With the Twist Baked In (Zero Sum Game)

Sometimes there’s a bit of a “knowing how the sausage is made” problem when I read stuff. I’ve ruined I can’t tell you how many movies by calling an ending based on meta-narrative information, e.g., “the only reason to have a character give us X piece of information is if it results in Y.” But sometimes, my love of how it all gets put together means I hit a thing and get to have my own little “oh, crap, that is beautiful” moment witnessing Craft Happen.

Why yes, I did just have one of those (see? You ruin surprises, too, so nyah!).

Spoilers for SL Huang’s Zero Sum Game because, look, I’m drooling over a well constructed plot here, which I can’t do without, you know, talking about the plot. You’ve been warned.

Speaking of meta-information, I knew that telepaths were involved in Huang’s Russell’s Attic series based on solicits for later books (I’m a late starter, all right? I’m only just hitting season 2 of Steven Universe, too, so bask in all your awesome early-adopter-ness and then we’ll move on). Given that the main character of the series is a young woman with a preternaturally fast mathematical ability, an ability we find out about pretty much in the first paragraph of the book, more super-humans wasn’t something that I would have been surprised by, anyway. If I buy in to one super-hero, it’s easy to buy into more, so I wasn’t really worried about spoiling myself on that particular score.

Except (aha! Plot twist!).

See, Huang’s take on telepaths is a lot more involved than the usual psychic handwavium. And, it turns out, is intimately tied to the ways in which she sells the reader on the mathematical powers of her main character, Cas Russell. Realizing that gave me a whole new appreciation for everything that lead up to it.

The book spends its early sections not only slowly building its central mystery and character arcs, but showing the reader just how seemingly physics-defying super math can be. This is important on its own, since the notion of hyperspeed mathematical calculation is fairly abstract. Huang makes the applications concrete, and in doing so helps the reader understand how broad the implications are.

Things start small-ish, with calculating angles and velocity to know how to roll just right with a punch, for example, or calculating exact dimensions and speed to zip in and out of traffic in movie-stunt-driver fashion. But as we’re eased into the idea, the effects ramp up, as well. Having witnessed the aforementioned feats of fighting and driving, we buy the relatively more sedate concatenation of environmental adjustments (tipping a garbage can, say) to create the perfect acoustical hotspot for eavesdropping on people half a block away. Having bought that convoluted stacking of pieces, we’re likewise set up to buy into an sequence of acrobatics and property destruction that might be over the top even for Captain America.

All of that’s impressive on its own, of course, and a great use of immersive escalation in worldbuilding. But that base, that build, isn’t just in service of selling Cas’s abilities, but in service to eventually selling our antagonist, as well.

When Cas and her partner finally track down someone who reveals the existence of telepaths, it turns out they’re actually hyper-empathic people. Where Cas recognizes and calculates physical variables at a speed that would make your average computer jealous, telepaths do the same thing with emotional cues. If Cas has a stratospheric math IQ, telepaths have the same thing with emotional intelligence.

If we’d been hit with this out of the gate, I think it would have smacked all kinds of false. If hyper-math is hard to wrap a head around, hyper-body-language is even harder. In context, in sequence, however, it slots into place easy as you please. Huang has been walking us from easy math to mind-blowing math to the point where we believe a young woman can tear bars out of a wall in mid-air in the space of a few seconds.

Having used observable proof to sell the reader on just how many impossible things are possible with the right kind of advanced intellect, she flips the switch and presents advanced emotional intelligence, the kind of thing that’s much harder to prove or see or wrap our heads around, using this huge mountain of Awesome Physical Feats to sell the concept for her. This isn’t Cas is super smart, and Now There Are Psychics. It’s that Cas is super smart, and “psychics” are ALSO super smart in ways which make them seem magical.

