Book Review: Jiao Tu's Endeavor, ep.1

 

The blurb:

On a multigenerational colony ship five hundred years off course, a lagomorph warrior must survive using only his wits and his sword.

Jiao Tu has been hired to rescue a young kidnapped mousling. A tip leads him to the Below, home to the engines that keep the world in motion. His mission has hardly begun when an encounter with a monstrous being plunges him into the midst of a struggle not only for control of the Below but for the world itself.

Teamed with an untested ratling warrior and the ratling leader of a gang of thugs, Jiao Tu must stop the monster and save the mousling—and the world—before it is too late.

Drawing inspiration from sources as diverse as Leigh Brackett’s planetary romances, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun, Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane stories, Hideyuki Kikuchi’s Vampire Hunter D, Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, and the wuxia tradition starting with Water Margins and Journey to the West, Uitvlugt has created a world all his own that promises a far-future adventure unlike any other.


The second entry in Periapsis Press’s Summer Indie Spotlight!

Donald Jacob Uitvlugt’s bodyguard bunny channels a lot of classic wandering hero/ronin energy into a setting that is intriguing, mysterious, full of danger and sometimes weird.

This is more than capable prose with great characters and action, in a fresh voice with an tinge of the old school.

Plot:

What a great example of a story whose plot is driven by the characters and factions, while still being tied to the fate of the world at large. It feels close and personal, and yet the threat of possibly world-changing danger looms. Are our heroes destined and able to affect the fate of their seedship, or is their mere survival the best we can hope for, as the world around them runs its course?

In part because Uitvlugt wrote this in bite-sized serial chunks, the pace is fast and the plot is tight enough to shut out the endless cold of space. It’s an effortless read that maintains depth while getting straight to the point.

Character:

Jiao Tu is an immediately likeable wandering hero. His martial competence is unquestionable, yet many situations can’t be solved with mere violence and so his honor, integrity and social skills come into play as well. I’m intrigued to learn more about his past, his relationship to the sentient sword Black Fang (collectible replica please?), and the history of the wayward colony ship that resulted in the creation of all these colorful characters.

The supporting cast is varied and everyone has their own believable motivations. No one is relegated to two dimensions or upstaged by their fellows. Everyone plays their own part.

Of particular interest is the relationship between Jiao Tu and Farrah going forward, connected as they are by some various mysteries.

Craft:

Again, excellent prose in a bit of a heightened voice that recalls classic hero tales without being archaic. Structure is on point and greatly benefitted from the serial mode, in my opinion.

Try as I might, I simply couldn’t think of the obligatory minor flaw to comment on. I suppose for my own tastes the inter-factional dramas are not the greatest points of interest, but they’re so entangled with the world-building - and I sense the series arc - that obviously it’s not something that could be changed. In other words this is a shining example of the kind of story it is.

Grab your copy today, comment on Periapsis Press’s review for a chance to win a print copy, and test your lagomorph mettle against the denizens of the Below!

Summer Indie Spotlight - Excerpt from Dawn of the Broken Sword!

 


The Summer Indie Spotlight continues at Periapsis Press!

Check this excerpt from Kit Sun Cheah's new cyberpunk/cultivation novel and treat yourself to a copy today. It's really good and I reviewed it on all my sites. Enjoy!

Author Tools - AI cover art - state of the tech

 Cover art is one of the biggest barriers to entry in the indie author space. It runs from cheap to unobtainably expensive, from terrible to transcendent. Everyone has different tastes and visions, and opinions on style run the gamut.

But everyone agrees on one thing - it matters and it has to be good.

One of my biggest challenges and points of growth has been to understand and accept that covers that get a response on the market may not be what I prefer to see. At least in the affordable space.

Thus, when I saw indications that art AIs had ‘leveled up’ since the last time I played with one, I deemed it time to run some experiments.

I’ll start with a summary of my personal preference. I like illustrated art that depicts a scene from the book, or something close to one. The prime example of this is Michael Whelan’s cover for Sanderson’s Way of Kings. This is a book I bought because of the cover, when the blurb may not have been enough to convince me and I did not yet know the author.

