Reading List – September 2021

Though I think he’s not been blogging for a while, I have thought about Brian from Books of Brian and his review of the Machineries of Empire series. I’ve decided to go ahead and explore these books and see what he liked about them.

Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire Trilogy

An innovative set of books, this trilogy explores a brand new universe from the mind of a new author. I’ve read that there’s supposed to be a lot of east Asian inspirations in these, and I think that will be pretty cool. I don’t know much else about them, so it’ll be exciting to jump in and find out more!

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Do you have a suggestion? Comments? I’m currently filled up for my review slots on the blog this year, but you can always submit a request for potential reviews on Goodreads and Amazon!

See my old reviews here

5 Steps to Design a Fantasy Religion

Religion is extremely important on a personal level to many people, and it affects everyone indirectly if not directly. Conflicts over differing opinions on the essential qualities of deity, creation, and human society as it relates to mystical importance abound in the real world.

Fantasy worlds can be equally convoluted. Even a fantasy world in which everyone is atheist or agnostic is still a world with a designed religion, but it can be elevated to a world with designed intent.

5. Know What Beliefs Real Religions Espouse

People can be led to believe in almost anything (just research QAnon), so it doesn’t really matter how mad you make the premise of your religion. What does matter, however, is how your religion makes adherents feel. How does it encourage your characters to act?

Successful religions have all encourages some form of morality and altruism tied into their beliefs. Do good things for the poor, don’t steal things, and respect your elders are common traits. At its core, a fantasy religion should include elements of good. Why?

Well, I’m glad you asked. See, remember that horrible set of books I read last month? Remember The Tombs of Atuan? In it, the gods only take, harm, and maim, and the king uses the reality of their existence to enhance his power. The gods in Tombs of Atuan don’t do anything good – so what was the use of worshipping them? Solely to prevent evil from happening? That lack of benefit – even lack of a theoretical benefit – to the gods in Tombs of Atuan made the entire religion a bit less believable.

People prefer to believe:

  1. The deity will bring peace and health in return for faith and worship
  2. The deity will support their people group, even at the cost of other people groups
  3. The deity will bring prosperity to the faithful
  4. The deity will enforce a social order, especially one beneficial to the adherents

Read up on how a religion uses these promises in order to attract followers. If you don’t know much about the Abrahamic religions, I encourage boning up on that because of their importance in English language literature. If you’re interested in polytheistic beliefs, study Hinduism, currently the polytheistic religion with the most followers. Strangely enough, I also strongly suggest watching Leah Remini’s Scientology and the Aftermath – if nothing else, it shows you how religions can successfully draw people in (though Scientology is a bit crazier than others) by using good acts as a sort of bait.

4. Define Your Society’s and Characters’ Goals

In that last section, we defined what a religion can give an individual. Individuals, though, don’t enforce religious rules and standards: communities do, and communities need reasons to keep the religion going. Society as a whole has goals, just like characters in a book. People often imagine countries as characters, and any group of people can be seen similarly. What does this group want?

Some societies struggle for survival. The Pentateuch (the Torah or first five books of the Old Testament) tell the story of a people fleeing persecution and establishing themselves with the safety God provides. Safety for yourself, even if it means the destruction of others, is a very interesting societal goal. I love that sort of thing because it can be easily twisted to develop a genuinely evil society while still giving the relief of moral goodness. Whether or not God physically did much to help them, the faith at least allowed the Jewish people to band together for their survival.

Remember, society tends to be out for itself. The word “genocide” wasn’t even invented until the 1940’s; even Winston Churchill called the Holocaust a “crime without a name” because nothing had been invented yet. That’s right – people didn’t care about wholesale slaughter of a people group enough to make a word for it until less than 80 years ago. Your society will want to survive and win.

3. Make a Creation Myth

There’s elements to every religion that go beyond creation myths, but almost unilaterally there needs to be a creation story in order for it to work. Part of what has empowered atheism in recent decades is the extremely plausible creation story* that didn’t exist prior to the increased pace of discovery in the Industrial Age. Atheism has always been around, but a “creation myth” was necessary to give it a boost and make it palatable to masses.

