Tag: fantasy (page 2 of 23)

Flash Fiction: The Farmer’s Child

Typical Medieval Farm House, Courtesy UNCP

In response to being asked to generate a random sentence.

This child farms.

She knows that it is work mostly done by boys. It is hard, long, muscle-snapping, back-breaking work, from sun-up until sun-down. Tools large and small are used to till the fields, harvest the grain, milk some animals, slaughter others. This child does all of those things.

It would not be this way if the farmer’s wife had had a son. This child knows this. She does want a brother. It would stop the other children from laughing at her, calling her a boy when she’s a girl, pulling down her pants when she’s walking with her arms full and laughing because she lacks what boys have. It’s not my fault, she often thinks. Why are they so mean? They never drew blood, but on days like today, they would blacken her eye or leave parts of her sore.

This child’s father is not one for comfort. He is a hard man of a hard land. Years of living under the realm’s protectors have made him so. They come and take his grain, sometimes a pig or even a cow, and give nothing in return save promises that his fields will remain unburned, his wife and daughter unraped. He calls them ‘thugs’ and ‘brigands’ and worse when they cannot hear. But this child hears, and the acidic and unpleasant feeling of hatred boils in her guts.

When the distant bells in the village begin to toll, it is towards the end of the day. Too late for worship. And the tolling is rapid, panicked. Then the voices can be heard: something has men and women screaming, calling for the guard, begging for mercy.

The farmer gathers up his child to get her inside. She can peek out around his shoulder. The village is already ablaze, and she hears the deep-throated roar somewhere beyond the thick, black smoke, which is buffeted by the power of mighty wings.

A dragon!

Out from the village ride several figures on fearsome chargers. They do not wear the white of the realm’s protectors, and their chain armor is black as pitch. Helms in the shapes of skulls and screaming demons adorn their heads, and they wield flails and axes and short bows. One laughs as he raises his bow, pulling the string taut and letting fly into a fleeing woman. She falls dead at the edge of the farm.

The farmer seems, for a moment, unwilling or unable to let go of his child, the child he didn’t want, the child he has not even named yet, claiming she would earn her name if she survived the decade. One year away, and now her world was burning. The farmer sets her down near the house, telling her to climb under it, reaching for his scythe. He is telling her to protect her mother when the arrow finds his back.

He cannot keep himself upright, and collapses on top of his child. She is unable to move him, screaming his name, pushing against his shoulders, horrified by the sound of his rattling breath in her ear. She pushes with all of her might, but his body will not budge. A soft, pained sound comes from his lips, and then he is still. She squeezes her eyes shut against the tears and the smoke, struggling and moving as much as possible, doing anything she can to escape.

Flames wash over the farmyard. Screaming, her body twists and turns, desperate to escape the prison her father’s corpse has created. The heat climbs quickly, and she coughs, breathing smoke. She gives her body one final pull to try and free it, and feels something tear. She doesn’t know if it’s her clothing or her skin, and she doesn’t care. She screams in pain as she slowly pushes herself free from the burning body on top of her, staggering to her feet and losing her balance almost immediately.

She stares at her hand. Flames race up her sleeve, and while her skin grows hot, she feels no pain from it. As she watches, a cut received during her struggle to escape her father’s grasp cracks and boils, slowly peeling the skin back. But the tissue beneath is neither red nor raw. She holds her hand up to the fire’s flickering light as she stands, flames reflected in tiny dark scales. She hears the roar of the dragon over the din of slaughter and the cries of the dying, and something in her yearns to roar back.

On sheer impulse, she begins to walk, then to run. She runs through the fire towards the smoke. She feels her human clothing, her human skin, her human disguise, falling away into the heat. Pain washes through her as her shoulders push against her back, growth and change giving her both a surge of strength and an overwhelming appetite. She leans on the wall of a burning house for a moment, and looks at her hand again. It is no longer the pink, squishy appendage of a little girl, but a strong hand ending in vicious talons and covered in black scales. She flexes her hands, looks down at the rest of her scaly body, and then back up.

The other children of the village, fleeing the fires, have stopped to stare at her.

She looks up. Wheeling overhead is the dragon, wings wider than the breadth of her father’s field, looking down at the scene with eyes like molten pools. They fix on the girl, and she is struck by what she sees in them. It is a gaze she has seen before, a quiet love and a resolute desire to see her rise above all that opposes her… the look of a mother proud of her child.

