First Impressions: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte

It’s impossible to understate how obsessed I was with dinosaurs during my youth. I devoured the thick textbook-style tome that covered dozens of dinos, each with its own detailed sketch, to-scale comparisons against humans, maps detailing where they lived. It had it all. It was beautiful. By the time I was nine, I’d moved onto Michael Crichton’s classic Jurassic Park. I still vividly remember sitting in the movie theatre, lights dimming, and trying, frantically, to finish the novel before the film started. I didn’t quite manage it, but was quite pleased, hours later, to discover the the ending of the book is quite different than the film. I’m sure my parents heard about all the differences between the book and the film for weeks.

I was dino crazy.

As a teen and adult, I wasn’t quite so vociferous in my dino fandom, it was replaced instead by a newfound love for epic fantasy, but I’ve always been drawn to their vast history and all the millions of question marks that remain about our planet’s most enduring species.

Steve Brusatte’s The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is the absolute best re-entry point I could ask for as a formerly-dino crazy kid who, as an adult, wants to learn more about the history of dinosaurs. It’s thorough and academic, but not at the expense of being readable and charismatic. It’s clear that Brusatte is more than a dry scientist—so much of his passion and knowledge about the subject shines through with his clear, often humourous voice. At times, especially during the first couple of chapters, he can become a little self-referential, dropping extensive lists of names and anecdotes about his fellow palaeontologists, but once he digs into the history of the dinosaurs, everything is smooth sailing.

At this point in my life, most of my knowledge of dinosaurs has dwindled to not much more than “it happened in Jurassic Park.” I’ve been pleased with Brusatte’s work both from the perspective of easing me back into the dinosaur world, but also his efficacy as a narrator and storyteller. There’s something epic and beautiful about the way he writes about the slow, labyrinthine rise and inevitable, tragic fall of the dinosaurs.

Thread: My similes are like a tidal wave.

Wherein I muse about a particular writing tick, and discuss how I turned it from a flaw into a strength.

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First Impressions: Street Freaks by Terry Brooks (Grim Oak Press)

I’ve written at great length about my relationship with Terry Brooks’ epic fantasy series, Shannara. After Tolkien, Brooks’ work reinforced my newfound love of elves and adventure, magic, vast landscapes, harrowing escapes, and epic battles between good and evil. One of my main/ongoing criticisms of the Shannara series, however, is that Brooks has a tendency to repeat himself—dipping his pen in the same inkwell too often. Themes, story structure, and characters archetypes repeat themselves in each new Shannara series, which makes reading a new Shannara book sometimes too predictable. He’s shown however, through his other fantasy series, such as Word & Void, a contemporary fantasy, and The Magic Kingdom (a humourous secondary world fantasy) that he has the chops to write original fiction outside of his most famous series, and I’m always curious to see what happens when he turns his eye toward something wholly new.

Street Freaks (Grim Oak Press, 2018) is a major departure for Brooks in a lot of ways. It’s his first pure science fiction novel (if you consider his post-apocalyptic Shannara novels to be a science fiction/fantasy hybrid), and it’s an absolute blast to see him playing in a new playground and worldbuilding from the ground up for the first time since 1997’s Running with the Demon. In many other ways, it’s familiar ground. Thematically, Brooks is sticking with his tried-and-true formula of coming-of-age meets adventure, which has proved immensely successful in the Shannara series. In all, he finds a nice balance between new and familiar, which appeals to the long-time Brooks fan in me.

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First Impressions: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

I’ve long been a fan of Mur Lafftery’s work as a podcaster (I Should Be Writing and the Hugo-winning Ditch Diggers) and editor (I mean, heck, she was one of the first to buy a short story from me), but, until now, I haven’t been exposed to any of her fiction. Six Wakes, her first science fiction novel, earned a lot of raves this year, and ended up being nominated for some prominent SFF awards, has been on my to-read pile for several months. After finishing off Peter Frankopan’s tremendous (and tremendously heavy) The Silk Roads, I needed a palate cleanser, and Six Wakes seemed like the perfect thing. A generation ship story AND a closed room murder mystery? Sign me up.

I’m listening to the audiobook, and the first pleasent surprise is that Lafferty herself is doing the narration. She’s not as dramatic as some narrators, choosing instead to let the text itself do the speaking, but her experience is obvious and her authorial voice brings forward an interesting perspective on the story. 

