Monday, June 27, 2011

14 Blades

Donnie Yen is Qinglong (Green Dragon), the foremost member of the Jinyi Wei, a secret police force serving the emperor. Brutally selected and trained from childhood, they are the Emperor's elite warrior-assassins. Dispatched to recover a list of traitors, Qinglong discovers he has been used by the chief eunuch in a scheme to gain the imperial seal, which the traitor intends to use in support of an usurping prince.

Betrayed by his fellow Jinyi Wei, Qinglong goes rogue. When he encounters the Justice Escort Agency, the movie opens up. Qinglong develops a glancing romance with the chief's daughter, Qiao Hua, portrayed by my Chinese girlfriend, Zhao Wei. You might remember her as the cute tomboy in So Close or as the cute tomboy in Warriors of Heaven and Earth or the cute tomboy in Red Cliff.... But she's very good at that role, and the scenes including her breathe life into an initially gloomy tale.

The film's title refers to a box of 14 bladed weapons, each of which serves a different formal purpose. Seeing the box in action is fun, but perhaps not quite as clever as all the build-up would make you hope. Still, for those who like to cross the streams and mix a little steampunk into their wuxia, there's a lot of fun here.

The movie pits several worthy adversaries against Donnie Yen's hero. Sammo Hung is ominous as Prince Qing in an all-too-brief role. Kate Tsui wields a whip-blade and employs a pretty evasion/striptease trick as the assassin Tuo Tuo. Wu Chun is sufficiently boy-band pretty to play second fiddle to Yen as Judge, leader of the Heaven Eagles.

Another of the film's virtues is its use of rival factions banding together for a common purpose. There aren't many surprises, though. When Judge picks a fight with Qinglong, you just know they're going to end up on the same side. And if you don't anticipate the tragic ending, it's only because you love Zhao Wei too much to see her heart broken. Predictable as the story may be, the events unfold with elan.

It might not reach the heights of Detective Dee or Reign of Assassins, but 14 Blades is another film I wish I'd seen before finishing Master of Devils. It probably won't appeal broadly outside fans of the genre, but it's full of exciting action scenes and enough inspiration for a GM to create months of Tian Xia adventures.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Master of Devils: First Five Chapters

Several ace reporters at PaizoCon recorded the panels, including my reading of Master of Devils and a snippet of "Husks," the fiction accompanying the Jade Regent Adventure Path. No need to fear spoilers if you listen in order.

Part 1 includes Chapters 1 and 2, as well as the beginning of "Husks."

Part 2 includes Chapters 3-5, the latter of which introduces the third POV character in the novel, no longer a secret. You'll need to let it load for a few minutes if you want to fast-forward to the reading, but you might enjoy the seminars preceding it.

Thanks to Know Direction and Chronicles Podcast Productions for making these recordings available. And check out the glorious cover painting (copyright Paizo Publishing) by the supremely talented Lucas Graciano.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Reign of Assassins

Initially reluctant to star in a demanding physical role so long after what seemed to be the height of her career in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Michelle Yeoh eventually gave in to a script with characters as rich as its fight scenes. In Reign of Assassins, Yeoh proves she still has what it takes both as a dramatic actress and as an action star.

The Chinese title of Reign of Assassins is Jianyu, Jianghu, translating literally as "Swords and Rain, Rivers and Lakes." "Jianghu" is the poetic term for the martial arts underworld, roughly analogous to the world of superheroes in western fiction. It's the realm of wushu masters, shapechangers, and magicians. It's where the player characters in Pathfinder's Tian Xia setting live, and if I'd found the film a few months earlier, it would have been a tremendous inspiration for Master of Devils.

Reign of Assassins begins with a fight for control of a prophet's mortal remains, said to grant its possessor ultimate mastery. When the Dark Stone gang murder the prime minister for the mummy, their top assassin, Drizzle, steals away with half of the corpse. After encountering a monk who shows her the fatal flaw in her swordsmanship, Drizzle has a change of heart and leaves the martial arts world to begin her life again, complete with a new name and face, the latter courtesy of a master surgeon whose tools include bone-devouring insects.

