“Fire in the Ocean” Goes on Sale Today!

“Fire in the Ocean” went on sale today from Diversion Books. Although it is a sequel to “The Obsidian Mirror,” it stands on its own as a great adventure. It’s set in Moloka’i and the Big Island of Hawai’i, and draws on ancient Hawai’ian mythology and folktales. In honor of the debut of “Fire in the Ocean,” here is the first chapter of the book. I hope you enjoy it!

Chapter 1 of “Fire in the Ocean”

Sierra glanced up from her in-flight magazine and stared at her companion with concern. Chaco’s face, normally a warm, glowing brown, was a sickly gray with green undertones. She scrabbled hastily in her seat pocket for the barf bag and handed it to him.

“If you feel like you’re going to be sick, use this,” she said. “I didn’t know you get motion sickness.” They had just taken off from San Jose International Airport—how could he be sick already?

Chaco waved away the bag with a weary gesture. “I don’t have motion sickness.”

“What’s the matter, then?” she asked. She hoped he would recover soon—and that he wasn’t contagious. But then she remembered:

Chaco was an Avatar. He was thousands of years old, and had literally never been sick a day in his long life. If he was sick, something was seriously awry.

“I dunno,” Chaco replied, closing his eyes. “Do you…do you suppose you could just leave me alone for a while?”

Sierra returned to her magazine, glancing at his tense, gray face every so often. When the stewards came by with trays of lunch, Chaco shook his head without opening his eyes.

When the screaming began, Sierra nearly jumped out of her skin, and she wasn’t the only one. A female flight attendant was shrieking incoherently in the rear of the plane, where the galley and restrooms were located for economy class passengers. Other attendants crowded around her, and her shrieks stopped abruptly. But not before Sierra heard, “Green! Monster! I saw it…!”

“Oh no,” Sierra moaned. “Oh no, no, that’s just what we need!”

People were still craning in their seats, trying to see what was going on. The curtain had been drawn across the galley space, concealing whatever was happening.

Roused by the commotion, Chaco asked, “What was that all that about?”

“It’s Fred,” Sierra whispered grimly. “It has to be Fred. The flight attendant was screaming about a green monster. Sound familiar?”

Chaco closed his eyes again. “Figures.” Sierra waited for more, but he remained silent.

“What are we going to do? Fred will be a disaster on this trip, which is why I told him—firmly!—that he couldn’t come with us,” Sierra asked.

“I don’t know.”

“We have to do something.”

Chaco shifted his long body slightly to face her and opened his eyes. “Look, Sierra. I have no more idea than you do. In fact, I think I’m in real trouble here.”

Sierra looked at his pale face and anguished eyes. “Are you sick?”

“It’s worse than that,” he responded miserably. “I’m mortal.”

“Mortal? Mortally ill, you mean?”

“No. Mortal. As in, I’m just like you, now. I’m not an Avatar anymore. I can get sick. I can die.”

All thoughts of Fred forgotten, Sierra said, “How do you know? How is that even possible?”

Chaco shook his head. “Wouldn’t you know if all your blood left your body? I mean, just for an instant before you died? I’ve been severed from the numinous, the sphere in which we Avatars exist. The power source has been unplugged, if that makes more sense.”

Sierra absorbed this in silence. Finally, she said, “But you’re still alive. So cutting you off from the, um, numinous doesn’t kill you?”

Chaco rolled his eyes. “Apparently not.”

“Okay. Why don’t you try to turn into a coyote? If you can do that, it proves you’re okay.” In addition to being an outwardly young and indisputably handsome young man, Chaco was Coyotl the Trickster, demigod and culture hero of many Native American traditions. Sierra was so rattled that she didn’t consider what her fellow passengers’ response might be to a coyote lounging in a nearby window seat.

Chaco looked at her, his golden-amber eyes now dulled to hazel. Dark circles beneath his eyes made them appear sunken.

“What do you think I’ve been trying to do for the past hour?”

“Oh.” Sierra sat quietly for a long time, thinking. Eventually, she asked, “How did you get separated from the, um, numinous, anyway? How could something like that happen?”

Chaco roused himself from his lethargy. “I don’t know. It’s never happened before. I could make an educated guess, though. I think it’s because I’m no longer connected to my land, the land that created me. I think my land is the source of my power. I’ve never been on an airplane before, so I didn’t know this would happen.”

“We’re thousands of feet in the air. When we get to Hawai‘i, we’ll be on land again—maybe you’ll get it back. Hawai‘i is part of the United States, after all,” Sierra said, trying to comfort her friend.

Chaco brightened a little at this, but his enthusiasm flickered and died. “I don’t know as much as I should about things like history and geography, but wasn’t Hawai‘i built by volcanoes in the middle of the ocean?”

Sierra nodded.

“And when did Hawai‘i become part of the United States?”

Sierra’s dark brows knit together as she tried to remember. She gave up. “I’m not sure, but it was probably about 60 years ago.”

Chaco groaned, almost inaudibly. “So Hawai‘i isn’t part of my land at all. It’s something different. The people there are probably not even Native Americans.”

This Sierra did know. “They’re Polynesians. They came from Tahiti, I think. Once you get your feet on the ground, maybe you’ll feel better.”

“Maybe,” he said, directing a morose gaze out of the little window at the clouds.


The trip was originally supposed to be a fun vacation with Sierra’s fiancé, Clancy. At least, Sierra thought it would be fun, but as Clancy pointed out, his idea of an island vacation had more to do with drinking fruity tropical drinks on the beach than with counting albatross chicks. Nonetheless, he had gone along with her plans for a one-month stint on Midway Island. It was an ecotourism gig that allowed some twenty volunteers at a time onto Midway to help biologists monitor the bird life. The island was a national wildlife refuge that provided breeding grounds for millions of sea birds, including several endangered species. The volunteers lived on Midway for a month, counting chicks and cleaning up plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch so that adult birds wouldn’t mistake the colorful bits of plastic for food and feed it to their nestlings—thereby killing them.

