need to worry the things that don’t concern his party; he just needs to breeze through the storyline and the world so he can get on with slaying monsters and picking up loot. While it would be nice if the game lore talks about monsters, politics and the economy, it is not necessary to enjoy the game or even run a game.

In a story, however, the setting must hold together as a coherent whole, as the characters will be doing more in the setting than just hunting monsters and picking up loot. Indeed, the Grimgar anime tries to show this by following characters in their off-time as they haggle in the marketplace, enjoy meals, and do other mundane things. Beyond the superficial level, though, you’ll quickly realise that Grimgar’s setting simply doesn’t hold together.

To create the feel of a living, breathing world, a fantasy setting must exist on its own, independent of the characters. The characters may change the society they live in, but the setting itself must justify and sustain its continued existence without the characters’ input. Otherwise, the society wouldn’t exist without them, which is ridiculous if the characters are newcomers to the world.

Contrast Grimgar’s setting with Danmachi. In this world, there is an enormous labyrinth under the town of Orario that spawns endless numbers of monsters, which possess magic stones at their cores. These magic stones are inherently valuable, as their stored magic can be used for cooking, water purification and other necessary activities. This generates demand for the stones, which justifies the existence of adventurers who brave the dungeon to kill monsters and recover stones, and the existence of an Adventurer’s Guild which trades these stones for money and regulates the activities of adventurers. The Guild can sell the recovered stones to merchants for a tidy profit, ensuring its continued existence, and the merchants can conduct commerce with these stones. Such wealth would naturally create the conditions for a dungeon-based economy to spring up around Orario. Orario itself doesn’t need a formal army to fight monsters, since the monsters are usually confined to the dungeon, some adventurers are one man or one woman armies, and the most powerful Familias are small armies unto themselves.

The setting of Danmachi feels more coherent than Grimgar because it is justified and self-sustaining in-story, much like real-world societies. While Grimgar deliberately poses many questions and leaves them unanswered, there must be a rational explanation for settings and institutions, even if they are implied instead of explicitly stated. Otherwise, what we have is a half-baked world, fit only for D&D games.

Empty Violence

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GOBLIN uses EYE POWER! It’s not very effective…

I don’t watch anime for action scenes. I’m invariably disappointed if I do. Grimgar is no different.

Grimgar tries to use many tricks to portray the party’s lack of skills and the impact of violence. Under the Scope talks specifically the use of weight, both physical and emotional. In my view, though, the weight makes the action scenes fail.

Let’s start with physical weight. Knife-wielding characters move and strike swiftly. Characters with swords move a tad slower and swing their weapons through large arcs. Moguzo with his oversized longsword swings his weapon with the awkwardness and authority you’d expect from a heavy weapon. It appears intuitive, but to people who practice weapon-based arts, this portrayal of weight falls flat.

As a rule, weapons are closer and faster than you expect. Watch this clip of a knife back cut. Blink and you will miss it. Likewise, when facing a sword cut thrown with full power and intent, you’ll only have fractions of a second to react. A polearm, wielded properly, isn’t much slower. As Metatron points out, great swords aren’t enormously heavy.

Contrary to anime portrayals, weapons can’t be clumsy and heavy: such weapons are hard to wield and will leave the user vulnerable. We see this in the early episodes, when Moguzo’s swings are clumsy and throw him off-balance. Weapons must be light enough to allow the user to recover and reorient after a swing. Heavy weapons will kill their users — they can only exist in a fantasy setting with superstrong users who can wield such weapons with ease or in a world where enemies that don’t know how to take advantage of awkward blows. Grimgar chooses the latter approach, degrading the perception of the threat the monsters pose.

Other tired tropes show up. Characters block sword blows with knives, never mind that the velocity, mass and inertia of a sword would batter the knife away. Limb shots don’t count: characters with wounded limbs can continue fighting with that limb. Characters clash swords and push away at each other, turning a contest of skill into one of plain brute force.

In visual media, viewers have to be able to see the action. This probably explains at least in part why the awkwardly heavy weapon trope has endured for so long. However, the knowledgeable creator doesn’t have to rely on imagined weight to pull off exciting fight scenes. Junketsu no Maria has accurate portrayals of Historical European Martial Arts, with characters using proper techniques and tactics to defeat their opponents.

