09/8/19

Review of This is How You Lose the Time War

This is How You Lose the Time War is by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. I would have put their names in the title, but it was already comically long, perhaps cosmically long, and the book was very short.

My TL;DR review: I give it a 9 out of 10, and I’m only detracting a point because it’s short and I wanted more. Buy this and put it in your brain immediately.

This is the fourth of my reviews, and I saved the best for last. In fact, I’ll give you the order in which you should read the books I’ve reviewed:

  1. This is How You Lose the Time War
  2. Wanderers
  3. Barsk: The Elephant Graveyard
  4. The Big Sheep

Honestly, you should probably read the next Barsk book before reading The Big Sheep. The 7/10 I gave it might have been too generous.

Let’s get to the actual review.

I enjoyed Time War so much that I listened to it all in one day. I started it in the morning on my way to work. It hooked me and stayed in my thoughts all day. I continued listening on the way home, then went straight to my garage, hooked my phone to the big speakers, and finished it.

The audio book is only 4 hours long, so it wasn’t difficult to consume it this way. But still… it satisfied me, and I wish I’d read it sooner.

I love the form of the story. It alternates between regular prose and epistolary, the adversaries referred to as Red and Blue writing to each other as they move through time, working to ensure that one timeline wins over the other. I think all that information is on the cover, so none of that should be a spoiler.

The prose is rich and beautiful. The character voices are clear and compelling. El-Mohtar and Gladstone worked to create a pitch-perfect, tight story. Emotionally satisfying and never boring. I highly recommend you read it.

SPOILERS BELOW THIS POINT

My spoilers will be pretty light, but they’re still spoilers. If you haven’t read the book yet, go do so and come back. I’d love to talk with you about this story.

Here we go…

I don’t think I have any real nitpicks. From the title alone, I knew time travel would be involved, so I knew that the final twist at the end would need to be some kind of causal or recursive play on the characters. That being said, even though the authors telegraphed it, they masked the twist with Red’s apparent death. They did this so well that I wondered if they were going full Romeo and Juliet.

The authors knew Time War bore a resemblance with Romeo and Juliet so they smartly hung a lantern on it. Unlike Shakespeare’s play, I believed the romance between Red and Blue. It happened organically and naturally over the course the novel, with each character giving and taking, crawling under the skin and into the heart of their rival.

Much of the beauty of the story is found within the small details. The description of a cup of tea. The unwinding of a note passed from one character to the other through the imperfections in the rings of a tree. The world building could be described as light, in that not a lot of time is spent explaining how the time travel works or what the ramifications of their time alterations look like.

In terms of the war, we’re told what the stakes are without really seeing them or even feeling them. Honestly, the war just becomes backdrop and window dressing. The real stakes are in the characters themselves, in how they’ll make their relationship work, or if they’ll make it work at all. From that perspective, the stakes are small, but because we fall in love with both characters, that doesn’t matter. I was invested in Red and Blue, so those were the stakes I cared about.

It’s an almost perfect little story that makes the absolute most of the form. El-Mohtar and Gladstone wrote something really special, and I expect to see it win awards.

09/7/19

Review: The Big Sheep by Robert Kroese

After Wanderers, I needed something light. A palate cleanser, like a slice of ginger after a particularly strong piece of sushi. Michael Gallowglas sat across from me while I browsed Audible. He recommended Barsk, which I talked about last time. Audible’s recommendations came up with The Big Sheep, which I purchased at the same time as Barsk.

The title alone might have been enough to entice me. I read Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep last year, and though it is a product of its time with its casual sexism and racism, I really enjoyed the noir setting and gritty feel. It felt like a black and white movie in book form.

The Big Sheep is obviously a play on the title of the Chandler book, but it doesn’t have much else in common with the older story. The Big Sheep is set in the not-too-distant future, with flying cars and parts of L.A. descended into urban chaos. The protagonist, Blake Fowler, is a junior partner to a Sherlock-esque private investigator named Erasmus Keane. Keane insists that he be called a “phenomenological inquisitor.” Where Chandler’s story defines hard-boiled, taking itself seriously from cover to cover, Kroese created an action comedy.

My TL;DR review: The Big Sheep is mostly light and fun, sometimes suffering from tonal dissonance. It’s a 7/10 for me. It’s short enough that it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and I recommend reading it if you can do so without taking it too seriously.

SPOILERS BELOW THIS POINT

I’m not going to go into too much in the way of spoilers, but still.

Also, I seem to keep my nitpicks for the spoiler section of all these reviews. Maybe that should be my warning? Oh well… you’ve been warned.

I mentioned tonal dissonance. The plot and the characters are painted with a bit of silliness, from the “phenomenological inquisitor” title to Keane duck-walking around a sheep near the beginning of the story and declaring that he’s measured the creature’s soul. Intermixed with the humor are scenes where the protagonist outright kills a couple of folks. During one scene in a park, to prove that he’s serious, Fowler shoots a bodyguard in the foot. It’s pretty well established at this point that the bodyguards in this book aren’t part of the larger plot. They’re basically bystanders trying to do their job.

The author overplayed the physical beauty of the damsel in distress, Priya Mistry, to the point that I think female readers might take issue with it. He doesn’t go so far as to describe her “breasting boobily” but it’s not far off, with Fowler being so dumbstruck by her that he can’t even hear what she’s saying when he looks at her. He has to spend an entire scene looking past her.

There is just a dash of passive sexism in this story, like an aftertaste from Chandler’s story. Only one woman has much in the way of agency, and that’s in the form of the main villain.

Like I said, it’s short enough that it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and I did have fun with the story. Kroese knew what story he was writing, and he did a good job. I didn’t have any problem with his craft, and it’s entirely possible I’m being overly critical around the feminist issues.

I wanted a lighter story, something I wouldn’t have to work that hard at, and this was exactly what I needed.

09/4/19

Review of Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen

After Wanderers by Chuck Wendig, I needed something a little bit less intense. I wanting something lighter, something I wouldn’t spend quite so much time thinking about. How about a book about anthropomorphic elephants written by the man that founded the Klingon Language Institute?

If I had to describe Barsk in one word, it would be “rich.” Maybe even “savory.” Some of that may have had to do with the voice of the narrator, J. G. Hertzler. His reading was unhurried, and his voice had a husky, grandfatherly quality to it.

Just as the story starts with an artist working at the height of their talent, carving an image into wood, Dr. Schoen crafted a fantastic story full of nuance and exquisite payoff to each piece he sets up. On the surface, the description of the story sounds silly, and while there are moments of humor spread throughout the book, this is a serious story. Dr. Schoen didn’t cheat.

I wish I’d read this story sooner. Going in, I wanted a story I wouldn’t have to think about so much. In that respect, I did not get what I wanted, since I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about this story since finishing it.

TL;DR — This is a fantastic book, and I recommend you read it. If I had to score it, I’d give it a 9/10.

I’m about to go into some plot points which may contain spoilers. If you have not read this book yet, this is a good time to close the tab.

SOME SPOILERS BELOW

Last warning. Don’t read below unless you’ve read the book.

Here we go…

There’s a lot going on in this book. The world building is both wide and deep. We see the relationship between the Fant of Barsk and the other hominid species of the rest of the galaxy. We also see how the Fant culture works on its own in how it treats Pizlo, my favorite character in the whole story. We’re treated to the spirituality, the politics, and the relationships of this world without heavy-handed exposition. It’s all woven into the story with a deft hand.

I admire Dr. Schoen’s patience. Early on, we find out that Jorl’s best friend, Pizlo’s father, committed suicide. We find this out when Jorl speaks to his friend’s ghost. It sets up the question: why would he do it? What could be so bad that this individual would take his own life, leaving behind his wife and child? By the end, we get the answer, and it is surprisingly satisfying.

All of the pieces fit together so nicely, sliding into place as the story unfolds, intricate as clockwork. But the writing itself isn’t dry. Questions are planted and answers are revealed naturally. Characters behave consistently, and they drive the plot.

The only thing that might detract from the story is the amount of alien terminology that the reader must pick up and discern. There’s quite a bit, and it made me nervous at the beginning. It’s not beyond reason, however, and it’s appropriate for this type of story.

Barsk isn’t afraid to go to dark places. At one point, dozens of older Fant are burned alive. One of these is a POV character. It is a dark scene, but it is not bleak. Dr. Schoen doesn’t cheat, but he’s not cruel to the reader.

This is a good one. I’m really glad I read it.

09/3/19

Review: Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

I listened to Wanderers on audio, and now I want to talk about it. The first part of this review will be light and spoiler free. During the second half, I’m going to go deep into some of the details. I’ll make it clear when I’m about to get into spoilers, so if you haven’t read this story yet, abandon this post at that point.