The story has made it clear, believable, and above all concrete the ways in which an unerring ability to calculate multiple physical forces allows a single person to perform what seem like miracles. Having done that, it’s only a mild upsell to convince us that a different set of miracles would be possible with a sufficiently advanced ability to calculate the psychological / emotional / social factors in a given interaction.

So this isn’t the turn in the worldbuilding I was expecting. It’s not an escalation of super-powers from super-thinker to brain-beams. It’s a logical, almost inevitable, extension of exactly the notions we’ve been buying into since the get go.

And that, my friends, is how solid worldbuilding turns math proofs into psychic powers.

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All The News

And into the void that is my blog updating schedule, lo there were a bunch of things to update (some of which may not be a surprise if you’ve been checking my bibliography page), so let’s dive in:

Almost available for your greedy reading needs:

I was lucky enough to make the cut for Clockwork Phoenix 5 (pre-order info at the link). As usual, I’ll probably wax on aspects of it more when it’s alive-alive, but for those keeping track, this is the third story set in the “Tall” universe. This time out, we’re tackling exactly what being a twister-wrangling Pac really entails. Also, tortured pasts and giants and magic trees because it wouldn’t be a Tall story without them.

Plus: men kissing and maybe doing a little more than kissing.

CP5 already has a starred review from Publishers Weekly. It even mentions my little story by name, which was extra nice.

If you’re a Goodreads person, you can also enter the giveaway for one of 12 copies of the book if you want to devour all the weird goodness for free.

Waiting in the wings for your greedy audio needs:

I just signed the contract for another story sale, this time to YA podcast Cast of Wonders. In a shocking turn of events, this story isn’t set in the world of any of my other stories. I know: a standalone? What new terrifying reality is this?

Don’t worry, dear hearts. It’s not quite the unrecognizable alien landscape you fear it to be. There’s still supernatural whatsis and boys kissing, so you needn’t worry I’ve completely lost my senses.

I’m excited to see this one, since it’s literally the oldest story I’ve written that I was still trying to get published.

Nope. Not finished yet.

I also had some roller-coaster-y excitement last week, when it turns out I made the shortlist for The James White Award, presented to one ‘non-professional’ writer as part of the BSFA award ceremony.

Ultimately I didn’t win, but making it to a final cut of 6 from a pool of around 350 entries was nothing to shrug at.

So, what’s new with you?

It’s Been a While (Story News)

Longer nattering later, but in an effort to take advantage of the date of debut: news! I have a story live today over at Escape Pod! Huzzah!

My favorite part about skimming is that I’m not broken when I do it. It doesn’t matter that I don’t have levels, that I’m on or off, because that’s how everything’s supposed to be when you’re in the hypernet. Even if I’m not supposed to be in the hypernet.

“Broken” is another story of The Rim. Like “Detritus” and “At Her Fingertips,” this one stands on its own, though you’ll likely begin seeing patterns if you’ve read the other two.

This is a slightly quieter story than the previous two, I think, though it’s filled with its own kind of chaos. Sy is a young man possessed of extraordinary talents and equally extraordinary challenges. As usual, I’ll likely have more to say in a few days, but for now, I’ll boil it down like I did for ye newe Twitter: hacked genes, hacked code, hacked minds, and shredded hearts.

You can read it in text or listen to audio at the above link, or you can download to your favorite podcast app and listen to it that way.

Jumping at Shadows

Friend from college and writer of scary stuff Amanda Hard is celebrating National Short Story Month by reviewing / recommending a short story a day. I’m not nearly so ambitious, but her recent entry on a Ray Bradbury story, particularly her mention of the masterful way Bradbury builds tension and dread, instantly brought to mind my own favorite example of Bradbury’s atmosphere / dread-building abilities: “The Whole Town’s Sleeping.”

The story is, honestly, kind of plotless: young woman and friends find dead body, hear about a serial killer, go to the movies, then young woman walks home alone. In terms of “what actually happens,” that’s really what it boils down to. There aren’t aliens or ghosts or monsters or even an on-screen appearance of this rumored serial killer.

