Posts Tagged ‘Tolkien’

I like to point out to my ten or so regular readers things that you might find interesting, or cool, or something of that nature. And also, I like to point them to things that you guys might not have heard of. That’s probably why I haven’t posted a big long review of the last Wheel of Time book (well, there’s that, and there’s the fact that I don’t like Wheel of Time). 

So I wanted to do a review of this book I read. And, because I was all busy with the schooling and the noveling, I only got around to it right now.


The Worm Ouroboros, by E.R. Eddison.

This is not the book The Worm Ouroboros. This is, in fact, Worm Ouroboros, which is a kickass doom metal band.

This is not the book The Worm Ouroboros. This is, in fact, Worm Ouroboros, which is a kickass doom metal band.

What is there to say about this book…? It came out in 1922, when it was completely ignored by the literary world, because 1922 was the height of modernism, and this book is decidedly not modernist. It went out of print after Eddison’s death, when it was republished in the sixties, in the brief period between the publication of Lord of the Rings, when the whole world WANTED MORE STUFF EXACTLY LIKE LORD OF THE RINGS RIGHT NOW, but before the publication of The Sword of Shannara, when a book that was exactly like LotR came out, and authors began a decade of wholesale Tolkien ripoff. There was some cool stuff published in that period, like the Earthsea and Elric books, but since there was more demand for fantasy than there were, you know, writers who actually wrote fantasy, editors basically brought every work of fantasy written between 1900 and 1960 and brought it back into print.

So, The Worm Ouroboros came out again, and was promptly ignored by the budding world of fantasy readers, because for one thing, it’s not like Lord of the Rings.

It’s been republished a couple of times afterwards. This is the cover of the current edition, which has been straight ripped from Amazon.


That’s not the edition that I read, though. I read this edition, which came out in 1990.

You can tell it’s from 1990, because it has a blurb from Piers Anthony. That is because in 1990, people actually considered Piers Anthony to be a respectable writer, rather than an unreadable novel-recycling hack.

You can tell it’s from 1990, because it has a blurb from Piers Anthony. That is because in 1990, people actually considered Piers Anthony to be a respectable writer, rather than an unreadable novel-recycling hack.


In any case, I mentioned that it’s not like Lord of the Rings. Which is fine, of course. While both novels were written by saga-loving Englishmen who were born in the late Victorian era, The Worm Ouroboros is really about as different from Lord of the Rings as two works of fantasy can really be.

Well, actually, there are some similarities. For one thing, they both have a fondness for archaisms. However, Tolkien actually knew archaic languages (I mean, come on: the man was fluent in twenty languages, most of them dead), which means that his prose has a certain glamour about it, which gives the story a particular sense of tragic dignity that most modern fantasy lacks:


Suddenly the king cried to Snowmane and the horse sprang away. Behind him his banner flew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them. Eomer rode there, the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed, and the front of the first éored roared like a breaker foaming to the shore, but Théoden would not be overtaken. Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old, even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young. His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! it shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed. For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and thief, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them. And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City.

(The Return of the King, V.5, “The Ride of the Rohirrim”)


Tolkien has been criticized for his anachronistic language, but nobody can deny that he knew how to write in that style. (In fact, I would argue that this specific scene might be the greatest scene ever written in all of fantasy, if it weren’t for the fact that two other scenes in Lord of the Rings, the “death” of Gandalf and the ring-destroying scene, might arguably outpace it.)

In contrast, Eddison didn’t write archaically like Tolkien did. His style is like a chaotic mashup of The Faërie Queene, Christopher Marlowe, Norse sagas, and Victorian poetry. Compare the scene from Lord of the Rings with this passage, which appears early on in The Worm Ouroboros:


Now while they rested, a flittermouse flew forth from the Witchland booths and went widdershins around the wrastling ground and so returned silently whence she came. Lord Gro saw her, and his heart waxed heavy within him. He spake to Corund, and said, “Needs must that I make trial even at this late hour if there be not any means to turn the King from further adventuring of himself, ere all be lost.” 

Corund said, “Be it as thou wilt, but it will be in vain.” 

So Gro stood by the King and said, “Lord, give over this wrastling. Great of growth and mightier of limb than any that you did overcome aforetime is this Demon, yet have you vanquished him. For you did throw him, as we plainly saw, and wrongfully hath the Red Foliot adjudged you evenly matched because in the throwing of him by your majesty’s self did fall to earth. Tempt not the fates by another bout. Yours is the victory in this wrastling: and now we, your servants, wait but your nod to make a sudden onslaught on these Demons and slay them, as we may lightly overcome them taken at unawares. And for the Foliots, they be peaceful and sheeplike folk, and will be held in awe when we have smitten the Demons with the edge of the sword. So may you depart, O King, with pleasure and great honour, and afterward fare to Demonland and bring it into subjection.” 

The King looked sourly upon Lord Gro, and said, “Thy counsel is unacceptable and unseasonable. What lieth behind it?” 

Gro answered, “There have been omens, O King.” 

And the King said, “What omens?”

(The Worm Ouroboros, Chapter II, “The Wrastling for Demonland”)


If you’re not accustomed to reading Ye Olde Laynguaygge, don’t worry. There were a lot of times when I had to read a page four or five times just so I could understand what the hell was going on. Lord of the Rings is famous for being a difficult book, even for people who love fantasy, but The Worm Ouroborous is far worse. This is mostly because Tolkien chose to write in a deliberately archaic style, but he was actually fluent in Oldespeak. He knew that kind of writing inside-out. Compared to Tolkien, the Eddison passage is cumbersome and clunky. Tolkien’s writing was the pounding of hoofbeats over hard turf. Eddison’s was often the squelching of a Honda Civic getting bogged down in quicksand.

That doesn’t mean that The Worm Ouroborous is bad, though. On the contrary– there are parts that are actually quite good, if you can tolerate or understand the cod-Elizabethan prose. There are some quite memorable passages, including the dark sorcery worked in Carcë and the quest to Koshtra Belorn in search of Lord Goldry Bluzco. And, while I probably would have cut out about two hundred pages of the middle (which is a lot, considering that it’s a five hundred page book), it’s still an interesting read.

It’s just… different.

In this post-Tolkien world, we’re used to our fantasy worlds being “secondary worlds”. We expect maps and histories, languages and economies, court customs and peasants’ fables, so that if the story were to disappear entirely, we’d have a sense that the world would still exist. We even have an entire word for writing the setting-related backstory for a fantasy novel: worldbuilding (WHICH IS TOTALLY A WORD EVEN IF WORDPRESS’S SPELLCHECK DOESN’T ACKNOWLEDGE IT). You get this impression from Lord of the Rings. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, every step that the Fellowship takes on their journey kicks up dust that has seemingly seen thousands of years of history. Middle-earth is a world, rich and diverse, which means that if we stop following the Fellowship and instead just stay at the Prancing Pony or Rivendell or Meduseld for the rest of the War of the Ring, things would still happen. It feels like a place.

This isn’t the case with The Worm Ouroboros’ world, which is rather tellingly called Mercury. Yes, it’s the planet Mercury, but it’s not the cratered sun-baked world that we expect from seeing space probe photos of the actual planet, but instead a bizarre dreamworld. Also, notice that “mercury” is also an element, which is slippery and shiny and liquid, just like Eddison’s world of Mercury. (I ask you: have you ever tried to put your finger on a bead of mercury underneath a glass slide? I haven’t, of course, because mercury is HIGHLY TOXIC, but I’ve talked with people who have, and they say that it’s quite tricky.)

The whole feeling of The Worm Ouroboros being a fever dream or one massive acid trip is amplified by the fact that the story is actually being shown from the perspective of a person from Earth, an Englishman named Lessingham, who falls asleep and dreams about a hippogriff that takes him to Mercury, where he acts as a silent spectator for the events of the novel. The dreamlike state is amplified by the fact that the novel repeats itself, like the titular snake eating its tail (or a Dream Theater album). When we get to the end of the book, we start again at the beginning. And even more telling, the events of the first half of the book are mirrored as we get to the second half. It doesn’t feel like an organic story. It feels like a series of Jungian archetypes bouncing off each other.

While Middle-earth feels real and solid, like post-Tolkien fantasy worlds from Discworld to Westeros, Mercury is light and insubstantial. Even the myriad castles and palaces feel like Disneyland sets made of candyfloss and plaster. You could give them a good solid kick, and they’d crumble to reveal a fifty-year-old Korean woman furtively smoking a cigarette while half-in half-out of a Minnie Mouse costume. The characters feel like people who could never exist outside of Mercury itself, while you feel like you could meet Frodo or Aragorn (or, for that matter, Sam Vimes or Tyrion Lannister) while walking down the street. The Worm Ouroboros doesn’t have the solidity and realism that most fantasy worlds have.

And yet, I sort of like it anyway.

It’s strange. The Worm Ouroboros is a collection of things that should never work in a fantasy novel thrown together in a chaotic stew, and yet somehow it works. You don’t need suspension of disbelief to get through the book. You have so much disbelief that it circles around and goes right back to belief. Sort of an insane thing to say, but it’s true. There’s no other way to explain it. The Worm Ouroboros is so surreal and sheerly weird that it all somehow falls together.

Should you read it? I don’t know. I don’t know you, and “doing the Worm”, to coin a phrase, is hardly for everyone. In fact, I read a post on recently that had Jo Walton, a Hugo-, Nebula-, World Fantasy Award-, and everything else under the sun-winning author, claiming that she’d never finished The Worm Ouroboros, even though she’d tried many times. (Or something of that nature.) It’s not for everyone, in the way that calamari or head cheese isn’t for everyone. But hey, I like calamari (not so sure about the head cheese), so if you’re a person with strange tastes who happens to want something unusual to try, you might as well try The Worm Ouroboros.

That’s a terrible final paragraph, isn’t it? “I don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s certainly a thing.”

Meh. There are lots of things in the universe, and The Worm Ouroboros is certainly one of them.

For lack of a better term.

~ Ian


As an aficionado of both hobbitses and metal, I was pleased to find this cover version of the Hobbit theme done in a prog metal style.

I’ll get around to posting more original content later. I’m still busy with work on The Lotus Imperiate, so I don’t have much time for blogging, but still, I should be able to blog more once I finish the first draft.

~ Ian

(J.R.R. Tolkien, “Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold)

I watched a hobbit today!

Of course, because of the fact that my brain recently fragmented into two parts about a month ago due to the combined stress of finals and NaNoWriMo, I’m going to review The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in two lumps, and give it two grades: a Tolkien-nerd grade, and a general storytelling grade.


Tolkien-Purist Ian:

Overall, I have to say that The Hobbit did REALLY well with staying true to the spirit, if not the letter, of the books. And there was a surprising amount of it that was accurate to the books… although, really, it wasn’t all from The Hobbit. While I was watching the movie, I could literally count off the origins of the scenes: “this one’s from The Hobbit… now we’ve got one from the Appendices of Lord of the Rings… here’s one that’s a little bit of a blend of Appendices and Unfinished Tales… now we’re back to The Hobbit… the screenwriters made this one up entirely…” Basically, I could tell you where every scene of the movie originated, and most of it was accurate.