Free of her former colleagues, Zeng hides her ill-gotten wealth and lives as a simple cloth merchant. Despite the tireless efforts of her match-making market neighbor, Zeng falls in love with a poor messenger, Ah-sheng. They live happily together until caught up in a bank robbery. To save her husband's life, Zeng reveals her skill, drawing the attention of the Dark Stone assassins.

The Wheel King is the gang's whispering leader, possessed of extraordinary knowledge and deadly sword skill. He has replaced the treacherous Drizzle with Turquoise, a courtesan whose charms are as deadly as her blade. The other top assassins include a noodle-loving master of darts and a magician capable of disappearing up a rope to the clouds and setting his swords aflame.

The final act is full of so many revelations and betrayals that I don't dare describe it further. The action is top-notch, in part because of the consultations of the legendary John Woo, credited as co-director. Korean writer/director Su Chau-bin deserves credit both for a thrilling story and for wrangling a multi-national cast, not all of whom spoke Mandarin.

That cast includes the sensational Jung Woo-sung (The Good, the Bad, and the Weird, Musa, and The Restless, the latter two of which I'll describe in later posts) as Zeng's husband, the excellent Kelly Lin (Sparrow, Mad Detective) as pre-reconstruction Drizzle, and the sublime Wang Xueqi (Bodyguards & Assassins, Warriors of Heaven and Earth) as the Wheel King.

Like Detective Dee, Reign of Assassins is not a reinvention of the genre but a loving revival of the best sort of wuxia films from the late 80s and 90s. The action choreography puts to shame the CGI of recent films, and the script and direction strike a perfect balance between outrageous action and human melodrama, with some sweet character-based humor at all the right moments. One of the film's best qualities is the depth of its antagonists, each of whom enjoys some measure of sympathy and even tragedy.

In his director's commentary for his famous film, Ang Lee apologizes to Chinese audiences for the relatively slow start to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in which he grounds western audiences in the conventions of jianghu before unleashing the wire work. Had he made his movie without regard for culture clash, we might have seen something closer to Reign of Assassins, which is every bit as admirable but even more thrilling for fans of action and fantasy.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Kung Fu Countdown to Master of Devils

Master of Devils is my next Pathfinder Tales novel. Like Prince of Wolves, its inspiration comes more from cinema than literature. Instead of Universal and Hammer horror movies and films like Tod Browning's Freaks and Christophe Gans' Brotherhood of the Wolf, this time my muse came in the form of Asian action and fantasy films, what we'd call "kung fu" movies.

Starting tomorrow, each Monday I'll describe some of the films that inspired or could have inspired Master of Devils. As August approaches, I'll accelerate the posts and show you where else to look for similar recommendations, like the Gen Con issue of Kobold Quarterly, which will include an overview of kung fu especially for gamers.

Whether or not you've been following the adventures of Radovan and the Count, I hope these posts will inspire you to check out the films. They're huge fun in their own right, and they provide wonderful inspiration for Asian-themed fantasy settings like Paizo's upcoming Jade Regent Adventure Path and this fall's Dragon Empires expansion for the Pathfinder campaign.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Guest Post: Robin D. Laws

Getting Tense

The Worldwound Gambit, my new Pathfinder Tales book from Paizo, is written in the present tense. Although this might be an unexpected choice for a gaming tie-in novel, I can hardly claim it as any kind of stunning innovation. As is the case with most developments in prose style, present tense narration was first adopted over in the halls of literary fiction. Over the course of several generations, it has spread out through the various genre scenes, taking root in categories as diverse as crime and chick-lit. Celebrated exploiters of the present tense include James Ellroy, Hilary Mantel, and Emma Donoghue. Not to mention that rogue avant-gardist, Charles Dickens. Closer to geekish shores, William Gibson, perhaps the most accomplished prose stylist in science fiction today, makes exacting use of it in Pattern Recognition. You’ll also find it in the latest book series turned pop culture phenomenon, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.