The order in which things are created is important in all myths. In Cherokee myths, there is the heavens and there is an expanse of water below. Animals came down from the heavens and dug up the mud from beneath the ocean, then tied the land to the heavens with cords so it wouldn’t sink.

Now, what does that say about the power of animals? How do you think a believer of that story would feel about animals vs. someone who believes animals a passive creation of a human-like god? They’d probably think the animals are much more important!

So what is important in your mythology? Start them early, give them a job, and give them power. Consider when “evil” is created, because that will determine much about the morality of your world.

Your myth can be as crazy as you want.

2. Create a Power Hierarchy

Your religion starts with one prophet, for whatever reason, but then the prophet leaves or dies. What next?

All groups, from companies to unions to religions, must have a hierarchy dedicated to protecting itself. Just like any society, as mentioned in number 4 above, church hierarchy will organize itself to carry out its goals of 1) spread religion and 2) get power for the religion. The Catholic church has a very complex and well-defined heirarchy, and honestly you really can’t get a better example when it comes to religious hierarchy and how it works. They have everything planned out, and it just gets deeper the further you look into it. Though the church hierarchy has done a lot to spread goodness and charity, it has also been used to cover up heinous abuses as well as entrench heinous beliefs. Whether or not the deity of your fantasy religion is good, the believers of the religion are still people, still flawed.

I grew up Baptist, and I didn’t realize there was a church hierarchy beyond just your deacons and a pastor until I got into high school and took history classes. Believe it or not, Baptists have no creed, no real external leadership structure beyond each individual congregation (there are “conventions”, but honestly churches leave those and get kicked out or join all the time, and no one really cares). There’s probably a looser-structured religious group out there, but believe it or not, Baptists have very little structure to their church despite the outsized political power they enjoy.

1. Entrench Your Hierarchy

After you’ve created an organization (or a lack of one, in the case of Baptists and the like), it’s time to look at the part that will really make your religion pop: how does it interact with politics?

There are two main ways you can entrench your hierarchy politically: an outright state with a theocracy (think Iran), or a sort of shadow state that influences government leaders and enforces itself through the power of a deity. A religious hierarchy with sufficient elaboration and order will be able to organize itself effectively and perform both its moral duties and lobby governments of any kind to do its will. Hold souls hostage, get what you want.

If you don’t have a great hierarchy, you’ll probably need to have extremely charismatic individuals that carry a lot of power. As a Baptist, I immediately think Billy Graham. He was crazy influential in politics, and it was probably him who made Baptists so much more powerful. He was able to move masses with a word and cause voting blocs to shift. Following his death, there is no single voice to fill the void, and that is also a risk for a less-organized religion: lack of continuity and lack of singular goal. It’s way harder to entrench loose confederacies for long periods of time.

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Do you include a fantasy religion in your works? I’d love to hear about your deities and myths! Let me know more in the comments!

*These creation stories can be entirely right and still don’t disprove most mythos. However, they can be taken alone, which makes them both interesting and powerful.

Reading List – August 2021

You know what people mistakenly believe in their heads? The sunk cost fallacy.

And here I am, giving in to it. Once upon a time, way back in 2016, I had some friends suggest A Wizard of Earthsea, the first book in Ursula LeGuin’s highly influential YA fantasy series. I saw on Amazon that you could get all six of the Earthsea Cycle books for the price of like 2.5 books or something like that, and I was like, “Well, if my friends suggested it, that probably means they’re worthwhile. I might as well take this deal!”

And so I read A Wizard of Earthsea.

And I hated it.

And I talked to my friends, who said “Oh, yeah, it’s not that we liked it – it was just highly influential, so you should read it to understand the state of fantasy.” And yes, it was influential. And yes, its main character was brown, which was almost unheard of in English literature at that time period.

I died a little, but I put the books away… until now, because I spent money on this! AND I WILL NOT OWN UNREAD BOOKS!