And even when they made changes to the book’s narrative, it made sense. I could completely understand why Azog was included in the movie– he acts as a main adversary to Thorin, and Thorin’s opposite (if you look at Lord of the Rings, it’s constructed around the fact that most of the main characters have their “dark mirrors”, visions of what they might be if they were corrupted– Gandalf has Saruman, Aragorn has the Witch-King, Frodo has Gollum, and so on). Azog is also important because he adds to Thorin’s story arc. (Okay, Storyteller-Ian intruding here. Who thinks that Thorin and Azog are going to kill each other at the Battle of Five Armies at the end of Movie Three? I’ll take bets, but to tell you the truth, I like my odds of being right.)

And what’s different about the changes to The Hobbit as opposed to the changes to Lord of the Rings is that they make sense. There’s no pointless and nonsensical changes like Arwen and Aragorn sharing a telepathic link because of the power of “twue wuv”; Arwen being a Xena clone in the first movie and then somehow having her fate tied to the fate of the Ring in the second and third; Elrond acting like a douchecanoe; Aragorn falling off a ravine in a needlessly-added clearly-stalling-for-time battle and having no one bother to look for his body except for his horse; the lack of Denethor’s subplot with the Palantíri– look, I could just go on and on, but honestly you get the point. (I’m not complaining about the omission of Tom Bombadil. That was a good change. What I have a problem with are the moronic changes that Jackson and Co. clearly put in Lord of the Rings to appeal to the Lowest Common Denominator.) In contrast, the changes to The Hobbit make sense, and what’s more, even satisfy the Tolkien fan. (I might have been the only one in the theater who broke into laughter when Gandalf said, “There’s the two blue wizards, of course… You know, I’m not sure what their names are!”*)  There’s not really any egregious violations. It all works. Even Radagast being a mumbling, mushroom-eating hermit with birdshit in his hair riding a rabbit-pulled sleigh wasn’t a problem to me. After all, it’s pretty clear that Tolkien intended for all the wizards to be crazy in their own way. Some get megalomaniacal and want to rule the world, like Saruman, others just go a little woodsy-where-am and talk to hedgehogs like Radagast.

I did have two things that I didn’t like about the movie’s changes, though:

  • I didn’t like the fact that Thorin is clearly intended to be a broody Aragorn-surrogate. Jackson and Co. are clearly trying to have Thorin fill the same role as Aragorn did in LotR, and it didn’t work. They’re two different stories, and there’s no point in giving us characters that we’ve already seen before.
  • hated the huge warty ballsack dangling from the Great Goblin’s chin. Every time I saw it, I was tempted to yell, “Kick him in the balls! I mean, neck!”

Other than that, though, it was excellent.

Tolkien-Purist Ian’s Final Grade: B+


General Storytelling Ian: 

Literally everything in this movie was better than in Lord of the Rings. Better acting, better direction, better writing, everything. It’s almost as if you took the same team that made Lord of the Rings, gave them ten more years of experience, and set them loose in the same universe. (OH WAIT IT ACTUALLY IS.)

Martin Freeman was incredible. Unlike Elijah Wood, who was a wimpy fainting prick in the lead as Frodo in LotR, Martin Freeman embodied everything about the character of Bilbo. He was funny, charming, vulnerable, blustering, embarrassed, cheerful baffled, and brave, all at once. It was note-perfect. I can’t really think of any way that his performance could have been improved. Where Elijah Wood’s Frodo would probably have rolled his eyes and fainted at any sign of danger, Martin Freeman’s Bilbo faced up to it, and kicked ass. From now on, he’s the quintessential hobbit for me. Compared to the actors who played the hobbits in LotR (Sean Astin’s painfully-‘orrible British accent, Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd’s relentlessly-grating comic relief, and Elijah Wood’s general blandness and suckitude), we had a hobbit that I can actually like

It also makes sense that Martin Freeman has played Arthur Dent, too. I can’t think of two characters more similar in all of literature: two middle-aged, middle-class Englishmen (or Englishman-surrogates) who get swept up unwillingly out of their rut and into a fantastical adventure by people who might actually be certifiably insane.

There’s still more of the same tricks that we’ve seen from Peter Jackson as a director. Specifically, I’m thinking about the defining shot from the LotR trilogy, the helicopter-mounted shot of people walking in a straight line through gorgeous New Zealand scenery. There’s some of that, although not as much, which is fine with me: too many of those and they’re going to start getting stale. But I could tell that Peter Jackson was varying his camera shots a little, and there was some pretty creative camerawork as well, even in scenes with just straight dialogue. (It’s easy for directors to fall into the boring old shot-reverse shot trap in dialogue-heavy scenes. You can do that, and it works, but I like to see a bit more creativity once in a while.)

I couldn’t have complained about the acting from Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee, of course. They’ve both been acting for longer than most people have been alive. Still, Ian McKellan was still the quintessential Gandalf, and Christopher Lee (even though he only showed up for a single scene) conveyed a different Saruman perfectly. Instead of Dark Lord Wannabe Saruman, we get a second, earlier view of the character, one of Third Age Middle-earth’s equivalent of the climate change denier.

What was better in this movie was the supporting actors. While there was broad physical comedy with the dwarves, it didn’t cheapen their characters the way it did with Gimli in LotR. Quite the opposite, in fact– it fit the lighter tone of the movie perfectly. And I can’t wait to see Benedict Cumberbatch’s Necromancer. He’s been so good starring opposite Martin Freeman in Sherlock that I can’t wait to see them in a movie together, even if the two characters never meet.

(This is an interruption from Gaiman-fan Ian, speaking from another segment of Ian’s shattered brain. If a Sandman movie ever gets made, can we please have Benedict Cumberbatch play Dream? I can’t think of another actor with the acting skill, broodiness, and cheekbones who could pull off that role.)

(Ian’s appetite here. I’m getting hungry, guys. Can we get something to eat soon?)

Can we please not have interruptions from other sections of the brain?

(Tolkien-Purist Ian: Yeah! It’s really annoying! This is our post!)

(The Section of Ian’s Brain That Always Posts Lame Gifs on Axolotl Ceviche: This article needs more gifs. Can we have some gifs in this post? Like, maybe one of Sad Gollum at the moment when Bilbo almost kills him?)

No! Shut up, everyone!

(Gaiman-Fan Ian: Sorry.)

(Ian’s Appetite: Sorry.)

(The Section of Ian’s Brain That Always Posts Lame Gifs on Axolotl Ceviche: Sorry.)

(The Part of Ian’s Brain that Never Apologizes: I’m not.)

(Tolkien-Purist Ian and General Storytelling Ian: SHUT UP!)

Anyway, where was I? Oh– I should talk about the writing.

It was good. Like I said, more lighthearted– and was, in fact, as witty as a Joss Whedon production, which made me happy. It could have been a little less corny at times, but overall, it was better. The dialogue was tighter, the characters were better defined, and the lines felt more like something someone would actually say.

(Tolkien-purist Ian: And nobody said stupid things like “If you want him, come and claim him!” and “Let’s hunt some orc!“)

Quiet, you. This is my section.

Anyway, well done, actors, writers, and Peter Jackson. You’ve given us one hell of a movie.

General Storytelling Ian’s Final Grade: A


For those of you who are wondering, here’s the scores that Tolkien-purist Ian and General Storytelling Ian gave the Lord of the Rings movies:

Fellowship of the Ring: TP Ian B-, GS Ian B

The Two Towers: TP Ian F, GS Ian D-

Return of the King: TP Ian C, GS Ian B

That’s it for now. Have a wonderful Boxing Day evening.

~ Ian (Tolkien-Purist) and Ian (General Storytelling) (with unwanted assistance from Gaiman-fan Ian, Ian’s Appetite, The Section of Ian’s Brain That Always Posts Lame Gifs on Axolotl Ceviche, and The Part of Ian’s Brain That Never Apologizes)

*Alatar and Pallando, by the way.

I can’t help but humiliate myself. It seems to be intrinsic in my nature.

When I was in high school, I wrote a crapton of terrible sword-and-sorcery stories. During my senior year, I had this idea for a massive fantasy trilogy, full of demons and magic and things like that. My idea was about a world that Hell had broken into, a world that had become overrun with demons: a sort of post-apocalyptic/high fantasy hybrid.

That was the idea. I only wrote about twenty pages of the story before I got sick of the bloody thing.

The novel would have been called Demonslayers. I’m showing it to you here, with commentary from my present-day self, as an example and a warning to young writers.

In any case– this is it. The prologue to Demonslayers.



Imperial City, Thule

22 Emperor, 708 Thule Era

The sun died in the west as Keltor Kes made his way up the steep mesa upon which the Imperial City lay. It was a beautiful city from far away, its high domes and slender minarets shining in the westering sun. From far away, the city shone like gold, since the palaces and mansions of the mighty had been plated with brass for the express purpose of dazzling the eyes of those who watched below. From afar, the effect was beautiful, but from up close the rooftops were gaudy and cheap. In fact, one could not even see the brass, because the lofty towers loomed so far above the city that it was impossible to see the roofs. The actual streets of the Imperial City were dirty, smelled of shit, and were bathed in a permanent twilight no matter what time of day it was. This was the perfect night for an assassin.

Present-Day Ian: Umm… overwritten much? I guess I hadn’t really got into my head the idea that good language is succinct, and that brevity and flow are often more important than dazzling the eye with a metric crapton of twenty-dollar words. My dad always told me, when I was a kid: “Never use a big word when there exists a commensurate diminutive.” I guess that hadn’t sunk in at that point. 

Also, I seemed to be clinging to the phrase “from far away”. I use it three times in three sentences. That’s not a good thing. In fact, it’s pretty terrible. 

Keltor Kes was one of these assassins. He was an elf– something that was unusual in these parts, far from the elvish forests and the isles of Avalon away to the west. He wore a long, cowled cape, dyed a dark gray color– contrary to popular belief, assassins never wore black: it was too obvious, since shadows were never uniformly black. Dark gray or olive worked much better. He had an androgynous face, which was usual for an elf, and iron-gray hair and a dueling scar across his cheek, which was unusual. He wore only a dark green tunic and brown breeches under his cape, and wore soft leather boots with spikes in the soles. He carried a dagger at his side, in a battered black wooden sheath. At his left hip was a relatively new revolving pistol, a powderhorn, and a sack of lead bullets. His only nod to ostentatiousness was a gold death’s head ring, boldly displayed on his left middle finger: the mark of a Master Assassin in the Shadow Syndicate.