But Clancy’s boss had asked (demanded) that he cancel his scheduled vacation. Sierra was upset by this, but she understood. Clancy was head of security at a high-tech Silicon Valley firm. The president of the United States had scheduled a visit to the plant to highlight her support of American technology—and Clancy’s vacation was sacrificed amid promises of more vacation time later.

“I’m going anyway,” she had told Clancy. At his look of surprise, she added, “Remember? My job is paying for it. I have to go so I can report on the wildlife conservation work on Midway.” Sierra worked for Clear Days Foundation as a communications executive.

“Oh. Well, sure. I just thought…”

“I’d like to ask Chaco to go with me,” Sierra had said. “That okay with you?”

There was a long silence. “Chaco? Isn’t he with Kaylee? Wouldn’t that be kind of awkward?”

“I thought you knew. Kaylee is dating someone named Guy now. She moved on. Kaylee always moves on.”

“Oh. Well, what about taking Kaylee with you? Or Rose? Or Mama Labadie?” Clancy listed off Sierra’s closest female friends.

“All three of them are going to some animal spirit guide workshop in Sedona, so they’re not available. Look, please don’t worry about this. Chaco and I are just friends. We’ve never been anything else. And I’m going to be on a remote island in the middle of nowhere for a month with a bunch of people I don’t know. I’d like to have a friend with me.”

“I’m not worried. Well, maybe I am, a little. Just tell me you’re sorry that it won’t be me.”

“I’m really, really sorry that it won’t be you!”

He would have to be content with that.


Discovering that Fred had decided to stow away on the airplane was unwelcome news to Sierra. But there could be no other explanation for the ruckus among the flight attendants and that telling shriek of “Green! Monster!”

Fred was a mannegishi. When visible, Fred looked like a green melon with pipe-cleaner arms and legs, six flexible digits on each paw, and swiveling orange eyes that resembled traffic reflectors. He had the ability to disappear at will, which had been handy in Sierra’s earlier adventures, but he was a mischievous creature with little or no impulse control and an enormous appetite. Fred was not Sierra’s first choice of companion for a visit to a delicate ecosystem populated by endangered birds.

Now she had to deal with an errant mannegishi as well as a mortal and extremely miserable Chaco. As they walked through the loading tunnel to the gate, Sierra whispered, “How are we going to find Fred?”

Chaco shrugged. “My guess is that Fred will find us. Don’t worry about him—he’s been around the block a few times in the past few thousand years.” He was still drawn and tired-looking, with none of his usual sexy saunter. Sierra guessed that returning to the earth had not restored his supernatural powers or immortality.

They made their way to baggage pickup. When Chaco hefted his suitcase, he nearly dropped it, then frowned.

“I think Fred found us,” he reported.

Sierra looked at him, puzzled.

“My suitcase.” He hefted it again. “It’s a lot heavier than it was when I dropped it off in San Jose. It’s either Fred or someone stuffed a bowling ball in here.”

Sierra was horrified. “Well, let him out! He must be smothered in there.”

“Not likely,” scoffed Chaco. He gave the suitcase a good shake. “Serves him right.”

“What if he’s lost his powers like you have?” she hissed, not wanting to be overheard.

“I don’t think so. He disappeared on the plane fast enough when the flight attendant started screaming. Otherwise, there would have been a lot more commotion.”

Acknowledging that Chaco was probably right, Sierra turned her attention to finding transportation to their hotel. It was located right on Waikiki Beach and wasn’t far from the airport. On the bus ride to the hotel, Sierra took in the tropical plants, caught glimpses of turquoise ocean, and, cracking the window a trifle, breathed in the scent of many flowers—and the usual smells of any big city. The people walking on the streets all looked like tourists to her. Many were wearing shorts, flip-flops, and Hawai‘ian print shirts. Surely not everyone in the city is a tourist, she thought. At one point, Chaco’s suitcase began to squirm, but he kicked it sharply, and the suitcase subsided.

Their hotel was an enormous complex of tall buildings, and they had a room on the seventeenth floor, overlooking the ocean. Sliding glass doors on a balcony opened to let in breezes, and the afternoon air smelled soft and sweet with an underlying sharper tang of salt. They dumped their suitcases on the floor—in Chaco’s case, none too gently. Chaco unzipped the bag and Fred rolled out onto the carpet.

“Ow ow ow ow,” he complained, rubbing his fat bottom and glaring at them reproachfully.

“It’s your own fault,” Chaco said coldly. “I’m going to bed.” He commandeered one of the two queen-size beds and pulled the covers over his head.

“What’s his problem?” the little mannegishi asked. “He didn’t spend hours balled up in a suitcase.”

“He’s lost his powers,” Sierra explained. “He’s a mortal now, and it disagrees with him. Anyway, why’d you do it, Fred? I asked you not to come. Now I don’t know what to do.”

She felt nearly as weary as Chaco. The trip had started with Clancy dropping out. Now Chaco had lost his powers and become mortal—and who knew what that would mean? She supposed it would be like a human losing the ability to see, or walk. And she had to deal with Fred, too. As fond as she was of him, Fred was a nuisance at the best of times.

“Lost his powers? How does that happen?” asked Fred, looking worried. He disappeared briefly then reappeared. He looked relieved but puzzled. “I haven’t lost my abilities. Why did Chaco lose his?”