Obviously this quality of art is out of reach for a beginner author, and I am not the only indie who has attempted to access the illustrated style by getting the best I could afford.

I spent the third most amount on this illustration of all my books, and it’s the best of the bunch overall, so far. It also had the greatest reception of all my illustrated covers. Nevertheless you can see (or at least I can see) a few issues. The pyramid ship is incorrectly scaled, and the Krashmobile is far too small compared to its description in book. Still, the picture gets the point across, and the colors are engaging. Could I have fixed my issues with it, or added more characters to the scene? Sure, but I couldn’t increase the budget.

General wisdom is, if you can’t afford an illustrated cover where one would be appropriate, get a photo real composite. Some indies approximate this by using 3D renders. In general, I dislike both and they do not draw me in.

While these are decent quality examples of both styles, something about them just turns me off. Would not click. That said, someone would, and people do. Thus, authors like myself must figure out how to meet our prospective readers where they are. For me, this has meant practicing my design skills and deciding how to source affordable images.

Enter AI.

Roughly two years ago I played some with Artbreeder, before they locked it down and started pushing their pricing tiers a little harder. In general, it did not produce art I found suitable for covers. But I did get a small set of abstract sci-fi pieces that I was willing to use if it came to it.

I’d say these are somewhere between old school and obviously indie, and frankly don’t leave too much to be desired other than giving off a more chill vibe than the books actually possess. So far as I saw, this is the best Artbreeder could do for our purposes. A pattern begins to emerge, however - the colors and overall vibe are spectacular.

Having left AI alone for some time, I was pleased to see recent posts by people using things like Midjourney and Dall-E 2. I also came across DiscoDiffusion, which can be accessed for free but takes some fiddling.

Without access to Dall-E 2, I’ve only been able to test the others.

Here are some tests with Disco Diffusion. Two are attempts at a photo real but stylized Bloodbane cover, with Castlevania art as an init. There’s one where I tried to get it to isolate a cyberpunk building for game art purposes, and then a general cyborg concept.

You can see the big weakness here is humanoids. Proportions, faces, angles. Everything is off. You can get the AI to do decent portraits, but generally we won’t find those useful for cover art.

Disco just couldn’t figure out how to portray my lumberjack warrior, nor could it really grasp where the axe should be incorporated. That’s to say nothing of trying to get it to render him using a polesaw as a weapon. On that the AI was just clueless, since there is no precedent for that in its trained images.

Once again, the color palette and vibes are beyond excellent. If the covers didn’t need to be coherent, these would be very close to serving their purpose.

Which brings us to Midjourney, which you may have seen me playing with on Twitter.

For reference, here are my two illustrated Hero’s Metal covers, which I love very much for what they are.

But I have to be honest - they do not fit in with what else is on the market. Would I click them? Absolutely. But not enough other people are. In the absence of an $800+ illustration, we need something photo real.

Now we’re talking. Abstractness remains, but the machine’s ability to generate realism while also stylizing has come a long way. You can see the emblem style is the most focused, while the landscape is the most beautiful.

As usual, colors and vibe are the best elements. But the AI’s sense of lighting has greatly improved, we made use of style matching, and the sense of photo realism has greatly improved. Book 4 in particular is still in iteration, but I wanted to include it as an example of what we can do with multiple generations and compositing, for posterity.

Here are two more pieces I generated, for stories I concepted in tandem with the prompts:

I consider this level of art more than usable, and in fact have updated Hero’s Metal 1 and 2 on Amazon. We will see if they generate more clicks/buys. In any case, the reception on Twitter was great, so I’m taking that as a good sign.

I’ve signed up for the Dall-E 2 access, and will report if and when I can. I will also follow up with tips for prompting such AI, should there prove sufficient interest.


The verdict then, for now, is that emblems, landscapes, and somewhat abstract pieces are generate-able and usable. Be aware that it takes some playing with the AI, which means subscribing to one, which means paying out. But I’ve got at least 4 covers here for a much more than reasonable price.