In a good light, one could call Keltor Kes attractive. He had the sort of androgynous attractiveness so beloved by rich ladies of the Imperial City. His lips were pouty, his lashes long, his eyebrows slanted, and his cheekbones high.  Looking at him, though, one thing was obvious above all else: his eyes, as black as the depths of space, with no pupils. This tended to put off the young women who looked his way, and forced them to studiously look somewhere else.

PDI: Why do people seem to think that describing characters down to the last detail is an appropriate way of starting a story? It’s not. While character description has its place, I have to admit that this is the wrong way to do it. For one thing, this isn’t a movie. For another, nobody goes around describing themselves in their head. Right now, I’m wearing an off-black T-shirt, blue jeans, my favorite leather jacket, and no socks or shoes. But I don’t go around thinking that. 

Plus there’s the fact that I made Keltor Kes an assassin. It’s maybe the most clichéd profession in fantasy, apart from royalty. While my current project, The Lotus Imperiate, does have assassins, I’m trying to make them seem less clichéd than normal. It’s not the idea of an assassin that’s the cliché. It’s the particular implementation. And Keltor Kes is about as clichéd as you can get. (Considering that I borrowed a lot of Keltor Kes’ description for The Epic Legend of Damien Fell, as well as the term “Shadow Syndicate”, it’s not a surprise.)

Although, I like the detail that assassins don’t actually wear black. How did I know that back then? I think I’d heard that from my swordplay instructor, who’d said that historical ninja actually wore navy blue, because black stands out against shadows. That’s the sort of cool detail that will eventually go into The Lotus Imperiate, which has assassins who act more like ninja. (The historical ninja, not actually the modern-day conception.)

The perpetual twilight of the Imperial City had not yet darkened to its fullest. He would go to his target this evening, but not now. He would wait for the darkness to deepen, for the night to lie more heavily over the palace. Then he would go to his work. He cast his gaze around. This was an unsavory portion of the city. He saw many people. Rogues, adventurers, mercenaries, beggars, and whores were all around the street.  Here on the street corner, a tall, slender man from Eden, his skin shining ebony in the night. He spoke with a Faldorian whore, little more than a girl, her red-gold curls shining against her ivory skin. He looked to the right. There was a dwarf, long-bearded, red-faced, obviously pissed out of his head, with sweat shining on his face. The dwarf was arguing with an orc, with green skin and taciturn expression. The orc hadn’t drank as much that night, and he was obviously holding up much better than the dwarf. He scowled, and made a small grumble in the depths of his throat. He moved his hand towards his sword, which provoked the dwarf. The dwarf charged, battle axe at the ready, prepared to cut the orc into slivers of quivering green raw meat. But the orc, less drunk than his opponent, easily drew his long tulwar and slashed with a broad, sweeping cut. The dwarf went down, neck bloody and open with a huge, gaping slash. Unfortunately for the orc, there was a band of four dwarves standing nearby. As they saw their fellow dwarf go down, they readied their axes, and charged at the orc.

Humans and all other races cheered on this spectacle. Not Keltor Kes. He had a job to do, and time to kill before that job. Plus, the stench of green orc blood sickened him. So while the crowd cheered as dwarves and orcs from all over heard the clang of steel, Keltor Kes proceeded on.

PDI: There’s lots of borrowing here. And I can trace it back to its sources. 

The first source is the classic Conan story “The Tower of the Elephant”, which begins with a description of a multicultural street scene, showcasing the diversity and chaos of Robert Howard’s Hyborian Age. (I’d been reading the Conan stories for a year and a half before I wrote the prologue to Demonslayers. Clearly all of that sunk in somehow.) The “Tower of the Elephant” connection is even more apparent when you look at what happens later in the story.) 

But of course, the second source for the street scene comes from a source so basic that even I hadn’t internalized it. The various races come straight out of Tolkien– all three of them. Keltor Kes is an elf, of course, and there are a dwarf and an orc in this scene. Now that I’m a little bit older, I’ll admit that I’m tired of seeing elves and orcs all over modern fantasy. Fortunately written fantasy seems to be moving beyond the need to put elves into everything, but gaming hasn’t. I’m playing through Dragon Age: Origins at the moment, and I’m annoyed by the fact that elves and dwarves appear in an otherwise-brilliant game. Fantasy writers don’t need to ape Tolkien. There’s a whole multiverse out there for us to enjoy. 

But of course, I apparently didn’t think that at the time. 

He entered a small tavern. Immediately he was greeted by the stench of human sweat and cheap ale, and the roaring laughter of the tavern’s patrons. Keltor Kes moved through the thick crowd like a wisp of fog on a mountain lake, serene and unnoticing of the surroundings. He made his way up to the bar, tended by a human woman. She had long, greasy black ringlets, a painted face, and large droopy breasts that she wore half-hanging out of her bodice as if they were those of a beautiful girl of eighteen. The effect sickened Keltor Kes. Elvish women did not have breasts, but had chests as flat as washboards. The importance that human women placed on their tits, and the attention that human men paid to them, were both completely alien to Keltor Kes. He fought down his revulsion, and waved his death’s head ring in front of her face. The woman stiffened. Her painted and rouged face was drawn up into a sudden mask of terror.

“I am not here to assassinate any of the guests at this establishment,” Keltor Kes said calmly. “I am merely thirsty. Have you any wine?”

“Of course, sir Assassin,” the barmaid said.

“What variety?”

“Fine, rich wine from the west, ten years old. Made from the purple grapes on the shores of the Charitable Sea.”

“Bring me a cup, madam barmaid, and be velocitous in your return.” Keltor Kes said.

PDI: I don’t know what the hell I was thinking with Keltor Kes’ speech patterns here. Or rather, I know my explanation for why I did it: Elves in this universe have a very complicated language that relies heavily on intonation and implication, and therefore when elves speak human languages, they naturally adapt to using big words and convoluted sentence structure. Only, it doesn’t work. It just comes across as cumbersome and weird. 

I guess I was trying to imitate Vaarsuvius, the elven wizard in Rich Burlew’s fabulous comic Order of the Stick. But there’s a completely different context. OotS is comedy, and Vaarsuvius’ over-the-top speech is meant to be deliberately funny. But in a universe that is supposedly serious, we’re meant to take what Keltor Kes says seriously. And since we can’t do that (because nobody ever talks like that), it all falls apart. 

I call this kind of unexplained, pointlessly confusing worlbuilding “lighting a fire at noon”, because of a story I read once on a forum where the character lit a fire in a grate while describing all the while the bright noonday sunshine outside. When we questioned why the character needed to light a fire at noon, the author said, “It’s a special kind of wood! It doesn’t give off heat, only light!” We didn’t accept this as an answer– the properties of this special wood hadn’t been explained in the text, and besides, it was begging another question (namely, why would you need light at full noon?). It’s a mistake that a lot of newbie fantasy writers make: that just because something doesn’t need to be explained to the inhabitants of the fantasy world, doesn’t mean that it has to be explained to us. Especially if it’s something as alien as wood that doesn’t give off heat when it burns, or Keltor Kes’ speech patterns. 

The barmaid bustled into the back, disappearing behind a frayed purple curtain over a doorway in the back of the bar. She immediately returned with a full wooden goblet. The wine inside was thick as syrup, and as red as blood. Keltor Kes took it, sniffed it experimentally, and took a small sip. His face screwed up with disgust as he swallowed.

“Like dwarven urine,” he exclaimed, “but I shall have to make do with what I have.” He downed the rest of the wine in three gulps. “Please fetch me some more of this, madam,” he ordered.

As the barmaid was busy again in the back room, a man caught Keltor Kes’ eye. The man was a merchant from the pine forests to the northeast, wearing a fur cap with a red tassel and a richly embroidered robe. He had stubble on his chin, and his hairy chest peeked out from the v-neck of his robe. His huge belly was easily visible, jiggling and bouncing as the man laughed at the jokes. Keltor Kes frowned at the man, and wrinkled his nose. Humans were disgusting, the way they grew huge and wrinkly.

The man made eye contact with Keltor. His expression soured, curdling like a bowl of milk. “What the fuck are you looking at, elfie?” he snapped. “You want a fight? Is that what you want?”

“I am sorry,” Keltor Kes said. “I meant no offense, sir. I was merely observing a typical human inhabitant of this city.”

“What the fuck are you talkin’ about?” the man roared. “Fucking elvish faggots. What do all those fancy words mean, eh? Speak proper, and not elvish gobbledygook!”

“I am sorry, sir. I am merely speaking Thule Common, as any clown with a quarter of a cerebrum would comprehend.”

“Fucking big words,” the merchant growled. “It’s all gibberish to me!”

“Well, my good fellow,” said Keltor Kes evenly, “I believe that the reason why you are unable to aprehend any of the words issuing forth from my lips is because you are a boor.”

“A what?” the man screamed. He threw his clay mug of ale down to the dirt floor. It didn’t shatter, but instead stuck in the four inches of mud and piss on the floor.

“Idiot. Moron. Imbecile. Retard. Boob. Whoreson. Rascal. Ruffian. Villein. I could go on, if you would be so inclined.”

“I may not be the smartest man in the Empire,” the merchant snarled, “but I know when I’m being insulted! And you– you’re insulting me!”

“Fantastic,” said Keltor Kes. “It seems that you have more intelligence than I had initially expected. I thought your mind functioned on the level of a dog, or a pig. I must confess, however, that you have more of the mental aptitude of a baboon, or a goblin.”

“You want a fight, fag? Is that what you want?”

“I do not wish to quarrel, sir, and I assure you, neither do you,” Keltor said, his voice as cool and calm as it had always been.

“What? D’you think I can’t take you?”

“To put it bluntly,” Keltor Kes replied, “yes.”

“Prissy point-eared whoreson,” the human roared. “I’ll show you!” And he leapt to his feet, fumbling at his side for the short sword that hung there.

PDI: Ah, yes. The obligatory tavern brawl. Clearly teenage Ian needs to have a copy of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland dropped on his head. Of course, I doubt that he’d listen. With the number of clichés that he’s dropped by this point, he’d probably use it as a guidebook for constructing the “best fantasy novel EVER!” 

I feel ashamed for the person I was. But moving on: 

Immediately, Keltor Kes stood, and grasped the hilt of his elvish runed dagger, Z’gara. With a deft movement, he drew the adamantine dagger. It flashed pearly gray, the color of pewter, as Keltor Kes raised it high into the air. And the dagger flew downwards, sharp edge flashing with malice as it came towards the human’s chest. It was over in less than the blink of an eye: the man staggered back, a huge gash running down from his right shoulder to his left hip, a slash of crimson, dripping blood. This was only a scratch, though, not quite enough to kill the man. As the human gasped for breath, in too much pain to even stand, Keltor Kes deftly tossed Z’gara into the air. It flipped end over end. Now the dagger’s hilt was pointed directly upwards towards the human’s sternum. As the human collapsed to his knees, his eyes widened in pain, Keltor Kes drove Z’gara in a wide arc straight upwards, towards the human’s soft, flabby double chin.