“He thinks it’s because he’s no longer in contact with his birth land. He says he’s cut off from the numinous, whatever that is.”

“I dunno about numinous, but I’m still okay.”

“How nice for you!” came an irritated growl from under the humped covers on Chaco’s bed.

“Look, Fred, I could really use a drink right now. Disappear yourself, and we can talk. There’s got to be a bar in this hotel somewhere.”

As it turned out, the hotel had many bars. Sierra picked one with an outdoor seating area on the beach and ordered something unfamiliar with rum in it. The drink arrived, bedecked with chunks of fresh fruit, small umbrellas, and plastic hula girls and accompanied by a bowl of peanuts. She cleared away the ornamentation, ate the fruit, and began working slowly on the remaining fluid. It was cold, tart, and sweet. She still felt grubby from the trip, but at least she was near a beach—she could see surfers from where she was sitting—with a fruity tropical drink. And an invisible mannegishi. She could see the imprint of Fred’s bottom on the chair cushion next to hers, and the peanuts were disappearing at a rapid pace.

She picked up her phone and pretended to tap in a number, then said, “Hi, Fred. We can talk now.” Anyone observing would see a trim woman with tanned skin and long, dark hair, sitting alone and talking on the phone.

“So what happened to Chaco?” Fred asked.

“As soon as the plane took off, he started to look kind of green around the gills. Then he slumped down and acted like he was sick. He says he’s mortal now. He can die.”

“That’s not good,” Fred observed.

“Tell me about it,” said Sierra. “I’ve been mortal my whole life.”

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to be insensitive.”

“It’s all right. I’m used to it. Chaco isn’t. Do you know if he can ever regain his connection to the numinous? Whatever that is?”


“And why didn’t you lose your powers?” Sierra demanded. The mannegishi was quiet for a few minutes.

“Chaco and I aren’t exactly the same sort of thing, you know.”

“How do you mean?”

“Chaco is—was—an Avatar. Much more powerful than a mannegishi. I’m just a, ah, kind of an…well, I don’t know exactly. I have certain powers, but what I can do is born inside me. Like bees can make honey? I can do what I do. That’s all I know.” Sierra could tell by the sounds next to her that the mannegishi was sucking his digits—a nervous habit.

“Stop that!” The sucking sounds ceased, and the peanuts began to disappear again. Sierra flagged a passing waiter and asked for more peanuts and another round of whatever she was drinking.

“What about your powers?” Fred asked abruptly. Sierra sat for a moment, considering. She had discovered during her earlier struggles against the Aztec god Necocyaotl that she possessed certain disturbing powers of her own. Rose had helped her to strengthen her control over these powers, but Sierra still didn’t understand how they worked. Given a choice, she preferred not thinking about them. But Fred’s question was a good one, so she closed her eyes and searched for the glowing ribbons she visualized when her powers were at work. After a moment, she opened her eyes again.

“I still have my powers, such as they are. No difference.” Why were she and Fred untouched, while Chaco had been drastically changed? The illogic of magic, as always, annoyed her, but she couldn’t do anything about the situation today. Right now, she was sitting in the Hawai‘ian sun on a Hawai‘ian beach, drinking a Hawai‘ian drink, and watching the Hawai‘ian waves. Almost against her will, she began to relax. The waiter brought her a fresh drink and another bowl of peanuts. She thanked him, took a long swallow, and closed her eyes. She began to think about Chaco and Fred and their attendant problems. Not relaxing. She opened her eyes again, only to find the rest of her drink gone, as well as all of the fruit.



If you enjoyed Chapter 1, you can find “Fire in the Ocean” at:


Barnes & Noble

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Writing: The Never-Ending Journey

Photo by Bec Brown

Photo by Bec Brown

When I first started this blog, the subtitle was “A Blog about Writing a Novel.” I thought of it as a journal documenting the process of writing my first novel and trying to get it published. Of course, at the time, I had no idea whether I would get it published (or even finished).

Well, “The Obsidian Mirror” was finished and published, and now will be republished by Diversion Books. (They are giving it a new cover as well, which should be interesting. I can’t wait.) I have a contract for the sequel from Diversion, and I have written about 20% of the first draft.

So it’s no longer a blog about writing a novel. It’s about the journey I am on as an author. I have changed the subtitle to “The Journey to Authorship.”

Now, that sounds like I will be forever journeying toward a goal, but never reaching it. That would be exactly right.

I learned a huge amount about writing a novel when I wrote “The Obsidian Mirror.” I revised it eight times. I had many people read it and comment on it, including the wonderful Gail Z. Martin, who has authored numerous fantasy novels herself.

Now I am trying to put those lessons to good use in the sequel. I am also trying out new things. For example, the antagonist in “Fire in the Ocean” (working title) is not an evil god. He’s not even evil. As a reader, I am much more interested in complex characters than cardboard cutouts, but as a writer, it’s really easy to fall into the mistake of making evil characters 100% evil, twiddling their mustachios and laughing, “BWAHAHAHAH!” (Okay, maybe not that bad, but you get the idea.) So I am trying to create a more complex character, one who is human, with human strengths and weaknesses, whose actions are not motivated by pure nastiness.

I have to admit, this is a bit scary for me, and I am proceeding with this character in baby steps. But, as in “The Obsidian Mirror,” I am still trying to understand why perfectly normal people do massively destructive things to the environment—even though they have to live the consequences along with the rest of us.

Another challenge is the setting in Hawai’i. “The Obsidian Mirror” was set in Silicon Valley, where I lived and worked for more than 30 years, so I knew it very well. I have visited Hawai’i many times and love it, but I am not as intimately familiar with it as I am with Silicon Valley. I spent eight days on Moloka’i, where much of the novel takes place, but eight days doesn’t make me an expert. Fortunately, I made some friends in Moloka’i while I was there, and I am hoping they will help to correct any inaccuracies or general idiocies I may commit.