The psychological aspects of combat in Grimgar are also lacking. On The Scope makes good points about how the camera work, character portrayals and the like feel like the party is in a life-or-death struggle, but life-or-death fights go beyond that.

Throughout the fight scenes, especially early on, characters stand around and yell encouragement, make speeches or banter with each other. They stare at wounds and weapons in the middle of a fight. The goblins in turn stand around and make noise or wait until the humans act. Occasionally, after dodging an attack, goblins actually jeer instead of counterattacking. There are huge gaps in the action and too much hesitation on both sides.

This may be fine if you want to portray a group of incompetent characters, but the monsters suffer from this too. Nobody exploits the speeches, the in-party arguments and other gaps in the action. In a realistic world the monsters would press the advantage — especially the combat veterans. Without anyone displaying a killer instinct or at least training, there is no perception of killing intent. These gaps are counterproductive: instead of emphasising the emotional impact of the fight scene, they suck intensity from it. Indeed, Minato’s early speech on fighting comes off as the producers trying too hard to convince the viewer that it’s a real fight.

Properly portraying incompetence requires knowledge of what it actually looks like. It’s more than just missed shots, awkward movements and bad plans. It’s clumsy footwork, resulting in trips and pratfalls and self-injury. It’s charging in recklessly and being flanked or surrounded by enemies. It’s falling for feints. It’s awkward body mechanics and poor posture, leading to reduced power, poor recovery, telegraphing and openings. Absolute newbies may even cut themselves with their own weapons.

Likewise, fights are governed by more than weight. They are about range, timing, footwork, beats, body mechanics, openings, lines and angles, teamwork, and avoiding fratricide and self-injury. Nobody — not the humans or the monsters — demonstrate more than a passing familiarity with these concepts, not even the more dangerous kobolds near the end of the series.

In a realistic world, a single mistake in combat is fatal. Yet characters keep recovering from these mistakes without penalty. This makes the major fight scenes feel fake. It’s as if both sides are just taking turns to exchange blows instead of actively trying to kill each other. This in turn makes the fight scenes feel artificial: the human characters aren’t actually at risk since they’re fighting unskilled threats, so whenever they are wounded it becomes a plot contrivance instead of an organic consequence of fighting skilled foes. Likewise, there is no sense that the characters actually improve their fighting skills, instead relying on planning and sheer luck to compensate for poor combat ability.

At the strategic level, the monsters show their stupidity. While they eventually adapt to human tactics, they have no grasp of higher-level strategy or even basic security. Early on, when the heroes are observing a party of goblins, the goblins are busy drinking without anyone pulling security. The goblins know that humans are hunting them, but some insist on traveling alone. When the humans raid a ruin occupied by goblins, the goblins don’t increase security, hunt for intruder or even react to assassinations of their kind until a significant plot point–making that point feel artificial instead of an organic consequence. Likewise, when the humans go hunting in a mine filled with kobolds, the kobolds have no security measures in place, no quick response force, and instead of stationing their elites near the entrance so they can efficiently fight off invaders, they are positioned deep inside the mine because…reasons.

You’d expect this from a game. Game designers need to give the player a chance to win and explore interesting settings in depth. To this end, game designers have to create a difficulty curve for the player, and create moments of drama only when the player is familiar enough with the setting and the monsters to be victorious. But in a story, this makes the monsters appear no smarter than a pack of dogs.

The characters are bad at fighting, and the monsters are only slightly worse. It’s the only reason there wasn’t a party wipe in the first five minutes.

Alleged Characters

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Band of LARPers

It’s clear why the main characters of Grimgar are at the bottom of the heap. The real wonder is how they are still alive.

The anime is marked by its slow-paced character-development. This might make sense if the story takes place under ordinary circumstances. But venturing into monster-infested ruins and forests to kill goblins for money is not ordinary, and the anime fails to account for this.

The characters lack curiosity about the world. They don’t research the world, they don’t investigate how society works, they don’t even talk to other Volunteer Soldiers to discuss the monsters. Even the notion of going to a pub to socialise with other Volunteer Soldiers is an alien concept to most of the party until halfway through the first arc of the series.