I’ll start with the TL;DR — Wanderers is great, and you should absolutely read it.

Chuck is a great writer, and if you’re familiar with his voice, it comes through strong and clear in this book. His descriptions are stellar. While other people might praise the strong characterizations and the intricate plot, I want to impress upon you that Chuck’s mastery of the craft is on full display in Wanderers.

I enjoyed the book so much that I bought the hard cover to give to Melissa to read. I bought the book twice. It’s that good.

From this point forward, I’m going to go into greater and greater details of the book. If you want to go into this story as blind as possible, this is where you should close this tab. If, on the other hand, you’ve read the story and you want to talk about it as much as I do, read on! Let’s have a discussion.

SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT

Are you still here? If you haven’t read the book yet, get out of here.

Okay. Let’s get into the meat.

Some of what I’m about to say is going to sound a little bit negative. The book is really good, though. Good enough for me to buy it twice and open this review with glowing praise. It’s not perfect, however, and while sometimes the beauty can be found in the flaws, other times, the problems are the gristle that gets stuck in your teeth, lingering with you long after the meal is done.

The story begins on a farm, following a teenage girl named Shana that has just a little bit too much on her plate even before the story fully begins. Chuck’s storytelling really shines here, succinctly giving us Shana’s world and her family dynamic in a way that doesn’t feel expository. We get her voice, her dilemmas, and a feel for the core of her character, which is what drives her to walk with the flock and become a shepherd.

Let’s talk about the sleepwalkers. From the beginning, they fascinated me. Their impenetrable skin and their ability move continuously without eating or sleeping stood out. Zombie imagery is offset by the quirks of their physiology, such as violently exploding when their progress impeded.

That brings me to one of the flaws. A good deal of time is spent making the reader aware of these extremely unusual qualities. They seem supernatural, but the book goes out of the way to present a world of science and reason. All the characters that are part of the CDC are presenting in a convincing fashion, with terminology and approaches that ring true. It felt to me that a promise was made in giving a rational explanation for everything that takes place in the story, but I found the explanation for the sleepwalkers to be unsatisfying.

Nanobots do not explain how the sleepwalkers are able to continue walking for months and months without sleep or calories. Nanobots aren’t capable of keeping eyeballs from drying out. They can’t make skin impenetrable to needles. It’s a point that most readers aren’t going to stumble over, but after doing such a great job of presenting a rational, scientifically sound premise, this part of the story fell a little flat to me.

The world’s authentic reaction to the walkers was pitch perfect. Chuck depicted the slow, painful collapse of society in a very believable fashion.

The fully realized characters leaped off the page with strong voices, believable motivations, and distinct personalities. I cared about them. I didn’t always like them, but that’s part of what made them so real.

I need to talk about a scene that really bothered me. If I were going to give this book a rating between 1 and 10, I’d give it an 8. If not for this one part, I’d easily give it a 9 or 10. But this scene…

To properly frame it, I need to talk about two characters: Benji and Matthew. I related to both characters as men of science and faith. The science aspect played out more strongly with Benji, and the faith more with Matthew, but they individually embodied both. I projected myself into both characters and enjoyed the ride through their eyes.

In terms of conviction and force of personality, Matthew was the weaker of the two. I kept wanting him to steel himself and rise above the temptations placed at his feet. I looked forward to him doing right by his faith and his family.

I did not expect him to get raped by Ozark Stover.

This is the one thing that kept me from fully enjoying the book. Whatever flaws I mentioned regarding the nanobots, I could look past. But the rape? It bothered me. I couldn’t see a reason for it, other than shock value. It happened without warning.

If Chuck hadn’t done such a good job with the rest of the story up to that point, I would have stopped without finishing. I did stop listening for a couple of days. Then I returned and pushed forward. After that, I needed Chuck to deliver a narrative that justified that kind of unexpected and brutal content. I needed Chuck to stick the landing.

Did he? Well…

If you follow Chuck on Twitter, you might be familiar with his Heirloom Apple reviews. I certainly love them. The rape scene for me was like biting into a crisp, delicious apple, juice running down my chin, then looking down to find half a worm nestled in the fruit’s white flesh. Does it matter how delicious the apple is after that bite?

But… it was good. The ending was good. To me, not great. Probably shocking to some readers, but after the rape scene, my senses were dulled and I wound up fixating on little things that didn’t make a lot of sense if scrutinized too closely.

I think Wanderers is great. I recommend people read it. It’s a magnificent piece comparable to The Stand. My own feelings about the use of a rape scene for shock value aside, it is the product of a masterful writer working at the top of his game.

09/2/19

A Very Productive Summer

I haven’t posted anything here for a couple of months, and the last one went really long. Anxiousness drove me to dump everything on my mind into a long screed full of good information that basically no one read.

I’m not doing that this time. In fact, I promise not to talk about politics for at least another three or four posts… unless something monumental happens. My next few planned entries here will be book reviews.

For the last couple of months, I’ve stayed too busy to blog. My schedule consisted of getting up, going to work, coming home or going to a coffee shop to edit, then repeat the next day. I made my life boring in order to make it as productive as I dared.

I finished the second draft of Spin City. 100,000 words edited twice in a little more than 6 weeks.

That level of productivity left little time for anything else. I didn’t practice my sax. I didn’t play any games. I spent a few nights goofing off in order to maintain my sanity, but otherwise, I kept my head down and pushed forward.

This weekend, I wrote a query letter and enlisted help from some of my writing friends. A few provided insight into how I could tighten the query up and be more specific about the stakes and plot. Some simply offered emotional support. I needed all of it. Even though I hate writing query letters, I think this is a good one.

We’ve reached September and the summer is winding down. Here is what I wish to accomplish over the next several months:

  • Enjoy the 2019 Writing Excuses Cruise, starting in just a couple of weeks!
  • Finish the first draft of Synthetic Dreams, my post-apocalyptic SciFi about artificial intelligences as the last children of mankind
  • Write a short story for a Crisis at the Border anthology, a book intended to raise funds for charities helping the separated kids at our southern border
  • Write a handful of book reviews (hopefully to be posted this week)
  • Blog-tober 2019
  • For Nanowrimo, I’m going to try and write A Clean Slate, the fantasy novel I failed to complete the first time I attempted Nanowrimo.
  • Possibly go to World Fantasy, since it’s geographically close this year
  • Finish reading and studying M. Todd Gallowglass’s Dead Weight series
  • Write a novelette within the Dead Weight I.P., to be published by Heads and Tails publishing
  • Determine my convention schedule for 2020

Soon, The Goldilocks Zone from Flying Ketchup Press should be out, which includes my short story “Unclaimed Goods.” To say that I’m excited to see it is an understatement. My story will have an illustration! My story will be in PRINT! I’ve been holding onto an expensive bottle of Scotch for when I receive incredible publishing news. If this doesn’t qualify, it comes very close.

I’ve made sacrifices to advance my writing career, and I’m starting to see results. I just have to keep pushing!

07/24/19

July Check-In

It’s Wednesday evening, and I should be editing, but I can’t. My head is full of worry and bother, and I need to hammer on the keyboard for a while and get it off my chest in order to regain my focus. Since I completely missed posting in June and July is almost over, I figured I’d write something here. Hopefully that will get the words flowing again.

I’m going to talk about two things in this post. The first is just a basic check-in regarding what I’ve been up to lately. I’ve been virtually non-existent on Facebook, and I know some of my family and friends watch there and here for news from me. The second thing I’m going to talk about is politics. I’ll put a warning before I start, just in case you don’t want to read my ramblings on that topic.

What have I been up to?

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a convention in Layton, Utah. Many of the cons I’ve been to this year left me feeling empty or sad, like an impostor playing at being a writer. This time, I came away feeling invigorated and hopeful.

First, I got to meet Jim Butcher. I didn’t get to talk to him for long, but it was enough. He and I have a lot in common. I asked him about his time on MUSHs, and I think he was surprised about the subject and was animated in his responses. I took a picture of him and sent it to my family. Chris really liked that. I knew he’d be there, I hoped I’d get to meet him, and my wish was granted. That was good.

That wasn’t even the biggest highlight for me. I got to sit down and talk to Moshe Feder, one on one for about a half hour. That conversation really made my weekend. We talked about one of my stories, and he invited me to send it to him. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing a second draft. This could be a really fantastic opportunity, and I don’t want to blow it.

During the regular work days last week, I managed to edit about 8 chapters. Over the weekend, I brought the total up to 24. It’s Wednesday evening and I’m struggling through chapter 26. This part of the book needs a lot of work, and it’s hard not to be discouraged when all I can see are the mistakes I made.

