New Short Fiction in Stupefying Stories 1.13

Check it out!

Check it out!

Hello! It’s just me, popping in temporarily during my blog-hiatus to update you on more publishing news from Yours Truly. At long last, my story “The Great Work of Meister VanHocht” is released in the 13th volume of Stupefying Stories. The story is some of my best work, I think, so I hope you read it. Also, for those of you fascinated in my world of Alandar (yes, both of you!), the story is set in the city of Eddon and deals with golemsmithing.

Anywho, you can read it (and all the other wonderful stories in the volume) on Kindle by going here.   

Also, for those of you looking to read more stuff by me, check out the “Where Can You Find My Stuff” tab in the sidebar to the right of this post. It has links to all my publications/honors thus far.

What it doesn’t include, of course, is the stuff yet to be released. Stay tuned for my story “Mercy, Killer” in next month’s issue of Analog, the release my novel The Oldest Trick, Part 1 early next year, and of course my short story “A Revolutionary’s Guide to Practical Conjuration” in The Writers of the Future Anthology, Volume 31, to be released next year.

Thanks, and now back to revising. See you all again soon, I hope!

And Miles To Go Before I Sleep…

Pictured: Me

Pictured: Me

It is August, which means the Fall approaches, which means the Fall Semester looms. My time for writing and revising grows short. The hour is later than I think, sayeth Saruman. In the next three weeks, I’ve got a small pile of meetings to attend, four classes to prepare, and most of a novel to revise. Also, my editor could shoot me an e-mail at any time between now and October in which she will give me the revision notes for an entirely different novel, which I will then need to revise by October.

Accordingly, I think it perhaps prudent that this blog goes on a little hiatus until the dust settles a bit. I will be certain to post and update you good readers on any further publishing or release news regarding my short fiction exploits, The Oldest Trick, etc, but otherwise I need to put my nose to the grindstone and get the real work done. No more pointless rambling from yours truly until I’m out of the woods.

See you, hopefully, in September. Or, perhaps, I will lose you to a summer love. Either way.

I bid you all a temporary and fair adieu. Fare thee well, wherever you fare. Peace out.

 

The Maps of TSR: A Narrative Analysis

When The Oldest Trick, Part 1 is released early next year, I will officially be a published fantasy author. Ideally, a few months after that I will be a successful one (hint hint, folks). As I have wrestled this summer with writing the third book in the as-yet unnamed Tyvian Reldamar series, I have been considering what it means, exactly, to be an ‘epic fantasy author’ (epic fantasy being my subgenre, apparently, though that word ‘epic’ gives me fits). Now, this question has as many answers as there are authors. For me, a key part of fantasy has always been maps. I love maps, and especially fantasy world maps. I feel like a good map tells its own story and makes the world real. A good map makes you want to live there. I have extensive maps for Alandar (my fantasy world) and an atlas that I guard like the Holy Grail (as they contain the only copies of the maps I’ve drawn). I bought Campaign Cartographer to help me make more maps, but ones which I can copy and distribute (it’s awesome, by the way, but I’m not good enough with it to make the maps as awesome as they are in my head – still easier to hand-draw them.).

So it is that, recently, when I was invited to play in my friend’s Forgotten Realms D&D campaign, that pulled up a copy of the map of Faerun – the world of Forgotten Realms. It’s….it’s just awesome. Incredibly awesome. I was instantly transported back to high school, pouring over the atlases of places like Ansalon and Faerun and Oreth. Feeling the inspiration to make my own maps and, by extension, create my own worlds. In large part, I attribute the existence of Alandar to those big TSR boxed sets from the 1990s with their piles of awesome maps.  They were a lot of the initial inspiration for it all.

What’s So Great About These Maps, Weirdo?

If you love history (like I do) and study it, it becomes clear that geography has a powerful effect on culture, civilization, and history. Europe was created by the Alps more than by the Roman Empire; the Roman Empire was created by the Italian Peninsula. America owes its America-ness to the Appalachians and the Great Plains, to Cape Cod, and to the Potomac and Hudson River. Study it, and the connections are all there, plain as day.

If you look at your average fantasy world map, it often has just enough detail to let you know where you are, but nothing more. Comparing that map to a map of the real world is like comparing a child’s finger-painting to a Renaissance masterpiece. Accordingly (and obviously), the complexity of the real world dwarfs that of your average fantasy setting. This is probably always going to be true (few fantasy authors are as monumentally good world builders as George R.R. Martin, for instance), but a really good map can help make the gap that much narrower. I feel that TSR’s maps always did a good job of this. Let me discuss them in turn.

A land fractured...

A land fractured…

Ansalon

The primary setting for the D&D Dragonlance world, Ansalon is a continent that suffered a great Cataclysm in the recent past (a comet hit the planet, swallowing one corner of the continent and seriously upsetting the rest of it). The destruction wrought on the landscape is clear simply by looking at the map. Everywhere is isolated from everywhere else by oceans, mountains, and wastelands. Ansalon, therefore, is a land of peoples isolated from one another. The riding of dragons (a major setting element) is sensible in this setting – you need a way to get around these obstacles if you intend to conquer anywhere. It makes sense.

This map also demonstrates how the creators of the world (Weiss and Hickman) build this place in order to have fun with it. There’s a lot going on here – a lot of cities, but also a lot of trackless wilderness. There are plenty of places for dragons to hide. There’s a giant evil whirlpool/storm in one corner. The waterways are choked and complex, making for much sailing adventure (if desired). It looks like the kind of place adventures can be had, and that was something I latched on to long ago as important in a map. The more fun the place looked, the more fun you could get to happen.

Oerth

Look at all them kingdoms!

Look at all them kingdoms!

The principal setting for Greyhawk campaigns, Oerth is a massive continent with a intricate series of petty nation states, kingdoms, duchies, and principalities all jockeying for position in a heavily populous world. Unlike Ansalon, where the struggle is clearly Man Vs Nature, here the struggle is Man Vs Man. The wild places exist on the fringes – over mountains, across distant oceans, far away and out of mind. The day to day business of the citizens of Oerth is protecting their land from violent neighbors. The setting contributes to that, too – part of the world’s history is a world-wide war that shattered much of the political status-quo. Oerth is a land of intrigue and warfare and less one of exploration and discovery. Its geography is well suited to this.

I confess that Oerth had a definitive influence over my design of Alandar. Not only did I run a long-running Greyhawk campaign in high school, but I loved the precarious balance of powers presented by the world and noted how the geography of the place contributed to that. If you have been reading my Alandar background pieces (and God bless you, by the way), you can see that elaborate political alliances are part and parcel for the setting. One of the things that does this in Oerth is the Azure Sea and the Nyr Dyv (the inland ocean/big lake about map center and the mostly-inland sea in the south). By having these big waterways ensconced by competing powers, it makes the ocean not a venue for distant exploration so much as a setting for trade, travel, piracy, and naval warfare. Think of the Mediterranean and the Caribbean – same idea.

Faerun

Wow...just wow...

Wow…just wow…

Faerun is the grandpappy of them all. The primary setting for Forgotten Realms campaigns, it is, first and foremost, huge. Of all of the maps thus far discussed, this is the one I feel best simulates something akin to the real world. It is almost a mixture of Ansalon and Oreth – there are isolated pockets of civilization cut off by wide swathes of wilderness, but also big blocks of civilized countries that must be jockeying for resources in their little corner of the world. There are mountains and rivers, inland seas (which are themselves a result of cataclysmic events), distant wastelands, forests and jungles and so on and so forth. Unlike Ansalon or even Oerth, one look at the map of Faerun makes it clear that there is more than one story to tell in this world. What is happening in the North along the Sword Coast is not the same as what is happening in the Dalelands around the Sea of Fallen Stars, and both are distinct from the troubles of Calimshan and Chult. This is a world in regions, like our own, which clearly must have their own distinct politics, habits, cultures, and peoples.