This child looks back at her bullies. Her talons shine in the fire light. Her mother’s riders rampage through the village.

For the first time in a long time, this child smiles. Her mother roars, and as she runs forward, she roars back.

Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, is a far more filmable piece of work than his larger work, The Lord of the Rings. It has a more simple narrative, its plot is contained to one volume, and its themes remain focused on the character of Bilbo Baggins and how he deals with his adventures. Yet, according to interviews and as evidenced in works such as the Unfinished Tales and the Silmarillion, Tolkien knew there was more going on than a hobbit coming out of his hole, and the intent was to embellish this work. Director Peter Jackson has taken it upon himself to do just that, adapting the story into three films, the first of which is sub-titled An Unexpected Journey.

Courtesy New Line Cinema

Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit. He is concerned with remaining a respected member of his community and not inviting any sort of trouble to his doorstep. Unfortunately for him, the wizard Gandalf has the exact opposite in mind. Thirteen dwarves show up at Bilbo’s house, and while they are certainly capable of troublemaking, they’re also personable and companionable. The leader of the company, Thorin Oakenshield, is a dwarf prince bent on reclaiming his homeland from the evil dragon Smaug, and to do that he needs the help of someone who can sneak into the dragon’s lair undetected. Gandalf has chosen Bilbo for this task, in spite of Thorin’s reservations and Bilbo’s own reluctance. The hobbit does come around to the idea of at least leaving his home – and a good thing too, otherwise we’d have no story.

The term ‘reluctant hero’ has never been more apt than in describing Bilbo Baggins. Neither a great warrior nor unflinchingly brave, there’s something very charming and telling about the hobbit in a very fashionable jacket and waistcoat following the heavily armed and armored company of dwarves. And when trouble does find Bilbo, he does not immediately seek a violent solution for the problem at hand; more often than not, it’s his wits and fast talking that saves him. It means a lot, in this day and age, to see a protagonist who does what he can to get himself out of trouble without violence.

Courtesy New Line Cinema
Does the contract also protect the dwarves from liability related to addiction to magic rings?

This isn’t to say that The Hobbit is devoid of action. In fact, many of the scenes from the book have been embellished with Jackson’s trademark adeptness with epic action set pieces. We even get flashbacks to epic battles of the past. The tale tends to feel even more fantastical than The Lord of the Rings, focused as we are on non-human races and characters. And while accusations have been leveled at the film calling it too long or too padded, the moments of expanded lore and the occasional cameo are actually welcome moments to catch one’s breath between all of the fighting and survival. In spite of the film’s length, it’s paced quite reasonably and does not overstay its welcome.

Martin Freeman absolutely nails the affect of a fussy, emotionally exasperated hobbit far out of his depth. Richard Armitage brings a sort of haunted nobility to Thorin Oakenshield, who is clearly cut from a different cloth than most of the other dwarves. Boisterous and personable as they are, it can be difficult to keep track of all of them. Sir Ian McKellan makes a welcome return as Gandalf the Grey, and I was very pleased with the expanded role given to Radagast the Brown, played by Sylvester McCoy. And rather than being part of a monolithic evil as they were in Lord of the Rings, the foes faced by the company vary wildly from three culinary connoisseur trolls to an orc with a grudge against Thorin. All of this makes for great storytelling and a fine film just in time for the holiday season.

Courtesy New Line Cinema
“You did remember the Old Toby, didn’t you, Bilbo? We can’d do this without the proper pipeweed.”

Stuff I Liked: The White Council. The antics of the dwarves. The pacing of the story and the ways in which it kept moving without feeling rushed. The detail given to each of the dwarves even if they were hard to keep track of. The new look of the wargs.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: After two and a half hours, the 3D glasses really started to hurt.
Stuff I Loved: Dwarven song. The connection between Gandalf and Galadriel. Radagast the Brown. Bilbo’s affectations and tics. The perfect ominous atmosphere of Bilbo encountering Gollum in his cave. Just about everything related to Erebor. The scene with the trolls. The way Bilbo faces his problems – he’s usually pretty scared, but he steps up anyway, and that’s what makes him heroic.