The only justification for any stylistic choice in fiction, whether it’s tense, viewpoint, tone, or anything else, is that it best expresses the material. The Worldwound Gambit blends traditions, combining the swords and sorcery baseline of any Pathfinder Tale with the heist genre (with a heaping order of demonic horror on the side.) The heist sometimes plays with time, but above all takes place in the moment—sometimes in split seconds that spell the difference between a successful score or doom for its roguish anti-heroes. Its characters likewise plan cunningly for the future but think and exist entirely in the present.

The extent to which you feel a sense of discomfort with present tense will depend on your familiarity with the style. This in turn will largely be a function of your bookshelf’s generic and stylistic breadth. Even if you’re well-immersed in it, it is meant to be ever so slightly unsafe and disorienting. Present tense prose thrusts character and readers alike into an unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable future. Together they encounter the story’s events for the first time, shorn of the comforts of retrospection. It presents the character’s experiences before they have been digested into memory. In other words, it’s the perfect choice to tell the story of a carefully assembled gang of thieves who decide to combat an Abyssal invasion by staging a clandestine robbery in the literal heart of a living, demonic tower.

Any other benefits the style yields occur strictly on the margins.

The secondary result I’d most hope for is that any cognitive dissonance the tense provokes pays off in a richer reading experience. The works of art that have always struck the greatest and most lasting chords with me over the years are those that bend the rules, challenge perceptions, and take the audience to unanticipated places. In prose fiction the writers whose work lingers with me most strongly are those willing to indelibly stylize. My personal list of perception-bending prose stylists might start with the aforementioned Gibson and Ellroy, along with Jack Vance, William S. Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Dashiell Hammett, Ford Madox Ford, and Jim Thompson. None of these writers tries to efface himself behind an invisible prose style, and that’s why their work remains in my library throughout periodic purges of my limited shelf space. That’s how someone like the litfic-pop culture genre-blender Adam Marek has established himself a compelling voice and future star.

Another secondary benefit is that the present tense annoys curmudgeons. (Notable example: Philip Pullman.) Although the vexation of aesthetic grumps should never be a consideration while conceiving and writing a novel, it always represents a nice cherry on top afterwards.

No one will mistake The Worldwound Gambit for a daring work of literary experimentalism. This is no exploration of fragmented viewpoints, like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, or Georges Perec’s A Void, famously written without the use of the letter “e.” It’s a story about thieves and swords and monsters and impossible feats, sprinkled throughout with curtly witty dialogue. If I had to encapsulate my objectives for it in a single phrase, I’d say “escapism for smart people.”

The surest route to mediocrity is to write down to the audience, to assume that they aren’t bright enough to adjust to an unusual stylistic mode or step outside familiar boundaries. By following that path, the writer winds up with a book he himself wouldn’t read, and thus has no way of evaluating. The great thing about working with Paizo is that the team cares about their world, and telling exciting stories that grab them. They know how smart their audience is, and value that intelligence. I might get a note suggesting that I should incorporate such-and-such a creature from a bestiary book, or evoke a certain mood at a certain point. The most common note is one asking me to steer clear of an element being used in another story or adventure. Never have I been told to dumb something down, or take a safer path, because they’re afraid you won’t get it. Whether or not you dig my book or key into its choice of tense, that's a show of deep respect I’d hope Pathfinder Tales fans appreciate for the rarity it truly is.

Twitter: @RobinDLaws
Facebook: Robin D. Laws

New fiction: The Worldwound Gambit and "The Ironroot Deception"
Upcoming game: Ashen Stars
New non-fiction: Hamlet’s Hit Points

PaizoCon 2011

PaizoCon 2011 was a blast, even after an exhausting three-week marathon at the Seattle International Film Festival, itself a blast, but probably my last such visit while I live so far away as to require lodgings.

Notable highlights included catching up with old friends (some of them met only at last year's convention), a visit to the Science Fiction Museum (sadly bereft of its original installation, but the Avatar and Battlestar Galactica exhibits were neat), many fun bar conversations, and a couple of readings of Master of Devils.