If the West in Alandar is inspired by Oerth, the whole of Alandar is very much inspired by Faerun. My world (separated into West, North, South, and the Isles) is very much separated that way, even if inter-regional conflict does occur. Cultures, languages, and religions all differ, just as they do in Faerun. I only hope my own world is as much fun to explore and adventure in as this one, which has enjoyed 30 years of passionate fans of the books, RPGs, and video games.

I should be so lucky.

 

Alandar: A Timeline of Events

The history of Alandar is a difficult thing to record with any degree of precision, as few save the magi have kept anything close to reliable historical records, and the magi of Saldor are not known to share information willingly. Adding to this difficulty is the complexity and (some would say) foolishness of the various dating systems used by the common populations. In the west, years are denoted by Keeper of the Balance (as in the 23rd year of Polimeux II), which while useful within the average lifespan of a person, are basically useless as metrics of historical account. The calendar of the North is dated from the birth of the most recent High Saint (e.g. 150th year of Saint Udent), making them somewhat more useful in this regard while the Kalsaaris are by far the most useful, dating their calendar from the birth of their Empire (placing the Imperial Calendar in its 31st century). Many of the following dates should be understood as approximate. As much as can be reliably determined, however, is dated as follows, using the private notation of Arcanostrum scholars:

35109-bigthumbnailBefore the Age of Kings (BK)

~6,000 BK (Before Kings): The Great Trek from the Hearth begins. Humanity abandons its ancestral homeland (its identity now lost to time), led by their god, Hann. The journey purportedly takes millennia to complete.

~2,000 BK: Hann fights with Ulor on the Taqar; Hann abandons the human race. Humanity is now on its own.

~2,000 BK—1 BK: “The Age of Chaos”—humanity begins to establish settlements around the Sea of Syrin. Tribal warfare common, very primitive social structures.

~500 BK: The First Sorcerers rise to power in tribal areas. Beings of mythical power, they are worshipped as gods. Sorcery is a crude practice at this time, and limited mostly to striking  invocations and basic auguries.

The Age of Kings (AK)

1 AK (Age of Kings): The first Warlock King, Syrin the Mighty, establishes a kingdom stretching from modern day Akral along the southern coast to the Dragonspine. First strong government in human history. Ancient city of Burza founded.

250 AK: Syrin’s kingdom collapses into civil war. Three powerful Warlocks—Askar, Nurohn, and Shendrezail—conquer three largest pieces of the kingdom.

300 AK: City of Hurn founded by the request of Hann himself, who temporarily appears from exile; The Kings of Shendrezail fight the Dawn War against the God of Humanity and his crusaders. Hann’s armies surrender rather than see their god destroyed, Shendrezail claims victory. Church of Hann grows, but is forbidden by Warlock Kings.

~600 AK: The Arahk arrive in Alandar from the frigid polar regions north of the continent, settle in the unoccupied Fields of Oscillain in the northeast.

700 AK: Askar XII murders his wife, heir to the throne of the Nurohnar, and merges the two kingdoms. Jassaria V, Warlock Queen of Shendrezail, expands her kingdom to encompass modern day Kalsaar.

sorcerer-297059855 AK: Beginning of the First Mage War between Askaria and Shendrezail. The fires of Askar XIX create the Gods’ Divide. In retribution, and with the supposed aid of the god Ulor, Jassaria XI creates the Needle, causing the Sea of Syrin to flood, doubling its size. Burza destroyed, millions perish, war ends in stalemate.

~900 AK: Arahkan War of Fathers—the Great Torach drives the lesser arahk into the Eastern Sea. Lesser arahk migrate south to become what are now known as hobs.

990 AK: Askar XXVI’s sons murder him and fight over spoils. Askarian civil war leads to Second Mage War as Shendrezail pounces. Demons and fiends summoned to aid combatants, cataclysmic slaughter occurs. War lasts 115 years, ends with the kingdoms of Askaria and Shendrezail in complete ruins. During fighting, Kroth the Devourer reputably stirs in His bonds.

~1000 AK: Gnolls arrive in western Alandar. Remain outside of human affairs.

1120 AK: Warlock King Rahdnost rises to power. Most powerful Warlock King since Syrin. Kingdom spreads from modern day Saldor to Eddon. Many other Kings rule in the south, but all swear fealty to Rahdnost.

1125 AK: Rahdnost’s forces defeated at Daer Mahk by the arahk tribes. Expansion of his empire is never able to cross the Dragonspine, despite the creation of Trell’s Pass.

1190 AK: Rahdnost finds way to extend lifespan indefinitely. Becomes Rahdnost the Undying. Kingdom expands to encompass southern coast of the Sea of Syrin.

~1300 AK: Settlers fleeing Rahdnost’s tyranny migrate across the Dragonspine to live in the western reaches of Oscillain. Border disputes between arahk tribes and humans begin.

~1500 AK: Rebels exiled to deserts of south found Kalsaar and manage to live in relative peace with hob population. (Beginning of Kalsaari calendar)

1648 AK: Rahdnost invades the Great Forest and attacks the Vale. Known as the Fey War, the free and wild peoples known as the Vel’jahai war with Rahdnost across the northwest. Ends with the last recorded invocation of a Cataclysm, as Rahdnost’s Eternal Tower is struck down and the city of Ghola is swallowed by the ocean. Ruins rest on an island supposedly near Ihyn.

1661 AK: Lesser Warlock Kings rise up to claim the Undying’s Kingdom. Third Mage Wars begin, lasts fifty years.

1750 AK:  Warlock Kings Vorn the Terrible and Spidrahk rise to power, controlling the southern and northern shores of the Sea of Syrin, respectively. Spidrahk’s palace rests on the location of present-day Saldor. With access to Rahdnost’s Elixir of Immortality, the two kings are able to war periodically over three centuries, neither gaining the upper hand.

2063 AK: Vorn calls down unholy plague upon world in an effort to kill ailing King Spidrahk. Spidrahk releases ‘the Seeking Dark’ to destroy Vorn. Both weakened, the Vel’jahai, aided by friendly human sorcerers, rise up to topple both kingdoms and destroy every vestige of the Warlock King epoch. Afterwards, the Vel’jahai retire to their Forest, declaring it their own, and forbid any foreigners from entering it.

The Age of Balance (AB)

1 AB (Age of Balance): First Keeper of the Balance, Ethorim, takes the Seat in Saldor. Political chaos reigns in wake of the Warlock Kings’ fall.

136003055261925 AB: Eretheria founded by Perwyn, establishes tense diplomatic relations with Saldor, essentially treating it as a protectorate.

32 AB: Akral established as stable kingdom by Tolion the Uniter, begins to expand borders.

112 AB: Church of Hann gains home in fledgling city of Rhond, establishes it as headquarters.

125 AB: Arcanostrum declares Church of Hann as ‘official’ religion of humanity. Hordes develop in Oscillain under Warlord Khazakain.

130 AB: First Arahkan War begins. Arahk sweep through unprepared kingdoms of the north

and attack Trell’s Pass and secure it. Arahk attack Galaspin, Eretheria, and

Saldor—nearly conquer all. Hill tribesmen cut off Arahkan supplies and the Vel’jahai

come to the Arcanostrum’s aid, though nothing is enough to completely win.