Ursula LeGuin’s The Earthsea Cycle

LeGuin originally wrote A Wizard of Earthsea in 1968. Given the time period, you already know it’s going to be a little screwed up, but I’m pretty good at forgiving people who write within their own historical time frames. I’m also really hoping that I’ll be more interested in them now, and that they’ll not seem so unreadable.

Also, I’m only presenting four of these books – A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, and Tehanu here on the blog. Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind will only be available on my Goodreads page.

See my old reviews here

Reading List – July 2021

It’s the summer indie book month, and boy do we have some hot reads this July! You’ll want to stick around for these.

1NG4 – Berthold Gambrel

I recently met Berthold Gambrel through his website, and I then also followed his twitter. Peter Martenuac (of His Name Was Zach fame) retweeted that 1NG4 was on a free weekend, so I had to check it out!

Not only that, this is a pretty short book. That’s why, on THIS WEDNESDAY, I’m going to be posting one more review than usual on my blog!

Amazon Link

Liars and Thieves – Diane Wallace Peach

I have reviewed three D. Wallace Peach books in the past (See reviews for The Melding of Aeris, Soul Swallowers, and Legacy of Souls). Peach is a reliably good author, and I’m excited to see what this new series entails. One of Peach’s sneak previews that she posted on her blog indicated that at least one of the main characters was going to be a goblin, and any sort of non-human character excites me. I don’t believe I’ve read anything published with a goblin main character, so it’s time to see how Peach pulls that off!

Amazon Link

His Name Was Zach – Peter Martuneac

Last year, Peter Martuneac submitted his book Her Name Was Abby through my review request form. Though it was the second book in the series (Zach, here, was the first), I was blown away. I assume Martuneac experienced some artist growth between the two books, but I was very into Abby and looked forward to reading this installation. The third book is out, too, so I have to catch up!

Amazon Link

We All Die In the End – Elizabeth Merry

Elizabeth Merry and I follow each others’ blogs, and I know she’s got great style. Her characters are vivid, and her prose beautiful. This collection of shorts (“scenes”) look to be connected by setting, and I think the book as a whole may benefit from this connection. Definitely looking forward to what each tale may hold for me.

Amazon Link

More Reviews

Do you have a suggestion? Comments? I’m currently filled up for my review slots on the blog this year, but you can always submit a request for potential reviews on Goodreads and Amazon!

See my old reviews here

Reading List – May 2021

May has become my “hardcore classics month,” and this year I’ve got some doozies for you.

A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickinson

Charles Dickinson is pretty famous, and I can dig him. I enjoyed Great Expectations, and A Christmas Carol is of course a good annual read (also, I played Scrooge once while in school!). I have no idea what A Tale of Two Cities is supposed to be about, but that’s why we’re here: to read old books and realize what kinds of mistakes life is made of.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I’ve never been a fan of Sherlock Holmes in any shape, form, or media. Even the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock didn’t do it for me. I didn’t like the Robert Downey Jr. version, and I didn’t even like it when Data played Sherlock Holmes in Star Trek. I also know I don’t like another of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works, The Lost World. So why am I doing this?

Two reasons: for that stupid “100 Books to Read Before You Die” (I’m not even sure what year my list is – is it 2018? 2019?) and because I like to give authors two chances. I’m almost certain I’ll hate this one, but it’s shorter than the others on this list and by god that’s going to be necessary as I prep for this month. I’ll go ahead and reveal that I had to start WAY early on reading this stuff.

Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Last year, I read The Count of Monte Cristo and thought it was really good – unexpectedly good. This book, for whatever reason, gets associated with The Count of Monte Cristo in my mind a lot, even if that’s stupid. As a result, I decided to give this one a shot with great hopes.

Also, my mom hates this story. She refuses to tell me why, so I do fear that it’ll get a bit too erotic for my typical tastes. That’s just the way my mom operates, though – one penis, and it’s curtains. Tears for days with her. We’ll see.