Bottom Line: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey not only works excellently as a tale in and of itself, but bodes quite well for the next two films to come. It is a welcome return to Middle-Earth, with the same high quality in performances and production as Jackson’s previous fantasy trilogy. It is clearly a labor of love for everyone involved, and you can lay any suspicion of it being a blatant cash-grab to rest. It is definitely worth your time to go and see.

Flash Fiction: The War On Christmas

Frost Giant by ~boudicca
Art by ~boudicca

Chuck wanted a war on Christmas. Be careful what you wish for.

They come, on both sides, from tales of old. From the frozen wastes yet untouched by man, from crevasses and shadows and hidden places too fearsome for even the most brave and the most crazed, from realms and holes and lairs unseen even by devices in the sky, the enemy issues forth. It is almost always Jötnar, either one or a cadre, who lead, mustering up old hatreds and stoking the fires of bloodlust within the foe. Manticores and chimera and goblins and trolls, they all pour onto the glaciers and frozen seas and march on the stronghold.

The defenders come when the horns sound, on or about the Solstice. From kingdoms deep in the earth and forgotten by man come the dwarves that provide the raw materials for the workshops. Elves large and small rouse from their berths and leave their toy-making behind, taking up sword and bow and shield and spear. Spirits of the fae and what few treefolk remain find their way there too, and the skies fill with pegasi and griffons and great birds of previous ages. It is a host meant to match that sent by the enemy, and most years, the numbers are evenly matched.

This year is not one of those years.

The Jötuun who leads is a fearsome creature, towering over even the tallest and fairest of the elves. Such is his ambition and ability that twice the host of previous years has been summoned. Despite being denied what he truly seeks – the All-Father and his kin have long since left for Valhalla to await the final days – he will sate his hunger for despair and dismemberment upon those arrayed against him on the frozen plains he’d claim for his own. The first blow he lands cracks like thunder preceding a mighty storm, and with that one strike, the battle is joined.

Even when outnumbered, the host of defenders make the enemy pay dearly for every inch of ground. The fearsome fervor of dwarf warriors bites into goblins numerous beyond counting. Ancient spirits of the forests that pass for many years as trees wrestle with giants of frost. Pegasus and manticore swoop, dive, and strike, claws leaving ribbons of blood while hooves shatter bone. Beneath the icy plain, kraken and shark vie for supremacy in the silent, inky blackness of the crushing depths.

He emerges for two reasons.

One is that even as the battle rages, he has preparations to make. The sleigh must be filled. The sack must contain every gift. There must be sufficient coal available. The reindeer need to be fed, and all of this is done in spite of the fighting, for he will not forsake the children. Not on this night, not ever. What takes him away from his last-minute work is the other reason: if he senses a true challenge on the field, then and only then does he emerge from his workshop.

His very presence demands reverence from both sides. The defenders give him respect and even love, while the invaders react with fear. The lines of battle part to make way for him. Mail of the finest metal gleams beneath his red coat. No helm adorns his plume of snow-white hair, no gorget beneath the curls of his beard. In his right hand he carries a blade, long and shimmering in the lights of the north, forged in a forgotten age. In his left is a mace blacker than the water in the depths beneath the ice, one that nearly resembles a weapon of the enemy, for he has always been a capricious and merry old soul, loyal only to his devotion to the joy of children. He walks with purpose, without hesitation, until he faces the leader of the enemy host. He stands until the Jötuun turns to acknowledge him, then he taps the flat of his blade to the side of his nose, twice, his way of saluting his foe. When he speaks, his voice is deep, and heard by every ear on the field.

“Someone’s been particularly naughty this year. Ho, ho, ho.”

Some Jötnar banter with Kringle, others offer terms of surrender. But this year, the giant attacks immediately. Claus, for his part, seems to never be terribly surprised by the enemy’s decision, and this year his feet seem particularly nimble. The Jötuun’s axe is a fearsome thing that has cleaved limbs and heads both in this battle, yet Kringle ducks and dodges, giving it only the shallowest of gashes in his skin and coat. It glances off of his mail and bites his rosy cheeks, but never gives the Jötuun satisfaction. When Claus finally strikes, he does so with his blade thrusting at the knees of his enemy. Like a serpent, it darts in and out, piercing darkened frost giant flesh. The Jötuun must turn to keep up with Kringle, opening his own wounds up even further, but the giant is heedless of the pain, fixed entirely on making Claus bleed.