The dagger met him halfway.

Keltor Kes felt all eighteen of Z’gara’s inches drive into the human’s head like a sculptor’s chisel into marble. With a crunch, the dagger met soft, marbled subcutaneous tissue, cut through the thin layer of muscle, and the human’s tongue. This slowed it down a bit, but it continued onwards and upwards: through the soft palate, into the nasal cavity, the sinuses, and finally, directly into the human’s frontal lobe. Keltor Kes felt the man’s life-spark leaving him. With his delicate elvish senses, he could feel a small electrical spark flow down Z’gara’s length, then into his hand. The last spark of the man’s life. With a wrench, Keltor Kes pulled his dagger free. Blood that had been kept in by Keltor Kes’ hand suddenly gushed out of the dead human’s skull, drenching his hand in red blood. The runes that had been carved into Z’gara were glowing blue now, glowing with the fresh life of the dead human and his escaped soul. The whole tavern stared at Keltor Kes, and the corpse of the human. He had not even had the chance to draw his sword.

And Keltor Kes spoke: “Is there any one of you now who would, after witnessing this spectacle, attempt to insult me, my ears, or my elvish heritage at a later juncture in time?”

A chorus of hasty and murmured “no’s”. Every patron of the bar abashedly stared at their mugs and cups, studiously ignoring Keltor.

“There,” said Keltor, smiling faintly. “I believe that we can now forget this slight… misunderstanding, and can proceed onward as friends in the future. Barmaid!”

“Yes, sir?” the barmaid responded, her voice trembling.

“Fetch me a basin of clean water and a cloth– make it two, if you would be so good. And fetch each patron a glass of his or her preferred tipple, which aforsaid beverage shall be paid for, in full, by me.”

“What, sir?”

“Buy everyone a round of drinks. On me.”

Now the tavern’s patrons looked intrested. Suddenly everyone was Keltor Kes’ best friend. People crowded around him, trying to shake his bloodied hand. Keltor Kes studiously washed his hands instead. Then, when the round of drinks came, Keltor Kes smoothly walked out the front entrance in the confusion, and into the dark street. It was fully dark now, and there was no moon. Time to hunt.

PDI: This, I think, is the most stupid and pointless part of this whole bloody prologue. Not only does Keltor Kes STRAIGHT UP FUCKING MURDER A DUDE, he buys everyone a round of drinks, and suddenly everyone’s okay with him! What the fuck? I want to slap my teenage self up the bloody head, this is so stupid! 

I unconsciously borrowed this whole scene in the third chapter of The Epic Legend of Damien Fell, where I had Prince Travyss of Rayvenhawke kill a guy and then ask if anyone else wanted to doubt his heritage, or something stupid like that, to be answered by everyone saying, “No! We’re good!” But that was played for laughs. It wasn’t done seriously. It wasn’t a stupid excuse for Keltor Kes to look like a badass. 

God. I knew this was bad, but I didn’t realize it was awful

~ * ~ * ~

As Keltor Kes approached the wall to the Empress’s hardeena, he gazed up, towards the palace. It had not been created with any rhyme or reason. It had started out as a relatively modest five-room structure. Then new things were added: a tower here, a wing here, a small chapel or a new extention here– and as the Thule Empire grew from a collection of pox-ridden human barbarians clustered around their capital village here on a mesa to a continent-spanning empire that devoured countries like small snacks, the Palace had grown as well. It was now gigantic: a jumble of domes, minarets, towers, obelisks, courtyards, rooftops, and other assorted pieces of architecture. Keltor Kes had been around the continent and seen all that there was to see of the palaces of rulers. The palace of the King of Faldor, now, that was a structure designed to some architectural standard. It was a beautiful building. Not so, the Palace of Thule. It was a huge, ugly structure, a crowded mess that had ceased to look like a building so much as a mutated cluster of buildings that had grown around a central core. It was also an assassin’s dream. The cornices and crevices created ideal nooks and crannies for an assassin to climb in. The ramparts were huge, true, but enough extensions had been built that climbing them was just a matter of finding the right foothold. This is why the perimeters had been so well-guarded. However, this newest expansion to the palace, the hardeena built in the traditional Thule style, had a smooth gray granite rampart fifty feet high, facing the street. Getting up was a bit of a bother, but it was just a matter of having the right tools.

Keltor Kes slipped off his shoes, and placed a small pair of leathery gray slippers over his feet. He did the same with a pair of gloves made from the same material. Few humans knew what these garments were. But Keltor Kes knew, and he treasured them as one of the best tools an assassin might have. They were made from the skin of the legs of the ether-spider, that giant gray arachnid that haunted the depths of the nocturnal forests on the north side of the Isle of Avalon. These gloves were covered in hairs too tiny for the eye to see that clung to every pore and tiny crack in a surface. The skin of the ether-spiders allowed them to climb up surfaces too smooth for an ordinary creature. And Keltor Kes had acquired a pair of gloves and slippers. He placed his right foot against the wall, and felt it stick onto the smooth marble surface. He then pushed up, climbing like a sailor in the riggings of a ship. Higher and higher he clambered, passing above the graffitied lower wall and rising up. Ten feet, twenty, thirty, forty, moving like a liquid shadow in the moonless night. Soon he reached the top of the wall, climbed over it. He could see down into the Empress’s hardeena now, its green trees and fountains of wine nothing but shadows in the darkness.

PDI: I don’t know why, but I like really big spiders. And the idea of making a pair of gloves and slippers out of spider-skin is really only something that you’d get in a fantasy novel. Because, as we know, there aren’t really any giant spiders in the real world. 

I kind of wonder if the elves in Mirkwood made clothing or armor out of spider skins. Peter Jackson, the ball’s in your court. 

I must have liked the idea of ether-spiders, because I used the term in a number of stories of that period. And more recently, I put a kind of fabric partially made from giant spider-silk into The Lotus Imperiate. So that’s clearly a thing that resonated with me somehow.

There was a guard on the ramparts, furtively smoking something disgusting. He looked up. Keltor Kes could see his face with his darkvision as clear as if it were day. The guard’s eyes widened, and he shouted, “Halt! Intruder!” He ran off to alert his comrades. Keltor Kes drew his revolving pistol. He always kept a few bullets in the chamber of his gun, and this was a perfect time to use his weapon. He cocked the pistol with a deft flick of his finger, then blasted three shots– bang, bang, bang. The bullets flew straight and true. The first two struck the guard in the back. Tiny bursts of blood, colorless in the gloom, exploded into the night. The third struck the guard in the head. There was a splash, and the guard went down.

There were shouts from far away. The sound of a pistol was loud enough to attract unwanted attention. He needed to get down– fast. With a single leap, he flew over the side of the rampart and into the hardeena. Even with the cat-like reflexes of an elf, the fall would have killed Keltor Kes, had he not timed his leap perfectly so that he landed in a cherry tree. He landed in the branches and felt the soft embrace of leaves. The guards were there, lanterns ablaze, inspecting the dead body of their fallen comrade. None of them thought to look into the hardeena, but their sergeant said, “Look at the body. Two shots to the chest, one to the head. This was a trained killer. Be on the lookout for assassins, lads. This was obviously done by a master.” The guards dispersed. Two of them bore the body of their slain comrade. They left, bringing their lanterns with them, leaving Keltor Kes in pure, soft darkness. He dropped soundlessly to the grassy lawn of the hardeena.

PDI: Shed a tear for the death of poor Random Palace Mook #26. While it cannot be much of a comfort to his grieving widow and crying children, at least it can be said that he died fulfilling one of the oldest and most noble clichés in fantasy. 

Hey, maybe the guard was related to the merchant from the previous scene! That would explain a lot

I will say, though, that “furtively smoking something disgusting” is a lovely little description. While it’s another cliché for guards to take smoking breaks, the “something disgusting” is a nice little twist. And it leaves exactly what the guard was smoking to the imagination– whether it was ordinary tobacco, or possibly cannabis or some more exotic substance. Sometimes the art of description involves choosing what things to leave to the imagination, as well as actually describing things. 

The traditional hardeena was an ornamental garden beloved by nobles of Thule. It was always organized on a geometric pattern: a perfect square, subdivided into quarters by ten-foot wide paths. In each quarter was a perfectly square ornamental pond, where fish swam. In the center of the hardeena, there was a large gazebo, usually with a permanent fountain of wine in the center. Exotic animals lived in the hardeena, and the palace usually staffed an orchestra to constantly play pleasing music in a chamber beneath the hardeena, which traveled to each corner of the hardeena through a series of pipes. These musicians played continuously, taking eight-hour shifts, staggered so that at least one musician would be playing at one time. Right now, the musicians were playing tinkling chimes and violins, in the off-chance that the Empress, or at least a courtier or noble, would be passing through at dusk and wish to enjoy the peaceful stars while enjoying a drink from the wine fountain or perhaps the sexual favors of one of the harem boys.

To Keltor Kes, the music was a mild annoyance at best. In his homeland, the wild mountains and hills of Avalon, music was rare, and consisted mainly of guttural chanting and rhythmic beats, the “heartbeat of nature”, as the elves called it. The noises that humans made with pieces of metal ripped from the earth and the cleaned guts of sheep displeased him. He disliked the hardeena as well. The idea that the humans made a little island of geometric nature, all perfect squares and golden ratios, in a constant attempt to create an image of a paradise, a lost Eden-that-was, he found laughable. The wild ruggedness of the mountain rocks, the violent spray of ocean brine, the eternally perfect circles that the sun and stars traced in their journey across the heavens: those were beauty enough for him. He had no respect for these confining square gardens with their exotic animals and fountains of wine.

PDI: A little bit of elvish culture here, which I like. My taste in elves has always been towards Elfquest elves rather than Tolkien elves: tribal, fur-wearing humanoids who exist close to nature rather than city-building smug warriors. (That’s the reason why my main character in Dragon Age, Kÿalée, is a Dalish elf. I like tribal wanderers.) Plus, the whole “elves living close to nature” idea never really squared itself with the fact that they live in cities deep within the wilderness. No offense to Tolkien, but when I have elves or any other manner of fey creature, I’d much rather have them wear leather and have weapons made from wood and stone and bone, rather than wearing steel armor and carrying elegant longswords. 

But he did not have to live in this sad little microcosm: he only had to work here. He made his way around the square pond, two hundred feet on each side, the fish and seals in the ponds sleeping peacefully, unaware of the stealthy figure above them lurking like the shadow of death. He reached the corner of the pond, onto the small path that led directly to the Empress’s dwellings, located directly above the hardeena– two hundred feet up. For security, Empress Ishtar VI lived in the top floors of a tiny minaret high above the hardeena, from which she could survey the palace and the city beyond. The only access to the tower was up a slender staircase that wound up the sides of the minaret, guarded by twenty orcish eunuchs, all raw muscle and power, each one with their tongues cut out to keep them from revealing the secrets of their Empress. This was, they presumed, the only way up. But the guards had not counted on an elvish assassin with the gloves and slippers of ether-spider skin. He could get up the two hundred feet to the Empress’s balcony in an hour.