And it scared the living hell out of me.

Part of this is Bradbury playing with my expectations. He put the gun on the table, as it were, when he showed me a body and mentioned a killer. I was waiting for it to go off.

But beyond that, or perhaps intertwined with it, Bradbury slowly indoctrinates me with the creeping paranoia building in his POV character (Lavinia). I’m sure Lavinia is safe at first. After all, this is just the beginning. I laugh off the false threats as she encounters them, because, well, I knew those were coming, surely?

Then, of course, I’ve bought in. Because my responses echo Lavinia’s, I’ve become sympathetic even without realizing it. And so as her paranoia builds, so does mine.

As the story builds, I’m not just waiting for something to happen. I’m actively dreading it. Honestly, the last third or so of this story is me as a reader doing the equivalent of the “turn around he’s right behind you!” flailing that you do watching a thriller movie.

Except I can’t see anyone behind Lavinia any better than she can. Everything is built with atmosphere and dread and expectation, and every damn step that young woman takes on the way home is worse than the last for all that nothing goes wrong and nothing goes wrong and…

I literally flinched and sucked in a frightened breath at the end of the story. I had to put the book down (I read this one in Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales). And turn on all the lights in the apartment. And put a comedy on the television.

Adventure Epics About Intrepid Grease Monkeys

Ten fingers, ten toes. That’s the baseline for a healthy kid, right? You’d have thought I’d be a bonus, what with eighteen fingers. Guess they all have to function before you count them.

As Deficiencies go, mine’s not so bad. The Skew was a hell of a thing, and everyone on the Rim’s still feeling it. I knew a guy once had a fully formed jaw down around his nuts. I only wish I was kidding. On the upside, the hinge didn’t work, or it would’ve been a nightmare sitting down.

Cover art: The Woods by Boudewijn Berends
Used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0) license
Image edits by Leland Spencer

“At Her Fingertips,” goes live today over at Betwixt magazine. This is another story set on the Rim — the asteroid colonies / ghettos populated by victims of the genetic plague known as the Skew — which first appeared in “Detritus.” If you haven’t read that first story, don’t worry; this is a different asteroid, a different protagonist, and a story intended to stand on its own.1

Acaja is a skilled pilot, talented mechanic, and surly piece of business. She’s also a dreamer and a romantic, but if you tell anyone, she might just beat you to a within an inch of your life. A lady has a reputation to keep.

Acaja wants off her asteroid colony, Rixzah, out of the literal garbage dump she works in, and into the arms of … oh, but that would be spoilers.

Part caper, part romance, all complicated-and-surly protagonist, and totally free to read. Though, of course, if you enjoy it, consider buying the ebook or dead tree versions via the Betwixt site. And maybe think about picking up “Detritus” (link on the right or on my bibliography page) for more weird stuff from the Rim.

1. Folks who have read “Detritus” may recognize at least one character here, and pick up one or more other easter eggs, mind.

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Blurb:

Fairytales don’t always happen once upon a time. Fables don’t always have a happy ending. Sometimes the stories we love are too dark for nightmares. What if waking Sleeping Beauty was the worse thing the Prince could have done? What if Rapunzel wasn’t in that tower for her own protection—but for everyone else’s?

Assembled by The Bearded Scribe Press, Twice Upon A Time combines classics and modern lore in peculiar and spectacular ways. From Rapunzel to Rumpelstiltskin, this unique collection showcases childhood favorites unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

Both traditionally-published and independent authors will take you on a whirlwind ride through fairytale and folklore, myth and majick. Cherished stories are revisited and remastered into newly-treasured tales of hope and heartache, of adversity and adventure.