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

One of my favorite books from 2020 was Gone With the Wind. The printing of Gone With the Wind I borrowed from my library included a forward from someone (Pat Conroy, maybe? I don’t know for sure). In this foreword, Anna Karenina was mentioned as an earlier work with an unlikeable, female protagonist that works. 

After finishing Gone With the Wind, I was like, “By God, Scarlett was one of the best-conceived characters I have ever read.” And, if Anna Karenina has some similar traits, I want to know. I want to see if Margaret Mitchell has a stranglehold on cold-hearted bitch.

More Reviews

Do you have a suggestion? Comments? I’m currently filled up for my review slots on the blog this year, but you can always submit a request for potential reviews on Goodreads and Amazon!

See my old reviews here

Reading List – April 2021

We’re on to 2021’s second indie book month – and it’s going to be exciting as we delve through some books with female leads!

What to do with Baby Ashes – Marnie Heenan

I’ve followed Heenan online for quite a while. She used to be active in the WordPress scene, but now I keep up with her on Twitter and gaze every so often at her website. You all know I’m not a mom and don’t plan to be, but I’ve kept up with Heenan enough to know that she’s really, really good at poetry, and this book is her first chapbook. I think my heart’s ready to get ripped out. Stick around for the emotion bath.

Amazon Link

A Choice for Essence – Katelyn Uhrich

This summer, I read an anthology called From Ashes to Magic, and that contained one poem about the gods Life and Death that just blew me away. I chose to read Essence because it is told from the perspective of gods reminiscent of those in Greek myth, and I thought it could be as beautiful or interesting as the short I’d read this summer. However, I did note that it’s YA, so I’m not sure how that’s going to play out for me (just ok with YA).

Amazon Link

Marriage Unarranged – Ritu Bhatal

Marriage Unarranged read 2021

Everyone loves Bhatal online. It’s honestly hard to find a sweeter person. And, what’s more, I completely decided to buy this book when she self-described it as “Chickpea Lit”. How cute is that? I’m a sucker for puns, and I’m always looking for books about non-English, non-American cultural norms, and this book seems to be it. What’s more, I trust Bhatal’s experience, interpretation, and craft enough that I’m sure it’ll fulfill my international needs.

Amazon Link

More Reviews

Do you have a suggestion? Comments? I’m currently filled up for my review slots on the blog this year, but you can always submit a request for potential reviews on Goodreads and Amazon!

See my old reviews here

4 Ways to Build The Perfect Twist

I love me a good plot twist. I love writing them, I love reading them – but they so often fall flat, and they’re hard to get right. What makes a twist good? How do you stick ’em in there?

Well, I think I’m pretty good at twists, so I’m here to help you out.

Fair Warning: Major spoilers for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Star Wars, and The Kite Runner are present in this post.

4. Know What a Twist Is

Normal development includes elements of discovery, addition of information, mystery solving, relationship building, and (in some books) fights. A twist is where some additional, unexpected (more on this later) complication arises. For example: losing a fight isn’t a twist. People, even the good guys, lose fights all the time. But losing a fight to a guy who suddenly reveals he’s your father? That’s a twist.

That twist, the famous one where Luke discovers Darth Vader is his father, is epic. Honestly, it’s the best twist in the Star Wars film series as it changes the entire dynamic. There’s not enough build to it for my tastes, but the fact that it’s an unexpected addition to the plot and forces a massive change in the characters’ outlook is what makes it a twist.

If you think you’ve inserted a twist, ask your beta readers what they thought of the twist. If they don’t know or if they say it’s not a twist, think about how you can either change it to make it better or if you shouldn’t think of it as a twist in the first place.

3. Placement of Twist(s)

Where your twist goes in the story is important to get the biggest effect. Every story follows a certain format wherein you build tension during the large portion of the book then end it after the final part of the conflict. You’ve probably seen one of these plot diagrams before.

A common place to put the twist is right before or during the climax. When the twist is finally revealed, the tension and stakes are at their highest. The twist might also give the characters the last piece of information they need to complete their goals (though, as we’ll see later, this needs to be done carefully).