I’m not talking about misspellings or grammar problems or even plot holes. I’m talking about characterization, description, conflict, and energy. Normally I can forgive myself these types of problems in an early draft, but the last time I read it, I didn’t see these problems. Now they’re naked before my eyes, and I’m embarrassed. Michael and my writing group on Twitter have helped me see these problems, and I’m grateful for it. At the same time, missing the mark this badly feeds into all my doubts.

It makes me question whether or not I can actually tell a story. Anyone can form sentences in a coherent fashion. Most people can craft functional descriptions. A storyteller goes beyond this, using these tools to captivate the reader and give them an emotional experience. They surprise and delight their audience, making heroes and villains that people can relate to. This week, I’ve been struggling, wondering if I can be the kind of storyteller I want to be.

It doesn’t help that work is really busy and I feel behind there, too. I’m struggling in all aspects of my life. I feel like things are out of my control. I could right the ship and get things on course if I could just summon the energy to get up and take the wheel.

I called in sick today. I tried to take it easy and relax so that the batteries could recharge. Instead of relaxing, I wound up watching the Mueller hearings.

Here is a good place to put the warning. I’m about to talk about politics. If you’re not interested, now is a good time to leave this page or delete this email, if that’s how you received this post.

Let’s talk about the Mueller hearings. First, neither the substance nor the questions surprised me. I knew that Mr. Mueller was going to try to remain impartial and stick to the contents of the written report, and that’s what he did. I had a feeling that some of the Republicans asking questions would sound unhinged, and they did. I knew that some of the Democrats would ask leading questions to try and build a case for impeachment.

I was surprised at Mr. Mueller’s general presence and presentation. His voice quavered sometimes. He seemed to have difficulty hearing. I think I expected him to sound more confident and imposing. Instead, he sounded like a competent man suffering some of the physical problems that come for exceeding the age of 70.

Some of the Republicans seriously should be ashamed of themselves, but none more than Nunes. Many of the Republicans mischaracterized the report or used their questions to espouse false narratives, but Nunes went above and beyond. He bounced through all of the Fox News talking points and conspiracy theories. Nunes shouldn’t even have been on the panel after the stunt he pulled at the beginning of Trump’s presidency. He shouldn’t still have a job in congress.

The Democrats, on the other hand, mostly just read from the report. At one point, it seemed Ted Lieu managed to get Mr. Mueller to admit that he didn’t indict Trump only because of directives stating he can’t indict a sitting president. Mr. Mueller later set the record straight that his statement should not be characterized in that way. He didn’t say that Trump did no wrong. He said that he, Mr. Mueller, was not in a position where he could say that Trump did or did not do wrong.

On the other hand, a Republican questioning Mr. Mueller managed to get him to admit that when Trump is no longer in office, there is enough evidence to indict him. That’s almost the same thing as what he’d said to Ted Lieu, just framed a little different.

And it’s clear from the evidence that Trump obstructed justice and committed campaign violations. Trump has acted unethically, seeking personal financial gain through the presidency. There is a preponderance of evidence sufficient to impeach Trump. Furthermore, there is a continuing danger of hostile forces tampering with our elections, just as they tampered in 2016.

Something to note… the Republicans in the hearings didn’t refute anything I just said in that last paragraph. Some tried to discredit the report and Mr. Mueller himself. Nunes spouted crazy nonsense, as did Jim Jordan.

I finished listening to the hearings and I thought, “Okay. It’s all out in the open now. Maybe something will change.”

Then I went to Twitter. I really hate it when I’m so naive.

As I mentioned, Mr. Mueller did not have a commanding presence. Assholes like Chuck Todd and Michael Moore couldn’t get past that. They started spewing nonsense about optics and the Dems falling all over themselves because Mueller didn’t deliver. But Mr. Mueller did deliver. You just had to listen to his words, rather than the way he said them.

Cruising through different hashtags, I could see that nothing is different. The robots and the zombies are still in control. I don’t understand how people could hear the same things I heard and still support Trump.

But there’s the answer: People haven’t been listening to the same things I’ve been listening to. I haven’t been going to puff pieces on CNN or the Washington Post. I certainly haven’t been listening to the swill from Fox News. I’ve been listening to Trump. I read most of the Mueller report. I watched a video of Trump stirring a crowd into chanting “SEND HER BACK.” He basked in it. The next day, he tweeted and said that he moved quickly to stop them, but he didn’t. More gaslighting on his part. More lies.

I look at graphs and charts regarding the federal deficit. I watched as Trump’s tax plan went through which gave a break to businesses and the super-rich. And now, because the fed is out of money, the Republicans want to withhold support for the super poor. The hypocrisy. The corruption. The degradation of social norms.

On Twitter, I can see how the discourse is getting worse. More polarized. More disheartening. It’s like there’s an avalanche waiting to happen, and instead of quietly banding together to get through it, everyone is shouting and jumping up and down.

I’ve bashed the Republicans a bit, and they deserve it. But let me tell you… I’m really not a Democrat, either. I don’t care for Pelosi or Schumer or Biden. I think Kamala Harris and Corey Booker are over-rated. I think that there is hypocrisy on the Left just like on the Right, but the Right have been taken over by the likes of McConnell and Trump, actual monsters. My views are more inline with the Democrats right now, and if I have to vote for Kamala Harris or Corey Booker, I will do so gladly and encourage others to do the same.

I think that’s it. I don’t want to talk about politics anymore tonight. I’m glad I got all of that off my chest, but it took me longer than I expected, and I think I’ve run out of time tonight. Chapter 26 will need to wait until tomorrow.

I have my work cut out for me.

05/18/19

How I Spent my Vacation at a Writer’s Convention

I’m writing this from the hospitality area at The Nebulas. In a couple of hours, Melissa and I will get dressed for the award ceremony. We’ll be one step closer to the completion of this event. Tomorrow morning, we will check out and drive home.

I’ve been attending conferences like this for about a decade. It started with WorldCon in Reno, which as I’ve noted before, changed my life and reminded me that there is this whole other part of myself that I’d been neglecting. I had found my people, I felt like I belonged, and I wanted more of it.

At some point over the last couple of years, my attitude towards these conferences changed. I’m just not as thrilled at being at a convention as I used to be, and I’m not sure what happened.

I’m going to keep this post as positive as I can. This is not intended to be a thousand word essay of me whining. What I’d like to do is examine the different factors that I can observe which is keeping me from feeling the same joy I felt when I first started coming to writer’s conventions.

Introvert Starts with I

I am an introvert. Large crowds make me feel claustrophobic. It takes energy for me to engage with strangers. If you are an introvert yourself, you already understand. If not, just imagine trying to do work at the bottom of a pool. You have to stop and go up for air every once in a while, and the longer you’re down below, the harder and more tiring the task becomes.

When I first started attending conventions, I think I had a greater reserve of energy to draw upon when dealing with strangers. It has always been challenging, but I used to go off to the hotel room and get some alone time. I don’t do that as much now.

Also, and without getting too political, I don’t think I used to stress over the news as much as I do these days. Worrying about having three functioning branches of government has left me with less energy reserves in general. That’s just the reality, and it’s not something I should talk about while at a convention.

Ignorance is Bliss

When I first started attending writing conventions, the only thing I really knew was that I liked writing and reading science fiction and fantasy. I wasn’t particularly familiar with any big name authors or agents. I didn’t have any stories to sell or talk about. I could happily get into an elevator or walk down a hall with an agent or editor and treat them just like I’d treat anyone else. It was easy.

I still try to treat everyone equally, but I think that having two completed, unpublished novels, stories that I’m dying to talk about, puts a strange aura around me. An aura of sick desperation. It doesn’t matter if I don’t say a single word about my stories, it is still repellent.

The Long College Course

Let’s talk about the panels for a moment. When I first started going to conventions, I absolutely loved the panels. I filled up my schedule with them, eager to attend and upset that I’d have to make sacrifices because there were always conflicts.

The problem is that after nearly 10 years of attending and taking notes, I’ve stopped hearing anything new. I try to take notes, but I feel like I’ve heard it all before, and often from the same people.

It feels like I keep attending the same college course over and over again. No one is taking attendance or handing out grades, and it is impossible to graduate. I keep going and listening for the differences and contradictions, just in case some of the material shows up on the test, which is probably never going to be administered.

Who?!?

I keep meeting the same people over and over, and most of the time, they don’t remember me at all. We are all wearing name tags, so some of the more socially graceful are able to play it off without a hitch.

While I don’t expect everyone to remember me — there’s really no reason they should — it still hurts to see the confused look in their eye when I call them out by name. It makes me feel like I’m not a part of the community.

Am I part of the community? Maybe not. Perhaps I’m not doing enough. When I first started attending conventions, it was okay to be an unknown because I didn’t know anyone, either. Now, it doesn’t feel as much like I’ve found my people. I have a bunch in common with this community, but it feels like there is some kind of entrance exam that I haven’t passed yet. Probably because I don’t even know where to go to take it.