PDI: You know what the weird thing about this whole hardeena scene is? It feels like a set from the Arabian Nights, but it’s set in a country called “Thule”. Which is some serious psychic whiplash, considering that when an English-speaker hears the word “Thule”, they think of vikings and bearskin kilts, a land of the ice and snow where the hot springs blow, to quote Led Zeppelin. Not Persian gardens and eunuchs. 

I’m still unsure why I decided that the Thullan emperors had to have names ripped from Babylonian mythology. I guess it was because I’d just read Michael Swanwick’s brilliant Dragons of Babel, and the emperors there are named for Mesopotamian gods. But still, it’s a pretty blatant ripoff. 

And so, in the darkness of night, he began to climb the walls. He had chosen this night for an important reason. There was no moon tonight. It was completely dark, with nothing more than the light of the stars and planets above him, and the torches and lanterns of the city below him. He could see fine, thanks to his elvish darkvision, but the blundering human oafs that lived in this city would not suspect a thing– until too late, when their Empress lay dead in a pool of her own filthy blood.

It was slow going: Keltor Kes had been winded in the climb up the ramparts to the hardeena, and this was even more difficult. He had not gone thirty feet up– about a ten minute climb– before he began to feel exhausted, his limbs feeling leaden and weary, his arms aching as he pulled himself, hand over hand, up the wall. The light gray gloves wormed their hairs deep into any crevice, providing him with handholds for him to pull himself hand over hand, foot by grueling foot, until he reached the top of the tower and the Empress’s bower above him. He could feel Z’gara next to him, its rudimentary soul pulsing with want: want for the taste of blood. The fight in the tavern had not been enough. Z’gara begged for the life-force of a noble, blood of the highest. Keltor Kes, with his mind-link to his sword, could feel himself wanting blood. The thought of the Empress dead, and his hands full of the five thousand platinum pieces that her rivals had paid him to take her life, filled his muscles and joints, and he strove harder, his muscles and joints burning with the fire of rage and the lust to kill. Higher he climbed. The stars wheeled in the heavens over the city. He looked up. The evening star had already passed beneath the horizon, and it was deep into the dark hours. As he reached a quarter of the way up the minaret, the clock in the Guildmasters’ Hall gave off two sonorous chimes. Two hours after sunset. He felt his muscles burn. Fifty, sixty, seventy feet: Keltor Kes was living in a dream, a dream where there was nothing but the climb, precariously perched on a vertical wall. Above him lay his goal, the object of his quest. Below him lay death. Let his muscles relax for a moment, and he would fall to his death, a gory stain on the grass of the hardeena below. He kept climbing, not daring to think of falling, for if he did, that would mean not only the loss of his life, but the promise of five thousand platinum pieces: no, all the tortures of Hell would not be so bad as dying a poor man!

So up he climbed. Higher and higher, the promise of blood calling him like the call to mate calls the salmon over thousands of miles, across grueling oceans and great rivers, up waterfalls to tiny ponds high in the mountains. He was spawning, in a way. He was undertaking a journey no less grueling than that of the salmon. A hundred feet now. He couldn’t stop. Here, ten stories above the grass of the hardeena, falling was death. Already he felt his muscles begin to weaken. He had to push himself, and with the call to blood pulsing in his veins and lighting his brain afire, the silent call of his dagger pushing him on, he began to speed up. Faster and faster he climbed, covering four feet a minute. His muscles burned, and half of him longed to fall to the ground below, ease this pain he was in. But he went on. Always onwards. The siren call of the blood above him. He kept going, his heart pounding in his ears, his face drenched with sweat. He was now a hundred and fifty feet above the hardeena, and still he climbed. He climbed like a spider, like a shadow, like an eagle, like a wisp of cloud. His head swam, and his universe had become nothing more than the endless climb, agony, sharp and painful, as he rose higher and higher into the air… his head swam… his mind raced… blood pumped through his body more rapidly than a galloping horse… it was too much… he couldn’t go on… he had to fall…

And suddenly, so suddenly that he couldn’t belive it, he was there.

PDI: This section of description is actually pretty cool. It’s overwritten, just like everything else in this whole story, but I don’t mind that so much. The normally long, languid sentences have suddenly stopped, becoming short and choppy– which carries much more feeling of the physical exertion. Actually, I use this technique a lot lately. I think of sentence rhythms as being like the story’s heartbeat. When it’s going slow, the characters are relaxed and calm. The faster it gets, you feel more and more adrenaline, and your own reading experience tends to quicken. So I save short sentences for the big action scenes, and longer ones for passages of description or narration. 

Although, that the part towards the end, where it all dissolves into ellipses, is pretty bad. A lot of my stories in high school seemed to overuse the ellipsis in a big way. They also had a tendency to go off into elaborately complicated little parentheticals. I’ve pretty much cured myself of the Scourge of the Ellipsis. The parenthetical statements? Not so much. I’ve still got an uncurable obsession with using the em-dash and the parentheses, as I’m sure you can tell by reading my writing style. 

He pulled himself, gasping for breath, over the stone railing, and onto the open-air balcony of the Empress’s bower. He stood for a second, numb with pain, but quickly caught his breath. He drew Z’gara. The dagger gave him strength. His hands, which had felt as limp and pliable as bread dough, were now iron-hard, with a firm grip as if he had not made a two-hundred foot climb. He stepped into the Empress’s bower.

Immediately his sensitive elven nose wrinkled. The stench of decadence and corruption was all around him. Rich perfume filled the room, mixed in with the subtle rotten undertone of human semen. The walls were covered in ornate frescoes: images of magical animals, rich and decadent scenes from mythology, gardens and feasts, scenes of courtly love, and near the Empress’s bower, pictures of the most vile and corrupt scenes of perversion, meant to bring the lovers of the Empress into a rutting frenzy. Along with the frescoes were several pornographic statues, as well as several artificial phalluses alongside the bed, in all materials: ivory, glass, gold, even adamantine. The bower was rich with furs of all kinds: tiger hides from Nagaland, lion skins from Eden, bear pelts from Hyperborea, and even (to Keltor Kes’ incredible disgust) the tanned and perfectly smooth skin of an elvish maiden. It was this skin that barely covered the Empress as she lay in a post-coital slumber, there in the arms of two effeminate young men not much older than boys, with no hair on their faces and only a light down on their pubis.

PDI: Why did I feel the need to put a bunch of dildos in this scene? It’s not necessary. I guess that I wanted to have a certain feeling of perversion and sexual intrigue, but did I need to have a bunch of porn and sex toys here? 

Seventeen-year-old Ian must have thought that this was super kinky. Now that I’ve gone to college, I’m aware that a woman having a vibrator in her dresser drawer is actually pretty typical, and barely registers on the kink-scale. 

Keltor Kes studied the Empress. She was young, probably not even twenty. She had red-blonde hair which spilled down her ivory-white shoulders like a waterfall. Her nose was small and pixie-like, her lashes long and dark, her lips rather thin and severe. Her skin was the color of peach cream, dimpled and unravaged by time. Her breasts were small and well-formed, and reddish hair poked out from under her arms. She wore jewelry, even while asleep: a golden torque adorned her left arm, a platinum circlet shone on her forehead, rings of ruby and sapphire and emerald and amethyst sparkled on her fingers, a diamond sparkled in her belly. She was not unattractive, even by elvish standards. Keltor Kes was sorry that he had to do away with this work of beauty. But business was business, and he had to do things that he found distasteful occasionally, such as doing away with attractive girls.

PDI: I must have been a bloody ball of hormones at this age. I’d expected there to be a bit more of a focus on her boobs, because that’s where the straight guy’s gaze is naturally drawn, but still, there’s quite a lot of sexual imagery there. I hadn’t ever heard the term “male gaze” at that stage of my life. Neither had I started to seriously think about feminism as a topic. But there probably was some awareness. Even if I was thinking about a lot of female characters in fiction and film as sex objects, at some level I was probably aware of the inherent sexism of most fantasy fiction. So I was walking a fine line at this point, between sexual exhibitionism and actually creating fully-rounded female characters. (And Empress Ishtar, as we’ll see, is much more of a fleshed-out character than Keltor Kes, our erstwhile POV character.)

Oh, well. What must be done must be done. He pulled out his revolving pistol, loaded two bullets into the chamber, as well as powder. Then he shot two bullets, one into the head of each prepubescent boy in the arms of the Empress. Their beautiful heads disappeared in a blossom of red blood. Bang, bang. Suddenly, the two boys had three-inch holes in the sides of their head, black openings to their skulls. The Empress stirred, and lazily awoke. She glanced with distaste at the two cooling bodies next to her.

“Oh,” she said. “So it’s come to this, then?” She roused herself, and stood up. Keltor Kes was surprised to see how short she was: only about five feet tall. She was almost a head shorter to the two young boys she had been in bed with.

Keltor Kes holstered his pistol. “Do I have the honor of addressing Ishtar VI, by the Grace of Marduk the  Empress of Thule and High Queen of Faldor, Quarios, Mallear, Caenaar, and the North, War Leader of the Orcs and High Priestess of the Dwarven Clans?”

“You do,” Ishtar VI said. “And I assume, based on the fact that you killed my toys as they slept, you are an assassin?”

“I am that, milady,” Keltor Kes said. He was about to kill this young woman, but all assassins in the Shadow Syndicate were trained in etiquette and courtesy.

Ishtar VI smiled, a grim, sideways smirk. “Well, then, assassin, I would not die without knowing your name.”

“I am called Kelletaáralaéalnauróthúlluáraé Kaístarséatté, but among humans my name is Keltor Kes.”

“That’s a beautiful name,” Ishtar VI said, dreamily. “It translates as… let me see… “Song of the Ancient Smell of Trees Bourne from the North on a Dying Wind?”

“Yes,” Keltor Kes said, taken aback. “You speak High Elvish?”

“I speak all seven dialects of the Elvish tongue,” Ishtar VI replied. She smiled. “But High Elvish is my favorite. High Elvish is pure music made speech.” Keltor Kes noticed her eyes: bright green, like tall grass in springtime.

PDI: Blech. Kelletaáralaéalnauróthúlluáraé Kaístarséatté? How did I think that was a reasonable name in any language? It’s just a random jumble of phonemes. Barely a word at all. If you were going to ask me how to pronounce it, I’d just draw a blank. The first name is twelve syllables long, for fuck’s sake!

At least I didn’t put any apostrophes in. Even in my teen years, I was aware that apostrophes in fantasy names are the worst kind of cliché. If I ever get around to writing a post about naming fantasy characters, I’ll probably make this my first rule: Omit needless apostrophes. 

“Now, I must inquire, good sir Assassin,” the Empress said. “Who has paid for my execution?”

“I believe, from what the Syndicate has disclosed to me, that Queen Laura has given a monetary fee for your death.”

