Sunday, September 23, 2012

Scheherazade is Live

A year or so ago I wrote some material for a game from Black Chicken Studios. It's one of the most fun assignments I've ever had, an adventure with a bit of romance, set in 1931 and taking place all over the world. Scheherazade at the Library of Pergamum is live now. Check out the trailer below.

The finished game is huge.  My own contribution is just a tiny percentage of the final product.  It's got everything I like, from globe-trotting adventure to treasure hunts, mystery and exotic locations, and a fun, pulpy, really cool vibe.  

Julius Katz Mysteries

My Rating: 5/5

Dave Zeltserman's Julius Katz mystery stories are classics of the mystery genre, but they have a distinct science-fiction element to them.  Julius Katz is a detective in the Sherlock Holmes mold, brilliant and always several steps ahead of everyone around him.  What makes the stories unique is the nature of his sidekick, Archie, who narrates the stories.  Archie is a self-aware computer program.

There are two stories in this collection, plus a sample chapter from a full-length novel.  The stories are flawless.  In fact, you could call them textbook examples of how to write a mystery story.  "Julius Katz" was published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and won a Shamus Award for best short story, and a Derringer Award for Best Novelette.  "Archie's Been Framed" was published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and won a Readers Choice Award.  

"Julius Katz" introduces us to Julius, chronically lazy genius detective, who never takes on a client unless he's running out of money, and Archie, his virtual sidekick who resides in a tie clip Julius wears.  He handles all of Julius's paperwork, and even answers the phone via an online interface.  No one but Julius knows that Archie hasn't got a body.

There is an intriguing mystery, and a fascinating exploration of the potential of a digital person.  We see Archie ponder his nature and his limitations, as well as his unique abilities.  And Zeltserman gives Archie a distinct, intriguing, and thoroughly entertaining personality.  He wants to learn how to be a better detective, so he pesters Julius to take on more cases, so Archie can watch and learn.

In "Archie's Been Framed," he takes it to another level.  Archie has been dating, sort of.  He's met someone on an online dating site, chatted with her on the phone, even generated a photo to send to her.  But he's done too good a job.  When a body turns up, all the clues point to the new boyfriend.  Yes, a computer program is accused of murder.

The stories are designed to appeal to mystery fans, but there's something for fans of science fiction too, all of it buoyed up by really excellent writing.  And if you like these stories, there is more.  Zelsterman has written a novel and another collection of Julius Katz and Archie short stories.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Two Horror Collections

One Buck Horror, Volume 1

My rating: 4/5 stars
I've been checking out some horror anthologies lately. First, volume one of the One Buck Horror series. Really, the title says it all, and any questions that might remain are answered by the cover. It's a fun collection of pretty decent horror tales bundled together at a really low price.

It's a surprisingly solid collection of five stories, all of them effective, all of them entertaining. The unifying theme is children in peril, an effective choice. We've all been kids, and we've all known what it's like to be powerless, at the mercy of the people around you. Some of the stories are darker than others, but even the light ones have a nasty undertone to them that gives them a real punch.

A boy brings a bit of slime from the monster in his friend's basement to school for show and tell, and the real horror is what you read between the lines. Three kids visit a travelling circus after dark, and even discovering that the alligator man is real isn't the worst thing they find. A predatory old man has plans for his latest victim, a young runaway, but his previous victims have a plan of their own. A boy encounters a werewolf in a cornfield, and flees for the safety of home, until he learns the truth of where the wolf came from. And a boy puts his trust in the wrong parent when a marital spat mixes with black magic.

It's a thoroughly enjoyable collection, worth a lot more than the price would indicate. And there's lots more where that came from. The series is up to volume 5 so far.

Darker Than Noir

My rating: 4/5
I saw this book and knew I had to have it.  I wasn't disappointed, either.  There are some startlingly excellent stories in here.  There is some really great stuff, and for some reason it's priced at a buck.  As an ebook it's only available for Kindle at the moment, unfortunately.  You can get a paperback copy instead.

It's an awesome idea, a blend of the noir mystery genre and supernatural horror.  Most of the protagonists are world-weary private detectives, with some cops and civilians mixed in.  There's a gumshoe with demonic connections, and an ex-cop whose soul is in limbo, which makes him a uniquely-qualified freelancer when the Vatican is facing a tough exorcism.  An immortal investigator chases the mother of Hansel and Gretel from life to life as she murders the innocent in a quest to resurrect her children.  An insurance investigator captures a demon on video.  

They face a kitsune in Japan, a mad scientist, amateur Satanists, and the demonically possessed.  Sometimes they prevail.  Sometimes they lose their lives.  Sometimes they lose much more.

There are eighteen stories in the collection, and many of them are excellent.  Several are outstanding.  A few are mediocre, and some of them need better editing.  One story is so sick I couldn't read it.  You won't have trouble figuring out which one.  It's got a title so vulgar I won't type in in my blog.  

I was hugely impressed by some parts of the collection, but I was frustrated, too.  The formatting is crap.  Half-assed, sloppy crap.  Every paragraph is left-aligned, with no spaces between paragraphs.  Then there will be places where an entire page is indented for no particular reason.  In a couple of places, pages and pages are in italics.  It's amateurish.  

Still, the good parts are so good it's more than worth your while to endure the hamfisted formatting and hit-and-miss editing.  It annoyed me, but I still have to recommend Darker Than Noir.