So… How about that Weather…

Several times this conference, I’ve drawn a blank when it comes to simply engaging in conversation. This is entirely my fault. As I stated before, I’ve been getting into these crowded rooms with very little energy. It’s hard to start the engine when there’s no fuel in the tank.

I haven’t been completely hopeless talking to people, but I also haven’t brought much to the party. I can’t talk about my stories. I don’t want to talk about work. I’m not a stalker, and I’m not particularly good at small talk.

Often, I’ll ask a question about the convention, what the other person is writing or reading… something that seems pertinent or that will lead to common ground. My hope is to get the other person talking about themselves. Then I can listen and be attentive. But then their answer will be short, and I’ve got nothing after that.

This is My Vacation

When I look back at how I’ve spent my time during this convention, it’s hard for me to justify the time and expense. This is not going to be a tax write-off for me. This isn’t going to lead to any sales. I don’t think I learned much about the business of writing or any techniques to help me with my craft.

I took time off from work and spent a bunch of money to go to L.A. I spent my vacation feeling socially awkward, listening to things I’ve heard before, meeting people that don’t remember me and won’t remember me the next time we meet.

Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

At this moment, I don’t think so. People have asked me if I’ve had a good con, and I politely lie and say, “Sure, it’s been great!” But if I’m being honest, I don’t think I’ve had a great time. At this point, I don’t know what I can do to make it better.

Maybe the next one will be better.

04/28/19

Avengers: Endgame Thoughts Assembled

I dropped myself from the internet Wednesday night and now that I’ve finally seen the movie, it’s safe for me to return. With my return, I bring many opinions and feelings about this movie, and I’m going to take some time to talk about them.

Here are my thoughts in the order I’ll present them. I will avoid spoilers at the beginning. When I get to spoilers, I’ll flag those sections in the header.

  • Preparing to See the Avengers: Endgame
  • The Experience of Avengers: Endgame Part 1
  • The Experience of Avengers: Endgame Part 2 (Spoilers)
  • Plot Musings (Spoilers)

Preparing to See Avengers: Endgame

Several weeks ago, I opened Fandango on a whim to see if I could buy tickets. I hadn’t read anything that suggested tickets were available. It occurred to me that it might be possible and to my surprise, I was able to make the purchase.

I didn’t hesitate. I bought 4 tickets for the second available showing, which was 7:25PM. That would give Melissa and I time to arrive after work. I bought 4 tickets so that Chris and Bryanna could join us. I didn’t check to see if they worked those nights. They did have to work, so Melissa and I invited friends to join us.

We had a couple of weeks and about 20 movies to watch. We started with Iron Man and moved through the movies in the order they’d been released. When we got to Captain America: Civil War, I realized we still had about 10 movies left and only a couple of days before the show time. We had to make some cuts.

Here are the movies we skipped:

  • Ant-Man
  • Dr. Strange
  • Guardians of the Galaxy 2
  • Spider-Man
  • Ant-Man and the Wasp

On the last night before we were to see the movie, Melissa and I raced home so that we could watch Black Panther and Infinity War on the same night. That would set us up perfectly for the Endgame cinematic experience. We didn’t dawdle on Thursday night, going straight home and crawling into bed to watch the last two movies.

You may have already guessed where this story is going. We finished getting caught up on Thursday night, went to work, I threw myself into my programming to try and make the day go faster. In the afternoon, I sent a reminder text to Michael to make sure he had the correct theater and show time. I copy/pasted the information from Fandango into the message.

That’s when I saw it. The show time was indeed at 7:25PM. On Thursday, April 25th.

I’d missed it.

These tickets had reserve seating, right in the middle of the theater. Perfects seats. We had been aiming our entire week towards this viewing, and I’d blown it. About 80 bucks blown. I was nearly inconsolable.

Melissa went out Friday night with her friend, and Michael went to dinner with me and cheered me up. He’d gone to see the movie Thursday night because like me, he lives on the internet and didn’t want to have the movie spoiled. Michael did an amazing job of not talking about the movie at all. He didn’t even drop any sly hints. Instead, he helped me get over my abysmal blunder. Michael really helped me Friday night.

I hunted to find seats for a showtime that were comparable to what I’d missed out on, and I managed to get 4 tickets for Saturday at 10:25PM. Pretty late for a three hour movie, but it meant that Chris and Bryanna could join me and Melissa.

We saw the movie last night and I’ve been thinking about it all day today. Now I want to talk about it.

The Experience of Avengers: Endgame Part 1

As stated before, this section will contain no spoilers for the movie. For the next little bit, I’m going to talk about my thoughts and feelings of the film without going into any specifics.

Though I spent a fair amount of time enjoying the work of film critics on YouTube, I’m not a critic myself. I’m an unapologetic fan that goes into these movies looking to be entertained. I bring extra helpings of forgiveness for the movies I watch, so they have to be really, really bad for me to have a bad time.

In regards to Avengers: Endgame, I could have left all that forgiveness and benefit-of-the-doubt at the door. I didn’t need any of it. This movie is great!

As a writer, I often struggle with movies and stories because I can see between the cracks of the narrative to the weird and wiggly underpinnings underneath. I can usually tell how important a character, setting, or plot device is going to be to the overall narrative simply by feeling how much weight the writers place on the subject. For example, in Black Panther, when Suri is talking about the train carrying vibranium, I knew that technology and setting would be important later. They focused on that element just a little bit too hard.

I’d been initially disappointed with Captain Marvel because I wanted to be surprised. On subsequent viewings, I warmed to the movie because there was a perspective present in that movie that I’d missed while trying to look for something the movie makers never intended to put in that film.

Avengers: Endgame came full of what storytellers should strive for: surprising, but inevitable. Going into the movie, I didn’t try to make any predictions for how the story twist around, and it’s a good thing because I probably would have been wrong at every turn. It went places and showed me things that I didn’t know I wanted to see.

The movie ran for 3 hours, but it didn’t feel like it. The first part lingered when it needed to linger. I might describe the first part as a “slow burn.” It moved at a pace that I felt appropriate for the subject matter.

I’m not a film critic and I don’t have a scoring system. I can safely say that this is my favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. Beyond that, it might be one of my favorite movies of all time. I have potentially one criticism, which I’ll talk about in the next section, when I get into the details of the movie and talk about spoilers.

The Experience of Avengers: Endgame Part 2 (Spoilers)

Beyond this point, there will be spoilers. You have been warned.

As I stated in the previous section, this movie takes its time at the beginning. It’s slower, but that’s because it’s dealing with the ramifications of The Snap from Infinity War.

I didn’t expect the story to move ahead five years. This gave The Snap weight and consequences. Some part of me going into the movie thought that by the end, they’d cheapen the stakes of Infinity War by undoing it. They do undo The Snap in the end, but there were still consequences. Take half of the population of the world and displace them by 5 years and you wind up with a world that is entirely changed.

That whole first act let us wallow with the characters and all that they had lost. The emotions of the characters felt real, and I appreciated that the movie gave us the time to feel it all and sit with the consequences of the first movie.

By the second act, we get into time travel, which is always a huge gamble. I think they did a pretty good job with it, right up until the end (which I’ll talk about in the next section).

I could probably write about 5 or 6 paragraphs all starting with the words “I didn’t expect.” Fat Thor. The 5 year jump, with Tony as a parent. Banner/Hulk no longer separate people, but a combined individual with both strength and intellect. Black Widow dying for the soul gem. All of the cameos of characters/actors that we’ve seen over the years. Maybe it helps that I go into these movies with as few spoilers as I can manage, even going to the point where I stop watching trailers. I want to be surprised, and this movie kept accomplishing it.

Two big surprises came in the form of Thor’s hammer. I didn’t expect Thor to grab it from the past and bring it with him. I didn’t expect to see Thor wielding two hammers at the same time. But the big one… I didn’t expect to see Steve Rogers wield Mjolnir. That got a huge reaction from Chris. He still can’t get over it. Every time he sees me, he says, “I knew it!”

The spectacle of the last big set piece is overwhelming and so satisfying. Captain America saying “Avengers, assemble!” and having the entire MCU behind him.

The look between Strange and Stark right before Tony makes his move and ultimately his sacrifice. “I am… Iron Man.” Oh man.

I could keep going on and on about this. It’s all I’ve been able to think about all day. I need to see it again, and maybe again after that.

Avengers: Endgame is a tremendously satisfying conclusion to so many stories. While I know there will be more movies, this one feels like the final chapter in an epic. This is a movie I wanted, a huge ambitious 22 movie cross-over event that’s making all the money and setting history.

I loved this movie. It made me smile. It made me tear up.

I loved this movie 3000.