So I am still learning and stretching my authorial wings. I am on a journey I suspect I will never complete, because I hope always to be learning more about my craft and growing as a writer. If I stop doing that, I will stop writing.

The Launch Party, Coyotes, Mannegishi, and What Comes Next

Chaco, the Coyote Trickster

The launch party for “The Obsidian Mirror” went beautifully last Saturday afternoon. Kepler’s Bookstore in Menlo Park, CA graciously hosted the event, and there was a good crowd of people there. I did a very brief reading and answered questions.

Here’s a sampling of what I was asked:

Q: Is your protagonist (Sierra) autobiographical?

A: Sierra is concerned about the environment; so am I. Sierra is a PR executive, and used to be one. Sierra designs silver jewelry, and I do, too. There the resemblance ends because Sierra is way cooler than I am. (I didn’t mention this, but she’s also younger and more athletic than me.)

Q: What started you writing the book?

A: I had recently finished a Robert Jordan novel that involved riding horses, armor, swords, sorcery, etc. I really enjoyed the book, but later I wondered why, with thousands of legends, mythologies, folk tales and traditions, the New World is rarely used as inspiration for fantasy. Most epic fantasy, at any rate, is usually set in some pre-Industrial Age, pseudo-European environment. Elves, faeries, trolls, ogres, goblins, vampires, etc. are staple fare.

I love swords-and-sorcery, don’t get me wrong! But I had time (my freelance writing business was slow at the time), so I began writing a story based on New World traditions as an experiment. Before long, the characters took over and I HAD to finish the story.

Q: Is Chaco (Coyotl the Trickster) based on a person in your life?

A: I said Chaco was based on my husband, Tom, but I was kidding. Coyotl the Trickster is a folk hero among many of the Native American tribes. I should have mentioned that appearance-wise, I saw Chaco, in his manifestation as a deliciously sexy young man (as opposed to his coyote gig), as Gael García Bernal, the excellent Mexican actor who (among many other roles) played Ché Guevara in “The Motorcycle Diaries.”

One person thanked me for not making Chaco the villain. I started out thinking that since Chaco was The Trickster, he ought to be rather ambiguous; the reader would not be sure whether he was good or bad. I really, truly would have liked to write him that way, but he came out more of a scamp than a real rogue. (That was all his doing, not mine. I had other ideas.)

Q: What other characters are in the book?

A: There’s Fred the Mannegishi. Mannegishi are sort of like leprechauns in that they are small and green, but mostly because they are mischievous. Mannegishi are from legends of the Cree tribe. Fred is truly unreliable, but as one person present said (she had edited the manuscript for me), “Fred seemed like a pain in the butt at first, but he became my favorite character.”

I was asked if I made up Fred’s appearance, but I followed the description of Mannegishi in Wikipedia. I rarely made up anything about the supernatural characters; I tended to follow the traditional descriptions if they were available. Of course, much of my research consisted of strolling around the Internet when I needed a new monster. As the New Yorker cartoon has it, “Nobody knows you’re a dog on the Internet.” By the same token, it’s hard to know whether you’re reading something authentic, or a made-up legend by a tequila company or something. As “The Obsidian Mirror” is fiction—and fantasy fiction at that—I didn’t worry too much about academic purity.

 Q: Do you have a sequel planned?

 A: Yes, two. The next book will be set in Hawai’I, where Fred might meet some cousins of his. “The Obsidian Mirror” has an underlying theme of threat to our natural environment, which will continue to be a theme of my work. I am very concerned about the Pacific Gyre, also known as the Pacific Garbage Patch, a continent-size vortex of plastic particles in the ocean swirling around Hawai’i. But I do not plan on getting preachy. The books have to be fun to read, or no one will read them.

Of course, I may have to make the ultimate sacrifice and travel to Hawai’i to do research. A writer’s life is so hard.

The third sequel will be set in Mexico, and will have something to do with the Virgin of Guadalupe as Tonantzin, the Aztec flower goddess. I don’t know much more about it yet.

After answering questions, I sat down at the assigned table and signed books. The store sold out, with Kepler’s purchasing the last one for the staff. I hope they enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the party. I got a ton of compliments on the food—which I never touched because I was too wound-up!

How’s This Coyote? I’d Really Like Your Opinion.

Many of you were kind enough to comment on three different versions of Chaco: my supernatural character who can appear either as a ridiculously beautiful young man, or as a coyote. (But not just any coyote; he is Coyotl the Trickster).

My publisher had asked for a somewhat lighter feel to the image because the tone of the book overall is light. Chaco is (usually) a cheerful guy.

The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of my original, Chaco #1, with 10 votes, #2 got three votes, and #3 got two votes. I also favor the original.

However, my friend Erica Chase asked, “Is there a happier looking coyote?” I thought this was nothing short of brilliant (typical of Erica). So I went looking for a coyote whose expression was less threatening and more upbeat. And then tried to match the coyote with an image of a young man that more or less matched (or was at least complementary to) the coyote’s expression. The image below is the result, and if you would be so obliging, I’d like to know if you think this is an improvement. Or not. (To see the three images I posted for comment, please go to https://obsidianmirrorblog.wordpress.com/2013/12/13/vote-for-your-favorite-coyote/)

New Coyote/Chaco

New Coyote/Chaco

Vote for Your Favorite Coyote!

I sent last week’s cover art to my publisher. One of his comments was: “…the book itself also felt a bit more light hearted than the dark cover with the serious boy (who was definitely not so serious in my mind, as I read anyway).”