While we would all much prefer to pay talented, working artists in our circles for amazing and beautiful cover illustrations, I think this route for our cover art is not something we can easily ignore.

Questions? Critique? Hit me up!

And click on those beautiful covers above to buy Hero’s Metal and all my other fantasy adventures.

Summer Indie Spotlight!

Summer is upon us, and what better way to spend as much of it as possible than reading great books?

My friends at Periapsis Press are running an Indie Author spotlight to bring attention to some most deserving SFF authors.

Check the descrip:

Join Periapsis Press this summer for our 2022 Indie Spotlight, supporting indie authors by drawing attention (and hopefully reviews) to three new releases!

Each month, we will read one book and post a review, an excerpt, and an interview with the author. While Periapsis Press is spearheading this event, there are a number of other blogs that will be posting reviews of these titles, too!

You can also participate in the event by reading along, reviewing the book yourself, sharing the reviews on social media, and tuning into the live book discussion at the end of each month.

There’s even a potential prize of not one, but three killer books.

So watch this space for my contributions in reviews, and any updates that come along!

Anthology Review: Pulp Rock!

 

The blurb:

ADVENTURE ROCKS
Space pirates and superspies, ghostly singers and half-orc bards, lost cities and deals with the devil . . . all this awaits and more in Pulp Rock: Twelve musically inspired tales of adventure, excitement, and horror by some of the most exciting voices in science-fiction and fantasy. Come explore the nexus between music and the written word, and get ready to rock.


Now you’ll find short blurbs for each story on the Amazon page, but I highly recommend buying the book without reading those, and just enjoying the surprises of discovery.

There isn’t a weak story in the bunch and, unlike with some other anthologies I’ve read, I suffered no temptations to skip! It reminded me of listening to an album the old school way - straight through.

The authors have got a ton of variety in here - adventure, fear, despair, joy, mystery, violence, metaphysics, wonder, transcendence, and of course the love of music. Backing the book was a given for me, since most of my own work is heavily inspired by the music I listen to. It was a lovely treat for me to see how these talented authors manifest rock-infused prose and plot in their own styles.

The stand-out story to me was Entomocronicity by Alexandru Constantine. I hadn’t read anything by him before but I did expect his piece to be the most litfic, and it was. There’s a ghostly kind of horror, touches of madness, and even some sci-fi-ish metaphysical stuff. Trust me when I say it’ll take you places you didn’t expect and dig a knife into your heart.

My favorite world of the bunch was the one depicted in Keep It Burning Bright by the anthology’s creator and editor, Alexander Hellene. It really feels like a tiny (but important) corner of a much larger world. The interaction with transcendence at the story’s climax is absolutely my kind of fantasy.

And my favorite character was Drummerbot from David V. Stewart’s Farewell to Once and Future Kings. This isn’t surprising to anyone who knows me because I love friendly robots, AI, and I myself am a drummer. He was just such a great addition to an already great spy story. Also of note in this piece is Stewart’s clear knowledge of music composition, which was woven into the conflict in an interesting way. Oh, and he also has best girl.

There’s so much other great stuff in here I could hit, but honestly the best way to discover it is to just dive in and enjoy. Let’s wish a great launch to this killer anthology, so we can all look forward to a volume two!

Grab a copy today.

Book Review: Heroes Fall by Morgon Newquist

The blurb:

Victoria doesn’t need a cape and a name to be a hero.

Living and working in the slums of Serenity City, she has become its faceless and nameless defender. She turned her back on the glittering world of professional superheroes years ago. If she has her way, she’ll never go back.

But the young and forgotten teens she helps are disappearing from the street, and nobody seems to care. As Victoria unravels this mystery, she is lead back to her old life in the star-studded glamourous superhero circles. No matter how much she hates it, she can’t abandon the helpless when they need her the most.

All clues point back to The Rampage, the terrible day when their mightiest champion Achilles fell to darkness. Will Victoria uncover the truth of what actually happened twenty years ago in time to help her lost boys and girls?

And what will happen when the fallen hero Achilles escapes, and Victoria is the only one who can stop him?