“Laura,” murmured Ishtar VI tasting the name as if it were a fine wine. “Yes, I do believe I know of her. She’s the wife of the King of Mallear, right?”

“I am sure your assessment is correct, milady,” Keltor Kes replied.

“Yes,” the Empress said. “Jealous bitch. I believe that what I did to her was seduce one of her harem boys from her seraglio. It’s not the sort of thing that you’d expect to assassinate the last Empress of Thule over, but still, women will be women, and women are naturally jealous creatures.”

Keltor Kes said softly, “I must say, milady, you are accepting the news of your impending mortality with a certain amount more dignity than I had expected.”

“Why shouldn’t I?” the Empress responded. “This Empire is on its last legs. It’s filled to the brim with scheming nobility, feuding kings and queens, civil wars, bandits in the wilderness, uprisings among our friends the orcs and dwarves… If this empire doesn’t fall in my time, then it will fall in the next emperor’s time, or the next. I hardly expect Thule to extend its dominion over the whole continent for a century. Truth be told, I don’t expect Thule to last two decades once I’m gone! So I figure that I’d better get out while I can. Let me go to the home of the Gods, let me be united with my namesake, and I will watch and laugh when this empire crumbles into the hundreds of barbarian tribes that my ancestors united them from. We’ve had a good run, I say. Seven hundred years of Thule’s domination over the continent! Nothing like that has been seen since the days of Hyperborea! I’m just a rat, jumping off the ship before it sinks.”

PDI: Long speech, much? Ishtar has a bit of a tendency to ramble, doesn’t she? 

She’s pretty lucid for a woman about to be killed, though. I know if I were in her position, I would be like ERMAHGERD YOU JUST MURDERED MY SEX BUDDIES!

“You have a great deal of bravery, milady,” said Keltor Kes.

She waved her hand in a disdainful gesture. “Don’t call me that. I hate being called that. Every one of my courtiers and viziers and nobles and servants call me that. My advisors control everything. I have no power. I am nobody’s lady. I am a figurehead on a rotten ship.”

“Shall I call you Ishtar, then?” Keltor Kes said softly.

“No. That’s not my real name either. I want to go out of the world the way I came into it. With my own name. My real name.”

“If I may inquire, what is your real name?”

There were tears in the Empress’s eyes. “Zalina,” she said quietly, saying a name that had not passed her lips for ten years.

“Zalina,” Keltor Kes repeated.

“Zalina.” Tears streamed down Zalina’s face, but her chin was still held high, her face proud and beautiful.

PDI: And now I’m breaking out the melodrama. Blargh. 

Have you guys heard of the Madonna-whore complex? It’s a feminist idea that basically states that men can only think of women as either virginal goddess-like Madonnas or evil demonic whores. As a male feminist, I’d like to point out the fact that not all men think like that, but I’ll say that it’s more widespread than most guys think. We seem to have this deeply-rooted idea that “good” women don’t have any sexuality, that they’re just passive recipients of male pleasure and dominance, and that any women that have sexual urges, or take any initiative whatsoever in the sexual act, are evil dirty whores. 

Why am I bringing this up? Well, because it seems like most fantasy writers– even female ones, although it’s less common than among male writers– write female characters that only fit into one of those two categories. George R.R. Martin, as much as I admire the man’s work (well, the first three Game of Thrones books, at least), writes only two kinds of female characters: the Madonna and the Whore. Cersei definitely fits into the Whore category. Danaerys is a clear Madonna. The main difference between Martin and the rest of the Madonna-Whore fantasists is that Martin allows his Madonnas to have sex. 

I’m kind of rambling on about this, but I want to make this clear: I don’t want my female characters to be either Madonnas or whores. One of my biggest goals as a writer is to be able to write strong, interesting female characters. I don’t know if I’ll achieve that– again, I’m hampered a huge amount by the fact that I’m a straight man (and there are differences between the sexes, no matter what some might say). Did I achieve this with Zalina? I don’t know. She’s basically a walk-on. Even if she’s not as much of a redshirt as the merchant in the tavern, or the palace guard, her purpose is still just to get killed. Although, we do get to see a little bit of her character before she bites it. We know that she has a sexuality, as is evidenced from my hamfisted cramming-in of porn and dildoes. In the Madonna-whore complex, that enough would be enough to make her a villain. But that’s not all that she is. She’s also the ruler of a crumbling empire, a person who doesn’t want to be empress, and yet is still forced into her position. And she goes to her death with some modicum of dignity. So she’s not a whining coward. It would have been easy for me to make her one at the age of seventeen. I’m glad I didn’t. 

So is Zalina a “strong female character”? I don’t know. I was still starting out as a writer, and Zalina only appeared for one scene. But there’s something starting to climb towards the light there. Zalina– even if she only had a few lines– is a beginning. 

We’ll see where that path takes me. 

And Keltor Kes drew Z’gara. As he did so, he felt a wave of energy rush up his arm. Z’gara was ready to kill, ready to take her life. And Zalina was prepared to lose her life. She closed her eyes, took a deep, trembling breath, and raised her chin, exposing her perfect, porcelain neck. Keltor Kes raised his dagger, and said, “I am sorry, Zalina.” Then Z’gara’s power rushed through him. He brought his dagger down in a flash of pearly-gray, the runes glowing with a blue light. One cut– Keltor Kes slashed across Zalina’s neck. A spray of blood, a dark, gaping wound, and Zalina fell to the ground. Her heart beat the last of her body’s blood from her, and a red stain slowly spread across the pink satin sheet of her bed. Her eyes were closed and dignified as her last warm breath left her body, and her heart beat a final time. And so it was that Zalina, also known as Ishtar VI, last Empress of Thule, died.

* ~ * ~ *

Keltor Kes pulled a handkerchief covered in dark brown stains from his pocket. He crooned softly to Z’gara, “That was quite a satisfactory job, my companion. I do believe that we have earned our well-deserved reward. And I may even procure for you an improvement: a better sheath, for example. You shall have to reside in a battered old scabbard no longer! I shall purchase you a fine sheath, red leather, with gold embroidery. Would you find that agreeable?” And it seemed to him that Z’gara hummed in response.

PDI: Okay, it’s pretty clear where Z’gara’s literary heritage comes from. Michael Moorcock, author of the Elric novels, as well as many other works of fantasy and science fiction. Z’gara, despite being a dagger, is a smaller, more maneuverable version of Stormbringer, Elric’s big black soul-sucking sword. I love the Elric stories, and I still think that Stormbringer is the coolest weapon in all of fantasy. If I could hang any fantasy sword on the wall of my bedroom, then I’d choose Stormbringer, over anything from Tolkien or Martin or Leiber or anything else. 

I’m wondering where Z’gara comes from, and what its story is. Do all assassins in the Shadow Syndicate have vampiric soul-sucking daggers? Is it something that Keltor Kes bought, or was awarded by his employers? Or did he find it out on a mission? Did he take it from the body of a warrior he killed? What does Z’gara use the souls for? Does it feed on them? Or is it a sort of soul-repository, a place where souls are stored to be used later for some dark purpose? 

None of these questins are answered in the twenty-page text of Demonslayers, of course. I just thought it would be badass for Keltor Kes to have a soul-sucking dagger. 

But no– that humming did not come from the dagger. It came from all around the room. Keltor Kes felt a vibration in his feet. He paused in cleaning Z’gara, and looked around him inquisitively. It felt like an earthquake. The ground shook slightly, creating a buzzing noise that resounded through the room, then began to shake harder, and harder, and harder still.

Strangely enough, Keltor Kes felt lighter on his feet.

The earthquake continued, and Keltor Kes struggled to keep his feet. It may have been the quaking of the ground, or it may have been the fact that Keltor Kes now weighed only forty of his normal hundred-and-twenty pounds. The earth was shaking harder, now. Keltor Kes could hear the screams of citizens outside. He heard a thunderous crash– a tower in the north wing of the palace had collapsed. And still he felt lighter and lighter. He only weighed ten pounds now, and had to struggle to keep from being thrown off his feet. He began to make his way shakily towards the balcony, bounding across the room, leaping higher and higher with each step, until he reached the edge of the balcony. The earth gave a huge lurch, and Keltor Kes was thrown bodily into the air.

He did not come back down.

Keltor Kes was floating in the air just off of the balcony. He was looking down at the hardeena, two hundred feet below him. But he was floating in the air without means of visible support. He kicked his feet in a scissor-like motion, and found that he could propel himself a short distance. He found he could drop a little bit by straightening his body and pointing his feet straight down. But he was still floating, and he could not see why.

Either this is a dream, or I have gone mad, Keltor Kes thought to himself.

He looked straight out. What should have been the utter blackness of the moonless sky, speckled with tiny stars, was a wall of stone, dark gray. He could see huge crags and cracks, and occasionally, the opening to a cavern, as the sheer stone cliffs rushed past him. Obviously he, and all the city, was falling towards the center of the earth. The light grew redder and redder. Keltor Kes began to feel hotter and hotter. He looked at Z’gara. The dagger was starting to glow red-hot. He held on tightly, not daring to let go of his most faithful friend and companion.

The heat was overwhelming. He screamed, a full-bodied primal scream that took all the air from his lungs. Before his eyes, his skin grew black and cracked, like burnt meat. His hair caught on fire, and he screamed as his lungs filled with ash and his muscles became so much meat. His nostrils filled with the smell of burning flesh.

As Keltor Kes died, his muscles and tissue fried clean off his bones, he saw the sheer rock walls open up into a huge, magma-filled cavern. The last thing he saw, rushing from the pit, was a horde of a hundred thousand winged things.

PDI: I guess the ending needs some explanation. 

This would have been explained in the rest of the book Demonslayers, which I never wrote. But basically, the earth was filled with demons at one point in the long past, until they were banished to Hell and humanity could evolve in peace. What happened was that the first Emperor of Thule made a pact with a demonic lord when he was just the chief of a barbarian tribe: that the demons would help him forge an empire that would span the continent, and in return, the demons would get to have the world when his last descendant was dead. 

Turns out Zalina was his last descendant. 

Well, this isn’t good for Team Entire Planet!

Keltor Kes kills Zalina, and the demons come back in force. The Imperial City disappears into a rift, going into Hell, and now demons are back on the earth and running the whole thing. 

So, we cut to about eighty years later, when demons have overrun the earth, and we pick up with two characters who are demon slayers (hence the title of the book). They’re two teenagers named Colin and Luci. (I’ve been using those characters, in some form or another, in a lot of the crap I’ve written since I started writing in 2003.) Colin fights with two swords; Luci fights with a bow. The first chapter begins with them killing a demon, congratulating each other… 

And that’s where it ends. 

In mid-sentence, even. 