Plot Musings (Spoilers)

Let’s spend a couple of moments going into time travel.

Bruce made it clear that you can’t go into the past and interfere with things that have already happen. The experience of your past, your timeline, is set. There are no paradoxes. The mechanism of time travel in Avengers: Endgame is not like what you see in movies like Back to the Future.

They way that Tony solves time travel is a subtle way of explaining how the rules work, too. It’s no coincidence that they mention a mobius strip in that scene. A mobius strip is an object with one side, so if you go in one direction long enough, you’ll return to where you began. That’s how their time travel works: when you go back in time and forward again through the quantum realm, you’ll return to the same timeline that you left.

The existence of multiple timelines is further clarified by The Ancient One when she knocks Bruce out of his body and they have a discussion. Taking the Time Stone from The Ancient One would lead to a branching timeline. Bruce’s timeline would still exist, but the one The Ancient One journeyed down would be new and dark, because they wouldn’t have the tools they need in order to defend reality.

This all makes sense to me. It means that Loki can escape with the tesseract, creating a new timeline where he is not imprisoned after the events of Avengers. Without Loki in prison, he can’t help his brother defeat the dark elves. The tesseract isn’t in Asgard when the events of Ragnarok unfold, so it can’t be picked up taken by Thanos… that entire timeline plays out differently.

Nebula shot and killed her past self. There is no Grandfather Paradox because the Nebula that shot and killed herself is not from the same timeline as the younger Nebula.

Thanos and the Chitauri move forward in time to invade Earth and fight for the stones. Thanos and all of his crew are killed, turned to dust, which means there is another timeline where Thanos disappeared from existence before he could go after the stones. In that timeline, the stones still exist, because Thanos couldn’t have used them to wipe out half the population, then destroy them.

All of that seems clear to me. I’m good with that. I like it.

Unfortunately, that means there is a potential flaw. When Steve Rogers goes back through the quantum realm to return the stones and Mjolnir, he did not come back to his own timeline via the quantum realm. No mobius strip involved. He went back in time and created an alternate timeline just by being there. If he continued forward chronologically, I don’t see how he could have caught up with his friends on their timeline.

It’s a powerful moment and gives us such a great closure on the character of Steve Rogers that I’m willing to overlook that flaw. I enjoyed the ending. It satisfied me. I wouldn’t trade it away for what would have happened, which is that Steve Rogers would simply have disappeared. That would have felt like a cliffhanger. The resolution they gave us is better.

Those are my thoughts and feelings on this movie. Let me know your thoughts. I can’t wait to go and see it again.

04/14/19

VLOG #3 – How to be a Positive and Supportive part of a Writing Community

The third entry in this series is finally done!

I think this one is generally more useful than the last one, in that I’m offering realistic and usable advice.

Though it’s been 6 months since I did the last one, I think the process for creating these is getting a little bit faster. I borrowed my son’s microphone again, set up my Surface on the new table in the backyard, and used AVS Video Editor to record and edit the video. It took about 20 minutes to record the initial video (I kept screwing up enough that I had to start completely over), then another hour to edit out the extraneous mouth noises and false starts.

Let me know what you think! Do you like this series? Are there any topics you’d like me to focus on next?

Also, if you missed The Reluctant Apprentice, here is a permanent link. It’s also the previous post, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find.

Other appropriate links:

04/10/19

The Reluctant Apprentice

Click here to find other stories set in the WFGC Hotel.

Jake Potts stood in the lobby of the hotel, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the light.  In front of him, a massive, twisted oak tree sprang from the lobby floor, reaching towards a domed ceiling decorated to look like a sky split between night and day, with the a brilliant sun shining in a cerulean sky on one side, a crescent moon and twinkling stars on the other.  Jake blinked again, looking around the rest of the lobby, trying to take in the hotel’s staff dressed in blue and gold livery, and the massive wooden desk waiting for people to approach for check-in.

“Where am I?” Jake asked.  His voice sounded strange in his ears, as if coming from a distance.

“Ah, Master Jacob.” The man standing next to him spoke with a deep voice colored with a strong, upper-crust British accent.  Jake recognized the voice, though he couldn’t put a name to it. “I did warn you to order your thoughts.”

“What?” Jake turned and looked at the British man.  He wore a black suit with vest and pocket watch, and he had wings of white hair running back behind his ears.

“It’s the first lesson,” the British man said. “Order your thoughts.  You cannot hope to master the arcane arts if you cannot master your own mind.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh dear, this is worse than I thought.” The British man was not much taller than Jake.  When he got down on one knee to talk to him, Jake found himself looking down into the British man’s sharp blue eyes. “What is the last thing you remember?”

Jake tried to think.  The first memory that sprang to mind, still painful and fresh, was picking up the phone at home and hearing a crackling voice deliver news of the accident.  Jake shook his head.  No, that wasn’t the last thing he remembered.  The call had been weeks ago.  The memory just refused to fade like the rest.

“The foster home.” Jake frowned and looked around. “Wait.  Where is Michael and Clementine?”

“Master Jacob.” The British man’s voice became stern. “Focus!  I need you to remember.”

Jake locked gazes with the British man for a moment.  Then, like morning fog giving way to sunlight, details in his memory became clear.  He remembered packing his bag and leaving the foster home.  He packed everything because he knew he would not be returning.  And he remembered this stranger’s name.

“Miles Baker,” Jake said.

“Yes, that’s right.  What else do you remember?”

“You told me… you told me we were going somewhere.”

“For what purpose, Master Jacob?”

Jake took a deep breath.  He remembered something, but he didn’t believe it.  He looked back into Miles’ eyes.

“Yes, that’s right.” Miles stood back up, placed his hands on his hips, and stretched. “You have the gift and the potential to join the ranks of the Arcane Guardians.  Or, to put it in terms you may be more familiar with, you are a wizard, Master Jacob.”

“Bullshit.”

“Language!”

Jake opened his mouth to deliver a stronger swear word, and stopped.  A bitter taste coated his tongue, running down his throat and making him gag.  He clapped a hand over his mouth and stared as Miles’ lips twisted into an impish grin.

“Now,” Miles said, “why don’t you wait here while I finish securing our rooms.  And please do not wander off or touch anything.  This place is not what it seems.”

As soon as Miles took a step towards the front desk, the awful taste of soap in Jake’s mouth disappeared.  He licked his lips, wondering if he’d imagined it.  Had Miles done something to him?  No. Impossible.  Magic wasn’t real.  Could Miles have hypnotized him?

Jake turned to watch Miles at the front desk.  The dapper British gentleman smiled and spoke with animated hands to the person behind the counter.  Jake tried to look at the night clerk and found himself staring at the white marble flooring that surrounded the massive tree.  The huge oak came right out of the floor with no visible gaps to expose the soil beneath.

Frowning, Jake tried again to look at the night clerk.  He blinked, and then stared at an ornate painting on the wall depicting a knight in silvery armor astride a massive black horse.  The knight held a gleaming sword in one hand as his other hovered near the edge of his visor.

“What the hell?” Jake said.  He remembered what Miles had said before and tried to focus his thoughts.  Gritting his teeth, keeping his intention clear in his mind, Jake slowly turned to look back at the night clerk.  A muscle spasmed in his neck and he ignored it.  A figure stood on the other side of the massive desk, but Jake’s eyes refused to focus.  His vision blurred, and he felt a tear run down his cheek.  When his head began to ache, he let his vision turn away.  The tree stood before him, tiny decorative houses lining its massive, twisted branches.

“Master Jacob,” Miles said. “Are you quite alright?”

“What’s happening?” Jake’s head throbbed, though the pain began to subside.

Before Jake could pull away, Miles reached forward and wiped the tear from his cheek.  When Miles didn’t withdraw his hand, Jake looked down at it.  Blood covered the tip of Miles’ finger.

“Is that–“

“One cannot look upon The Night Manager without their express permission,” Miles said. “But don’t worry.  I’m sure you will become acquainted soon enough.  And see here!  It takes a strong will and a focused mind to look for as long as you managed.  You certainly must have what it takes to be a Guardian.  Mark my words.”

Jake reached up and wiped his eyes and his cheek.  He felt the tacky warm blood on his fingers before he looked down to confirm.  Miles hadn’t tricked him, and he hadn’t hypnotized him.

“Let’s climb up to our rooms so you can wash up.  You’re going to want to get a good night’s rest so you’ll be ready for tomorrow.”

“What’s happening tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow, Master Jacob, you are going to cast your first spell.”

*

Jake sat in a creaky wooden desk chair in Miles’ room.  They shared adjoining suites, and Jake could see his unmade bed through the open door between their rooms.  Hunger twisted Jake’s stomach into knots, and he hoped that the joke or farce would be over quickly.