Morgon Newquist blazes on to the Superhero scene with the first Serenity City book, bringing nuance, emotion, and superpowered fights in spades. A solid, engaging launch to the brand new shared Heroes Unleashed universe, Heroes Fall will hook readers right in and leave them wanting more.

Can Victoria solve the twenty year mystery of Achilles’ fall from grace in time to save Serenity City? Or is there another, more sinister player who will destroy the very idea of superheroes?


I entered the Heroes Unleashed universe via Kai Wai Cheah’s killer thriller Hollow City, and every one of these books has been great. It was about time I circled back to the first in the series, and I’m so glad I did!

Newquist’s approach is as unique as each of the other authors and displays great technical skill and imagination, leveraging interpersonal dramas to delve deep into what it means to be a hero in this shared universe.

One thought in particular that kept coming to mind for me was, “She does The Boys-ish style superhero drama better than show!” (I’ve never read those comics, so I can’t comment on that.) That’s not to say that’s all this book is. It’s at once more kind, lighthearted, and deeper, less superficially ‘gritty’. There’s a lot here to enjoy and I hope I can do it justice.

Plot:

Once again we have an HU entry with a cast of clearly defined, engaging and useful characters. Everyone’s strengths and flaws come into play, and in fact all of the plot concerning the mains is specifically driven by these things.

What you’re in for here is an engaging drama and confrontation with fate, punctuated by slick action scenes with surprisingly technical and realistic details.

The plot runs tight and every scene contributes to forward motion. You will hardly notice as the pages fly by.

Character:

There’s a deliberate fuzziness between hero and villain here, which is part of why I made the connection to The Boys. Watchmen could be brought up as well. Some characters wonder what they truly are, while others pretend to be heroes when they’re not. Some aspire to be better, and others tend to hunker down and hide. It all comes off really juicy and authentic.

Victoria herself is the perfect window into the drama between the two heroic titans involved, Achilles and Pendragon. Though she’s strong, she’s only barely capable of holding her own among the older guard, and must often rely on cunning to get herself out of a fix. She’s likable and it’s easy to root for her as she figures out her place in Serenity City.

Craft and Critique:

Morgon is a more than solid author. Her appreciation for classic literature comes through, in no small part via her inclusion of quotes from the Iliad. It’s a nice way to punctuate the beginning of chapters and frame the central conflict in epicness.

The prose is easy and smooth, with a certain quality that put me in mind of Paula Richie’s Penance (also in the series and also very good).

If I had anything to say by way of critique it might be that I found Victoria a little too reactive in the early chapters, waiting for a time to act while the plot revs up around her. This makes sense in context of course, since the character is at that point making up her mind how involved she even wants to be. Thus it may be more of a feature than a bug!

Overall this is yet another excellent addition to the HU series. If you’re in the mood for superheroes, or even just a good action tale, Heroes Fall is for you!

2022 Update



Well.

‘21 did not go to plan with writing. ‘22 does not look to be cooperating much out of the gate either. So, I thought I’d offer an update for those interested, since I am not aware precisely who are real ‘fans’ vs. authors following me out of a more comrade-like interest. I don’t want the slow pace of late to let anyone down.

‘21 began with lofty proclamations from myself of finishing up to 6 50k-ish word novels by year’s end. Ultimate result was 2 novels and a novella. Not bad, but not my stated goal.

The strange year held a twin pregnancy in store for my wife, rendering her mostly bed-bound for several weeks, which meant I was a teacher, daddy, wife-helper, and night-mommy. Naturally you can imagine what this did to my output.

After that I had to navigate a career change, which after stressing me out majorly, left me blessedly writing full time! Welcome surprise, but a writing habit thrives on stability, so once again I suffered and failed to achieve my PULP SPEED!

Then, new work started, meaning new work from home routines, and then the princess twins came! So it’s been as action packed as Out of the Deep around here.

I expect to be running slow at least until the princess twins begin eating solids (another 4 months or so), and sleep gets a little more regular. Then I hope to rejoin the 5am writer’s club and jam a little harder.