144 AB: Veris, Ihyn founded.

177 AB: Ezeliar defeats Khazakain at Battle of Sh’goth, First Arahkan War Ends.

180 AB: Kingdom of Benethor/Knights of Benethor founded by Ezeliar’s lieutenants.

183 AB: Galaspin founded, swears itself as Saldor’s protector.

200 AB: Freegate founded by hill tribesmen and Galaspiner dissidents.

220 AB: Kalsaari Empire established, expands to include Emirates of Tharce, Azgar.

224 AB: Wars of Retribution begun—arahk pushed back to the borders of Roon. Ramisett annexed into Kingdom.

354 AB: Wars of Retribution end.

368 AB: King of Benethor’s feuding sons split the massive kingdom into two entities. Kingdom of Ridderhof founded, treaties for mutual defense against the arahk are immediately signed, but relations remain cool between two nations for several centuries.

400 AB: Eddon breaks away from Akral in peaceful accord, Eddon becomes Kingdom. Maintains close relationship with Akral.

434 AB: Kalsaar makes forays beyond the Century Desert, captures Tasis, Illini peninsula.

438—464 AB: Kalsaari Wars of Expansion: Kalsaar makes war on fledgling western nations. Captures Rhond, lays siege to Veris, Ihyn, Akral, and Hurn. Kalsaari Armies finally defeated after a grueling campaign in Eddon, known afterwards as the Cold March. Arcanostrum brokers peace accord; Kalsaar retains Rhond, Hurn. General outrage at treaty.

~530 AB: First caravans from the Far West appear in Ju’el, Eddon.

562 AB: The Hannite Wars begin. Akral, Eddon, Veris declare war on Kalsaar. Attempt to liberate Rhond, Hurn. King Hymrek V of Veris betrays coalition after offered riches by Kalsaari Emperor. War lasts five years, Eddon defeats Kalsaar at Battle of Illin Bridge. Akral lays siege to and destroys Veris, occupies territory. Hurn and Rhond rescinded to Hannite clergy.

578 AB: Illin founded as buffer state between West and Kalsaari. Partitions of Illin formed by Arcanostrum magi.

620 AB: Veris, with tacit help of Ihyn, rises up against Akral, gaining independence. Akral attempts to regain lost territory. Wars and border disputes last throughout 7th century.

681 AB: Knights of Benethor detect the formation of Hordes in Roon, request aid from kingdoms of the West. No help is sent.

687 AB: Nurlings surge out of the Dragonspine, drawn out by increased mining activity. Nurlings declare a Oodnar their King, overwhelm and capture Galaspin, Freegate, and attack Saldor. Eretherian forces exterminate the Nurling menace.  War lasts seven years, known as the War of the Goblin King.

699 AB: The Second Arahkan War begins. The arahk, under warlord Ushkazail, eventually crush the Knights of Benethor and sweep through Ridderhof, raping, pillaging, and destroying everything. Long and bloody campaign against Benethoran partisans begins. War lasts 185 years.

713 AB: The Nine Queens of Kalsaar reveal their magical power, declaring the Empire the realm of the new Warlock Queens. Emperor is little more than a political figurehead. Defenders of the Balance are ejected from the Empire.

717 AB: War begins, as Kalsaar attempts once again to invade the West. War is brief, as the Kalsaari armies cannot take Illin before the siege is broken by Verisi reinforcements.

730 AB: The Builder’s Method of the Arcane Arts is founded in Eretheria.

750 AB: Akral fights a number of territorial wars with Eddon, Eretheria, and Veris that flare up and wane over the next thirty years. Ends with massive naval engagement in the Gulf of Eddon that sees the King of Akral, Tolion XI, sunk to the bottom by Verisi pirates.

884 AB: Handras kills Ushkazail in mighty duel, arahk thrown into chaos. Benethoran remnants push arahk back into Roon. Second Arahkan War ends.

1115 AB: Hordes develop in Roon. Benethor/Ridderhof begin unprecedented military expansion. Reinforcements sent from as far away as Eddon.

1117 AB: Third Arahkan War begins—unparalleled in brutality. Arahk under Ashkazain smash into fortified Benethor and Ridderhof. War grinds on for fifty years—bloodiest war since Second Mage Wars. Ridderhof falters, Benethor is surrounded.

1122 AB: Hadrigal Varner leads Knights of Benethor in cunning attack on Ashkazain’s main force, routing the army. Enraged by the defeat, Ashkazain’s lieutenants kill him while he sleeps. Resulting chaos allows Benethor to drive arahk back into Roon. Sorcerous Order of Medicine founded by Caddavain Ustair to attempt to relieve suffering of people and soldiers.

1156 AB: Galaspin colony of Dellor founded. Settlers attracted to the mineral rich hills.

1224 AB: Second Queens War begins. Kalsaar invades utilizing new floating ‘war bastions’. Manage to lay waste to much of Illin, Rhond before defeat. All War Bastions toppled from sky; flying vessels declared ‘impractical’ by sorcerous scholars. War ends after three years.

1300 AB: Revolt in Dellor. Galaspiner troops driven out. Region declares independence.

1377 AB: War College of Ramisett founded, first Battlemagi trained. Benethor and Ridderhof experiment with airships as troop transports.

1382 AB: After centuries of cold aggression, Akral attacks Veris. Ihyn declares its support for Akral, event touches off the Akrallian Wars. Ihyn and Akral join forces against Veris, Eretheria, and Eddon. Akral seeks to expand its borders to encompass Eretheria and Veris. Eventually, Galaspin and Illin are encompassed in the war. Only Saldor and Rhond remain neutral. War lasts for six years.

1388 AB: After years of stalemate, warring nations meet in Eretheria and sign the Treaty of Syrin, establishing the Syrinian Alliance. First centralized governmental structure in West since fall of the Warlock Kings.

1403 AB: Hobgoblin Gurgbossaht Thark raises massive army to conquer the ‘soft’ lands of the west. Called “The Arahkann War that Wasn’t,” fighting lasts for ten years before finally the hobs are defeated at the Battle of Whistler Bridge. Battle is won by the Arcanostrum Archmage Estrina, early disciple of the Vetan’nir school. She later becomes Keeper of the Balance.

1509 AB: Hordes begin to form in Roon. Benethor, grown complacent behind its new defenses, fails to act. Udent of Semhoth begins training militias and is accused of starting an uprising.

1512 AB: Arahk under Ogramair start the Fourth Arahkan War. Caught off guard, the Twin Kingdoms panic. Knights of Benethor are slaughtered, Benethor is sacked, Ramisett is besieged. Udent’s militas hold the southern shores of the Harvendy from attack, defend Ridderhof and Obrinport, gradually drive disorganized hordes back. Ogramair dies due to freak accident, war ends in under eight years with comparatively minimal destruction.

1520-1575 AB: The Arcanostrum relaxes certain key prohibitions upon sorcerous practice, leading to tentative spread of sorcerous artifacts to the common people. Defenders of the Balance deployed more widely to combat misuse of sorcery. Saldor gains economic power.

1582 AB: Perwynnon, self-proclaimed Heir to the Falcon Throne, begins to consolidate power in Eretheria, becoming that nation’s first King in 1500 years.

1583 AB: Kalsaar invades Illin in bloodiest West/South conflict yet. Conrad Varner, High General of the West (and Prince of Benethor), turns the tide at the Charge of Atrisia and leads the Glorious March, ending with the Sack of Tasis. Kalsaaris surrender, but with key provisions. War lasts 3 years.

1584 AB: Banric Sahand, Mad Prince of Dellor, invades Galaspin while the Galaspin Army is fighting in Illin and Rhond. Conquers most of the Trell Valley. His invasion of Saldor is stopped at Calassa by the combined efforts of Conrad Varner’s armies and those of Perwynnon. Sahand is routed and driven back to Dellor.