“Now,” Miles said.  He bent over one of his black-scaled bags and rummaged through the contents. “Let’s see… ah!  Here it is.”

“Can’t we go down to breakfast first?”

“Oh no, my boy.  One’s first brush with the arcane can lead to nausea, and–“

“I’m not your boy.”

“I’m sorry?”

“I’m not your boy, Mr. Baker.  Don’t call me that.”

“Ah.  My apologies, Master Jacob.  Now as I was saying–“

“Can’t you just call me Jake?”

“Of course, Master Jacob.  Of course.  Now where were we…”

Jake heaved a sigh and looked towards the door.  He wondered what his British host would do if he just got up and left.

“Take this.” Miles offered what looked like a brass thimble and an eye dropper.

“What is this?”

“In the cup?  Tap water, though we’ll fix that up soon enough.”

Jake found himself holding the thimble in one hand and the dropper in the other. “What am I supposed to do with this?”

“Just hold it for now, and clear your mind.  Once I’ve explained what it is we’re doing, I’ll–“

“No.  Stop.” Jake set the thimble down on the desk behind him. “I don’t want to do this.  I don’t believe in magic.”

“I know, Master Jacob.  I know.  And I understand.  That’s why this first spell we’ll be casting is to clear your vision and open your eyes.”

Jake opened his mouth to argue, then stopped.  He raised a hand and touched the corner of his eye.  He had seen things already that he couldn’t explain.  What would be the harm in going along with Miles?  If it got them down to breakfast that much sooner, it would be worth it.

Miles gestured towards the dropper still in Jake’s hand. “That is called a Dropper of Clarity.  It’s a tool the Guardians devised some time ago, easily made and easy to use.  What goes in the dropper does not matter, but what comes out will wash away the sticky film of the mundane that covers most people’s eyes.”

Jake blinked a few times. “What?”

“It’s a magic item that helps you see magic.”

“Why didn’t you just say that in the first place?”

“Because the details are important.” Miles gestured towards the thimble on the desk. “Please pick that up, and follow my instructions.”

Jake did as he was asked and sat up straighter in his chair, mirroring Miles’ posture.

“Some magical artifacts are more difficult to use than others,” Miles said. “Some require a specific location to work, or the utterance of triggering words.  Droppers of Clarity, on the other hand, only require a small effort of will.”

“Right.  How do I do that?”

“Clear your mind.  Empty it of everything.”

Jake shook his head. “I can’t do that.  No one can do that.”

“I know it can be difficult at first but–“

“It’s like telling someone not to think of a kitten.  Just saying it out loud makes people think of it.”

“Master Jacob,” Miles’ voice became suddenly stern. “I would appreciate it very much if you would not interrupt me when I am instructing you.  Furthermore, until you have learned more in the ways of the arcane arts, it would reflect well on you not to proclaim what is and is not possible.”

Jake sat back in his seat.  He felt his cheeks warm, and he wanted to be anywhere out of Miles’ presence.  Jake knew that he’d been rude to the British gentleman, and getting called out on it made him feel small and ashamed.  He wanted desperately to see his parents.  Of course, his father wouldn’t have put up with Jake’s tone or behavior.  Jake’s shoulders slumped and he wished he could crawl into the thimble and hide under the tiny pool of water.

“You have already demonstrated that you can do this,” Miles said. “You tried to look upon The Night Manager, and as far as I can tell, nearly succeeded.  Compared to that, activating the dropper should be simple.”

Jake smiled. “So, you’re saying this isn’t going to make my eyes bleed?”

Miles did not smile. “Most likely not.  We’ll have a clean washcloth handy, just in case.”

Jake swallowed and reached to touch the corner of his eye again.

“If, as you say, you cannot completely clear your mind, then I’d like you to visualize something appropriate.  Imagine a door opening, or a dense fog lifting.  Anything that gives you a sense of revelation.”

Jake closed his eyes and tried to go with it.  He tried to imagine the things Miles had described, but neither doors nor fog gave him a sense of clarity.  He kept seeing the door close, and the fog return, and it all reminded him of a life he’d never have again.

“Concentrate, Master Jacob.”

A sharp comment formed on Jake’s tongue but he bit it back.  He was concentrating.  What did Miles think he was doing?  He imagined wiping a hand across a foggy mirror and seeing his own, red-rimmed eyes looking back.  He visualized ripping wrapping paper off a package.  The last Christmas with his parents, his mother had given him a leather jacket.

“You had something for a moment there.  Keep trying!”

Jake pushed away the thoughts of his mother and his jacket and reached for a memory that wasn’t so close to recent events.  He thought back to a science class.  The teacher had smudged something oily on a plate of glass, and all of the kids took turns looking through the microscope.  Jake remembered twisting a dial, raising and lowering the glass until the circle of empty white light solidified into an image of tiny, translucent cells, swimming in pale liquid.

“That’s it!  Very good, Master Jacob!”

Jake opened his eyes and looked at the objects in his hands.  Neither the thimble nor the dropper looked any different. “Okay, what now?”

“Draw some of the water into the dropper and release a single drop into one of your eyes.  Do it quickly, though, before the device goes back to sleep.”

“Which eye?  Why not both?”

“You certainly may choose both eyes, if you wish, but I do not recommend it.  You will soon be able to see things you never would have imagined.  If it becomes overwhelming, you may want to be able to close one eye and still see the mundane world, as you’ve seen it your entire life.”

“Did you put something in the water while I had my eyes closed?”

“I think you already know that I did not.  Hurry, please.  The dropper will only remain active for a few more seconds.”

Jake shook his head as put the glass into the thimble.  The tiny dropper drank the water and glimmered in the hotel light.  He tipped his head back and held the dropper over his left eye.  He squeezed, the drop formed and fell, and a split second before the liquid touched his naked eye, he thought he saw a golden light.  Then the cool moisture was there.  He blinked and raised a hand to wipe the water away.

“A moment!” Miles said, taking hold of Jake’s arm.  A few seconds later, Miles let him go. “That should do it.”

Jake wiped his face.  It felt like wiping tears, something he’d done far too often over the last few weeks.  He looked at Miles and shook his head again. “Nothing happened.”

“Are you so sure?” Miles pointed towards one wall of the room. “Look there.  Close your right eye, if you must.”

Jake set the thimble and stopper down and turned towards the indicated wall.  A framed painting of a farmhouse interrupted a cream-white surface.  Faint shadows drew darkened lines diagonally from carpet to ceiling.  It looked like an ordinary hotel wall.

“I told you, it didn’t–” Jake started.

The wall rippled.  Something long and sinuous slithered just beneath the paint.  The creature stretched along a narrow passage Jake hadn’t seen before.  Jake thought at first it was a snake, but its thick body didn’t seem to end.

“Is that…?”

“A tentacle,” Miles said, sounding pleased. “Some sort of giant squid, I believe.”

Jake’s chair fell over as he tried to get away.  He propped himself on his hands and crab-walked backwards, away from the wall.  Miles put a hand on his shoulder and stopped him.

“She will not harm you.  For the most part, she isn’t even really here.  Or more precisely, we are not there.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jake realized he’d shrieked his question.  His breathing came in short gulps.  He wanted to look away but he couldn’t turn his head.  Miles’ firm hand kept him in place on the floor.

“If you hadn’t guessed yet, this hotel is an unusual place.  In our world, it sits directly over the conjunction of two powerful lay lines.  Because of this, it–“

“Let me go!”

“Of course, Master Jacob.  Why don’t you close your left eye for a moment and catch your breath.”

Jake blinked several times before reaching up with one hand and covering his left eye.  The undulating image and the corridor within the wall disappeared.  Through his right eye, he saw the painting and the plain off-white wall he’d seen before.  He quit trying to scramble away from it.

“What did you do to me?”

“Nothing!  I simply helped you cast a spell which allows you to see beneath the surface of the mundane world.  I assure you, Master Jacob, this effect is quite temporary.  In an hour or two, the fog of creation will fill your eyes again.  But with practice, you can open your eyes to magic at will and see what lies beneath whenever you like.”

“Why would I want to do that?  What did you put in the water?  Did you drug me?”

Miles reached past Jake and picked up the thimble.  He raised it in a brief toast, then tossed back the contents as if it were a shot of liquor. “It’s just water.  No drugs.  Nothing extra except for whatever it might have collected from this hotel’s old, brass pipes.  Consider, Master Jacob.  If you’d been drugged, why would the unseen world disappear when you covered your left eye?”

“It could still be–“

“No,” Miles said in a sharp tone.  He took a deep breath and forced a smile before continuing. “We don’t have much time here, and I don’t want to spend what we have trying to explain to you what most of the world would find unexplainable.  For your sake and mine, I need you to start trusting in what I have to teach you.  As for your other question, why someone would open their eyes to the supernatural, there are many reasons.  Open your left eye and look at the stopper.”