So, having learned nothing from over-estimating my goals last year, here are the goals for 2020 II:

Clear my mind palate with a pulp liteRPG standalone novella I’m calling Bloodbane. It’s a bit of an homage to Castlevania and Resident Evil, but as I write, entering Act 2, I can already see it taking on its own shape and destiny, so great! The conceit is that a dimension of death-worshiping blood sorcerers begins to overlay itself on the ‘real world’, daring to stand in the way of a burly lumberjack and his family. Instead of a whip, he’s armed with a polesaw, and by the end, well… He will be very entertainingly outfitted I think.

After that, I absolutely must buckle down and finish Arc Legacy II, Song of the City, in which Jon and Bahabe learn their places in Enkann and the world, and Dahm and Rae collaborate on a school for mages. Their stories will intersect in ways that I think will be surprising.

Next comes either Hero’s Metal III or more work on the as-yet unreleased Revelation Galaxy (space fantasy).

Most likely I’ll do Rev Gal books II and III first(book one is done), in which good people chase destiny and slay false gods. Just because it’s been bugging me that it’s not done.

Then, assuming there are any months left, I’ll knock out Hero’s Metal III: Fear the Four Towers, in which Pierce absolutely will refuse to fear the four towers. You know how he is.

For those counting that’s four novels and a novella. Arc II is the most likely to disrupt the schedule because it begs to be longer than my recent target of 60k words or so, since Arc I was 127k. We’ll see though. I don’t want to not allow it to fall into my new style of pacing, otherwise I’ll get upset and slow completion even more due to stopping and starting. Whatever the length, I know it’ll be fun!

Meanwhile I must finish editing an anthology. And on ‘game breaks’ I hope to work on the Multiverse Crash card game, a planned print and play CCG that will hopefully have content from authors all over the Pulp Rev and Superversive movements.

Is that enough to do? I don’t think so. Let me go look for more…

If you want to support my endeavors, and make it ever easier for me to find the time to do all this writing, grab one of my fun books from the left panel here!



New Release in Hero's Metal!

I most definitely went through fire and rain with this one, and I’m extremely happy (and relieved) to release it into the wild!

This book is Hero’s Metal 2 of 4, Out of the Deep. Here’s the blurb:

Pierce and the heroes of Gorgonbane defeated the subterranean conqueror Kash one year ago. Since then, monster infestations have increased a hundredfold. It's good for business, but bad for the citizens of the reluctantly joined nations.

When a strange new entity crashes a dangerous extermination mission, everything falls into chaos.

Revelations about the world and whispers of a new form of magic litter the path from doom to an unexpected beacon of hope.

What is the Underlord Kash's prophesied threat? Can Gorgonbane save the continent from destruction? And who will Pierce have a crush on next?
Find out in Out of the Deep - Hero's Metal, book two.

I did my best to put in more of what readers liked from How Black the Sky, while also expanding the world and making sure to sate my own desires. The result is a fast-paced adventure that transitions the series into a clearly longer arc than what might have been suggested by How Black.

Along with the release of Out of the Deep, I’ve also prepared what I’m calling a demibus, or a limited edition ‘double feature’, which includes How Black and Deep in one volume. I was quite happy with the heft of the paperback and very much enjoyed commissioning the art -

- which you may remember from Pierce’s visit to the Everlasting Temple in How Black.

The plan here is to release a new edition of the demibus for book 3, and then the true omnibus for book 4. It’s a bit of an experiment, so we will see how it turns out!

I sincerely thank my wife, as well as the other readers who read for beta or review, including Periapsis Press, who agreed to review the book on their site!

After this launch, it’s on to more new things, and once my brain has reset, we begin work on Hero’s Metal 3: Fear the Four Towers!

Thanks for checking in, and I hope you enjoy the books. God bless! 

Movie Review - The Matrix - Resurrections

 

I want to start by saying that calling this film ‘The Last Jedi’ of the Matrix franchise is woefully simplistic (and probably just a marketing line to get ‘subversion fans’ to buy a ticket or HBO Max). It might even be straight out incorrect.

This is far more than that.

Last Jed was a non-sequel that consciously unraveled the threads of the previous installment to make a statement, and (giving Johnson some credit here) to make SW feel new again.