Get One Buck Horror at Smashwords

Friday, September 7, 2012

Guest Post - Creating an Alternate History

Today I've got a guest post from Christian Porter, whose debut novel, Shadow Precinct, has just been released by Aziza Publishing.  Shadow Precinct is a wildly inventive tale, kind of a ninja murder mystery set in an alternate world where Japan, instead of bombing Pearl Harbor, sent an invasion of Kamikaze swordsmen.

You can order the book in paperback form from Aziza publishing by visiting and clicking the "Shop Aziza" link.  I've even got a coupon code for you to get an extra two bucks off: SPCP201209PROMO.

Now here's the author, to tell us about the process of creating an alternate history.  Take it away, Christian:

I have been asked over the course of writing my first novel what the hardest part was.  Honestly, I lost count of the hard parts a long time ago.   Am I writing a cool and engaging story?  Will the reader be able to visualize the events in their mind?  Have I actually written anything or have I been awake so long I am now hallucinating?  There have been a lot of obstacles that I had to overcome to make it to the finish line, many of those obstacles were self-imposed.  I had to become confident enough and determined enough to see the story through from beginning to end, but I also had to have a plan.  I’d like to provide some gems about the process that I used to create the fictional history for my novel, Shadow Precinct.    
When I first had the idea for the story of Shadow Precinct, I knew immediately that I wanted to incorporate real events into the history.  There had to be a reason why the alternate version of the United States that exists in the book became what it is.  If you are creating an extensive history or backstory for your story, I would suggest starting with an initial premise and work backwards from that.  For me, the initial idea was:  What would the US be like if firearms were heavily restricted?  For you it may be:  What was life like before dragons?  What was life like before the zombie apocalypse?  You get the point.  From this initial premise, I had to consider the many events that would lead up to such an event to come to pass.  Of course, it wouldn’t be something that happened overnight, there would have to be a substantial snowball effect to create the particular set of circumstances.  One of the most helpful ways to do this is to establish a timeline.
Start your timeline with the earliest major event that you want the reader to be aware of.  There are two things you should be aware of.  One, you should always be sure anything you add to the timeline eventually leads your world to the major event of your premise.  Two, try not to overdo it here.  You don’t want to inundate your history with a bunch of pointless facts.  There’s a fine line between adding weight to the story to enhance believability and drowning it in details that will hinder the reader’s experience.   Your timeline will become a valuable tool in your writing arsenal going forward.
Lastly, I know this may come as a bit of a shock, start writing.  You have ideas about where you want your story to go, now it’s about the getting there (the fun part).  Fortunately, you have a handy timeline to help guide you in your writing.  Keep in mind that the timeline is not concrete, it should be ever growing and changing as your story does.  As you come up with new story elements, ask yourself how it fits into the continuity you’ve already established.  Sometimes, you’ll have to rework some aspects to make sure everything fits as it should.  It’s a back and forth process that I’ve found to be immensely helpful in my writing, and hopefully it is in yours as well.      

Christian Porter is a graduate of Howard University in Washington, D.C.  He has had jobs as a programmer/designer in the video game industry, and most recently as a technology coordinator for a network of charter schools in New Orleans.  He drew his inspiration for his debut novel from many different places: comic books and anime, old school kung-fu movies with awful voice dubbing, hip hop music with lots of curse words, action movies with awesome one-liners, and visionary science fiction films with awe-inspiring settings.

People can view concept art or contact him at his website:


Saturday, September 1, 2012

Odd Title, Very Cool Book

Marcin Wrona has released a new book.  A Century of Swollen Clouds is as good as his other titles, which is saying something.  This guy is definitely one of my favorite authors.

The title and cover seem appallingly literary, but the story itself is crammed full of action, hairs-breadth escapes, grim vengeance, high adventure, gunfire and flying ships.  It's fun and awesome in an almost comic-book style, with endless action and fantastic elements.

And yet it's much more than a crowd-pleasing adventure story.  As usual the prose is excellent, evocative, occasionally poetically beautiful, and occasionally hilarious.  The story itself is remarkably original, especially in terms of setting.  Wrona has a talent for sidestepping cliches and digging deeper.  Where most fantasy authors go to Medieval Europe for a starting point, he's gone east, taking his inspiration from Indian Buddhism.

Culturally, the world is richly detailed and feels utterly authentic.  This isn't another Tolkien knock-off with kings and queens and knights and peasants.  It's a richly detailed world with complicated people, clashing cultures, bigots and mystics, history and traditions.

In physical terms it's a brilliantly original concept.  Certain forces have used magic to cover much of the world in storm clouds for a hundred years.  Humanity survives on mountaintops that stick above the clouds, and uses magically-propelled airships to travel.  Every part of this odd new world seems to have been thought out in great detail.  It all makes sense, it works, and it's fascinating to read about.

The characters show similar depth.  The protagonist is a girl in her late teens, raised in a wealthy household, surrounded by privilege but without any power of her own.  As she discovers the world we see her gradually letting go of her preconceptions.  She moves through a rich tapestry of complex personalities.  There are heroes and villains and people who are somewhere in between, struggling to find their path.  

It's a coming-of-age story, and a story of exploration, and a tale of high adventure.  It also explores issues like colonialism, prejudice, the abuse of power, gender stereotypes, and the nature of responsibility.

I highly recommend A Century of Swollen Clouds.