Jake lowered his hand and looked.  The stopper appeared as it had before with its smoky glass and its bright red rubber stopper.  Closing his right eye, Jake saw something else.  The stopper glowed with a soft golden light.

“I see it.” Jake turned and looked back at Miles.  A small, round object rested above Miles’ heart, glowing from beneath Miles’ shirt more brightly than the dropper.  Jake pointed towards it. “I see something there, too.”

Miles’s eyes went wide and he clutched at the object at his chest. “Ah, yes.  This.  You don’t have to worry about this.  Not yet, anyway.”

“What is it?”

“Not something you’re ready for.”

“But what is it?”

With a sigh, Miles loosened his tie and unbuttoned the top two buttons of his shirt.  He tucked a finger beneath his collar and fished out a silver chain.  The chain itself didn’t glow, but the golden medallion that emerged shone like a torch. “This is a Master Key.”

“What does it open?”

“It’s complicated.”

Jake crossed his arms in front of him. “You just said I need to start trusting you.  It goes both ways.  How am I supposed trust you if you don’t trust me enough to answer my questions?”

“Oh, very well.” Miles removed the medallion from his neck and held it out in front of him. “Most people live their lives believing that the only world that exists is the one they were born into.  But there are many worlds.  More than you can imagine.  Master Keys like this one open and close the doors between the many worlds.”

Jake stared at the gold disk in Miles’ hands.  In spite of the otherworldly light that surrounded it, in spite of his heart still beating fast from seeing a monster slithering through the walls, Jake clung to his doubts.

“Why don’t we have a little stroll around the hotel?” Miles asked, closing his hands around the Master Key.

Before Jake could form words to protest, he found himself walking down the hallway next to Miles.  Wood-paneled walls stretched out in front of him, occasionally interrupted by immaculate white doors with ornate brass handles.  More paintings of countrysides and farmhouses dotted the walls, each composed with exquisite detail, none memorable enough to capture Jake’s attention as he walked past them.

“Where are we going?” Jake asked.

“Just around the hotel.  Not too far, I’m sure.”

Jake started to ask another question, then stopped mid-step.  He turned to his left and stared at the wall.  He covered each of his eyes in turn.  Through his left, he saw a closed door like the rest in the hallway.  With his right eye, the wall continued uninterrupted.

“Is this one of those doors you mentioned before?  Into another world?”

“There is a door there, and it is in another world.  It’s just not connected to our world.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Try to open it.”

Jake reached for the handle.  His hand passed through empty air.

“This hotel is a special place,” Miles said. “Built on a conjunction of many lay lines, the boundary between worlds here is quite thin.  Thin enough that we can sometimes stop and look across the gap and glimpse the places beyond.  That’s why I brought us here, Master Jacob.  Sometimes, seeing is believing, and I need you to believe.”

*

Jake lay on his bed above the covers, his fingers knitted behind his head, his eyes fixed and unfocused on the ceiling.  Jake and Miles had walked for almost two hours before the effects of the eye dropper wore off.  During that time, he’d seen things he couldn’t believe.  One of the phantom doors had opened to reveal a long-haired goat chewing a cigar with an intelligent gleam in its bar-shaped eyes.  Only it hadn’t been chewing.  It had been smoking.  Through a window, Jake had seen what looked like a modern bathroom dominated by a velociraptor, snarling and slashing the linoleum, like something out of a Stephen Spielberg movie.  They passed an elderly woman in a wheelchair that looked normal enough, except for the silenced pistol tucked into her knitting bag.  Jake saw dozens of things he had no explanation for, any one of which would have been enough to keep him awake at night.  Then there had been the explanations.  All day, Miles went on and on about lay lines, incantations, the history of magic… it had all been overwhelming.

The sun had set long ago and the clock had made the transition from large numbers to small.  Laying on his bed with his mind swimming through memories he couldn’t catalog, sleep eluded him.

With only one lamp lit, long shadows reached dark fingers across the walls.  Jake stared at them, closing one eye.  After everything he’d seen, he half-expected to see something looking back at him through the darkness.  He focused.  For just a moment, he could almost see the outline of a tentacle, long and sinuous.  Or was his imagination getting the best of him?

An unrelenting silence pressed down on Jake.  It had never been so quiet in his home.  His mother always had something going on the television.  Half the time, she couldn’t tell you what was playing.  She just wanted the noise, she’d say.  Even after the accident, after Jake had gone to the foster home, there had never been true silence.  The foster home had creaked and hummed around him like a living thing.

However else Miles had disrupted Jake’s life, one constant remained: Jake’s mind found its way back to his parents and the accident.  He didn’t like to think of it, but he couldn’t avoid it.  How can a person make themselves not think of something?

If Jake’s dad was there, he might have had an answer.  His dad was so smart.  He’d work on crosswords with a pen.  If Miles had been pulling some sort of trick on Jake, Jake’s dad would have seen through it.  Jake wished his father was there right now, if only to help Jake process the impossible things he’d seen that day.

A sound like fabric tearing broke the silence.  Jake flinched from the noise.  It came again, sounding through the door that separated the two rooms.  Snoring.  Miles had a snore like a sputtering lawn mower.  Did the British man have sleep apnea or something?  Jake added another tally to the mental checklist of things keeping him from sleeping.

Jake’s memories tumbled back to another time when snoring had kept him awake.  He and his parents had gone camping and they’d had to share a tent.  Jake had ducked down into his sleeping bag with a flashlight to read while his parents fell asleep a couple of feet away.  When the batteries ran out and his eyes got heavy, he could hear the sleep noises coming from his parents.  Eventually, insect chirping and an occasional breeze through dry leaves lulled Jake off to dreamland.

Sleep wouldn’t be so easy this night.  He’d seen things in the hotel that wouldn’t let his brain rest, like the tiny people that lived in the tree in the lobby.  As Jake had watched, one of the little elves raised a hand and waved at Jake.  They could see him, just as Jake could see them.  Miles insisted that they were in a different world, but they acknowledged Jake’s presence.  That made them real.

As another one of Miles’ resonant snores penetrated the walls into Jake’s room, Jake sat up.  A new thought filled his mind.  A possibility.  Something he never would have considered before that day.  He rose from his bed and crept towards the door into Miles’ room.

Jake gave the doorknob a slow turn.  It clicked open, and the hinges snitched on him with a creak that sounded like a scream.  Jake waited in the open door.  Miles’ thunderous sleep noise encouraged him forward.

The British man lay unconscious above the covers, an open book spread on his chest.  Miles’ head rested on the pillow facing Jake, his mouth open and a thin line of drool running in a line to the fabric.  Jake froze part way into Miles’ room, only moving whenever the sleeping man emitted another resonant blast.

Miles kept his room neat and organized, with his clothes hung up in the closet and his sundry other possessions tucked into his crocodile skin bags, which he left open on the dresser.  Jake tip-toed to the bags and peaked inside.  He found the box with the dropper, pulled it out, and moved on to the bathroom.

Jake drew water from the tap and tried to activate the dropper.  It took him several tries.  Jake’s eyes stung and his cheeks felt wet as though he’d been crying.  Eventually, the dropper glowed in his hand.  This time, he’d dosed both eyes.

As he made his way back towards his room, his footsteps slowed.  Other items in Miles’ room wore similar auras to the dropper.  Items beamed from Mile’s bag on the dresser.  The book resting on the British man’s chest bore a rose-colored light.  None of the other magical items in Miles’ room lit up like the Master Key, though, which Jake could see radiating from the bedside table drawer.

Jake’s plan had been to look for a window that showed him his parents.  With so many possible worlds, there had to be one where the accident had never taken place.  Jake thought that if he looked hard enough in the hotel, maybe he could find that world.  Maybe he’d be able to see them.  Maybe they’d be able to see him, too.  But why look for a window when you might be able open a door?  Jake crept towards the table with the glowing golden amulet.

The drawer slid open with a soft sigh.  Jake reached for the chain.  Miles stopped mid-snore.  Jake looked towards the British man, caught in the act, his heart pounding in his ears.

Miles snorted, closed his lips, and turned his head.  The snoring resumed, a bit quieter than before.

Jake withdrew the Master Key and slunk back to his room.  He closed the door behind him and released the breath he’d been holding.  He had the key.  All he had to do next was figure out how to use it.

*

With both eyes opened to the magical world, Jake had a hard time navigating the hotel.  He kept trying to follow hallways that didn’t exist.  When he found the stairs, he nearly tripped and fell.  Whatever world he was looking into had seven steps down before the turn, while the real world had eight.  He managed to catch himself on the rail.