The man (Chaco) changing into a coyote is central to my story. Chaco is Coyotl, the trickster folk hero of many Native American cultures. He can shift back and forth at will, and this comes in handy several times during the story. So I’d really like to use the image of the shape-shifting man-coyote. But my publisher is right: the tone of the book is on the lighter side.

I picked out a few more handsome latino men from iStock.com, where there is a plethora of such men on sale for very little money, and created two alternatives to my original. I present them here for your deliberation: which is the best Chaco: #1, #2, or #3?

I eagerly await your judgement!

Chaco #1

Chaco #1

Chaco #2

Chaco #2

Chaco #3

Chaco #3

An Unexpected Backlash: A Tolkien Commentary

This is a guest blog by Michelle Browne, author of “The Loved, the Lost, the Dreaming.” She is also the author of “SciFi Magpie,” where this blog post was originally published.

# # # #

So, by now, most of you have probably seen ‘The Hobbit’. I finally caught up to it in theatres just recently. I wanted to touch on the relevance of that, but I’m going to splice an analysis of Lord of the Rings in here too, and look at why the series has been so instrumental in creating the fantasy worlds of writers today. However, I also have a few choice remarks to make on culture and possibly colonialism, so don’t expect an entirely comfortable post. Get your sword, your bow, and your axe; this could get ugly.
For the sake of expediency, and because I don’t have time to reread the entire trilogy AND The Hobbit AND The Sillmarillion (blech!) before writing this review, there may be a few factual detail errors. However, given my ‘to be read’ shelves on GoodReads and Amazon, I figured it was best just to get on with it.

Photo belongs to the internets.
So, what makes the series so special? Let’s have a look at some common misconceptions and ideas while we’re trying to figure it out.

Lord of the Rings was the first book of its kind! Well…actually…

It’s more than just clever marketing, certainly. Although The Lord of the Rings series was written during WWII and published in three volumes between 1954-55, it wasn’t the first high fantasy work ever written. Before The Hobbit in 1937, Robert Howard’s Conan the Barbarian hit the shelves in 1932. Weird Tales, the magazine that started it all, had hit shelves back in 1923, bringing stories of horror, science fiction, and the fantastic to pulp readers everywhere. Reading these contemporary works definitely reveals some very common themes. If you’ve read H.P. Lovecraft’s work and a bit of Howard–which I have–you can see the overlap in the style of the antagonists, as well as in other elements. The spooky and mysterious forces even return in modern game narratives, such as DragonAge, The Elder Scrolls, and World of Warcraft. 

What LoTR did, though, was refine the style and give it a voice, a look, an emblematic work that encompassed new ground. Only children’s stories had been written about knights and beasts and dragons, and before that, the mythology of a people. Tolkein managed to combine children’s stories, folklore, and the organization of mythos into a single work. There’s no getting around it–the Middle Earth stories are the sort of creation myth territory that had previously belonged to whole cultures.

He single-handledly defined orcs (inventing those himself), dwarves, elves, and halfings/hobbits for generations of fantasy writers. He defined the period and setting (a sort of sparsely populated mediaeval Britain/Germany/France amalgam) for what high fantasy would become. He defined the idea of a big bad scary villain working through armies of henchmen. He codified the Merlin-like figure of a wise old wizard and crafted many tropes and archetypes that we still rely on. High fantasy, as it currently exists, just wouldn’t have come to be without Tolkein, or would have been markedly different.

Source. Some time, we’ll have a long talk about my mixed feelings about dragons, but this is a pretty epic picture.

So, what can you possibly say about LoTR’s impact that could be negative? He invented the genre, right?

LoTR begat many other authors’ works. Ursula Le Guin and her literary descendents have diverged a bit, but both Arthurian structure and LoTR dominate the flavour and types of worlds created by modern writers. Stories revolve around magic and whether it ought to be used (or not), kings and their courts, power struggles, fantasy racism and ancient grudges, looming evil forces or ideological conflicts, the role (or lack thereof) for women, and Epic Grand Battle Royales. Tamora Pierce, Terry Brooks, Robin Hobb, George R. R. Martin, and many other authors have all experimented with variations on this formula, with varying levels of success.

There is some really wonderful high fantasy out there, but as one reads the list, certain patterns emerge. Even from titles alone, a tendency towards the mediaeval is obvious. That’s all right on its own, surely, but a second glance reveals more. The vast majority, in fact, almost every single book, is set in some sort of British/Germanic/French/Nordic world. Mongolians, Chinese, Arabs, or Africans are the antagonist forces–sometimes cloaked in scales or green skin or in various deformities. While some books do deviate and head to a Middle-Eastern world–Tamora Pierce’s Circle, Guy Gavriel Kay’s canon, or G. R. R. Martin’s Fire and Ice quintet–most stay firmly in the classic mediaeval Europe zone.

Now, I am citing classics of the genre. I’m not all that keen on high fantasy, as stated in previous posts, but there are some books here that I truly love. Pullman, Zelazny, Martin, Bakker, Rowling, Pratchett, Nix, Gentle, Goodkind, and yes, Tolkein, are authors I’ve absolutely adored and who have influenced me. However, even these interesting and fairly diverse voices tend to gravitate to that European mediaeval standard I’ve mentioned. LGBTQ people are an endangered species, diversity is limited to a few strange folk and tokens, and everything is based on a muddy mix of the worst of 11th century daydreams.

So, why insist that I dislike the genre if I’ve read so much of it?