Though the diagram above is simple, you can also imagine multiple, smaller rises and falls of tension during the conflict period on the plot. A twist can be placed before one of these mini-climaxes in order to show just how difficult the characters’ journeys will be. It can add a new player to the game, turn an ally into an enemy, or add an element of social anxiety.

Twists should never be in the exposition – they aren’t twists there, just explanations. A twist in the falling action or conclusion might feel like a cop-out, or it will feel like difficulty for no reason. For example: at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the hobbits return to The Shire and there’s a problem with Saruman/Sharkey screwing it up. It’s a twist and just one more problem that wasn’t necessary for plot (but is 100%, absolutely necessary for theme and allegory, so I don’t knock the decision). Without that thematic importance, the little addition is just like, “What the h*ll? We just killed the guy who threatened the entire world, and here’s this little sh*t screwing around for nothing?”

2. Number of Twists

Just like I’ve said before to keep an eye on your number of characters, keep an eye on your number of twists.

A twist is, in a way, a betrayal of the reader’s trust in your narrator. Even an unreliable narrator must provide enough information for the world and setup to make sense. When executing a twist, something has been held back from the reader, or perhaps lies were fed to them, in order for the twist to be surprising. Twists expend trust, and every time it’s expended, it’s harder to get it back.

For a short, I’d have one twist (two if they are synergistic). You don’t have enough space to build trust or information after a second twist. Novellas can handle a little more, but not much. Novels, in my opinion, can handle up to one per minor climax, but that still can be tricky.

1. Unexpected, Yet Obvious

The Darth Vader twist was great in that it changed the entire dynamic of the story. It wasn’t great, however, in that it didn’t feel like there was any build to it. Once revealed, you couldn’t look back at the prior movie or the first half of Empire Strikes Back and be able to tell that Vader was the dad. It’s greatness in film history has more to do with the cultural impact of the moment and the movie than it does on the quality of the twist itself.

A better twist would have been built if Lucas had danced a fine line of information that pointed toward the parentage but did not reveal the secret outright.

Now, a great plot twist build: in Kite Runner, Khaled Hossini builds the relationship between Hassan and main character Amir’s was done so well. Throughout the book, Amir’s father wishes Hassan had come with them to America. He pays for Hassan’s cleft palate surgery, and he forgives Hassan when Amir frames him as a thief. When it is revealed that Hassan’s father, Ali, is sterile, there’s enough information that the reader automatically knows what’s coming next: Hassan and Amir are half brothers, biologically. Though I was just “meh” about the book as a whole, the twist was bang on.

Though building information that leads to the culmination of a twist can create the most satisfying reader situation possible, it also runs a major risk: readers could be able to figure out the twist long before it happens. This is ok if you’re going for dramatic irony, but if not, providing information in a different way could be better. Some ways you could funnel the information differently:

  • Try a more limited narrator scope. If you’re in third person omniscient, try first person. You’ll feed information to the reader differently since the character you’re speaking through may not be aware of every element of the conflict.
  • Toy with how blatant a clue is or how often you repeat it. I’ve found that it’s best to be very blunt about my clues, but only do it once. If you’re too repetitive, the clue can be too much of a hint. If you don’t speak about it clearly enough, a reader won’t remember the clue when it comes time for the reveal.
  • Time your clues appropriately. You can give a big clue early if it seems disconnected, then build back around so that clue comes back into play. By that time, the event will have faded some in the reader’s memory, and you’ll be able to help the reader sew together the clues to form the twist.
  • Read mystery novels! Mysteries are almost always twist-oriented, since otherwise there’s no real payoff for reading them.
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Do you like plot twists? Do you have a book you’ve written that’s got a great twist and want to share information in the comments? DO IT!

(Beware – sometimes WordPress eats link-containing comments as spam, so you might want to just provide the name if you’re new to the blog!)

Reading List – February 2021

Despite my deep love of political history, I’ve not read any political treatises! Woe, woe is me! This month is intended to fix that gap in my knowledge.