The party also lacks imagination. When funds are low, the party decides to take risks to hunt more monsters. Never mind that the party has a hunter, a thief, and a warrior talented in cooking or sculpting. The hunter doesn’t hunt game animals to ease their food expenses. The thief won’t engage in thievery, not even stealing from goblins instead of humans. Nobody talks about scavenging the monsters’ equipment, or at least explain why they won’t or can’t use them — and nobody discusses selling the monsters’ gear as well. Likewise, nobody pressures Moguzo to sell his carvings for spare cash, or at least to not waste time and money buying and carving up wood when they don’t any money to spare. You’d think that people who are desperate for money would rack their brains to think of how to make more money and reduce expenses — but our party is evidently too stupid to do so.

Beyond their intellectual failings, it’s clear the party isn’t serious about their profession. Many scenes in the anime involve the characters talking about mundane, everyday things. The party is never shown practicing with their weapons, rehearsing new tactics or discussing how to defeat the monsters. They get better at planning, to be sure, but planning alone isn’t enough. No plan survives first contact with the enemy, and if the party isn’t familiar with each other’s roles and actions on target they will trip up each other and die. They are counting on live battle experience to get better at execution, which is pretty stupid: you always practice new tactics, weapons and ideas in a safe environment so that when you make mistakes people won’t die and you can correct them without having to adjust on the fly.

Somehow, the party outlives their mistakes and gains battle experience, but they are not changed by the violence they have inflicted. Veterans quickly learn how to adapt to war. It’s in the little things: readjusting their gear for better fit and speedier deployment, taking up tactical formation while travelling to better respond to ambushes, warily scanning for threats everywhere they go. None of this happens. The characters don’t even suffer any lasting psychological stress or trauma from killing or from being wounded. They do experience grief, but after the initial episodes they themselves are not affected by the violence they personally deliver.

The characters treat combat lightly. They approach it like a job or a game instead of desperate life-or-death struggles that don’t seem to serve any larger purpose. The first couple of episodes tries to lend emotional weight to combat, but this tone is not maintained throughout the series. The party is incredibly casual about violence, not caring about training or rehearsals — because in a world of poorly-choreographed action scenes, there are no penalties for ill-preparedness until the plot demands it. This lack of seriousness contrasts sharply with the earnestness of the emotional scenes delivered throughout the anime. Instead of sympathizing with the characters, I felt myself wondering why they care so little about their own lives.

Once again, these aspects can be overlooked in a game, since players want to get on to the exciting bits and skip the boring parts. But in a story, where characters have to appear authentic, the main cast of Grimgar come off less as Volunteer Soldiers and more like teen LARPers.

Conclusion

Grimgar tries to be realistic, but it’s too heavily wedded to unjustified and inexplicable RPG tropes. Instead of being a hybrid RPG / fantasy story like *Saga of the Shield Heroes * or an outright RPG-esque or fantasy story, it occupies a nebulous middle ground with the worst of both worlds.

If a story world is meant to be realistic, and if characters don’t respect the laws of the world, then the characters must be severely punished. It is simply cause and effect. Failure to uphold this law of storytelling undermines the perception of realism, and with it, the entire story. Conversely, if a story world runs on casual gaming tropes, then this must be made explicitly clear as early and as often as possible, so that the consumer will apply game logic instead of real world logic to the story. If a story wants to walk the middle ground between realistic fantasy and RPG fantasy, then it must strike a delicate balance while remaining internally coherent and believable.

If Grimgar were a video game, none of these issues would have mattered. But since Grimgar is a story, the clash between realism and RPG tropes fatally undermines it.

All images from the anime Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash

Space Opera is about Opera

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Tor launched #SpaceOperaWeek to promote and discusse space opera. In 24 hours, the Pulp Revolution launched a memetic revolution and claimed the hashtag for its own. Now, practically every hashtag and Internet discussion about #SpaceOperaWeek is dominated by the PulpRev folks. This stunning success exposes a hard truth: Tor has no idea what space opera is about.

Tor says ‘Space Opera is at its best when it merges the sweeping, big stakes stories with ordinary human drama‘. That is a laughable notion.

Space opera is about Opera: enormous stakes, huge conflicts, sweeping scope, massive drama, larger-than-life characters. Readers do not want to read page after page of mind-numbing tedium; they already live that in everyday life. They read fiction, especially science fiction, to escape reality, not to delve deeper into it.