The problem is that reading one or two books in the genre, by and large, is like reading all of them. Sure, some of the authors have the excuse of time on their side, but new authors are still imitating their forebears with religious accuracy. Simply put, if you’re reading high fantasy these days, you can count on a lack of cultural diversity and different ideas, and there’s not much point in picking up a new book in the genre. I’m not saying the whole thing needs to be chucked out, or that these books are bad, per se, but I do think there’s a danger of intellectual bankruptcy and negatively influencing younger, newer authors.

Source.  This is basically how I feel when I pick up a book and find out that it’s exactly the same as a classic fantasy work. This has happened recently. Multiple times.

So, why has Lord of The Rings continued to keep such a hold on the public imagination?

I think some of it has to do with not only the greatness of the work and the shocking faithfulness of its adherence in works that followed, but also with comfort zones. I’m not going to rant about American/Eurocentric media right now, but I will say that it’s simply what we’re used to–Britain and Germany as cultural centres, with blurred understanding of how much even these two nations have changed in modern times. We know Tolkien and we know the works of authors inspired by him, and their sameness and familiarity may actually be a selling point. When people like something, they want more of it. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when even smaller-name, newer authors feel compelled to repeat the same formulas–and the formulas come from only one or two sources–you’re bound to encounter a lot of repetition. It’s a standard epic escape route.

Going back to an earlier point, not all the writings were intended to be this homogeneous. Arguably, a lot of these works cross into the real world, and when urban fantasy is lumped into High Fantasy (which it is on the Wikipedia page), you see a bit more wriggle-room and creativity. However, the idea of pushing boundaries isn’t a welcome one in fantasy circles. Consider how many of the greats–even those writing in the present–have prominent gay or lesbian characters who are open about their sexuality. Answer: Very few. Even G. R. R. Martin’s fiction, which does move away from the Euro-zone a bit, maintains misogyny (though it’s explored) and ‘European’ main characters for all the named, prominent protagonists.

It’s also given people the wrong idea about the actual mediaeval era, which–according to scholarly research I’ve done–is essentially nothing like the books supposedly written to imitate it. Even without the more exotic and non-realistic aspects, the time between the fall of Rome and the rise of the Medicis in the Renaissance was a very busy period for human history, not just a wasteland of political struggle and plague. The myth has faded into legend, and some things that should not have been forgotten–such as the surprising diversity of mediaeval science and some tolerant attitudes towards gay people–were. However, it doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the world, or that the genre is doomed to continue cannibalizing itself and Tolkein.

Okay, smartypants, how do we fix it?

I’ve been leading up to this, but the answer isn’t really that difficult: we need to diversify. I would read the living crap out of a book set in ancient China or Africa. Mediaeval setting and all. Most authors are Europeans or Americans (yours truly included, though I’m Canadian) and there are certain knowledge limits imposed by that. That said, we’re running out of options; ideas are basically tapped dry, and being recycled at this point. Stretching beyond the classics and taking inspiration from other cultures–respectfully–could do a world of good. As well, adding new elements to the classic books, such as clashes over technology, LGBTQ and non-traditional marital structures, and different ideologies, would also change up the formula.  Some issues might arise from incompetent treatment of other cultures and LGBTQ people. That’s going to be a problem as people expand their reach and subject matter, without question, and you can bet I’ll have more to say about cultural appropriation in future.
On the other hand, nobody really likes change as a process. It’s uncomfortable. I can also anticipate a lot of screaming over destruction of the genre and that sort of thing. Given how well classic high fantasy has survived so far, I wouldn’t describe that as a real problem. In fact, some authors have already started to mess heavily with the formulas, and to excellent effect. Bakker, one of the authors mentioned, does a pretty good job of changing around traditional elements in his Prince of Nothing series, in my opinion. Eve Forward’s The Animist is another example of a book that bent a few rules by varying the races and species used.
While there’s a good discussion to be had about the realistic value about fantasy (and sci fi) stories for the real world, there’s also a need for even the most fantastical works to relate to contemporary circumstances. Our circumstances are just so different from fifty or sixty years ago that travelling back to the make-believe mediaeval Disneyland setting designed in that era is no longer realistic. Real Britain has a very diverse population, women comfortably work in many different industries (and men demonstrate far more than mere combat skills, proving to be excellent solo parents), and equal marriage is becoming a very important issue worldwide. Fantasy just doesn’t represent this very well, and a few updates will help the genre stay relevant and interesting for our children and children’s children. And that’s why we need to dethrone Tolkien as the one and only golden standard of fantasy, especially for new authors: if things stay the way they are, fantasy will fail to move forward. We’ll have the classics, sure, but those little pockets of racism and sexism will remain, and no culture needs that.
So, in conclusion: I actually like a fair bit of high fantasy, and have respect for many authors in the genre, but it’s already suffering from some serious inbreeding. I haven’t touched on the issues in science fiction, and I will get to that eventually. For now, it’s time for you guys to tell me your thoughts: is fantasy oversaturated with a certain setting style? Is it just the traits of the genre? Or do we need to change things? Any recommendations of new and unique fantasy series are also very welcome. I want to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Whack Me Twice and I’ll Listen

Smack Me

Despite my conviction that I had finished rewriting my novel, “The Obsidian Mirror,” I once again found myself in the throes of a rewrite.

Rewriting sucks. You know that if you’re a writer. It’s like taking apart a complex piece of machinery and putting it all back together so that it works better than it did before. You don’t want to go through all that labor, sigh happily at your achievement—then spy a couple of leftover parts on the floor that are absolutely required for the thing to operate.

But I suddenly became convinced that yes, indeed, I needed to revise the prologue and first two chapters. It came about because of a comment I received from a publisher. He said that the first chapter was full of a lot of unimportant stuff that didn’t push the plot forward, and it took too long to get to the intriguing fantasy elements.