1585 AB: Called “The Fall of Kings” – Perwynnon is assassinated and Prince Landar the Holy of Illin vanishes. Regions plunged into political turmoil.

1587 AB: Delkatar ascends the Seat in Saldor, becoming Keeper Polimeux II. Seriously relaxes controls on magecraft. West enjoys economic and technological boom.

1590 AB: First Spirit Engine tracks laid from Saldor to Galaspin. Network eventually expands to link Akral to Freegate and back.

1612 AB: Present Day.

 

 

 

God Help Disney’s Outcast

Clearly it is topsy-turvy day.

Clearly it is topsy-turvy day.

No, this post isn’t about The Black Cauldron. That wasn’t a good movie, it just had a magic sword and skeletons and we saw it when we were seven or eight years old. No, rather this post is going to be about what I consider to be one of Disney’s most underrated animated features, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I figure if I’m going to rant about overrated movies (see previous post), I may as well mix in some positivity, too, and keep the tone even.

Anyway, nobody saw Hunchback, and it’s something of a shame. While I’m not here to claim that it is the best Disney feature ever (and it certainly isn’t quite that), I am going to defend it as being a very good or, at least, a notable and ambitious one. Because it is all those things, you see – notable, ambitious, and very good.

The Problems

People who hate this movie love to harp on the fact that it ‘tromps all over Victory Hugo’. This accusation, if stripped of all vitriol, is strictly accurate – the film changes the story significantly to fit its purpose. Most notably, the ending is not a tragic one. However, Disney isn’t really telling the same story Hugo is, anyway, and tragedy is never their aim here. Hunchback is a story about accepting and embracing difference and diversity, and that it does. Indeed, I’d say it does a better job with its central theme than The Lion King does with its own (adolescence and maturity) and, indeed, I would go further to say that the Lion King would be the movie better suited to a tragic end. That, though, is an argument for a different post.

Even beyond the lament that this two hour movie does not manage to encapsulate a 500 page French romantic novel, the other problem is that the movie seems to shift in tone rapidly. On the one hand, you have themes of genocide, lust, inhuman cruelty, and isolation and then, on the other, you’ve got wisecracking gargoyles and pithy dialogue from Kevin Klein. The shift is jarring and sometimes too much. I would argue, though, that this particular critique is not in any way unique to this particular Disney film, but rather present in all of them. The only difference is that the themes most other Disney films attempt to tackle are significantly less intense and, therefore, the juxtaposition is less obviously obnoxious. For example, Mushu (of Mulan) is every bit as idiotic as the gargoyles, as is Timon and Poomba (The Lion King), as is Jacques and Gus (Cinderella), as is the little hummingbird and racoon in Pocahontas. They are silly comic relief and, while they are often better managed than in Hunchback, I’d argue not substantially so. It’s just that we have trouble accepting that people might tell lame jokes while some lunatic judge is burning people alive inside their homes.

I would argue that Disney’s primary problem with this film is that they didn’t go far enough, honestly. They wussed out on telling a really, really powerful story for fear of terrifying children. This is a sensible fear, I suppose, but I think that Disney underestimates children (and always has). I think they could have cut the silly gargoyles and made an even better movie. All that said, the movie they did make is a fairly impressive work, especially considering the strictures under which Disney movies are forced to operate.

Ambitious Theme

The movie is *also* pretty to look at.

The movie is *also* pretty to look at.

As adults, we are aware that the world is full of horrible things happening to innocent people for horrible reasons (I gesture vaguely in the direction of the Middle East). We live in a world full of hatred, fear, bigotry, and violence. Few Disney movies have ever bothered addressing this or, if they do, they have cleaned it up and dumbed it down to the point where the message is empty and meaningless, made to play poor second fiddle to some uninspired love story. Hunchback doesn’t do this. Its violence is unapologetic; its villains are not just evil, but realistically evil. This film explores racism better than Pocahontas, explores the evils of patriarchy better than Mulan, and has a main character who copes with his own self-loathing far more convincingly than Simba in The Lion King.

I’m not going to give a synopsis here, but I will mention a few points of note:

  1. Our villain, barely five-minutes in, is about to commit infanticide because a baby is both ugly and a member of an oppressed minority. He is only stopped by the threat of God’s judgment, and resolves instead to support the boy by keeping him in exile and telling him he’s a horrible monster for his whole life. If you think crap like this doesn’t actually happen, turn on the news.
  2. The movie unflinchingly examines the importance of looks (both beauty and ugliness) in how society treats you. Esmerelda is molested and (basically) sexually assaulted. Quasimodo is subjected to incredible cruelty by the general population in one of the hardest to watch scenes in a Disney animated feature.
  3. The villain plans genocide. The climax of the movie deals with him trying to burn gypsies alive, one after another, in front of an audience (wow). It shows children the wrongness of treating different people as less than you, and does so both powerfully and accessibly.
  4. There is a distinct appeal to the divine in this move (obviously – it’s a cathedral!), but it is worth noting that this is the only Disney movie I can think of that overtly discusses religion in both its positive and negative senses. The cathedral is both a place of punishment and isolation as well as protection and salvation. That is a pretty nuanced and (I feel) pretty accurate way of thinking about organized religion.

Artistry

See? Pretty.

See? Pretty.

Beyond that, the film is beautiful. The animation is spectacular and contributes to the themes. In the opening number, the cathedral of Notre Dame is presented as a character, and the imagery that surrounds it supports its role as central moral axis of the film. Now, in the absence of any other substance, this might fall flat. However, the cathedral and medieval Paris serves as an excellent backdrop to the difficult themes already discussed and the filmmakers know this, and they use it. When Frollo trembles before “the eyes, the very eyes of Notre Dame”, the effect is heart-stopping. We simultaneously are given a glorious musical and visual image, but also gain greater insight into Frollo’s character – a man living in terror of his own dark soul. At the end, when boiling lead (or oil, but I assume lead, since that would make more sense) is pouring from the rainspouts of the cathedral, the religious imagery and themes of the film could not be more clear or more harrowing.

The music, likewise, is sophisticated and interesting (well, mostly – a couple songs are just there to be happy, and I refer you to the tone problems the movie has as described above). “God Bless the Outcasts” and “The Bells of Notre Dame” are particularly good.

Nuanced Characters (well, a few)

Phoebus and Esmerelda are pretty stock characters, I will agree. Esmerelda is the more interesting of the two and has better lines, but she’s still just the ‘feisty gypsy woman’ for all that, and Demi Moore’s dialogue delivery is a bit wooden. That, though, is more than made up for by the protagonist and antagonist of the film, Quasi and Frollo. Quasi is very well drawn and his gradual climb to self-confidence is inspiring to watch, primarily because he doesn’t realize he’s doing it until the end which, to my mind, is how most of us change anyway – without self awareness or that crystal clear moment of epiphany. Then there’s Frollo. He’s a simply fantastic villain, and no mistake. Evil, twisted, and actually understandable. History is full of his analogues – a man so convinced of his self-righteousness that he becomes a monster and, even as he realizes it, cannot and will not do anything to change. He prays for help but asks for the wrong things. He is a victim of his own bigotry and lust, and this only makes him more evil. He’s great fun to watch, even as he makes your skin crawl.

The idea is often advanced that this stuff is too much for children – that they can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t understand it at their age. I think that idea is wrong. Children can watch this movie and understand enough – Frollo is cruel and evil while Quasimodo is good and kind. The heroes in this film treat everybody (even Gypsies) kindly and believe everybody deserves the same chance. Does this miss a lot of the overtones and deeper themes? Yes, of course, but so what? It is enough for them  to see it and maybe, just maybe, set some seeds in their mind that grow into the kind of things we want our kids to be: even-handed, just, inclusive, and merciful.