David Weber’s Honor Harrington series is a classic example of space opera: interstellar diplomacy and warfare, grand strategy and fleet tactics, conspiracies and drama, high technology and higher stakes. The series doesn’t have Admiral Harrington spending entire novels caught up in mindless staff meetings and tedious paperwork; that’s not the point of space opera. People don’t want to read boring stuff, and ordinary, everyday life is boring. If they want to read about ordinary human drama, that’s what literary fiction is for.

Tor’s assertion to the contrary demonstrates a lack of awareness of what readers want. But that’s what you get when you bring aboard a writer who admits she is “not really a Space Opera kind of girl“.

Space opera is about, well, fun. As John Del Arroz points out on the Castalia House blog, space opera doesn’t have to realistic; it just has to be fun.

Not that there isn’t room for realism if it doesn’t subtract from the story. It just has to be done right.

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Science fiction celebrates the vasty deep of the galaxy, marvels at the strange wonders born in the light of alien suns, and lauds the power of the imagination. Today, sci fi is split into ‘realistic’ hard science fiction and ‘unrealistic’ soft science fiction, with works assessed by how closely they hew to known science. The old pulp masters would have laughed at such a notion. But it doesn’t mean that it’s not useful.

Hard science fiction is the fiction of probability. It celebrates the glory of science today, showing us what we can do with what we already know. It is not about fixing your imagination into tedious todays and stagnant yesterdays, or locking your brain into the realism box. Science constantly changes; a hard sci fi story cannot possibly remain completely accurate forever, nor should it. Instead it should strive to show what humans can achieve simply with what we know today, and build a ladder for us to reach for brighter and more glorious tomorrows.

Starship Operators is perhaps the hardest science fiction anime today. There is no sound in space; the sound is explicitly described as dubbed in for viewers. Battles take hours or days, with ships jostling for position. The only artificial gravity aboard a ship comes from rotating wheels. Light-speed lag significantly affects tactics and combat.

Yet at its heart, Starship Operators is about a group of plucky space cadets waging a one-ship war against an interstellar superpower to free their country while being sponsored by a television company. It doesn’t let science get in the way of the story. Hence there are stealth ships, plasma weapons, faster-than-light travel, and a disturbing lack of thermal radiators. The science in the anime are simply the props that allow the story to be told.

For ultra-diamond-hard science fiction, bar none, look no further than Children of a Dead Earth. It’s a space warfare simulator, designed with the express purpose of exploring what warfare in space would look like. Everything in the game obeys the laws of the universe: thermal stress and radiation, orbital mechanics , the rocket equation, Young’s Modulus and more. To fully appreciate the game you need to have an in-depth understanding of lasers, nuclear reactors, thrust and a dozen other fields. No fantasy physics here – at least, until you unlock the black box design module.

Children of a Dead Earth succeeds because of these limitations. The creator produced a compelling story universe in which humanity has colonised the planets, asteroids and moons of the Solar System. It is a universe riddled with superpower conflict and interfactional rivalries, culminating in a shooting war where fleets of atomic rockets attempt to destroy each other with high-intensity lasers, hypervelocity projectiles and nuclear missiles. While this isn’t strictly space opera, a setting like this demonstrates what can be done today — so imagine what can be done tomorrow.

Soft science fiction is the fiction of possibility. It’s not completely accurate, but it doesn’t have to be. Instead, soft sci fi sets the stage for epic tales of tragedy and heroism and sorrow and hope. It takes the readers to journeys to far-off worlds, fires their imagination with depictions of Super Awesome Tech, and the very best stories point the reader to greater truths about the nature of humanity.

Star Wars (the original trilogy!) is an enduring classic of soft science fiction. It has Space Magic, wandering samurai with energy blades and mind powers, galaxy-spanning polities and world-killing superweapons. It’s not realistic and pretend to be. It doesn’t bother with ‘ordinary human drama’, focusing instead on the high drama of good versus evil and the struggle between the Light and Dark sides of the Force. The original trilogy focuses on being fun, and that is why its legacy endures to this day.

Looking further into the past, we see the old masters of pulp writing space opera with an emphasis on opera. E. E. Smith’s seminal Lensman series exemplifies this: elder alien races manipulating younger ones to achieve their ends, superweapons and psionics aplenty, massive space battles with the casual destruction of worlds, and titanic struggles between the forces of civilization and tyranny. Compared to such luminence, mere human drama means nothing.

