Review – The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Ken Liu has written a book both sprawling and subtle here. Go get lost in it.

Liu consistently presents his characters with impossible choices. Sometimes they are true to the tendencies we have seen throughout, and sometimes they surprise us by doing the opposite of the expected. Either way, we get to see the consequences — both societal and personal — of their decisions play out over decades.

And boy howdy are there lots of characters. Lots of POV characters, no less. We see this world changing through the eyes of children, of soldiers, of kings, of mothers, of gods.

The Iliad seems to be a major influence here. Now and then we see the gods fighting over their favorites, or appearing in human form to nudge events a certain way. We don’t see glowy magic twirling around evil mustachioed advisers as the dark gods they have bought their powers from come to collect. We see a bald guy in a cape talking to someone in the street.

Magic is present, but no more than (some might say) it is in the real world. You know that story your aunt tells about the time she saw a ghost? Or the long-dead great-uncle who you’ve been told could pull any card from a deck just by thinking of it? We’re talking that level of magic here. Again, no glowing.

If you like your fantasy realistic (no oxymoron intended), heavy on the politics, and well-fleshed out, give this book a shot.


It’s March Flash Madness!

The bloodied plain of fiction combat. There is where you will find me.

I’m participating in J. M. McDermott’s annual March Flash Madness,

wherein two writers go head-to-head with dueling prompts, and readers vote on who continues to the next round. 16 writers enter the ring. Only 1 will stand upon the crushed paper and spilled ink of their enemies, victorious!

I’m matched up against last year’s victor in the first round. Comment to vote & help me overtake the champ! (If you like mine better, that is.)

Local Arts News Radio Snippets – Make This Happen, NPR

Every day I hear a few seconds of sports news on the radio via NPR. I propose a few seconds of local arts news daily.

But what? Other than an events calendar (“and in arts, last night such-and-such show opened”) of what would this consist?

Sports is easy: “The Sabres lost 3-0”. So what does an arts news snippet sound like? News is when things change, so how does that apply here?

A few ideas:

  • Casting announcements / changes.
    • “And the cast for Equus has been announced….”
  • Contest openings/results.
  • Review announcements.
    • “Today’s Buffalo News features a review of Equus. It says….”
    • “the NY Times has a review of author Brian Castner‘s book….”
  • Any of the many author visits, signings, lectures.
  • Interesting productions of local authors’ works:
  • Tour notes:
    • The Albrights played in Brooklyn last night as part of their current tour. According to their Instagram account it was a great show, though the band is of mixed opinions on cronuts.”
  • Sold-out shows, unusual shows.
  • Business:
    • “And such-and-such theater company has a new artistic director….”
  • Other interesting oddities:
    • “A tumblr post featuring the paper-cutting sculpture of local artist Maude White has over 200,000 notes and shares.”
    • Michele Marie Benzin interviewed by Yahoo for her rendition of….”

I mean, seriously. Like I care how the Bandits did last night. This would take all of fifteen minutes to compile every morning, especially if you set up a news submissions line. There are so many artists with so many amazing accomplishments in Buffalo. This is at least as newsworthy as a sports team practicing.

BUT… is being “in the know” part of the mystique of the arts scene? Even if it is, the good of giving people actual interesting news outweighs it.

One last note — does this actually happen already and I just don’t realize it?

The USA is the Empire

Let’s sum up.

We destroy civilizations from the sky, using terrifying technology only we control.


We torture…

…and it proves ineffective.

Governor Tarkin: [refering to Leia] She lied. She lied to us.
Darth Vader: I told you she would never consciously betray the Rebellion.


We use killer robots.




Our militarized police kill civilians without trial or repercussion.




But we’re the good guys. Right?

Fantasy Coins and OCD

I went and Kickstarted a project, “Fantasy Coins, LLC”, which makes coins for gaming. They’re really great, and you should go check ’em out. My use for such things is sadly lacking these days, so they’re just a conversation piece sitting around, waiting for an adventuring party to come by and earn them as a quest reward.

Many of the coins have text on them in runes and whatnot. Naturally, the desire to cryptoquip these bad boys was too much. Yes, sometimes when you get a bunch of word-obsessed nerds sitting around a table, they’re going to pull out loupes and translate some replacement ciphers. Especially if one of them know the old Norse runes by heart. (Not me.)

Unless noted, all of these are Irish proverbs which can be found on this site. The English is used on the coins, just with funky lettering.

First, the dwarven coins, which use old Norse runes.

  • Gold Front (face): A fool and his money are soon parted.
  • Gold Back (anvil): Nothing without effort.
  • Silver Front (helmet): What is seldom is wonderful.
    • Note: This is repeated in full twice, then only “what is seldom is”. 
    • Note: This forum post lists it as being in the original Gaelic, but it doesn’t appear to be,
  • Silver Back (shield): There is no hearth like our hearth.
    • Note: Perhaps meant to be “your”? But I couldn’t see a “y”.
  • Copper Front (door): May the wind be always at your back.
  • Copper Back (axe): May the road rise to meet you
    • Note: This is a traditional Irish blessing

Next, the elven coins. (The knotwork-style art on the obverses of these are a personal favorite, by the way.) Per the Kickstarter page: “the “Elven” writing is of our own creation which was influenced by calligraphic Arabic, Thai, and Japanese Kanji; arranged in English”.

  • Gold Front (pen): Things are not as they seem.
  • Gold Back (owl): Health is better than wealth.
  • Silver Front (sky): A good word never broke a tooth.
  • Silver Back (tree): Let none put faith in the first sown fruit.
  • Copper Front (bow): A good start is half the work.
  • Copper Back (stag): It is best to search while the trail is new.
  • Kickstarter Backer Coin Back: Fantasy Coin Kickstarter Backer

And now the stumper: the Fire element coins.