 

The Fifth Element Should Be Boron

If you haven’t seen Luc Besson’s Lucy, you are using at least 10% of your brain. It looks like one of the stupidest movies of the year and, indeed, this review by Christopher Orr of the Atlantic seems to confirm my suspicions. If you like reading exhaustive pans of foolish movie ideas, by all means read it. Otherwise, just pretend Lucy never happened and go on with your life. It has all the hallmarks of an overly simplistic, music-video approach to a concept that is much better understood than the filmmakers seem to have considered and is, in fact, not really as interesting as they would have us believe. To borrow a phrase from my friend Whitaker, it’s a dumb person’s idea of a smart movie.

If that phrase and Luc Besson seem to belong together, there is a reason for that: he’s done this before. Indeed, I’ve found most of Besson’s work to be, at best, ‘shallow and watchable.’ It only goes downhill from there. His best movies barely manage to make sense and yet, for some reason, some of them are adored and held up as classics. Chief among these is The 5th Element. It has been described as a ‘tour de force’ and ‘wonderfully entertaining’ and, well, I have to disagree. The 5th Element is one of those movies that is good until you think about it at all, at which point it becomes terrible. Of course, as Roger Ebert said in his review:

We are watching “The Fifth Element” not to think, but to be delighted.

So, fine. The trouble is that the ‘delight’ offered by this film is of the most fleeting and shallow variety. Pacific Rim has more depth than this, and that is saying something, let me tell you.

This looks cool, granted

This looks cool, granted

What It Does Well

The 5th Element is a visual masterpiece – I won’t deny it that. The visual effects were stunning for their time and still hold up today, and the costume and set design is interesting and innovative. The most (and only) thing the movie can offer is a series of stunning visual displays. Seen for the first time, they do, in fact, stun. The problem with effects-as-story, though, is that they don’t last or make a deep emotional impression (which I discuss here in greater depth).

For all that, the effects make the film watchable, which is as high as it can really go. Yes, it is watchable. Yes, it is basically entertaining. However, it’s the cinematic equivalent of cotton candy – brightly colored, weightless, sweet, and wholly lacking in substance.

Now, let’s discuss its flaws, shall we?

The Plot Makes No Sense

So, basically what we have here is an ancient evil that shows up every 5000 years to ‘destroy life’. This evil is a big fiery/dark ball of (something) that floats (somewhere in space). The only way to stop it is four magic rocks and the Fifth Element – a girl who is the ‘perfect being’. Said girl is blown up on her way to Earth along with the Space Penguins who are bringing her there. Modern science rebuilds her, though. Then she escapes. She meets a cab driver. They go on a mission to a cruise ship to get the rocks from a singing squid-woman. Then, it’s back to Earth to stop the ultimate evil, which presumably would have been successful had no one had any matches or Leeloo refused to

This is my exact expression when considering the plot

This is my exact expression when considering the plot

make-out with Bruce Willis. The defeated evil becomes a new moon. So, what is wrong with this? Where to begin:

  1. If you’re the Space Penguins taking the World’s Only Hope back to where it needs to fight the Final Battle, wouldn’t you hire an escort of some kind? Maybe put a gun on your ship? *Something?*
  2. Why are people helping the thing that will Destroy All Life? Aren’t they alive? The Evil gives no sign it plans on leaving survivors, so, what the hell is Zorg’s excuse?
  3. Since the Mangalores blew up the Space Penguin ship so easily, why don’t they just blow up the cruise ship, too? Why bother with the whole hostage situation nonsense?
  4. So, if every time the evil is defeated it makes a new moon, how do they know it will come back in 5000 years since it only seems to have been here once. You need two times at least to establish a pattern. If it’s been here more than once before, where are all the other moons? How did life survive the first time through in order to tell the tale?
  5. If the great Evil is going to destroy all Life, why does it only go to Earth? Do all the other planets not count? Is it just going to kill planets one at a time? Seems inefficient. Seems like it could just dodge the 5th Element and kill all the *other* life in the universe first.
  6. Why does the government need to suborn a radio sweepstakes to get Dallas on the space cruise? Got to be an easier way.
  7. The Blue Diva can’t give the rocks over *before* the concert? What is so damned important about the concert, anyway?
  8. So the advanced Space Penguins still use Earth/Air/Fire/Water as some kind of elemental guideposts? How the hell did they end up with spaceships?

I could go on. And on. And on.

But Seriously, Nothing Makes Sense

It isn’t just the plot, though – it’s also every single solitary aspect of the world. Well, okay, with one or two notable examples: First, the multipass (makes sense) and, second, the fact that Rudy Rod is so damned annoying and does a radio show (also makes sense, considering the distances data needs to be transmitted and, generally speaking, how

No. Just no.

No. Just no.

annoying pop culture figures are in real life). That’s it. Everything else makes no sense. To enumerate:

  1. Flying cars are a bad idea and probably won’t ever happen unless everybody is on autopilot, and even not then.
  2. The cops seem content to blow up their whole city to pull over an errant taxi driver and, by the way, why do their cars have a million machine guns?
  3. Are there only five people in the world government?
  4. How the hell does the president know or care what this random priest thinks?
  5. That naval officer who fired his missiles when the president was expressing his doubts would be court martialed.
  6. Why do people ooze oil from their heads when talking with the Evil?
  7.  Where the hell is everything, anyway? Like, where is Earth in relation to the Evil in relation to the Diva’s cruise ship? It doesn’t seem to make any physical sense.
  8. So, when the Blue Diva said she’d bring the stones to Earth, what she really meant was “I’m going on this cruise, right, and you can meet me there at some point when I’m kinda-sorta near Earth, but not exactly.”
  9. Why the hell is there a dude on a blimp selling things outside a window? Isn’t he going to be hit by a bus?
  10. Where does all the crap in Dallas’s apartment go when it slides into the walls, seeing how it must maintain the same volume since Leeloo wasn’t crushed when she went up in the shower.
  11. Are you trying to tell me that a being that can pummel a dozen armed aliens into unconsciousness/death is going to be shocked and appalled at the existence of war? Holy hypocrisy, Batman!

The Characters are Flat

Yes, somehow, he is the most interesting character.

Yes, somehow, he is the most interesting character.

There is not a single interesting or nuanced character in this film. Not one. Everybody is a caricature of something. There is no character arc for anybody. Dallas is basically the same guy he was at the beginning of the movie, except now he has a girlfriend. Leeloo never learns to talk like an adult and never reconciles her horror for war with her own violent tendencies. The President never figures out what’s going on. Zorg is a jerk and then dies. The Priest is just the Priest and has no other definitive characteristics I can name. Ruby Rod is basically Shaggy from Scooby Doo, except with confidence and his own radio show. Zzzzzzzz….

I could go on, but I think you get my point. This movie does not deserve the hype it has received over the years. It is pretty and (kinda) fun, but ultimately pointless and nonsensical. As Luc Besson’s best movie, it goes to show the limitations the director labors under – he is a visual master, but his stories are the stuff of a fifteen-year-old’s chapbook. I should know – I’ve got stories like this in my fifteen-year-old chapbooks. They’re not good, guys. Come to think of it, they’re a lot like The 5th Element.

Alandar: A Brief History of Sorcery, Part 1 (The Energies)

The Art – known as ‘magic’ or ‘sorcery’ – is of utmost importance to life in Alandar. Indeed, one cannot separate the very stuff of sorcery from the very substance of the world itself – they are one in the same, and one who has power over the former has, by default, power over the latter.