When the moment is right, Kringle brings down his mace on the right kneecap of the giant, then makes a long slash with his blade, and finally swings the black hammer up between the Jötuun’s thighs. The giant topples, howling in agony. Claus is swift, merciful in comparison to many, and plunges his sword into the giant’s heart while swinging his mace down into his enemy’s head. So utter is this defeat and so mighty the blows that the ice cracks, threatening all who stand upon it.

Kringle looks up from his work, smiling, bloodied by the fight but unbowed.

“Now, let’s see. Ho, ho, ho. Who else is on the Naughty list?”

The enemy host quits the field promptly at that point. A mighty cheer goes up from the elves and fae, the dwarves and the spirits allied with the defenders. There will be feasting and drinking in the hall tonight, before Kringle takes his crucial ride. Thanks to him, the war is over.

Until next year.

Flash Fiction: The Outermost Gate

Courtesy NASA

Participating in the Terribleminds Second Game of Aspects.

One hundred and fifty years of spaceflight innovation, and it’s still a pain in the ass to get a decent meal.

Commander Ellington grumbled softly as he pulled himself towards the galley. He remembered times back home when just a whiff of his mother’s home cooking would make his stomach growl like a hungry lion.

“What’s on the menu today, Slim?”

The technical expert of the construction crew was actually named Vladimir Moroshkin, but being skinny as a beanpole, Ellington had taken to calling him ‘Slim’. The physicist didn’t seem to mind.

“The same as before, Commander. Pre-cooked meats of a dubious nature and recycled water it’s best not to contemplate too long.”

“What I wouldn’t give for some decent chili.” He sighed, popping a meal in the microheater. “How’re things out there?”

Slim looked out the porthole at the in-construction Pluto gate. “Main structure is 90% complete, components are in place, and capacitors are holding charges. Crews probably need another few days to get the toll systems and registration servers talking to the relays.”

Ellington nodded. “Once it’s done we’ll have gates in orbit around Earth, Mars, Venus, Europa, Titan… am I missing any?”

“They just finished the Triton gate, sir.”

“That’s gonna make booking flights confusing. Anyway, where do we go from here, d’you think?”

“We’ll probably have to break the light barrier properly to go further. Properly, I mean. Not with artificial wormholes.”

“Does it ever bother you, ripping holes in space the way we do, just to travel more quickly from one place to another?”

“No, sir. The technology that powers the gates is completely-”

Before Slim could finish his sentence, the station shook. Supplies went flying from the galley shelves. As warning klaxons started going off, Ellington propelled himself to the main console of the small station. Slim was right behind him.

“Did something hit us?” Ellington asked as he scanned the instruments for hull breaches and other damage.

“Nothing solid. Looks like it was a shock wave. Suit comms are down.”

“A shock wave from what, Slim?”

Ellington looked up and got his answer.

In the silent, dark tapestry outside, a violet fissure had appeared. It glowed, blotting out the stars behind it. As Ellington watched, tentacles colored a green so deep it was nearly black wormed out of the fissure and began to push it wide. He glanced at the gate, seeing the men scatter. Looking back, more tentacles appeared, and within the void past the tear in space, Ellington saw piss-colored eyes. Ancient eyes. Eyes full of hunger and hate.

“Slim… tell me what I’m seeing.”

“The instruments are going haywire, sir. I need a moment.”

“Not sure you’ve got one.” As Slim watched, the thing in the fissure lashed out at the gate, swatting men and women in space suits aside as they tried to return to the station. They were unarmed, and their only means of escape was the ion-powered rocket that could get them to Triton and the gate there could get them home. The journey would be short, as Pluto’s orbit this year was closer to Neptune than it had been in decades, which was why the eggheads back home decided to move forward with building the gate.

Not that it would matter if the horror pulling itself into reality could also travel through the gates.

“Can you tell me anything about the fissure?”

“Near as I can tell, it’s putting off a frequency of radiation I’ve never seen before. Radio telescope was the first instrument to zero in on it.”

“Let’s hear it.”

Reluctantly, Slim flipped the external speaker switch. The control cabin was immediately filled with screaming. If it had been one voice screaming, it would have just been disconcerting. Instead, Slim and Ellington heard a thousand voices, all crying out at once without words, deeply in pain and endlessly, endlessly angry.

“Right. Time to get the hell out of here.”