And what a story it is. Things come together quickly, as the cloned members of a generation ship wake to find their previous bodies brutally murdered. Lafferty’s prose is whip sharp, and she relies on natural, well-paced dialogue to move the story along. I’m about 20% into the book, and at this point the handful of main protagonists have already established personalities and separate themselves from one another easily. Its pace, coupled with a high number of characters, and a mystery plot, could easily have made for a huge mess, but Lafferty handles things with ease. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Agatha Christie’s famous, And Then There Were None. The conceit that all but one of the principal crew members on the ship is a former criminal partaking in the mission with the promise of a full pardon adds to the Christie-like air. It’s immensely compelling, especially as the secrets of their pasts are slowly revealed. Mystery and suspicion abounds as each of the characters tries to juggle uncertainty with the need to trust their fellow travellers.

In all, I’m hooked. The mystery is compelling, the characters are rich, the pacing is breakneck. I gotta know what happens next.

Out & About: A dream come true on Tor.com

Yesterday on on Tor.com, I published a long-in-the-making article that has me internally (and externally) screaming with delight. It’s the story of my introduction to fantasy through Magic: The Gathering, an immensely popular trading card game that has endured for 25 years. Recently, the game’s creator, Wizards of the Coast, has made an effort to revamp the game’s fiction (delivered via online short stories and, soon, novels) by hiring some legitimately great SFF authors. I mean, look at this list: Cassandra Khaw, Martha Wells, Kate Elliott. That’s some serious clout.

So, I caught up with the authors, and creative director Nic Kelman, to discuss the past, present, and future of Magic’s storytelling, which encompasses one of the largest and most intricate fantasy worlds ever created.

Here’s an excerpt:

If someone asked me how I got into fantasy, I’d bring up the summer of ’96. I was 12 years old and had just graduated elementary school. Enjoying one of the longest summers of my life. One day stands out vividly above the rest. It was hot, sunny—brilliant and full of possibility, in the way that only summer vacation can be. I was with my dad, driving to southern Vancouver Island so that he could meet with someone who worked for his online scriptwriting workshop. The drive was about an hour, but it felt shorter. I wasn’t looking out the window, or chatting with my dad; instead, my nose was buried in my mom’s battered copy of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

I was in the car with my dad, but I was also in Middle-earth alongside Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarfs. This might not seem like a remarkable introduction to fantasy, but it was for me. I grew up treating fantasy with disdain—dismissing it for being full of unicorns, princesses, rainbows, and the sort. (Who’d’ve thought that 20 years later I’d be looking for exactly those things in the books I read?) Instead, I was a remarkably loyal science fiction fan. However, Tolkien’s novel of loyalty and adventure, danger, magic, and friendship showed me the error of my thinking, and convinced me that, hey, fantasy is cool. I became a voracious fantasy reader after that—an obsession I still live with today.
However, my roots as a fantasy fan go back farther than that—which I’m only realizing as I write this article.

Rewind a couple of years to 1994. Spearheaded by Ms. Lukyn, the fourth grade teacher, a new game was spreading like wildfire in my elementary school. Magic: The Gathering was a Trading Card Game (TCG) that pitted two Planeswalkers against each other. The players took on the role of these wizards and faced off in combat by casting fireballs, drinking healing salves, and summing great beasts like Shivan Dragons or Sengir Vampires. It was easy to learn, cheap to start playing (or, the teacher had spare decks), and it ignited youthful imaginations. How else on the school grounds could you step into the robes of a wizard?

You can read the whole thing—all 4,000 words of it—on Tor.com. Whether you’re a existing fan of Magic: The Gathering, a lapsed fan, or just love fantasy fiction, I think you’ll enjoy it.

First Impressions: Green Rider by Kristen Britain

A couple of weeks ago, I was spitballing on Twitter about wanting to read more ’90s-style epic fantasy. You know the type. Lots of pages. Travelogues. Plucky heroes. Coming-of-age. Magic. Quests. Adventuring parties full of D&D stereotypes. It was my bread-and-butter growing up. I loved Terry Brooks, R.A. Salvatore, Raymond E. Feist, and their contemporaries. I received a lot of great recommendations, but eventually settled on my first choice: Green Rider by Kristen Britain.

Green Rider tells the story of Karigan G’ladheon, a young woman who, after being expelled from a prestigious school for duelling, becomes snared in the magical and political machinations of Sacoridia’s elite. Like most epic fantasy of the time, Green Rider is a story of hope and perseverance, and grows larger in the tellings as the conflict around Karigan gets bigger and more deadly with each turning page.