Basic Principles

dark_wizard_revis_by_capprottiSorcery, it should be noted, describes the substance more than it does the act. If something is of a sorcerous nature, that means it is behaving in a particular way or made up of a particular substance. The practice of sorcery is known as the Art, and is divided into two parts: the High Arts and the Low Arts. The term ‘magic’ is a superstitious word, applied by those who do not understand the powers that shape their own world to explain what they witness as being miraculous or unknowable. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. The most important fact about the Art (and the most violently guarded secret in history) is that anyone can master it. Anyone. So long as an individual possesses the proper discipline, work-ethic, intelligence, and wisdom, they can learn to become a wizard at the least and a full mage at the best. This is because sorcery is not some kind of moral reward or genetically transmitted power – it is simply another word for discussing the substance of the universe itself.

The Five Energies

The stuff of sorcery is understood by separating it into five different energies which, by their combination, comprise the physical and spiritual world that surrounds us. They are very broad, very complex concepts and should not be understood simplistically, nor should they be judged by moral concerns. The Ether is no more ‘evil’ than the Lumen can be, nor is the Fey more destructive than the Dweomer, per se. The world, as you should know by now, is a complicated and contradictory place. The energies are as follows:

The Lumen is the power of growth, life, and light. It has affinity with the number seven, the color white, and is commonly associated with ‘positive’ feelings and emotions, though this is a simplistic view. It is perhaps best understood as the power of connectivity and community – of how multiple parts work together to benefit a whole. This explains how it echoes with growth (the life force of our body growing by incorporating materials into itself to benefit the whole), kindness (being kind to one another enhances cooperation and benefits society), and so on. It is most strongly found in healthy soil or among plants and trees, and so has become associated with the Earth, even though it is hardly limited to that arena.

The Ether is the Lumen’s opposing force – the power of death, decay, and darkness. Its affinities are the number thirteen, the color black, and is commonly associated with ‘negative’ feelings and emotions like falsehood, deception, and cruelty. Like the Lumen, its true nature is rather more nuanced. The Ether is the power of solitude or self-interest – how individual members cease to operate in conjunction for the benefit of said individuals. In this way, it has connections with the Fey just as the Lumen has connections with the Dweomer, but it should be noted that other aspects of the Ether (lies, plots, binding) have much in common with the Dweomer, and so we must not simplify the world into a dualistic paradigm. The Ether is all about caring for the self, and hence decay and death (where things cease to operate in concert and, rather, dissociate themselves and break down into their constituent units). It is solitary, and therefore has affinity with lies and treachery and stealth – acts that benefit individuals who act outside social order. Due to its mysterious and oft-mercurial nature, the Ether has become associated with water – rivers, oceans, lakes, etc. – and is very powerful in those arenas.

The Dweomer is the power of order, stability, and reason. It has affinity with the number three, the color blue, and is considered the ‘rational’ power, though both the Ether and Lumen have their rational aspects. The Dweomer, however, is more pure – it is completely lacking in emotional content. At its most basic level, the Dweomer exists as the lack of motion – rigid, unchanging, sensible, and controlling. It is, for this reason, most easily channeled in cold environments – a lack of motion among most aspects of nature is common at lower temperatures, thanks to the increased dweomeric presence there. Though often considered a ‘good’ force when compared with its opposite, the Fey, this is easily found to be false by simply considering the behavior of tyrants and slavers – chains are dweomeric in nature more than they are anything else. The Dweomer is associated with the open sky and the wind, which seems contradictory at first blush, but must be understood in context: the sky, though in motion, is an orderly thing, as the passage of the stars and moon can attest, as can the rigid nature of the seasons. Even the winds are predictable, as sailors can attest, and often any variation is due to unusual spikes in temperature, which leads us to a discussion of the fourth energy.

The Fey is the power of chaos, madness, and complete freedom. It has affinity with the number one, the color red, and is considered to be the power of destruction, though that isn’t strictly fair. The Fey is pure emotion and chaos – absolute freedom of motion. This has the side effect of often being destructive – the Fey knocks down what the Deweomer builds – but it is worth noting that the Fey’s behavior often leads to growth and needed change (in other words, its destruction leads to the Lumen’s growth or the Ether’s decay, and often both), and in this sense is both essential and very positive. The Fey, unsurprisingly, is associated with fire – the destroyer, but also the giver of warmth and life.

The Astral is the fifth energy and requires special mention. For long ages, the existence of the Astral was unknown or misunderstood, because it does not, in and of itself, do much of anything. The Astral provides the medium through which all of the rest of the powers move and operate. The Astral is present everywhere, and is rarely more or less present in any one location (the ley lines excepted, but in those places there is more of everything, so that stands to reason). Were it not for the Astral, the world would cease to exist as the four opposing powers would cancel one another out in a colossal explosion. In practical terms, the Astral seems to be the chief governor of Time and Space and (arguably) fate and causality. Though technically colorless, gray has become its associated color and it has a demonstrated affinity with the number five. The Astral, though probably the most important energy, is the least visible and hardest to manipulate. Only the great magi of the Arcanostrum have had much luck with it and, indeed, this is probably why they are the current rulers of the sorcerous world.

The High Arts Vs the Low Arts

As already alluded to, the work of the magician (put crudely, but for the sake of clarity), is separated into practitioners of the High Arts and Low Arts. The High Arts are the great works of sorcery itself. It is the direct manipulation of the five energies through incantation, focus, and ritual. It is very powerful and very flexible and is the source of everything we commonly understand as sorcery. Indeed, it is these acts that only a ‘sorcerer’ (in the technical sense) can perform.

The Low Arts, conversely, are those arts that manipulate the five energies indirectly, through materials and mediums that shape the ley of the universe. The ley, by the by, is a generic term referring to the general disposition of sorcerous energy in an area. So, for instance, if someone were to say a place has a ‘dweomeric’ ley, it would mean there is a preponderance of dweomeric energy present and, therefore, proportionally less Fey energy. In any event, practicioners of the Low Arts include alchemists (who work together chemicals and materials to create sorcerous concoctions), thaumaturges (who distill purer sorcerous energies from the universe through careful scientific processes), warlocks (who construct items that channel sorcerous energy into machine-work), and so on. Though they may go by a variety of professional titles (witch, talismancer, etc.), the vast majority of Low Arts practitioners fall broadly into the preceeding three categories. While certainly important and powerful in their own way, there is little that the Low Arts can accomplish that the High Arts cannot do also, but more powerfully and more quickly (though at much greater risk to the sorcerer). The Low Arts, however, require somewhat less schooling and are far less risky. Accordingly, practitioners of the Low Arts are much more common in society, especially here in the West.

To Be Continued…

The Last Revenge of One-Eyed Willie

The common image of the famed pirate Wilfredo Guzman, or “One-Eyed Willie”, is that of a ruthless and cunning buccaneer, defying the English fleet and amassing a grand fortune only to be discovered centuries later in the caves near Astoria, Oregon. What history tells us about the man, however, paints a significantly different picture. As Willy’s ship, Inferno, flees up the California coast in 1632, pursued by a Spanish (not English) fleet sent to capture him, we come to understand that this fearsome pirate was a desperate man on the run and just barely in control of his crew. The acts that resulted in his death, made so famous by their sheer perversity, merely underscore this fact.

Eyepatch_goonies20To understand Wilfredo Guzman, one also has to understand the Spain of the early 17th century. Despite the wealth of silver and gold crossing the Atlantic into royal coffers, Spain was a nation in significant debt, having taken on significant loans to pursue wars against both the English and Dutch. Though the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) bolstered Spanish confidence in their armies, the Castilian economy essentially collapsed under the weight of its debt in 1627. Many portions of the army (and navy) were forced to pay themselves, as tax collection was fruitless and the Spanish armies too far flung.