On the bottom floor, he started towards the lobby, then stopped.  If the Night Manager were on shift, what would happen?  Would Jake’s eyes start to bleed again?  With the effects of the dropper running, would his head simply explode?  Jake turned around.  Best not to risk it.

In front of him, the world flickered and moved.  Hallways winked into existence, slanted off into different directions, then disappeared.  A casino appeared in front of Jake for a moment, its occupants wreathed in smoke as they pulled one-armed bandits.  The slot machines disappeared, replaced with poker tables.  A restaurant took the place of the casino, with waitresses wearing blue dresses appropriate for a sock hop.  The restaurant morphed into a diner.  Jake locked eyes momentarily with a short-order cook that had a scar twisting his mouth and cheek into a wicked sneer.  The diner disappeared but the grim-faced cook remained, only he was a bouncer standing in front of a dance hall.  A line of waiting guests stood in front of him next to a velvet roped queue.

“Can I help you, sir?” a man whispered in Jake’s ear.

Jake turned to see an older man in a bright red bell-hop’s uniform.  A name tag read “Sammy” in black letters on a gold background.

“I think I need a quiet place to sit down.”

“Have you been to the lounge?  The bar is closed this time of night, but the seats are comfy and it should be very quiet.”

“Can you take me there?”

Sammy smiled, his blue eyes twinkling. “Of course!  Right this way.”

The old bellhop walked forward into the heart of the chaos.  Jake kept his eyes focused on Sammy while the geography of the hotel shifted around them.  A few moments later, Sammy stopped and gestured towards a beige sofa.

Whatever room Sammy had brought them to, it continued to warp through different realities.  Jake reached his hands forward and placed them on the back of the couch.  He felt the soft material and sighed in relief.  It was real.

Jake turned to thank the bellhop.  Sammy was gone.

“Right.  I think I’m just gonna sit and wait this out.”

Jake lowered himself onto the sofa as the hotel continued its dizzying dance.  For as long as Jake had walked with Miles earlier that day, Jake hadn’t seen anything like this.  Had they just not come to this part of the hotel?  Was it not so dramatic before because Jake had only dosed one eye?  Perhaps Miles had done something to keep the realities straight.  Jake could only guess.  With a heavy sigh, he sat back and resigned himself to watching different realms of possibility twist all around him.

As the immediate surroundings changed from a bar to a pool to a well equipped gymnasium, Jake noticed one detail remain fixed in place.  However else the rooms changed, he could see a stationary door leading out of the hotel.  It changed colors and shapes but it did not move relative to Jake.

After a few minutes, Jake reached down and pulled up the Master Key.  In his hands, it glowed with hope and possibility.  He looked from the Master Key to the door.  He’d come this far.  Why stop now?

Keeping his eyes on the door, Jake stood up and walked across the chaos of the hotel.  Phantoms of people and furniture appeared in front of him.  Jake gritted his teeth and walked through them.  He reached a hand up and touched the door knob.  A static shock stung him as he wrapped his fingers around the cold metal.

Jake pulled out the Master Key and held it against the door and thought of Miles’ instructions on using the dropper.  He had to focus and visualize.  Visualize what?  Probably something to do with opening.  Jake’s mind conjured a memory of his old home, before the accident.  He visualized the heavy front door which his mother decorated with a wreath every holiday season.  He saw the door opening in his mind, with his parents waiting for him on the other side.

He opened the door.

Plates crashed.  A man shouted.  Jake turned and saw a waiter surrounded by shards of porcelain, his cart overturned next to a set of dumbbells.  A woman with long brown hair, platform shoes, bell bottoms, and a tie-die shirt stood a short distance off, staring at another woman wearing a big-shouldered, tan business suit.  Except for their clothing, they could have been twins.  Another waiter in a completely different uniform from the first pushed a mop bucket towards the spilled plates, stepping over gymnasium equipment before sliding around the beige couch.

“What’s happening?” asked a man in a blue blazer.

“Where am I?” asked another man in a space suit, his helmet tucked under one arm.

More people appeared, each adding their voices to the chorus of questions and exclamations.  Jake heard more sounds of dishes breaking, followed by a gunshot.  Then screaming.

“Oh no,” Jake said.  The door was gone.  Where it should have been, a ragged hole in reality yawned, the edges frayed and moving.  Beyond the opening, Jake saw another hotel.  As he watched, the hole widened by several inches on each side.

“This can’t be happening.” Jake squeezed his eyes shut, hoping to break the spell.  After a moment, he heard a familiar voice approaching.

“There, there.  Be a good chap and help this woman up, would you?  That’s it.  Everything will be all right.  No need to worry.  Ah!  Master Jacob, there you are.”

A hand gripped Jake’s shoulder and he opened his eyes.  In front of him, the tear in reality continued to eat away at the wall.

“Miles, I don’t know what to do.” Jake turned to the British man and pressed the Master Key into his hands.

The British man looked at the amulet. “Impressive.  It usually takes months of practice to get an artifact like this to respond at all.”

“You’re… saying I did a good job?”

“Oh, heaven’s no.  An unstable rift at a nexus of power like this can tear the fabric of our reality to ribbons.  This was quite irresponsible on your part, Master Jacob.”

“How do we fix it?”

Wood splintered and glass shattered somewhere behind Miles.  The British man rubbed his chin as he examined the rift.  After a moment, he took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh.  He handed the amulet back to Jake.

“We’ll do this together.  The Master Key will only work from this side, so you hold on to it.”

Before Jake could protest, Miles stepped around him and through the portal.  As Jake watched, duplicates of Miles stepped off to the right and left.  More copies of Miles appeared behind Jake wearing different outfits.

“Now,” Miles said from the other side of the rift. “Hold up the key where the door should be.”

Jake lifted the amulet.  It felt heavier than before. “Miles, wait.  What are you doing?”

“It’s very important you try and focus, Master Jacob.  We don’t have much time.”

“Focus on what?  If this closes and you’re on the other side–“

“This will take both of us, one on each side.  Visualize a boulder or a stone.”

“Not a door?”

“Doors are meant to be opened.  This is a break, and what we need is something solid and whole.”

The memory of a lake with a rocky beach sprung immediately to Jake’s mind.  He remembered climbing the huge boulders next to the cold, blue water.  He tried to put the image out of his mind, but how do you delete a thought once it’s in your mind?  The amulet touched something solid.

“No!  Don’t leave me like this!”

“I’m sorry, Master Jacob, but this is the only way.  We only have a few moments, now.  There’s a book in my room.  I want you to–“

Jake didn’t want to hear it.  He tried to pull the Master Key away, but it refused to budge.  Jake brought a foot up, braced himself, and pulled harder.  Something gave and he fell, landing hard on his back.  The door that had not been there slammed shut.  The click of the lock echoed into the sudden silence.

Groaning, Jake sat up and looked around.  The strange warping of reality had ceased, and he found himself on the floor of a sparse lounge.  Alone.

Jake scrambled to his feet and opened the door.  Cold night air rushed in, prickling his skin to goose flesh.  He stepped outside and looked around.  Miles was nowhere to be found.  A crescent moon partially obscured by clouds beamed down at him.

“Miles, I’m so sorry.”

The empty night offered no response.

*

Jake found Miles’ book on the bedside table beneath an ornately carved wooden pen.  Jake picked up the writing instrument and examined it.  On the top where a clicker would be, Jake found a dime-sized ruby set into the dark wood.

Setting the pen aside, Jake opened the book and thumbed through it.  Half the pages were blank while the other held words and pictures drawn in black ink.  Jake turned to the last page and found a message addressed to him.

Dear Master Jacob,

You have already experienced more grief than any young man your age should have to bear, and I hope that my departure does not add to your burden.

Though I have only known you for a short time, I am certain that you will make an excellent Guardian.  You are inquisitive, strong-willed, and pure in your intentions.  Do not let the experience with the rift dissuade you.  I believe in you.

As you may have already guessed, this book is special.  In addition to containing my notes and instructions on the mystic arts, it is also a way for us to communicate.  I have a copy, and whatever is written in one appears in the other.  But please have a care as there are only so many pages.

You will find the resources you need within my bags, and the hotel staff has been instructed to attend to you for as long as you’d like.  Study my notes, and for the sake of our reality, do not try and open a portal to reach me.  Trust me when I tell you that you are not ready for that.

But someday, you will be.

Humbly yours,

Miles Baker

Jake traced the last few words with a finger.  He picked up the pen, set it to the page, then stopped.  What was he going to say?  Was he going to thank his brief mentor, or apologize?  He riffled through the empty pages with his thumb.  Miles was right.  There weren’t enough pages to waste.

Turning off the light, Jake returned to his room and closed the door behind him.  As he saw it, there really was only one thing left for him to do. He turned on the bedside lamp, sat on his bed, and opened the book to the beginning.

He began to read.