I have no idea where I was going with the story, actually. I have an idea that Colin and Luci would have gone to the center of the old Thule Empire, where the demons are strongest. They would probably meet with the last descendant of the man who bound the demons in the first place, and try to bind the demons in Hell again so that humans can live on earth without getting et. I seem to remember thinking about a scene where they go into a demon-infested library in the old Thule Empire so they can find out about why demons are plaguing the world. I also seem to recall thinking about a scene set in Hell, where they talk with the ghost of Keltor Kes. 

But that’s all there is. Like most of my ideas in those days, Demonslayers was doomed to be about twenty pages long, and then it disappeared into the Land of the Aborted First Drafts (along with Winter’s Chill, Fire and Ice, the Exodus Trilogy: Book One, Dogs of War, Wildfire… wow, a lot of things). 

What’s been weird about this whole readthrough of the prologue to Demonslayers is how much of the stuff remains as elements in my later work. In fall quarter of my freshman year, I was working on a work called The Exodus Trilogy, which would be three books (obviously), although I only wrote about sixty thousand words of the first book. And a lot of the stuff from The Exodus Trilogy has carried over to The Lotus Imperiate

I wonder how much continuity there is: how much of my first book, the terrible Tolkien ripoff, still exists in The Lotus Imperiate, and how much The Lotus Imperiate will feed into my future works (which will come after tLI, hopefully when tLI is finished and published). It’s something to think about, anyway. 

In any case, this is enough wallowing in the past. Time to wallow in the present, which will become the future. 


~ Ian

May the hair on your toes never grow thin!

~ Ian


1 copy of Green Day’s American Idiot on CD

1 copy of SSX3 for PlayStation 2

1 one-volume copy of Lord of the Rings

the whole series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus

1 combination CD player/clock radio

1 TV

1 PlayStation 2

1 DVD player

1 bedroom

1 person


Directions: Insert the American Idiot CD into the CD player. Listen to the whole thing. Following this, insert SSX3 into the PlayStation 2. Freeride the whole mountain, from The Throne at the top of Peak 3 to Metro City Breakdown at the bottom of Peak 1. Make sure to take all the secret paths and shortcuts, like the hidden run on Ruthless Ridge and the subway railslide and teleporters on Metro City. Change to the DVD player. Watch four or five episodes of Monty Python. Get out the copy of Lord of the Rings, and read a few chapters.

Repeat as necessary.

~ Ian

I’ve been listening to Led Zeppelin IV a lot while I’ve been writing, for no other reason than hey, I like Led Zeppelin. And really, when you consider that they’re kind of the godfathers of heavy metal (you can clearly hear that ancestry on “Black Dog” and the ending to “Stairway to Heaven”), there’s no good reason not to listen to them. Unless you don’t like metal. In which case, I don’t think we can be friends.

But one thing that strikes me when I listen to Led Zeppelin IV is, holy crap there are a lot of Tolkien references. I mean, I was aware of them before, on an intellectual level. But listening to the actual lyrics of the songs makes me realize how saturated with Tolkien the early seventies were. I should know, really, because at a certain stage in my life, I was Santa Cruz’s hugest Tolkien junkie. Between sixth and ninth grade, Tolkien was my personal god. My stories from that time (which you will NEVER SEE) are pretty much a preteen’s honest efforts to ape Tolkien. I was so deeply into Lord of the Rings that I made my dad read me the Silmarillion. I bought the History of Middle Earth books. I think I still have them somewhere, in a box in the crawlspace.

Why am I talking about this? Well, listening to “Misty Mountain Hop” and “The Battle of Evermore” makes me remember, back to those times when I was a kid who felt confined by my universe, by school, by parents, by Asperger’s Syndrome and my own brain, by the world itself. How my only escape was immersing myself entirely into this massive fantasy universe that was detailed down to the merest pebble. How I could sink into any chapter of Lord of the Rings and disappear out of myself.

Reading Tolkien eventually took me on a long path, growing my interest in tabletop RPGs and video games and cheesy fantasy trilogies and graphic novels. I could trace nearly everything I am today to when I was eight years old, and my dad read me that most famousest of first lines: In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit…

I’m probably going to write about Tolkien’s effect on my embryonic writer-self at some point. But not today.

I’ve got real writing to do.

And Led Zeppelin to listen to.

~ Ian

I haven’t posted a really long, in-depth blog in a while, so I’m going to put up this completely geeky ramble about fantasy writers.

Please note: There will be SPOILERS ahead. Do not read ahead if you do not want to be SPOILED.












I’m not even fucking kidding.












Turn back now.










Okay, fine. Whatever. It’s no skin off my ass if you want to be spoiled.

…What was I talking about, again?

Oh yeah.

George R.R. Martin is not the American Tolkien.

When A Feast for Crows came out, Martin was dubbed “the American Tolkien” by Time magazine. That statement has always bothered me, actually. There are only two similarities between Tolkien and Martin, which are listed below:

  1. Dudes with swords run around and make fightings in both books, and:
  2. There are dragons.

(See what I mean? That second one is a SPOILER if you haven’t read all the way to the end of Game of Thrones! The earth hath become cursed! Blood shall pour down from the heavens in unimaginable quantities! The Darkhawks will fly over the earth, blocking the sun and bringing eternal night! Rick Santorum shall become a Muslim!)


I find the comparison between Tolkien and Martin to be somewhat condescending, actually. It’s the kind of comparison that ignores the substantial differences between the two writers and their works. It’s the sort of “all fantasy is the same” attitude that I see the English majors at my school espousing, the kind of people who wouldn’t be caught dead reading a fantasy novel unless it was called “magical realism” and avoid all contact with the hoi polloi’s massive trilogies for fear of contracting scrofula.

Beneath their superficial similarities, Martin and Tolkien are about as different as two writers can be.

Let’s look at some of the differences, shall we?


J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien in 1916, in his military uniform.

  • Born 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa, the son of an English banker. At the time when Tolkien was born, Bloemfontein was the capital of the Orange Free State, and in a lot of ways, was like a town in the American Wild West. It was a rough-and-tumble town on the edge of a great, hot wilderness that had only recently been settled by Europeans. Tolkien didn’t live for very long in Bloemfontein, though: when he was very young, he:
  • Moved to England and grew up in Warwickshire, in the countryside around Birmingham. Both his father and mother died when Tolkien was very young, and so he lived with his younger brother in an orphanage in Birmingham until 1910, when he:
  • Attended Oxford University, where he studied Old and Middle English language and literature. When war broke out in 1914, he:
  • Served in World War I as a lieutenant, and fought in the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in human history. (There are indications– at least, this is my theory– that Tolkien suffered from “shell shock”, or what later became known as post-traumatic stress disorder. If you look at the final chapters of Lord of the Rings, it appears that Frodo was suffering from PTSD, something that Tolkien may have had personal experience with. The reason why Frodo was sent to the Grey Havens, and from there to Eldamar, was to heal from his mental scars.)
  • Became an academic, lecturing at the University of Leeds in Yorkshire, and then Oxford. Tolkien was an incredibly influential academic. He was the first scholar to look at Beowulf as a work of literature rather than a source text for Old English words, and much of what we understand of Beowulf today comes from Tolkien’s writings. In addition, Tolkien also translated the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by one of the most mysterious authors in the history of English literature, an unknown writer only known as the Pearl-poet.
  • In his spare time, Tolkien wrote a vast, unpublishable mythology that would eventually (in 1977, once Tolkienmania had swelled and ebbed) become published as The Silmarillion. (If you think that it’s a little strange that I call The Silmarillion unpublishable when it’s been published: dude, have you even read the goddamn book? There’s no way in hell that it could have been published without Lord of the Rings going internationally popular.)
  • Tolkien was the father of four children, who he wrote stories for. One of these stories, The Hobbit, was eventually published as a children’s book in 1937. The popularity that The Hobbit had among youngsters of pre-war England and America meant that Tolkien had to write a sequel. He did, eventually– after twelve years of writing and six more years of arguing with publishers, the first volume of Lord of the Rings came out in 1954. Tolkien was really an academic primarily, and not a novelist. The success of Lord of the Rings is completely, bizarrely accidental.
  • Tolkien was very conservative, although not in the modern-day teabagger sense. Tolkien believed in the honesty and goodness of the middle class, the beauty and sanctity of nature, and the decentralization of government. He was the kind of conservative that you never see today, in the UK or in the USA. (You can see elements of his political ideas in the portrayal of hobbits and the Shire.) In addition to his conservativism, Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic, and both Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are incredibly Catholic works.

Now, let’s look at Martin:


George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin in 1986.

  • Born 1948 in Bayonne, New Jersey. Bayonne is a world away from where Tolkien was born and raised: it’s a Northeastern industrial town near New York City, a working-class town of lower- and lower-middle class folks. Not similar at all to a rough-and-tumble South African frontier town, or the Warwickshire countryside! There’s a significant temporal difference, as well: Tolkien grew up in middle-class Edwardian England, a genteel place that was nothing like postwar New Jersey. (You can get a vivid description of what Bayonne was like in Martin’s teenage years by looking at Martin’s contribution to the first volume of the Wild Cards superhero anthologies.)
  • Martin grew up with different entertainment than Tolkien: comic books, television, and yes, even fantasy novels like Lord of the Rings. A young comics fan, Martin had letters published in the backs of comics like Fantastic Four, and was a part of the embryonic comics fandom that began in the early sixties as part of the Silver Age.
  • Martin attended Northwestern University in Chicago, and saw firsthand many of the political upheavals of the late sixties. (Read his novel The Armageddon Rag if you want to take a look at what Chicago was like while Martin attended Northwestern.)
  • A professional writer early on, Martin wrote science fiction short stories in the 1970s, even winning a few Hugo Awards for his work. Martin became an integral part of SF fandom, attending Worldcon regularly, in stark contrast to the reclusive Tolkien (who had a bit of a love/hate relationship with his fans).
  • In the 1970s and 80s, Martin began publishing novels. In the late 80s, Martin began working with Hollywood, writing scripts for episodes of Beauty and the Beast and The Twilight Zone (as can be seen from his majestic hat in the picture above). After an absence of over a decade, Martin wrote and published A Game of Thrones, the first volume of a fantasy trilogy titled A Song of Ice and Fire that has since ballooned to five books, with no end in sight. (The most recent book in the ASoIaF saga, A Dance with Dragons, was published last year, and a TV series based on the books debuted on HBO.)

Okay. We’ve got two writers, both very different in their backstories. One a middle-class English academic, one a New Jersey-born professional writer. Let’s look at their respective works, in contast with each other:


Lord of the Rings

…Okay. Where do we start?

Lord of the Rings is an incredibly dualistic, Manichean book. You are either on the side of the Light or the Shadow. You are one of the Free Peoples or you are the Enemy. The whole plot of Lord of the Rings is essentially a religious struggle, a war of Good and Evil– and yes, I capitalized those words for a reason. There are mostly good people in ASoIaF, like Ned Stark and Jon Snow, and there are mostly evil people, like Roose Bolton and Cersei Lannister. But it’s much more complicated in ASoIaF. Nearly everyone in ASoIaF is a shade of gray.