Here, we can see where Guzman fits. A Spanish naval officer by diction and evident training, he likely found himself without the means to maintain his ship or pay for his crew. Accordingly, driven by a bitterness that we can only speculate upon, he and his ship went rogue, turned to piracy, and began to raid Spain’s own treasure fleets. As has been extracted from Guzman’s own log, he was “taking his due” – payment for service that he had given the crown, but that the crown had refused to pay for.

Spanish captains in the 17th century possessed top secret knowledge, very much akin to naval captains of today. In the 17th century, before the development of longitude and good maps, crossing the Pacific Ocean could be a suicidal venture. The Spanish had discovered the ideal latitude for crossing the ocean without starving to death, and this latitude was a state secret entrusted only to its naval captains. This, along with working knowledge of how Spanish treasure fleets operated, their common routes, and the rest of it, was the primary factor in “One-Eyed Willy’s” success. He was a threat to the Spanish crown unlike any other – one of their own, turned against them – so it is hardly surprising that Phillip IV commissioned a fleet of five ships of the line to hunt Guzman down.

Guzman’s own log records how they finally caught him. Taking on stores in California prior to heading west to raid in the Philippines, the five Spanish vessels found Guzman and Inferno unprepared for a fight. That they escaped prior to being caught and destroyed at anchor is a testament to Guzman’s crew, but without sufficient stores to cross the Pacific and the Spanish approaching from the south, his direction of flight was clear – north, along the coast. He had to know where it would all end, as did his crew.

Any study of piracy during its heyday in the 17th and early 18th centuries shows how precarious it was to be a captain of a vessel of cutthroats and thieves. While Guzman may have begun his pirate adventures with a crew of loyal Spanish sailors, by 1632 the dynamic had changed. Loyal, God-fearing Spanish subjects had been largely replaced with the kind of mercenaries and reavers suited to this lifestyle. If Guzman set sail with a crew of loyal subjects, he now found himself the master of a crew of jackals. What’s more, Guzman was notoriously stingy with Spanish gold and silver, stating in his log that “I cannot bear to see this coin spent by so lowly an example of men as God has seen fit to inflict upon the Earth.” It may be that Guzman was hording the wealth scored from Spanish galleons for some grander purpose – perhaps even as a means of buying his way back into the good graces of the King – but his crew knew he was holding out on them, and they weren’t happy about it. At the prospect of facing a hopeless flight north, one can imagine their enthusiasm for Guzman and his leadership waned even further.

It was probably a demand of the crew, then, that Guzman attempt to take shelter in the cave near Astoria. It was a desperate tactic, to be sure – akin to backing oneself into an alley and pointing your lone gun at the entrance. Due to the comparatively shallow draft of Inferno, only it could negotiate the waters near the inlet, so any bombardment from the Spanish would have to be conducted over long range and Guzman’s crew, being the better gunners, might have stood a chance of outshooting them. There was an even better chance, of course, of the Spanish failing to see them at all and merely passing by. Again, Guzman’s log explains how it all came to pass:

August 9, 1632

No sooner have we dropped anchor than some portion of the men decide to abandon ship. Led by Marstrom and Diego. I will not permit the boats to be lowered, not in the face of the enemy who, even now, was less than a mile distant on the other side of the point. That fool Diego took a shot at me. Killed him and the rest, but it was too late. The report must have been heard by the Spanish. They came to finish us.

The Spanish, seeing Willie holed up in a cave on a distant and savage shore, saw a better solution than sinking the Inferno. They merely blew up the cave, collapsing it on top of him, and left him for dead.

Fate, though, had spared the ship actual damage. Guzman and his mutinous crew were simply trapped. This is where the legend really takes off. Long has it been supposed that One-Eyed Willy and his crew spent years thusly entombed, burrowing like moles in the earth. This, however, seems unlikely given the state of their provision and the onset of winter a few months after their capture. Likely, the actual story is more compact. The natural cave systems surrounding ‘Willie’s Inlet’ would have already been intact and escape would have been a mere matter of exploration and the occasional application of gunpowder (a substance they had no lack of). But even when gaining the surface, where to then? Orgeon was well beyond any European settlement or trading post. Guzman and his crew faced a wilderness full of savages and wild animals as well as a cold northwestern winter. They had no ship to escape with and very little likelihood of encountering any such ship in the near future. They were marooned, as surely as if they had been left on a desert island.

It was in the name of defense that Guzman convinced his crew to construct the elaborate series of booby traps that protected the way to his ship. Someone aboard – possibly Guzman, but more likely one of his more trustworthy officers – was an engineer by training, and so the great work began, probably taking some months and probably lasting through the winter. Exposure, disease, and starvation probably took its share of the crew, which likely suited Guzman just fine, as his plan was never survival. He writes in his log that he would rather die than be reduced to living ‘in a hut with savages’ and swears that he would ‘sail once more’. This, incidentally, was Guzman’s last entry in his log, dated in late March, 1633.

By this point, the map had been made, the key fashioned, and they had been allowed to escape from the tunnels of the pirates – and on purpose, mind you. Guzman wanted to be found, and nowhere is this more evident than in the quality of the map itself – a map drawn not in the scratchy hand of a buccaneer, but in the careful, meticulous detail of a naval officer. It included sounding depths of the surrounding waters, a near perfect representation of the Astoria coastline, and all the other indications that it was Guzman’s map to a treasure that he had no need to find himself, as he lived with it.

The winter must have made it clear to Guzman that he would never sail Inferno under his own direction again. Too many crew had either died or abandoned him and, very likely, the last few tried to make off with the treasure, and so Guzman and his inner circle killed them all. It is they that were found in the captain’s cabin, gathered around the table, piled with gold. These last vestiges of Spanish nobility, possibly his lieutenants from his naval days. Analysis of the cups on the table implies they may have drank poison together – one last drink. One wonders what they discussed. They must have been aware of Guzman’s plan at that point – his final laugh in the face of his royal Spanish enemies.

5fb7da56eff6e40f935274e4bcb42b65That final slap of defiance, however, seems to have come far later than Guzman probably suspected. It was not until 1985 that a few of my friends and I finally gave Willy that moment he wanted: the Inferno sailing out from its supposed tomb, proud and beautiful, in defiance of a Spanish king now several centuries dead.

~Professor Michael Walsh, PhD, Portland State University

Astoria, 2003

Your Evil Henchmen Recruiting Service, Simplified!

Dear General Mortissimo,

Thank you for contacting Financial Operations and Underwriting Limited (FOUL). What follows is our full array of henchmen recruitment services, tailored specifically to your needs. For information on our other services, we refer you to our introductory material and catalogs. Also, as you intend to hire personnel through us, we recommend inspecting our insurance options, as well.

Of course, here at FOUL we hold our client’s confidentiality sacrosanct. Therefore, a team of Type-5C Assassin Drones are currently dispatched to your location, using the encrypted GPS transponder hidden in this document (don’t bother trying to find it – you haven’t the time). Please be certain to destroy this document within five minutes or expect to have your skull bisected by an infrared laser. Well, that might be a bit dramatic – we cannot predict, with any accuracy, exactly which parts of you the drones will bisect. In any event, destroy this document and everything will be fine. If you wish to purchase Type-5C Assassin Drones (or the 6C variant, assuming you have a penchant for napalm), please review the Robots section.

Thank you, and thank you for choosing FOUL!

Now, on to our Henchmen options:

 

Please note: coordinated uniforms are not provided. Please refer to our catalog.

Please note: coordinated uniforms are not provided. Please refer to our catalog.