Things pick up quickly (no Lord of the Rings-style easing into the story here) with Karigan getting caught up in the murder of F’Ryan Coblebay in the novel’s early pages. After that, it’s an avalanche of appropriately epic set pieces, escalating levels of magic, several seemingly impossible-to-escape scenarios, and just enough hints of a larger threat to keep things interesting. Karigan travels on her own for much of the book, and each new chapter reads in an almost episodic manner as she stumbles across some new character or two, who present danger or succour, until Karigan eventually moves on or escapes.

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New Short Story! “The Dinosaur Graveyard”

Huzzah! My latest short story, “The Dinosaur Graveyard,” is now available FOR FREE on the Robot Dinosaurs! website.

“The Dinosaur Graveyard” is a long flash story (short short story?) about a robotics engineer spending a long night repairing her daughter’s favourite toy. It’s about dinosaurs (duh) and robot—but it’s also about parenting and coming of age, loneliness, kindness, and sharing passion.

Working on this story with editor Merc Rustad and artist James Kurella has been an absolute delight—and I’m stoked for the upcoming Kickstarter and physical release of the anthology.

You can find out more about the origins of “The Dinosaur Graveyard” here.

New Short Story! “Youngblood”

My latest short story, “Youngblood,” has been officially released! I describe it as LOST meets Jurassic Park—it’s about a girl and her velociraptor companion who live in a colony that was abandoned on a dinosaur-infested island. Things go awry when the corporation that left them behind returns, guns blazing.

I initially wrote it for Uncanny Magazine’s dinosaur issue, and it made it to the final round of cuts—but when it didn’t stick there, I decided to self-publish it. (Spoilers: selling an action-heavy dinosaur-themed short story to serious SFF short fiction markets is difficult.)

Read it here: https://medium.com/@adribbleofink/youngblood-42b6d5d70ad8

The “cover art” was illustrated by Stefan Tosheff. He’s a wonderful artist. Check out his work!

Work-in-Progress Update: The Thousand Shattered Gods & “The Rose and Honey Soul”

The Thousand Shattered Gods

My WIP novel finally has a name: The Thousand Shattered Gods.

I don’t want to say too much at this point about the plot, etc., but I will say that it’s set in the same universe as “The Red-rimmed Eyes of Tou Ma,” my novelette that was originally released in Unfettered II, and shares a principal protagonist: Farid Sulayk. My plan has always been to have a series of novels with intersecting short fiction, and this is the start of that.

You may have seen my Twitter conversation last week about epic fantasy. It began with me searching for book recommendations, but an off-hand comment about how, in my heart-of-hearts, what I *really* want to be writing is big, adventurous ’90s-style epic fantasy, but that I was under the impression that it was a hard sell. Thanks to encouraging feedback from Brit E. B. Hvide and Hannah Bowman, two people with loads of experience in the publishing industry, however, I returned to my outline for a novel I started working on a couple of years ago. It didn’t have a name, and I’d stalled on writing it after about 20k words because something just wasn’t quite right.

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First Impressions: Octopath Traveler (Square Enix, 2018)

The JRPGs of the mid-’90s have influenced me more than any other media outside of fantasy fiction. I grew up OBSESSED with Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI; poured hundreds of hours into Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete, Xenogears, Grandia, and Suikoden; have replayed games from that era over-and-over again in the 20 years since. It’s no exaggeration to say that Octopath Traveller, a new JRPG from Square Enix and Nintendo for the Nintendo Switch that hearkens back to the halcyon days of Squaresoft, was made for me.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time with it now, and I’m pleased to say that not only does Octopath Traveller do justice to the classics of its genre, it manages to take the feeling of those games and create something that feels both nostalgic and modern at the same time.

The first thing you’ll notice about Octopath Traveler is its unique blend of 3D-environments and 16-bit style spritework/pixel art. I left a playthrough of Final Fantasy VI unfinished to pick up Octopath Traveler, and the similarities are obviously striking—but, the more I play, the more I’m reminded of the 32-bit RPGs that melded 2D sprites with 3D environments, like Grandia or Xenogears. However, rather than trying for a 1:1 emulation of the old style, as many throwback JRPGs do, Octopath Traveller combines the 16/32-bit aesthetic with modern sensibilities. As someone who grew up on 16/32-bit JRPGs, it’s a heady combination that manages to look the way I remember those games looking, which is a high compliment.

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