This collection features 43 short stories ranging in length from 2K-12K words from the following cast of talented writers:

Bo Balder, AJ Bauers, Carina Bissett, Rose Blackthorn, S.M. Blooding, Rick Chiantaretto, Richard Chizmar, Liz DeJesus, Court Ellyn, S.Q. Eries, Steven Anthony George, Dale W. Glaser, Jax Goss, K.R. Green, Kelly Hale, Tonia Marie Harris, Brian T. Hodges, Tarran Jones, Jason Kimble, Shari L. Klase, Alethea Kontis, Hannah Lesniak, Wayne Ligon, RS McCoy, Joshua Allen Mercier, Robert D. Moores, Diana Murdock, Nick Nafpliotis, Elizabeth J. Norton, Bobbie Palmer, William Petersen, Rebekah Phillips, Asa Powers, Joe Powers, Brian Rathbone, Julianne Snow, Tracy Arthur Soldan, C.L. Stegall, Brian W. Taylor, Kenechi Udogu, Onser von Fullon, Deborah Walker, Angela Wallace, and Cynthia Ward.

Edited by Joshua Allen Mercier. Cover art by Luke Spooner.


 

Excerpt from Fire & Ash by Joshua Allen Mercier, a dark fantasy retelling of Little Red Riding Hood:

THE cold, autumn gusts ripped across Salem’s port, stirring the angry waters, stirring the angry spectators gathered before the gallows—gallows which had not, until this day, been used since the Trials several years back. Men, women, children—all bore hateful eyes and twisted faces. All bore a deep-seeded fear of the woman before them; they watched and seethed, anger building like fire fed by the winds, waiting for answers, for closure, for justice—for the devil’s death.

Constance Archer stared at the sea of faces; she despised all of them, save two—two faces that weren’t supposed to be there. Her daughters, Rhiannon and Rowan, hid in the small grove of trees, but she could still see their watery, green eyes piercing through the shadows, their stares stabbing their fear and pain and confusion into her. They weren’t supposed to see her like this. With the gag still tightly secured about her mouth, however, her muffled pleas for them to leave went unheard.

Where was their grandmother?

Constance’s fiery locks were drenched with tears. Her heart ached. For them, for herself, for her husband, Jacob. She shouldn’t have let the rage overtake her; she knew that now, now that it was too late.

“For the crimes of witchcraft, how do you plea?”

Even though the thick rope around her neck made it difficult to escape it—to forget—the reverend’s voice jolted her back to reality.

“Not guilty,” Constance replied through the gag, unsure if her plea was understood.

“Executioner, please remove the gag from the accused.”

The reverend’s statement was cold. They had known each other since they were children, but he was but a stranger now as he stood before her. He was once so compassionate, so caring—what had changed?

The executioner approached Constance with apprehension; she soon understood why. Despite the black hood covering his face, his scent—sweet, woody, musky, like freshly-sawn wood mixed with perfume and sweat—immediately revealed his identity: William Black. He removed the gag with haste and stepped across the gallows with a speed she hadn’t witnessed him have in years.

How fitting that the town adulterer would be the one to hang her. She wondered who the woman had been, the one whose scent lingered on his clothing and skin. Surely it wasn’t his wife, Catherine.

It couldn’t be.

She had killed her, in a way, the memory of the act flooding back to her nearly causing her to faint. Seems Catherine and her husband didn’t understand the meaning of marriage; then again, neither did Jacob (apparently). Catching him with Catherine was the most heart-breaking of all.

Wyatt Thatcher cleared his throat. “Mrs. Archer—your plea, now that we can hear you.”

Constance stared at her old friend, pain and tears welling in her eyes. “Not guilty.”

“If not for witchcraft, how do account for the brutal way you murdered Catherine Black? Surely, you were possessed,” countered Reverend Thatcher.

“I didn’t murder Catherine Black. As I told you all before, she was attacked by a beast.” She wasn’t lying, but she wasn’t telling the whole truth. The truth wouldn’t save her, and she couldn’t have her daughters hearing it. They weren’t supposed to be here, but calling attention to them now would only make matters worse.