Ellington turned and went down the central shaft of the station to where the shuttle was docked. He slid inside and did a quick check of its systems, making sure it hadn’t been damaged. He caught glimpses of the creature out the windows, but tried to ignore it. He stopped, however, when he saw the gate’s capacitors lighting up. He moved back to the shaft and kicked off of the deck, propelling himself back to the control cabin where he seized a handhold.

“What the hell are you doing, Slim?”

“If I can get the gate to generate a sympathetic counterpoint vibratory radiation pattern…”

English, Slim.”

“I think I can use the gate to close the fissure, sir.”

Ellington stared, then looked outside. The thing was even more massive than he’d thought, and it looked like it was still emerging from the fissure. It could easily reach the station with its tentacles, and Ellington feared one would collide with them any moment. He heard people in the upper reaches of the station, clamoring about, probably eager to leave. He didn’t blame them.

Slim twisted knobs, tapped in commands via keyboard, and finally pulled a lever. The gate sprang to life. Instead of the usual blue color, the capacitors glowed an angry red. Soon the entire gate was alive with that shade, and the radio telescope conveyed a sound that drowned out the screaming.

It was a single, reptilian, very pissed-off roar.

“Slim? What did you do?”

“Exactly what I said! I don’t…”

From the gate emerged a head that could have belonged to some sort of dinosaur. It was topped with ridges of horns, its scales were the color of blood, and when it exhaled (wait, exhalation in space?) plumes of fire shot from its nostrils. Seeing the abomination in the fissure, it shot out of the gate, spreading leathery wings and reaching out with talons easily as long as Slim was tall. It grappled with the tentacled monstrosity and opened its mouth. Flames washed over the fissure.


“Yes, sir?”

“I have a craving for popcorn.”

Writing Weird Worlds

Courtesy Lady Victorie of DeviantArt

I have an unabashed love for science fiction and fantasy. I grew up on Star Trek (the Next Generation, mostly), and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia was possibly the first full book series I read start to finish. The ability of a writer to completely transport an audience, be it one reader or a million viewers, to a completely alien landscape populated with outlandish characters is one of the reasons I became a writer myself. And yet, for all of my source material and inspiration in these fields, I struggle to write science fiction and fantasy.

My problem is, I believe, twofold. It deals with world-building and pacing. The world-building aspect is not one of building the worlds themselves, no; it’s trying to build the world while also telling a story. The world, no matter how expansive or intricate its design, is merely set dressing. It’s the backdrop against which the story takes place. And what is a story without characters?

Even if there are good characters, though, the pacing problem tends to arise. There’s a habit in some writing I’ve seen in these genres where the action or conversation will stop and description will take over. Tolkien and Martin spring to mind. They’re both writers I deeply respect, but man, they can go on sometimes. While some of Tolkien’s descriptions of landscapes lead to the breathtaking vistas we see in the Lord of the Rings films, and Martin’s in-depth cataloging of grand Westros meals can be mouth-watering, it sacrifices time with characters or plot advancement for the sake of world-building.

The thing to keep in mind, as far as I’m concerned, is that these characters who inhabit these worlds do so the same way we do ours. They coexist with wonders and strangeness the same way we do with things like airplanes and the Internet. Imagine if a writer broke up the action in a tense modern thriller or a detective yarn to describe the interior layout of a 747 in detail, or explained exactly how communication between one computer and another works. I personally don’t think that story would get very far.

While some description is inevitable, especially when it comes to these strange new worlds, I have come to understand that such descriptions should be used sparingly. A quick verbal sketch of something new and interesting may be required for context; I think the description should be made as concisely and quickly as possible. And I don’t believe that in-depth descriptions should ever be used anywhere near the opening of a story.

Consider the opening of Blade Runner. The scene in which Leon is tested could take place in any modern building. The only hint of sci-fi trappings is the device on the desk. It concerns itself first and foremost with character moments and building tension. Instead of showing off how awesome its effects are, the film paces itself, only revealing as much as it needs to in order to set scenes and move the story along. Jurassic Park is another fine example. It’s around 40 minutes before we even see our first dinosaur in full, but the build-up is done so adroitly that we are just as invested in the characters as we are in the spectacle, if not moreso. It’s something I’ll be keeping in mind as I get myself together for my next large project.

How do you feel about writing weird worlds? Would you like to see more description in such tales, or less? What good examples come to mind when discussing these stories?

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