Resurrections presents as a deconstruction of the original Matrix trilogy on some levels, but it has the unsurmountable benefit over Last Jed of having one of the original trilogy’s writers on the script, as well as two less-known writers (Mitchell and Hemon) who have clearly forged a close creative relationship with the Wachowskis through work on Cloud Atlas and Sense8.

The result is a true sequel to the original trilogy that is packed with action, meta-commentary, a handful of very juicy reveals, and far less waxing philosophic than the originals. That’s not to say it’s lacking in depth. While everything may not be drawn out to the level that some critics may desire, the tease of concepts and underlying narrative structure is plenty enough to satisfy me. Plenty is left to the imagination and the commentary of Analysts (heh) far more proficient than I.

I like it a lot.

The best bit was definitely the first act, where, as indicated by the trailer, it seems that Thomas Anderson is once again ‘stuck’ in the Matrix. There was an instant sense of depth and mystery, with the opening sequence featuring new, younger redpillers who I think are included both to ‘be introduced’ and to give the sense that, yes, this is a movie about escaping the Matrix and not purely meta commentary on it.

Since this is day one, there are a lot of things I’d like to comment on that I won’t. I strongly recommend going into this film with as untainted an awareness of the plot and elements as possible. I will say that the world of the Matrix, both real and simulated, is expanded in ways that are fun and make sense.

Naturally it looks amazing. What big budget film doesn’t? There are even some new graphical gimmicks that I think were pulled of really well.

The actors are solid. Keanu is himself of course, sufficiently portraying a frayed at the edges Anderson who is rightfully questioning his sanity and who flinches at the merest hint of things being out of the ordinary.

‘Replacing’ Morpheus was a bit of an odd call (that’s not a spoiler if you’ve seen trailers). But Abdul-Mateen brings an interesting energy to this altered take on the character. Anderson’s boss, quite obviously meant to echo Agent Smith’s demeanor in the trailer, is well done too.

The standout performance for me was Neil Patrick Harris as Anderon’s analyst. As usual, Harris plays himself, but he does it as well as ever and fits into this iteration of the Matrix surprisingly well.

One thing I think will be on most of my readers’ minds is the political messaging in the film. Now I’ll freely admit there is likely a ton of messaging and symbolism that I didn’t get on the first watch, and may never pick up on until a more diligent analysis is shown to me, but I think fears of this film being overly ‘woke’ can now be allayed.

I’ll use one of the main themes as an example. The following element is also what elevated the last act of the film greatly for me, culminating in a beat that actually made me misty eyed…

That element is, surprisingly, the power of the male-female binary. I know, right?

Without going into too much detail, I can report that while there was mention of bits of humanity and reality existing on a spectrum, there was an undeniable focus on the contrasting of opposites and the ability of one ‘side’ to provide that which the other side lacks. This is demonstrated at various moments but could be boiled down in the fact that Neo and Smith repel each other, while Neo and Trinity are eternally drawn to one another. There’s a lot under the hood here and I’m excited to see how some other commentators pick it all apart.

Returning back to the Last Jed comparison to conclude, is Neo less than he was? Yes, but there’s a real reason. Is he emasculated, sidelined, and humiliated as Luke and the other men in LJ were? Absolutely not. His existence and desire drives the plot from start to finish.

I had a great time watching this movie, from the comfort of my home no less. Next time I’m up with baby princess twins in the middle of the night, I will surely watch again.

So that’s two thumbs up from me, in bullet time.


Huge Black Friday Book Sale!

 There’s so much great stuff here I can’t even begin to describe it!

All my book 1's are on sale for the duration, for $.99, so grab your copies today and relax with some adventure over the break (or while waiting for your people to Black Friday shop).

Check out the main sale page here:

I especially recommend reading How Black the Sky, since its sequel Out of the Deep is coming very soon!

Check my Amazon author page directly here.



The Mythos Project, or Conservative Retellings

  With the rise of big tech censorship and open calls to silence voices that do not agree with the zeitgeist, I’ve been slowly coming to a p...