The runes seem to be the same used on the dwarven coins, but they don’t work in English.  To add to the fun, the fronts and backs of all of these have the exact same text, which makes cryptoquipping pretty tough. Hmmm…..

If I’m reading the spacing right, there is at least one word which starts with the same two letters. Unless it’s “eels”, I’m guessing this might not be in English.

The kickstarter page says “The writings are taken from ancient Celtic runes and a Sanskrit flare (sic) has been added to defy translation“.  I don’t think any of the symbols are from Sanskrit, so maybe the text is?

If you find the answer to this one, do let me know. And definitely check out the site: you’ll never have to use a Canadian dollar as a prop again!

iMax: Max Headroom Reboot C-C-C-Concept


Yes, I want to write a Max Headroom reboot set 20 minutes in our future.

Citizen-journalist Jemison Carter has a reputation for finding trouble. Armed with a Google Glass, a smartphone, and a passion for revealing hidden truths, she streams her vidcast to fans the world over with help from her social-media-handler/hacker Ted Jones.

When Carter comes close to discovering a secret that massive video-hosting service WatchYou wants to keep hidden — Clickverts, a subliminal SMO tool which kills a small percentage of users — she only barely escapes being murdered by the company’s thugs. Desperate to find Carter, Jones feeds the reporter’s full social profile into an experimental mobile app to try and recreate her recent history. Carter’s tweets, posts, location tags, videos, comments, purchasing history, ad clicks, eye movements, scrolling patterns, etc. combine to form a virtual version of herself.

This garrulous, jumpy digital Carter comes alive in unsuspected ways. Within moments of resolving on Jones’s touchscreen, it lets itself loose on the local wi-fi, then the entire data provider network, then every satellite signal and cable connection on the planet. This newborn entity Max Headroom shows up in the cat video you’re watching on Facebook, in the Facetime call with your mom, in the targeted pop-up ads on your favorite news site,in a combination of peppermints on Candy Crush.

Carter goes global with the secret of Clickverts and causes a shake-up in the top echelon of WatchYou’s corporate structure, but nothing changes in the society at large. We still walk around staring at screens, seeing what the boost algorithms allow us to see and clicking where the casual-game behavioral psychologists want us to, but Carter, Jones, and their screen-jumping ally Max Headroom keep posting their version of the truth. B-B-B-Big Time!

Comments on a First Chapter

Jess Nevins has posted the first chapter of The Datong Incident, “an anti-imperialist steampunk-spy-romance novel”. Now, what’s not to love about that? My feedback on the chapter:

Excellent first sentence – establishes tone, recent history, level of tech. We’ve got world, inter-personal, and internal conflict all introduced in this first chapter, and we feel for Hall without knowing much about him yet. He’s in a position we can understand — duty to country vs. to home — and makes a decision which allows us to see a bit of who he is. Looking good!

Main Characters and D&D Figs

I backed the Hero Forge Kickstarter, which provided me with beta access to play around with making my own figs. So ludicrously addicitive. Naturally I had to make a 3d representation of Robin Levesque, the MC of Codemage.



Don’t mess with her, man. That book is filled with all kinds of codespells. And if those don’t work, there’s always the big stick.

Life Imitates Art?

Untimely ripped from the pages of the Feycoder series. If you want to know what these books are about, I give you the following:



From this NPR article.

I’m sorry. Big governmental meeting about net neutrality, and someone who is so clearly a faery is presenting? I mean, she has the same name as the faery from The Sandman. My book is largely set in pre-internet simulated fairyland coded by actual fey creatures. This might as well be a scene from it.

You’re not fooling anyone, fey creatures of the world. I’ve got my eye on you

Review: Salvage by Carrie Vaughn

Let me tell you about the best story I’ve read in a while.

(Ok, maybe I’m not the most qualified person to decide which story is “best”. Maybe “favorite” would be a better word. But, whatever. It’s the best.)

Salvage, released in June by Lightspeed, is a dungeon-crawl in space. It seems like a pretty straightforward piece — go into the dead ship, get the black box, get out.  And yet….

Item A: Here’s the first sentence:

“You two ready?” I ask.

And, boom. Five words, lots of info.

  • Something’s about to happen. So, you’re hooked.
  • The narrator is in charge of at least two people.
  • She’s a no-nonsense type. It’s not “Are you two ready?” or “Are you both sure you’re ready to go? Did you check your hoses?”

This last item is the crux here. Aside from the very capable character introduction here, the narrator’s relationship with the crew is what this story’s all about. Five words.

Item B: Happy Birthday, Captain

The story plays out like a horror piece, all dark passageways and frozen corpses. But right in the middle, there’s this odd bit of description. First, it’s “all teeth and eyes, arms reaching”, and you expect to see a floating body. But it’s a photograph — a Happy Birthday sign on the Captain’s door. It feels like a bit of horror movie “oh, it was just the cat”, and you dismiss it as such.

Except that, once again, this is what it’s all about. Here’s a captain whose crew teases him and puts funny signs on his cabin door. No such hijinks on the narrator’s ship.

Item C: A thousand little events

No space zombies. No dripping aliens. Just a salvage. But at the briefing, we see that the event has changed the lives of these people. The two who were ready in the first line are now sitting close enough for their shoulders to touch. That’s new. And in the last line, we see the change in the narrator. (I’ll leave that to you to go and read.)

A small change. Minuscule. And that’s what resounds so deeply with me. This is a story about a  commonplace event which changed a person’s way of looking at herself. A brief moment, the kind which would go unnoticed by just about anyone. But something happened right then, and it made a difference.

The subtlety here is perfectly crafted. Kudos to Carrie Vaughn for writing a sci-fi story which any contemporary literature or writing class would do well to read.