The readings were especially fun, since they helped me shake off the rust of not doing public readings for a few years before Prince of Wolves. I look forward to reading more at Gen Con. I'm told the readings have been recorded and okayed for an upcoming podcast. I'll link to it when I learn details.

Tomorrow, watch this space for an excellent guest post by another of my Pathfinder Tales colleagues. You won't want to miss it.

Golem image copyright (c) Paizo Publishing.

Friday, June 3, 2011

PaizoCon Schedule

Here's where I'll be found during PaizoCon. When I'm not at one of these events, I'll probably be in the hotel lounge or I'll have slipped back into Seattle for a movie at SIFF.


At the Crab-Pot at 6:00 pm for the Meet & Eat.


Reading: Master of Devils

The Future of Paizo Fiction

Secrets of TSR


Reading: Master of Devils

Paizo Preview Banquet

There's a reading listed on Sunday, and while that was a mistake, there's a tiny chance I'll make it work anyway

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Guest Post: Richard Lee Byers


Series fiction dominates fantasy and science fiction, and I see no reason to buck the trend. To the contrary. I want in on it. I want the loyal readership and dependable income that a successful series provides. To that end, I’ve established my “Brotherhood of the Griffon” characters in the Forgotten Realms universe and am about to launch The Impostor, my attempt to write a hero pulp like Doc Savage or The Shadow for a modern audience. (You could also call it my attempt to do a superhero comic in prose.)

So I’ve been thinking about the long haul, how writers keep a series running for more than ten stories, or twenty, or a hundred. I believe I’ve identified at least some of the strategies (which are not always mutually exclusive):

1. Nothing ever changes. At least not permanently. The core characters have adventures, but their personalities, relationships, situation, and even their ages remain stable. We see this in long-running detective series like Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels.

This approach depends on giving the audience characters so entertaining and individual adventures so interesting that they don’t want anything to change. They’re happy to try a blind eye to the absurdity of Wolfe being exactly the same in 1934, when the series began, as in 1974, when it ended.

2. The big stall. This strategy keeps enticing the audience back with the promise of some momentous event, often an apocalyptic battle or catastrophe. But the writer never actually delivers it because doing so would end the series.

If the characters are engaging and their adventures are exciting, this approach can work for a long while. Its storyline driven by the threat of an impending alien invasion, The X-Files ran from 1993 to 2002 and was fascinating for much of that time. Ultimately, though, the fact that the invasion never happened became frustrating, and the show lost some of its appeal. (Admittedly, for many viewers, David Duchovny’s absence didn’t help, either.)

If you structure your series around such a threat, you probably should resign yourself to the fact that though you can stretch things out for quite a while, ultimately, you owe it to your readers to deliver a finale. But even after you do, you may not have to abandon the series and (God forbid!) make up something altogether new. You may be able to use one of the following strategies.

3. The reboot. DC Comics used this when core characters like Superman and Batman had been around for decades. Concerned that a long, complicated continuity and a feeling of stale predictability were costing them readers, the editors commissioned Marv Wolfman and George Perez to create Crisis on Infinite Earths, a miniseries intended to make the DC universe new again. In that story, a cataclysm altered space-time itself and swept the old history away.

Kind of. As the dust settled, readers soon learned that the new history wasn’t all that different from the old. Superman was still from Krypton. Batman was still chasing the Joker. Green Lantern still had a power ring. Still, the do-over attracted readers and revitalized the storytelling.

4. Another one just like the other one. Just because your hero eliminated one ultimate evil, that doesn’t mean there isn’t another ultimate evil in the next country over. You just launch a new epic centered on a new threat.

Stargate SG-1 used this approach after the heroes finally disposed of the Goa’uld. It turned out that the equally villainous Ori were waiting in the wings to pick up where the Goa’uld left off.

This approach generally works best if the new threat doesn’t seem like it’s pretty much just the old threat with a new name (which unfortunately was the case with the Ori) and if the new problem seems to rise logically and naturally from what has gone before.

In the season just concluded, Supernatural did it right. The problem the Winchesters faced didn’t feel like a rerun, and it developed as a consequence of what had happened previously.