As you may also know, the Sue Vincent Rodeo Classic is starting this month! Be prepared at ANY MOMENT for a Sue Vincent book review!

Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand

atlas shrugged read 2021

Ayn Rand’s philosophy of “objectivism” is one of the most important political philosophies in modern (mostly American) politics. Libertarians, especially, can point to a lot of her writing as essential. She’s cited by famous people such as Mark Cuban, Ben Shapiro, and both Pauls (Ron and Rand). Objectivism states itself to be entirely logical, which makes it really hard to argue against because believers can just claim you illogical to argue against them.

But what really is objectivism, and how did Rand develop it? That’s what this dive into a horrifyingly long book is going to be about. At least there’s supposed to be a fiction element surrounding the political!

The Communist Manifesto – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

The Communist Manifesto reading 2021

What better way to follow up a libertarian, capitalist behemoth than by reading the Communist Manifesto? Partially chosen because Atlas Shrugged is so long that I worry about getting everything done in the timeframe I’ve planned for myself, the Manifesto is short and entirely focused on talking about… well, communism. At risk of getting myself put on some sort of list, I’m reading this and hoping to learn more about the world in which we live.

The Prince – Niccolo Macchiavelli

The Prince reading 2021

The Prince is the 16th-century political treatise on how to be a dangerous mofo and unify Italy. Most kids learn in high-school about this how-to manual for dictators and evil monarchs, but I happen to question the modern applicability of a book written so long ago. Nonetheless, important books such as these are essential to understanding our world, times, and culture.

More Reviews

Do you have a suggestion? Comments? I’m currently filled up for my review slots on the blog this year, but you can always submit a request for potential reviews on Goodreads and Amazon!

See my old reviews here

Reading List – January 2021

Welcome to a brand new year! We’re starting off the year with a sci-fi indie book month. If you’re a glutton for punishment, you can also check out my 2021 TBR on my Review Archive page.

Steel Reign: The Flight of the Starship Concord – Braxton A. Cosby

Steel Reign flight of the starship concord read 2020

This book actually came from a reading suggestion/request on Twitter. Not going to lie, space operas are one of my jams, so I totally bit into the premise of this action adventure. The main character is a mercenary with an epic resume, and it screams action. Though I bought the book when it was relatively new, it has since become quite popular on Amazon and sold very well in the sci-fi category. I’m excited to see what happens!
Amazon Link

Our Dried Voices – Greg Hickey

read 2021 our dried voices hickey

This book came up on my review request page! It’s another sci-fi, but this time in what seems to be a dystopian future. The book seems like it will be similar to or have inspirations from Wells’s Time Machine or other classic sci-fi, and I’m excited to see how the author puts a new twist on these old elements.

Amazon Link

Dust & Lightning – Rebecca Crunden

Another book that popped up on my review request page, Dust & Lightning is the final sci-fi read of this month. Another space opera, this one promises action as well as a side-romance. The author’s style seems very different from that of Cosby above, so I’m looking forward to checking out another way to do one of my favorite genres.

Amazon Link

More Reviews

Toward the end of last year, I started getting a lot more review requests from my review request page. Unfortunately, the spots on my blog for review requests this year are already taken (wow!), so I’m actually going to be a bit more selective as to which books I read and especially picky as to which get a blog post. I regret having to make this decision because one of my favorite books last year came from a request I was skeptical of!

American Chimera – 30.6

American Chimera Cover Small

“And I gave the other trophy to that giant spider all over the news.” The interrogator laughed and picked up her cans once more. “I fucking ended the Chimera war. I watched Dr. Kim die. I fucking found the American Chimera who, through no fault of her own, was always destined to throw the planet into chaos, destruction, and doom. And you, you pathetic little worm, think you can make me pay for this miserable canned food?”

The woman shook her head.

“You want to know the worst part?” She tucked the pack of cans under her arm. “I’ve had genetic testing since they cut me up. I didn’t inherit the gene.”

The interrogator took her food out of the warehouse and left.

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