While it may sometimes be useful to divide science fiction between hard and soft, it is merely a paradigm, to be adopted when useful and discarded when not. Consider the case of John C. Wright’s Superluminary. It features all manner of ‘soft’ sci fi technology–casual biomodification, psionics, the titulary faster-than-light travel mechanism–but the story universe is carefully constructed, with the technology obeying the rules of the universe as faithfully as any other piece of high technology in a work of hard science fiction. With these sci fi elements, Wright tells a story of a young man who must seize the throne of Humanity and lead mankind in a desperate war against a star-spanning race of vampires who have conquered the universe and seek to consume everything. Nowhere near ‘realistic’, but it is an epic space opera told in the grand tradition of the old pulp masters – and vastly more enjoyable than stories of mere human drama.

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Science fiction is about *fiction* and space opera is about *opera*. If people want to read about science or space, there are plenty of non-fiction books, magazines and journals to choose from. If people want to delve into ordinary human drama, they just have to live ordinary lives or pick up lit fic. The science in science fiction makes the fiction *fun*, and the space in space opera is the setting for the opera.

Science fiction is not about dragging readers through muck and demanding they derive pleasure from it. Science fiction turns their eyes to the stars, and space opera takes them there. Space opera is about opera: the glory, the terror, the joy, the horror, the sorrow and the wonder that awaits the intrepid starman who dares to brave the infinite expanse.

How to Write Someone Else’s Martial Arts

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Fight scenes are fun. Fight scenes featuring believable techniques are even more fun. If you already know martial arts, incorporating them should be easier. But what if you don’t? Or if the story calls for characters to use other martial arts you haven’t studied?

It’s a question I faced when writing recent stories. My latest novel, NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS, required a character to be proficient in historical European martial arts, specifically the German school of longsword fencing. Another novella I wrote last year placed Chinese martial arts in the limelight. Unfortunately, I do not have any training in those styles, and there was no way to justify having the characters use the style I have trained in.

The best answer to the question is to simply train in that new style, or at least ask someone who has trained in that art to look over the fight scenes. But this may not always be available to you. Teachers in the styles I have selected aren’t readily available here. Here’s what I did to make fight scenes realistic and research less headache-inducing.

Down the Rabbit Hole

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A martial art is a paradigm. It is a method of moving your body to solve specific problems in a specific environment. These problems can be as simple as breaking a fall or as complex as handling multiple armed attackers hell-bent on killing you. The signature of a martial art lies in its approach to problem-solving based on its operating assumptions.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu aims to solve the problem of how to force a single opponent into a submission without necessarily causing permanent damage. Classical karate provides practitioners a means of unarmed self-defense against ruffians. Kali tackles the problem of confronting attackers armed with weapons. Some branches of HEMA attempt to replicate the battlefield techniques used by soldiers against enemies with and without armour in European battlefields.

Different martial arts are suited for different purposes in different environments. Once you understand how your chosen martial art is supposed to function, match it against the problem your character is going to run into. A kali practitioner with a baton may be able to fend off a single knife-welding opponent in a duel. A man who only knows BJJ and finds himself surrounded by raging gangsters on the street is in deep trouble. Depending on your writing goal, this may or may not necessarily be a bad thing. The trick is to know what kind of scene you want before writing it, and to explore the consequences of success or failure following the action scene.

The Way You Move

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In the age of YouTube, Facebook and Vimeo, it’s easy to simply watch a selection of fight techniques online and replicate them in writing. However, every trained martial artist knows that techniques do not exist in a vacuum. Throwing random techniques does not a fight scene make; to write action scenes at a higher level, you must understand why a character will choose to move in a certain way in a given situation.

Different martial arts have different ways of moving to solve problems in different environments. The key to breaking down an art into its essentials is to understand the way its practitioners move. In particular, look at footwork, power generation and weapons. These are the three pillars that define an art.

Filipino martial arts is defined by its choice of weapons: the stick, the sword and the knife. As a weapon-based art, its practitioners assume that the opponent has a weapon. If you block a weapon with empty hands you will lose your arm; if you block with your weapon you might chip the edge and lose an opportunity for an immediate counterattack. FMA answers this problem through triangular footwork and timing. Instead of meeting force with force, the ideal is to get off the line of attack, evading the attack altogether, and disable the opponent’s arm and/or finish him off.