To be honest, I had heard this before. An agent said the first chapter was “boring, boring, boring.” With a crit like that, you’d have thought I’d have jumped on it. However, the agent in question turned out not to be interested in fantasy. I questioned the judgment of someone who didn’t even care about my genre. Also, the manuscript had been read carefully by a published fantasy writer who did a fantastic job of reviewing the book and giving me feedback—and she was cool with the first chapter, so I figured what does the non-fantasy-reading agent know? I was wary of succumbing to self-doubt as well, because self-doubt will suck all the vitality out of your writing if you let it.

But a second critique that basically said the same thing convinced me that self-doubt was very far from being the issue here. A rereading of the prologue and first two chapters confirmed it.

There was nothing wrong with the prologue; it just needed to be tucked into the first chapter in a logical way. But the first chapter—oh, dear. It was all about how my heroine, Sierra, got fired. It contained a lot of backstory, which would be needed at some point, but I focused on her firing, talking about it to her friend Kaylee, going home, feeling bad, etc. In my naiveté, I thought this would introduce conflict and engage the reader. But I guess getting fired isn’t as interesting as I had assumed. In fact, I was personally bored with the whole thing.

So I condensed the prologue and chapters one and two into a single chapter. It’s a long one—about 4,000 words. I slashed about 3,000 words from the overall length of the novel, bringing it to nearly 100,000. I was worried about losing critical backstory, but I found various places in the early chapters to slip it all in. (Fingers crossed. Knock on wood and all that.)

I’m very happy with the result. It pulls the reader in quickly, keeps the action moving, introduces the fantasy elements immediately, and (I hope) piques the reader’s curiosity from the start.

I’d be humbly delighted if you would take a little time to read the new chapter one of my novel. If you agree with me that it works well, would you be kind enough to leave a comment? And if you don’t agree with me, I’d like to hear that, too.

I do listen. Most of the time. Really.

It’s Time To Talk About LOVE! (And Sex.)

heart fractalAfter all, this is the month of lacy hearts, cupids, flowers, chocolates, etc. etc. Now, I’m as romantic as the next woman, which is to say, lots more romantic than any guy. I suspect that is the basis for much of what irritates me about most romance novels. The typical scenario involves (usually) two people who are attracted to each other but suffer untold complications and misunderstandings based on one party wrongly perceiving the other party’s intentions, or personal insecurities, untold secrets, ridiculous upholding of honor, and so forth.

The scenario that REALLY annoys me is the one where the heroine keeps rejecting the hero because she thinks she’s not good enough for him—not pretty enough, too poor, class differences, whatever. GRRRR.

A lot of today’s romance novels seem determined to prove that women are just as horny as men, and include descriptions of sexual scenes that rival the “Esquire Letters.” (Do they still publish those letters, by the way? I haven’t read “Esquire” in quite a while.) “She groaned as he thrust his turgid, throbbing member into her sweet recesses,” and the like is a turn-off—for me, at any rate. If the principals are going to tango, I prefer a decorous fade to black on the proceedings. If I want graphic descriptions of sex, I’ll read the  “Esquire Letters.”

On the other hand, I enjoy a romantic subplot, as long as it neither takes over the story nor involves turgid members. When I began writing “The Obsidian Mirror,” I was thinking that the Avatar Coyote (“Chaco” to his friends) would be the source of the sexual tension. After all, he was gorgeous, considerate, brave and a good cook. As long as my protagonist, Sierra, could deal with him morphing into a small wolf from time to time, he seemed like a perfect love interest.

But then I reconsidered. Coyote was supposed to be The Trickster, not entirely reliable, and based on Native American stories, quite the lad with the ladies. Sierra isn’t a prude or a stick-in-the-mud, but she wants a stable relationship with a future. (I didn’t decide this. Sierra just came out that way. I couldn’t have made her into a bed-hopping free spirit if I had tried.) So I created sexual tension by having Chaco come on to Sierra in a nice sort of way. Sierra is tempted (he IS good-looking and a nice guy), but passes. Chaco moves on to Sierra’s friend Kaylee—and gets way more than he expects. Sierra finds a more solid-citizen-type in Clancy Forrester. Okay, they do have one or two misunderstandings, but when you’re trying to get a practical, down-to-earth chief of security to believe that the guy he thinks is your boyfriend is actually a sort of shape-shifting minor deity—well, there are bound to be some difficulties, right?

So in this month of hearts and flowers, let’s celebrate romance—the heightened awareness, the exchange of tender mementos, the thrill of loving and being loved. Does all this have to lead to sex? Well, sure, why not? But the ecstasy of good sex is only enhanced by the dance of courtship.

The Coyote Who Taught Me How To Live

Okay, instead of writing this blog post, I’m actually supposed to be finishing up a white paper on implementation of the new ICD-10 codes in the healthcare industry. Hard to believe I could tear myself away from that kind of topic to write about coyotes—but that’s what I’m doing.

One of the main characters in “The Obsidian Mirror” is Coyotl, the Trickster. Like Anansi, the trickster spider in African folktales, Coyotl or Coyote is the loveable but sneaky culture hero who tries to put things over on others and sometimes ends up tricking himself. He often attempts to be helpful, as in the tale where he brings fire to the people from the gods. In that story, coyote winds up burning his tail, which is why the coyote’s tail tip is always black. There are many ribald stories about Coyote and various beautiful maidens, including the time that Coyote lost his penis…ahem. Getting off track here…

Coyotl is described as an Avatar in “The Obsidian Mirror” because I wanted to stay away from defining the immortal characters too closely. I also wanted to stay away from religion as much as possible. Religion today is a touchy subject, and I just didn’t want to go there.