“You’re the beast!” a woman’s voice sounded from the throng.

“Witch!” said another, followed by her husband’s jibe, “You’re Satan’s whore!”

Reverend Thatcher held his hand to the crowd; without a word, they fell silent. It wasn’t their first execution; it probably wouldn’t be their last. His attention turned to the defendant, but his eyes remained downcast, staring at the rough wood of the gallows as if it were the most interesting sight he had ever beheld.

Constance knew why Wyatt Thatcher wouldn’t look at her, knew he couldn’t show a hint of weakness or compassion for her lest he be hanged, too, for sympathizing with the Devil. Satan was in Salem Village that day—no doubt about that. But it wasn’t Constance or Reverend Thatcher. The Devil stood in the crowd, reflected in the eyes of every spectator. His hunger bellowed in their calls, their taunts, their glares, and it wouldn’t be satisfied until her limp, lifeless body waved in the autumn winds like a banner for their tainted justice, a flag of their blood-stained victory over evil.

Wyatt’s hardness broke, even if for just a second, Constance the only witness to the silent tear soaking its fleshy path across his regretful face. “And please explain to us why you were covered in her blood.”

“I’ve told you all this before, Wyatt…” Using the reverend’s first name stirred a wave of gasps from the crowd, forcing her to pause. “I carried Catherine into my house to try to stop her bleeding, to prevent her death.”

That was a lie; it was what she wanted everyone to believe, but it had been all for naught. It had only sealed her fate.

“And what of your husband’s disappearance?” An icy gust of wind blew through Constance’s locks of red hair; with it, Thatcher’s own coldness returned. “Did you use witchcraft to dispose of his body?”

“My husband was attacked, too, his body dragged into the orchard by the beast.”

That was a lie, too. She couldn’t tell them the truth—that she had, in a fit of rage after seeing Jacob and Catherine naked in the orchard, cursed her husband’s appetite for flesh. The curse had gone horribly wrong…

 

 

Praise:

“Brilliant change-up on the new flood of “Fairy Tale Twists”. If you’re looking for something that can suck you in right away, this book is definitely it. The collection of short stories makes sure you never get bored with the story or writing style.”   ~Jett Murdock / Amazon review

 

About the Publisher:

The Bearded Scribe Press, LLC is an independent publisher of quality Speculative Fiction. They aim to become a platform for emerging writers to get discovered by the mainstream and inversely, through becoming a staple in the literary community, becoming the source for readers to discover emerging talent in the Speculative Fiction realm.

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Watch the [Extended] Book Trailer:

Not So Long Ago…

Cover art by Luke Spooner

I suppose it’s appropriate for a folklore anthology to stumble through its own relatively twisty path to completion. But complete it finally is.

Twice Upon A Time: Fairytale, Folklore, & Myth. Reimagined & Remastered is a mouthful of a title, though given the number of books that come up when you type “Twice Upon a Time” into Amazon, I figured giving you the whole title here was a good idea.

Near the last week of last year, the anthology was up in e-book only on the Kindle store. Then it vanished like a fairie light. Whispers among the townfolk spoke of ogres and demons and arcane scrolls called “contracts.” Only the archmage Joshua knows for certain.

Now, however, it’s finally back, and in dead tree format, too. My story, “Tall,” is part of the anthology. I have a more substantial post about that which should go up over the weekend or early next week, but the short version is, it involves a quest to claim Annie Oakley’s gun in order to save a town from becoming yet more collateral damage in the feud between Paul Bunyan’s giants and Pecos Bill’s tornado wranglers. This is complicated in no small part due to personal history between Bill and the gun’s current owner. Also, there is at least one monster, because there always is, right?

I’m proud of “Tall,” and excited that it’s out there for folks to read. And just in case, there’s also a metric ton of other folks having their own demented turns at various stories you thought you knew, so there ought to be something in a flavor you enjoy.