FMA relies heavily on hip rotation to generate power. Every strike ends in a chamber position, allowing the practitioner to seamlessly chain together a string of attacks without having to reposition his hands or feet. This combination of swinging hips and attack chaining is the basis of the FMA concept of flow: transitioning seamlessly from one technique to another to overwhelm the enemy with a blitz of strikes.

Sword-based Historical European Martial Arts appears to have some superficial similarities with FMA. However, FMA was developed in a jungle archipelago; the local climate makes wearing heavy armour impractical for most conditions. Europe’s climate allowed knights and wealthy soldiers to wear armour for extended periods. Plate armour mitigates or outright defeats the FMA tactic of stepping off-line and slashing the arm or thrusting to the body. In addition, unlike many traditional Filipino swords, European battlefield swords tend to have pronounced crossguards. Later swords incorporated knuckle-bows, basket hilts and cup hilts. These guards rendered decisive strikes to the hand more difficult.

The combination of armour and weapon characteristics lend themselves to different tactics. A HEMA longsword practitioner can bind the enemy’s sword, using his crossguard to trap the blade and protect himself, and thrust his own sword through gaps in the enemy’s armour. The historical fencer may also hold his sword by the blade instead of the handle, using the crossguard to hook, trap and trip his enemy–and the crossguard and pommel can be used to deliver the infamous murder stroke, using concussive force to defeat helmets. Further, HEMA training also emphasises preventing double-kills and guarding against afterblows from a dying opponent, an element not usually found in FMA, since FMA footwork ideally places the practitioner outside of the enemy’s reach.

In marked contrast, the signature weapon of the Chinese art of Bajiquan is the spear. Specifically, the daqiang, a long and heavy spear. The length and weight of the weapon makes it much harder for a practitioner to simply evade an incoming attack and counterattack in the same beat the way an FMArtist can with a light single-handed sword. Bajiquan spear techniques instead focus on controlling the enemy’s weapon with your own, either by small circles or swats, and immediately thrusting into unguarded space.

Empty hand Bajiquan carries echoes of the spear, emphasising explosive, linear movements like those needed to drive a spear home. Bajiquan delivers power through falling steps and abrupt movements, synergising with the footwork. Bajiquan footwork carry the practitioner deep into the enemy’s space to control his centreline, enabling the practitioner to destroy him with close-in body weapons: headbutts, elbows, hooks, low kicks, body slams and grappling.

While these are generalities, we can see how footwork, power generation and weapon characteristics make up the signature of an art. Tactics and techniques are derived from how the art trains its practitioners to move and the weapons the practitioners study. Once you know how a martial artist is likely to move based on his training, you can create a more believable actions scene.

The Fighter’s Heart

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You know what art your fighter studies, how he will move, and why he will move. Now it’s time to introduce the human element.

My approach to writing action scenes is similar to Chinese martial arts film. Every fight scene is fundamentally a clash between humans, and martial arts is a medium to express their unique personalities and achieve their goals. There are as many ways to express a martial art as there are practitioners. Different fighters have different personalities, skill levels, assumptions and conditioning, and their techniques will reflect that.

A large, strong, aggressive fighter is likely to charge straight into the fray, bashing aside all obstacles in his way. A defensive fighter will stay at long range and hang back until the time for a counterattack. A crafty martial artist will use feints and deception to create windows of opportunity to attack.

A martial art is like a toolbox. A fighter’s personality tells you which tools he will prefer to use. These are the techniques you need to pay extra attention to in your research and the ones your fighter unleashes in battle. It also means you don’t need to spend so much time looking for stuff you probably won’t use in your own work.

Taking Things to the Next Level

A fight scene is a clash of wills expressed in motion. When writing an unfamiliar martial art, you don’t necessarily have to have complete knowledge of the art to properly portray it. But to do justice to the art, you need to know the pillars of the art, its footwork, tactics and weapons, and know how your character will express the art. Armed with this knowledge, you can elevate your fight scenes to the next level.

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And if you want to see how well I did writing a bunch of foreign martial arts, you can find NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon and the Castalia House bookstore.

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.