When you create a new threat, one potential problem is that the audience will see it as unimpressive or even downright wimpy compared to the old one. Some writers try to forestall this by using the next strategy.

5. Go bigger. In this approach, the writer creates a new threat more formidable than the old one. Done properly, this avoids any sense of deja vu and makes the reader feel that the stakes are higher, the tension is tenser, and the spectacle is more spectacular.

One potential problem is creating a menace so powerful that it stops being credible for the protagonist to win. If, for example, you find yourself writing a scene where Nancy Drew defeats Yog-Sothoth, even Nancy’s most diehard fans may have trouble buying into it.

Another problem is that if you go to this well very often, you may find it tough to keep coming up a new big thing even bigger than the last big thing. This happens in superhero comics. Marvel created the Cosmic Cube, a device of infinite power that turns the possessor’s wishes into reality. Later on, in an effort to write about an even more powerful maguffin, Marvel gave us the Infinity Gauntlet, a device of infinite power that turns the possessor’s wishes into reality. The writers assure us the Gauntlet is more powerful, infiniter, if you will, than the Cube, but there’s nothing to support this other than the mere assertion itself. There’s no way to show the Gauntlet doing things the Cube can’t when the latter has already been defined as capable of doing anything.

If you hesitate to try to flat-out top yourself or slog on beyond your epic finale, you can try the next strategy.

6. Fill in the blanks. Sometimes a writer can continue a character’s exploits by writing prequels about his early years or filling in the gaps between stories already published. This can work well if your characters have an interesting back story that readers would like to see laid out in detail. Supposedly, Peter Jackson’s movie version of The Hobbit will show us what Gandalf got up to when he split off from the expedition to the Lonely Mountain, and while there are probably some who will protest such a major change to Tolkien’s original story, it’s a safe bet there are also people who will enjoy seeing these events dramatized.

The strategy may not work if the reader thinks you’ve already told everything of interest. Or if he takes the perspective that he already knows the end of the story, so why bother with any more of it?

You may also reach a point where it’s hard to find new holes to plug. When Lancer Books reprinted Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, they commissioned L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, and others to write additional tales, and these authors filled in the gaps in the character’s history. Gradually, the effect became ludicrous. Conan no longer had the necessary time to wander from place to place, learn new languages, or establish himself in new situations as a mercenary, pirate, or whatever. You got the feeling that the poor guy never got a single day off from fighting demons and sorcerers.

The final strategy is the opposite of some I’ve already discussed.

7. The characters change and age, but in a controlled way. You let them evolve to a degree, but not to an extent that ends the series before you’re ready for that to happen.

To an extent, Howard used this approach with Conan, who starts out as a teenage thief and ends up as the forty-something king of a great realm. Fritz Leiber arguably used it in a more profound way with the Gray Mouser and Fafhrd, who, in their final adventures, are clearly middle-aged not just physically but psychologically. They’re ready to abandon their roguish ways, settle down, and become solid citizens.

One advantage of this approach is that it lets you deal with themes and plots that the nothing-ever-changes strategy simply won’t allow. This can help keep the series fresh for readers and the writer as well as he takes on the task of writing about his signature characters for the twenty-fifth or ninety-second time.

One potential problem is that even if you’re trying to guard against it, you may make a change that detracts from the appeal of your characters. I enjoyed every Mouser and Fafhrd story, including the final ones. But to me, they’ll always be the whimsical scoundrels of Lankhmar, not the staunch defenders of Rime Isle.

So there you have them, strategies for keeping your series alive for installment after installment, year after year, decade after decade. If you’re a writer, I hope you get the chance to try them out. Needing to figure out how to keep a popular, profitable series going is the best problem a genre author can have.

And now, before you move on, may I indulge in some self-promotion?The Q Word and Other Stories, an ebook collection of some of my best short fiction, is now available for the Kindle at Amazon and for all platforms at Smashwords.

The Spectral Blaze, my new Forgotten Realms/Brotherhood of the Griffon novel, comes out June 7th.

If you enjoyed what I wrote here, I hope you’ll check the books out. You’re also more than welcome to friend me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, and check out my blog.