It’s not that way in LotR. You are either pure, unsullied white, or you are utter, soulless darkness. (Okay, okay, I guess that there is Gollum. Gollum, though, is easily the most interesting character in LotR. In fact, I’m sure he’d fit in great in Westeros.)

The Good versus Evil that exists in LotR makes sense, when you look at it from Tolkien’s perspective. Tolkien was devoutly religious– a Roman Catholic. While Tolkien famously hated allegory, there are elements of Catholic religion in LotR. (One of my favorite stories about Tolkien was about a fan who asked him if Galadriel was based on the Virgin Mary. Tolkien didn’t answer yes to the fan’s question– but he didn’t exactly answer no, either.) And Catholicism is a dualistic religion. You are either one of God’s children, or you’re going to burn in hell. (It’s the same way with all modern Western religions except Judaism. While the concepts of Heaven and Hell are much less overt in the Qu’ran than they are in the Bible, they’re in there. And yes, I consider Islam to be a Western religion.)

And then there’s death…

Death in LotR is seen in two ways. If you’re a main character, you can either die heroically, as a good guy, or as a result of your own pride and sins, like Gollum or Denethor. The Good Guys who die in LotR all die in the defense of others. Gandalf is killed fighting the Balrog, while the rest of the Fellowship escapes to the safety of Lothlórien. Boromir dies protecting Merry and Pippin from a swarming army of Uruk-Hai. Théoden goes down fighting the fucking Witch King of Angmar. When you die in LotR, you go down fighting. There are no daggers in the back. Nobody gets executed, or assassinated, or dies of disease or childbirth. It’s a world where you go down in service of the Light, fighting to your last breath, and then you get a deathbed scene and a beautiful funeral.

Let’s say you don’t die fighting the good fight in LotR. Once Good wins (and Good will win– it’s completely guaranteed), you will be rewarded. Maybe you’ll get to rule over a newly-forged continent-spanning empire, like Aragorn. Maybe you’ll be rewarded with lands for your race, like Legolas and Gimli. Maybe you’ll become king of your people, like Éomer, or find your true love, like Faramir and Éowyn, or go home and be seen as a hero by your people, like Merry and Pippin. Maybe you’ll marry the girl next door and have fourteen babies, like Sam. Or maybe, like Frodo and Gandalf and Elrond and Galadriel, you will pass over the sea, into the Undying Lands, laying down your burdens to rest forever. Whatever you do, if you survive the good fight, you’ll get your reward.

I think this is a perfect time to talk about…


A Song of Ice and Fire

I remember, when the LotR movies came out back in 2002, there was a thriving business in merchandising. (I can just hear Yogurt saying… “Merchandising! That’s where the real money in the movie is made! LotR the T-shirt, LotR the lunchbox, LotR the breakfast cereal, LotR the toilet paper, LotR the flamethrower! [The kids love that one.]”) Anyway, one of the pieces of merchandise was chess sets.

These chess sets were gorgeous pieces of art. They had little sculptures of characters rendered in exquisite detail for each piece. You could fight the armies of Sauron with Aragorn as your king and Arwen as your queen, alongside such pieces as Gandalf the bishop, Legolas the knight, Gimli the rook, and eight identical cannon-fodder hobbit-pawns. I lusted for one of these chess sets. Unfortunately, the whole ensemble cost about as much as a PS2, and when my family finally got one (a PS2, not a chess set), I had more fun with that anyway.

So, with Game of Thrones cleaning up in ratings, reviews, and awards, will we see Game of Thrones chess sets?

I’ll be honest. I don’t think we will.

What’s the reason behind this? Well, who would you pick to be the two opposing armies? What characters would we render in lovingly-detailed hand-painted resin? Who would be white; who would be black? Would a Game of Thrones chess set be Starks vs. Lannisters? Night’s Watch vs. Wildlings? Night’s Watch vs. Others? Daenerys vs. Everyone? Or would we go back in time, and make a chess set detailing historical events, such as the invasion of the Targaryens?

That’s the problem. I don’t know. And I don’t think anyone does.

You can’t represent a series like ASoIaF in Manichaean terms. You could say that the Starks are the good guys and the Lannisters are the bad guys– and I’ll admit, there are more seeming “good guys” on Team Stark than Team Lannister. But while Tywin and Cersei are both unrepentant bastards (in the ‘evil motherfucker’ sense, not the Jon Snow sense), is Tyrion a bad guy? Is Jaime?

For that matter, are Sansa and Arya entirely good?

ASoIaF isn’t a “good vs. evil” conflict. You can’t represent a character as complex as Tyrion or Robert or Arya or Viserys by just labeling them “lawful neutral” or “chaotic evil”. It can’t be done.

Which brings me to my second point: death.


Death isn’t noble in ASoIaF like it is in LotR. It’s as horrible and pointless as it is in real life. And the noble aren’t exempt. The two most white-hatted Good Guys in the history of the series, Ned Stark and Jon Snow, are executed and assassinated, respectively. They don’t go out fighting Others or in pitched combat against Lannisters. They are killed in backhanded, dishonorable ways.

And then you have to remember: as deaths go in ASoIaF, Ned Stark’s and Jon Snow’s are almost palatable.

Tywin Lannister is murdered by his own son, shitting his pants in the process. Robb Stark is murdered at his uncle’s wedding. He is then decapitated, and the severed head of his direwolf is sewn onto the bloody stump. Joffrey is poisoned in front of his subjects. Khal Drogo dies an undignified death from an infected wound– not the way a Conan-type character would want to leave the world. Nearly every character who dies in ASoIaF goes out in an ironic, horrible way.

And you know what? Martin tells us this right up front. One of the first scenes in A Game of Thrones serves to tell us that, Toto, we ain’t in Middle-earth anymore.

The scene that I’m talking about is, of course, the scene where Bran Stark spies on Jaime and Cersei Lannister engaged in a bout of incredibly creepy twincest, when all of a sudden, he is spotted by Cersei and hurled out of a window by Jaime, forty feet down onto hard cobblestones. It’s horrifying, and disgusting, and disturbing. It’s not anything like you’d see in Tolkien.

And the worst part of the first scene? Bran lives. He is crippled for life, a paraplegic in a world without handicapped bathroom stalls and wheelchair ramps.

That’s perhaps the worst part of the first scene– Martin doesn’t even grant Bran the comfort of death.

Martin’s world is nothing like Tolkien’s. Instead of the black-and-white morality of Middle-earth, Westeros is a world of gray and red. It’s a place where people suffer. It’s a world where the good guys get fucked and the scum rises to the top. I’d love to live in Middle-earth, but would I like to even visit Westeros?

Hell, no.


That’s why I’m irked when people call Martin the American Tolkien. Because Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire are so incredibly different from each other. Sure, they’re similar on the surface, in a “dudes fight with swords oh also there are dragons” way. But this is only the most superficial of examinations. Look below the surface, and the two series are as different as a cat and a cuttlefish. They’re as distinct as Skyrim and Final Fantasy, as similar as two completely dissimilar things in a pod. (Thanks, Richard Curtis and Ben Elton!)

Every time I hear someone call Martin “the American Tolkien” (or indeed, hear any fantasy writer compared to Tolkien), I basically assume that the person who says it is thinking, All fantasy novels are basically Lord of the Rings, with only one or two superficial differences, right?

Um, no. I would never read fantasy if every fantasy novel was a watered-down retread of Tolkien. But the genre is too diverse to dismiss it like that. Perdido Street Station is nothing like Swords of Lankhmar is nothing like A Wrinkle In Time is nothing like The Last Unicorn is nothing like The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Fantasy is too big, and too broad, and too beautiful to be easily defined as “just a bunch of books that are the same as LotR.” Calling Martin “the American Tolkien” is like calling Raymond Chandler “the American Agatha Christie”. It’s like calling John Brunner “the British Robert A. Heinlein”. You’d never hear Chandler or Brunner described like that. The mystery and SF genres are too broad, with a wide variety of influences and a vast diversity of works too easy to categorize and label like that.

So why is it that fantasy is singled out? Why is it that Lord of the Rings is seen as the platonic ideal of “fantasy”, while all other books and authors are judged by their distance from Tolkien? Why is Martin “the American Tolkien”, and not “the male Ursula K. LeGuin”, “the white N.K. Jemisin”, or “the not-quite-as-funny Terry Pratchett”?

Why do even the most diehard fantasy fans underestimate our beloved genre?


I’ll leave you with that question. Comments are encouraged.

~ Ian


P.S. Oh, and while you’re at it, can you stop calling Lord of the Rings the definitive fantasy work of the sixties? It’s really not. The definitive sixties fantasy is obviously Elric of Melniboné.







I’m in a hurry today, so I don’t have much time to do a lengthy blog post. In the meantime, though, here’s a poem that I wrote about geekery, and being a geek (mainly to practice working with evocative imagery, but still).

Happy Wednesday, wherever you are.

~ Ian


In my head there are…

Albino princes with vampire swords, black and rune-carved

Moving catlike through worlds of burgundy and topaz and dark green

Cimmerian warriors, mightily-thewed

And tentacled terrors rising up

From the deeps of the Pacific

Bringing darkness from their house at great R’lyeh.

And there are blondes in graveyards, waiting for nightfall

And square-jawed space cowboys piloting ships named after insects

Saying, “You can’t take the sky from me”

As they pull their sixguns and fire

And lab-coated supervillians

Who just can’t get a break

Pining for the redhead down at the corner laundromat.

And then there are knights and wizards and dragons and imps

And Swords-of-the-Morning and Mountains-That-Ride

And dark riders, thundering down a green country road,

Black towers silhouetted against the baleful sky

A small bright star poking through the clouds,

Light and high beauty beyond reach.

And did I tell you about the millions of people

The bat-people and cat-people and arachnid-boys

The glorious gods riding down Midwestern highways

And dwarves and kender, space marines and scientists

Sky-pirates in their airships patrolling the heavens

And magical schoolgirls, and cyborg policewomen,

Alchemist brothers, questing for their lost bodies.

And there are fair princesses and fat plumbers,

Crazed computers and test subjects,

And beautiful women in suits of power armor

Flying their gunships across the starlit sky.

Oh, the people that live inside my head.

And have you ever wondered about all the places

The planets and realms and galaxies and cities

The bright flags that fly from the battlements

Of the White City, the Dyson Spheres and generation starships

And glorious skyscrapers, art-deco and gleaming

At the edge of the ocean, sunrise kindling them

To towers of fire.

In my head I hold a million people,

A million worlds and a million stories.

An entire multiverse lies within my mind.

And that is why, though the world is gray and dreary,

And I am bound by mundane and pale flesh

To sorry reality, I still keep going

Because to stop going would be to lose these worlds

The future, the past, the never-there-was and the never-could-be

Fading like fog on the ocean in morning.

And that is why

You will never bring me down.