Goons

Our most affordable option, FOUL has cultivated good reputations with a number of prison systems, underworld crime syndicates, and disreputable orphanages to supply you with all the muscle-bound dim-witted goons you could possibly require. Said goons are guaranteed to be physically fit with the exception of one in ten goons, who we designate as being ‘fat but strong’. All Thugs are able to read at a third grade level and a basic working knowledge of firearms and basic fisticuffs. Please note that marksmanship and tactics are not emphasized in the average thug’s weekend-long training course, and thugs are not selected on their attention spans, lateral thinking ability, cleanliness, or self-control.

That said, they are very affordable and, given their undesirable social status, won’t be missed if they happen to fall into a death trap or you need to feed your sharks.

 

We do not train them to pose like that. They all seem to do it on their own.

We do not train them to pose like that. They all seem to do it on their own.

Ninjas

Significantly more expensive than your garden variety thugs, our Ninjas are hired from the premiere dojos and secret martial arts societies from across the globe. They are guaranteed to be 100% obedient and are skilled in acrobatics, martial arts, and stealth. Please note that all FOUL-backed ninjas are contractually obligated to wear black pajamas at all times, even when going to the bathroom or operating electronic equipment. They are also forbidden from using any firearms of any kind, no matter how practical or dire the situation. Failure on your employees part to adhere to these restrictions may lead to the loss of your deposit.

Though ninjas are expensive and very talented, we should stress that there are limits to their abilities. FOUL-backed ninjas may be unable to do the following:

  • walk on water
  • defeat a ninja in white pajamas
  • speak your language (translators may be hired)
  • wear actual shoes
  • shake hands (they will insist on bowing)
  • catch bullets

We assure you that FOUL trainers are laboring tirelessly to amend these flaws. You have no ideas how many ninjas we’ve shot trying to fix that last one.

 

We cannot guarantee your robots won't turn against you. Please refer to our insurance offerings.

We cannot guarantee your robots won’t turn against you. Please refer to our insurance offerings.

Robots

FOUL has within its network a wide variety of very talented mad scientists, rogue AIs, and idealistic-but-morally-suspect industrialists who construct a variety of killer robots. We can sell you robots that look like people, robots that eat people, robots that used to be people, or people so robotic you’ll never know the difference. Robots are guaranteed to follow your every command until, inevitably, they turn against you (please refer to our insurance packet). That said, they are well worth the high price, considering that there is no need to feed or clothe them after your purchase (note: feeding and clothing your henchmen after hire is in no way required, but is suggested to get the most out of your minions). Any robots that malfunction within 30 days of purchase may be returned in their original packaging for a complete refund.

Note: due to extreme demand, all spider-shaped robots are on backorder.

Note: none of our robots transform into cars, other vehicles, or construction equipment. Please do not ask.

 

 

We guarantee all sense of humor will have been excised upon delivery!

We guarantee all sense of humor will have been excised upon delivery!

Administrative Personnel

Of course, no evil empire would run without hordes of lab assistants, accountants, shift managers, and so on. These we hire from the general employment pool, but we screen carefully, making certain only the recommend the least pleasant, most obedient, and most odious examples of humanity we can find. Many of our workers hail from such illustrious dens of misery as the IRS, the DMV, and HR departments the world over. Pay is necessarily high, and we warn all customers that one can reasonably expect our personnel to embezzle no more than 15% of any money that passes through their hands. Of course, should the employee exceed this value, their contract stipulates termination will be ‘sudden and often fatal’, though the sudden aspect of that is at your discretion.

As of this moment, the Floozy and Eye Candy division of our Henchmen Hiring branch has been folded into this one, largely for tax purposes. If you are in the market for muscle-bound man-slaves or big-breasted bimbos, you can also find them here. We only hire the least perceptive and curious as well as the most physically attractive specimens, so your satisfaction is guaranteed.

Other

If you are in the market to hire aliens, summon up demons from the netherworld, use the living dead, or traffic with the Great Old Ones, we are afraid that FOUL, at this moment, does not support such ventures, though we are happy to put you in contact with sweaty-toothed madmen who do. Feel free to drop us a line!

Note: at this juncture, given average reading speed, the assassin drones are just outside the room. We advise burning this document immediately. Thank you again, for choosing FOUL! 

For the Love of Fast Things and Loud Noises

This Independence Day, I found myself thinking about orks. Yes, orks. Specifically, the Warhammer 40,000 version of the beasts (what were once known as ‘Space Orks’) – loud, aggressive, blissfully ignorant, and incredibly, amazingly happy.

If you don’t know much about them, let me give you a brief overview:

Overall, they enjoy themselves immensely.

Overall, they enjoy themselves immensely.

Orks, in the 40k-verse, are an asexually reproducing bipedal race that was genetically engineered by somebody in the distant past to be the perfect warrior. They love fighting, they feel relatively little pain, they are partially photosynthetic, they regenerate lost limbs, and the more they fight, the bigger they get. Naturally, whoever created this species was promptly knocked over the head with a tire iron and his or her creations have been running amok for tens of thousands of years. Orks love loud noises, they love going fast (and fervently believe that things go faster when painted red), and enjoy nothing better than killing and pummelling all other creatures, including each other to a limited extent. In a world gone mad with war, the Orks are right at home. They lack any capacity for moral thought or deep introspection, they live for the moment, and they believe so firmly in reincarnation that death seems only distantly problematic. Even if their weapons malfunction (and they often do), or their ‘doctors’ do something awful to them instead of healing them (which is common), or they die a pointless and ignominious death (which is pretty standard), they maintain a positive attitude simply because they are unable to imagine a different attitude to have.

This brings me back to this past weekend, when people all over the city were lighting off explosions deep into the night. While I do like fireworks, there was a kind of obsessive, brutish compulsion surrounding this amateur display that made them more aggravating than celebratory. All the noise with none of the splendor – folks lighting off skyrockets amid apartment complexes and houses that would make it very difficult for even the launcher to full appreciate his handiwork. Then there were the M80s and the cherry bombs – all pop and no flash, and one wonders what the appeal is, exactly. All of this kept going until well past 2am. I found it hard to get to sleep as my city blew itself up around me for no discernible purpose. Had it been Independence Day itself, well, then it would be excusable, but this was the nights of the 5th and 6th. Show’s over, guys – go to sleep.

There is something inherently ‘orky’ about this behavior, and I don’t mean that in the negative sense. These people were deriving joy from destructive forces without bothering to consider the feelings of those around them trying to sleep. While that certainly is inconsiderate, it also belies a certain worldview that will keep them easily entertained and happy. The kind of person who enjoys gunning their motorcycle through a residential neighborhood at 11pm on a Tuesday is not the kind of person who is overly bothered by what others think of them. The kind of person who is excited when things are on fire is not the kind of person to overvalue possessions or to be bogged down with empathy for those suffering around them. Call them callous or selfish, but you can’t deny their sunny outlook on life. They probably sleep very soundly at night.

See ya next July 4th!

See ya next July 4th!

Depending on who you talk to, the world has one of two major problems: either everybody spends too much time following rules and worrying about the other guy, or everybody spends too much time ignoring the rules and pursuing their own agenda at the expense of the common population. This is civilization Vs barbarism, described in very broad strokes. Society vs the Individual. Truth be told, we need both things to be successful as a culture, as a society, and as a species. We need the Elves to get everything to work as it should, and we need the Orks to break down old conventions, hop on those noisy gyrocopters, and go throw firebombs in the streets to shake things up. You can’t worry about everything and be happy and, by the same token, you can’t screw everybody over and build a better world. If we want to do both things – be happy and build a better world – we need to learn to tap into the ork in each of us on occasion. We also need to find a way to understand when our neighbors do so, too.

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