In “The Obsidian Mirror,” Coyotl can take the form of a beautiful, sexy young man named Chaco. I originally named the character “Chuy,” (pronounced “Chewy”) which is the Mexican nickname for people named “Jésus.”  There were two problems with this. Unless you speak Spanish, you wouldn’t know how to pronounce his name. And those who do know that people nicknamed Chuy are really named Jésus might think I was trying to create a Christ figure—which I was, most emphatically, not trying to do. I wanted the character to be uninhibitedly sexy and approachable, with a hint of rascal. “Chaco” sounds good, and it is also the name of a marvelous archeological site in New Mexico, Chaco Canyon. As the novel uses American myths and legends, many of which are Native American, it just felt right. (I kind of missed Chuy, though. I named the character after my hairdresser.)

I had a transformative adventure with a coyote once. I was young, and I had a broken heart. I called my cousin Esther, who was about my mother’s age, to ask if I could stay with her for a few days. Esther lived (still does, at the age of 100) on a ranch near the coast of California, one of the happiest places I have ever known, and very beautiful. Esther and her family had always been kind to me, and the ranch was my emotional refuge. So, packing my aching heart and some jeans, I got on a Greyhound bus to visit.

Esther welcomed me and gave me ample space to reflect on where I was and how I had come to be there. I was at a true turning point in my life, hurt, confused, and wondering what on earth I was going to do. My self-confidence was at an all-time low, and at that age, self-confidence wasn’t something I possessed in huge measure.

I developed a daily routine. I would get up, have breakfast with Esther, and then take my little knapsack out for a lengthy walk around the ranch. The knapsack had a notebook for writing and a sketchbook and watercolors for painting. Accompanied by the ranch dogs, Doña and Jack, I would wander all over the ranch, stopping to do nude sunbathing now and again. I wrote and wrote and wrote in my journal, pouring out my misery, uncertainty and pain on paper.

The ranch was about 2,000 acres of rolling hills covered with golden grass and dark-green California liveoak trees. There was no one around except for the cattle and the dogs. It was quiet except for the wind whistling through the grass, making it toss like waves on the ocean. It smelled wonderful—sagebrush, wildflowers and a soupçon of cattle flop. It was the perfect place to be introspective and miserable.

One day, probably four or five days into my visit, I was walking on the ranch road with Doña and Jack. Suddenly, the dogs took off like a shot, something they had never done before. Then I saw they were chasing a coyote through the brush. I eventually wrote a poem about the experience that followed, as it had a huge impact on me that has reverberated ever since:


I took the ranch road in the morning

hefting a backpack and an aching heart

the dogs went with me

ranging front and back

I sent my feet ahead, forcing one step and then another

the point is to keep going, don’t you see

the dogs launched into the brush

white dust sparkling above the road

they ran like greyhounds

though both were furry and fat

squinting into the sun I saw him

a lean gray shape loping easily

soaring over fragrant sagebrush

dogs crashing in his wake




little wolf

god’s dog

dogs and coyote

all vanished into the spiced gold of the hillside

the dogs came back

tongues flopping loose

dripping foam

ribs heaving

paws caked with dust

their faces said don’t ask

we sat in the cool of a gray-green liveoak

there he was again

the dogs could not resist

coyote’s gray brush held high

he paused to look over his shoulder

not once but many times

were they following?

could they keep up?

he grinned all the same

I heard him laugh

I know I heard him laugh

the dogs came back quickly

collapsing to either side of me

fat sides

shuddering like overheated engines

hairy faces downcast and pained

I sat in the shade and waited

he sauntered into our clearing

the Fred Astaire of small wolves

the dogs gave not one sign

of his presence but panted on

coyote cocked his head, curious

barked once or twice

the dogs now deaf and blind

turned their pleading eyes to me

he sat on his haunches and studied us

a sorry lot, I guess

he tipped his pointed snout to heaven

and howled

howled like all the mad things of earth

howled like a girl with a broken heart

the sulking dogs were still

but I howled back

he stopped to listen

he answered me

howl for howl we made the dry hills ring

I howled for the pain of losing

for the pain of past loss

for the pain to come

and ended laughing

coyote picked up his paws and yapped three times

once more stung to action

the dogs crashed after him

in hot-breathed pursuit

the last I saw of coyote

was his gray tail sailing over the thistles




little wolf

god’s dog

I’m still laughing

During our mutual hootenanny, the coyote was sitting about 15 feet away from me. I was frightened at first; he wasn’t acting like a normal coyote, so I wondered whether he had rabies. He approached a human and two dogs with no fear at all. But it became quickly clear to me that he wasn’t sick. He was having a lot of very obvious fun. He thought I was pretty amusing, but he loved it when he could persuade the dogs to run after him. He was jaunty and quite sure of himself.

Coyotes are consummate survivors. Their numbers and their range have increased dramatically since the 1800’s because they deal quite well with the presence of humans (and the presence of human garbage and pets). They are omnivores who both hunt and scavenge, living off just about anything, from salmonberries to the occasional shi’tsu.

After meeting that coyote, I decided to be a survivor myself. I decided that I was strong, and that no one would ever make me feel small and weak again. I decided to fight for what I wanted, and refuse to allow anyone else to determine the course of my life.

I returned from my visit with Esther to a fresh round of heartbreak. But this time, I fought back. I didn’t let it overwhelm me. I endured a steep depression that I thought would never end. I made some terrible mistakes, but in the end, I learned to love myself and discovered how to be happy most of the time.

I owe much of that to a lesson from a mischievous little wolf who spent a few minutes singing to me. In a way, “The Obsidian Mirror” is my love song back to him.